This is part two of my series on understanding your camera’s exposure settings. Part one is about ISO.
Hopefully, you have a good grasp of ISO by now and you are almost ready to start getting your fancy camera out of “Auto” mode. I mentioned in the first part of this three-part series of articles, that getting out of auto mode allows you to be more creative with your camera and that this begins with understanding three primary settings.
I had mentioned that ISO was the easiest concept of the three exposure control settings to understand, but shutter speed is very easy, too.
Here is something obvious: A photograph is made by capturing light.
Your camera controls the amount of light that is captured.
Imagine you are wandering along with your camera. Light is all around you. It is bouncing off everything, and some goes into the lens of your camera. The lens takes that light and focuses it into a tiny spot.
Because the shutter on your camera is closed, the light doesn’t make it (far) into your camera. To allow the light to get into the camera, you have to press the “shutter release button”. The big one that takes a photo!
The shutter release button causes the shutter to open then close, allowing a certain amount of light to pass into the camera body. The light is then detected by the sensor, and your camera builds a photograph. You can change how long the shutter stays open for, and this will control the amount of light entering the camera, and therefore the exposure of the photograph.
Think of this example. Even if you understand now, this exercise will help with part three when we talk about aperture.
- Imagine you have a piece of pipework that carries water.
- The pipe has two controls. We are only going to worry about one of them.
- The control we care about is the on/off button.
- When the pipework is “on”, water can flow. Otherwise, no water can pass.
- We also have a bucket.
We want to fill the bucket “perfectly”. We want it filled to the brim, but we do not want to spill any.
Therefore, there is an exact amount of time that we need to have the pipework “switched on”. If it isn’t on for long enough, the bucket is underfilled (the photo is underexposed – too dark). If it is on for too long, water spills and ruins your carpet (the photo is overexposed – too bright).
The range available to you will depend on your camera. But to give a couple of examples, I have a Samsung Galaxy S8 and my Nikon in-front of me.
Samsung Galaxy: 1/24000 – 10
If I put my camera in “pro” mode, I can change the shutter manually to “1/24000”. This is the fastest the shutter will operate and it just means one twenty-four-thousandth of a second. I can move it to the slowest speed, which is “10”, or simply, ten seconds.
Nikon DSLR: 30″ – 8000
Controls vary by camera, but if I put my camera dial into the M, S, or P modes (more on this in a future article), I am able to change my shutter speed with one of the control dials. If I turn it all the way, it will say “Bulb”. Again, more on that shortly! One click back again and 30″ is the slowest. This is thirty seconds. Much like the Samsung, but Nikon has added quote marks so that you know it is seconds (and not one thirtieth of a second). At the fast end, 8000 is simply one eight-thousandth of a second.
If you camera is in bulb mode, it simply means that the shutter will stay open for as long as you hold the button down on the camera. A common use of this feature is in astrophotography, where photos of stars in the dead of night need a long time to expose.
For any type of photography where you have the shutter open for a longer period of time, you are going to need extra equipment, some of which I have mentioned in the column opposite.
Why Use Manual Shutter Speeds?
Most of the time, your camera will select the right speed for you, but it will generally try to “freeze” action.
Sometimes, you might want to be creative. Ever see those photos of waterfalls where the water looks creamy and white? It looks that way because the shutter was manually selected to remain open longer. The water is actually blurred and looks milky.
How about shots where crowds of people are walking through a busy street and everyone is a blur? Similar technique.
Long Exposure Equipment
If your shutter will be open for more than, approximately 1/80th of a second, you will need a tripod. It is around this setting that you will no longer be able to keep the camera steady enough when holding by hand.
One of the best tripod brands is Manfrotto, and the MK290XTA3-3WUS is a good choice for most work.
The MK290XTA3-3WUS is available from Amazon Canada and Amazon UK .
You’ll also want to investigate remote shutter options and maybe an ND-Filter, but they go beyond the scope of this article.
Sometimes you might want the shutter to operate more quickly. Perhaps at a sporting event or during wildlife photography, where animals can move quite suddenly. Altering your shutter speed manually could help you here.
Remember, ISO changes the sensitivity of your camera (thus how much light will then be needed). Shutter speed changes how long the shutter is open (thus how much light is received by the camera).
They work in tandem.
If you increase the ISO (sensitivity), the shutter can operate faster because it doesn’t need to be open as long. But remember that a higher ISO can introduce more noise.
If you increase the shutter speed (more light gets in), the ISO can be lower. This reduces the noise… but if the camera or the subject in your photo moves, you’ll risk getting a blurred photograph.
It is a question of priorities and balancing the two settings.
This article is about the principles of these settings and is not intended to be an exhaustive list of all possible situations and their ideal settings.
But… while you wait for part 3 on aperture, have a think about what photograph you would like to capture. A waterfall? A sporting event? Just hop onto Google and search for what priority your settings should have for the situation you are interested in. As you practice and actually try things out, you will come to realise how it all fits together.
I hope this article was of help. I will leave you with a couple of photographs I have taken where altering the shutter speed was a primary part of the final result.
This photograph was taken early in the morning, with the sun rising up behind the silhouetted tree. It was still dark. Therefore, I left the shutter open for longer, helping to expose the photo better. As a bonus, having the shutter open for longer can sometimes lead to capturing bolder colours, like in this sky.
Did you receive a new camera for Christmas or a birthday?
Or perhaps you are one of many people who has had a camera for a while but never did figure out what “Aperture” is. Let me guess, your camera has been stuck in “Auto” mode for a while now?
Good news: It’s not too difficult to understand your camera’s exposure settings, and once you do, it will unlock some of your camera’s potential. A lot comes down to balancing three primary settings. I will write about each, starting with ISO. So read on!
The easiest exposure setting to get to grips with is ISO. It stands for International Standards Organisation, which doesn’t really help us, but if you remember film cameras, it will help you to understand ISO. Film is rated by a number such as 100, 200, usually up to around 1600, and all it means is that the higher the number, the more sensitive to light the film is. In practical terms, this means:
- 100 Film is for outdoors or places with lots of light. It is “fast” and can freeze action, like sport. But in difficult, poorly lit conditions, photos come back way too dark.
- 1600 Film is for darker conditions, like barely lit indoor locations. But in any kind of fast moving action, your photos come back blurred.
- Faster film (100, 200…) will typically be sharper and less grainy than slower film (800, 1600).
- You’d be tempted to opt for, say, 400 film…. More forgiving in dark areas than 100 film and less potential blur than 800 film.
- But this is the analogue equivalent to locking-in and restricting your creativity!
Your digital camera (maybe even the one built into your mobile phone) has the same ISO setting, but unlike a film camera where you are committed to the same film until it’s finished, you can change the ISO setting on a digital camera at any time. The setting is usually in the menu of your camera and it controls how sensitive the sensor is (instead of the film).
On my Nikon: Menu > Photo Shooting > ISO sensitivity settings > ISO sensitivity
- Makes the camera LESS sensitive to light – for when there is plenty of light
- Photo will be SHARPER (if you focus properly).
- To compensate, your shutter may have to be open for longer (article on shutter speed – coming soon)
- Makes the camera MORE sensitive to light – for if it is darker
- Photo will start to degrade. Noise will make the image less sharp.
- To compensate, your shutter may have to be open for less time (article on shutter speed – coming soon)
REMEMBER: All three settings I talk about in this blog balance together for your final image and changing one may impact the other two. See Shutter Speed (coming soon) and Aperture (coming soon).
Final Takeaways on ISO:
You want the lowest possible setting in almost every situation to eliminate as much noise as you can. You will need to learn your camera’s tolerance for dealing with a higher ISO. High end cameras will allow for a higher ISO with less noise than a mobile phone camera, which generally have a lot of noise that they try to filter out automatically (but this reduces sharpness). It’s why all those photos on Instagram taken on a mobile look great in bright conditions on a small screen, but an enlargement of an evening photo… well you don’t see too many of those, do you?
Your camera will select the correct ISO in MOST situations. In wildlife photography (with sudden movements) or darker environments, your camera will usually select a setting which is too low. If ISO is too low, your shutter has to open longer, and this leads to blurring.
I hope this helped you to understand ISO and how it relates to exposure settings. I have an article on Shutter Speed and one on Aperture is coming soon, and reading those should make it all start to fall into place.
I recently took a family trip to Ripley’s Aquarium in downtown Toronto, and hoped to get some neat photos of the creatures there. Now be prepared; An aquarium is an extremely challenging environment to take photos, but I will share some tips and tricks so that you can make the most of your shooting time.
A quick note before I start. I’m not an activist, but I am keen that we take care of our environment, respect the creatures we share it with, and generally keep it clean. I don’t want to get too bogged down in this, but I also don’t want to feel like a hypocrite. There are many concerns about the impact that aquariums have on sea creatures in particular. Only around 5% of creatures are bred in aquariums. The rest are captured. Of those captured, around 80% die before reaching their destination. If you care to read more about this, please do. Moving on…
- Get there as soon as they open: Number One Rule! There will be fewer people frustrating you and getting in the way.
- Do NOT use Flash: The built-in flash on your camera nearly always sucks, but especially when you are shooting through glass. You’ll get reflections.
- Avoid curved glass: Shoot up against flat glass to reduce distortion.
- Pick your subject: Lighter coloured, reflective creatures are easier. Shoot creatures near to the glass. The more water between you, the more blur you will get.
The following tips apply to SLR cameras (not mobile phones) and more advanced users:
- Use a tripod: In these low-light conditions, a tripod will offer stability. Bonus points if you have a remote shutter release.
- Shoot in RAW: You will have way more freedom to fix images later
- Use manual focusing: Set your focus by taking a test shot and zooming in 100% on the LCD. Repeat until correct. Then set your camera to manual focus. Auto-focus is under extreme conditions and will frequently fail. It will try to focus on the glass, on reflections, on debris in the water… Even worse, some cameras will shine a light that normally helps it to focus. This will lead to worse reflections and may disturb some creatures that like the dark, such as octopodes.
And some technical tips and settings:
- Lens: Everything is about the low-light. You want the fastest lens you own in this situation. If you have more than one lens, look at the F number(s). If the lens can zoom, it will have a range of F numbers. For example, one of mine is quite slow at 4.5-5.6 and another is 3.5-5.6. I am going to choose the lens with 3.5 on it. Balance this against the practicalities of the lens (no point bringing in a 10-foot long telephoto lens).
- Aperture (F-stop): The lower the number, the more light enters the camera. So you want this as low as you can go. Just also bear in mind that the lower the number, the less depth of field you will have (the amount of the image that is in focus) and that this effect is also exaggerated the more that you zoom.
- ISO/Shutter: You want the ISO (how sensitive the camera is) as low as you can set it. The higher it is, the more noise there will be, especially in the dark. BUT, the lower the ISO, the lower (slower) the shutter has to be. You don’t want the shutter to be much lower than “60” (60th of a second). At this point, the shutter will be open too long and pictures will be blurred. These settings are all about balance and will vary from camera to camera. A high-end camera might be good as low as ISO200-300. Older, lower-end cameras might have to be in the thousands. You’ll have to fix noise afterwards.
Last of all:
- Include People: Don’t be afraid of including people in your shot. As silhouettes, they can help give a sense of scale.
- Consider cheating: I personally do not like adding, moving or changing the actual content of my photos. I prefer to only alter levels. However, many people, many successful people, edit their photos quite extensively. You can get a great result by taking multiple images and “compositing” them. In other words, copy and pasting fish from several photos into one overall image.
Hope this helps!