Have you ever wanted to get into photography, but don’t know where to start? Or, perhaps you’re wanting to stop using that Auto mode on your camera, and want to learn more about what it can do with you behind the wheel. Let’s talk a bit about photography basics in this post today, and then we will get into the nitty gritty of DSLR’s and their manual mode soon enough. Understanding the fundamentals of photography is the key to unlocking the secrets of manual mode.
First…let’s start with this. It’s simple, but powerful. This is the dictionary definition of Photography:
the art or practice of taking and processing photographs.
It may not seem like much, but there’s two key words in the definition that stand out to me when I read it. Art and Practice. Photography is an art form. From fine art, to digital photographic art and more, there are many different media forms that photography can take. Art is what you make of it. Next, let’s look at the definition of Art:
noun: art; plural noun: arts; plural noun: the arts
the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
So, this tells us that Art is the application of creative skill and imagination, something that shows beauty or evokes emotion. Lastly, let’s take a quick look at the definition of practice:
the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method as opposed to theories about such application or use.
2.repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.
In looking at all three definitions, what happens when we combine the three?
“Photography is the art of taking photographs, an art form in which a human expresses their creative skill and imagination in a visual form, producing works to be appreciated for their beauty and the way in which images evoke emotions. One practices photography by applying the use of an idea, belief, or method repeatedly to obtain and maintain proficiency in the activity. This promotes skill and an understanding of how to take and create inspiring photographs from the beginning all the way through the post editing process, resulting in a finished product the artist is proud to share.”
Ultimately, the biggest thing to understand about photography before we even get into the basic details, is that photography is what you make of it. Love your work for you, not for anyone else. Photograph what you enjoy photographing. Do YOU. One thing I learned early on in the photography world is that you need to shoot your images for you, and that’s simply because of one thing. Each individual photographer is their own artist. YOU are your own artist. The work you create is your own, be proud of it. Don’t get discouraged if you fail the first time around. That’s where that practice part comes in handy. Didn’t nail your focus? Try again. Shutter speed wasn’t right? Try again. Exposure was too low? Try again. Herein lies the beauty of digital photography, you can delete your images and move on. Back in the film era, if you messed up, you wasted a roll of film and the time developing it. Digital may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it has certainly opened up many doors in terms of practicing and learning capabilities. Own it! Try, try again. Over and over. Practice is key.
Now, let’s move on to some very basic concepts in photography. In this post, we will cover Exposure, Aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed.
#1 – Exposure
Exposure is simple, really. It literally is whether a photo is too dark, too bright, or just right. Under-exposed means that it is too dark. Over-exposed means it is too bright. Proper exposure means that the lighting is just right. However, this can actually be quite difficult to accomplish, even on a camera’s simple auto mode. Why? Because the camera thinks for itself in auto mode, and it may not know what you are trying to accomplish with your image. In many cases, auto mode may be sufficient. However, if you are aiming for something specific, this is where manual mode can come in quite handy. Auto mode simply selects the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed for you, all of which will affect the exposure of the image.
#2 – Aperture
The aperture of a camera is what controls how much light will enter. It consists of small blades that open and close depending upon what you (or your camera itself) tell them to do. When shooting with the aperture wide open, a lot of light will enter into the camera. Alternatively, when shooting with the aperture closed down as far as it will go (usually a tiny hole), less light will obviously be allowed in.
Aperture sizes are controlled by something called an F-Stop. Strange name, yes, don’t ask me why, that I cannot answer. The smaller the F-Stop, the wider the aperture. Many lenses will allow you to go down to F/1.8. That is the widest your aperture can possibly open. However, a lot of DSLR kit lenses will only allow you to go down to F/3.5, or perhaps even F/4.5. That may be the widest for a particular lens, and the maximum amount of light you can allow in when using it. On the other hand, the larger the F-Stop, the narrower the aperture. Depending on the lens, you can go up to F/22 or even higher. This closes down the aperture to a tiny hole, letting in much less light than a lower F/stop number would allow in.
Say, for example, you took a photo at F/6, and it was too bright. You would want to start by adjusting your aperture. To reduce the exposure (brightness) of an image, you would increase your F-stop number to perhaps F/10. You would then re-take your image and see if it made a difference. Just right? Perfect. Too bright still? Increase the F-stop as needed until it is either too dark, or just right. If your initial correction image was too dark right off the bat, you’d want to adjust your F-stop back down a little bit. Since F/8 is the middle of F/6 and F/10, that would be the next thing to try.
Another very important key feature of the aperture is that it controls what is in focus (sharp) and what is not in focus (blurred). This is called Depth of Field. In portraits, most photographers choose to blur the background, called a shallow depth of field. When shooting wide open landscapes, such as mountains where you want to see the whole image in focus, you would use a deeper depth of field. This is also accomplished by adjusting aperture. A low F-stop number like F/2.8 will yield a very narrow focus point, thus blurring the background. This is ideal for portraits because it allows the photographer to keep a person or object in focus, yet blur the background to keep the viewer’s focus directly on the subject in the final product. A high F-stop number like F/16 will yield a very wide focus point, thus keeping the entire image in focus. This is ideal for landscape photography when you need a fully crisp image. Astrophotography (night photography), on the other hand, is a whole different ballgame in which you actually use a very wide aperture (small F-stop number) but set the focus manually using infinity focus to still maintain a crisp focus throughout the entire image. That will be another post, however, as it is a complex subject in and of itself. For now, let’s continue to focus on the effect aperture has on an image. Here’s a quick graphic to help you out, courtesy of Casey Loz Photography. I am unfortunately not handy enough in Photoshop yet to create a graphic like this….one of the things I am personally practicing! 😉
#3 – ISO
Next up is ISO. Ultimately, it stands for International Organization for Standardization, but everyone just calls it ISO. It’s one of those elusive acronyms that we don’t really worry about the meaning behind it, but how it affects our images. ISO controls special software inside the camera which causes the imaging sensor to be more sensitive to light or less sensitive to light depending upon the chosen setting. If you need to increase your exposure without increasing your aperture, you would increase your ISO. An ISO of 1200 would produce a much brighter photo than one taken at ISO 100. A lower ISO number, such as 100, causes the sensor to be less sensitive to light, while alternatively a larger ISO number such as 3200 would cause the sensor to be much more light sensitive. The only downside to increasing ISO in today’s photography is that it introduces something called “noise”. Noise appears as fine grain in the image, and the amount increases as the ISO number increases. Some camera bodies are built to handle noise better, however most entry level DSLR cameras are not, as they have what is called a crop sensor that is much more sensitive to light and not as high quality as a professional grade full frame sensor DSLR. Don’t let that discourage you, however. You can easily create amazing photographs with a crop sensor camera, and it’s an excellent place to start. Each model of camera is different, so you’ll need to practice with it to see at what level the ISO begins to introduce noise into your images. Here’s another quick cheat sheet, courtesy of the same photographer as the depth of field cheat sheet above.
#4 – Shutter Speed
Out of all 4 of these elements of photography, Shutter Speed is probably the easiest to understand in terms of what it accomplishes. The shutter is basically just a little curtain or door, in a sense, that stays open for a certain amount of time to allow the amount of light entering in the camera through the aperture to shine on the imaging sensor. This is usually a very short amount of time. The longer the shutter is open, the more light is allowed onto the imaging sensor, and alternatively, the shorter it is open, the less light is allowed onto the sensor. In short, a shutter speed of 1/50th of a second will allow more light onto the sensor than a shutter sped of 1/2000th of a second. The longer shutter speed will result in a brighter photograph than the one taken with a faster shutter speed.
The shutter speed is also directly responsible for capturing movement within an image, essentially how much is blurred and how much is sharp. If you are trying to take a photo of a moving child, it would make sense that the longer your shutter is open, the less movement you will capture. The faster the shutter, the more movement you can capture. One important thing to note about shutter speed, in order to keep your image from being blurry if you aren’t using a tripod, you never want to allow your shutter speed to go below your effective focal length. For example, if you are shooting with a 50mm lens, you never want to go below 1/50th of a second unless you are using a tripod. In some cases, your image might be too dark unless you use a slower shutter speed. This is where you would need a tripod or to boost your ISO or adjust your aperture accordingly. Understanding all these details will eventually come with practice and time, however, so don’t stress too much now. It’s all about getting a feel for how everything works together. Eventually, it will all make sense. Finally, here is another graphic to help…again from the same source.
I’m sure you’re probably sitting there thinking, well, NOW WHAT? This is where it all comes together. All four of these elements come together to make a photograph.
Here I will give a few image examples of how each aspect of photography comes into play, and why they are all essential in creating an image.
In this first image, my settings were as follows. I used a Nikon D5100 camera body, with an 18-70mm lens. I set my ISO to 100, my aperture to F/6, and my shutter speed to 2 seconds. Why? Well, as you can see, the light from the ferris wheel is very bright. I didn’t want my sensor to be extra sensitive to the light, so I kept my ISO low, at 100. However, I wanted most of my image in focus, so I selected an aperture that was closed down enough to keep it in focus, yet still allow in a decent amount of light. Lastly, I selected a much slower shutter speed to allow in more light. Ultimately, this combination resulted in the image above. The shutter may have been open longer, but with a lower ISO setting, and a deeper depth of field, I was able to maintain enough light to properly expose my image and still keep it sharp.
Here’s a portrait example. In this image, my goal was to focus directly on the child (my son) so that the main subject was him. I wanted the background blurred to decrease any distractions and to further objectify my subject. I used my Nikon D5100 camera body, with my 50mm prime lens. This lens features a very wide max aperture which comes in very handy for portraits, as it allows a very shallow depth of field. I set my ISO to 200 to help balance out the lighting, making my sensor just a little bit more sensitive to the light being allowed in. It was an overcast day, so I needed to carefully allow more light in to compensate for the darker ambient light. My aperture was set to F/4.5, still wide enough to allow in light and give me a slightly larger focal area, but not too wide. Finally, my shutter speed was 1/250th of a second, fast enough to capture any quick kiddo movements as well as to balance out the amount of light I was allowing onto the sensor. Overall, it was just the right combination to properly expose my image.
Lastly, here’s a landscape example. This one was a bit tricky. I used my Nikon D5100 camera body with my 18-105mm lens, zoomed in to 105mm. I pulled off to the side of the road to take this shot specifically because of the lighting. It presented a bit of a challenge because I had a much brighter area, the upper right corner. I set my ISO to 200, to help the sensor respond to the light, but not so much that it would over expose my image. Next, I set my shutter speed to 1/250th of a second. I selected a faster shutter speed to let less light onto the sensor. Lastly, I set my aperture to F/16, a very narrow aperture to help achieve focus in my entire image and to limit the amount of light entering my camera. The scene was very bright as the sun was just to the upper right of my frame. I actually had to take a few shots to get it just right, and I’ll show you below, why.
Here are two of the same image (a bit different because I had moved a bit, however still the same general composition), but with incorrect exposure. The one on the left was too bright on the upper right, although the lower left part of the image was exactly the exposure I was looking for. I had started with an ISO of 200, slower shutter speed (1/125 of a second) and a wider aperture (F/14), and it “blew out” my image, which means it was overexposed. The one on the right was underexposed in the left part of the image, but the top was the exposure I was wanting. I had moved my ISO down to 100, my shutter speed up to 1/400th of a second, and aperture to f/16. Now I knew that I needed a blend of the two to get the image just right, which resulted in my using an ISO of 200, a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second, and an aperture of F/16, which resulted in the larger image above, correctly exposed.
I hope that this has helped you gain a general knowledge of how your camera chooses settings depending upon the situation. When you use an auto mode on a camera, the camera does it’s best to understand what you are wanting. If you use a sport mode, it assumes you need a faster shutter speed to capture motion, and will compensate accordingly. If you use a low light setting, it will typically boost the ISO and widen the aperture, but use a lower shutter speed to compensate. If you’re just taking regular snapshots, the camera will sense the available light and adjust accordingly. And with that, it may not always be right. Some situations just can’t be photographed well on an auto mode. I know many people who have gotten very frustrated with their camera because “it just won’t do what I want it to.” Well, shooting in manual is the solution!
This is the beauty of being able to control your camera and be it’s brain, in a way. You tell it how much light to compensate for, or how much motion to capture. You can tell it how to view a scene simply by changing a few settings. Once you understand how all four of the aspects work together…ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and exposure, you can create a much more compelling image than any auto mode ever could.
To put it simply, practice, practice, practice. Get a feel for your camera in a variety of different situations. Bright sun. Overcast skies. Sporting Events. Low light. High light. Portraits. Landscapes. All of it. The more you try, the more you will learn!
Anyhow, I hope this tutorial was helpful. Please feel free to leave a comment below with your thoughts, and I would be more than happy to answer questions if needed!