When the Camera Matters

Photographers like to tell amateurs that “your camera doesn’t matter.” What they mean by this is that if you want to take nice pictures, you probably shouldn’t get too hung up on the technical differences between cameras. For a broad range of photographic subjects and conditions, the pictures you take with a $5000 digital camera aren’t that much better than those you’d take with a $500 camera, which aren’t much better than what you’d get with a $125 camera.

That’s not to say there aren’t any actual differences in digital image quality, but unless you know how to look for them, they only make a difference in extreme photographic situations. For an amateur like me, the biggest photographic limitation is not the quality of the camera but my own skill and experience.

Still, every once in a while one of those extreme situations comes along. A couple of days ago I went out with a bunch of my coworkers on what we’re calling a “team-building exercise.” It looked something like this:

I decided to see how good a picture I could get of one of the clay pigeons being hit by the pellets from the shotgun, and when I got home and loaded everything into Lightroom, I found this:

I think that’s a pretty good picture. It could be better, but it does a nice enough job of capturing the violence of the shotgun blast blowing apart the clay pigeon.

Probably the trickiest part of getting a shot like this is the timing. If you’re shooting a basketball game, you can see the ball heading for the hoop, and with a little practice you can time your shots to catch the ball as it hits the net. But in this case, I had no control over when the shooter pulled the trigger, and once he or she did, the shot reached the clay in less than a tenth of a second, far too quick for me to react.

The only way I could get a well-timed shot is to put the camera in automatic mode and fire off a burst of photos as the clay neared the top of its arc (which is where people tend to shoot it) in hope of getting lucky and catching it at the right moment. Since my D200 camera body can take 5 shots per second, I figured I had a fair chance of one of the images catching something good.

The clays are about the diameter of a DVD disk, and this one was about 80 feet away from me when it got hit. This is a close-up crop with only about a 2-to-1 sensor-to-image pixel ratio at this size. If my camera had less resolution, the image wouldn’t be this clear.

In order to freeze the action this way, I needed an exposure of about a thousandth of a second. That comes with a trade-off in tolarance for distance errors in focus. At a slower shutter speed, my focus wouldn’t have to be as accurate. That’s a problem because the clay was such a small target against the background that the autofocus couldn’t find it quickly. Fortunately, my camera can autofocus in a locking mode, so I can press a button to set the autofocus on the grass where all the clay debris is landing. Then I just follow the clay up from the thrower and hold the shutter button to take a bunch of pictures at that distance.

If I’d had a lesser camera, such as a compact pocket camera, I still might have been able to get that image, but it would have been grainier, I would have had a much harder time setting up manual focus, and it would have taken the photos a lot slower, meaning it might miss getting one like this. On the other hand if I had a better camera, such as the new Nikon D4 body (I want) with the latest 70-200 f/2.8 VR lens (I want, I want, I want) it could have taken that photo at a higher resolution, with less grain, at twice the frame rate. And I think the D4 autofocus is fast and accurate enough to follow the clays up into the sky as they leave the thrower, so I wouldn’t have had to fiddle with the manual focus.

On the other hand, reading back over this post, I realized I have inadvertently concealed one pro-tip which I used to make that picture, and which you can use to get better pictures too, regardless of which camera you use: Take a ton of photos. I have about 120 boring images of clay targets in the sky, and maybe 20 slightly less boringimages of tiny little bits of debris scattered all over the frame. The photo above is the only image that gives a real sense of the moment of impact.

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