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Technical

October 2009

By Richard Goldsmith

The Custom Functions on Canon DSLRs have been provided to give you the ultimate in shooting flexibility, and allow you to fine tune your camera to achieve the perfect match for your area of expertise. Portrait photographers Justin Hession and Ton van Zeijl explain how they have personalised their kit to ensure that it provides them with exactly the support they require while taking away some of the ‘pain’ of post-production.

No two photographers are the same and every individual has a way of working which is likely to be unique, even if it’s only down to relatively minor details such as a preference for the number of shots taken during an autobracketing sequence or a limit on the range of available shutter speeds, apertures or ISO speeds that the camera might be able to select. Custom Functions have been designed to make sure that Canon DSLRs can be extensively personalised to meet each user’s exact requirements. Those who take the time to go through the extensive list of options open to them - the EOS-1Ds Mark III has no less than 57 Custom Functions to choose from - will end up with a camera which is perfectly set up to suit their specific requirements.

For many photographers this level of flexibility, which can allow you to make personal adjustments to such things as exposure preferences, autofocus, flash settings and viewfinder display, is one of the reasons that they chose Canon kit in the first place. Portrait photographers Justin Hession and Ton van Zeijl both agree that the first ‘job’ when a new camera arrives in the studio is to sit down and go through the menu and to select the shooting options most appropriate to their preferred methods of working.

Justin Hession

Portrait photographer Justin Hession.
 

Portrait photographer Justin Hession.

Justin Hession is an Australian-born freelance photographer who has been based in Zurich, Switzerland for the last five years. He’s worked extensively with international and local agencies including Getty Images, Keystone, Blick, The Times and The Independent newspapers, as well as corporations such as Nestle, IBM and eBay. Justin studied photography in Melbourne and went on to lecture both there and in Delhi, and he previously worked as a staff photographer with News Ltd. in Melbourne.

“I cover a diverse range of subjects for a mainly corporate clientele,” he says, “but portraiture is probably the area that I enjoy working in the most. I have a newspaper background, and when I first came to Switzerland I bought myself a Canon EOS-1D Mark II, which was a camera very much favoured by sports photographers and photojournalists. As I’ve started to tackle more studio shoots I’ve gravitated towards the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, which I now use, and this gives me images that can be used as large as a client is ever likely to want.”

© Justin Hession

One of the dogs in the scene was close enough to the camera to confuse his Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III’s Al Servo tracking, so Justin used C.Fn III -4-1 to ensure his original subject was tracked rather than the subject closest to the camera.

Justin explains: “When I was using my EOS-1D Mark II I got my idea of how to set the custom functions up by reading a feature about what the photographers working on Sports Illustrated magazine in the US were using. I’m still influenced by that and many of the settings on my 1Ds Mark III are essentially the same now for my portrait work, where I might need to react quickly. For example, I have set Custom Function III -4-1 to give myself AI Servo AF Tracking, and it’s set to provide Continuous AF Track Priority so that I can hold focus on a subject who might be walking towards me. It’s a very common situation and that’s a setting I use a lot.”

In common with many sports photographers, Justin has set his camera so that the AF-ON button initiates autofocusing via CFn IV -1.3. This means that instead of AF being controlled by the shutter release, he instead has a separate and full time method of activating AF. “It’s something that gives you the ability to re-compose your image while holding the focus on a subject’s face,” he says, “and for a portrait photographer that’s a really important thing to be able to do. I use the shutter button just to fire the camera and my thumb operates the autofocus on the AF button on the back.”

Another Custom Function that finds regular use is C.Fn 1 -3, which initiates the expandable ISO function. This allows the EOS-1Ds Mark III to set an ISO speed as high as 6400 if necessary, but Justin goes the other way and has his camera set via Register in C.Fn l-3 to provide an ISO range from 50 to 1600, which is the highest level he would ever choose to work at on a professional job.

© Justin Hession

A sadu prays during 2007 Ardh Kumbh Mela. Justin used the expandable ISO C.Fn 1 -3 on the EOS-1Ds Mark III to go down to L setting, ISO 50, for the lowest possible ISO/shutter speed combination to enable handholding without blur.

Flexibility in a camera is exactly what Justin was looking for, and he’s not been disappointed. “When I first got the EOS-1Ds Mark III I sat down with it and spent time going through every custom function that it offered, personalising my camera and making sure that it was set up exactly the way that I wanted it. The whole camera gets set up around Custom Functions, from simple exposure increments, to metering modes, through to how the camera dials work. Many of those settings, once made, have stayed the same ever since, and it’s now very much my camera - perfectly tuned to deliver what I require.”

Ton van Zeijl

Photographer Ton van Zeijl.
 

Photographer Ton van Zeijl.

Ton van Zeijl is an award-winning photographer with clients throughout Europe. Based in Zoetermere, in his homeland of the Netherlands, he is a Fellow and former President of the British Institute of Professional Photography. Ton helped to form a thriving region of the BIPP in the Netherlands and is also a regular and respected speaker on the seminar circuit. He’s been a Canon user since investing in an F-1 many years ago, and now shoots with the full frame Canon EOS 5D and enjoys making full use of his original set of 35mm SLR lenses. Equally at home in the studio or on an industrial location, he’s also a regular award winner for the quality and innovative nature of his photography.

“The very first thing that I did when the EOS 5D arrived was to go out and shoot some images to see how it handled with its default factory settings,” says Ton. “From there I could see what areas might be improved for me and I then went through the Custom Functions and also the Personal Preferences to choose which might be the best ones for me to use. Some of these I set up and have worked with ever since, while others I might turn on or adjust when they are required for a specific shoot that I’m undertaking.”

© Ton van Zeijl

In a restaurant in Tabua, Portugal, Ton van Zeijl shot some portraits of local workmen making faces for the camera and this time Custom Function CFn-02 was used to apply in-camera noise reduction.

He admits: “For portraiture the two I would use the most are CFn-02, which provides noise reduction when I’m working in low light situations and using a long exposure, and CFn-15, which allows me to set first or second curtain sync when I’m using flash. This is something which I enjoy using quite regularly because my portrait work is often quite experimental, and for specific shoots it can be really useful.”

Ton reveals: “I had a job recently where a company asked me to come in and to photograph their staff members - around 14 in all - in a very individual way, and before I started taking pictures I sat down with each of them and carried out a short interview to get a feel for who they were and how I should photograph them. One particular man was really active and couldn’t keep still - as I was talking to him he was continually moving his hands and talking really quickly. Because I felt that this energy was part of who he was I thought I should include some movement in his picture, so I set up a shot which involved the use of second curtain sync which allowed me to do just that.”

Ton adds: “The idea was simple: I worked in a blacked out room and asked him to move around in something like a 10 metre area with a light attached to his body so that it made trails in the picture when I started the exposure. The image was completed with a flash that exposed him at the end of his movement. To my surprise the idea worked out really well, although my subject wasn’t aware that everyone considered he was so hyperactive!”

© Ton van Zeijl

This image by Ton van Zeijl was part of a project to document company staff in a creative way. This individual was photographed walking across a blacked-out studio wearing lights attached to his body and after around 10 seconds Ton fired a second curtain sync to expose the picture. Custom Function CFn-15 on the Canon EOS 5D allows the photographer to choose either first or second curtain sync.

The Noise Reduction Custom Function is brought into play whenever Ton finds himself in a low light situation, and it’s proved itself to be a big time saver. “I feel that I could probably achieve the same effect using Photoshop in post-production,” he says, “but I’m a little old fashioned and what I always set out to do is to get everything right in-camera. Like most photographers I don’t particularly enjoy sitting in front of a computer monitor for long stretches and by being aware of Custom Functions and using them carefully you can cut down on a lot of post-production work.”

So, it's clear that the array of benefits offered by EOS Custom Functions to portrait photographers includes saved time in post-production, creative shooting opportunities, noise reduction in low light, expanded ISO settings, the ability to handhold at slow shutter speeds, and a variety of AF options to ensure focus is in the correct place. The evidence of Justin Hession and Ton van Zeijl speaks for itself and is a great reminder to always explore all of the shooting options contained within your EOS so your camera is tailored to exactly how you wish to shoot.