Great Gear, Bad Decisions

Matrix metering really doesn't know what to do in a situation like this. It's up to us to manage exposure.

Matrix metering really doesn’t know what to do in a situation like this. It’s up to us to manage exposure, but we need the right tools to do so.

It’s confession time. After the frustrations of the December dance concert, I traded in one of my D7000 bodies for a D610, believing a full-frame camera would finally deliver the high ISO performance needed for dance.

Like many of my recent purchase decisions, this one turned out to be the right horse in the wrong race. The D610 is a marvelous camera that improves many of my images, but it does not solve my dance performance problems.

Of course, if you let the shadows fall where they may, you can end up with a one-legged dancer. Not optimal, but if I bring up the shadows to reveal her other leg, it also reveals a lot of grain and stage debris.

Of course, if you let the shadows fall where they may, you can end up with a one-legged dancer. Not optimal, but if I bring up the shadows to reveal her other leg, which is draped in the black dress, it also reveals a lot of grain and stage debris. The image reveals a hint of her other foot, which says good things about the D610’s dynamic range.

There are two reasons for my D610 buyer’s remorse: 1) My best dance photos were made years ago with a D300, which featured a sensor inferior to that of the D610, but a focusing system far better suited to dance, and 2) My constant quest for better high ISO performance was based on my belief that my theater and dance images suffered from constant underexposure, but the truth is almost precisely opposite: The biggest obstacle to excellence in my dance photos is OVEREXPOSURE! Man, I feel like a dolt.

I spent a lot of time in post trying to show the dancers' faces, but then realized I was only dumbing down a powerful image.

I spent a lot of time in post trying to show the dancers’ faces, but then realized I was only dumbing down a powerful image.

The D300 featured a DX sensor and a 51-point focusing array. This actually helped both my focus and exposure problem, because I could use spot-metering and keep a focus sensor on a dancer’s face pretty reliably. This increased the odds of the image being sharp where I wanted it to be sharp, and helped to prevent blown-out highlights from the bright stage lights on a dancer’s face. Of course, with fast moving subjects, it’s quite difficult to keep the focus sensor on subject.

In the original, the legs were overexposed and the background was more prominent. TOO prominent.

In the original, the legs were overexposed and the background was more prominent. TOO prominent. We lose a dancer’s hair, but gain her face and legs by bringing the exposure down.

The Nikon D7100, approximately half the price of the D610, may have been a better impulse purchase in December, because it features the 51-focus-point array and an extra crop mode that spreads the focus points across nearly the entire frame. The D610 features the same focus module as the D7000, which I’d complained about in December, but there were other advantages to a full frame sensor that attracted me, including better subject isolation and dynamic range, and besides, if I’d thought it out that much, it wouldn’t have been an impulse purchase, would it?

A focusing challenge, to say the least.

From the back of the theater, a focusing challenge. You try to keep a focus sensor on a fast-moving face that makes up a very small part of the frame. Plus, the focus sensors of the D610 are tightly grouped in the middle of the frame, which is the area I am least likely to place a subject.

Now I should point out that I achieved a good keeper rate and made some nice photos with the D610, but I really had to struggle for it, and I know something you don’t know: I know how many images I missed by a smidgen of sharpness and a wallop of blown-out highlights. And I know how bad these look at full size.

The expanded dynamic range of the D610 certainly helps in very contrasty scenes.

The expanded dynamic range of the D610 certainly helps in very contrasty scenes.

As for the exposure misunderstanding, I think I believed that the right camera would provide enough dynamic range to hold highlights and shadow detail on stage, and that’s really just a foolish dream for someone who is not controlling the lights or the dancers’ positions. The stage is a high contrast, fast-changing situation, and one must make a choice whether to let the highlights blow or let the shadows fall where they may. I’ve been trying to split the difference – and failing. In post, it became clear to me that I’ve been overexposing the images, and should have exposed for the highlights and let the mystery of the shadows be. That approach makes more dramatic, interesting images.

Pixel density becomes a significant issue in highly cropped photos with large areas of underexposure. Many of these images look very good - on a phone screen! Any bigger than that and they fall apart.

Pixel density becomes a significant issue in cropped photos with large areas of underexposure. Many of these images look very good – on a phone screen! Any bigger than that and they fall apart.

Another issue, which I’ll save for another post, has to do with pixel density. You see, by using the 24 megapixel D610 instead of the 16 megapixel D7000, I actually ended up with LOWER RESOLUTION images, because I had to crop them more. Man, it’s always something.

When the D610 and I get it right, I'm a very happy guy.

When the D610 and I get it right, I’m a very happy guy.

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Filed under Camera Gear, Camera Settings, Dance and Theater, Low Light, Post Processing

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