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9 December 2013

We knew it was coming when we saw the grandmother fumble with her daughter's Nikon D90 at the baby's christening. "I don't know how to use this thing," she pleaded. "Would you do it?"

Church Interior. Pray nothing moves. Canon Rebel XTi at f4, 1/40 second and ISO 400 with 18-55mm kit lens at 18mm. Raw file processed in Adobe Camera Raw 8.2 with optical distortions automatically removed and noise reduction applied.

We hadn't brought a camera. We knew there would be plenty of photographers there. We were pretty sure we could take the day off, enjoy being with family and maybe toss a child or two into the air.

So we were available. And, you know how it is with requests. You can't say no.


Fortunately we'd shot with a few Nikon dSLRs, so the Nikon D90 we were handed wasn't as much a mystery to us as it was to the grandmother. But this wasn't fresh out of the box. It had been configured, so to speak, to the owner's preferences.

That isn't much of a problem for us either. We are no stranger to the tourist request to take their photo up on Twin Peaks or at the Golden Gate bridge or some event like the America's Cup.

Everyone always tells you where the shutter button is, we've noticed, but they never mention the zoom control, which is what we look for first. And the second thing we look for, especially on Twin Peaks where the sun is often behind the subjects, is the flash control.

But this time we had a little problem.

The D90 was set up for flash and the officiant -- his book opened and flipped to the appropriate page, ready to begin the service -- had, we'd been told, prohibited flash. Even worse, like anybody who likes to show off their vow of poverty, he hadn't turned on the lights. Before he opened his mouth to start the service, he peered over the big book in our direction and we saw the fires of hell flickering in his pupils.

We snapped the flash down and pivoted the Mode dial away from Flash.


So we had to configure the camera for a dim room without flash. But we didn't know how the camera had been set up. And because it wasn't our camera, we were reluctant to change too many things, or even to reset it to the defaults.

It's a little like visiting someone's house. There are a few customs to observe. Things you shouldn't change.

Like image size. We took a peek at the camera settings and Image Size was one of the first. It was set to the Nikon default Normal JPEG. We prefer to shoot Large JPEG+RAW.

But we didn't change it. We would have had to know how big the memory card is and how many shots were already on it and how many we were about to take. A lot of that is revealed on the LCD on the top of the camera (just change the setting and you get the approximate number of shots left on the card). But this is what they were accustomed to, so we left it alone.

Everything else, though, was fair game.


We would have preferred to consult with to the officiant before the ceremony to ask politely about the photo policy. It varies by officiant. Pope Francis, we suspect, would tell us what his good side is. Some of these guys prefer to operate by candle light, though. We suspect they're on probation.

But it was too late for that.

After we had popped the flash down, we had to decide how to configure the camera for the right exposure. That's really asking three questions. What ISO to set? What aperture? What shutter speed?

All of those can be set to Auto but blind faith like that may get you nothing but motion blur in a dim room. That was the key thing we wanted to avoid.

We didn't mind a hand waving transparently over a baby. But we didn't want ghosts hovering over him. So we had to set things up so shutter speed would be reasonable.

We started with a trip to the settings menu, where we noticed the house ISO was set to 1600, the maximum. That was fine with us. But while we were there, we enabled Noise Reduction, too. That slows shot-to-shot performance, but this wasn't a sports shoot.

Next we wanted to set a floor for the shutter speed. Go this slow if you must but no slower. So we set the Mode dial to Shutter Priority and picked 1/30 second. That was our base. We could go to 1/60 if people were moving or 1/15 or even 1/8 if they weren't because the 18-55mm kit lens had image stabilization and it was turned on.

The aperture was going to be the wild card but we knew it would be wide open at whatever focal length we used. At 55mm that wasn't going to be very wide but a test shot and a quick check of its histogram showed this setup was going to work fine.

We returned to the menu system to enable Active D-Lighting, Nikon's image optimization for JPEGs. Each company calls this something different but if you're shooting JPEG, turn it on. You'll get a much better image right out of the box (or camera).

That was it.


Because we didn't know the photo policy, we stayed respectfully in the pew for the pew-based part of the service. But when the party moved to the baptismal fount, we got up and followed at a safe distance.

And were instantly joined by two other photographers.

Safety being in numbers, we surrounded the fount. We were happy to take the odd angle, being careful not to block the view of anyone in the pews. And we remembered to take a shot of them, too.

Afterwards, the photographers were invited to take photos on the altar. So we did that, taking a few of the general scene, as well as a few from the side (an angle we really like in group shots). Then we took a few candids as people mingled on their way out.

As we walked to the car, we put the cap back on the D90, slipped it into Program mode for the next most likely situation and silently slipped it into the camera bag hanging off the mother's shoulder.

Our baptism by fire was over.


This post and others like it, where you put down in words the rationale behind your thinking when doing a shoot, are the main reason that I subscribed. The mini-stories are engaging, thoughtful and informational. I will continue to look forward to other posts in the future. Thanks.

-- Rich Mortimer

Thanks, Rich! Those are very kind words and much appreciated as we begin our second year here.

-- Mike

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