10 Habits to Better Photos: #1 Exposure

After some consideration – I thought I might post a small series on better habits for better photos.  Why?  Well – folks often ask me for input – and I don’t have a single place to point them.

Now saying that – I’m not offering any guarantees or “get-better-images” schemes.  Instead – I’m just offering 10 habits that I use consistently – and I hope that you find them useful, too.

Just one more thing – these are simply my habits that I’ve picked up over the years.  Use them, pass them along, or ignore them – it’s your choice.  I realize that unlike the sign below – there’s more than one way to take a photo – and that these posts are not one-size-fits-all.one way-11


Habit #1: Exposure. So, let’s kick off those training wheels and lose the auto modes.  Let’s talk shutter speed, aperture, and ISO – the three keys to properly exposed images.  Many folks will represent them in a triangle – showing that they’re all connected.  This is a useful model – but it doesn’t quite show us how to roll up our sleeves and take a photo.

Q: But auto mode does fine – why is this important?

A: Taking control of your exposure will allow you more control of depth of field, low light situations, and creative possibilities.

So – let me tell you how I approach it.

I generally use two modes: aperture priority (95%) or full manual (5%).  I will occasionally use shutter priority (0.1%) – but typically on situations where I want to drag the shutter for a creative effect – such as panning (example below).  And regardless of my mode – the ISO is at the lowest setting possible to get the correct exposure and a sharp image.electrathon-11 bareback-11Aperture Priority: In this mode you set the aperture – and the shutter will automatically compensate – giving you a good chance for a properly exposed photo.  And within the Aperture Setting – I typically use two values – the widest setting the lens will go to isolate the subject (often used used in action / sports photography to increase shutter speed and to reduce background clutter) and to give little depth of field (e.g. f/1.8 or f/2.8 or f/4 – depends on the lens) – or a setting that I know will give me lots of depth of field (e.g. f/8 or f/11) – often used in landscape photography – as used in the samples below.  Rarely will I leave this comfy range.  jefferson wilderness-11

And one more example of f/8 – with lots of depth of field:


Q: So – what is aperture?

A: It controls the amount of light that your sensor “sees”.

Note: At first – aperture settings will likely require memorization and practice.  But – eventually – it will just become habit.

Bottom line: The small values (e.g. f/1.8 or 2.8 or 4) – will throw more light on the sensor – but give less depth of field.  And the large values (e.g. f/8 or 11 or 22) – will allow less light on the sensor – but will give greater depth of field.

Example 1: Gig.  Dimly lit – no flash allowed.  You want lots of light on that sensor – and, in turn, you go with a small aperture value (e.g. f/1.8) – but you know that you’re only going to get the lead singer in focus – while the drummer behind will be out of focus.

Example 2: Outdoor music festival in August.  Noon.  Lots of light.  f/11 from 50 ft back with a wide lens.  Pretty much everyone on stage is in focus.

chairs-11 Manual Mode: Used mostly when lighting is tricky or there’s little light.  Here – I start with aperture (or depth of field) and then adjust my shutter speed until the light meter indicates I have a properly exposed image.

Now – I typically handhold the camera – very seldom do I use a tripod – making this a good place to insert the rule of 1/fl.  What is 1/fl – you ask?  Well – it’s simply “1 over focal length” – a good approximation to use for handheld photography.  In other words – your shutter speed should be faster than 1 over the focal length of the lens that you’re shooting.

Example 3: Gig in a dimly lit venue – and you’ve got your trusty 50mm.  You’ve set your aperture to f/1.8 – but to get a properly exposed image – the camera wants a shutter speed of 1/10 – which is likely not going to be all that sharp.  So – you adjust the ISO up… up… and up… until you’re now sitting at a shutter speed of 1/50.  Now – with a firm, relaxed hold – your image ought to be tack sharp.cafe window-11

This image – shot at f/1.8, 1/50 sec, ISO 1600 with the 50D and the 50mm.

And this leads us to ISO.  The last knob to be adjusted (in my scheme).  I like to leave this at the lowest possibly setting to get a properly exposed sharp image (hopefully between 100 and 400).  Moving to higher ISO’s will increase sensor sensitivity – but will likely introduce noise artifacts and a reduced dynamic range.  Does this mean that you should never travel to higher ISO’s?  No.  In fact – just the opposite.  Often times it’s better to get the image – then to not get the image at all.

OK – this is brief – and I understand that moving from Auto to any of these other settings may not seem important – but I think once you begin to experiment and make this a habit– you’ll likely be hooked.

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