This is a single exposure. I’ll address HDR in a later article.

I’ve been getting questions lately asking for more technical details about some of my photographs.

Let me begin this article with a quote. This is something that my photography instructor used to say when asked if a particular photo was “good”.  He would say;

“If you like what you’ve created, then it’s good.”

To be honest, this used to really bother me. I knew I was just learning and that most of the images I was creating were not good. Not at all.  As I look back now, I understand what he meant. Photography is art. Art is very subjective. One person may love a piece and the next person will hate it. So, you’re left to create for yourself first. Some others will like your work and some will hate it, regardless of how ‘good’ you think it is. That’s just the facts.

What wasn’t mentioned, but is quite true, is that your opinion of what you think is ‘good’ will change as you learn and progress.

Many people never change the dial on their cameras away from full auto – and that’s fine. It’s your camera and you shouldn’t feel pressure to do anything except what you want to do.  Others, of course, want to take things a bit further. These people will venture into other ‘modes’ on their camera. I can assure you that, in the beginning, they will question that decision, but it pays off in the long run.

Photography is one of those interests that you’ll never ‘master’. There is always more to learn. In fact, the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know!

Having said that, I can help you with some of the technical stuff. Just keep in mind that there is SO much more than anyone can cover in a single article and a lot of it will just need to be learned on your own.

Still, there are some basics that we can look at that may help you along your way.

Step one is to go ahead and switch your camera to ‘M’ or manual mode. We may as well just jump in!

Now, in manual mode, YOU are responsible for all the exposure settings. The camera isn’t going to help you much at all. You’ll decide the shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

While we’re at it, let’s take a look at the exposure triangle;

understanding this one thing will have you well on your way!


As you can see, there are three factors that will make up your photos exposure. Exposure, in case you don’t know, is the brightness (or darkness) of your completed image.

As a rule of thumb, the lower the ISO setting the better the quality of the finished photo. This is because as you use higher and higher ISO settings, the more noise you’re going to introduce into the image. Back in the days of film, ISO (or ASA) referred to the film speed. Again, even in film, the higher the number, the more noise (except they called it grain back then).

So, ISO 100 (or lower) is where you want to be for the best quality image – HOWEVER, sometimes that’s not going to be possible. It greatly depends of the available light, or light that you’ll introduce (more about that later),

So, if you want the lowest ISO setting, you’re going to need to either slow down the shutter speed (to allow more light to ‘paint’ in to the sensor – OR – you’re going to need to open your lens up. You’ll probably need to do both. While we’re talking about lens, there’s a cruel trick that lens makers play of poor photographers. The smaller the f-stop number the more OPEN the lens, while the larger the number the more CLOSED the lens is.  So, f=2.8, for example, is a much wider ‘opening’ than f=16.

F=2.8 is considered a pretty ‘fast’ lens (although there are many that are faster) The choice of which aperture you’re going to use will depend on your subject. If you’re shooting a portrait, you may want to isolate your subject and blur the background. So a larger opening (smaller number) would help with that.  If you’re doing landscape work and you want nearly everything to be in focus (or appear to be), then a much smaller aperture would be better; like f=22 for example.

That’s another thing about lenses and their f stop numbers. They also effect the depth-of-field of your image.

At this point, you may be thinking: “I’m going back to auto!”  Don’t do it, you can do this!

How about some examples?

You’re outside on a bright day – ISO 100, f=16 and shutter speed (SS) 1/500 – or whatever provides the proper exposure on your camera’s meter.

OR

You’re indoors, just mostly window light on an overcast day – ISO 1600, f=4.0, SS 1/60 (or even slower – these are just examples)

Now, this needs to be addressed as I don’t often seen it mentioned. Have you ever taken a photo and it didn’t look like what you saw at the time or didn’t come out the way you were expecting? Well, there’s a couple of reasons for that;

  1. Your eye has a lot more dynamic range that any camera currently available.
  2. It greatly depends on what you ‘decide’ to expose for.

So, number one is pretty obvious. Your eyes can see in the shadows even in bright light – your camera can’t.  So, getting to number two, you have to choose what you want the camera to expose for.

Do you want a nice blue sky, even if it means that the land is going to be dark?

Or, do you want to see what the land looks like and have a bright white sky with no detail? This is often the choice that has to be made. The question again, what do you want to show your viewer. There are tools that can help in this situation. You can use a graduated ND filter, shoot several ‘brackets’ and combine them into an HDR image in post, these types of things are more advanced though, so we’ll save those for another time.

So, when you hear the term “proper exposure”, the question is;  Proper exposure for what?

This is the meter you see when you look in your camera’s viewfinder.

This brings us to metering.  Most cameras have several different metering modes. The mode decides what the camera will choose (within the frame) to use as an adjustment area for the exposure.

Spot metering, for example, will take a very small sector of the viewed area to report the exposure. This is a nice feature if you want to expose for someone’s face (for example) to make sure it is properly exposed. This may mean that other parts of the image are too dark or too light, but the face will be properly exposed – which is the most important thing in a photo of a person. The spot metering icon is usually just a dot in a box or brackets.

Spot meter icon.

This is best avoided unless you’re doing something as I mentioned above or you’re going to get some strange results!

This brings us to the last ‘point’ of the exposure triangle – shutter speed. This is often overlooked because what difference does it make? Well, it makes a big difference if you’re going for a certain effect. For example, have you ever seen a photo of a waterfall and the water looked like flowing mist? That image was taken with a longer shutter speed than any auto mode would have allowed for. The only issue with a longer shutter speed is that a tripod is really a necessity. A lot of people don’t like to lug around a tripod. When you want to take long exposures and special photos like night images, you’ll be dragging around a tripod – proudly!

Sometimes you can ‘drag the shutter’ just a little to get some motion blur. Things move fast in this world so even like 1/30th of a second would introduce some blur and you can usually hand hold that – depending on the lens and the other settings. It’s a cool effect when you want to add motion, but not too much.

Ok, That’s plenty to chew on for a start. As always, contact me with any questions you may have. I’ll do my best to answer.

Published by williamwolfephotography

Professional Photographer and videographer located in New Orleans.

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