You’ve been bitten by the photography bug – it’s not an actual insect, but you know what I mean.
After the salesman pried that hard-earned money from your hands, you brought home that tantalizing-looking DSLR and your friends looked at it like it was a dangerous alien device, inquiring what all of those buttons, dials, and switches actually do.
At the time you didn’t really even know what they did, but you did know that once you figured it out, some cryptic combination of clicking knobs, pushing buttons and twisting rings on that lens, you were going to produce some knock-out photos.
Since then, you have spent eons of your life that you will never get back reading and researching on Digital Photography School, and highlighting juicy passages in your camera’s user manual (that last part might not be true). And guess what? It’s paid off!
Now you know how aperture affects depth of field, how to use shutter speed to freeze or blur movement and that once mysterious acronym, ISO, finally means something to you. Looking back you now understand what it is like to be a beginner, and that realization alone has raised you to a new level.
What now? You are getting some shots you are proud of, have a pretty firm grasp of the fundamentals and are ready to take it to the next level. You are ready to learn some new techniques, emerge from survival mode and get out there and photograph with intention.
Let’s take a look at some techniques that just might get you over that hump and give you the skills, knowledge and power to capture great photos consistently.
Understanding and Using Aperture and Shutter Priority Modes
These are features that the vast majority of DSLRs have, and even many point-and-shoot cameras on the market as well. Some purists may balk at the thought of using one of these “automatic” settings, but pro shooters have long ago learned the versatility and usefulness of these controls.
Although the various options for these settings may vary between manufacturers and camera models, the basic premise remains the same.
As the name suggests, these settings are pseudo-automatic. However, unlike the Program (P) setting, which does allow a minute amount of influence from the shooter, Aperture and Shutter Priority modes let you set certain parameters that change automatically to compensate for other adjustments that you remain in control of.
For instance, if your camera is set to Aperture Priority you retain the ability to adjust the Aperture to alter the depth of field as you see fit, and in conjunction with ISO, the camera will automatically choose the corresponding shutter speed for correct exposure. Many cameras give you the option to control ISO manually or let the camera adjust it for you.
The Shutter Priority setting does what you would expect, allowing you to control the shutter speed while the camera does the heavy lifting of setting the appropriate aperture.
Some cameras offer the option to set limits on the extent of certain settings. For example, if you are shooting in aperture priority, you can set the camera so the shutter speed won’t drop below a predetermined speed or the ISO won’t exceed a maximum level.
My camera is set to Aperture Priority more often than not – this is personal preference. I know my camera like the back of my hand, and can anticipate how all the settings correspond to one another, so I feel comfortable using this setting under most conditions. It is certainly important to be comfortable using your camera in Manual Mode, however, you are likely to find that once you become accustomed to Aperture or Shutter Priority modes, you will have enough control without having to spin dials as much. Priority modes also help prevent accidental changes which can result in improper exposure.
Exposure Metering, Exposure Lock, and Exposure Compensation
While we’re on the subject let’s look at some other ways that you can work with your camera to get proper exposures in all sorts of conditions.
DSLRs give you a few different options as to how they meter and determine exposure for a given scene. The most common are spot, center-weighted and evaluative or matrix metering. Take a look at this handy cheat sheet that should help you wrap your mind around the concept.
Fancy technicalities aside, what are the practical applications of these different settings?
Since spot metering bases exposure on the reading from a very small area of the image, it is a great choice if the subject of your composition is small and significantly lighter or darker than the rest of the image, so you can hone in on the correct exposure. This metering mode can be useful for small backlit subjects, as the light source shining directly at the camera will most often result in an underexposed subject. Keep in mind that regardless of the type of focus points you are using, spot metering will read only about a 4mm radius (depending on the camera) from the very center of the focus point.
Center-weighted metering takes the whole frame into consideration, but puts more value towards the center of the focus points (somewhere in the 12mm range). This setting works great when your subject takes up a larger part of the frame, or the lighting is more even. Consider a close-up portrait where spot metering might be too specific if it reads a shadowed or highlighted area, but center-weighted would give you more of an average.
Evaluative or Matrix metering
The last of three main metering types, evaluative (Canon) or matrix (Nikon) metering, determines exposure in a more complex way by taking into account composition, tones, color and some cameras can even factor in the distance objects are from the camera to estimate what the main subject is. This system of metering works great for landscapes and wide angle shots.
Many cameras are equipped with a dedicated exposure lock button or have customizable settings in order to delegate one. This is used when you want to take an exposure reading and hold it. If your subject fills a large part of the frame, the camera may do a good job at setting exposure. If the subject takes up only a small part of the frame, you can move in close to get an exposure reading, lock exposure and recompose the image.
Exposure compensation allows you to over or underexpose the image manually. This is most useful while using automatic or semi-automatic settings like Aperture or Shutter Priority. In the example of a backlit portrait, many photographers prefer to overexpose the camera’s suggested exposure, knowing that the reading will be wrong because of the lighting. You could certainly change your exposure metering to try and secure a more accurate reading, but with experience you can easily predict how the camera’s exposure meter will react ,and use exposure lock or exposure compensation as a more direct, and one-off, route to proper exposure.
Just keep in mind that the most challenging conditions for your camera’s exposure meter are high contrast situations, and with enough experience you will learn to “see” like your camera and easily be able to anticipate necessary compensations.
Selecting Different Focus Settings
To start with, there are two main categories of autofocus settings: Single and Continuous.
Single (One Shot on Canon) is intended for stationary subjects. When the camera finds focus in single servo mode, it holds that focus point until the shutter is released or the autofocus is released and re-activated.
However, single servo focusing can be very useful for action in certain applications. For example, one technique when shooting a moving, yet predictable subject, is to compose the image and lock focus on the spot where you know your subject will be, and wait for it to enter the frame (think panning).
In continuous focus mode, your camera will continually refocus while the autofocus is engaged. This is the setting to use if your subject, or you and your camera, are on the move. In continuous mode, many cameras allow you to choose how many focus points are live. Say you are shooting a sporting event and there are a lot of players, you may want to use fewer focus points in order to single out your subject.
It’s also worth mentioning that just in case you haven’t figured it out already, you can move the focus points around the frame in the viewfinder with the multi-selector. This is key while trying to maintain a certain composition with a moving subject. Consider some basic compositional conventions such as the rule of thirds when setting your focus points for a shot.
Confirm Focus by Previewing Images at 100%, In-camera
As a digital photographer you are extremely fortunate to have access to a feature like this –film shooters didn’t/don’t have this luxury.
The concept is simple: if you are unsure whether you nailed a sharp image, due to camera shake or shallow depth of field, zoom in to 100% and do a little pixel peeping for confirmation. Make a habit of doing this instead of ending up in front of your computer in disappointment at a great shot that’s not sharp.
Some cameras (check your user’s manual to see if your camera supports this feature) allow you to customize a button which zooms directly to 100% for this purpose.
Many cameras have a setting (sometimes called shutter release priority) which won’t allow a picture to be taken unless it recognizes that your focus point is actually in focus. Personally, I loathe this setting. I think it is better to take your chances and at least try to get the shot. Although the focus may not be spot on, you still may get a usable image.
These are just a few of the major technical considerations to keep in mind as you bravely forge ahead in your photographic pursuits.
Every situation requires its own approach, and the more tricks you have up your sleeve, the more prepared you will be to nail the best shots. Keep your nose to the grindstone and embrace the challenge!
Do you have any other tips for the advanced beginner? Please share in the comments below.