Get Off Auto And Improve Your Photography
If you have purchased or been given a bridge, mirrorless or DSLR camera, and it is your first such device, it can be rather daunting and confusing with so many buttons and settings. A lot of people therefore use the auto mode to get started, and then never try anything else. In the beginning auto is not a bad choice, as it lets you concentrate on other things such as composition. And to be fair, on modern cameras, auto does a fairly good job, most of the time. However it can be confused by tricky lighting conditions or certain subjects, and then it may under or over expose the photo. Also, it doesn’t know what sort of look you are trying to achieve.
If you are a beginner you will probably shoot all sorts to start off with, and try out different genres, until eventually you find your niche and want to concentrate on only one or two areas of photography. This is where you may realise that your kit lens is limiting your progress, especially if you have chosen a subject like macro or wildlife. A new macro lens would let you focus close to the subject and allow the camera to capture the image at life size. A new lens with a long focal length would help you take photos of animals and birds that are at a distance, and a new prime lens with a large aperture would let you take great portraits with blurry backgrounds. However, it is not worth spending your hard earned cash on new equipment if you always use auto.
If you are nervous about coming off auto, you could always try out the different scene modes if your camera has them. Often on APS-c / crop sensor models there is a dial with small icons depicting subjects such as portraits, landscapes, action and close-ups, or if not, in the settings. These will give you the chance to see how some of your photos may look if the aperture or shutter are changed to suit specific scenes. However, if you are serious about getting the most out of your equipment, then you need to try aperture priority and shutter priority.
The exposure triangle
Before coming off auto, it is important to understand the three things which control exposure: shutter, aperture and ISO. The shutter speed is the time the sensor is exposed to light, and is usually a fraction of a second, but only the lower number is displayed, so 1/500 would show as 500. The aperture is the size of the hole which lets in light to the sensor, and is quoted in f stops. This is probably the one thing which causes the most confusion to photographers, even experienced ones. The size of the hole is not measured in inches or millimetres, but as a ratio of the focal length to the diameter, so a 100mm lens with a hole size of 25mm would give a figure of 4. This is often written as f/4, so if you think of it as a fraction, you will know that 1/2 is bigger than a quarter, so f/2 will be larger than f/4. The third factor, ISO is the sensor’s sensitivity to light. This is just a number, normally between 50 and 6400, where the higher values allow the sensor to work in low light.
To select this mode you need to turn your dial to A or Av, and then you will be able to set your preferred aperture. The ISO can be put on auto or set by you, but the camera will choose the shutter speed to give a good exposure. If you are taking portraits and wish to have a blurry background, then a wide aperture will be required, so use a low f number like f/2.8 or f/3.5. A good way to remember this is that small numbers give a small depth of field. This term means the distance between the front and rear points in a photo which are in focus. However, if you are taking landscapes and want the whole scene to be sharp, you will need a narrow aperture like f/11 or f/16, which will give a large depth of field. One thing to remember with narrow apertures is that the amount of light coming into the camera is restricted, so the camera will choose a slow shutter speed to compensate, and that means you may have to use a tripod to avoid camera shake.
This mode is normally selected by setting the dial to S or Tv, where you will be able to choose your preferred shutter speed. The ISO can be put on auto or set by you, but the camera will choose the aperture to give a good exposure. If you are taking shots of moving subjects then a fast shutter speed will be required, so use a high number like 500 or 1000 which will help freeze the action. However, if you wish to blur movement, such as a flowing river, then you will need a slow shutter speed such as 5 to 10 seconds.
Light, ISO and noise
The examples given above on using aperture and shutter priority are simplified to help beginners get started with the modes. However, there will be times when there is too much or too little light, and then things get a bit more complicated. As mentioned earlier, if you use a narrow aperture and there is not much light, the camera will choose a slow shutter speed to achieve a good exposure. But if you don’t have a tripod and need to keep the speed high enough to hand hold the camera, what can you do? Well one option is to use a higher ISO setting, but this can introduce noise. Noise is a term used to describe the unwanted bright or varied pixels in a photo, most noticeable in dark areas. Depending on the type of photography, you may be able to use flash and/or image stabilisation to help keep the ISO lower.
Too much light can cause problems when you wish to set a very slow shutter speed, such as ten seconds to blur the water in a river or waterfall. Even though the camera will try and use a narrow aperture, there might still be too much light reaching the sensor to give a good exposure. One way to help is to ensure the ISO value is on the lowest number, usually 100 or 50. However, if this still doesn’t work, then the only other option is to use a neutral density (ND) filter, which will act light sunglasses and reduce the light coming in.
Give it a go
The best way to see how the modes work is to try them out and then look at the results. To start off with, I would suggest using Aperture Priority for portraits, landscapes and macro and Shutter Priority for anything that involves movement, such as sport. Even if your first few photos don’t work out as planned, it won’t cost you anything except your time (assuming your camera is digital). Good luck!