Find examples of our tips at the bottom of the page.
Are you one of those who just puts the camera on automatic and fires away, and then wonders why you don’t get the kind of photos you see in the travel magazines? You’re not going to become a National Geographic photographer by reading one short article. But, if you’re willing to put in just a little bit of effort to control your camera yourself, you’re going to be much happier with your photos.
Here’s a primer on how to be smarter than your camera, (which you are.) Let’s start by learning how to easily manipulate your camera’s controls. Let’s assume you’re using a “point and shoot” camera–the kind that comes with a zoom lens and a control ring or two on the top of the camera, and maybe around the lens.
The amount of light that reaches the sensor is controlled by three settings: ISO (sensor sensitivity,) shutter speed (how fast the shutter opens and closes,) and aperture (how wide open the lens is.) All cameras work exactly the same way in respect to these controls.
ISO on most cameras runs from about 100 (less sensitive) to 6400 (very sensitive.)
These controls are reciprocal. That is, one click up on the ISO, say from 200 to 400, makes the sensor twice as sensitive. So, to keep the exposure the same if you go from 200 to 400 ISO, you have to make the shutter go twice as fast, e.g. from 1/125 of a second to 1/250. Or, you can close the aperture one stop, e.g. from 4 to 5.6. Got it?
There are lots of implications for changing these three settings. The higher the ISO, the more “noise” your picture will have. That is, the photo at high ISO may seem a little “grainy.” Don’t worry about this unless you’re planning on making big enlargements for the wall of your den.
If you’re shooting a well-lit stationary object, a low ISO is usually best. If you’re shooting a moving target under low light, you’ll need a high ISO to give you both the higher shutter speed and smaller aperture you want.
Shutter speeds typically go from 1 second (you’ll need a tripod) to 1/2000 of a second, which will stop an airplane propeller.
When you set your shutter speed be careful, because if you’re slower than 1/60 of a second, you’re going to have to be sure to hold the camera very steady and squeeeeeze the shutter button so you don’t impart blurriness to your shot. The same goes for movement that you may be shooting. If you’re shooting a street scene with moving people, you might want to start around 1/200 of a second. Shooting out of a moving car, you might want to shoot at least 1/1000 or even more.
Aperture usually goes from f/2 or thereabouts (wide open) to f/16 (very small.)
When you’re choosing your aperture, your main concern (other than the proper exposure) is called “depth of field.” In short, the more closed your aperture, the larger your area of focus from front to back will be. If you’re shooting something that’s moving, such as a sporting event, you might want a large depth of field (e.g. f/16) so you are sure to keep your main subject in focus. If you’re shooting a flower on a bush, you might want to choose a more open aperture, e.g. f/2, to frame the one yellow flower against a background of leaves that are pleasantly out of focus.
So, get out your camera instructions, learn how to use the controls, and shoot and shoot and shoot some more to practice. If you invest just a little time, you’re going to be so much happier with your results. And, you’re going to really unleash your inner creativity. Hey, you could make National Geographic one day.
If you’re shooting at night, you’re probably going to want a high ISO, and you’re going to want to expose for the main point of interest, i.e. the statue. If you didn’t control the exposure here, the statue would be completely black and the only detail would be in the wall behind. ISO 3200, f 2.8, 1/100 sec.
By using a large aperture, the face, cigar, and even the wisp of smoke are in focus, but the background fields and mountains are soft, which emphasizes the face. If the background were in focus, it would be distracting. ISO 4000, f/3.2, 1/4000 sec.
This was shot in a very dim tobacco drying shed. I wasn’t so concerned about shutter speed but wanted to have the tobacco and man’s face in focus. Because of a slower shutter speed, you can see the movement in his hands as he rolls the tobacco but his face and the tobacco in the foreground are sharp. ISO 3200, f/4.0, 1/50 sec.
I wanted to concentrate on the woman holding the flower, but I also wanted to keep her hands sharp. So I used a medium aperture to get just the right amount in focus. ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/2000 sec.