So you’ve decided to invest in a DSLR and can’t wait to start shooting. But what comes out on camera isn’t quite what you had in mind, maybe you’re wondering why your photos look too bright, too dark or out of focus.
Owning the gear can be a bit pointless if you don’t know what to do with them. Trust me when I say I knew absolutely nothing about any of the buttons, numbers or settings when I bought my DSLR but I would say 60% of the fun of owning one is learning how to use it and I purchased it with the intention of learning. Every time I learn something new and get a hang of it, it really gives me a feeling of getting that one step closer to my goals. Most of the time I’d get advice from other photographers and asked questions as we were shooting. Other times I’d get some tips online or from magazines.
This is written as if you were shooting in Manual Mode (M) on your dial and the camera I am using is Canon. Other brands may vary.
There are 3 settings on your DSLR to consider whenever you are shooting; Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO. These 3 things are dependent on your environment, lighting or whether any objects are moving or still. Changing one setting will affect whether you need to adjust the other settings.
For typical shooting such as sightseeing, first consider your Aperture (field of view) because you will have already decided on whether you want to blur out anything in the frame that isn’t the focus of the image, such as a close up of a flower or a portrait, or whether you want the whole frame to be in focus, such as a forest or landscape.
I’ve highlighted in BOLD any words referring to Aperture. The number following the “f” in the name of a lens refers to the Focal length of the lens which determines how much light is able to get through. You will notice that some lenses have 2 “f” numbers such as the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 STM. This is telling you the widest aperture you can select at 18mm is 3.5 and the widest aperture you can select at 55mm is 5.6. As you can see below the lower the “f” number, the wider the aperture, the more light is able to get through.
A WIDE aperture (f/1.4) is a favourable setting because it focuses on the subject you want to be in focus and blurs out anything else not in the same line of view such as something closer than the subject, like a rogue tree branch hanging in front of the lens, or something further away from the subject such as the background. The wider the aperture the more blurred the branch or background will be. My personal examples below are shot with the 40mm pancake lens at f/2.8 (the widest possible for this lens) The first image I focused on Tom (much to his delight I’m sure!) and the second image I focused on his reflection.
This image of Georgie was taken on the 18-55mm lens at 18mm (to fit more in the frame) at f/22 to ensure the whole image was in focus to create the mood that Georgie is exploring a vast wilderness rather than the focus just being on Georgie. I could be talking crap but art is what you perceive it to be.
Literally meaning how fast or slow you want the camera to take the photo. Once you’ve selected your Aperture you can now judge whether there are any moving objects in your frame and how fast they are moving such as objects blowing in the wind or splashing water. For a typical hand-held shot of a still object I’d probably start with a medium speed of 1/250 because my hands often shake like a chihuahua on a brisk day. The faster the speed, the sharper the image.
TIP: Please note that for action shots such as sports or children playing I would probably choose Shutter Speed first and adjust the aperture accordingly. Shutter Speed would take priority in shoots with fast-moving objects or long exposures.
Action shots – Fast Shutter Speed
From this diagram we can see that the higher the number, the faster the shutter speed. This is good for capturing sharp, in focus action shots such as the one below I shot on the 40mm at 1/1000. You may find that as you play with the shutter speed settings to find the perfect setting you may need to adjust Aperture and ISO accordingly but that’s all part of the process and the more you practice the better an idea you’ll have of what settings you need before you even get your camera out and will need to play around the settings a lot less during a shoot.
I made Jasmine run and leap at least 10 times and adjusted the Shutter Speed and the Aperture with it after each time to make sure there was minimal blur as by now I had an idea of how fast she was going to run and jump and also where to point the camera as she leapt into frame. She didn’t mind that I was experimenting and kept asking her to go again!
TIP: For action shots I like to set my camera to continuous shooting so I can simply hold down the shutter and take a burst of images instead of trying to figure out when to press the shutter at the exact second.
The faster the shutter speed, the darker the image so once you’ve decided on a speed you’ll have to look at the aperture and ISO now. Notching the Aperture up will brighten the image and would be my next move. If you don’t want to adjust the aperture because you want that particular field of view, you can notch up the ISO instead but personally I try to avoid a high ISO through fear of affecting the image quality. A mixture of slightly notching up the Aperture and ISO together would be a good compromise.
Long Exposure – Slow Shutter Speed
I want to practice this more because it’s so much fun to see how the image will turn out! Basically you select a slower shutter speed such as 1\10 the shutter will be open for longer (open shutter) and the camera takes the single shot for a tenth of a second. During this length of time the lens captures as sharp an image as it is able to of anything in the frame that is NOT moving and everything else moving will be soft and blurred. The slower the speed the softer the moving objects.
It’s important that the camera and the non-moving objects are as still as possible for the still objects to be in focus. For this I would always use a tripod and remote or self timer so that you’re not touching the camera when releasing the shutter to avoid any shaking.
For long exposures shutter speed becomes the priority so choose this first and adjust Aperture and ISO accordingly. The slower the speed, the brighter the image so we would have to use a low ISO and then judge whether the aperture would need changing or not. For a landscape you’d need to notch up the aperture but if it becomes to bright you would either have to lower the ISO if it isn’t already the lowest it can go, choose a slightly faster shutter speed, or lower the aperture.
For this shot I asked Georgie to stay as still as possible (she wasn’t sure why!) It wasn’t windy which meant that the boats were pretty still and the clouds weren’t really moving. The water was the only thing in the picture moving fast enough to soften. I only opened the shutter for a couple of seconds in the end with a high aperture to sharpen the land in the distance I tried to take a longer exposure but it ended up being too bright and then the boats would blur due to their slight movements on the rippling water so after multiple trial and errors and a confused Georgie later I achieved this shot of the water looking nice and glassy but everything else sharp and in focus.
More of my personal shots as examples of moving water below:
The last one amazed me because in real life you couldn’t see the rocks in the stream because the stream was so rapid and frothy. The long exposure really captured the bed of rocks in the stream bit by bit in the few seconds it had and then pieced it all together.
I’ve mentioned it a lot throughout the post but what is it? ISO is used to adjust the amount of light needed for a good exposure. Too much light will result in an overexposed, grainy image and too little will result in an underexposed, dark image.
Although the Aperture and the Shutter Speed settings also affect the exposure these are used for image effects whereas ISO affects the quality of the image.
I try to use the lowest ISO setting possible which is why I recommend adjusting this one last as it is literally just making your image brighter or darker. If your image is still too bright or too dark but adjusting ISO even more would affect the quality of the image I would suggest adjusting the aperture or shutter speed rather than compromise the ISO.
The only time I would drastically need to change the ISO is when shooting fast action shots indoors or long exposures outdoors. Other times slight adjustments are sufficient.
TIP: Although the lower ISO the better, don’t be afraid to crank up that ISO a tad and see what a difference it can make to a dull photo!
Here’s a diagram to summarise the 3 main settings and can be used as a guide next time you’re out shooting!