When I first started traveling, I borrowed my sister’s old Canon DSLR and took it around Europe. Unfortunately, I was too intimidated by all the buttons, and decided to just stick to automatic mode. My photos never really turned out the way I’d hoped, and I never really figured it was anything to do with the way I was using the camera. A couple of years ago I decided to give myself a crash course on photography, and it’s made a world of difference to my photos. Sure, it can be time consuming but I promise you it’s worth it, and you’ll be producing photos you can be proud of in no time!
Over the past couple of years I’ve spent hours and hours trawling through photography tutorials trying to learn how to use my camera, and nobody ever seems to lay things out in black and white. To be honest, I never really cared about the maths behind the photos, I just wanted someone to talk in generalities and explain roughly what each feature does. While some technical terms are unavoidable, this post is my attempt to distil what I’ve learnt into a bit of a beginner’s guide that simplifies things as far as possible.
So, as far as I’m concerned, here are the 5 most important things you need to know to use your camera properly. I’ve done my best to include examples from my own photos where possible, including examples of how not to do things!
Iso is all about light sensitivity. The lower the number, the less sensitive the camera is to light. A doubling of the iso number from 100 to 200 doubles the camera’s sensitivity. My camera has a range of 100 to 12800. This means that my camera is 128 times more sensitive to light at 12800 compared to the 100. This is what gives the camera its ability to adapt to light and dark conditions. So why don’t we just crank up the iso when it’s dark?
The higher the number, the more ‘noise’ is introduced into the picture – this means coloured or grainy dots in the photo. Ideally, the best number to use is the lowest one, because the photo is cleaner, but using a higher number can be very useful in low light. In general, it’s understood that on most cameras an iso of 12800 is virtually useless in terms of its quality, and photographers try to keep this number as low as possible – probably maxing out at about 800 or 1600.
Above is a photo from the Narrows hike in Zion National Park, an area with extremely low light for photography. This photo uses an iso of 4000, which is generally considered WAY too high. Notice how, although the detail in the photo is very clear, the rock is very grainy indeed. A higher iso has, however, allowed me to take a photo that would otherwise be very blurry (because it allows the photo to be taken more quickly (see point 3). Below is a similar photo taken with an iso of 200:
Notice how the rocks and water are blurrier than the previous photo. The low iso number has forced the camera to lengthen the time it needed to take the photo. This would be fine if I was using a tripod and the camera was absolutely still; but holding the camera in my cold, shaky hands meant that this photo came out blurred.
While lots of noise is less than ideal, high iso photos can be useful for night photos. Some of the photos we took recently of the northern lights were taken with iso 800 and 1600 (Seeing the Northern Lights in Banff). Unfortunately in this case, the noise is just a necessary evil, and it can be reduced with post processing. A lower iso would have meant a super long exposure in this photo, which would have created light streaks for the stars, and reduced the detail of the northern lights.
It’s a fine balance between allowing enough light in to see the scene, and ruining the photo with noise. Allowing your camera to stay on automatic mode will give the camera the freedom to push the iso as high as it wants, and this will generally give you less than ideal photos.
Having a tripod allows you to let light in more slowly and keep the iso as low as possible, thereby maintaining the quality of the photo. Raising the iso can be really useful in situations where there isn’t enough light, and you don’t have a tripod to keep the camera still. I think we can all agree that a grainy picture is better than a blurry one.
- AV Mode:
To be technical, this is the aperture priority mode. This basically means, how wide is the hole that lets light into the picture? The lower the number, the more light is let in at any one time. Lower numbers are generally better in lower light (as they let more light in) – and reduce the need for a tripod, but they also have another effect; the wider the aperture (lower the F number), the narrower the depth of field. This means how much the camera can be focused on at any one time. We’ve all seen photos where the camera has focused on a person in the foreground, and the background is completely blurred; well this is usually taken with a low F-number. As you can see in the photo below, which was taken with F5.6 aperture, the foreground is in focus, while the background is very blurred.
On the other hand, a higher number would be better for scenes that need as many things as possible to be in focus (for example, above F16). The problem with higher numbers is that they let much smaller amounts of light in, so you need to hold the camera still for longer. If you want to use a high F stop number, then you would do well to buy a tripod, unless it’s really bright outside.
The panorama above was taken with F22 on a really bright day. This allowed the foreground and background to stay in focus, which was important for this photo. If it was dark, then F22 might not have been very possible because of how long the exposure would have to be.
The great thing about AV is that it adjusts the exposure length to take the perfect picture. Rather than fiddle with Manual mode, I generally use this mode to take most of my photos.
- The last mode I wanted to mention was TV.
This is basically exposure priority, and this is a little harder to master than AV. Basically, the exposure is how long the camera is letting light in for, and this time it’s up to you to determine just how much light the camera needs to make a good picture. The camera will do its best to adjust the aperture (how wide the hole letting in light is) in this case to adapt, but there is much less flexibility. In very bright or very dark conditions, the camera might not be able to adapt its aperture, and you might end up with a blown out (really bright) photo, or an underexposed one (too dark).
In super bright conditions, the camera can probably use a very short exposure. This means fractions of a second. 1/5 means one fifth of a second, 1/200 means one two hundredth of a second etc. The higher the denominator, the shorter the exposure. If you want to capture fast movement, then a very short exposure will be needed. In general 1/30 or higher is enough to capture a photo without blur, but with faster movements, you’ll have to shorten this exposure further. This mode can be useful for sports shots and fast movement shots, assuming you don’t want to bother with the sport mode on your camera.
The only way it was possible to take the very active photo above, without much blur, was to use a shorter exposure (in this case, 1/200). This can be achieved easily in TV mode. To be honest, it could have done with an even faster exposure!
For long exposure shots, such as moving water shots, or blurred headlights, you’ll want to lengthen the exposure further. Most cameras allow you to increase the exposure up to 30 seconds, but you’ll definitely need a tripod for any photos taken at that length, and you’ll have to take these photos in darker conditions (unless you have a neutral density filter – basically dark sunglasses for cameras).
For very long exposures, you can use manual mode and a wired remote to allow the camera to keep the shutter open as long as you like. This is what was done with the photo of Multnomah Falls below – exposing the photo for 24 seconds at iso 100 and f22.
All of these settings took me a long time to master. It’s one thing to read about them, but it’s another to get to the point where you instinctively know which settings will work best. Keep fiddling with the settings and I promise you it will be worth it. I’m definitely still learning all the time.
Two more tips for getting the most out of your camera:
- Stay away from the in-built flash..
A camera’s in-built flash sends light from basically the same place as the camera lens. Light fires out of the flash and reflects straight back into the lens, causing a very harsh lighting effect that seldom looks good.
Also, the angle of the light’s movement makes it very likely that light will bounce off your subjects’ eyes and straight back into the lens, creating those horrible red eye effects. Professionals tend to use angled flashes to bounce light off the ceiling or walls. to take a lot of the power out of the flash and make any flash significantly less harsh. Using your camera’s settings correctly will pretty much remove the need for ever using the inbuilt flash again, unless you’re in a very dark room or it’s the actual look you’re going for.
Here’s an example of a photo using the inbuilt flash in our Narrows hike. The photo looks awful….
- If possible, take photos with Camera RAW mode for post processing.
If you didn’t already realise it, most modern digital cameras have the ability to adjust the quality of the photos they take. Increasing the size of the photo you take might not make it look immediately different on the small camera screen, but it might make a world of difference when you print it out.
If you have a slightly better camera, a DSLR for example, you will probably also be able to change the photo size to Camera RAW mode. This means that the camera records all the data it possibly can from a scene, without compressing it at all. While this doesn’t make it look particularly different to the naked eye, it will actually mean the camera has captured a hell of a lot more data. This is where post processing comes in. Details that you didn’t even know were there can be brought out if you record the extra information in the first place.
Programs like Adobe Lightroom, or even Instagram, can help you bring out the extra details that were recorded in camera RAW and really make them pop.
The photo above shows the extra data that’s hidden in each photo. Notice how much amazing detail is available in the rock with the camera raw file. I pulled this out using Adobe Lightroom, but there are lots of apps available that can do the same thing! It’s definitely worth taking up the extra space with a camera raw file.
The downside of Camera RAW is that the photos take up way more memory, so going down this route might force you to invest in a significantly bigger memory card. In general, if you want to do any kind of post processing, then the bigger the file, the better. Below is an example of the kinds of detail you can bring out with the bigger files.
So with very little work and just a bit of practice, you can transform your traveling photos from a bunch of awful photos that you’ll never want to look at again (the atrocity below – pre photography me)
to ones you’ll be showing off to all your friends and family over and over again!
If you have any more questions, feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org !