Erratic Exposures And A Return To Beginner’s Mind

My new Pentax K30 DSLR is proving to offer a wealth of options.

If you’re someone who sees a camera as a toy, not a tool, then the K30 (and indeed most DSLRs) is not so much a single toy, but a toy box packed with playing possibilities, depending on the mode, settings, lens and so on you choose, on any particular day.

Pentax’s commitment to their lenses is one of the aspects that drew me to them years ago when I was first using film cameras.

From the outset in 1975, their K mount 35mm SLRs could easily use their magnificent original M42 screw mount Takumar lenses via a simple metal adapter.

And they’ve kept the same essential K mount ever since, approaching 45 years now.

What this means with a modern Pentax DSLR is a wealth of lens options from over six decades.

But of course, aside from the glass, lens bodies – and the cameras they’re used on – have greatly evolved electronically.

The newest K mount lenses are controlled entirely by the camera – both the (Auto) focus, and aperture.

Going back in time, some lens are manual focus, and manual aperture, and in varying degrees and combinations.

What I’m finding with my K30 so far, is there’s not one simple set up that works well across all lens types.

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Also, the metering of the K30 doesn’t seem to be entirely consistent – even with one lens – and especially through the viewfinder (VF), which I understand meters differently to Live View metering.

So when I began using an F series lens with the K30, my initial set up was Aperture Priority (A on the dial) mode, and setting the aperture in camera via the rear dial (which means having the lens on the A setting on the aperture ring).

I had exposure compensation set to -0.3, my typical starting point with digital, to avoid blowing out skies and points of light, and ISO400, to take the edge of the clinical crispness I feared the camera might produce otherwise.

With cameras I’ve leaned most heavily on in the last 18 months or so – digital compacts – once I’d found this initial group of settings, then all that really changes shot to shot is the composition and focus.

Beyond that, there’s considerable consistency and I don’t need to constantly tweak the camera.

This isn’t the case with the K30. Even with the same lens, composing through the VF results in an incorrect exposure surprisingly often.

So initially I was shooting, checking the review screen, then adjusting the exposure compensation up or down, and shooting again, until it was right.

But this isn’t a very fluid way of working, and I was frustrated the exposures weren’t more consistently accurate.

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So I tried using the screen more, ie LV mode, something again I’m very comfortable with from using digital compacts.

Now, the exposures were far more reliable, but still sometimes needed a little adjustment.

Again I was checking the review on screen, then adjusting the exposure compensation, and trying again, until it was right.

Much better, but still a little manual compared to what I’ve been used to.

Then, I remembered you can have various overlays on the LV screen. I decided to turn off everything, and enable only the histogram.

Now, whilst I understand the basic concept of the histogram, I’ve hardly ever used them previously with cameras, either while composing an image, or reviewing it afterwards.

But even after only a dozen or so shots of experimenting this way on the K30, I’m finding it a far better way to gauge exposure.

Using LV, I composed and focused, glanced at the histogram to check if the image (or parts of it) were too much in the shadows or highlights, then nudged the exposure compensation accordingly, and took the picture.

This is proving to be far more reliable and fluid than taking a shot then checking it afterwards, changing the settings and trying again.

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The next evolution of this I want to try is to come away from using exposure compensation altogether.

Instead of Aperture Priority mode plus exposure compensation, I’m going to go straight to Manual (M) mode, and use the shutter speed dial on the front of the camera to adjust until the histogram looks ok.

This whole process is very different to what I’m used to.

Plus, of course, I know it will change again when I use a different type of lens.

M42 lenses have to be stopped down manually on the lens, so the process will be similar to the above with the lens wide open, then I’ll stop down and adjust the shutter speed accordingly using the histogram.

Or I might try M42 lenses on A mode and experiment from there.

Pentax-M lenses are manual aperture and manual focus. But they do have automatic stop down, so you compose with the lens wide open, use the Pentax green button to stop down and set exposure, then shoot.

I can use a similar starting approach as with the F lens, but it’s slightly different again, and I’ll need to find the best and most effective way for me to use M lenses, if that’s something I want to do (I currently only have one).

With all of this, as I outlined at the start, the K30 is a whole box of toys – depending on which other toys (lenses) you pick to play with it.

But each lens type (M42, M series, A series, F/DA series etc) needs an altered approach.

Not to mention the additional different outlooks required in looking for compositions depending on the focal length of the lens.

And the different levels of contrast, saturation and other aesthetic set up required for each specific lens, as each have their own characteristics.

Using the K30, my approach has by necessity reverted to a beginner, starting out from scratch. Put another way, I’m embracing Shoshin, or Beginner’s Mind. 

And whilst initially this can be frustrating when one is used to one particular, reliable approach that works well, ultimately it keeps us curious and our learning and experiences evolving.

Unlike previous cameras I’ve chosen for my One Month, One Camera project this year, where I’ve essentially figured out how to set them up quite quickly in a day or two, then just focused on compositions for the rest of the month, the K30 is proving a much bigger challenge.

But ultimately one with far greater depth to learn and gain from.

When did you last use a camera where you felt you were a beginner starting over again? What did you gain from the experience? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking.

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14 thoughts on “Erratic Exposures And A Return To Beginner’s Mind”

  1. I just updated my review of the Canon Dial 35-2 and was reminded that I had to learn how to use the thing from the ground up, it was so different from normal. I didn’t get anything out of it other than an unenjoyable experience.

    1. There is a balance of investment and reward. With some cameras the extra investment is worth the reward. The K30 so far is on the right side of the scales. Sounds like your Canon Dial wasn’t!

  2. Automatic is wonderful – until it’s not there, or worse doesn’t work. Using the Canon with the Takumar 28mm has been similar to your experience, only I’ve fallen back on the old filmographer’s method of determining exposure. Yes I’m shooting in manual with the shutter-speed-matches-film-speed base and picking the aperture by educated guess. If the lighting and reflectivity of the subjects don’t vary much it works (about one or two shots to check initial settings). It helps if, like an old film user, you are willing to accept a fairly wide (+/- 1 stop) latitude in the results knowing you can adjust it later if you really have to.
    Sometimes the pictures do make themselves, despite our best efforts to be in control of the process. 🙂

    1. Thanks Marc. Yes Auto is worse when it’s not working and there’s no way to manually override or compensate!

      Sounds like you’ve gone even more back to basics than me with your DSLR. On one level I think ok, whatever works best. But a part of me thinks really with a modern camera that has decades of engineering experience behind it, why is it so difficult to get consistent exposures? Especially when the core cameras I use deliver time after time with no fuss. I used to shoot my early 70s Spotmatic F or late 60s Minolta SR1s using sunny 16 with as more reliability than a few year old DSLR. That’s just not right.

      It might be with the K30 I just stick to certain lenses, ones that give me enough consistency via a familiar method to not irritate!

      1. Does the K30 have different metering methods available? Perhaps there is one setting that would work better across the lens range, or maybe with the troublesome lenses such as using averaging or center-weighted/spot as opposed to “evaluative” .

        1. Marc, yes, I believe there is the usual spot, centre weighted or multi. Just a quick look at the manual shows you can also change the time it meters for, and whether the metering is linked with the AF point or not. All stuff I need to look into and experiment with! Ha, I’m starting to long for my simple point and shoots!

        2. Marc, also I started probing the ever excellent Pentax Forums and there’s are numerous threads about metering inaccuracies with old lenses, especially using the VF…

  3. I know that feeling all too well while shooting these past few days. As you know I’ve jumped for a D300s, mainly to make use of my already owned excellent Nikkor glass (all primes, and now a ‘new’ M42 Helios as well)

    There are a couple of teething issues that need to be addressed as usual with any new system. However I do get the overwhelming feeling that this new camera is a tad overkill for what I need. Maybe it would have taken me longer to come to that realisation were I a newb! I know there are features that I would never use. But it’s great figuring out what will make my experience easier and more enjoyable.

    One glaring issue is that fact that I am using ‘normal’ lenses with a DX sensor (might not even spring for DX lenses) So adjusting to the crop factor will take some time. I found myself backing off a lot this weekend on my walks. Something I never really did with my 35mm film cameras. I knew exactly what field of view each lens would provide. Now I have to adjust… but that shouldn’t take too long. Its rather fun using a nifty-fifty as if it were a short portrait lens at 75mm 😀 Never been a fan of long(ish) focal lengths… zoom with your feet was always my motto (a bit pretentious if you ask me)

    Another great feature is the AF system. BUT I am not a fan of autofocus! Well, let me refine that statement. I am not a huge fan of AF… on a point and shoot! I prefer ZONE focusing. NEVER missed a shot knowing how to preset (I can do it without looking at the camera – usually setting focus before I needed to fire the shutter) But, I did enjoy AF on my F4 tank. It was great when I didn’t have to be discreet. I have some great shots from NOTTINGHILL carnival that was made easier with AF. With 51 AF points spread across a huge area of the sensor of the D300s, and the ability to move the focusing (spot focusing option) point without taking an eye from the view finder is a blessing. Actually the usability of the D300s is just an eyeopener!

    Sorry about turning your comments section into my little review 😦
    But I will say that ANYTHING that gets you out shooting can only be a good thing. Hopefully the new system is something that you enjoy and helps improve your photography, moving you forward in your journey.

    1. Anton, thanks for your thoughts.

      I know what you mean about overkill, that’s been a creeping feeling with me and my M42 lenses for some time now. I used to see them as the pinnacle of photographic enjoyment – and final image – but when you can get such good results with cameras like the Ricoh GRD III, Pentax Q and Lumic LX3, then is the extra time and effort with a DSLR (not to mention the bulk/weight) giving me anything extra?

      Ah yes, the old crop factor issue! I first realised this when I had a Sony NEX in 2014 and used all kinds of vintage lenses on it. I don’t mind using 50s with an APS-C sensor, in fact I quite like the extra intimacy it gives. I’ve even been using the long end of a 35-70mm zoom on my K30 and enjoying the equivalent 105mm field of view.

      There are more issues the other end, when people want the equivalent view of 28 or 35mm vintage lens, and realise they need to look for an 18 or 24mm to do that, which tend to be more rare and expensive. And even then, the 18 or 24mm is likely to give much more distortion than a 28 or 35mm lens would on 35mm film/ full frame digital, so it’s not a direct equivalent, just the cropped field of view is.

      A 28mm on APS-C is about the lower limit for me, which gives equivalent 42mm field of view, on the wide side of normal. Anything wider I think we’re better off picking up a dedicated digital compact like one of those mentioned above.

      Oh I’m all for zooming with your feet. I hardly ever zoom with a zoom, just see it as a set of primes, and only use one of those primes on any one trip.

      For a long time I turned my nose up at AF. Having really cut my teeth with manual focusing 35mm film lenses, AF felt like cheating, and I lost some of the control and experience.

      But again, with some cameras, it makes complete sense. I haven’t used manual focus lenses much yet on my K30, but comparing say the A series 50/1.7 I have (MF, auto everything else) with the DA 35/2.4 (AF, auto everything else), the DA does just make more sense on a DSLR, and saves using aids like focus peaking and magnification. And you can use AF in a far more controlling way than just mashing down the shutter button and hoping the camera catches the right object in focus, which I think is what most casual snappers do. The old half press to lock focus, then recompose and shoot is a method I use more often than not. In fact even if I don’t recompose, I always lock focus first and take a breath before taking the shot. It does bring back some of that creative control than AF can otherwise feel lacking in.

      I agree that I’m certainly learning and being stretched by the K30. Just not quite in the ways I thought, and as I said to Marc in another comment, it seems bizarre almost to have to work so hard to get consistently accurate exposures with technology that has decades of know-how and experience behind it. Perhaps the latitude of film (C41) just covered a multitude of sins that doesn’t happen with digital!

  4. I had a great conversation with a mate recently regarding the purchase of 2nd hand gear. He said… RESET everything to factory settings! Shooting modes, ISO, focusing modes,… the lot! This has done away with all the previous owners tweaks, and made it very easy to get good exposures in P mode.

    Once that is done, with manual or preferably a copy of ‘* for Dummies’ in hand, it is then relatively easy to see any changes you are attempting. You never know if the previous owner was a newbbie or a pro. So trying to guess what’s the issue with something is just a stroll in a darkened room. The reset switches on the light and enables you to reorient yourself. Nothing wrong with using that old P mode to get things moving in a pleasing direction I say 🙂

    I totally agree that using film has made me appreciate the trails and tribulations of digital shooters. The latitude of film is just phenomenal. Digital shooters really have no idea. But on the other hand, using digital (IMHO) also makes one more prone to expecting great images. You paid so much money for the current technology… why can’t you get usable images? I think it puts too much pressure on photographers starting out. And most end up not pushing what is possible with the great pieces of kit, opting for the next incarnation of the system thinking it will be easier.

    Anyways, all fun and games 😀
    Enjoy your new pet

    1. Anton, this is such good advice! I’m going to do this with my K30, factory reset, then just set the things I know how I want them (eg ISO, metering mode etc) and go from there. I have a post in draft about this, just starting with everything as simple as possible and just getting something consistent out of the camera, then just adjusting one (and only one) variable at a time to see how I can progress. I might even just try P mode too, yes, and an AF lens.

      The tip about the manual is very wise too, and I’ve also been reading the excellent Pentax Forums around the K30. It seems many have metering inconsistencies with this model (and a number of others) when using a variety of lenses. There are some good tips in there so far that I couldn’t have figured out myself (like in Manual mode set the green button to Tv, which means it sets the shutter speed when you press it – mine wasn’t set up like this so it wasn’t do what I thought it should be and I couldn’t figure out why).

      It’s just kind of ironic (to me) that such a potentially capable camera isn’t delivering results as well as much simpler cameras. But maybe I’m just trying to shortcut the learning.

      Completely agree about film latitude. I never had major exposure issues with colour negative film with its typical -1/+3 latitude. I think with digital exposing images over that range of four stops will give you significant differences. Especially on the over exposure side – again, unlike film. Once I’ve figured out the basis with the K30 I should some bracketing perhaps and see how different the results are…

      Yes I think what I said about such potentially capable camera not delivering, is what you’re saying about the expectation. Just because you’re given the keys to a formula one car, it doesn’t mean you’re going to become Lewis Hamilton overnight, and in fact almost inevitably you’re going to be crashing at every corner for a long while before you start to get anywhere! It’s just sitting in the F1 car gives you delusions of grandeur and promises so much – same as a beginner photographer with a sophisticated camera…

      All that said, I’m quite excited about persisting with the K30, and like the challenge, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking “This is why I love simple point and shoot compacts!”

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