Dave's Photo & Travelblogue

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Adjusting your Camera: Part 1 of 2

If you have a camera with various settings or manual options, chances are you could use them to take better photos. Not every shot requires fiddling with these settings, but if you understand them, you’ll be able to fine tune your shot based on your knowledge and on what you see in the camera’s LCD screen.

Here are Dave’s Simple Variables of Photography:

  • Composition — you have to make the subject of the photo interesting.
  • Shutter Speed — how long the light is allowed to hit the sensor (or film).
  • Aperture — how wide your camera’s lens opens to let in light.
  • ISO Setting — how sensitive your camera’s digital sensor (or film) is to incoming light.
  • White Balance — what does the camera interpret as “white?”  New in digital; film users need filters.

In this article, we’re going to look at the first three.  In the second article, we’ll look into the more advanced topics of ISO and White Balance.

Composition

Take a look at these two photos.  They are both bridges in Taroko Gorge, Taiwan.  Which one is more interesting?

A boring bridge pic in Taroko Gorge

An interesting perspective on a bridge in Taroko Gorge

Probably you picked the one with the cable bridge crossing the gorge.  Okay, so you’ve guessed that composition isn’t a setting on your camera.  It’s actually set by the powerful processor just behind the viewfinder: you!  Anyone can aim a digital camera at something and press the button, resulting in a snapshot.  It’s up to YOU to make that photo unique and interesting, instead of being just another snap of something that 10,000 other people have snapped that day.  Find an interesting angle, the perfect position of the clouds & sun, or an interesting foreground/background contrast to make the subject jump off the screen and into the viewer’s imagination.

Here’s another example:

A snapshot of Westminster Abbey

A snapshot of Westminster Abbey

Artistic shot of Westminster Abbey

Artistic shot of Westminster Abbey

Use your creativity.  Find the most interesting spot to take your photo, instead of shooting from wherever you happen to be when you raise the camera.  Ask yourself if a different camera angle or foreground/background nearby could improve the shot.  If you follow up on this, you’ll see results immediately!  Your friends and relatives will enjoy seeing your 20 best photographs, instead of sitting through 200 boring snapshots of your vacation.

Shutter Speed

Simply put, this is the period of time the camera’s shutter or electronics allow light to hit the sensor.  If your subject is moving, you have to use a high shutter speed to “freeze” the motion (unless you want to have a blur).  But, if you use a high shutter speed and there isn’t enough light, your photo will be very dark!  Here’s an example of freezing the action:

Frozen Frisbee, using a fast shutter speed in "Shutter Priority" mode

Frozen Frisbee, using a fast shutter speed in "Shutter Priority" mode

Shutter speed works in conjunction with aperture to get the right exposure.  One recommended setting (if your camera has it) is to use the shutter-priority setting (often an “S” on the dial).  You set the shutter speed: for example, fast for sports and slow if you want flowing water in a brook to look smooth and misty.  Then the camera picks the right aperture for your photo.  If you’ve picked an impossible combination for a good exposure, the camera will warn you with some blinking lights, or you’ll see a very dark or very bright image in the LCD after taking the photo.

Aperture

This refers to how wide the camera’s lens will be open when you take the photo.  A wide aperture (smaller number, like f/2.8) will let in a lot of light.  A narrow aperture (higher number, like f/16) will let in much less light.  So, for night shots your camera will auto-select a wide aperture to get the shortest possible shutter speed (so you won’t get so much blur from camera shake).  In full sun, the camera will auto-select a narrow aperture (because there’s just too much light for a wide aperture without causing overexposure).

Now, why would you ever want to select the aperture yourself?  The answer lies in physics.  With a wide aperture, the light rays are not so well aligned, so you have a short depth of field. This means only a small range of the photo is in focus; for example, the subject will be in focus but the background will be blurred.  Like this:

Flower, f/5.6: nice background blur

Flower, f/5.6: nice background blur

With a narrow aperture, the light rays are much more aligned, and your depth of field is much longer.  You have a wider range of focus.

There is an aperture-priority setting on many cameras (often an “A” on the dial) where you choose aperture and the camera chooses shutter speed for a proper exposure.  Use this if you want to control the depth of field.  Here is a series of shots to give an example of how to use this.  Just read the captions:

Focus on ball, f/5.3 - just a picture of the ball on the table.

Focus on ball, f/5.3 - just a picture of the ball on the table.

Focus on ball, f/20 - now we realize there is a gap in front of the goal!

Focus on ball, f/20 - now we realize there is a gap in front of the goal!

Focus on goal, f/20 - Now with the focus on the goal, you see the opening clearly...

Focus on goal, f/20 - Now with the focus on the goal, you see the opening clearly...

Focus on goal, f/5.3 - blurring the ball really draws the eyes to the impending GOOOOOAL!

Focus on goal, f/5.3 - blurring the ball really draws the eyes to the impending GOOOOOAL!

There are many more tricks one can do by varying the combination of shutter speed and aperture.  But try out the basic techniques described here to start with, and see your photos improve.

Summary, Part 1

Some cameras have more or less adjustments than these.  For example, my Casio Exilim pocket camera doesn’t have the ability to adjust aperture at all, although the shutter speed can be adjusted.  My Nikon D90 can adjust all these settings and dozens more (which the average user would never need).  Experiment with what you can, and enjoy your camera until you find you really miss the more advanced features!  Then, upgrade… mu-hahaha.

Part 2 of this article is available here.  You can subscribe via RSS or Email via the orange buttons on the left sidebar if you want to be notified about future photography articles & photo travelogue posts.

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Posted in Photography 7 years, 7 months ago at 5:44 pm.

2 comments

2 Replies

  1. Neat tutorial. Especially with the kicker photo set. Got some tips on low light settings?

  2. Hi Hezamarie, thanks! Low light settings, there will be more in the second part in a few days. Use a slower shutter speed, but not so slow that your hand movement (or moving subject) blurs the photos. Also use a higher ISO sensitivity setting; but be careful not to go TOO high or your images will look grainy (especially in dark areas). Pocket cams’ flashes are often too strong, from what I’ve found. I always turn the flash down a few steps if possible. Unfortunately on my Canon SD1000 you have to do that every time you power the camera back on :-/

    There’s a great hack for Canon pocket cams called CHDK if you are a geek like me: http://chdk.wikia.com/wiki/CHDK