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What are all these dials for on my camera?
June 17, 2010 - Michael Palmer
As a photographer who attends sporting events where amatuer photographers and parents are taking photos, the most common question is how to stop blurring of the action photos.
The answer is sometimes simple; Buy a better camera.
Seriously though, many times it is as simple as turning the dial on top of the camera.
What exactly do all of those dials do?
I teach a class on this very subject at the Puskarich Public Library in Cadiz and Summer classes are signing up now.
First of all you need to understand the Exposure Triangle and then we can tackle the camera setings. These are the three elements of a photograph that must be in balance to have a properly exposed photograph.
Learning about Exposure – The Exposure Triangle
If you’re wanting to venture out of the Auto mode on your digital camera and experiment with it’s other manual settings; the three main elements that need to be considered when playing around with exposure by calling them ‘the exposure triangle’.
Each of the three aspects of the triangle relate to light and how it enters and interacts with the camera.
The three elements are:
1. ISO – the measure of a digital camera sensor’s sensitivity to light
2. Aperture – the size of the opening in the lens when a picture is taken
3. Shutter Speed – the amount of time that the shutter is open.
It is at the intersection of these three elements that an image’s exposure is worked out.
Most importantly – a change in one of the elements will impact the others. This means that you can never really isolate just one of the elements alone but always need to have the others in the back of your mind.
The Window Metaphor:
Imagine your camera is like a window with shutters that open and close.
Aperture is the size of the window. If it’s bigger more light gets through and the room is brighter.
Shutter Speed is the amount of time that the shutters of the window are open. The longer you leave them open the more that comes in.
Now imagine that you’re inside the room and are wearing sunglasses (hopefully this isn’t too much of a stretch). Your eyes become desensitized to the light that comes in (it’s like a low ISO).
There are a number of ways of increasing the amount of light in the room (or at least how much it seems that there is. You could increase the time that the shutters are open (decrease shutter speed), you could increase the size of the window (increase aperture) or you could take off your sunglasses (make the ISO larger).
Bringing It All Together
Mastering the art of exposure is something that takes a lot of practice. In many ways it’s a juggling act and even the most experienced photographers experiment and tweak their settings as they go. Keep in mind that changing each element not only impacts the exposure of the image but each one also has an impact upon other aspects of it
The great thing about digital cameras is that they are the ideal testing bed for learning about exposure. You can take as many shots as you like at no cost and they not only allow you to shoot in Auto mode and Manual mode – but also generally have semi-automatic modes like aperture priority and shutter priority modes which allow you to make decisions about one or two elements of the triangle and let the camera handle the other elements.
What is ISO?
In traditional (film) photography ISO (or ASA) was the indication of how sensitive a film was to light. It was measured in numbers (you’ve probably seen them on films – 100, 200, 400, 800 etc). The lower the number the lower the sensitivity of the film and the finer the grain in the shots you’re taking.
In Digital Photography ISO measures the sensitivity of the image sensor. The same principles apply as in film photography – the lower the number the less sensitive your camera is to light and the finer the grain. Higher ISO settings are generally used in darker situations to get faster shutter speeds (for example an indoor sports event when you want to freeze the action in lower light) – however the cost is noisier shots.
What is Aperture?
Put most simply – Aperture is ‘the size of the opening in the lens when a picture is taken.’
When you hit the shutter release button of your camera a hole opens up that allows your cameras image sensor to catch a glimpse of the scene you’re wanting to capture. The aperture that you set impacts the size of that hole. The larger the hole the more light that gets in – the smaller the hole the less light.
Aperture is measured in ‘f-stops’. You’ll often see them referred to as f/number – for example f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6,f/8,f/22 etc. Moving from one f-stop to the next doubles or halves the size of the amount of opening in your lens and the amount of light getting through. Keep in mind that a change in shutter speed from one stop to the next doubles or halves the amount of light that gets in also – this means if you increase one and decrease the other you let the same amount of light in – very handy to keep in mind.
What is Shutter Speed?
Basically – shutter speed is ‘the amount of time that the shutter is open’.
* Shutter speed is measured in seconds – or in most cases fractions of seconds. The bigger the denominator (or number after the forward slash) the faster the speed (ie 1/1000 is much faster than 1/30).
* In most cases you’ll probably be using shutter speeds of 1/60th of a second or faster. This is because anything slower than this is very difficult to use without getting camera shake. Camera shake is when your camera is moving while the shutter is open and results in blur in your photos.
* If you’re using a slow shutter speed (anything slower than 1/60) you will need to either use a tripod or some some type of image stabilization (more and more cameras are coming with this built in).
* Shutter speeds available to you on your camera will usually double (approximately) with each setting. As a result you’ll usually have the options for the following shutter speeds – 1/500, 1/250, 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/15, 1/8 etc. This ‘doubling’ is handy to keep in mind as aperture settings also double the amount of light that is let in – as a result increasing shutter speed by one stop and decreasing aperture by one stop should give you similar exposure levels (but we’ll talk more about this in a future post).
* Some cameras also give you the option for very slow shutter speeds that are not fractions of seconds but are measured in seconds (for example 1 second, 10 seconds, 30 seconds etc). These are used in very low light situations, when you’re going after special effects and/or when you’re trying to capture a lot of movement in a shot). Some cameras also give you the option to shoot in ‘B’ (or ‘Bulb’) mode. Bulb mode lets you keep the shutter open for as long as you hold it down.
* When considering what shutter speed to use in an image you should always ask yourself whether anything in your scene is moving and how you’d like to capture that movement. If there is movement in your scene you have the choice of either freezing the movement (so it looks still) or letting the moving object intentionally blur (giving it a sense of movement).
* To freeze movement in an image (like in the surfing shot above) you’ll want to choose a faster shutter speed and to let the movement blur you’ll want to choose a slower shutter speed. The actual speeds you should choose will vary depending upon the speed of the subject in your shot and how much you want it to be blurred.
* Motion is not always bad – There are times when motion is good. For example when you’re taking a photo of a waterfall and want to show how fast the water is flowing, or when you’re taking a shot of a racing car and want to give it a feeling of speed. In all of these instances choosing a longer shutter speed will be the way to go.
Depth of Field and Aperture
There are a number of results of changing the aperture of your shots that you’ll want to keep in mind as you consider your setting but the most noticeable one will be the depth of field that your shot will have.
Depth of Field (DOF) is that amount of your shot that will be in focus. Large depth of field means that most of your image will be in focus whether it’s close to your camera or far away (like the picture to the left where both the foreground and background are largely in focus – taken with an aperture of f/22).
Small (or shallow) depth of field means that only part of the image will be in focus and the rest will be fuzzy.
Aperture has a big impact upon depth of field. Large aperture (remember it’s a smaller number) will decrease depth of field while small aperture (larger numbers) will give you larger depth of field.
It can be a little confusing at first but the way I remember it is that small numbers mean small DOF and large numbers mean large DOF.
For example in most landscape photography you’ll see small aperture settings (large numbers) selected by photographers. This ensures that from the foreground to the horizon is relatively in focus.
On the other hand in portrait photography it can be very handy to have your subject perfectly in focus but to have a nice blurry background in order to ensure that your subject is the main focal point and that other elements in the shot are not distracting. In this case you’d choose a large aperture (small number) to ensure a shallow depth of field.
Remember that thinking about Shutter Speed in isolation from the other two elements of the Exposure Triangle (aperture and ISO) is not really a good idea. As you change shutter speed you’ll need to change one or both of the other elements to compensate for it.
For example if you speed up your shutter speed one stop (for example from 1/125th to 1/250th) you’re effectively letting half as much light into your camera. To compensate for this you’ll probably need to increase your aperture one stop (for example from f16 to f11). The other alternative would be to choose a faster ISO rating (you might want to move from ISO 100 to ISO 400 for example).
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