Most of us, as photographers, run into other photographers while out and about shooting.   If you have a DSLR in your hands these encounters always lead to that inevitable question, “what are you shooting?”  No, they don’t mean what am I pointing my camera at!  They mean, what camera am I using, what lens?  Is it a Nikon, a Canon? Is it the cheap one? Is mine better then yours? Why?  Because holding a DSLR means your serious, you want to take good pictures, otherwise you would just be holding your phone camera right?  So you are all serious and ready to take some great photos, but for some reason you have your expensive DSLR camera set to “P” mode!  Even worse some of you have it set to that green little camera symbol designated….”Full Auto”.  Seriously Folks….

Know Your Camera!

Know Your Camera

Holding an expensive Camera won’t make your pictures come out any better, knowing your camera inside and out will.  The same is true for point and shoot cameras, iPhones, and other less complex cameras.  Sometimes these are the only cameras at your disposal and the Best Camera becomes the one you have in your hands.  The Best Camera is the one available to you at this crucial moment when something great is happening and you need to capture it.

So what’s the best way to get to know your camera?  Should you sit down and go over the manual top to bottom six or seven times.  No!  Sure, a brief overview of the manual and an occasional moment to reference it is great, but the best way is to get out there and shoot, shoot, shoot!

You might take a hundred pictures, maybe even a thousand, and out of all those pictures you might come home and look at them and think to yourself, “eck, only two good ones!”  That’s OK!  Every time you are out there shooting you are improving your skills.  You are getting to know your camera and you are becoming comfortable with it.  This way when that moment comes for a great photo opportunity, you will be ready!  You won’t be fumbling around trying to remember how to adjust the aperture or the shutter speed, it will be instinct!

Know your Light

The sooner you realize that great photos are all about lighting and adjusting your camera accordingly, the sooner you will be out and about taking great photos.  Lighting is everything in photography and it can make or break a photo.  So what are the settings you can adjust on your camera to help control light?  The three basics Shutter Speed,  Aperture and ISO make up the  Exposure Triangle. It’s absolutely crucial that you understand their relationship with light and how they can affect your exposure.  The  illustration below helps to show this relationship.

Shutter Speed

How long the shutter stays open when you push the button is usually measured in fractions of a second (ie 1/1000 is much faster than 1/100).  You can set this to be really fast like 1/4000 of a second or really slow like 30 seconds.  Really fast shutter speeds are useful for freezing action like a performer jumping through the air.  However, because the shutter stays open for such a short time it doesn’t allow much light to enter the aperture and hit the cameras image sensor.

Using a slow shutter will allow more light as the aperture stays open longer but will result in motion blur as you record the image over a longer period of time.  Sometimes this is the desired effect however, and only you as the photographer can ultimately decide what you are trying to achieve.

Handheld:  If you are holding your camera in your hands then you will have camera shake unless you are super human and can hold it completely still.  The amount of camera shake will vary with the individual, technique, etc.  The result is a blurry photo if you set your shutter speed to slow.

The general rule of thumb states that you should never set the shutter speed lower than the focal length of the lens you’re shooting with.  That is to say, if you are shooting handheld with a 50mm lens, you should never set the shutter speed below 1/50.  Note however, most entry to intermediate level DSLR cameras are not full frame and have a crop factor which means you need to multiply your focal length to get the correct shutter speed.

Example:  On my Canon 60D there is a crop factor of 1.6.  When shooting with a 50mm lens I need to multiply 50 x 1.6 = 80.  Therefore, I should never shoot handheld below 1/80.  Again, this is a general rule and if your lens has Image Stabilization you will be able to go a little lower.  Also, good technique and steady hands can make a difference.  I do not have stead hands so for me, I would try to stay at or above 1/100.

Tripods: If you are using slow shutter speeds you are going to want to consider a tripod. My photography improved 20% when I started using a tripod as it gives you the ability to take photos with very slow shutter speeds. It also makes you start to think outside the box and use your creativity. You start to think differently and wonder what would happen if you did this or tried that.

Like, what would happen if you took your camera down to that old neat cobblestone street at night? You know, the one with the cool street lights glistening off the damp streets from the rain that just moved through. What if you set up a scene and captured it for 5 seconds, 8 seconds, 30 seconds?  What if you tried a really narrow Aperture and low ISO number effectively eliminating most of the ambient light and just collect the light from the scene using really long shutter speeds…a minute, two minutes, 5 minutes.  Note:  Your camera must have Bulb mode and you should have a Cable release to obtain such long exposures.  But the Question remains?… What would happen, what would that look like?

Bulb Exposure at Night: Shutter Speed: 250 Seconds, Aperture: f11, ISO: 100, Focal Length: 18mm

Shutter Speed Tags for your thinking:  Controls Light, Blur, Freeze Action.


So once the Shutter opens, how big is the Aperture in which the Light will pass through?  Aperture is expressed as F-stop, e.g. F5.6 or f/5.6. The smaller the F-stop number the larger the lens opening or aperture.  For example:  F1.8 is a very large Aperture for light to pass through while F16 is a much narrower Aperture.

However, just like Shutter Speed and it’s relationship to Blur , Aperture controls another factor when deciding the image we want to create.  We refer to this as the Depth of Field (DOF).  Depth of Field controls exactly what falls into the focal plane when creating your image.  A large Aperture (small f/number) creates a very shallow DOF while a narrow Aperture (large f/number) creates a much greater DOF.

Camera to Subject Distance affects DOF as well.  Depth of field increases with distance. The further the camera from your subject, the greater depth of field obtained. For landscapes you generally have a large depth of field while macro photographs have a very shallow depth of field because the subject is a lot closer to the lens.

With this information you can conclude that a really large aperture (small f/stops like 1.4) would be great for low light situations.  But you must remember, it also creates a very shallow depth of field especially when you are really close to your subject!  I’m talking so shallow that one eye is in focus and the other is not on the same person!  Of course, this may be what you want, it’s up to you as a photographer and artist to take control of your images and express them in the way you had intended.

Going back to our jumping performer, lets say she is part of a dimly lit Theatre performance.  We may want to use a large Aperture (small f/number) to allow more light to hit the cameras image sensor.  Most likely the performer is far away so even though we are using a large aperture (small f/number) we will be fine and get most, if not all, of the scene in focus because why?….Depth of Field Increases with Distance.  Hopefully this would allow us to keep the shutter speed a little higher therefore avoiding camera shake and motion blur while obtaining more light by using a large aperture.

If you are a numbers person or just want to see how distance, lens focal length, and aperture effect Depth of Field here is a Online Depth of Field Calculator.

Aperture Tags for your Thinking: Controls Light, Depth of Field (DOF).


Our final stop in the Exposure Triangle is ISO or ISO Speed.  In traditional film photography, ISO Speed was a measure of how sensitive the film was to light.  You remember the numbers right…100, 200, 400, etc.?  Well, you will be happy to know it’s much the same with Digital Photography.  ISO measures the sensitivity of the cameras image sensor to light.

Lower ISO numbers like 100 or 200 are a lot less sensitive to light than higher numbers like 1000.  Sounds great right?  If you need more light, you can just bump up the ISO to around 3200 and set your shutter speed fast enough to avoid motion blur and your aperture narrow enough to get the full scene in crisp clear focus.  Wait, not so fast!

Just as Shutter Speed introduces Blur and Aperture controls DOF, ISO has it’s own counterpart:  Noise or Grain.  Low ISO numbers will make you need more light by adjusting your Shutter Speed and Aperture accordingly, but will also result in cleaner looking photographs.  Higher ISO numbers allows you to take photos in low light conditions, but you will start to notice noise or grain in your photos.  The higher the ISO number the more grain!  Again, it’s up to you as the photographer to decide if noise looks good in this photo, sometimes it does!

In our example of the performer in low light conditions my thinking would end here.  I’ve already set the Shutter Speed high enough to control motion blur or camera shake, I can’t get any more light here.  I’ve set the Aperture to the lowest number my lens will allow, I can’t get any more light here.  If I still need more light I need to bump up the ISO.  I could also just set my ISO to auto leaving my shutter speed and aperture fixed to my liking and allowing the camera to adjust the ISO as the lighting changes to create a proper exposure.

ISO Tags For your Thinking:  Controls Light, Noise/Grain

Putting it all Together

So it should be obvious your camera can’t make all these decisions for you or make them accurately.  You camera does not know if your subject is moving, a still landscape,  how the scene is lit, etc.  Most Importantly, it doesn’t know your artistic vision and what you are trying to achieve.  Yes, it makes a calculated guess and for some situations it works but sometimes you need to take control.

In example above with the performer and you in the audience, your camera would most likely try to tell you that you need some flash and up pops the flash.  Guess what, the flash is not going to reach!  It’s going to fall short, throw the performer into darkness and you will end up with a shot of heads from audience members in front of you.

The sooner you take control of each and every shot the more comfortable you will become with the dreaded “Manual” Mode on your camera.  You will begin to understand the relationship between Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO and how you can utilize them to control the available light at any location.

If you are to frightened to jump straight to manual mode try Aperture Priority first and then try Shutter Priority.  In these modes you pick one setting while the Camera chooses the proper counterpart setting to obtain a proper exposure.  Note what the camera is doing while you are shooting, what is it picking and why?  So what are you waiting for, get out there and start shooting!

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