Boston Photographer Sam Haddix - Digital Photography Basics - Part 1 - Four Modes Worth Knowing

If there's one thing I've learned about photography, it's that you have to take photos….a lot… It's absolutely a "more you do it" sort of thing. Be prepared to take hundreds, if not thousands, of blurry, underexposed, poorly composed photos. What I'd like to share is not the end-all-be-all ultimate guide to photography. I like to think of it as a collection of practical advice I've learned from taking thousands of terrible photos. The following tutorials assume that you're using a DSLR (of any make), or at least a point and shoot with some advanced controls. That being said, let's get started!

If you take a look at the top of your camera, chances are you'll see a dial that looks something like this. This camera dial is from a Canon T2i, but if you're using Nikon or another brand, it should still be familiar..



I don't know about you, but the first time I looked at this I didn't know where to start. There was a mode for hearts, stars, horseshoes, clovers and balloons… and all I wanted to do was take a photo!

My advice to you is, forget about most of the modes, and concentrate on learning the differences between just four. Before you choose which mode you're going to use, you should always ask yourself two questions: "What am I taking a photo of?" and "How much effort do I want to put into my photos?" Let's get started…

#1 Auto (It's green, and easy to find)

Ok, I'll make this short and sweet. This is my least favorite mode, and here's why. Auto mode works like this: The camera looks around, determines how much light is available, and changes it's settings accordingly. Sounds pretty good right? Well, here's the catch. The camera has no idea what you're trying to take a picture of. If you're shooting a fast moving train, or a still-life of fruit, the camera is going to give you the same settings. The results will sometimes be great, and other times awful, but most often the results will be mediocre, which is just… the worst….

#2 Aperture Priority (Av on Canon, A on Nikon)

This mode is a great stepping stone between full auto and manual settings. By using the command dial (that little wheel on the top right-hand side of the camera), you get to control the camera's f-stop (which effects the depth of field) while the camera controls there other settings, such as the shutter speed, for you. Ok, so what the heck does that mean? It's easier to show you…

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Aperture example: f/2.8

When you spin that command dial you should see one number changing on your camera's display. That number is the f-stop. It might go as low as 3.5, or perhaps even 2.8, and as high as 22 or 29. Basically, the lower the number, the narrower the depth of field (the apple photo having an incredibly narrow depth of field). Now, I could show you an example of the same photo at every f-stop, but it's much more important for you to experiment with this for yourself. Try taking the same sort of photo multiple times, increasing the f-stop one number at a time as you do so. You should see more and more of the photo come into focus as you do so.

Ok, here are a few more things you need to know.

1. When your f-stop number is lower, the lens is actually opened wider, letting in more light. This is great for taking photos in low-light situations without using a flash.

2. Again, your camera doesn't know what you're taking a picture of (or how fast your subject is moving), so I would generally recommend using this mode on subjects that are not moving around too much.

#3 Shutter Priority (Tv on Canon, S on Nikon)

Shutter priority is pretty easy to explain. Using the command wheel at the top of the camera, you control the speed of your shutter, while the camera takes care of the other controls (such as your f-stop).

The harder part is determining what shutter speed you're going to start with. Here's a few guidelines to follow.

1. The slowest shutter speed you can shoot at without a tripod, with any hope of your photo being even remotely sharp, is about 1/30 of a second. Would I ever recommend shooting at this shutter speed? No… but sometimes there's literally no other choice. This is the type of shutter speed you would choose at a concert, where there's very little light to work with. Just be warned that 9 out of 10 photos will probably still be blurry.

2. I always try to keep my shutter speed at 1/100 or above when shooting hand held. Even 1/100th is still in the danger zone for blurry or soft photos, so your chance of success is much higher if you stay above this number.

3. If you're looking to capture sports, animals, or other quick-moving subjects, you'll want your shutter speed at 1/1000 or faster.

4. If you have plenty of light to work with, and you're trying to capture incredibly high-speed subjects, you may want to max out your shutter speed, even if that means having other settings that are less desirable.

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Shutter Speed example: 1/8000 of a second

#4 Manual (M)

Now for my favorite! This is actually the only mode I ever shoot in, but that's because I generally don't mind putting the extra thought into my photos. On manual it's up to you to come up with the recipe for the perfect exposure. That means controlling the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO for any given photo.

Now we haven't talked about ISO yet, but that's because most of the other modes will control it for you. On manual, however, ISO is very important. Back in the days of film, ISO had to do with the speed of the film, and it's performance in low-light. On a digital SLR, however, I would think about ISO as your camera's sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive your camera is to light ,and the better it can do in low-light situations. There is, of course, a trade off. The higher your ISO, the grainier (or noisier) your photo is going to be. After raising your ISO past a certain point, your photos can become pretty unusable. Figuring out just where that point is will be something you will have to experiment with, but most newer SLRs can deliver usable images up to ISO 1600, with professional models going far beyond. However, in a perfect world, we would always shoot at the lowest possible ISO.

So you're ready to take a photo on manual. First, you'll want to ask yourself "What am I taking a photo of?" Is it a moving subject? A flower? Landscape? What? That will help you determine whether the shutter speed or aperture is most important.

For example, let's say you're taking someone's portrait, and you want a nice, normal shot. Since you're subject isn't running about, let's start by setting the aperture to f/8, a nice "normal" aperture. Depending on your camera, changing your aperture could be as easy as using a dial on the back of the body, or a little more complicated, involving holding down a button while moving your command dial. Once you've successfully chosen your aperture, you'll want to look through the viewfinder and hold down your shutter release button (you know, the one that takes the photo) half way. You should see a meter when you look through the viewfinder with a readout ranging from -2 to +2. Your goal (most of the time), is to get that meter to read 0. This is what the camera considers to be a proper exposure. You'll want to change your shutter speed while looking at this meter until you see the readout point to 0.

So let's review. We're at f/8, and we've just dialed in whatever shutter speed it is that get's that meter to read 0. Now you've got to determine if your shutter speed is usable or not. Let's say, for the sake of our example, that your shutter speed comes out to 1/20 of a second. Much too slow. Take the photo now and it's practically guaranteed to be blurry. At this point you've got three options.

1. Change your Aperture.

2. Raise your ISO.

3. Do both.

This is where you'll need to use your judgement. How much do you have to change either of these two settings to get a usable picture? If you drop your aperture to f/4, will the photo have the depth of field you desire? If you raise your ISO, will the photo become noisy and unusable? The only thing to do now is experiment. Start by raising your shutter speed to something usable, say 1/100, then try out different combinations of aperture and ISO until the meter reads 0 and you get a decent photo.

I know that sounds like a ton of work, and a lot of trial and error…but… that's exactly what it is! It may sound obvious, but the most important part of photography is taking photos! That being said, get out there and do it!

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Manual Example: ISO 100    f/1.4    1/400 of a second

Part 2 coming tomorrow!