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.

 

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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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Cropping choices and their impact on depth of field

Listening to recent reviews and discussion around the Canon 5DS, 5DSR and the Leica Q you find some comment around in camera cropping options; features that let you set different crops or effective focal lengths in camera.  Likewise, there’s a note to some 5DS and 5DSR reviews that with so many pixels, one can crop in post and still have decent size files.  Of course, in all these cases you’re losing pixels and image size, and that’s the main focus of debate I encounter.

One nuance I don’t see mentioned so much is the difference in depth of field between a shot “cropped” with a camera feature or in post, versus a shot “cropped” by recomposing, moving nearer your subject.  My street portrait of Czech girl Jitka hopefully serves to illustrate the difference here.

Jitka (Stranger #35/100), London Brick Lane

Above is the main shot from last year’s street encounter with Jitka.  As well as this shot, I took another closer cropped version stepping nearer her (see below).  Depth of field, obviously, is an equation with multiple facets – the width of aperture, the focal length of the lens, but also the distance from sensor to subject, and from subject to background.  Composing more tightly, a closer crop, by stepping near your subject changes an input in that equation – by getting you nearer your subject, it gives a shallower depth of field, as many people seek in a portrait.  It has a three dimensional impact on your composition.

Cropping with a camera feature or in post has only a two dimensional impact on your composition.  It doesn’t change your depth of field, or help to drop a background.  Here’s an example to illustrate.  The first image (left/top) is a Lightroom crop of the main image above.  The second image (right/bottom) is a separate image shot by stepping closer to Jitka – helping to drop the background further out of focus.

Alternate Take - Jitka (Stranger #35/100), London Brick Lane (Simulated Crop)  Alternate Take - Jitka (Stranger #35/100), London Brick Lane

As ever it depends what you’re shooting and what effect you are seeking.  If you are shooting landscapes, seeking front to back sharpness, this nuance probably needn’t enter your considerations and the loss of file size is maybe the biggest trade off to consider.  For those shooting shallow depth of field portraits, I think it’s a valid footnote to the discussion about the advantages of these new features or pixel counts.

Sometimes the advice against cropping with a camera setting or in Photoshop is overwhelmed by “purists” who simply object on ethical grounds.  That’s a shame, as it disguises some of the tangible effects these decisions have on our images.  I’m a pragmatist, I don’t care how I get the end image.  Often that’s best done in camera, and hopefully this quick examination highlights one of the situations where that’s definitely the case!