It would be nice if we could just pick up a camera and take amazing photographs, but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. FORTUNATELY, with some very simple and easy tips you can take your photography skills to a whole new level! So grab your camera and keep reading….
A couple of years ago Jill, Britta and I had the opportunity to go on a fantastic photography retreat called The Click Retreat. During the retreat we went to a class taught by professional photographer Me Ra Koh. She is an incredible photographer and teacher and helped us all to understand our cameras a whole lot better. She actually got all of us shooting in full manual mode on our DSLRs! Since that retreat I have come to love photography so much! It has definitely become the favorite part of my job. I have continued to develop my skills since taking that class and today I’m going to share a few things I’ve picked up along the way.
When I first got a DSLR I had no clue what I was doing. My pictures did look a tad bit better than they had on my old point and shoot but it wasn’t until I started shooting in manual that I saw a drastic change. Shooting in manual can seem extremely intimidating at first but you really just need to know a few basics to make a big difference in your photos.
Today I’m going to talk about the bare minimum you need to know to shoot in manual on a DSLR. When first shooting in manual there are three setting you’ll need to know – ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. I won’t go into how to actually set these things on specific cameras since every camera is different. So just head to your manual for that information.
Let’s jump right in!
What is ISO?
ISO Sensitivity determines how sensitive your camera is to light.
How is ISO measured?
On most entry level DSLR cameras you have an ISO range of 100-1600.
How do you decided what ISO setting to use?
You choose your ISO setting based on how much light you’re working with. If I were shooting a landscape during the brightest part of the day I would probably set my ISO at 100. Generally, when I shoot pictures for the blog I’m indoors in the afternoon and I set my ISO between 250-500. When the sun starts to set, I usually bump my ISO up to 800-1000.
One thing to remember – the higher you set your ISO the more noise your picture will have. Noise basically means that your picture will have a grainy look to it. In the above photos, the picture on the right was shot on the stove without much light so I turned my ISO up to 1600. But if you look closely at the bottom of the picture, it appears very grainy. So I moved the pan over to the counter with more light and turned my ISO down to 600 to get rid of the noise.
What is aperture?
Aperture determines how wide your lens opens to allow in light.
How is aperture measured?
Aperature is measured in F-stop. For example, starter DSLR cameras usually come with a 18-55mm lens with an F-stop of 3.5-5.6. Here’s where things get a little confusing, the smaller the F-stop number the larger the opening is on your lens and the larger the F-stop number the smaller the opening is on your lens. Small F-stop numbers let in more light whereas larger F-stop numbers let in less light.
How do you decide what aperture setting to use?
A couple of things will determine what aperture setting you use. For the type of photography I do for the blog, the thing that usually determines my aperture setting is how much of the scene I want in focus. This is called the depth of field.
You know those great, blurry backgrounds that most bloggers have on their photos? That represents a shallow depth of field and is created by using a small F-stop number. To get great blurry backgrounds you’ll generally need to use an F-stop of 1.4 – 2.5. For the most part, you are not going to get those blurry backgrounds with an F-stop of 3.5 – the lowest number available on most kit lenses. If that’s important to you, I highly recommend getting what many people refer to as the “Nifty Fifty” lens. Both Canon and Nikon make a very affordable 50mm f/1.8 lens. That’s the lens I use for 99% of our blog photos. It’s a higher quality lens than the one that comes with your camera, but because it’s a fixed focal length it’s only about $100.
Click here for the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S NIKKOR FX Lens – This one is more expensive than the D AF lens because the motor is in the lens rather than in the camera. Make sure you buy the correct lens for your camera!
I usually keep my camera set on f/1.8 for blog photos. The one exception I make for blog photos, is when I have multiple products in a photo that I want in focus. An F-stop of 1.8 only allows a small portion of a scene to be in focus. If I’m taking a picture of the ingredients in a recipe I’ll usually raise my F-stop a bit so that all of the ingredients are in focus.
In this picture my camera was set to f/1.8. The only part of the photo that’s really in focus is the ranch dressing packet. The teaspoon of garlic right below the pack is totally out of focus.
In this picture my camera was set to f/5.4 and every part of the photo was in focus.
This principle also applies if you’re taking landscape photos or photos of multiple people at a time. You’ll want to raise your F-stop so that you have a deep depth of field. How high you go will be determined by the scene you are shooting, so you may need to play around with the numbers a bit. The closer you are to the objects you are photographing the higher you’ll want to go on your F-stop. The above pictures are a great example of this. These were taken in Yosemite National Park at a lookout point in front of Half Dome. The person taking the photo of my family was pretty close to us. We wanted all of us to be in focus as well as Half Dome in the background so we needed a high F-stop. For the second picture, I just needed Half Dome to be in focus and since I was pretty far away I could use a lower F-stop.
The other thing that determines what F-stop to use is how much light you have. You’ll also want to use a small F-stop number for low-light situations. I had the neat opportunity to take birth photos for two of my best friends. The light in a hospital room is generally really low so I kept my F-stop at 1.8 for all the birth photos.
When it comes to high light situations, you don’t necessarily need to use a high F-stop. Even in the middle of the day I set my camera at f/1.8 to get blurry backgrounds on my photos. I then compensate for the extra light with my shutter speed setting, which I will discuss in the next section.
What is shutter speed?
Shutter speed determines how long your shutter stays open when taking a picture.
How is shutter speed measured?
Shutter speed is measured in seconds or fractions of a second. On my camera, if I have my shutter speed set at 100 that’s actually 1/100 meaning my shutter will stay open for 1, 100th of a second. If my shutter speed is set at 1″ that means my shutter will stay open for 1 second. The quote mark denotes that the number is not a fraction of a second but actually a whole second.
How do you determine what shutter speed setting to use?
Just like with aperture, there are a couple of things that will determine what shutter speed you use. Generally, the first thing I want to take into account is how much light I have. For low light situations you’ll want your shutter to stay open longer and for high light situations you’ll want your shutter to stay open a shorter amount of time.
If movement in your photos is more important to you than light, you’ll let that guide what setting you use. If you want to freeze movement in a photo, you’ll want your shutter to stay open for a short amount of time. If you want to blur movement you’ll want your shutter to say open a longer amount of time.
This photo of my Boxer, Milo, as a puppy is a perfect example of freezing motion. To take this photo my husband, Erik, laid down in the grass and I got Milo to run towards him. To catch his floppy ears up in the air the shutter speed was incredibly fast at 1/4,000.
This 4th of July sparkler picture is an example of blurred motion. For this photo I used a tripod and set the shutter to stay open for 3 whole seconds.
Here is an example where my settings were actually not what they should have been. I was trying to freeze the motion of the cheerleaders in this photo. I did catch them in the air but my shutter speed wasn’t fast enough to freeze the motion of their feet and arms. My shutter speed was set at 1/60 when I should have had it set much faster.
When shooting at a shutter speed of about 1/60 or longer you’ll want to use a tripod. The longer the shutter stays open, the more any camera movement will blur a photo.This photo of my family on the Huntington Beach Pier is a great example of what happens when you don’t use a tripod in a low light situation. This photo was taken in the evening when there wasn’t a lot of light. I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time and turned the shutter speed down really slow to let in more light. It was set at 1/10. Unless you have some superhuman ability to keep your arms completely still while taking a photo, you are going to get a blurry photo at a shutter speed that slow.
That was a lot of information so let’s summarize it a bit!
Set your ISO.
Ask, how much light do I have?
Set your aperture.
Ask, do I want a blurry background or do I want the whole photo in focus?
If neither of those things are important to you ask, how much light do I have?
Set your shutter speed.
Ask, do I want to freeze motion or have blurry motion?
If neither of those things are important to you ask, how much light do I have?
And here is a little settings cheat sheet!
Low Light: High ISO
High Light: Low ISO
Low Light: Low F-stop
High Light: Whatever F-stop you would like.
Blurry Background: Low F-stop
Background in Focus: High F-stop
Low Light: Slow Shutter Speed
High Light: Fast Shutter Speed
Freeze Motion: Fast Shutter Speed
Blur Motion: Slow Shutter Speed
Finally, here are some of my favorite photography resources: