Street portrait tip – Using Canon’s custom shooting modes to help test backgrounds

When I first upgraded from my Canon EOS 300D to the 5D Mkii, one of the first things I had in mind to do was to sit down and set up the three custom shooting modes.  In the end, they were a feature I barely used.  Now, five or so years on, and a camera model later, I’ve finally found a use for them.

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Unused street portrait background – Edinburgh

I should note that I typically shoot manual, with a single “one shot” AF focal point (joystick controlled, assigned to the shutter button).  I have the automatic “preview” turned off, meaning I have to press the “play” button to view each image I take.  All of this works extremely well for me when actually shooting portraits.  I find it best for control, for the appearance of control and for battery conservation.

However, before I can get to shooting those strangers I have to find a background.  And for doing that, my standard settings are a nightmare.

You see, when shooting strangers for my 100 Stranger Project, increasingly at night, I’m walking around with a light stand and shoot through umbrella in one hand, with a reflector or two tucked under it, and the camera in the other.  I can shoot one handed, with the camera on a black rapid strap, pre-focusing it on the ground, but if I recompose it’s too easy to refocus on the background and have to “reset” it by pointing at the floor again.  Moreover, with only one arm, it’s a nightmare to preview the background, juggling kit to get a straining finger tip to the preview button.

 

street-portrait-background-edinburgh (2)
Another unused street portrait background – Edinburgh

On a recent trip to Northern Ireland, I finally got around to testing custom shooting modes for this, and it works fantastically.  I now have my manual mode set up for my favoured settings – “one shot” AF, no preview, etc.  C2, however, is set up with my usual night exposure settings with my portrait lens, the 100mm f/2.8 L IS macro (f/3.2, 1/50, ISO 1600), with automatic preview on, with focusing moved to the back button and deactivated on the shutter button.

It sounds like a small thing, but it’s transformed my night portraits.  I can now whistle around freely, at pace, casually shooting and testing backgrounds whereas before I would decide not to test some on account of the juggling act of gear.  I guess we sometimes build up the custom shooting modes in significance – decide they should have some very important task or emergency application – but what I’m finding is that in fact small, apparently trivial tweaks like this are delivering massively and making my photography more enjoyable again.

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Corner Bokeh Quality of Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS vs. Canon 35mm f/1.4 ii

Some eight months after buying the Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS lens, I’ve sold it to upgrade to the new Canon 35mm f/1.4L ii.  In many ways, it’s with some regret.  The f/2.0 IS served well on the whole.  I’d bought it primarily to shoot submissions for my Getty Images stock library; a nicely portable lens that could shoot a variety of subjects, in low light when needed, with the ability to blur away the more distracting elements of an unwanted background.  Over the eight months I used it, shots like these made their way into my Getty gallery.

Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS - Smoke Without Fire
Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS – Smoke Without Fire
Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS - Hazard
Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS – Hazard
Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS - Rain Without Sky
Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS – Rain Without Sky
Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS - Hard Light & Water
Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS – Hard Light & Water

For all the successful shots, however, the Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS has a significant weakness; the quality of the corner bokeh.  Especially exposed when shooting close up with a wide aperture for a shallow depth of field, the corners can take on a weird geometric pattern.  Giving images the sense that they’d been poorly photoshopped, and incredibly hard to remove, the effect was something I could not live with.  Here are some examples;

Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS - Strobist cow parsley
Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS – Strobist cow parsley. Geometric pattern widespread in top corners.
Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS - Girl picking blueberries
Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS – Girl picking blueberries. Geometric pattern evident in top corners especially.
Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS - Girl picking blueberries
Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS – Girl picking blueberries. Geometric pattern widespread.
Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS - Girl at Kimmeridge
Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS – Girl at Kimmeridge. Geometric pattern evident on cliff’s behind girl’s head, and through waves/rocks on left.
Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS - Girl running in Paris fountains
Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS – Girl running in Paris fountains. Geometric pattern evident in buildings, especially far left.

Whilst more or less apparent from image to image, in some cases the strength of the pattern was such that the image was essentially unusable for commercial purposes.  When the new Canon 35mm f/1.4L ii was launched then, my first question was whether this issue would be fixed.  Most articles compare the old and new f/1.4, or compare the new Canon f/1.4L with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART lens.  For those f/2.0 IS users experiencing similar issues as those I faced, I hope the following images from the new 1.4 ii help inform their thoughts on a potential upgrade.

The short story is that I have yet to see this issue with the new L lens.  Here are some examples, shot as tests rather than portfolio pieces.  Many were shot on the evening the lens was first delivered, at night and therefore ISO 1600.  As such I would not use these as examples for sharpness necessarily.

Canon 35mm f/1.4 L ii - Test shot
Canon 35mm f/1.4 L ii – Test shot
Canon 35mm f/1.4 L ii - Test shot
Canon 35mm f/1.4 L ii – Test shot
Canon 35mm f/1.4 L ii - Test shot
Canon 35mm f/1.4 L ii – Test shot
Canon 35mm f/1.4 L ii - Test shot
Canon 35mm f/1.4 L ii – Test shot
Canon 35mm f/1.4 L ii - Test shot
Canon 35mm f/1.4 L ii – Test shot

More to follow as I continue to shoot with the new lens.