It surprises me sometimes how many people take all their photos using the auto setting of their cameras. I've even been asked by photographers taking photos as professionals what all those other letters on the control dial do.
While auto can be a nice feature, those other selections on the control dial offer a number of options that can really make your photos better. Today, I'm daring you to take your camera off auto and learn how to use the other settings on your camera.
Perhaps the most fundamental principle to understand about a camera is how to achieve proper exposure or exposure value (EV) -- which is allowing the correct amount of light to enter your camera to expose film or strike the digital image sensor -- and that is controlled by three different variables which you can control with your camera settings (yes, there is a fourth when you use flash).
The first of the three variables is the ISO setting, which controls the sensitivity of the image sensor. This factor used to be controlled by selecting a film with the sensitivity or film speed desired. But in digital cameras, it is a setting made by pushing a button or opening the shooting menu and adjusting the value. The thing to remember about ISO settings is that, as the numbers get higher, it takes less light to properly expose the image. In fact, every time you double the number, you cut in half the amount of light needed for a proper exposure. Thus, ISO 400 requires only half the light for a proper exposure as does ISO 200 and only a fourth of the light as ISO 100. The problem, though, with just shooting at the highest ISO settings available is that image quality also goes down as the ISO number goes up.
Second is the shutter speed -- the time the shutter stays open and allows light to strike the film or the image sensor. Again, as the length of exposure time is doubled, twice as much light strikes the film or image sensor. So, an exposure at 1/30th of a second lets in twice as much light as an exposure of 1/60th of a second. And having the option to increase or decrease the shutter speed is important because faster shutter speeds like 1/250th, 1/500th or 1/1000th of a second can stop action which would be blurred if photographed at 1/60th of a second or slower. And certain low-light or scenic shots are often best photographed with a tripod at slow shutter speeds to obtain greater detail.
Third is the aperture setting, which controls how widely the lens opens and how much light enters the camera through the lens. Low numbers like 1.4 and 2.8 allow much more light into the camera than the higher numbers like 8, 11
or 22. The numbers are based on the ratio between the diameter of the aperture in the lens and the focal length of the lens. And, once again, there is a doubling or halving relationship between the main aperture or f/stop numbers (1.4, 2.0, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22). An f/stop of 2.8 allows twice the light in as 4 and four times as much as 5.6. The aperture numbers also affect depth of field -- the area in which items appear to be in focus. A 2.8 lens setting will have a very shallow depth of field with items in the foreground and background becoming blurry. A setting of f/11, 16 or 22 has a much greater depth of field, allowing items in a much greater area of the foreground and background also appear to be in focus.
So, why take your camera off auto if the camera is already doing all the work for you? Well, there are many reasons. If you try to take photos of sporting events where the light is less than ideal and the subjects in your photos are moving, you'll probably find that your photos are blurry in the auto mode. Why, because the shutter speed the camera selects is too slow to capture your subjects at such a brief moment in time that the action is stopped. If a basketball player is dribbling or shooting the ball and your camera takes the photo at 1/60th or 1/30th of a second, the action is going to be blurred because the ball player moves a lot in that fraction of a second. But, set the shutter speed fast enough -- say, 1/500th of a second -- and the image captures only what was occurring during that tiny fraction of a second and the image is sharp and clear. And, if you like to photograph scenes and have everything from the foreground to the background appear in sharp focus, a smaller aperture (a higher f/stop number) and slower shutter speeds with a low ISO setting will usually achieve better results.
Of course, when you make such adjustments for more desirable results, other adjustments need to be made as well to achieve proper exposure. If you shoot a sporting event at 1/500th of a second, other adjustments will likely need to be made to allow enough light into the camera for proper exposure. ISO settings will need to go up and the aperture number down to make the sensor more sensitive to light and to allow more light into the camera in that tiny fraction of a second. You can do the math or check your light meter to make the adjustments.
Older cameras and light meters used to measure exposure value and then have a set of dials (kind of like a round slide rule) to quickly provide options for the variable settings. Modern cameras will often make those adjustments for you or let you make them while watching the readout of the camera's light meter.
If you're into more complicated math, there are a series of formulas which can be used to determine exposure value and then carry that over into possible combinations of camera settings for each ISO. I usually just determine the exposure value with a light meter or camera and then make adjustments from there, remembering the principles above.
For example, if a good exposure can be achieved at ISO 400, shooting at 5.6 and at 1/60th of a second and I wish to shoot at 1/500th to stop all the action, changing the shutter speed to 1/500th will allow only 1/8th of the light to enter my camera, which would make for a very dark and underexposed photo. I need to make up for the fast shutter speed in some way. I could double the ISO three times, taking it up to 3200; or I could double it twice, going to 1600 and open the aperture to 4. That way, I double the amount of light coming through the lens and increase the image sensor sensitivity four times. I still achieve the same exposure, though I may lose some image quality with the higher ISO and lose depth of field (and blur the background) with the wider lens opening.
Yes, there's a simpler way to do this. If you wish to shoot at 1/500th of a second, you can turn the dial to the "S" or "Tv" setting (shutter-speed or time-value priority) and set that at 1/500th. Modern cameras will then adjust the aperture and open up the lens to make up for the faster shutter speed. But, if the automatic aperture changes are not enough and your camera is warning you your photo may be underexposed, you will have to increase your ISO settings until the maximum (smallest number) aperture is enough for a good exposure. When you set your shutter speed and push your shutter button halfway down while pointing the camera at your subject, your camera will likely display the aperture setting it will use or warn you if a proper exposure cannot be achieved without also adjusting the ISO.
There's also the "A" setting (aperture priority). With it, you can set your aperture and leave it to the camera and camera light meter to set the shutter speed to achieve a proper exposure. For low light and fast action, the smaller aperture numbers are usually best. I often use this setting for more creative work in which I wish to control the depth of field, but it can be used for fast action photography by opening up the lens and then watching to make sure the shutter speed for a proper exposure is fast enough to stop the action. If the aperture is wide open and the shutter speed is still too slow, I adjust the ISO upward enough to achieve a good exposure.
And, of course, for the brave and daring at heart, there's the "M" setting (manual) which allows you to set both the lens aperture and the shutter speed manually, in addition to setting the ISO. With "M" selected, you can use a light meter and then dial in your ISO, shutter speed and aperture settings; or, you can watch your camera's light meter readings and adjust one or all three variable settings to achieve a good exposure. I find the manual setting to work best for a lot of sports photography because I can determine the proper exposure for the photos and not have the camera adjusting aperture or shutter speed up or down because of uniform colors or dark or bright backgrounds.
I seldom use the "P" (program) or "C" (custom) modes but they can be helpful to override a camera's auto mode or to program in certain settings you've made and quickly return to them. The custom modes might work well for photographing images under lighting which is constant, such as taking photos from the same spot in a particular gymnasium or for using a specific set of lights in a studio.
Anyway, I do dare you to take that camera dial off auto. Depending on what you are photographing, you might want to start with the shutter (S or Tv)) or aperture (A) priority before going to full manual (M) controls, but give it a shot. You might be surprised at what you can do with the extra control over your camera and lens functions.
Randy Moll is the managing editor of the Westside Eagle Observer. He may be contacted by email at email@example.com. Opinions expressed are those of the author.
Editorial on 11/04/2015
Print Headline: I dare you! Take your camera off auto!