Learn Your Camera With the Flip of a Dial

Get off the Green Box (aka AUTO): These are where you should be.
Creative Commons License photo credit: MoHotta18

This quick little tip is aimed mostly at the dSLR users out there who are still learning the ropes. I know how easy it can be to leave the camera in an “auto mode” so you don’t have to worry about all that technical crap. But the non-auto stuff really isn’t that bad, and it opens up a world of possibilities for you.

[tweetmeme]So this little exercise might be somewhat disappointing on your first go, but it should get you rolling in the right direction. You can do this in a single outing or split it up over multiple days — whatever works for you. And if you don’t feel enlightened after your first try, do it again. Alright, here’s the technique:

    If this is what you’re used to doing, just go ahead and get warmed up. Don’t think about that comfort zone you’re about to step out of, just shoot some photos.
    When you move to aperture priority mode, you control the f-number and everything else is automated. So now you need to start thinking about depth of field. Look for photo opportunities where you might want to blur the background or have everything in focus. Lower f-numbers equate to lower depth of field and higher f-numbers equate to greater depth of field. Pay attention to your foreground and background subjects, and experiment with different f-numbers on the same shot to see the results. You’ll also need to pay attention to your auto shutter speed chosen by the camera — low f-numbers on a sunny day might max out your shutter speed, and high f-numbers on a cloudy day might result in long exposures.
    When you move to shutter priority mode, you control the shutter speed and everything else is automated. Now you need to think about motion blur. Look for opportunities where you might want to blur a fast moving object or freeze everything in the frame. Lower shutter speeds equate to more motion blur and higher shutter speeds equate to freezing action. Pay attention to moving objects, and experiment with panning your camera as you take a shot. You’ll also need to pay attention to your auto aperture chosen by the camera — slow shutter speeds on a sunny day might max out your aperture, while fast shutter speeds on a cloudy day might pin your aperture wide open.
    If you have a handle on the aperture and shutter priority modes, try switching over to full manual controls. The only difference is that you determine both aperture and shutter speed at the same time (and it’s not as hard as it first seems). Modern dSLR cameras have built-in light meters that tell you if your exposure is correct when shooting manual. That little scale in the viewfinder… that’s your light meter. Move the shutter speed and f-number around and you should see an indicator move across that scale at some point. If your exposure is correct, you should be somewhere around the center of that scale. As you experiment with the manual controls, you’ll probably notice that you prefer to leave the aperture or shutter in a steady place while modifying the other. This will tell you which priority mode you lean toward.
  5. Again, if you’ve never shot the priority modes or the manual mode before, this might be brutal on the first round. You’ll mess up a bunch of shots, you’ll miss shots entirely, and you’ll probably be pissed off. Stick with it though!

    The best way to learn the semi-manual and fully-manual controls is via practice. You can read about this stuff all day long, but that will only take you so far. So get out there and learn your camera!

    Any of you experienced folks have tips for those experimenting with the mode dial? Things to watch out for? Things to try?

One thought on “Learn Your Camera With the Flip of a Dial

  1. John Finster

    Tip–applies to DX-format camera-lens users: when using PASM modes, it’s a good idea to glance at your focal length before shooting. With no vibration reduction, it’s a good rule of thumb to keep your shutter speed twice as high as reciprocal of your shutter speed – example: 70mm, 1/140 or faster. Depends on the crop factor of your camera. Most Nikon DX cameras have a crop factor of 1.5:1. The shutter speeds can be selected in stops, 1/2-stops and 1/3-stops. If you’re good at approximating in your head, multiply the focal length by 1.5 and use the reprical of that for your minimum shutter speed. I’ve found though it works out a little better to multiply the focal length by 2, which in practice helps eliminate camera shake. Vibration reduction lenses are advertised to support shots up to 4 stops lower, which means one could feasibly shoot 1, 2, 3 or 4 shutter speeds slower (with correspondingly higher F-stops) without a tripod and with nominal camera shake. It depends on the photographer. I’ve found for my camera and lens (w/o VR), doubling the focal length for hand-held shots keeps me in a good, practical range while shooting in Manual mode.

    It’s a good habit, too if your lens has focal length lens markings. After you have selected your focal length, you can decide on your depth of field. The lens markings will help you determine the F-stop you’ll want and the camera’s built-in metering system will help you decide if it’s practical or possible based on the shutter speed you come up with for a correct exposure. If your shutter speed is slower than 2 X your focal length – ie: 35mm X 2 = (1/)70 – then you might need to thin out your depth of field by selecting a lower F-stop or shorter focal length, raise your ISO one or two stops, use a tripod, or brace up against a telephone pole to help control camera shake. The three main variables are ISO, aperture (F-stop) and shutter speed. The trick is learning how to think of each in terms of full stops while taking advantage of modern camera features which allow you to make adjustments in incremental stops.

    Equipped with some basic rules-of-thumb, go shoot lots of pictures. If one out of every five shots is a “keeper,” pre-processed or “before Photoshop,” you’re getting there.

    What’s the best overall setting in Manual mode?

    Easy! F8 and be there.

    Get it?

    Fate, and be there.

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