Cameras have become a big part of everyday life, and whether we’re using our smartphone or a DSLR, we’ve never had such easy access to high-quality photography gear. All modern cameras offer a host of different automated settings to make the process of taking a photo easy, and even the most common photo sharing social media platforms offer advanced editing options so you can be almost certain your photos will look great.
We say “almost certain”, because while technology has been moving forward at an amazing pace, the basic techniques photographers have used for over a century still hold true today, and there are no signs of them becoming less relevant any time soon.
The process of taking a photo, whether on film or digital, boils down to light passing through a very narrow opening and projecting an image onto a sensor or on film.
The way we control this light will determine certain aspects of our photos, such as motion blur, exposure and depth of field, which can be used to give a creative and personal twist to our photos, and to ensure we’re able to create the image we want, not the one the camera chooses for us.
There are four main variables in the way we can control light, and these are:
In this first introduction to photography basics posts, we’ll be looking at each one of these variables in more detail – explaining how they control light, how to use them, and what effects they will have on your photos.
Below is a short introduction to the topics we will be covering.
To impress a fixed image onto a sensor or film, a very small amount of light must be let through the lens. When you click to take a photo, your camera’s shutter will open and close very rapidly, letting a set amount of light reach the sensor or film. The amount of light that gets through the lens, and therefore the speed at which the shutter opens and closes, will have a huge effect on exposure (how bright or dark your photo will be) and on motion blur, which is your ability to “freeze” movement or let it show.
The size of the opening the shutter controls is another setting that can be adjusted. This setting is called aperture, and it has an effect both on exposure and depth of field, or DoF. We’ll talk about this in more detail going further but, in short, good knowledge of DoF makes it possible to control the amount of the photo that will be in focus.
You might have noticed photos in which only the subject is in focus, while the background melts into a softly blurred palette of colours. This effect is obtained by controlling aperture and therefore DoF.
ISO refers to what was once the sensitivity to light of a film roll. Now it refers to how sensitive to light your camera’s sensor is, and just as high sensitivity film produced grainy images, a high ISO setting on your camera will make the image brighter at the cost of introducing the digital equivalent of grain, called noise.
With technology getting better, the quality of photos taken at high ISO settings is increasing, but it’s important to know each camera has a limit as to what can be considered an acceptable amount of noise.
All light sources are different. This means every time you take a photo your camera tries to process the info it receives and determine what the correct colours of the scene are. The result will vary on whether you are using natural light, tungsten, LED or any other light source, and it will vary depending on whether it’s an overcast day, whether you are indoors or outdoors, and so on.
An incorrect white balance will mean the colours on your photo will be skewed towards one side of the spectrum and will be too yellow, green, blue or magenta, giving them an unrealistic feel.
All modern cameras have white balance presets to cover the most common scenarios, but there are more advanced options that can help you fine-tune your photos to your exact needs.
Listed above are the core settings every photographer needs to know to obtain the best results from their gear and to guarantee they are in control of their camera rather than the other way around. Nothing is more frustrating than seeing a beautiful scene you want to capture and finding your camera is not cooperative and does not deliver the results you want.
Good control of your photography means better photos, and good photos make a difference, especially when printed or displayed in a large format.
These are core settings because they apply to every photo you take, and cannot, especially in certain cases, be changed or fixed in post-production, and must be correct when taking the photo.
While it’s possible to go into huge amounts of detail for each one of these settings, we will focus on a more general introduction to each of them providing the necessary information so that everyone can go out and experiment, applying their creativity and personal twist to their work, growing as photographers and turning special moments into beautiful images.