Sunday, January 18, 2009

Camera Technique: Choosing Your Settings

I often get feedback from new photographers that they don't know how to set their camera for a particular situation. Armed with just a camera and no lights or modifiers, you have basically these factors to choose from:

The focal length of lens to use
The f-stop of the lens
The shutter speed of the camera
The ISO sensitivity of the sensor
The position and stability of the camera
The white balance setting of the camera
The focusing distance, or focus point(s) of the lens
All point-and-shoots and most SLRs have shooting modes that attempt to preset the camera to optimize some of these settings to a particular subject type or situation. While these work most of the time, you will want to have more control over your image capture as you grow as a photographer. The key is to determine which of these three factors is the "primary" quality you want to capture:

  • Image Quality
  • Depth of Focus
  • Time of Exposure

In all but a few settings, you will have to trade off one or two of these in order to optimize your primary factor. Let's describe some situations and discuss what the best settings might be.

Situation 1 - Dark Auditorium, Dance Performance

Primary concern: Stopping the motion of the dancer, to reduce motion blur. To achieve this, I would set my camera at the smallest f-stop (widest opening) and highest sensitivity required to allow me to shoot at 1/100 second. Since I shoot with f/2.8 lenses, I can often do this at ISO640-1000. So I would set my camera at shutter priority, 1/100, set exposure at f/2.8 and vary my ISO until I got a good exposure. Then I would switch to Manual and preserve those settings.

Situation 2 - Outdoor Soccer Game, High Noon

Primary Concern: Stopping the motion of the players. There's enough light to use a low ISO to get low noise, and you have the option of a wide f-stop to narrow the depth of focus to give you a nice blurry background. But you may actually have too much light, meaning that if you set ISO100 and 1/100 second, you overexpose at f/2.8 or f/4.0. So you may actually have to choose a higher shutter speed to let you keep that low f-stop.

Situation 3 - Inside a dim church, no flash allowed, wedding ceremony

Primary concern: Good quality exposure. These people aren't moving very fast, unless the groom is running for the exit! So you can afford to set a lower ISO, open up the f-stop and shoot at maybe 1/25 to 1/60. At this speed, you will have to stabilize your camera or your hand movement may blur the image.

Situation 4 - Macro shot of flowers

Primary concern - controlling depth of focus. Unless it's windy, you have little risk of subject movement. I assume you are shooting for quality, so low ISO is a given. So choose your f-stop in aperture priority mode after first setting your ISO at 100 or so, the let the camera tell you the recommended speed. Switch to manual, copy those settings, and adjust as you need.

Situation 5 - Sunset at the beach, backlit silhouettes

Primary concern - properly exposing the sky for color. Often your camera will see the subjects in the center and it will try to expose for them, blowing the sunset way out. The trick here is to go to aperture priority and expose for the sky, take a test shot and note the exposure. Switch to Manual and recompose and shoot the subject and they will be properly dark compared to the sky.


Notice I didn't talk lenses or white balance here. You'll have to choose the right lens for impact, and you should always test for white balance. I'll post a quick tutorial on this later. Also, I didn't talk about exposure compensation, which can be used to fine tune exposure settings when not in manual mode. We'll also talk more about that later.

So, the next time you go to shoot, ask yourself this question before you press the shutter:

What factor is most important in this image - Quality, Focus Depth or Shutter Speed? What camera settings will maximize this factor?

Once you start think about these things BEFORE you raise the camera to your eye, you will start to control that machine and your images will improve!

And remember... check your barrel! This means whenever anything changes in your environment - lighting level, angle, setting, distance, indoors to out, you name it - check your settings so you don't blow the next shot!

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