Being Christmas, there will be lots of people unboxing their shiny new Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras with dreams of instantly taking professional photos with all those megapixels! There may also be a few less excited individuals dusting off their DSLR cameras they got last year to take some family snapshots, and even a few who just leave that big camera in the closet because their phone takes pictures that are just as good. Like anything in life, becoming good at something involves more than just having the expensive gear, it means learning how to use it. As Ansel Adams once said, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” Let’s take a few minutes to improve the info in that mind of yours!
First I should say I’m not a professional photographer, but over the last few years I have graduated away from my cameras Automatic setting. I have found that in order to take the picture I want I need to know how to make the camera DO what I want, not what it wants. In this post I’ll describe two great camera modes that will give you immensely more control over your pictures. These modes are great because they let you control one parameter and let the camera take care of the rest. First you need to know a bit about how that camera works and what affects the brightness of your image.
There are three primary controls that will affect your exposure (how bright or dark your picture is).
First is Aperature, which is an element in the lens that opens bigger and closes smaller. It is essentially a circular window that changes size. As you can imagine a larger window lets in more light and makes your picture brighter and a smaller window lets in less light and makes the photo darker.
Second is shutter speed, this is how long the “Film” or sensor is exposed to the light of the picture. A shutter speed of 1/50th of a second will let in twice as much light as a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second.
Third is ISO which is the sensitivity or digital amplification of the image. It’s a bit confusing, but know that ISO100 is the base and as you get into the higher ISO’s your image quality gets worse due to digital noise. A high ISO will typically make your pictures look grainy, but the better your camera, the better it will handle high ISO shots.
Mode #1 – Av or Aperature Priority Mode
Rotate that knob over to Av and let’s get started. I would recommend experimenting with this setting to see for yourself how changing the Aperature setting affects your picture. First set your ISO to Auto (it is likely already on Auto), now you can rotate the wheel this is likely where your right index finger is .when holding the camera. As you rotate this wheel you will adjust the Aperature setting.
Zoom your lens all the way out as this will usually let you adjust the Aperature to the lowest f-stop number (depends on the lens). Try to adjust the Aperature as low as it will go. It will probably be around 3.5. The camera will adjust the ISO and shutter speed to properly expose the photo, but we are forcing the Aperature as low as it will go. Now find somewhere that you can take a picture of something close that has something else further away in the background.
First focus on the close object with the camera (Put the center point in your viewfinder on the object and half press and hold while the lens focuses) and then fully press your Shutter button to take the picture.
Now rotate that knob again until your Aperature reads f11 or a larger number and repeat what you did above. Once you have taken both pictures review them on the lcd screen (press play button) and pay special attention to the background and anything that you did not set the focus on. You should see that the picture you took with the Aperature open (small f number) has a background that is more blurred or out of focus than the picture taken with the closed down Aperature (higher f number).
As you might realize, taking a picture of a landscape or something where you want detail near and far, it’s best to use a high f number setting. I usually shoot f9 or f11 in these situations, but feel free to experiment and see what looks best. Alternatively if taking a portrait of someone where you want the background to be out of focus, you can use a lower f number Aperature setting.
This mode gives you a ton of creative control over the automatic setting and I love using it!
Mode #2 – Tv/S or Shutter Speed Control
Rotate that dial to Tv (Canon) or S (Nikon) to experiment with the shutter speed control mode. This mode will let you choose your shutter speed and adjust the other camera settings (Aperature, and ISO if set to Auto) to properly expose your photo. A good rule of thumb is that at a minimum when handholding a lens you want to use a shutter speed equal to the inverse of your focal length. With no image stabilization and shooting with a lens set to 55mm, you want to be shooting at a minimum of ~1/55th of a second. Since your camera will likely not let you set a shutter speed of 1/50th, round it up to 1/60th of a second at a minimum.
If you have Image Stabilization(IS) or Vibration Reduction(VR) then you can slow your shutter speed down even further. Try taking some pictures of a stationary object while varying the shutter speed setting. Then zoom in to the pictures with the LCD to see how decreasing the shutter speed will start to blur the photos. If shooting a non-stationary subject such as someone playing sports, or running around, the IS/VR won’t help you and you will need to use a faster shutter speed to “freeze” the action. When taking photos of a moving subject set your camera to control the shutter speed and set the speed high enough to “freeze” the action. You may need 1/250th of a second or even faster!
Another interesting effect that you can produce with Shutter Speed control is that of blurring lights. The typical long blurred lines of car headlights that you see in those night city shots is made by taking a photo with the shutter speed open for a long time (seconds instead of fractions of a second.)
Hopefully you can experiment with these two modes and improve your control of your photography.