Graduation ceremonies can be extremely difficult to cover. You are either shooting in dark stadiums or out on football fields in midday sun. There are gobs of people but only 1 star you care about – and they are being pulled in a million directions by teachers and classmates. You won’t get second chances on most shots so here are 3 quick lessons you must learn (or reacquaint yourself with) before the big day.
Lesson 1: Semi-Automatic Shooting and Metering Modes
Picking the right metering setting on your camera matters a lot when shooting events in Aperture (Av or A) or Shutter Priority (Tv or S) modes. In Aperture Priority mode, you set your aperture to taste and your camera picks a shutter speed and ISO for you (great for depth of field work without a lot of movement). In Shutter Priority mode, you set your shutter speed to taste and your camera chooses the f/stop and ISO (great for action). In either of these modes, your camera is trying to figure out what setting to use depending on the amount of light is in the scene. These modes are very helpful because you can set and forget your shutter or aperture and let your camera do the rest by adapting to the scene for you. This allows you to focus on the moment and less on exposure settings from scene-to-scene.
However, cameras are very literal and your intentions will not always match what it considers to be a “properly exposed” image. You can override how a camera meters (how it “thinks”) by setting your metering mode before your event. There are three main kinds of metering modes on DSLRs (some have 4 but there are 3 main ones): Matrix/Evaluative (or sometimes “Multi”), Center Weighted, and Spot.
Where to Find Your Metering Mode Settings
Matrix/Evaluative considers the entire scene. Your camera attempts to get as much of the total scene as properly exposed as possible by choosing an appropriate shutter or aperture for you. This is a tough job for cameras, especially when faced with a scene that has a lot of bright and dark subjects together.
Center Weighted metering considers only the center of the scene. If you’re photographing someone who is backlit but in the center of your frame, the metering is going to only consider the person and not what’s surrounding them. This will result in a properly-exposed subject but an overexposed environment.
However, not everything and everyone is in the center of the frame all of the time. This is where Spot Metering comes in. Spot Metering is often the preferred metering mode for event photography. The camera considers anything that your focus point is on and ignores the rest. This is great for isolating subjects that are important, even at the risk of over or underexposing the environment.
In the example below, the house behind the family is unimportant – the important stuff is all in the foreground. You can sacrifice a little exposure accuracy in your environment for the sake of capturing well-exposed fleeting moments of people hugging and laughing. In this example, using Matrix/Evaluative metering would have almost certainly underexposed the family because the camera would have tried to dial down that bright sun hitting the house. Because the mother and son happened to be in the center of the frame, Center Weighted metering would have worked. However, when shooting events like graduations, Spot Metering is usually the best choice because it meters for wherever your focus point is – and your focus is always on the graduate.
If you find yourself wanting to use Matrix/Evaluative metering to prevent blown out backgrounds, you can always fill the foreground with a Speedlight/Speedlite or even a small LED.
Lesson 2: Exposure Compensation and Overriding Auto
In Lesson 1 we discussed, briefly, the benefit of using semi-automatic modes like Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority. Even with proper metering, your exposure isn’t always going to look right to you. In Tv mode, you can change your shutter to be faster or slower to freeze/intentionally blur a subject but the exposure levels will remain the same because your camera will have changed either the ISO or aperture setting at the same time to maintain what it thinks is an exposed scene (especially in a metering mode that dictates trying to keep the entire scene as exposed as possible). Likewise, in Av mode, you can change your aperture to have a wider or narrower depth of field (depth of field is discussed more in Lesson 3) but the exposure will remain relatively constant thanks to the camera’s quick efforts to adjust the ISO and shutter speed to adapt.
Fortunately, you do not have to just accept the camera’s interpretation of “exposed” if you don’t want to. This is where Exposure Compensation comes in. With either the twist of a dial (like on a Fuji or Olympus Pen) or by holding down the +/- button and spinning one of your controls dials (on my camera, I hold down the +/- button and spin my shutter speed dial), I can override the exposure reading and intentionally over or underexpose my scene by up to 2 or 3 stops (depending on your camera).
Note that exposure compensation does not work when your camera is in manual mode. Manual mode really is purely manual and you are expected to know what setting to adjust for your exposures. This is why exposure compensation is such a great tool for Tv or Av shooting – you get to enjoy some of the speed and relative mindlessness of “auto” shooting while still having the option to exert control over your images.
Warning: if you use exposure compensation along with evaluative metering, it can be difficult to tell if your camera already adjusted for your compensation or not, which will sometimes result in you over compensating. This is another reason to try and stick to spot metering for events.
Exposure Compensation is not limited to cameras. For Speedlights/Speedlites that have E-TTL or I-TTL modes (a flash version of “auto” that will choose a power output for you based on your in-camera settings), you can also manually override the flash’s decisions by +/- 2 stops to fine-tune the flash’s automatically-chosen output. This is a great time-saving method, especially for beginners who might not be comfortable using their flashes manually but who aren’t loving the results coming from TTL. Below are instructions for Canon Speedlites (left) and Nikon Speedlights (right). Always double check a flash’s manual before committing to a particular model/brand for an event. Not all flashes have TTL or auto modes and may not have exposure compensation options.
Lesson 3: Large Group Sharpness and Focal Planes
Have you ever taken a nice family portrait only to find that there is 1 member who isn’t quite in focus but everyone else is, even if you’re shooting at a relatively high depth of field aperture? This is because that 1 member was likely outside your focal plane.
If you love those buttery out-of-focus backgrounds you get from low apertures, you can still achieve those with group portraits. The trick for keeping everyone in focus is to keep them on the same focal plane. This is very difficult to achieve with candids but is an important tool for posed portraits. Depth of field refers to the part of your image that is in focus. Having a high or low depth of field refers to how much of your scene can be in focus at once and the amount depends on the length of your lens, the distance between you and your subject, and aperture (aperture being what we think about most often when depth of field is brought up).
Longer lenses using wider apertures (like f/2.8) will produce more dramatic looking out-of-focus areas than wider lenses using narrower apertures (like f/8). Being closer to your main subject will also further separate their relative sharpness from the out-of-focus background. To isolate your subject, like in the image above, you’ll want everything before and after your focus point to be blurry, which requires a small depth of field. The quickest way to get a small depth of field is to use a wide aperture. The fastest way to achieve this even more dramatically is with a longer lens (or a regular lens but standing closer to your subject) along with a wide aperture.
While depth of field covers front-to-back sharpness considerations, you can think of your focal plane as being an imaginary line cutting across the center of your scene, side-to-side. So long as your subjects are not in front of or behind that line, you will get sharp results even with larger group portraits. Sometimes this line is so thin that the mere adjustment of someone’s head can put them in or out of the zone of sharpness.
In the example above, you can see how staggering the positioning of people in a front/back manner can be problematic for focus. It is better to get everyone as much on the same plane as possible, especially when shooting at wider apertures. You can still get an out-of-focus background and keep groups of people sharp if you mind your plane positioning. This is also a good thing to remember when shooting couples holding a baby. If the parents are sharp and the baby is not (or vice versa), then reposition the baby to be more between the parents, rather than in front of them.
Put these lessons to good use with a little practice ahead of the final exam. You don’t have to be a settings wizard to practice artistic control over your imagery. You also don’t have to be a complete novice to enjoy semi-automatic shooting modes. Everything is a tool to help you get a good final image and I hope some of these tools prove promising for you.