Updated: Jun 8, 2020
Whether you are a beginner, amateur or hobbyist photographer there are 3 key camera settings you need to understand to be able to switch from shooting in automatic mode to taking full control of your camera and shooting in Manual mode.
These 3 principles will hold true whether you enjoy portrait photography, newborn photography, wedding photography, wildlife photography, landscape photography, product photography etc.
It's basically photography 101.
So consider this a photography crash course to get you started on your journey to taking more control of your camera and creativity.
You will often hear photographers speak of exposure, so let's start there.
What is exposure?
Exposure, in it's simplest explanation, is how much light hits your sensor to create the resulting image.
Photography at its essence is all about light (or lack thereof in fine art photography for instance) and controlling that light.
When you shoot on automatic mode, your camera will analyse the entire scene and do it's best to set the correct settings for 'optimal' exposure. And whilst modern cameras, even smartphones perform really well on automatic mode, there are still many limitations.
The 3 elements of Exposure
Exposure or the amount of light that hits our camera sensors is controlled by 3 fundamental elements.
Understanding what each of these elements do, will put you on the path to venturing into the world of shooting in Manual mode and taking full creative control of your photography.
Think of aperture as the iris of your eye, because that's exactly how it operates.
When you are in a brightly lit environment, your iris will shrink to minimise the amount of light hitting your retina. When you are in a dimly lit environment, the opposite happens, your pupils widen to allow more light onto your retina.
Aperture works in the same way. Aperture is usually referred to as fX. For example, this image was taken at f1.8
Here is where many can get confused around terminology with regards to Aperture.
The LARGER the aperture (more light allowed in) the LOWER the f-number. So in the diagram above, you can see that f2.8 is 'wide open' (you get lenses that go down to f1.2, generally the lower aperture, the more you'll pay for the lens). Whereas f22 is a 'closed' aperture, restricting the amount of light hitting the sensor greatly.
Aperture is also responsible for Depth of Field.
In lamens terms, depth of field refers to the amount of your image that is 'in focus'.
If you are taking a portrait outdoors for example, and you want to blur out as much of the background as possible, whilst having your subjects face and head in focus, you'd opt for an aperture of around f5.6. If you want even more blur, you could go down to f2.0 or below (see image above). Be aware though, when at f2 or below range, if you focus on the tip of the nose, even the yes if your subject wouldn't be in perfect focus! So if you are going down to these low numbers, ENSURE your focus is on your subject's eyes.
If you were shooting a landscape image you would want more depth of field, with less of the image being out of focus, therefore you would opt for a higher f-number, say f11 and higher.
Bokeh is the term used for highlights in your unfocused areas that typically look like little balls of light. The lower your Aperture (less focus area/depth of field) the more bokeh you will introduce into your images. These typically work best with portraiture and product type photography.
The second aspect of controlling the amount of light hitting your sensor is shutter speed.
Shutter speed is basically the amount of time your sensor is exposed to incoming light.
Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second at normal speeds, however many modern DSLR and some smartphones will allow you to set shutter speeds of many seconds, even minutes!
The SLOWER your shutter speed, the MORE light you let in and the MORE blur you will create if photographing a moving object. The FASTER the shutter speed, the LESS light you let in, and the more you will FREEZE the action.
So deciding upon which shutter speed to use, will depend primarily on what your subject matter is. If you're photographing a static, or slow-moving subject you can reliably lower your shutter speed. If you want to catch the splash of a water drop, or a hummingbirds wings static, then you'll be using very fast shutter speeds of 1/1000th of a second or higher.
IMPORTANT - when shooting freehand it is important to take into consideration camera shake. Some people shake more than others but as a general rule, your shutter speed should always be at least 1.5x - 2x your focal length.
Focal length is the zoom distance of your lens. For example, if you have a 50mm lens, your focal length is a static 50mm, therefore a safe handheld shutter speed would be 1/100th second. However, I personally recommend never going below 1/125th sec when shooting handheld. If you have a zoom lens and are shooting at 200mm focal length, then your shutter speed should be a minimum of 1/320th sec (depending on your camera, you may not have 1/320th so opt for 1/500th)
ISO essentially brightens or darkens your image. The HIGHER the ISO, the brighter the resulting image. For this reason, it is useful for shooting in low light conditions or to allow you to be more flexible with your Aperture or Shutter Speed settings.
Okay cool, so if I'm shooting in the dark I can just push my ISO up. Winning!
If only it were that simple. The downside to using high ISO is 'noise' or grain.
Some camera's deal with high ISO far better than others, so if you're going to be shooting a lot of lowlight scenes, be sure to opt for a camera that can deal well with high ISO settings.
Too much noise or grain can render an image unusable, so always be aware what the maximum ISO is for your camera which results in satisfactory image quality.
The above image shows the consequences of using a high ISO, in this example, 12,800. The results are a 'soft image' with clarity sacrifices and noise introduced into the image. This image was taken inside of an abandoned factory and was really dark. This shot was taken without a flash as stupidly, I hadn't packed a Speedlite on this occasion (lesson learned!).
So there you have it, the 3 key elements that make up the exposure triangle.
I hope that the above has explained each in simple terms? Understanding how each element does, the pro's and cons of each is imperative to start understanding how to create creative images.
The next step would be understanding how each of the 3 works together in getting the perfect exposure for any given situation. Adjusting one has an impact on the other!
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