Thursday, September 3, 2009

Help! I'm a beginner!


There are three basic elements of photography that, regardless of what type of camera is used, all photographers should understand in order to produce better photographs.

Shutter Speed

These three factors are interrelated. Changing one will cause changes in the others.


ISO is how sensitive your camera is to the light. It is expressed in numbers like 50, 100, 200, and so on. The higher the number the more sensitive your camera is.

Think of yourself standing in a bright room when suddenly all the lights are extinguished at once. For the first few seconds you are unable to see anything. The room appears to be totally black. But what happens the longer you stand there? Your eyes begin to adjust. They become more sensitive to the lower level of light, and you realize you can see objects now that seemingly weren't there before.

But there is a catch to using higher ISOs. Higher ISOs let in more light, thus enabling you to take a clearer photo in a lower amount of light, but they will give the photo more "noise". Noise appears in an image as fine grains and can make the photo appear too soft. The key to choosing the right ISO is to use as little as needed. I always set my camera on the lowest ISO unless I am taking a specific photo where I find I need more light, for example, in deep shade or indoors where I don't want to use a flash.

Golden Autumn Leaves, Cherokee Lake
F4.3, 1/50, ISO 50

Golden Autumn Leaves, Cherokee Lake, Murphy, North Carolina


Think again of our example of the bright room that suddenly goes dark. What causes your eyes to adjust to the lower levels of light? Your pupils dilate, or grow larger, in size. Aperture works in this same manner. Aperture opens your lens wider to allow in more light in a shorter period of time.

Aperture is expressed in numbers called f-stops. But don't let the terminology throw you a curve ball. Each f-stop is accompanied by a digital number, commonly expressed as F2.8, F5.0, F8.0, F16, etc. Each f-stop number indicates a different size "pupil", so to speak. The smaller the number (F2.8), the larger the opening in your lens, and the more light let in at once. In reverse, the larger the number (F16) the smaller the opening, and the less light allowed through the lens. It takes longer using a small aperture for the camera to receive the same amount of light as a large aperture.

So, you ask, what's the difference? Aperture affects something called "depth of field". Again, don't let the terminology bother you. Depth of field is just that, the amount of depth in the photograph that remains in focus. The larger the aperture, the less depth of field you will have. Typically, you will want to use a larger aperture, thus having less depth of field, in photos like close-ups (also called macro photography), or portraits, where you want to isolate your subject. A smaller aperture and more depth of field is more desirable in landscape images, so that more areas in the photo are in focus.

Wild Water, Ocoee River, Tennessee
F5.7, 1/512, ISO 125

Wild Water, Ocoee River, Tennessee

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is how quick the lens closes to take the photograph. It is expressed in fractions of time: 1/2 second, 1/16 second, 1/100 second, and so on. For this example, think of a pie. Would you rather have 1/2 the pie or 1/100 of the pie? One-half is a larger slice of the pie. In this same manner, 1/2 second is longer than 1/100.

Faster shutter speeds are typically used for moving objects, like sporting events or animals. Longer shutter speeds, as we discussed last week, work great for low light images and moving water. The longer the shutter speed the more you will need a fixed support for your camera to sit on. This is because humans are never actually still. More photographs are lost by the everyday photographer when someone thought they could hold the camera still enough in too low of light.

Cullasaja Falls
F11, 1/3, ISO 125
Cullasaja Falls

How do these three factors work together?

You may not have realized it, but you have been using these all along. It's just that with any camera's "automatic" settings, the camera chooses them for you. To use a faster shutter speed in an area of lower light, you will need more ISO. With a smaller aperture, you will have a longer shutter speed.

One great way to learn the relationship between them is to set your camera on automatic and then take a series of photos in different lighting situations. Try for a fast moving object in low light and again in bright light. Afterward, compare the settings your camera chose on its own. Then return to the same object and take another series of photos. Use the original settings that the camera chose on automatic and then make some adjustments. Increase your ISO, slow your shutter speed, alter your aperture and compare your results.

If you will pay a lot of attention to your camera settings at first, you will eventually find you can make decisions on what will work best without giving it much thought. It can seem tedious in the beginning, but with constant observation of what your camera is doing, you will begin to see better results. It will take the guesswork our of your images and give you more control over the results you are trying to achieve.

Milkweed Seeds
F3.5, 1/80, ISO 50
Milkweed Seeds

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Suzanne Williams Photography
To Read More Of My Words
Florida, USA

Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography.

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