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Going Beyond Automatic: Photography in Africa

I haven’t had the chance to write down much of what I experienced and accomplished while in Zambia. One of my passions has always been to travel to impoverished nations and be able to bring back just a glimpse of what I saw through my photography.

Africa was by far one of the most challenging photography environments I’ve ever faced—harsh lighting from the sun, intense weather conditions, and a lack of electricity (making preserving battery life imperative). Africa is the opposite of an ideal studio setup, and quite often you have to choose between ‘getting the perfect shot’, and the safety of yourself and your camera. Most of the time, I chose the latter.

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The amazing thing about Africa is that you don’t have to go searching for photos (I could take a picture of the bug on the ceiling above my bed and it would be a fascinating picture). The pictures are right in front on you: it’s just a matter of which ones you are fast enough to capture.

And while it’s easy to say that if I had better/faster/more expensive camera that could take 8 photos a second at ISO 3200 with little noise, my pictures would have been better, the truth of the matter is that cameras and lenses are just tools. Sure it would help me shoot faster, but not necessarily smarter. The most essential part of a camera, is the 3 – 4 inches behind the viewfinder—your brain.

The key to taking stunning photos in Africa is getting out of auto mode.

Before I continue, I must recommend that you read the highly popular “Introduction to Photography” written by yours truly. Even if you aren’t a wannabe photographer, it will introduce you to a couple concepts and terms that will help you understand how cameras work.

How Automatic Works

To understand why not to shoot in auto-mode, it’s important to understand just how automatic works. Your camera is basically just a box with a hole in it—in order to get a properly exposed photo (ie. – theoretically perfect exposure), your camera will adjust the Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO allowing the right amount of light to hit the camera sensor.

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Most of the time, perfectly exposed photos are what you want. But not everything we see with our eyes is perfectly exposed. Shadows, sunsets, and ambient lighting are all effects that produce stunning photos, but auto mode will often try to make the lighting “perfect” by brightening or darkening it, and thus losing the effect you pulled out your camera to shoot.

The solution is Manual mode. You’ll find this mode on all DSLRs, and higher-end consumer Point-and-Shoots.

Manual mode gives you full control over all the features of your camera—which is very powerful—but which can also be very clumsy and slow to navigate at first. Countless times have I been taking pictures in manual mode, and have had people yell at me to hurry up and take the picture.

Yes, it’s going to be slow—at first. Your cousin’s wedding is not the time to experiment with Manual mode. Experimentation often leads to worse pictures than if you had simply left it on auto mode in the first place.

As much as I wish there was a magic solution, the key to mastering manual exposure is practice. Learn how Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO affect your pictures, and go out and shoot. Take a picture in auto mode, and copy over the settings to manual mode. Then you can tweak the settings to get the result you’re looking for.

Want more shadows? Speed up the shutter a bit. Need more in focus? Close up the aperture. Want a decent sunset picture? Turn the exposure compensation way down.

Once you get used to maneuvering your way around your camera, these features will become second nature to you. No longer is it about the technicals, the terms, or the specs of your camera. Now it’s up to you using everything you know to tell the story in the best way possible.

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Remember, the rules of photography are only there to be broken. Some of the most inspirational photos I’ve seen, have been the ones that coloured outside of the lines; the ones that broke the rules, and came up with something truly unique.

Now that is true storytelling.