Thursday, January 3, 2008

Lesson #2 - Get Your PRIORITIES Right!

In Lesson #1 you learned how cameras work. Hopefully, you spent a little time with your camera's manual so that you know how to adjust the three important parameters that were covered: shutterspeed, aperture, and ISO. Maybe you discovered that your camera has lots of other settings that are even more confusing. You may have run across words like "shooting mode," or "program mode" or modes that include the word "priority." Trust me on this: the camera makers are trying to make it easier for you - it just might not feel like it.

Most high-end digital cameras have four creative shooting modes: PROGRAM, APERTURE, SHUTTERSPEED, and MANUAL. These are the important ones. Learn about them and you can forget about all the other modes you might have seen: sports, action, portrait, landscape, nighttime, etc...

The creative shooting modes are all about giving YOU part of the control and letting the camera's brain (software) help with the rest. Remember how shutterspeed, ISO, and aperture work together for a good exposure? Your camera has a light meter inside that feeds information to the internal computer. The computer does its job and decides whether or not there is enough light (or too much light) for a good exposure. Then it looks to see what MODE you are shooting in so it can know what settings it needs to make. The best way to understand these SHOOTING MODES is to look at examples. You'll probably learn a lot of other great stuff in these examples because they are REAL LIFE. Here goes....


Example 1
You are shooting a football game in the middle of the afternoon on a sunny day. You want to stop the action making sure that your shots are not blurry at all. You know from previous experience that a shutterspeed of 1/500th would be perfect to stop the action. You choose an ISO of 400 believing it might be "fast" enough and you set your camera on Tv (Time-value for Canon) or S (Nikon) meaning that you've chosen Shutterspeed Priority. You then set your shutterspeed to 1/500th of a second and begin shooting. As you point your camera toward the running back and half-press the shutter button to activate the meter, the camera measures the light coming in, notices that you are in Shutterspeed Mode and it looks for an aperture value that will give a good exposure for the ISO and shutterspeed that you have chosen. If it is possible to get a good aperture setting with the ISO and shutterspeed that you have chosen then the camera will proceed to make a well exposed photograph for you. That's how Shutterspeed Priority or Shutterspeed Mode works. What if the camera can't get an aperture big enough to get a good exposure? Then the best thing to do would be to increase the ISO. Raise it to 800 and you just made it TWICE as sensitive to light. Now when you meter the scene you find that the aperture setting is good and the camera will take a good photo.

Example 2
You decide to shoot a waterfall and you want the water to look soft and "dreamy." You set your ISO to 100 (slow) and put your camera in shutterspeed priority mode. Choose 1/4th of a second and strap your camera down to your tripod because you know that it will be blurry if you try to hold it in your hands with a shutterspeed that slow. You focus on the waterfall and half-press the shutter release button and let the camera meter the scene. The camera chooses an appropriate aperture and then you snap the picture. Because your shutter was open for a relatively long time (1/4th second) the water appears to be smeared across the frame - perfect. Shutterspeed priority mode lets you choose the shutterspeed for the effect you want while the camera does the rest of the work to make it perfect.


Example 3
Let's say you are shooting a portrait of an annoyed young man standing on a railroad track and you want your subject in focus but your background blurry. You know that you need a wide aperture to make that happen. With the ISO set to 100, you set the camera mode to Av (Aperture value for Canon) or A (Nikon) for Aperture Priority. You then set the f/stop on your lens to f/2.8, the widest aperture your lens can allow. You half-press the shutter button and the meter evaluates the exposure and determines what shutterspeed would be appropriate with this f/stop (aperture value) and ISO setting. If the shutterspeed the camera chooses is fast enough to justify handholding the camera, then you snap the photo and check the LCD to see what you got.

Example 4
Now it's time to shoot a portrait of someone in front of a distant mountain. You want the person in focus and the mountain in focus so you know that you will need a very small aperture. You set your ISO to 100 and your shooting mode to Av (Canon) or A (Nikon) for Aperture Priority. You then select an aperture of f/16 which makes a very small hole for the light to pass through. When you half-press the shutter button to meter the scene the camera determines the shutterspeed that will work with your small aperture and your low ISO. Uh-oh, the shutterspeed chosen is 1/30th second and you know the photo will be blurry because you didn't bring your tripod. Quickly you reset your ISO to 400 (4x faster than before) and see that the shutterspeed has now changed to 1/125th. This will work fine so you snap the photo.


Example 5
You're outside in the yard and want a photo of your prized rose bushes. You select an ISO of 100, set the camera on P for Program Mode and snap the photo. In this case the camera chose both the aperture and the shutterspeed because neither of them were particularly important to you. That was easy but it allowed you the least amount of creativity. If you wanted one of the roses in focus and all the rest to be blurry, you'd have to override the PROGRAM in order to set your own very wide aperture. In that case, you might as well take control of your aperture and use Aperture Mode.

Example 6
You're outside in the yard and want a photo of your grandmother admiring your prized rose bushes. Point and shoot. The camera takes care of everything and you get a well-exposed photo. Maybe the camera even notices that there isn't enough light for a good exposure and it pops open its built-in flash and zaps granny right between the eyes with enough light to make her look years younger. Perfect!


Example 7
Back in the old days, the meter told you when there was enough light but you had to choose the aperture and the shutterspeed. You can still do this in MANUAL Mode. You point your camera at the group of kids in the snow and decide to set the aperture wide open so that you can let a lot of light through to the sensor. You then select a shutterspeed that makes the internal meter happy. But wait, you know that the meter will be fooled by all the white snow so you bump the shutterspeed down a couple of steps to overexpose the snow and get the kids in the snow looking great.

Example 8
You plan to shoot the fireworks at the picnic so you set your camera to manual, open the aperture wide open and then start adjusting your shutterspeed until you get the fireworks to look the way you want. Somewhere along the way you realize that you've been completely ignoring the light meter and just looking at your LCD to decide whether your shots need to be adjusted or not.


Todays digital cameras offer unbelievable flexibility allowing us to be creative in ways we don't yet understand. One key to successful shooting is understanding what the different PROGRAM or SHOOTING PRIORITY MODES do.

Step 1: Choose the ISO - that tells the camera how sensitive the sensor (or film) is going to be
Step 2: Choose the shooting mode or PRIORITY MODE

PROGRAM - lets the camera choose the aperture and the shutterspeed
APERTURE - you select the aperture and the camera selects the shutterspeed
SHUTTERSPEED - you select the shutterspeed and the camera selects the aperture
MANUAL - you select BOTH the shutterspeed and the aperture

Step 3: Make the choices that need to be made based on the results you want to get (this is the creative part)
Step 4: Half-press the shutter button to see if the choices that have been made will actually work
Step 5: Adjust if necessary
Step 6: Take the photograph

Did you learn anything in this lesson? If you read the examples carefully, you should have learned that the aperture is also known as f-stops and that the larger the number the smaller the aperture. You also learned the kind of choices you would need to make if you were shooting sports, or waterfalls, or even portraits. Oh, and don't forget about grandma. If she needs flashing, the best place to get that to happen is in PROGRAM mode.

In Lesson #3 I'm going to shift gears a little and start talking about creative composition. You know enough now about how your camera works that you should be ready to start exercising those creative impulses.

Questions or comments? Post them here!

1 comment:

Bob T said...

Very good, James.

Fun to read, I can almost hear you talking when I read it.

You may have encouraged me to venture out of the "AUTO" zone.

I will have to sit down with my camera, review your lessons and experiment.

Thank you,
Bob Takach