Friday, March 18, 2011

Photography Lesson II - Camera Settings

I got positive feedback about the last photography lesson and I hope some of you found it helpful. Since we have gone over equipment, I will now move on to discussing how to use the settings on your camera.

If you are anything like me you took one look at the User Guide for your camera, put it aside and figured out the camera by using it. The only way I could do this however, was because I have a background in photography and know what the various settings and buttons mean. However, camera settings vary widely and sometimes I do need to refer to the User Guide. A problem that may stand in your way if you aren't familiar with cameras, is that the User Guide may not be helpful because you can't translate what the settings mean. These problems are pretty specific to Digital SLR cameras since point and shoot models generally only have Auto mode.

What I would like to do next is introduce you to the main settings on a camera. These will help you understand what your camera is doing by itself when it is in Auto mode. My camera is only in Auto mode if I hand it to someone else so they can take a picture of me. The rest of the time I keep it in Manual mode. This means that I individually adjust the settings for each photo shoot and usually multiple times during the shoot. This isn't as time consuming or daunting as it sounds, and I hope that by the end of this Photography Lesson series you will feel comfortable enough to explore Manual mode. I think you will be pleased with the results. You will certainly be getting more out of your camera. Here is an overview of the basic settings on your camera.

ISO Sensitivity - This measures the sensitivity of the image sensor. Low ISO numbers are used in good light, higher numbers are used in low light. You will also need to adjust the ISO based on the shutter speed you are using. ISO ranges vary between cameras. My D5000 has ISO numbers between below 200 and over 3200. This vast range was one of the reasons I was drawn to the D5000. I'm not going to be able to eloquently describe how/when to change ISO settings, but I can help with some of the basics by using examples. If you are taking a photo outside, say of a flower, and it is bright and sunny out, you would use a low (~200) ISO setting for two reasons: 1) it is sunny and 2) because you are not taking an action shot you can use a slower shutter speed. It is better to use a low ISO then adjust the shutter speed until you get the right light in the photo whenever possible. Why? Because high ISO numbers come with something called "noise". "Noise" is what makes photos look grainy, blurry, or out of focus. Always use the lowest ISO settings possible for a given environment. Here's a second example - say you want to capture your child's soccer game and it is e same kind of sunny day as it was in the first example. Wouldn't you use the same settings? No, because you are going to need to use a much faster shutter speed to capture the moving players without making them blurry. Te faster the shutter speed, the shorter the time the shutter is open, and therefore the less light is getting in. You may have to bump the ISO up to around 400 to compensate for the faster shutter. Here's one last example - you want to capture a photo around sunset, say a group shot at an evening party. If you are not going to use a flash, you are really going to have to bump up your ISO to the top of the range on your camera. You will also want to use a slower shutter speed to maximize the amount of light getting in. But you can only go so low in terms of shutter speed before the movement of your subjects (and your hands) causes blurring. People then accuse you of drinking while photographing and you end up saying thinks like "I'm dot nrunk! It's a poblem with the EI-EI-O and the sputter seed!" and those conversations are always uncomfortable. Particularly at children's parties at 3pm. The point is that you can't expect magic from your ISO settings. They can only take pictures in low light to a point before you need to add light or use a flash.

Shutter Speed. Get to know how to adjust your shutter speed manually, you will be happy that you did. It is pretty easy to understand the purpose of the shutter's speed. The more quickly the shutter opens and closes, the less light enters the camera. Also, if you are shooting action, a faster shutter means the picture is taken so quickly that a moving object doesn't blur. Think of shutter speed as how fast you blink your eyes. The way shutter speed is adjusted varies between cameras. If you take a look at your User Guide you can learn how to change the shutter speed, I just want to help you understand what is happening when you do. Once you do that, all you need to do is keep in mind the following - 1) faster shutter equals less light, 2) faster shutter equals less blur, and 3) in low light you will need to use a slower shutter speed. Don't be afraid to play around with your shutter. Take a photo then look at it on your camera's screen. This is the beauty of digital photography! No guessing! Take advantage of this feature. (This is a good spot to mention that I take all my photos while looking through the viewfinder of my camera rather than the screen. I feel like closing one eye, looking through the camera, and seeing only what will be in frame helps develop a photographer's eye. I will go more into this in the next post). If your photo looks too dark on the screen, adjust your settings and try again. This is truly the best way to understand your camera. Don't take a bunch of photos without checking the screen to see how they look. I promise that you will not hurt your camera by constantly playing with the settings, that is what they are there for. The camera manufacturers will not let you access a "self destruct" or "burst into flames" setting on your camera (they send memos to professionals on how to use those). If you get overwhelmed and feel like you are stuck, just relax, put the camera into Auto mode and try again later.

F Stop (also called F Number). Unlike the ISO or shutter speed, the F Stop is determined by the lens, not the camera. The lens will show the lowest F Number possible in its name (like for my Nikon Nikkor 50mm 1.8 GE, the 1.8 refers to the lowest possible F Number). Your camera will know what lens is attached to it and what that lens is capable of, and it will only let you make adjustments within those boundaries. D SLR cameras are computers after all. Now you are saying "what is an F Number? Get to the point Meghan!". The F Number is kind of like the pupils of your eyes. When it is dark your pupils get larger to absorb as much light as possible. Likewise, when it is super bright, your pupils contract so that you can see without washing everything out. The F Stop is the same. (They say your pupils dilate when you look at someone you love, I don't know if a camera gets a tiny F Number when it sees a lens it covets). A low F Number means a wide open lens for low light photography. A larger F Number means a smaller opening when it is very bright. Pretty simple, right? Again, take a look at your User Guide to find out how to change your F Stop and consider the lowest F Number on a lens when buying it. The lower the better. Also, don't forget to review your photos and adjust accordingly until you love the results!

White Balance (WB). This is one of the easiest settings to understand. One reason is because the options under the white balance menu on your camera are shown as icons rather than numbers (like a cloud, sun, light bulb, etc). These icons show which kind of light environment each option is best for. You know that sunlight is going to have a more blue/white quality, while a lightbulb under a shade will be more orange/yellow. White balance compensates for this so that you get a more uniform look. This is easy to change and easy to understand. Piece of cake! (Mmm...cake.)


Hopefully you now have a little better understanding of your camera's Manual settings. There are more settings on most D-SLR cameras, but these four are the ones you will adjust most frequently and the ones that together will have the greatest impact on your photos.

Writing this has been a bit like trying to describe how to tie your shoes without any visual instruction, but hopefully it makes sense. Making these adjustments has become a bit like typing for me, more muscle memory than conscious thought.

The next photography lesson will be about lining up a shot to get the best photos. I will include photo examples so you will have something to break up the monotony of my writing.

Now I'm going to go drink heavily so my brain can unknot from trying to write this out over the course of two days.



2 comments to blog for:

Lori said...

I have been promising myself forever that I would learn to use my Nikon Coolpix as I love taking photos. I keep reading articles and forgetting what I read. I enjoyed your simple explanations (and your humor). I'm going to experiment with my camera :)

Anonymous said...

Conscience is a mother-in-law whose visit never ends.