I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and are enjoying your first few days of the new year! Hopefully you spent time with family and friends, got a break from work, and maybe even received a few things from your wish list. You might have even received a brand new digital camera, or purchased one for yourself with some Christmas money. As exciting as it is, I know it can also be daunting to look at all the fancy buttons and dials with only a few black-and-white diagrams in the manual to guide you.
Of course, your camera does have an "Auto" mode and while this is great to get you started, it does have its limitations. Plus, the built-in flash tends to make your subject look washed-out and the background too dark. Working with the manual settings will give you more control over your images and give you better results even in less-than-ideal lighting situations.
I'm just going to focus on three basic settings: your aperture (or f-stop), your shutter speed, and your ISO. The right combination of these settings will help you get the right exposure (or brightness) in your photos.
The aperture controls how much light your camera lets in. The smaller the f-stop number, the wider the opening. So an aperture of f/2.8 lets in more light than an aperture of f/8. So if there isn't much light naturally present in the room when you're taking a picture, you'll want to open it up wider.
I like to keep my apertures around f/3.5 or wider, unless I'm photographing a landscape. The image below was taken indoors, with some ambient sunlight coming in through the windows.
This next one was taken during broad daylight in Rocky Mountain National Park. I set the aperture higher to compensate for the bright sunlight, and to keep the entire landscape in focus.
The shutter speed controls how long the shutter stays open. This affects how fast the image is taken, and also how much light comes in. When your shutter is open longer, more light has a chance to get in. If you're shooting outside in bright light, you'll want a faster shutter speed, maybe around 1/500 (which is 1/500th of a second.) Indoors, you'll need to slow it down.
But, keep in mind, a slower shutter speed also increases your risk of motion blur. If you're holding the camera rather than using a tri-pod, it's best to keep your shutter speed at 1/60 or faster.
I took this picture of our Christmas tree by setting the camera on a tri-pod and leaving the shutter open for 2 seconds. The apartment is dark and the tree is the only light source, but the longer exposure time captured some of the light falling on other objects in the room.
If you're photographing moving objects, like children running or playing, you'll probably need a shutter speed around 1/250 or faster to completely freeze motion.
In the image below, I used a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion of the flags in the air with minimal motion blur.
The ISO setting adjusts the sensitivity of your camera's sensor. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive your camera is to light, and the brighter your pictures will be. Outdoors when it's sunny or bright, you can use the lowest ISO setting on your camera, which is probably 100.
Below is a portrait of my husband, which was taken on a sunny evening. The clouds opened up and for a while I was shooting in full sun. My ISO was set at 100, which is the lowest setting on most cameras.
Indoors you'll probably need an ISO of at least 400, and in a dimly lit room or if you're shooting as the sun is setting outside, you'll probably want your ISO at 800 or above. A high ISO (above 400) will cause more grain or "noise" in your images. But a little bit of grain never hurt anyone... and a properly exposed picture with some noise is better than an underexposed picture.
The image below, of my sister-in-law and an adorable kitten, was taken in a small room in the barn. The only light source was a small window up near the ceiling, so there was a little bit of sunlight, but not much.
Finding Your Settings
This is also where the camera's manual comes in handy. It will show you where to go on your camera body or in the menu to change these settings.
I usually set my ISO first, based on the available ambient light. Then I set my aperture based on what I'm shooting. I use a lower f-stop for portraits and a higher f-stop for subjects like landscapes. I usually set my shutter speed last and adjust based on how my test shots look.
It takes some practice to get these settings balanced right. But the great thing about digital is that you can take test shots, adjust your settings based on what you see in your tests, and try again. Once you've experimented for a while in different settings you'll be able to take a pretty good guess at where your settings need to be.
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