How’d you get that shot? How do I shoot better at night? How about when there’s action? How come my photo came out so blown out? (Oh and I’ll skip the priceless “well of course you get nice shots with an expensive, professional camera like that!” comments!) Folks, to truly make use of your SLR and to really understand photography , every budding photographer must learn and master the following basics first:
- Shutter speed
- ISO (also called Film Speed)
Yes it’s time-consuming, it takes practice, it can seem laborious maybe to some. But for better photos, it is the only way. You wouldn’t get behind the wheel of a car without knowing how to drive, so same thing with an SLR. Not even buying the most expensive camera out there will “automatically” get you great, publication-worthy images. Buckle down, read, practice, understand, practice again. As a travel photographer, I’m constantly learning about the interplay between those elements and how to get the best possible image – without sacrificing quality and without missing the “feeling” of the scene and moment I want to project. It’s all about balance – and of course, practice. How and what we we shoot -as well as how well we master these elements is eventually, what makes us stand out from the sea of photographers out there.
Before I move on to the key elements – I have to mention 3 things to think about before setting anything and shooting anything:
- Is there Light? How much light is at the scene? (day, night, moonlit, concert lit, bright lights, noon?)
- What are you trying to capture? Who or what you are shooting? What are you trying to show? How do you want to portray a person or thing? Where is this person/thing – in light or not, moving or still? Do you want to capture the mood?
- Shooting Manual or A Mode, S Mode: For beginners, it is always more helpful to start with the P mode, S mode or A mode. Each camera is different but basically, these modes allow you to set ONE element on your camera (say Aperture for A mode, or Speed under S Mode) and the camera automatically sets the rest. Eventually, shooting manual is what allows you to set and control every setting – but it takes time to get to that level so take it easy to begin with. And even then, many of us still shoot in A mode or S mode, depending on the type of shoot and to obtain different results.
1. Setting the Shutter Speed
Speed is one of the key camera settings and elements to a photograph. Speed helps capture the motion in the picture (still or moving) and it also plays a role in the amount of light that comes into your camera as you shoot. Basic points to remember:
- First, look at the scene and ask yourself: Is it daytime or nighttime, and what kind of lighting to do I have around the object/person? Is the object/person still or moving? Do I want to show motion blur or do I want to freeze the action?
- The more still your object, the lower the speed you need (ex. 1/60 s). A slower/lower shutter speed allows more light to come in as you capture the image, because the shutter stays open longer when you “click.” This is okay with still persons/objects. But if there is movement, you would get a blur effect with a slow shutter speed. So it depends on what image you are trying to convey. Example: With waterfalls, a very slow shutter speed gives a more “real” feel to the image of the water flowing down continuously.
- The higher/faster your shutter speed (say, 1/500), the more you can freeze a movement (again, assuming decent light). However, a fast shutter speed lets in less light into your camera. In the daytime, that’s less of an issue. In the evening or nighttime, a high shutter speed does not allow much light in – and so you may need a lower shutter speed along with a tripod to get the image, unless the light is good enough to get by without a tripod and a low aperture and high enough ISO (see further below).
2. Setting the Aperture
The aperture setting or “f/stop” selection on your camera is what allows for those cool, shallow-background images – called “depth of field” or “bokeh” in photography-speak. It is also another element that allows for more light to enter the camea. Setting your camera in Manual or A(perture) mode, allows you to change the f-stop.
- Low f-stop number = more light into the lens = good for low light scenes = good for focusing on foreground/blurring background. The lower the f/stop number selected (say f/2.8) the larger the lens opening and the more light comes into the camera. Think “small fstop, big light.” Also, the smaller the f-stop, the more the image is focusing on the object you are shooting, blurring the background. This is great when you want to focus on only one element of the scene and blur out everything else. “Fast Lenses” in photography-speak as lenses that can go as low as f/2.8 and are therefore better at capturing scenes in low light, and are therefore more expensive!
- High f-stop = less light needed into the lens = good for well-lit scenes = good for focusing entire image. The higher you set the f/stop (say, f 11), the more focused the entire image is, instead of focusing only on the one object or person. This is great for landscapes or big crowds where you want the entire image to be focused.
Using Aperture to create “depth of field”:
3. Setting the ISO (Film Speed)
A third key setting before you start “snapping” away, is choosing the appropriate ISO or film speed on your camera. ISO is yet another element that lets to let light into the camera – in addition to “aperture” or f-stop (see above). These two let you balance out the need for light.
- Light outside = Low ISO. The lighter it is outside, the less ISO speed you need (say, for instance, ISO 200). If it’s a cloudy day, you’d have to bump it up a bit or you can adjust the exposure values.
- Darker outside = Higher ISO. If it’s night time and there’s low light, the ISO needs to be higher – say, 800 or 1600 depending on how much light there is at the scene. But you’ll also have to be careful not to set the ISO too high because that produces “noise” – that ugly grainy effect on your photos. The higher the ISO the faster the film speed, but it’s up to the photographer to figure out the balance around the lighting available. Most photographers do not go beyond ISO 3200.
- Note: the higher the ISO setting, the higher the shutter speed and aperture go. And in cases of low light, flash helps, of course, as does a tripod. But practicing without the latter two will give you a good feel for the use of ISO speed setting.
Of course, ISO also interacts with the f/stop setting and the shutter speed setting to create the image you want.
4. Difficult Lighting
With concerts to cover in Jamaica, I had to quickly grasp the best way to capture artists on stage, especially since so often reggae artists are constantly moving or jumping. Sometimes the stage lighting is excellent – and other times, it’s downright dreadful. It’s always good to be prepared and know how shutter speed, aperture (f/stop), and ISO all come into play to help your task.
If there is little light – then you will need a higher aperture (remember, that means low f-stop value) and a higher ISO. At the same time, remember that an ISO setting that is too high can also leave the photograph looking “grainy” (also called “noise”). In the end, the key is to balance all these elements to prevent noise and still achieve as effective a photo as possible, capturing the moment. Easy, right?
Practice makes perfect
Once you understand these basic camera settings, where they are on your camera and how to make them interplay, you are most definitely on your way. Of course there are a few other “basic rules” to photography and getting that great shot, but this is where you need to start. So get the camera out, fiddle with it, and get out out there and practice. I still do!
If you’re hungry for more, a great resource on photography is the Digital Photography School with lots of online free “how-to” articles and National Geographic also offers a free Ultimate Field Guide to Photography E-booklet – all you have to do is go to this page, scroll down and on the right-hand side column under the heading “Newsletters,” enter your email to receive it in your inbox.