Camera Tips

It seems everyone is into photography these days.  Now that there’s a camera built into your phone, there’s no reason not to take pictures of all the cool things you come across in day to day life.  If you really enjoy the process and are interested in getting better / more creative results, chances are you’ll eventually upgrade to a better camera than what’s available on your phone.  With cameras being more affordable than ever and the technology being so unbelievably powerful, you really get a lot of bang for your buck.  These days for $400 you can get a pretty serious camera.  The entry level DSLR is around $650; even cheaper if you go used via Craigslist.  If you want serious creative control, you’re going to want a DSLR.  Trust me on this.  BUT, be careful – soon your addiction will take hold and you’ll be eyeing $2,000 lenses  :)  But seriously, this is one hobby that you’ll enjoy for the rest of your life.  It’ll make every place you go more interesting.  How do you put a price tag on that?

I get the same question a lot:  how can I take better pictures?  When I got started in photography I wasn’t able to find a guide like this, so I figured I’d give it a go and write something that might help out those who are interested in learning how their camera really works.

First thing is first: go to manual mode on your camera.

Let’s talk about your camera. I don’t know what specific brand or model you have, but I know it has the following settings: ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture. Check your user manual to find out how to change each of these settings on your camera.

  • ISO: Think of this as the volume knob on your iPod. When you turn it up, it gets louder (brighter), when you turn it down, it gets softer (dimmer). If you have a point and shoot, your camera probably has somthing along the lines of 200, 400, and 800 as options. If you have a digital SLR, you’ll have more options. 200 is great for taking pictures in really bright light situations, whereas you can crank it up to 1600 for taking pictures at a rock show when the lights go down. Problem is, if you turn it up too loud, you get digital noise, which you’ll see in flat colors. Example: you take a picture of a sunset with too high an ISO, you’ll see what looks like pixilation in the blue of the sky. Digital pictures can look “noisy” the same way film-based pictures can look “grainy.”  With better cameras you’ll have better luck with higher ISO’s. Technology is getting better every day and now with higher-end cameras like the Canon 5D MkII you can shoot up to ISO 4000 with great results.  Play around with the ISO in your camera – take the same picture at 200, 400, 800, etc  and examine the differences – how much brighter your images are versus how much noise you get. Wikipedia has more info on ISO.

Here’s an example of noise from a high ISO setting:

  • Shutter Speed: Pretty much what it sounds like… the speed at which the shutter opens and closes. You typically use a fast shutter speed in bright settings,  and a slower shutter speed in lower light settings.  So in a general sense the trick is to set the shutter speed for the fastest setting possible while still letting in enough light so you don’t end up with an under-exposed image.  Your shutter speed can also be used to make some really creative results, like a flowing waterfall vs. a “frozen in time” waterfall, and making people and moving objects disappear, and capturing motion.  Sounds easy enough, but then realize the longer the shutter is open, the more susceptible you are to lens blur. At slower shutter speeds you’ll need a tripod to capture clear images. Read more on shutter speed.

Examples of what you can do with your shutter speed for different results:

** A note on lens blur… For you SLR owners, both Canon and Nikon have come out with lenses that have built-in technology that greatly reduce blurring. Canon’s is called Image Stabilization (IS), Nikon calls theirs Vibration Reduction (VR).  Having this technology will turn a $1200 lens into a $1700 lens. I know, I know…  But in my humble opinion it’s worth it if your budget can swing it.  If not, don’t worry about it.  But I tell you this so if you shop for a new lens you’ll know what to ask about.

  • Aperture: This is your f/stop setting. The aperture is -in simple terms- the hole in your lens that lets light in.  The bigger the hole, the more light you let in. How does this relate to your shutter speed? The faster your shutter speed, the bigger hole of light you’ll need. But there’s something more to your f/stop setting – this also determines how much of your image will be in focus. A small aperture means a small depth-of-field, which means a small portion of your picture will be in focus (whatever you focus on will be clear but it will get blurry quickly the more you move away from the focal point). With a bigger aperture you’ll have a bigger depth-of-field. So again, the relation to shutter speed: the bigger your depth-of-field, the slower your shutter speed has to be to get the optimum amount of light for a proper exposure. One oddity to memorize about your f/stop number… the bigger the number, the smaller the size of the hole. See the diagram below.

Examples of what you can do with your aperture for different results:



>>Just remember, the smaller the number, the smaller the amount of your image that will be in focus.  That’s the easiest way to explain it.  Read more on aperture.

Now, the relation of all three (ISO, shutter speed and aperture): With a higher ISO, you can have a faster shutter speed (less motion blur), and your aperture can be smaller (more of your picture in focus), BUT you’ll have more noise. With a slower shutter speed you can turn down your ISO (less noise) and keep your aperture smaller, BUT you’ll have more chance for motion blur. And with a smaller aperture you’ll get more of your image in focus, but you’ll need either a higher ISO (more noise) or a slower shutter speed (more chance for motion blur). So it’s like the “fast, cheap or good” scenario – you can always have two of the three, but not all three at the same time. That is unless you have a tripod and a subject that doesn’t move, or one that wants motion blur… then you can do whatever you want!

Light Metering: So now hopefully you have an idea of how your ISO, shutter speed and aperture relate to one another and how to use them to get different results, but you need a point of reference to know where to start. That’s where your camera’s light meter comes into play. With the cameras I’ve used, the shutter button has to be pressed half-way down to activate the light meter.  On a DSLR you’ll have to look through the viewfinder to see the light meter. Different cameras have different meters, but they will all let you know if you have enough light for a proper exposure either by blinking, or by giving you a  +or  –  with a value. For instance, if your light meter says -2, it means you don’t have enough light for the current settings. You’ll need either a larger aperture or a slower shutter speed or a higher ISO.  Refer to your owner’s manual for more info on how the light meter in your camera works.

Real quick, let’s cover Aperture Priority mode  (Av on a Canon, A on a Nikon) and Shutter Priority mode (Tv on a Canon, S on a Nikon). When you set the camera to Av mode, you’ll manually set your aperture and the camera will in turn set your shutter speed for you. Inversely, if you’re in Tv mode you’ll manually set your shutter speed and your camera will automatically set your aperture. These modes come in handy in different situations and can help you learn how aperture and shutter speed effect your images.

Ok, now let’s put all this in a couple real-word situations. . .

Example 1 Let’s say you want to take a picture of a large group of friends while indoors at a house, bar, wherever. Your main challenge is the lighting – it obviously isn’t going to be great, being that you’re indoors. And you’ll want a fairly big depth-of-field so everyone in the photo is in focus.  Therefore you’ll want a small aperture. You’ll also want as fast a shutter speed as possible because people naturally move around, therefore you’ll get a blurry picture if your shutter is open for too long.  So, you’ll need to use a higher ISO. You may get some noise, but that’s the way it goes – refer back to the “fast, cheap or good” thing!  OR… bust out the tripod!

Example 2 Now you want to take a scenery shot but the light is low. You’ll want a lower ISO to keep it less noisy, and you’ll want a smaller aperture to keep the whole scene in focus, therefore you’ll need a long shutter speed. Enter the tripod! Just go buy a cheapo $20 deal at your local camera shop. It’ll be good enough for a long time. We’ll get to the $1,500 carbon-fiber, fluid-head Gitzo tripods later.

Keep at it and don’t get bummed out if you don’t get the results you’re looking for right away. It won’t take long, but you do need to get to know your camera, your lens and the software on your computer. Don’t give up and go back to auto mode!!  Start in normal, daylight situations, so you’ll be able to shoot at lower ISO’s and faster shutter speeds.

Shoot from different angles of every scene. You never know what shot is going to turn out  to be “the” shot.  Sometimes it’s the one you’d least expect. I once took 20+ shots of a sunset on the beach in Santa Monica, and then turned my tripod around and took 2 of the Santa Monica Pier, not really putting much thought into it, more worried about the sun setting over the ocean. But in the end only one of the pier shots made the cut!

A better example: some of Ansel Adams’s most famous photographs came from shots he didn’t think would turn out. One in particular came after an entire day of shooting what he thought was a worthless day. Then, on the drive home, he saw an amazing scene out of the window and immediately pulled over and took it as fast as he could, putting in a negative filter. He didn’t think it would turn out, but he went for it anyway. It became one of his most famous photographs.

Finally, check out Wikipedia’s photography page for more in-depth answers on anything. But beware: it gets CRAZY.

Example: here’s the formula for finding a happy medium between your focus and f/stop:

I’m guessing you can decipher that if you’re holding a PhD in photography from MIT. . .

Good luck, have fun and email me if you need any help!

10 Responses to “Camera Tips”

  1. Your tips are really useful – just wondering, what do you think the best settings are for a rock concert? I get some reasonably good shots from shows, but they’re not perfect. I bought a Panasonic Lumix TZ10 and I think it’s great, and it has a lot of settings I can change. I’m going to the shows around Minneapolis and Milwaukee next month and would love to take some really decent shots. Just never sure which settings to use with all the movement and low lighting etc.

    • The Lumix TZ10 is a great camera! It goes up to ISO 6400, so try cranking it all the way up and go into Av (aperture priority) mode and keep your f/stop number as low as possible (f/3.3 when zoomed all the way out in your case). Turn your flash off and try shooting in this mode around your house and see how noisy your images are. Upload them to your computer and zoom in to 100% so you can get a clear look at them. If they’re too noisy for your tastes, try bumping the ISO down. Just keep in mind, you want to keep your shutter speed as fast as possible to avoid motion blur. Also, NEVER use the digital zoom. The optical zoom is fine, but the digital zoom will cause terrible pixilation. Hope this helps!

  2. Have you seen these pixs?? AWESOME!

  3. I’m looking to buy a new point-and-shoot cameras I can take with me into concerts. What do you think is the best one to go with for the concerts?

  4. Wow, thanks so much for the tips, exactly what I needed…I changed the settings to what you suggested and the photos are coming out fine. I’ll test it out at the Milwaukee show if I’m still having troubles I’ll hunt you down haha. Thanks again

  5. Thanks for all the camera tips! You got me wanting to hunt down my camera’s user manual and actually reading it…and I never thought I’d hear myself say that. I am so amazed by your pictures. I may just find myself taking a walk just to shoot some random pictures and see what happens.

  6. Yes thanks for the camera tips !

  7. O.K. I´ve lost the rest of my nerves with my Panasonic DMC at night. Asa I wanns shoot a bad moon or st shining behind a black yard the focus spins around – alth. I´m not drunk. Any hints?

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