New to Photography? Be Brave...
Here's how to move beyond the program mode of your SLR.
© Jim Hutchison

If you're like me, learning the ins and outs of your SLR has taken more time than you would like. Although photography may be a passion, perhaps it's still just a casual hobby because of your limited time spent learning at home and out in the field. (That "work" thing does get in the way!) For those of you reading this article out of curiosity, but haven't ventured past the program mode of your SLR, read on.

Take Tons of Pictures
If you don’t do this already, then start. The pursuit of any interest will include disappointment, so be prepared to chuck a few envelopes of developed film into the circular file, or in the case of digital, deleting them from your hard drive… that is, after you’ve taken a hard look at WHY they don’t look good. But - the more good literature and tutorials you absorb, as well as advice from the more experienced, your pics will begin to take on more vibrancy and life.

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
Big deal. So do a lot of other people, and yet their pictures do nothing more than document where they've been. To move beyond that, you need to master your camera by overcoming the fear of using all the buttons and dials. I recommend you spend some dedicated time experimenting. If you’re using film, a few roles sacrificed purely for the sake of learning will have huge pay-back later. I do this when I buy a new flash or camera body, as all the TTL metering and calculator dials in the world don't guarantee a good shot. SORRY! I let out some geek-speak there...

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.

Keeping track of your rolls is easy with this method.

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
You may know this already, but the higher the ISO, the more sensitive your film or CCD is. Modern SLR cameras are smart - taking pictures with the various settings I recommend above will make your camera vary its shutter speed and/or aperture size to let in just the right amount of light. The basic results from each picture will be similar. The main difference between these different film or CCD speeds is - well - speed! (A "fast" ISO needs a fast shutter speed to match it's light requirements.) But for film cameras, another important consideration is the grain size. Faster film has larger grain, and slow film has very fine grain, which is great for enlarging without looking fuzzy. Digital cameras exhibit what is called “digital noise” at their higher ISO ratings, which appear as artifacts in the photo.

Four Important Elements of Photography
Now - there are four very important elements that you have control over here. This is at the crux of all photography, and if you stop depending on your camera’s program mode and take control of these variables as you understand them more, you then have enormous creative freedom. They are: shutter speed, aperture size, exposure, and framing. The first three are technical, and the fourth is more artistic in nature.

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

Difference between a quarter second, and 1/250th of a second exposure. Which do you like better?

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
Ever walk into a dark room right after being outdoors in the bright sunlight? Notice how dark it is, as if you have sunglasses on. We know it’s our eyes adjusting, because if we stand there a couple minutes, the room lightens up. That’s thanks to the amazing engineering behind the iris in each of your eyes - which controls the amount of light that hits our retinas. Your camera’s aperture setting is to your camera what your iris is to your eye. (Film/CCD equals retina - I think you get the analogy).

This shot of a butterfly illustrates how an out-of-focus background draws attention to the subject.

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.

Other than the obvious colour-cast difference, the slide shot on the left looses detail in the shadow areas, as opposed to the print film (shot by my wife with the same model of camera) on the right with it's narrower contrast ratio.

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
Mentioned above, "framing" your shot is adjusting the distance and angle between the camera and the subject so as to create a pleasing photograph. A rule of thumb in many situations (where the object you’re photographing doesn’t take up the entire shot) is something called the "Rule of Thirds".

sample This simple composition of a birch tree was worth keeping mostly because the subject is off-center. Had the "rule of thirds" not been followed, the shot would be very boring.

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.

Order Jim's e-Book "The Concise Guide to Photography - a Beginner's SLR Camera Handbook" at this link


Jim Hutchison is a hobby photographer who resides in Burnstown, Ontario with his wife Moira.