Beginners Guide to Photography - Get out of Auto Mode!

So you’ve just picked up your first camera, whether it be a Sony, Canon, Nikon, iPhone or otherwise the principals remain the same. In this guide, I want to explain to you the core features of your camera to take you out of “Auto Mode” and to start taking great photos.



Your camera is loaded with options and settings - but today we’re going to focus on the main settings and principles to take a great photo. We’re going to talk about Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation). Understanding these three functions will help you to better understand photography and the results you can achieve with your camera.


Let's start with Aperture!


You may have noticed an ‘F’ number on your lens. Or noticed that you can change this value on your camera settings. This number relates to the speed of the aperture on the lens that you own. Higher-end lenses normally have faster apertures, for example, F1.4 or F1.8 and more affordable lenses will normally come in around F2.8 or F4. But what do these numbers mean?


Let’s first look at the pupil on the human eye. In bright conditions, the pupil closes to allow in less light. In darker conditions, the pupil becomes wider to allow in extra light. In the same way, the aperture on your lens can become narrower or wider to control how much light hits the sensor on the camera.



So when you’re thinking about aperture just remember the lower the number the more light that is hitting the sensor of your camera; and the higher the number the less light that is hitting the sensor.


Before reading any further - grab your camera and turn it on. Start with the ‘F’ number on its lowest point. Let’s say for example you have a lens with an aperture speed of F4. Turn your F stop number to F4. Now flip your camera around and look into the lens and slowly start moving the F-number higher and higher and watch as the ring inside your lens starts to close, allowing less light in. Now do the opposite and start to lower the number and watch the ring open back up to allow more light in. Now you understand what the F-stop-number does technically let's look at what effect it has on our photo.



So, other than controlling the amount of light that hits your sensor, what else does the aperture do? The aperture is responsible for the ‘depth of field’ in your shot. Just in case you don’t already know, depth of field is the distance between the nearest object in focus and the furthest object in focus. The simple explanation is the lower the F-number the more depth of field, the higher the number the less depth of field. But let’s look at this a little closer:


Think about a beautiful portrait where the subject is perfectly in focus but the background is really blurred (this blur is called ‘Bokeh’). Now think about a sweeping landscape that has everything in focus from foreground to background. Understanding how your aperture controls the depth of field is really important to nail the effect and sharpness you are trying to achieve.



Let’s look at both examples that I just spoke about:


Example 1 - I want to take a shot of a person using a 50mm F2.8 portrait lens. I want the person to be perfectly in focus and have a nice blurry background to bring all of the attention to my subject.


In this example, I’m going to set my aperture to F2.8 as I only have to focus on one subject and want the background as blurry as can be. You can still achieve a nice blurry background as you make the aperture smaller but as you let more light in, the depth of field will become lower, gradually bringing the background more into focus.


* Let’s quickly look at what I just said there. ‘as you make the aperture smaller’ This can be a little bit confusing at the start. Smaller refers to the opening on the ring in the lens. As you increase the F-stop-number the opening gets smaller. So the higher the number the smaller the opening! *


But what if there are two people in the photo? When your aperture is wide open, in this example wide open is F2.8, the depth of field is very narrow. When you are shooting more than one person it is worth remembering that, unless they are standing along the very same line of focus, there is the potential for one of your subjects to not be perfectly in focus. So, in this scenario, you could make your aperture smaller, let's say F4, to ensure that both people are perfectly in focus!


Example 2 - I want to shoot a wide-angle shot of a lake and mountain using a 16mm wide-angle lens. I want to have as much in focus as possible.



Here, I’m going to set my aperture to somewhere between F11 and F16. We know from above that the smaller your aperture is the less depth of field there is, giving your shot more focus.


There is more to learn about aperture but to start with this should give you enough knowledge of what it is and the effects it can have on your photos.


So, one last time:

The wider your aperture is, the more light that will hit your sensor and the more depth of field in your shot. Lower F-number relates to a wide aperture.

The narrower your aperture is the less light that will hit your sensor and less depth of field. Higher F-number relates to a narrower aperture.


Shutter speed


Now that we’ve mastered what the aperture does, the next setting we’ll focus on is the shutter speed. This one is pretty simple to figure out. The shutter on your camera opens and closes to allow the light that passes through your lens to hit the sensor. The shutter speed relates to the amount of time that the shutter remains open, and thus the amount of light that hits your sensor. The shutter speed is measured in seconds. Most cameras will range from around 30 seconds to 1/8000th of a second with the option of keeping the shutter open for longer using a remote.


Ok, so let’s take a second to think about this: 30 seconds is a long time (when compared to 1/8000th of a second) and 1/8000th of a second is extremely fast. Why have such a massive difference in range? The simplest way to answer that is with two extreme examples.

On the same day, I want to shoot a formula one race of cars driving at crazy speeds of 350km + and the same night I want to shoot the stars over the track.


Let’s shoot the formula one race first. To freeze the motion of the cars driving at such a quick speed we’re going to want to use an extremely fast shutter speed to be able to achieve a picture of a moving car without motion blur. What is motion blur? Motion blur is the streak or blur of a moving object in a photo. If the object is moving and your shutter speed is too slow to freeze it you will get a motion blur in your shot.



This can be the desired effect but if it’s not it’s important to shoot at a speed that is quick enough to the freeze the motion of the fast moving object. So for this example, I am going to shoot at a shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second to capture the moving car without any blur.



For my next shot, I am challenged with a different scenario. I want to shoot the milky way but the stars don’t emit that much light. In order to allow enough light from the starts to hit my sensor, I must leave my shutter open for a long time for my camera to get a good exposure. There are rules/guidelines to astrophotography which I won’t get into today but for this example, I am going to want to leave my shutter open for a long period of time to make sure enough light will hit the sensor. I am going to set my shutter speed to 30 seconds.


So, you can see from the two examples above, shutter speed relates to how long you let the light hit the camera sensor which is determined by the about of light in your shot or if you need to freeze time.

Remember that, if you are shooting ‘handheld’, you may experience blurry photos at slower shutter speeds. This is because the camera naturally moves while it’s in your hands. If you have really steady hands you can shoot at slower speeds, maybe down to 1/8th of a second but to ensure a perfectly sharp shot it is best to use a tripod when slower speeds are needed. In low light situations like sunrise and sunset, it is best to use a tripod and to set a short delay on the shutter release to avoid camera shake, or use a remote!

Moving on to ‘ISO’


The ISO effectively brightens or darkens your photo. It is not part of the ‘exposure’, that is set by your aperture and shutter speed. ISO is commonly referred to as sensor sensitivity or how sensitive your sensor is to the light that is coming into the camera but in actual fact, a digital camera only has a single sensitivity, therefore, ISO acts like a function that tells your camera how bright to output your photo.



Let’s look at the ISO numbers and understand what they mean: Your camera’s base ISO (which is normally 100 but can be 200 on some cameras) produces the optimal quality photo. As you start to increase the ISO number you are adding grain and noise to the picture.


So what happens when you increase the ISO from 100 to 200? It doubles the light output of your picture. When you increase from 200 to 400 you double it again. When you go from 400 to 800 you double it again, and so on and so forth. This all sounds great but this extra light comes at a cost! Noise and grain. The higher you increase the ISO the noisier your image will become.


So, if ISO 100 is optimal quality, why would we increase the ISO? In low light situations, when you can’t achieve a good exposure from your aperture and shutter speed values, this is when we would increase the ISO. But! Why wouldn’t we just increase the exposure in an application like Lightroom or Photoshop after? Another great question and one I can’t give you a technical answer but an experienced answer to: shooting with higher ISO in low light conditions - rather than brightening it up with software after - almost always yields a better quality image in my experience.


Let’s look at some situations where I would increase the ISO:


Remember the shot of the stars that we were taking earlier on? This is a great example of when you would increase your ISO. As I explained earlier, the stars don’t emit that much light, and as the earth is constantly spinning so you can only leave your shutter open for so long before your camera will pick up the movement of the star, so using a higher ISO value you will achieve much better results. On a full-frame camera, I would normally opt between ISO 800 to ISO 1600; and maybe even push it to ISO 3200.


*A full frame camera refers to a camera with a sensor of 35mm. Not all cameras are full frame, some come with a cropped sensor which refers to any sensor that is smaller than 35mm*



Another time I would tend to push the ISO higher, is in low light situations when I don’t have a tripod with me. Imagine shooting the sunset: To keep everything in focus we’re going to be using a higher F-stop-number (aperture) which lets in less light. We are also shooting handheld, which means we don’t want to make the shutter speed too slow, to avoid blur from our natural handshaking. To make sure we don’t have to slow down our shutter speed too much, we will increase the ISO to get the correct exposure for the shot.



Next up: You’re in a dense forest and want to take a portrait of a person you're with. Not much light is passing through the trees and you already have your aperture wide open letting in as much light as possible. Similar to the last example you don’t want your shutter speed to be too slow, so that you can avoid camera shake or motion blur. In these situations, I would push the ISO upwards to ISO 800 and higher if the shot needs it.


So remember, ISO 100 is optimal but that doesn’t mean we should always strive to shoot in ISO 100. There will be lots of times when you need to use this handy function, so don’t shy away from it! And remember you can do some noise reduction in the post-processing stage!


* Now that we’ve discussed all three settings we need to think about how to use them together *


Let’s look at shooting a landscape just after the sun has set, there are lots of nice colours in the sky but the light has faded. In the first example following, I have a tripod and in the second example, I do not.


Setting with tripod:

Shutter Speed: Ok, so our camera is on a tripod and we are shooting a landscape, so there are no moving objects. This allows us to use a longer shutter speed to get enough light into the camera.

Aperture: We are shooting a landscape, so want to have a shallow depth of field. Let’s set the aperture to F11, this will give us nice focus throughout the shot.

ISO: We’re going to set our ISO to 100 for optimal image quality and have a shutter speed somewhere around 1/6 to 1/2 of a second.


Setting without tripod:

Aperture: Ok, so we are dealing with the same light as the previous example but this time we don’t have a tripod. We still want the aperture at F11.

ISO & Shutter Speed: Now we need to increase the ISO value, so that we can speed up the shutter to avoid camera shake and blurry images. Remember a noisy image is much better than a blurry image! You can reduce noise in post but rarely can a blurry image be saved. If we increase the shutter speed to 1/60th of a second that should be fast enough for us to take the picture and avoid camera shake.

To compensate for the loss in the light we need to increase the ISO to 800 to get a similar exposure in the previous example.



Let’s look at one more example:

We are shooting a portrait in a forest. The forest is thick and therefore we are not getting too much natural light in our shot. We don’t have a tripod. We have our aperture set to F2.8 as we want to achieve a nice blurry background. We want a pretty quick shutter speed to avoid camera shake so we set our shutter speed to 1/125 of a second. Most likely in this example, we will not achieve enough light to get a perfectly exposed picture so we will increase the ISO to 200 or 400 to compensate.



Okay, so that’s it for today. Understanding these three settings is a sure way to getting yourself out of the ‘auto mode’. If you’re still not comfortable shooting in full manual, why not play around with Aperture Priority Mode (in this mode you get to choose the aperture and the camera will choose the rest of the settings, you can set some parameters to make sure it doesn’t slow the shutter too much or increase the ISO too much) or try using the Shutter Priority Mode which, as you may have already guessed, allows you to choose the shutter speed and the camera will do the rest. These modes can be great depending on what you are shooting, for example, if you are shooting portraits Aperture Priority Mode is going to be your best friend or if you are shooting wildlife or the sports Shutter Priority Mode is going to work best for you.


I hope you enjoyed today’s tutorial! Until next time!

Happy shooting :)