Take Tons of Pictures
After shooting reams of pictures, you start to realize that it's a matter of visualizing the final result, and more importantly, controlling the technical aspects of your camera and the lighting that surrounds your subject. As your technique becomes more instinctive, results then become more predictable as time moves on. Let's break this down a bit more.
So You Have a Nice Camera
Start with 25, 100, and 800 ISO. Use a tripod for the 25 ISO; the other rolls (or settings) can do without one if the light is bright enough. 25 ISO is good for waterfalls, still life, portraits - anything that takes bit of set-up time. 100 ISO will do for hand-held in bright sun, even if there’s a few clouds. And 800 is for action-stopping situations like sports.
For film, as a final touch get a roll of 100 ISO transparency (or “slide”) film for outdoor shots in the sun. The saturated colors are beautiful, but variations in exposure will be magnified with slide film as opposed to the more forgiving print film. It’s a good thing to learn the difference right from the start.
A suggestion: keep a pad and pencil to record camera settings for each frame as you play with the f-stop and shutter. To keep track of things, I keep a small flip-pad with numbers from one to 100. The first frame is sacrificed by taking a picture of a unique number (Roll-1, Roll-2, etc). Record this number along with the frame-by-frame settings… impossible to confuse shots now! Another simpler method is to actually write down the subject matter of each frame, but that is time consuming when out in the field.
Understanding ISO Ratings
Four Important Elements of Photography
Before starting, please familiarize yourself with a couple things on your camera. Learn to change the mode from program to shutter priority, aperture priority, and lastly, how to read the internal light meter. It’ll all be in your manual.1 - Shutter Speed
As mentioned earlier, in program mode your camera will vary the shutter and aperture settings based on a numbers of elements, but mostly on the ISO speed of your film or CCD. So if aperture is kept constant, and ISO is changed, the shutter will need to speed up or slow down to expose correctly. When shutter speed needs to be fast to stop motion, a fast ISO is required, such as 800 or 1600 ISO. Simple
But if shutter speed is not your first consideration (i.e. when the camera is steady, such as in portraiture), go for a slow speed that will render a better quality shot. Prints can later be blown up, keeping detail as they get larger.Your camera will have some means of moving from program mode to shutter-priority. Again, read your camera’s manual to understand how to move into this mode. Once there, keep the shutter at - say 1/250th of a second for example. Your camera will then automatically adjust the aperture to let in just the right amount of light for a proper exposure. Fire off a few shots in this mode, changing the subject and light intensity with each exposure. A nice long-exposure picture is that of waterfalls. With your camera on a tripod, set the shutter to ½ second if your ISO is slow enough, and expose based on the method described in the "Exposure" section below.
2 - Aperture
The real fun starts when you manually control the aperture size in your camera lens, because something called "depth of field" comes into play here... I’m sure you’ve seen pictures in which the subject is in focus, however, everything in the background is not. This draws attention to your subject, whether it is a bird, insect, flower - you’re not distracted by surrounding elements in the frame. The amount that the background and foreground are out of focus is up to you, and this is controlled by opening and closing the aperture with the f-stop control. Your camera’s manual will provide details on manually changing the f-stop setting.When shooting the various test films and ISO settings, your camera will alter the shutter speed quite a bit as you experiment with different f-stop ratings. Keep in mind that the smaller the number, the larger the opening, and the more light that hits the film or CCD. An f-stop of 2.8 will yield a fairly shallow depth-of-field, whereas f-22 is almost like a pin-hole camera, where everything is in focus. Good for landscape shots, but probably will require a tripod because of the slower shutter. 3 - Exposure
Most, if not all SLRs have an exposure lock button. This is to set the camera’s exposure at an optimal level in case your subject is off-center, and/or the optimal "mid-gray" portion of the frame is off-center. This is because cameras are programmed to use the center of your picture as a reference point when measuring light Your SLR camera has a microchip that measures the amount of light when you snap a shot at the current setting, so in program mode, it will set the aperture and shutter speed based on a number of variables too complex for this article - but suffice to say it tries to make an intelligent choice. And most times it will, but if you were only a point’n shooter, you wouldn’t be reading this far, would you? So if the optimal light intensity (again, mid-gray) is somewhere off-center of the picture, what do we do? Point the camera to this mid-gray portion of your shot, lock the exposure, re-frame, then shoot! This is a great way to avoid many common exposure mistakes. Common reference points are a person’s face if the shot includes people, and green grass in an outdoor shot. Many winter pictures display snow as grey instead of white for this reason; your camera is only trying to "average" the exposure. Why mid-gray (or skin tone)? This is used as a reference for all camera and light meter exposure systems. It exposes flesh at just the right amount, so it’s a good idea to get a reading on a section of your picture that is closest to this mid-toned shade. If you want to get technical, purchase an 18% gray card from your local camera store and use that as a reference. Your pictures will be dead-on. Remember to get an exposure lock when the card is directly facing the camera lens.
An explanation of print vs.slide film: keep in mind that print film (also called negative film) is far more forgiving than slide (or transparency) film in terms of exposure lattitude. Slide film is less forgiving, yet the picture quality is superior. Generally, print film is used for portraiture, weddings, and general tourist-y type pictures. Because slide is more colour-saturated, and 1st-generation, it is more suited for publishing. Prints are "2nd-generation", and therefore inherently inferior in image sharpness because they are made by putting your developed negative film in an enlarger, then exposing photographic paper. Slides come from developing the very film that was in your camera.
So - knock off a bunch more shots, playing with aperture size and changing films/ISO settings. By keeping an eye on your camera’s light meter, you’ll soon discover both the variations and limitations of your camera.
4 - Framing
Imagine dividing the frame into thirds - both horizontal and vertically. Now line up your subject in any one of the intersecting points of the lines used to divide up the picture. These "hot spots" if you will are deemed most aesthetically pleasing, as opposed to always having your subject in the center. This isn’t always the case, but something to keep in mind.
Another nice touch is to allow elements of the picture to become a frame themselves, like an overhanging tree bough. Other times these things clutter and distract, but experience is the best teacher here. Simplicity and elegance go a long way in creating pictures with "wow" factor...Happy Shooting
So - with your camera, some time, and a notepad and pencil, one afternoon’s experimentation will go a long way in de-mystifying the ins and outs of serious photography. Whether this is at a hobby or professional level, the four elements of shutter speed, aperture, exposure, and framing are the essential ingredients in creating art that will please yourself and others for years to come.
Jim Hutchison is a hobby photographer who resides in Burnstown, Ontario with his wife Moira.