This week saw an object lesson in the merits taking your own advice. On Thursday morning, we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here in Austin as the Space Shuttle Endeavour made a low level flypast of the city on the back of the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. I found out about it at 10pm the night before as I was waiting for a flight home in Chicago but realised that I had to get downtown and see the shuttle at 7:30 the next morning (after 4 hours of sleep). To cut a very long story short, I ended up completely messing up the photographs – I got 12 well-framed, perfectly focused shots of the aircraft during the 5 or 6 seconds that it was visible from my vantage point and every one of them was 2 stops overexposed.
The main reason for this mess was the fact that I completely failed to take the advice that I so freely give to others for situations exactly like this.
I shoot in manual mode about 90% of the time. I like the control I get in manual and, when lighting conditions are constant and I have time to shoot, chimp, tweak and reshoot, it works well. Even shooting sports, if the stadium light conditions are stable, I will generally stick in manual after taking a few test shots to judge the correct exposure. In situations where the light is changing or, more importantly, where there is a lot of uncertainty or a lack of time to get the shot, I will add more of the camera automation. Shooting people at parties, for example, I’ll normally start in Aperture Priority and use TTL flash (I would use manual flash for any setup or studio portraits). I dare say that if I ever ended up in a war zone, I would likely leave the camera in Program mode since I would have a lot of other thing to worry about than the exposure.
On Thursday morning, I was firmly in Aperture Priority territory at least as far as my advice went. The Shuttle would be coming in at an unknown height and speed, from an unknown position (yes, it was entering Austin from the east but we had no idea how far north of the river it would fly over) at an unknown time (we had a 30 minute window). I should have stuck the camera in Aperture Priority, selected f/5.6 or so for a nice fast shutter speed, and left the computer to get the exposure right for me. For some reason, though (lack of sleep?), I decide manual would be better so I took some test shots of the Capitol Dome, set the exposure and waited.
At this point, I was standing on the south lawn of the Capitol complex. I was aiming for a “Hail Mary” shot containing the top of the Capitol dome and the SCA/Shuttle combination large in the frame. This involved betting that the pair would fly slightly north of the Capitol. I had the D700 with the 28-300 pre-zoomed to give me the kind of framing I wanted assuming I could get the dome in the shot and the D90 with the 70-200 and a doubler waiting to grab some close-ups as the aircraft flew in. I assumed that they would be visible for a reasonable time and that I could change cameras and possibly even do a bit of exposure tweaking during the flyby.
All of these assumptions turned out to be wrong – the flypast was visible for about 6 seconds or so, it was lower and faster than I had expected and it was further south. On top of this and, as it turns out, the crucial difference, the light got significantly brighter between 7:20 when I set my exposure and 7:45 when the flypast took place. As a result, I had no chance to get the dome in the picture (the shuttle was behind me, the dome in front) and only got to shoot with the D90 and long lens which, given my mistake of staying in manual and not resetting the exposure, resulted in wildly overexposed images.
This seemed like a total disaster but, thankfully, Adobe Lightroom can do amazing things so here’s the image once I spent some time fixing it up. The quality is acceptable but it still leaves me embarrassed to think of what a mess I made of the encounter!