Learning how to use your DSLR’s manual controls

Posted in equipment, photos at 10:45 am by wingerz


One of the big advantages to using a SLR over a point-and-shoot is being able to shoot in manual mode, opening the doors to more creative photography. Manually setting the sensor sensitivity (ISO), aperture, and shutter speed for the correct exposure can be quite satisfying. I especially enjoy it because it involves doing some simple arithmetic in my head. It boils down to figuring out the appropriate sensor sensitivity and the amount of light you allow to hit the sensor. The amount of light allowed to hit the sensor is determined by how wide the shutter is opened (the aperture) and for how long (the shutter speed). That’s all there is to it.

Shooting digital means that you get instant feedback and taking pictures is free. If you have time to set up for a photo, you can fiddle with the settings until you get the exact right exposure. Another great way to learn is to use one of the other camera modes (like aperture or shutter priority) to suggest starting values and then tweaking those. These modes also very useful when you’re under some time pressure but would still like to have some control over your camera.

So here’s what’s going through my head when I shoot manual:
Pick an ISO: A lot of digital cameras, when left to automatically set their own ISOs, seem to pick particularly high values for them (indoor scenes can be quite dark). A high ISO can introduce a lot of noise into the photo. For black and white conversion this is not a huge deal because it looks like film grain and can give your photo an artsy feel. I haven’t gotten around to purchasing it, but Noise Ninja is supposed to be quite good. Another solution is to invest in the new Canon 1D Mark III, which produces images with a lot less noise at high ISOs. I typically try to stay at ISO 400 or below.
Figure out your effective focal length: The actual focal length that I’m shooting with is 1.6x what it says on the lens (since I have a Rebel XT, which does not have a full-frame sensor). This is important for the next point.
Figure out your shutter speed: When handholding, the shutter speed should be at most the reciprocal of the actual focal length because camera shake is accentuated by long focal lengths. So for my 50mm prime, which is actually 80mm, the shutter speed should be at most 1/80 sec. Image stabilization technologies go part of the way towards allowing photographers to relax this requirement, as do monopods. A good tripod gives you even more flexibility here.
Start with the “Rule of 16”: To get the proper exposure in bright sunlight, at f/16, the shutter speed should be the same as the ISO (1/100 sec for ISO 100). Recalling the descriptions on films with different ISOs (100 for sunlight, 200 for cloudy days, indoors with flash, 400 for indoors, assuming other settings equal) gives me a very rough estimate of how much light to expect in non-bright-sunlight settings. This gives you a baseline to work with; since you’ve figured out your shutter speed you can now calculate the appropriate aperture after reading through the next point.
Change stops: The Rule of 16 can only take you so far; indoor lighting situations can vary a great deal so you’ll probably need to change the amount of light that hits the sensor. If you start reading about photography techniques, you’ll run into the word “stop.” The difference in the amount of light between two stops is a factor of 2. To double the amount of light, double the ISO, divide the f-number by 1.4 (sqrt(2) to be accurate), or double the amount of time that the shutter is open. If you don’t need to change the amount of light but would like to change something else, you will have to change the other variables to compensate. If you reduce the aperture number by a factor of 1.4, which widens it to allow twice as much light in (and also narrows the depth of field of your image), you should either halve the ISO or the shutter speed to preserve the exposure. The f-number is inversely proportional to the radius of the opening, and the amount of light is determined by the area of the opening. Photography might be too easy had the aperture measure been determined to be proportional to the area of the opening.
Check the histogram: The image histogram is an incredibly important tool, something I check after just about every single shot I take. It’s not good enough that you are not clipping shadows or highlights. For best results, the histogram should be located to the right as far as possible, even if that means your photos look overexposed. You’ll thank yourself later when you go to post-process because there is a lot more information content on the right side of the histogram. This has to do with the way that digital sensors are different from traditional film (Thanks to CRV for pointing this out to me).
Keep your equipment’s limitations in mind: Photos tend to be sharpest when you don’t shoot at your maximum (smallest f-number) aperture and you’re not at the extreme ends of your zoom lens. Sometimes this is hard to avoid doing, especially when you use the long end of a zoom lens. When handholding my 70-200mm f/4, I can see the image through the viewfinder move around, which makes me quite paranoid. Around dusk I’ll typically set the ISO to 400, keep the shutter speed to 1/640 sec or less, and aperture to f/5.6 at its widest. If the photo is overexposed, I reduce the shutter speed first before fiddling with the others.

So usually when I’m taking a photo I’ll set the ISO to something appropriate, Figure out my minimum shutter speed based on the focal length, figure out what aperture would be appropriate for that shutter speed (by consulting the Rule of 16 if I’m outdoors), and go from there. Having a lot of light available outside gives you a lot of flexibility; once you get indoors everything is much, much dimmer. A decent flash is pretty much a necessity. If you can’t use a flash (maybe because you don’t want to kill the ambient lighting) you may find yourself pining for new equipment and features, like lenses with extremely wide apertures, image stabilization, and camera support (monopods and tripods). You also begin to really appreciate bright, natural light.

After writing most of this I searched around for similar resources and found an excellent guide to exposure calculation. Definitely worth a read; important points are in bold.


Spring in Union Square

Posted in photos at 8:12 am by wingerz


During our visits to New York, Jen and her sister Ellen spend a good amount of time shopping, leaving me to entertain myself. Last time we were there, we went our separate ways around Union Square. Fortunately, there was a lot going on in the park, including some juggling and soccer-playing.


Simple tips for good burgers

Posted in food, home cooking at 12:48 am by wingerz


Grilling season is officially back. A few weeks ago I grilled up some hamburgers, and Sean asked me for a recipe. Turns out that I already posted it. This time I was a little short on time so I left out the mushrooms and added a dash of thyme to the mixture. The keys to a good burger: 1) Don’t overmix the meat, 2) Be gentle while shaping the patties, 3) Check the temperature with a meat thermometer (135-140 F is good), 4) Don’t check the temperature too many times because it’ll let all the juices leak out.

Jess recently sent me an article about grinding your own beef. Sounds like a good thing to try.


Citizen Schools celebrations

Posted in community, technology at 11:01 pm by wingerz


We made it. Two Mondays ago we had the Online WOW! at the MIT Media Lab. Students explained how their games worked to event attendees in a science fair-style setup. One of our students, John, participated in a web videoconference with some students from a classroom in California and got to show off his game to them. This past Monday was our last class, during which we reflected and celebrated by handing out game CDs and playing the Wii.

Last Wednesday we had the Gavin WOW! We got to see some of our students in the contexts of their other apprenticeships, like dance and TV production. Of course, there was also a lot of game-playing and explaining as well. Overall I was quite impressed by how much they retained, and I really enjoyed seeing the students take pride in their work as they showed off their games.

Will post some final thoughts in the days to come. It has been a great experience all around, and at least one student is intent on continuing work on his game, which we count as one of our successes.


Downtown Gardens

Posted in photos at 10:54 am by wingerz


One of my favorite walks through Boston starts at the corner of Mass Ave and Newbury Street. From there, I’ll walk down Newbury, sometimes switching over to Boylston Street for a quick look at the Hancock Tower, Boston Public Library, and churches. At the end of the street is one of my favorite places in all of Boston: the Public Garden. There’s a beautiful pond surrounded by willow trees, which is frequented by ducks, geese, swans, and cormorants. Photos from this album were taken on a chilly early-April day, before a lot of the flower beds and flowering trees started blossoming.

I noticed one woman, the Squirrel Lady, who called out to the many squirrels of the Garden and fed them nuts.


Cherry-cola ribs

Posted in food, home cooking at 10:26 pm by wingerz


Ever since Carolynn made these for us several years ago, I’ve been in love with this recipe. The key is to cook the ribs in the oven for two hours at a low temperature to get them tender before grilling. The original recipe appeared in Bon Apetit magazine many years ago. It’s become a summer favorite.

The recipe says to let the soda go flat first (4 hours) but I usually don’t have the patience for that.

Cherry-cola ribs
from Bon Apetit magazine

4 12-ounce cans cherry cola (flat)
2 cups cherry jam or preserves
2/3 cup Dijon mustard with horseradish
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons malt vinegar or apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce

7 1/4 to 7 1/2 pounds well-trimmed pork spareribs

1. Boil cherry cola in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat until reduced to 1 1/2 cups, about 45 minutes. Stir in next 5 ingredients. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until mixture is reduced to 2 1/2 cups, stirring occasionally, about 35 minutes. Transfer glaze to large bowl. (Can be made 1 week ahead. Cover; chill. Bring to room temperature before using.)

2. Position racks in top and bottom thirds of oven and preheat to 325°F. Sprinkle ribs with salt and pepper. Wrap each rib rack tightly in foil, enclosing completely. Divide foil packets between 2 rimmed baking sheets. Bake until ribs are very tender, switching positions of baking sheets halfway through baking, about 2 hours total. Cool ribs slightly in foil. Pour off any fat from foil packets. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Keep covered in foil packets and refrigerate. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour before continuing.)

3. Prepare barbecue (medium-low heat). Cut each rib rack between bones into individual ribs. Set aside 1 cup glaze. Add ribs to bowl with remaining glaze and toss to coat. Grill ribs until brown and glazed, turning to prevent burning, about 5 minutes total. Serve, passing reserved glaze separately.


Mother’s Day Flowers

Posted in personal, photos at 10:05 am by wingerz


My mom is an avid gardener, so yesterday I headed over to the Public Garden to snap a few photos on her behalf. And, because it is Mothers’ Day, I jumped the photos to the front of the 6-week processing queue.

I imagine that I won’t be able to fully appreciate everything that Mom has done for me until I’ve got some kids of my own. But for everything that I am aware of, thank you! Happy Mother’s Day to all of the Moms out there, but especially mine and Jen’s.


Another 5 kitchen tools

Posted in equipment, food at 12:54 am by wingerz


So after I posted last night about kitchen gadgets, some of the others felt betrayed and demanded their own post.

1. Meat thermometer: Cook meat to perfection without having to slice through it to see if it’s cooked (remove from heat at 130 for medium rare beef, 135 for medium beef, 145 for pork, 165 for chicken). Use it sparingly though since juices will leak out of the holes that you leave. Since I have still not mastered the art of telling done-ness by feel, this is my only hope of consistently getting it right.
2. Grill: Not really a kitchen tool, but there’s nothing quite like enjoying a pleasant evening outdoors with meat sizzling on the grill. Ours is a small Weber propane grill.
3. Stand mixer: As Joy pointed out, this is awesome for beating egg whites and whipping cream. I usually use mine for cookie doughs and cake batters.
4. Whisk: Mixing things by hand is fun too. I’ve been mixing my own salad dressings for a few years now, and I also regularly use this for scrambling eggs.
5. Mini food processor: Great for making bread crumbs and saving you from having to do a lot of fine chopping. Have considered upgrading to a full-sized one, but for now the small one does the job.


Top 5 kitchen tools that bring me joy

Posted in equipment, food at 11:56 pm by wingerz


I spend a good amount of time in the kitchen, and there are certain tools that make me quite happy every time I get to use them. There are others, too, of course, but these are my favorites.

1. A sharp knife: Cuts through everything effortlessly with no slipping or struggling (or putting your fingers in imminent danger).
2. Heavy pans: Cooking with the cast iron pan or dutch oven makes the meal feel more substantial. And the heat retention makes for a great surface upon which to sear meat. I’ve made a lot of wonderful stews and braises in our dutch oven.
3. Kitchen scale: Takes a lot of the trouble out of measuring sugar (7 oz/cup) and flour (5 oz/cup) for baking. Without this, measuring flour can be especially tricky since its volume can change depending on how settled it is.
4. Bread maker: Who doesn’t love the smell of fresh bread? It still feels novel when we bake our own loaves, and there’s nothing like biting into a warm piece of bread. Garlic Parmesan, jalapeño cheddar, cinnamon swirl…
5. Garlic press: Minces garlic without making a fragrant mess of your knife, cutting board, and fingers.

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, but this motivated me to finally do it.

Grilled Asparagus

Posted in food, home cooking at 11:15 pm by wingerz


We’ve busted out the trusty grill twice so far this season. This grilled asparagus recipe was easy and turned out well – the asparagus was tender and flavorful, and everything looks better with grill marks.

Grilled Asparagus with Grilled Lemon Vinaigrette
From Cooks’ Illustrated‘s Grilling book

1 1/2 pounds asparagus, tough ends snapped off
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper

1. Toss the asparagus with the oil in a medium bowl or on a rimmed baking sheet.
2. Grill the asparagus over a medium-hot fire, turning once, until tender and streaked with light grill marks, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the grilled asparagus to a platter.

1 lemon, cut in half crosswise
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium shallot, minced
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
Salt and ground black pepper

1. Place the lemon halves on the grill, cut-side down, and grill until tender and streaked with light grill marks, about 3 minutes. When the lemon is cool enough to handle, squeeze and strain the juice into a medium nonreactive bowl; you should have about 2 tablespoons. Whisk in the olive oil, shallot, and thyme. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
2. Arrange the grilled asparagus on a platter and drizzle with the dressing. Serve immediately.

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