What settings did you use?
One of the questions I love seeing on my images is “what settings did you use?”. It’s a great reminder that more and more people are wanting to learn photography and it’s also a little humbling to be asked how my images came to be. I’ve long made an effort of ensuring the settings (also referred to as EXIF details or metadata) for my images are available and, in places like Instagram where EXIF details aren’t supported I’ve tried to make them available as an Instagram Story, Facebook caption and so on.
This is a tough practice though because sharing settings does challenge the fundamentals of good photographic learning. In essence, knowing the camera settings used to capture one’s image won’t advance your own ability as a photographer.
But why not?
Because taking better photos all starts with learning exposure and there is a big disconnect between settings and exposure control.
Intrigued? Good because that’s why I’ve written this blog. My objective here is to help explain how to learn photography. Of course, this will need to be condensed and there’s a lot I’ll need to skim over or miss, but if you’re interested in taking more control of your camera this might be a good starter.
It’s all about the light
I know I sound repetitive, but it really is just all about the light. The light around us at any given moment in time is what we can refer to as ambient light and, unless we’re introducing flashes or artificial lighting, that ambient light is what our cameras are capturing in every photo we take.
So our cameras are capturing that ambient light. Got it. But how?
They’re doing so via an exposure. When set to auto mode, our cameras will automatically expose for the ambient light. When in manual, we expose for the ambient light. Either way, there’s an exposure.
By controlling our exposure we’re controlling how our camera’s will expose for the ambient light and thus how our photo will ultimately look.
- A balanced exposure is generally equal to how the ambient light looks to the naked eye.
- An under exposed photo is darker than the ambient light as seen to the naked eye.
- An over exposed photo is brighter than the ambient light as seen to the naked eye.
Just stop it
In photography exposure is measured in stops. A balanced exposure minus 2 stops is going to produce an under exposed photo. A balanced exposure plus 2 stops is going to produce an over exposed photo.
Exposure stops are invariable and equivalent across all three exposure tools so understanding them is super important but we’ll come back to this later.
Here’s a common scene many of us would see every day with examples spanning over 8 exposure stops.
As photographers we have three tools at our disposal to control exposure.
Each one can be used independently of the other to control exposure and each one has it’s own advantages and drawbacks. Learning these three tools forms the bottom line of controlling exposure.
How a camera works
I know, I know. This sounds unnecessary but I promise I’m not climbing up onto my geek-box for no reason. An elementary understanding of how a camera functions will totally help in understanding how and why each of the three exposure tools behave the way they do. We’ll keep it super light.
- The light from the scene enters the front of the lens and travels through to the camera.
- The mirror reflects the light upwards.
- Behind the mirror is a shutter.
- Behind the shutter is a digital sensor. Before the days of digital photography, this would have been the film.
- The reflected view (from the mirror) is bounced around inside something called a pentaprism so as it is the right way up. It’s then directed out through the view finder.
Told ya we'd keep it light :)
Shutter speed is a very functional notion. In the moment we take a photo the mirror flips upwards and the shutter opens giving the light a direct path to the digital sensor. Shutter speed simply refers to the amount of time in which the mirror is raised and the shutter is open.
Most of the time when we take a photo, we’re doing so within a fraction of a second. For example; a shutter speed setting of 1,100th sec literally means (the mirror is raised and) the shutter is open for.. you guessed it, 1/100th of a second.
Choosing a slower shutter speed setting gives the light more time to hit the digital sensor and produces a brighter image. Choosing a faster shutter speed setting gives the light less time to hit the digital sensor and produces a darker image. Adjusting the shutter speed is therefore a rather straight forward way to control exposure.
Measuring shutter speed
Remember my point above about exposure stops? Applying exposure stops to shutter speed control is relatively straight forward.
Every time we double the shutter speed we increase the exposure by 1 stop. Every time we halve the shutter speed we decrease the exposure by 1 stop. Double or halve. Simple.
Adjusting the shutter speed not only impacts exposure but also the way in which an image is captured. Any object moving faster than the cameras shutter speed will blur.
This can be used for some fun creative effects such as light trails, but it can also ruin a photo if people are blurred.
Our next exposure tool is aperture.
Aperture refers to the size of the hole at the end of the lens in which the light travels through. A great analogy I like to use when explaining the relationship between aperture and light is to think of light as water and aperture as a hole in a container. Let’s use a coke bottle and a bucket in this case.
As we now know, the light only has a precise amount of time to make it through the lens and onto the digital sensor (defined by our shutter speed). Aperture controls the volume of light making it into the lens.
Back to our water analogy and let’s pour the same amount of water into a coke bottle and a bucket over a period of say… 1/30th of a second.
Obviously, the larger hole at the end of the bucket will allow more water to make it through compared with the smaller hole at the end of the coke bottle.
That, is aperture. The bigger the hole at the end of the lens, the brighter the exposure.
Now for the catch. The smaller the aperture number, the bigger the hole. That’s not a typo and it may seem illogical but it’s a gotcha that causes a lot of confusion so lock that one away.
Unlike doubling or halving shutter speed, controlling exposure stops with aperture is a little more mystifying but with a little practice it’ll become easy to remember.
*Here’s a helpful tip. Most camera’s adjust exposure in 1/3rd stops so three clicks of the dial = 1 full stop *
Depth of field
Another important effects of aperture control is something known as depth of field which is the amount of your photo which is in focus from front to back.
There’s a lot for us to talk about when we discuss depth of field and now isn’t the time. All we’ll touch on now is to say, a big aperture (low f number) gives a blurry background and a small aperture (high f number) gives a deep focus.
This is important for landscape photographers who need their foreground and background to be in focus.
The final exposure tool to cover is ISO. ISO is a measurement of how sensitive the digital sensor is to light.
This one is super simple. The lower the iso number, the darker the exposure and the higher the ISO number the brighter the exposure. Just like shutter speed, doubling or halving your ISO will produce a change of +/- 1 exposure stop.
Increasing the sensitivity of the digital sensor is a super simple way to improve low light shots without having to worry about motion blur from a long shutter speed and when your aperture is as wide as it can be. There is a big problem though. The higher the ISO number, the lower your image quality (think - grainy / noisy images).
This is an important factor to remember and a good reason why you should always aim to keep your ISO as low as possible.
A stop is a stop
Bringing shutter speed, aperture and ISO together all amount to a common exposure. What I mean about that is 1 extra exposure stop in shutter speed is identical to 1 extra exposure stop in aperture or iso.
Taking control of our camera's in manual mode requires us to make a series of choices. What’s the best aperture to keep your whole scene in focus or out of focus? Do you want to freeze the subject or blur it? Do you want to intentionally over expose it or under expose it?
And this brings us back to my opening sentiments regarding camera settings. The settings used to capture an image were specific to the ambient light in that exact moment in time, as well as a range of factors and variables. Spending time and practice to make these informed exposure choices will empower you to take control of your camera and your photography in any circumstance, every time.
So that’s it for now. I know this was a long blog and a lot was still left out but I hope it’s helped. I’ll continue to post my camera settings as often as I can and please keep the questions coming.