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Why ‘Scene Modes’ DO have a place in digital photography.

Photography is an incredibly subjective and heavily saturated field, and with that comes a great variety of opinion on just about everything, from big topics such as which camera body is the best (and what a minefield that topic is!) to others such as what you should be carrying in your bag. The best thing about all of this is that there is no right answer – whatever kit you choose to use, whatever you do with it and so forth is completely down to you, your style of photography and what you wish to achieve. Photography is, remember, an art form and not a rigid process with set rules.

Nonetheless, I read a post on a forum recently in which someone made an off-the-cuff comment about how pointless ‘scene modes’ are on DSLR cameras, and that if one ‘takes photography seriously, or is any good at it’ (I am paraphrasing, but not that much!) they should never need to use such modes.

If you’re new to photography and unsure what I’m talking about here, then take a look at the dial on the top of your camera. Along with the more commonly used modes such as ‘M’, ‘A’ (or ‘Av’ depending on your camera), ‘AUTO’, ‘S’ (or ‘Tv’, again depending on your camera) and ‘P’, you will see little symbols which denote scene modes. The symbols are relatively consistent across models, and some cameras have modes that others don’t, but the consistent ones are ‘Portrait’ mode (denoted by a head), ‘Landscape’ mode (denoted by a mountain), ‘Sports’ mode (denoted by a running figure), ‘Macro/Close View’ mode (denoted by a flower) and ‘Night’ mode (this one I’ve seen called different things and with different symbols, but generally it is denoted by a symbol of a person with a star above it).

Each of these scene modes optimises the camera’s focusing, aperture and shutter speed for a given set of conditions, and is programmed to try and minimise commonly made errors. Furthermore, it changes how the camera processes the image by altering colour saturation and sharpness. Now all of these settings can be controlled in full in Manual (‘M’) mode, or heavily controlled for a given effect in, say, Aperture Priority  (‘A/Av’) or Shutter Priority mode, but I genuinely feel these scene modes, whilst they’re something I rarely use now, are good for two reasons:

  1. If you have a limited amount of time to compose and capture a shot (example, walking down the street and something catches your eye that you know won’t be there in a short while, such as a street performance), a given scene mode (in this example, probably sports mode to capture the fast movement of a dancer or similar) may be the perfect go-to solution to avoid missing the shot, or capturing it in a panic and ending up with a horrendously under or over-exposed image that no amount of software will fully fix in post-production;
  2. For those completely new to photography, scene modes are great to experiment with and see what the camera produces. If you like what you see, you can then remember the settings the camera selected and replicate those settings in manual (or similar) mode both there and then, and also in the future when presented with a similar scene. This is, in my opinion, a really good way of absorbing knowledge as to what works in what conditions, and can really help you develop as a photographer.

The chances are that as you grow as a photographer you will leave these scene modes behind most of the time, as you will develop an innate knowledge of what settings work well in what conditions, and you will mentally compose your image before you even get your camera out, and so have an idea of what you’ll be setting everything to. However, if you’re just starting out I really think you should dismiss the naysayers and give them a go. One thing is for sure, they will help you build confidence, help you take more photographs, help you not to miss a moment and help you learn! Actually, that’s four things. Perhaps I should rest my case there.

The shot below I captured in Thailand in December 2017. There’s nothing mind-blowing about the image, it is just a nice memory to have of the hotel that we stayed in. However, I consider it to be nicely composed, with good depth of field, nice colour and exposure. What mode did I use to get it? Night mode. Not Aperture Priority, Manual, Shutter Priority or anything else. I had my wonderful wife waiting on me and so I was a little time pressured to get the shot and then re-focus (get it) on what was more important! So rather than debating about which settings would be best, especially as I wasn’t carrying a tripod and so a lengthy exposure time would not be ideal, I whacked it into night mode, framed the shot, tried to avoid any camera shake and pressed the shutter button. I shall let you be the judge of the image, but this was captured in a ‘scene mode’ and yet it produced the same effect I would have done with a lot more planning:

SONY DSC

Interestingly (and because scene modes can help us learn), the camera ramped the ISO up to 800 (the base setting is 100, and ISO relates to the extent to which your camera’s sensor is sensitive to light) and gave ne an aperture of f/3.5, which is actually quite a wide aperture for this kind of shot where you’re trying to obtain a greater depth of field (things more in focus from the front to the back of the image). Because it was so dark outside, this still required an exposure time of 0.5 sec – exceptionally long without a tripod. Yet I have gotten away with it do you not think?

The image looks to be pretty well in focus throughout, there’s no blur caused by shake and the light is nice. So as an amateur I could happily take away from this that when I am shooting in dark areas, knocking up my ISO is a good starting point. I would also learn that in dark scenes, I may be able to get away with a slightly wider aperture than normal without losing detail, and I would know that as long as I can get my camera steady, a tripod is not always essential. These are very rough and ready points, but there is no disputing they can only help one to develop on their photographic journey.

How the Devotion Began

It would not really be appropriate to have any kind of blog, photography or otherwise, without explaining just how all of this came about.

I don’t especially remember one singular, defining moment where I suddenly said to myself, “I’m going to take my hobby and make it into a business!” It was a much more gradual process, one that could arguably be said was years in the making!

Growing up, I guess I would reflect on myself as a bit of a have-a-go creative. I always had quite an imagination for storytelling, and some of my earliest memories are writing page after page of probably nonsensical fantasy stories, firstly by hand in a childish scrawl, then graduating to a typewriter and eventually a PC. I liked to try my hand at drawing, designing, colouring, even a period of sewing! All of these efforts would be shown to family members with great pride or displayed around the home. I think looking back that these were my earliest experiences of creating tangibly nice things that could be kept, put away, taken back out and looked at – just like photographs.

I must have been around 13 when my Dad bought me my first ever digital camera. My interest had been sparked by a couple of photographs my brother had taken at school as part of a photography course, and whilst looking back the camera was really very basic, and was probably quite cheap, it was mine. My first ever proper camera, that I could do with as I wished.

The disposable and wet film cameras I had played with before were cast aside. No longer must I send off a roll of film and wait for it to come back developed. No longer must I peruse the results of my work, only to find that 50% of the images were unsatisfactory. Now all I had to do was ensure that I had enough batteries, and the world was my oyster! I photographed things endlessly, instantly reviewing my work and re-framing shots to ensure they were exactly how I wanted them.

The photos were only around 5.0 megapixels, noise was easily introduced, and there was no manual control for shutter speed, aperture, ISO or so forth. It really was an early point and shoot piece of kit, but I loved it. I recall wondering around the home photographing the most inane things; my dad sat on the sofa with a book, my brother perched atop an exercise bike cleaning his glasses, flowers in the garden, one of our cats scaling a trellis. Or to put it another way, capturing moments. It was quite the addiction.

A few years later I enlisted in the Army as a member of the Royal Military Police and any kind of photography was essentially put on the back burner whilst I heavily invested in the career I still hold today. A few years passed, but then in 2009, in readiness for my second operational tour, I was loaded onto a Crime Scene Investigator course.

This changed everything.

The first few weeks of the course were dedicated entirely to photography. This was photography as I had never seen it before. The instructors stripped everything right back, introducing us to the absolute fundamentals of photography, teaching us about light, the science behind recording a photograph, how every single element of a camera actually works. Once that was learned, we progressed onto practical photography – every day we were sent out and told to capture around 20 different specific scenes, returning to the classroom at the end of the day for our work to be harshly critiqued in front of everybody else. In a very short period of time, I found myself taking pictures that blew my mind. I had no idea that a camera could produce such wonderful images with the right amount of knowledge and application.

After that there was no turning back. Over the next few years, I was employed again and again as a CSI, attending crime scenes and capturing everything from wide-angle views of structures, to macro views of ridge (fingerprint) detail on window frames. My skills continued to be honed with every scene I attended, always learning something new, getting quicker and feeling my enthusiasm grow and grow.

Of course, I then began investing in my own equipment and there really was no turning back. To this day I absolutely adore photography, and have immersed myself in it for a long time now. Just about every medium I can exploit for photography, I do. From magazine subscriptions, to YouTube videos, to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, I just can’t get enough of it.

I love it. And it was this passion that spurred me to gradually start shooting friends and family. Initially the photos ended up on my laptop where they stayed, never to see the light of day again. Then social media really took off, and I decided to upload an image here or there. The reactions I got excited me. Suddenly the images I had taken were not just pleasing to my eye, but pleasing to others as well.

Friends I had not spoken to for ages took the time to put nice comments on my pictures, and told me I would have to photograph them and/or their kids when I next saw them. Then strangers started to like my photos, to follow me, to ask me what settings I had used so they could try and recreate a similar effect. I started to realise this was something I was good at.

This really is how Devoted Lens Photography was born! I still serve in the Army, but it is my hope that once that career has concluded (the standard pipeline for which is 22 years, of which I have served 15) I will stop doing photography on the side and make my hobby a full-time business.

One thing is for sure, I really do not believe that I will ever get tired of looking through that lens!