How Do You Use Your Camera? Do You Take It To Its Limits?

Have you ever used your fastest shutter speed or your highest ISO setting? If not, John Duder is asking you to give it a try.

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1 Shot at the 2014 Forest of Dean rally, a Mk. II Ford Escort shows that some older cars can be far more exciting to watch than modern, faster vehicles.

Shot at the 2014 Forest of Dean rally, a Mk. II Ford Escort shows that some older cars can be far more exciting to watch than modern, faster vehicles.

 

Take it to the limit

Roger Albert Clark was a star rally driver in the Seventies, taking Ford Escorts to victory in numerous rallies, including the RAC Rally in 1972 and 1976. With his initials, who could doubt his destiny?

If you've never seen a rally, go and find one, and watch an off-road stage. You will see cars being driven to the limit: while on the road, you keep your speed down, avoid skidding, rally drivers spend a lot of time throwing the car sideways, because they get around corners faster that way.

Watching a rally live is exciting, and if you position yourself carefully, you'll have the chance to take some amazing pictures. Watch the first few cars come through a bend, and prefocus on the apex, where you can capture an image so the car going in a completely different direction from the way the front wheels are pointing, spitting gravel from the wheels. A single shot at just that moment will nail it: there's no need for a motor drive!


Another Escort in classic rally pose - cornering to the right, but steering to the left, with the back end hanging out as the driver oversteers round the corner. Front-wheel drive and 4-wheel drive cars look far less interesting!

 

But this article isn't really about photographing cars. It's about how you use your camera. Do you ever take it to the limit?

Have you ever used your fastest shutter speed or your highest ISO setting? If not, I urge you to give it a try and learn. You may not ever need to use it in anger, but you will learn about what works, and what doesn't. Plus, like a rally driver, you will return to everyday photography knowing where the limits are: better and potentially safer than the driver who doesn’t know that just a little bit faster and the car will suddenly go sideways, and hitting the brakes is the last thing to do...

 

ISO

Go on, try it! We’re in car territory again, as I admit that I haven’t found out how fast any car I’ve owned since 1995 will go. Roads are crowded, and even a modest family car can get up to speeds where the police simply take your licence away if they catch you, so I simply don’t fancy trying it!

 

3 A natural light shot of Scarlet Lovat in 2012 used both high ISO (3200 – only one stop below the absolute limit for the Alpha 900 I used) and wide aperture (f/1.4 on an 85mm Minolta lens).

A natural light shot of Scarlet Lovat in 2012 used both high ISO (3200 - only one stop below the absolute limit for the Alpha 900 I used) and wide aperture (f/1.4 on an 85mm Minolta lens).

 

On the other hand, I do tend to push my cameras to the limits. I like wide-aperture lenses, so I have few (and little-used) zoom lenses. I’ve recently accepted that f/1.8 will generally do, because the cost of FE mount f/1.4 glass is rather high, and there are excellent optics with 2/3 stop less light-gathering and consumer-friendly prices.

And, in order to get a result, f/1.4 is very rarely necessary now. My Alpha 7 hardly notices 6,400 ISO and isn’t too shabby at 25,000. While my Alpha 900 maxed out at 6,400, I used it there, although there was a bit of banding and very visible noise. But if the alternative is not taking a picture, why not go there - and don’t necessarily worry about noise reduction.

It won’t work for traditional landscapes and portraits - but for atmospheric, impressionistic images, it can look great.

 

Shutter

My first SLR had shutter speeds from 1/2 second to 1/500, and I rarely used anything slower than 1/15. That makes me think on about the speeds I use these days. I do a lot of work with studio flash and settle on 1/100 for those shots. Undemanding…

 

4 I don’t often push the limits of shutter speeds, but this time I got it badly wrong. I’m generally able to welly up the ISO and not worry about the shutter speed: here, 1/250 gave serious banding, because the lighting was flickering. Kirsty McGee celebrating an excellent gig at the Upfront Gallery in the Lake District with the venue owner.

I don’t often push the limits of shutter speeds, but this time I got it badly wrong. I’m generally able to welly up the ISO and not worry about the shutter speed: here, 1/250 gave serious banding, because the lighting was flickering. Kirsty McGee celebrating an excellent gig at the Upfront Gallery in the Lake District with the venue owner.

 

Outdoors, I tend to use Aperture priority and 200 ISO as my default, and f/5.6 as a good aperture for most of my lenses, giving some differential focus, high quality, and a generally middle of the road look: useful if you don’t know what you’ll be shooting. I adjust the aperture if I want a narrower depth of field, and that can mean pushing the shutter speed up to 1/2000 (and occasionally more) in sunlight. Slow speeds and bulb exposures, occasionally.

There will also be circumstances when you don’t have a tripod and will struggle to shoot at a shutter speed that’s slow enough to give correct exposure, despite opening your lens right up and raising the ISO. Take a deep breath (literally), brace yourself, and breathe out slowly before squeezing the shutter. Modern cameras make this almost completely unnecessary, but it can still occur occasionally - probably when you don’t have image stabilisation available. Try anyway - and be prepared to ditch results that are substandard…

 

Aperture

I got my first f/1.4 lens (an SMC Takumar 50mm) in 1972, and haven’t lost the taste yet. Generally, I prefer to have some 'headroom' for focus error, and stop down 2 or 3 stops: but I’m always open to the idea of heavy differential focus. Around twenty years ago, I adopted a particular look - heavy grain, eyelashes sharp and an out-of-focus body beyond - as a sort of trademark.

 

5 Camilla Rose (who, sadly, retired from modelling some years back) at f/1.4 with an 85mm lens. The grain was added in Nik Efex, though, as the light allowed shooting at 200 ISO.

Camilla Rose (who, sadly, retired from modelling some years back) at f/1.4 with an 85mm lens. The grain was added in Nik Efex, though, as the light allowed shooting at 200 ISO.

 

If you go down this route, you will need to accept a high level of failure: depth of field is wafer-thin at really wide apertures, and more so at longer focal lengths, so more pronounced with full-frame or medium format than APS-C or Micro Four Thirds (MFT), all other things being equal.

But it’s not a one-way street. In the same way, as the experts will tell you to avoid substandard lens performance at wide apertures, they’ll tell you that small apertures are not useable because of diffraction effects. Here, the balance between formats heads the other way, and MFT cameras are the most prone to problems: f/22 on a 45mm lens is well into diffraction territory.

But. That’s not the whole of the story. Once again, it’s better to get the shot you want with a little drop of quality than not to get it at all. If you need the depth of field, stop down and go for it. Maybe take a couple of variations at a slightly wider aperture, and see if you can actually tell the difference.

 

6 Testing the limits with a 17mm Olympus f/1.8 lens at f/22. It’s true that the image is nothing like as sharp as images shot at wider apertures, or as pictures taken with a full-frame camera – but the fall-off from a few inches to fifty feet away is not so great, and it does the job.

Testing the limits with a 17mm Olympus f/1.8 lens at f/22. It’s true that the image is nothing like as sharp as images shot at wider apertures, or as pictures taken with a full-frame camera – but the fall-off from a few inches to fifty feet away is not so great, and it does the job.

 

As with every area, it comes back to that rally driver thing: if you’ve never explored the limits, you can’t work near them with confidence. If you know your car (your lenses and camera), you will develop a sense of when you’re getting close to the edge.

And, frankly, close to the edge is an exciting and creative place to be!

 

Close-Ups

Remember the advice in cowboy movies? ‘Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!’ Good advice for portrait photographers, but I’ll go a step further and suggest going so close you can see the blood vessels in the whites, and the details of the retinal pattern…

 

7 Model Zenith photographed around the minimum focussing distance of my Lensbaby Velvet 56mm. Real sharpness takes a back seat here – the startling perspective and rapid focus falloff are what this is all about!

Model Zenith photographed around the minimum focusing distance of my Lensbaby Velvet 56mm. Real sharpness takes a back seat here - the startling perspective and rapid focus falloff are what this is all about!

 

But I’m not going to be purist about this. If you have a macro lens, all well and good, of course. A good all-rounder, as it’s one of the sharpest optics in any manufacturer’s range: but you don’t need to be that dedicated.

Instead, I’m suggesting the cheap approach: get a set of close-up lenses to fit your favourite lens. You’ll get a set of four for £12 on eBay to fit a 67mm thread, less for smaller sizes.

They won’t be perfect, and the 10 Dioptre one will give truly shocking technical quality while making 100mm your furthest focusing distance. But it’s about impact, not quality.

I really discovered how good it can be after getting my SLR Magic f/0.95 Hyperprime, and getting interesting results with bodyscapes at its minimum focus. Then I slung on a CU lens and went REALLY close.

Suddenly, every body feature was exotic, and often erotic… My first attempts at this used a nipple as the subject and the heavy differential focus that f/0.95 and a +4 close-up lens give, along with the fall-off in both light and sharpness that the Hyperprime’s APS-C coverage and the imperfections of cheap supplementary lenses give. But subsequently, I’ve found that it’s very effective with the texture of lips, as well.

 

8 Zenith’s hand, with defocussed face behind. f/0.95 and a cheap +4 closeup lens bring the textures of a hand to attention.

Zenith’s hand, with a defocussed face behind. f/0.95 and a cheap +4 closeup lens bring the textures of the hand to attention.

 

The crucial thing is that the absolute sharpness doesn’t matter: if there is a clear subject and good contrast of sharpness and unsharpness, it works: adding processing with something like Nik Efex filters, and there’s a new dimension to it – although I suspect that some camera club judges would be appalled!

 

Perspective

Fisheye lenses, anyone?

 

9 Fisheye portrait of my left ear, along with a similarly-shaped garden wind spinner. Don’t do this to your friends… Lensbaby 5.8mm f/3.5 Circular Fisheye lens, designed to give over 180ᵒ coverage, and a full circular image on an APS-C sensor. But there’s no reason you can’t use it on a full-frame body.

Fisheye portrait of my left ear, along with a similarly-shaped garden wind spinner. Don’t do this to your friends… Lensbaby 5.8mm f/3.5 Circular Fisheye lens, designed to give over 180ᵒ coverage, and a fully circular image on an APS-C sensor. But there’s no reason you can’t use it on a full-frame body.

 

Maybe the best-known user of heavy distortion was Bill Brandt, who acquired a police scene of crime plate camera which he used for a series of surreal nudes, both indoors and on the Sussex coast. You can see a collection of examples of this work on Pinterest (link is not safe for work).

There’s a standard approach to portraits that uses a medium-long focus lens to give a natural perspective: but why not try something utterly different, exaggerating perspective, and maybe emphasising one feature – a sort of photographic caricature?

 

10 Wideangle lenses (this was shot with a 20mm lens on full frame) usually give perspective distortion in portraits: here, because the model’s limbs are all roughly the same distance from the camera, the effect is to add a feeling of spaciousness to a relatively-small room.

Wide-angle lenses (this was shot with a 20mm lens on full-frame) usually give perspective distortion in portraits: here, because the model’s limbs are all roughly the same distance from the camera, the effect is to add a feeling of spaciousness to a relatively small room.

 

Composition

You’ll find that there’s a lot of fun to be had with compositions that go way beyond the Rule of Thirds, and balance subject and nothingness in a delicate way that puts me in mind of Archimedes promise to move the earth, if ‘you give me a place to stand on’ (and a sufficiently long lever).

 

11 Model Ruth Tyers-Hamblin upstages the Shelby clan at the Custard Factory in Birmingham. She’s way past the intersection of the thirds… The lighting (bright sun, high in the sky) isn’t exactly what you’d expect for a portrait…

Model Ruth Tyers-Hamblin upstages the Shelby clan at the Custard Factory in Birmingham. She's way past the intersection of the thirds… The lighting (bright sun, high in the sky) isn’t exactly what you’d expect for a portrait…

 

Essentially, all the 'rules' of composition are breakable with good effect, and you will find that it’s fun - though once again, it will put you in opposition to traditionalists who treat the rules as beyond question. Think about it, though: if it looks right, and produces the emotional impact that you want on your viewer, why not do it?

Where there’s a large area of blank space in an image, it’s sometimes called 'negative space' - for instance, you can make an image of a single person against a broad and high wall by cropping tight and following the Rule of Thirds, or you can include a vast expanse of wall with a figure at one edge, even in one corner, to suggest loneliness and isolation.

 

12 April K breaking the rules… Everything about the composition here is a bit off centre: but I think it works as a way of showing a woman who defies many conventions in presenting her beauty to the camera.

April K breaking the rules… Everything about the composition here is a bit off centre: but I think it works as a way of showing a woman who defies many conventions in presenting her beauty to the camera.

 

Choose the composition that suits the subject and the mood you want to convey, not somebody else’s rules!

 

Content

You may well be thinking that that's all very well, but it's all about technique. Well, maybe not. You may be shy about asking friends - or even worse, strangers - if you can take their picture. But you’ll never know until you ask. Think it through before you start, but then go with your instincts. Have a Plan B (which may be to apologise and walk away), but ask.

 

13 Singer Kate Gee at the Barton’s Arms pub in Newtown, Birmingham. Small venues are often fine with photography, providing you don’t use flash or tread on other patrons’ feet.

Singer Kate Gee at the Barton’s Arms pub in Newtown, Birmingham. Small venues are often fine with photography, providing you don’t use flash or tread on other patrons’ feet.

 

Or it might be a place that you want to photograph - but you don't know whether the owner will let you go inside. Ask, offer a print or two.

Music fan? Of course, you won't get to sit in the front row for an Ed Sheeran concert with a long lens, but if you have a local venue, there's not likely to be a problem. Folk clubs, venues that host tribute bands but are not mainstream theatres (such as Robin 2 in Bilston, West Midlands) will generally respond positively.

Smaller gigs understand that making art depends on lots of practice, getting the basics done by practising. I will suggest, though, that you avoid flash at all costs, and use silent mode if you have it. As more and more places adopt LED lighting, remember that this strobes and that high shutter speed will very likely lead to colour banding in the pictures. This keeps catching me out...

 

14 Facebook-friendly nude, courtesy of Barby’s careful pose, and a 20mm lens that distorts and allows a limb near the camera to cover a lot of body. Inspired by Bill Brandt’s use of a police Scene of Crime camera for some of his nudes.

Facebook-friendly nude, courtesy of Barby’s careful pose, and a 20mm lens that distorts and allows a limb near the camera to cover a lot of body. Inspired by Bill Brandt’s use of a police Scene of Crime camera for some of his nudes.

 

If you photograph nudes, as I do, you will need to get used to varying standards. Different places and times apply varying rules: when I was young, pubic hair was not allowed in print publications, becoming acceptable in the Seventies. On the other hand, nipples on a front cover are no longer OK, and this has led to some very odd decisions, with otherwise-lewd images made 'acceptable' by a little bit of covering-up: a mother breastfeeding a baby, though, maybe deemed obscene (or, at least, unsuitable for Facebook).

Again, you will often find the boundaries in your particular context by getting it wrong: apologie, learn, move forward.

 

15 One limit you shouldn’t push is the legality of photographing models with the faintest hint of eroticism: they should be over 18, and give informed consent, evidenced by a model release form and, ideally, a shot of the model with her passport or driving licence to prove her age.  Here, Sphinx plays the part of a rather disobedient schoolgirl – at the time of shooting, she was in her mid-thirties, pushing a different sort of limit!

One limit you shouldn’t push is the legality of photographing models with the faintest hint of eroticism: they should be over 18, and give informed consent, evidenced by a model release form and, ideally, a shot of the model with her passport or driving licence to prove her age. Here, Sphinx plays the part of a rather disobedient schoolgirl – at the time of the shooting, she was in her mid-thirties, pushing a different sort of limit!

 

And that’s not all

One way of taking it to the limit is shooting when it shouldn’t be possible, or when somebody’s told you it can’t be done. If you don’t know it’s impossible, sometimes, you succeed…

That might be any of the limits we’ve looked at, or it may be something to do with you. Maybe you don’t think you can walk far enough to get an off-the-beaten-track landscape shot - so try stripping back your gear, and seeing if that extends your range. Travelling for work? Catch people pictures and urban landscapes as you commute, and use either a compact camera or your smartphone - or even get a briefcase-style camera bag - and backpacks are getting more popular for carrying work equipment around, so maybe nobody will notice that you’ve got a full camera kit with you.

Stay in hospital? You’ll have your smartphone with you, and plastic water beakers can make a rudimentary still life… And you certainly shouldn’t let having a baby slow you down - rather, you should be in photographic overdrive to record the precious days and weeks when the newborn is tiny. Zenith is also a photographer, and managed to continue shooting even when she had a young baby to look after!

 

16 You might want to test the limits of reliability and predictability with a camera of limited reliability, like this Diana. But that’s another tale, maybe for the next article…

You might want to test the limits of reliability and predictability with a camera of limited reliability, like this Diana. But that’s another tale, maybe for the next article…

 

Summing up…

So, while it’s good to have things that you know you excel at, where you’re confident of your ability and can deliver results that you know will impress, it’s always worth experimenting, pushing the envelope, and thinking a bit outside the box… All the clichés (they’re clichés because they work, they’re reliable - and eventually they become invisible).

Do it differently, from time to time, and keep your creativity alive! Who knows, you may find something that can become your new trademark!

 

Camera and lenses

 

 

About Author: John Duder 

John Duder has been an amateur photographer for fifty years, which surprises him, as he still reckons he’s 17.

Over the last two years, he’s been writing articles for ePHOTOzine, as well as being a member of the Critique Team. He also runs lighting workshops and provides one-to-one photographic tuition.

He remains addicted to cameras, lenses, and film.

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Comments


dudler Plus
16 1.0k 1575 England
4 Feb 2020 1:08PM
I haven't yet developed any film from the Diana yet.. So quite what will go into the next article is rather up in the air just now.

I'd welcome private messages from anyone who has used this sort of camera, so I can incorporate their views and expereinces - and maybe even pictures.
mistere Plus
6 4 3 England
4 Feb 2020 2:41PM
I went to watch the RAC rally stages in Sutton park, many years ago. I had neither car or camera at the time. Now that I have both I think the car was the easier of the two to master and the only one I've taken up to and, in 1 case, beyond its limits.
Another interesting and informative article John. Lots to think about and things to try. One of the beauties of our hobby. Breaking the rules is good fun and often very rewarding.
Dave.
dudler Plus
16 1.0k 1575 England
4 Feb 2020 3:26PM
Cameras are generally better - especially when yo uget it badly wrong and hte whole enterprise goes pear-shaped. It's generally cheaper to repair a camera than a car: and it's much less likely to lead to a costly encounter with the forces of law and order...
pablophotographer 8 1.4k 362
6 Feb 2020 2:08AM


shooting the Olympics of 2004 with a Zenith camera of the Seventies. ISO film 100!
pablophotographer 8 1.4k 362
6 Feb 2020 2:18AM



Shot from within a moving train with a mobile phone. Shooting against the light offered fast speed that "froze" the scene. Not to mention the terrible "shutter lag" of the older mobile phone models. Scan the scene outside the mobile mimicking the way that frames are caught in the rangefinder cameras eyepiece.
pablophotographer 8 1.4k 362
6 Feb 2020 2:50AM



Pushing the limits of the DMC-FZ45. CCD 1/2.33" sensor. Max aperture f/2.8 when wide - f/5.2 when zoomed Max ISO 1600.
clicknimagine Plus
10 601 98 India
7 Feb 2020 2:52PM
A really beautiful article...
dudler Plus
16 1.0k 1575 England
7 Feb 2020 8:16PM
Thank you, Somnath!

More fun at the end of the month with that Diana...

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