Pro-Quality Work from Your Entry Level DSLR

You don’t need an expensive DSLR to make beautiful images, but there are some basic considerations that your entry level DSLR does require.

By Gary Fong

Working as a professional wedding photographer for over 20 years kept me busy shooting over 1,000 weddings for many satisfied clients. It goes without saying that technological advancements in the industry saw me through a tremendous amount of equipment changes. To give you an idea, I began my career shooting with huge, bulky medium format cameras which lacked metering and called for manual focus and flash setting. Aperture and shutter speeds, for those that recall, were mere estimates set from memory of different lighting situations. Over time, my collection of various lenses and bodies grew so much that I needed an assistant to help me wheel around my gear. I simply could not work a wedding without multiple cameras (one for color and one for black-and-white). My kit also regularly included 8-10 lenses to ensure I had the right mix for fisheye, wide angle, telephoto, zoom and prime needs. On top of all of that, my lighting kit often included multiple units and a whole series of diffusion tools to match various situations.

Having taken a step back from the full-time hustle and bustle of wedding photography, I was afforded a chance to step back from the monstrous rolling cart of equipment that accompanied me throughout my professional career. I took this time to experiment with some of the latest small-body DSLRs that were coming in to the market. Intended for entry-level shooters, these new cameras still pack a hefty punch and often automate a lot of the controls that I had once made a living manipulating.

When good friends asked me to shoot their wedding (despite my potential rust), I decided to leave the pro-gear in the closet and bring out my entry-level kit consisting of a Sony A-230 DSLR with a minimum number of lenses. I knew doing so would allow me to use my own creative energy and horsepower to compensate for the automated “beginner” settings that these DSLRs offer. Plus, I figured I could use this information to give photographers some advice on getting great results on a limited budget.

I was excited to photograph this beautiful couple the groom, a documentary film producer, and the bride, a close friend and assistant and host their wedding at my ranch in beautiful Kelowna, British Columbia. I knew she would not only be a gorgeous bride but also be very fun to photograph. In preparation for this wedding shoot, I compiled the most minimal kit with which I felt comfortable. When I left the studio, my bag was so light that I was concerned I would be missing something. Besides the DSLR, here’s what I had with me:

Sony 50mm f/1.4
Sony DT 11-18mm f/4.5-5.6
Sony 18-55mm f/3.5-5.5
Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8
Sony HVL-F58AM Flash Unit
Gary Fong Lightsphere Collapsible

As I was shooting the event, I found that this combination of zoom lenses gave me a great coverage (from 11mm all the way to 150mm). And because I was shooting RAW, the A-230s 10MP files, especially those shot at lower ISOs, gave me some extra room to crop in later. This enabled an implied telephoto feel even without the added lenses. Also, rather than tote multiple light shaping tools, I tossed my Lightshpere Collapsible into my bag. The Lightshpere Collapsible is the latest generation of flash diffusion tools that I developed to replace most of the light shaping tools in my bag. With this one compact diffusion alternative and a couple of its associated accessories, the weight was lifted off my shoulders literally!

From a technical perspective the Sony entry-level DSLR performed admirably. With +/- 2 EV compensation and up to ISO 3200 and 2.5 fps burst, it was more than up to the task. However, every entry-level camera does require a few tweaks to essentially help its “smart features” stay out of your way. Because the camera is designed mainly for new shooters, it often automates a lot of the decisions that we photographers would prefer to control. One option is to simply learn how the camera thinks and work with it. The other more domineering option is to override its little brain.

Adjust Contrast and Saturation
First and foremost, prosumer cameras often have their contrast and saturation boosted out-of-the-box to make the LCD images look better when you’re testing it at a camera store counter. However, this is undesirable in terms of image safety. High contrast and color saturation may give an image more “pop,” but it also makes the camera more prone to blowing out exposures. In challenging lighting situations, this automated setting can also throw an odd color cast on to skin-toned rosy cheeks. Keep in mind that you can always increase contrast and saturation of a neutral image in post-production, but if the image is blown out this will become very difficult, if not impossible.

For example, (in the images below) while the image below on the left may look more pleasing at first glance, notice that the detail of the bride’s dress, which can be seen in the image on the right, is almost completely undetectable. Once an area of an image is recorded as white, you can never recover the detail that was lost. But, if you have an image that is of lower contrast, you can almost always increase contrast in post-production to give it the impact you require. Photographers should use neutral contrast and saturation when shooting to ensure having the best (and most “editable”) images possible from an event.

Boosted Contrast & Saturation Neutral Contrast & Saturation

All digital cameras have a “picture style” setting or menu option for neutralizing color saturation and contrast. I have instructional videos online at http://www.flashdiffuser.com which will walk you through setting up your camera for neutral tones.

Escape the ISO Safe Zone
As I mentioned, I find that newer equipment automates many decisions that I would typically want to override while shooting, such as “protective ISO” or auto ISO (which keeps you within a safety zone if you accidentally leave your camera on the wrong ISO). This is a great feature for the new photographer, but for those of us that are adamant about our camera settings, it can become an impediment when trying to blend ambient and flash lighting to a perfect balance. It will protect your images, but so long as we are working within a photographic safe zone, we’ll never capture the truly special and evocative lighting that defines great photography. So don’t forget to disable the protective ISO feature.

Disable Auto Fill Flash
Another feature that will keep your images squarely in the safe zone, an ideal place when just starting out, is the auto fill flash (which calculates how much ambient light to mix in with flash photos). This might sound like a great tool to rely on, but once you are on location and start mixing ambient light with your own flash output while also balancing out the intense reflection of a sunset coming off the windows, pool and eye glasses, I think you’ll find that the camera often makes assumptions that you may not want. When you sit down to do your post-processing, you do not want unusable exposures. That being said, I always recommend that shooters use their flashes off-camera whenever possible. Sony made doing so extremely easy by automating the process of changing both the flash and body to wireless flash mode as soon as the flash is removed from the camera. A very impressive feature!

As a professional, I don’t feel insecure about bringing intro-level equipment to an event. In fact, many very famous photographers in history have found such basic cameras to be fascinating creative tools; Case-in-point, the recent resurgence of the plastic Holga and Diana cameras. If you are just starting out in the wedding photography business, you don’t need to smack down $15,000 on cameras, lenses and lighting equipment to achieve high-quality results These high-end DSLRs may make your life easier, but only if you can take full advantage of such equipments capabilities. After all, it’s the photographer that makes the images; the camera is merely the tool used to capture light. The camera cannot decide when an image is beautiful or sense the emotion that an image will provoke; that is what you must bring to the viewfinder!

Gary Fong is an internationally renowned wedding photographer and inventor of cutting-edge photography equipment designed to help photographers experience new levels of creativity. More information about Gary Fong, his lighting tools and other photographic accessories can be found at http://www.garyfonginc.com

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