How To Take Better Photos – The 3 Key Settings
We all know that photography involves a lot more than just pressing a button. What settings should be most important to us when preparing to take a photo? How do we know which settings will give us the look we want?
Photography settings ultimately come down to 3 main components: ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed. Now I am sure most of you have heard of these terms but do you know exactly how these settings can alter your image? More importantly, what changes are being made inside our cameras? That’s exactly what we are going to be talking about today.
In simple terms: ISO is the setting that controls the camera sensors sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive your sensor becomes to light; bringing up the overall brightness of your image.
Sounds pretty great right? Well, it is! except there are a few things to always keep in mind when using ISO.
Fun fact: ISO stands for International Standards Organization. That has nothing to do with improving your photos but I still find it funny that the acronym has nothing to do with cameras…
Pros and Cons of changing your ISO:
Now I have already mentioned the immediate pro of bumping your ISO; brightening your image by making your sensor more susceptible to light. This is really useful when your image is still a bit too dark but you don’t want to adjust your aperture or shutter. Most mid-level cameras perform quite well up to ISO 1200. After that something starts to become noticeable…
As you bring up the ISO, your image will become more and more grainy. This brings us into the Cons of changing your ISO. The higher you set your ISO, the sensor becomes more sensitive but also adds grain and contrast to your image. Below is an example of ISO 100 vs ISO 40,000 on my Canon 6D Mkii:
The above example are the two most extreme ends of ISO, remember the grain gradually increases throughout your cameras ISO range. As you notice there is a lot more grain and there is a bit of a red/magenta hue at the max ISO. The colour shift is caused by the added contrast of shooting at a high ISO.
Now when you are setting up your next shot, remember this example and how ISO is a little more than just brightening up your exposure. Once you know the pro’s and con’s of any setting, you can make a more informed call of what will work best!
Bonus Tip: All cameras have a native ISO. A Native ISO is a cameras best performing ISO level. This level will vary between models and brands. A Native ISO will be the most ideal ISO level for your camera to shoot at and can often be used as your go-to starting point for any image! A simple google search will be able to give you the native ISO for whatever camera you shoot with.
Moving out of the body of our cameras and into the lens, lets talk about aperture! I’m sure thats a word many of you know, but; do you fully understand how it can alter your images?
Aperture is defined in STOPS, these stops are also referred to as F-STOPS or T-STOPS. A stop is a measurement of light; the more stops you have, the less light can pass through your lens.
The lens you are likely using right now uses F-STOPS. The typical range for more lenses goes from F2.8 – F22. Since we now know that more stops equals less light, we know F22 would make our image far darker than F2.8. How exactly does all that work?
The aperture is a physical component in your lens that will open or close up depending on the setting. It is made up of several “leaves” that slide together to seamlessly create an adjustable circular opening within your lens. Imagine the aperture as the gate light must pass through before it hits the sensor. Below is an example of what an aperture looks like through varying F-stops(note the changing levels of background blur between stops):
Now in the above examples I continuously adjusted my shutter speed to ensure an even exposure throughout all of these example images. If I didn’t change this, the images would become increasingly dark as we went towards F16.
Not only does aperture effect how much light is allowed into your cameras sensor, it also effects how much is in focus at one time. The lower your F-stop, the less will be in focus, adjusting the otherwise known Depth Of Field through the varying stops. Notice in the above images how the level of blur in the backgrounds dramatically change between f/2.8 and f/16. See below for a direct example:
Depth of field is how much of an area can be in focus at one time. Less of an area can be in focus at F2.8, causing a extremely blurred background. This focus area becomes larger and larger as you move through the aperture range.
If you are still unsure about aperture or depth of field, there is a really great tutorial I found online by Dylan Bennett. He explains how the light is manipulated within the lens and how exactly the depth of field changes. You can find that video here.
The aperture is a key setting to really control the type of style you want your shot to have. Shooting F/8 or lower, will often give the light in your images a softer look and make your subject tack sharp; all while ensuring they still standing out from the background!
Shooting around F/11 and higher is often the aperture used when shooting landscapes or a wide open scene. In the cases of landscapes, we want to see everything; we don’t typically want our landscapes to have a shallow depth of field. By shooting F/11 or higher we have the ability to keep a lot more in focus and retain all the details and sharpness. Similar to how our eyes see the world when we look out across an open area.
3. Shutter Speed
Simply put, the shutter is the thing that makes the CLICK sound when you take a photo on your DSLR. Unless you use some sort of mirrorless camera…you will hear that sound.
That click is the sound of the shutter opening and closing. The shutter speed is a setting that allows us to control how fast that opening and closing takes place. All shutter speeds are in relation to seconds; if you look at your camera and see an obscure number like 1/60 or 1/1250, that’s telling you your shutter will open and close in 1 60th of a second or 1 1250th of a second. Pretty fast right?
Shutter speed has the power to capture a split second or drag out time for several minutes. It has an extremely drastic effect on your photos. Here are some things to consider when picking a good shutter speed:
How fast will your subject be moving? For example, you would need a faster shutter speed to capture someone running versus just standing still. If your shutter speed is too slow, it would cause any moving parts(ex: arms/legs swinging) to have some motion blur.
Do you want areas of your image to have motion blur? Although I may have just said motion blur was bad in the previous point, motion blur can be used as a great way to add a bit of artistic flare to your images. By slowing down your shutter you can blur things like moving water or clouds to create a dreamy look in camera.
Are you shooting on a tripod or handheld? Once you understand what kind of look you are wanting for your image, that will determine if you can shoot handheld or not. A good rule of thumb is to never shoot anything slower than a 1/80 shutter if you are shooting handheld. Believe it or not, your body is nearly always moving – including when you are trying to stay still for a photo. If you are shooting slower than 1/80 I would strongly recommend a tripod so you can reap the artistic rewards of a long exposure, without making your entire image blurry from your body movement.
If you are unsure about tripods, I seriously urge you to get one and begin experimenting with different shots. They will open up a whole new world in your photography! I have a few great tripods suggested in a previous post you can find HERE.
Below are a series of images I took, simply dropping a rock through the frame. Notice how much of a difference the varying shutter speeds make in terms of capturing the falling rock as sharply as possible.
Always remembering that a 1/80 shutter is just good enough for handheld, you can begin to get an idea for what shutter speed to use in any scenario. If you are shooting a fast moving subject, 1/800 is a good starting ground; you may need to bump it up depending on how fast the action is happening. If you are wanting to create a long exposure effect, anything from a 1/2 second and slower should do just the trick.
If you are wanting to learn a bit more about how to create in camera motion blur, I have a great tutorial teaching you how, that you can find HERE.
Having a basic understanding of each of these key settings will help you to make more informed decisions out in the field. It’s important to remember that all of these settings are directly related and they all effect your exposure. Imagine it like a bit of a dance.
For example, say I want to shoot a fast moving subject. That means, I will make my shutter speed most important. I’ll set my shutter to something like 1/1250 and begin to open up my aperture a bit, then boost the ISO to dial in my exposure. I typically choose either a shutter speed or an aperture that I want to use, then I will adjust the other settings accordingly.
As cliche as this will sound, the best way to really grasp all this is to actually go out and shoot. I remember it took me a while to really understand all these settings when I first started, so don’t feel discouraged! As you begin to notice the changes each setting can make, you will remember what type of settings work for different situations. Before you know it you’ll be able to nail your photos first try.
If you have any questions about what I discussed in these posts, please feel free to ask in the comments below!
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