Why there are no ideal camera settings
Providing your image is correctly exposed there is no such thing as ‘the right’ settings or even a ‘correct’ way to take a photograph. Everything depends on your environment, your subject and how you choose to use composition, aperture, shutter speed and ISO. That is why photography is so much fun.
It’s true that, in most cases, if you put your camera on automatic you only need worry about composition. By removing a lot of the thinking you’re also removing creativity from the process. With this you lose the opportunity to express your artistic vision and your individualism too. Every image still tells a story, but with your settings on auto it’s your camera defaults telling the story rather than you.
You don’t need a photographer’s technical vocabulary to learn how to do this. All you need to know is that you can get it right by balancing just three things; aperture (which controls the amount of light on the sensor), shutter speed (which controls the amount of time light falls on the sensor) and ISO (which controls the light sensitivity of the sensor). Practice and you’ll get the hang of the thinking quite easily. For most of my students it takes half a day.
Aperture is the size of the hole that lets light into the camera. It is measured in f-stops where the largest aperture has the smallest number. The bigger the aperture (and the smaller the number) the more light the open shutter will let in. There are no hard and fast rules, but landscape photographers tend to prefer tiny apertures (big f numbers) and portrait artists tend to prefer larger apertures (small f numbers). I’ll tell you about both in other posts.
Shutter speed is the amount of time that the shutter is open. The more time you leave the shutter open, the more light will hit the sensor. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second. ½ a second is longer than 1/40th of a second, 1/40th of a second is longer than 1/120th of a second and so on. There are no hard and fast rules, but if you want to freeze the motion of walking people try 1/125th of a second and for running people around 1/250th of a second. I wrote this some time ago and will post more about shutter speed and fractions later.
ISO is a measurement of the light sensitivity of the sensor or film. Unless you want a grainy effect, a small ISO is good for a bright day and a large ISO is good for a dark room or night club. Different cameras behave differently at different ISOs so there are no hard and fast rules, but you might shoot a bright snowy day at an ISO of 100, a jazz dive between 1600 and 2000 and tango dancing by candlelight at around 3200. I’ve written more about ISO here and – you’ve guessed it – I’ll write more in another post.
Making Artistic Decisions
Learn how to manage your aperture and you can direct the attention of the viewer where you want it, and be more ‘arty’ with depth of focus too. Learn to use the shutter speed and you can decide whether to freeze motion in an instant or show something is moving quickly through motion blur. Learning how to change your ISO will help you get the images you want and very much more.
Change Your Settings Through The Lens
More expensive cameras will let you change all these settings through your camera’s lens which will save valuable time when you want to capture what you see in an instant. Most cameras let you change aperture and shutter speed through the lens, but even if you have to use the camera screen you should find a scale or exposure reading with 0 in the middle. This represents the camera’s ideal exposure and different ends of the scale mean the exposure (and therefore the picture) will be too dark or too bright. Again – you’ve guessed it – I’ll write more about exposure in another post.
It’s Not An Absolute Zero
The zero on your camera’s scale represents your camera’s view of what might be optimal exposure and you shouldn’t take it as a precise instruction. Later on you’ll learn how to change the zero, but when starting out I wouldn’t bother. Just remember that you should decide how you want your photo to look. Aim for around the 0 and play with the settings until you get the shot – and the exposure – that you see in your mind’s eye.
Don’t settle for less.
Every Wednesday I post something that will help my students. Each blog post is the synthesis of my experience as a pro-phtoographer and years of teaching photography to adults, children and teenagers. To attend a group course find me at City Academy or for flexible one-to-one tuition and portfolio building contact me directly.
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