Tag Archives: shutter speed

In Focus: Back to the Basics

commentarylogoCameras these days are smart.  Very smart.  Actually, cameras have been getting smarter for a long time now.  It was back in the 1960s when cameras first sported the ability to measure light, removing the need for the photographer to have to use a separate light meter, and fifty years on, this is trivial for any modern camera.  Light can be measured at single or multiple points in the frame with an extremely high degree of accuracy – the modern photography enthusiast has been relieved of the necessity to be mindful of the thing at the core of photography.

This is all very convenient and photography is faster and more accurate than ever from a technical point of view.  There is no doubt though, that we have become spoiled and it is a sad fact that many of the people that put these marvels of modern engineering and technology to use don’t understand what the camera is actually doing, and something like ‘manual mode’ can assume the proportions of a giant scary monster.

We all start off fearful of taking responsibility for our images and this is not surprising.  Almost everyone these days begins his or her journey through photography with a small ‘point and shoot’ digital with which almost no meaningful user-control is possible.  When we graduate to higher levels of photographic technology (acquire a DSLR, for example), we take this fear with us and are often very reluctant to get out of the coddled comfort zone that encompasses the various ‘program modes’ on that new camera.

If you are one of those for whom the manual modes are unfathomable territory (and there’s no shame in it, every photographer was once), take a step into the unknown.  Once you click out of the program modes, you are clicking into the essence of photography, for no matter how simple or advanced your camera is, there is only one thing that really matters, one thing that is at the heart of all cameras, the prime function for which all the surrounding bells and whistles are but incidental – shutter speed and aperture value.  Hang on, that’s two things.  But those two things do come together to give us that one thing: exposure.

Understanding exposure – the relationship between the aperture and the shutter – will enable you to be much more creative with your images.  Now you can intentionally create those effects you sometimes get by accident and wish you could duplicate.

Did you ever take a portrait and wonder how the subject was nice and sharp, yet the background was beautifully blurred? Open up the aperture and raise the shutter speed.  How about at night when you got some wonderful long-rayed stars on point light sources? Close the aperture and slow the shutter down.

Appreciating the intimate relationship between the shutter and aperture will do much more to further your photography than any amount of poring over that manual trying to memorize all those quirky functions the modern camera has.  I really recommend you knuckle down and make the effort.  Indeed, once you get a real handle on exposure, everything else becomes much easier to get your head around.  Get out there and give your creativity a fair go.

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In Focus: Neutral Density Filters

commentarylogoDid you ever take a picture with a few cool clouds around, only to have them appear as featureless white blobs in the final image? Or have you ever been frustrated at not being able to utilize a large aperture because the scene is just too bright? It all has to do with amounts of light, and one way of controlling the light that enters your camera is by way of Neutral Density filters. This week we’ll look at a couple of different kinds of Neutral Density filters and how they can be of benefit and creative use in your photography.

ND filters come in two different flavors — regular Neutral Density and Neutral Density Grad — and like most photographic filters, screw into, or are otherwise mounted on the front of your lens. The job of ND filters (in either case) is to simply reduce the amount of light entering the camera. ND2 and ND4 are the two most popular — an ND2 reduced the light by half, and the ND4 by half again. This has the effect of allowing you to shoot at a larger aperture for a given shutter speed.

How is this useful? When shooting portraits for example, we often want a very narrow depth of field (in focus area) to isolate the subject. This requires large apertures, which on a very bright day can raise the speed of the shutter beyond the camera’s capabilities, leading to over-exposure. Using an ND filter in this circumstance reduces the light entering the camera and forces the shutter to slow down in compensation bringing it back into the camera’s working range. Likewise, if you want to introduce motion blur on a sunny day, the ND will again slow the shutter to allow this option. You could make that waterfall silky smooth, though you will need a tripod or be well braced.

Extremely dark ND filters are available — ND10,000 for example — to enable super-long shutter speeds in daylight. Static objects will be captured but anything passing by such as pedestrians or traffic won’t transmit enough light through the filter to leave an image. Imagine a picture of seemingly deserted city streets at noon.

ND Grad — Neutral Density Graduated — filters are full ND (commonly 2 or 4) toward the top, but gradually fade to transparent towards the lower half of the filter. These are extremely useful for landscape photography or for any application where there is too much contrast between one half of the potential image and the other. Use of an ND Grad in a landscape photo for example, will reduce the light from the sky and allow attractive cloud detail to be captured while not impacting optimum exposure in the foreground or lower portion of the image.

Neutral Density filters can be very handy on the right occasions and are one of the few filters whose effects cannot be duplicated during post-processing in Photoshop or similar image manipulation programs. I recommend getting out there with an ND filter sometime and experimenting a little.

by Aaron Raisey

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In Focus: The Zone System

commentarylogoWe could take this to mean one of several different things, but the particular ‘zone’ I want to touch on this week is the ‘Zone System.’ Those who have been around photography for a few years will probably have at least heard of it, if not actually use it on occasion.

The Zone System is simple in theory but very comprehensive when practiced in it’s fullest form, so I’m only going to discuss it briefly here as it is very useful to be at least aware of it.

First, a bit of background.  The Zone System was developed by photographers Ansel Adams and Fred Archer in the early 1940s and is more or less a formalization of Adams’ own well established Black & White photographic workflow.  As I alluded to, the full Zone System encompasses the entire process from pre-shoot visualization of the finished product right through to realization of that vision in print.  But what we will address here is the core of the system – the zones themselves – and how we might use them in basic form. This is a very limited explanation and I’m assuming you’re familiar with the principles of basic exposure.

The Zone System divides the total range of brightness into eleven steps referred to as ‘Zones.’  From Zone 0 (total black), through Zones I, II, III, IV and up to Zone X (ten – solid white), each is separated by one stop of exposure.  Most images won’t span all zones of course.  A low contrast subject might only span two to four zones of brightness, while a bright sunny day may well yield an image that spans eight or more zones – from black shadows to reflected sunlight.

The key to utilizing the Zone System is engaging in a bit of pre-shoot visualization and knowing into which zone of brightness you want to place a specific area, or your particular vision of the final image.

But how do we know into what zones the image falls prior to shooting?  Your cameras’ metering is preset to place whatever light it measures into Zone V (five) – exactly halfway between solid black and total white (or on 18% gray for the more technically minded).  Switch to spot metering for greater accuracy and take an exposure reading from some part of your subject, the camera will automatically set the exposure so the metered area falls on Zone V – no matter how dark or bright it might actually be, the camera will expose to place it in Zone V.  Now visualize exactly how bright or dark you want this area – into what zone you want it to fall – and manually adjust the exposure accordingly.

For example, you can use the Zone System to easily shoot a silhouette.  Spot meter off the subject to be silhouetted (Zone V) and decrease the exposure by four or five stops – placing the subject into Zone 0 or I for an ideal black silhouette.  Hopefully you can imagine the creative possibilities available when you take back a bit of the exposure control from the camera.

There are some things to keep in mind when using the ‘Zone’ concept.

Don’t forget about the other effects of adjusting exposure – changing the aperture will alter your depth of field and increasing exposure could introduce camera shake or motion blur.

Also, all zones move together. If you expose to place that bright spot in Zone IV, for example, most of the picture will be crushed into darker zones (though this maybe ok if that’s your creative end).

The extremes yield little to nothing worthwhile.  Zones 0, I, IX and X retain no appreciable textural detail so should normally be avoided.  In fact, the general rule of thumb for negative and digital capture is to place the darkest areas in Zone III or IV and develop (or post-process) to place the highlights.

Despite being developed for B&W film, the concept can equally be applied in all areas of photography. If you can get your head around the Zone System it’s a great road to gaining a greater understanding and appreciation of exposure, becoming another tool in your creative photographic arsenal.

Ansel Adams is recognized as one of the greatest ever landscape photographers and I highly recommend further reading on the subject, specifically Adams’ book ‘The Negative’ in which the Zone System is explained in greater detail.

by Aaron Raisey

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In Focus: Coping with Low Available Light

commentarylogoWhat do you do in the dark? Or to be a little more specific, when you are out there with your camera, how do you cope with situations that are a bit dim, such as a city street at night or the interior of a bar? It’s a no-brainer, right? Just pop up the flash and we’re good – our subjects are well lit, no problem with blurry slow shutter speeds, great!

But have you noticed in these flash-captured pics that your subjects are often harshly lit, or the background is very dark, or all the character and feel of the situation has been washed away?

You could purchase a clip-on flash unit, which would give you a bit more control over the light you supply, but we’re going to look at an alternative, that when employed effectively, can deliver stunning results, otherwise unachievable.

Low available light photography is shooting in very low light conditions using only the illumination that the environment provides. Basically, all you need are a fast lens, a high ISO and a steady hand.

The kit lens that came with your DSLR is likely to be too slow to be effective; we need a fast lens with an aperture of at least f/2. The lower the f-number, the more light gets in and we need as much light through that lens as we can get. An aperture of f/1.8 is good and f/1.4 or even less is better (but much more expensive). Fortunately, most camera manufacturers make a relatively cheap but fast 50 mm lens ideal for this kind of photography.

Once we have a fast lens we need to get out of auto mode. If we let the camera make the decisions, then it will make choices that don’t suit our purposes such as popping up the flash or selecting a shutter speed that is too slow. Aperture priority mode is the way to go, as we want to stay locked onto the aperture of our choosing.

Select a high ISO value. Not a problem with today’s DSLRs – anywhere from 800 ISO upwards will be ideal. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive to light the camera’s sensor becomes.

In practice, what we can do is this: set the aperture at 2.8, the ISO at 800, look through the viewfinder and depress the shutter half-way. The camera determines the shutter speed and displays it in the viewfinder. Now we can make adjustments if necessary. We’re looking for a shutter speed that we can hand-hold without blur from camera shake. Anywhere from 1/8th (with a steady hand and practice) up to 1/60th are typical in these low light conditions. If the shutter speed is too slow we can raise it by going to an aperture of f/2 or f/1.8 and/or raising the ISO value again. A little knowledge on how to use exposure compensation is also useful for tweaking the shutter speed.

A couple of other tips to get the most out of low light are to ensure that your subject doesn’t have a bright light source close behind them, and if you can get some colored lights behind your subject (perhaps down the road or a bit further down the bar) you will get some super background effects.

It takes a bit of skill developed through practice and a little patience, but the results can be truly amazing.

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In Focus: What the EXIF??

commentarylogoThink of the EXIF data as the pencil and paper of the pre-digital days. Before the digital era, the photographer had to manually record the settings of each shot so he or she could look at their photos later and learn what worked for a given situation, or what combination of settings produced what effects.

These days it’s a breeze — no pencils in sight! When you take that shot, a great deal of information is written into the image. Much of the data is of no real practical use as far as the average photographer like you or I are concerned, but some of it is extremely helpful. Things like the aperture, shutter speed, focal length and ISO value are all available to be referred to later — sometimes it could be much later. Occasionally I’m looking through my archives on Flickr and I think “That looks good, how did I do that?” The EXIF data is there and I just click through and find out.

For those new to technical terms and important but initially difficult-to-grasp concepts like the relationship between aperture and shutter speed, the benefits of this information are much more immediate and valuable. As soon as you take your shot you can check the EXIF data right away in-camera and perhaps compare to other shots you have just made. For those new to photography this is very useful, especially while out there shooting.

Having your data available to you through an image sharing community like Flickr is convenient, but it’s also good to check out other’s EXIF information too. You might see a photograph and think “I like that motion blur, I wonder what the shutter speed was?” If the photographer has retained the EXIF data in the file, you can check it out for yourself.

I say “retained” because sometimes the data isn’t there. Images from film cameras don’t provide EXIF data of course, and some image editors have an option that strips out the data when saving for the internet to keep the file size as small as possible — so beware of that when saving your files.

So keep an eye on your EXIF data, it’s an important part of learning about your camera and the more technical aspects of photography in general. But any amount of EXIF data is useless if you aren’t actually producing it, so get out there get shooting and see you in the Seoul Photo Club on Flickr.

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In Focus: Manual Mode

commentarylogoIn the previous three weeks we have looked at why we need to stop being automatic and twist that dial on the top of your DSLR a bit more.  We looked at what the aperture is and how we can use it creatively, what shutter speed can mean to our photography and this week we’re going to turn it a little further and click into Manual Mode.  Most casual photographers find Manual Mode a little scary as there is no safety net for your image, but like most things, if we understand it a bit more it becomes less daunting.

Q: What is Manual Mode?

A: In Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority Modes, you and the camera share control of the exposure.  You work as a team – you make your choice of aperture size or shutter speed, and the camera works to compensate.  In Manual Mode, you have total control over both.  The camera lets go of the controls and says “It’s all yours, pal,” and to someone quite new to photography, it can feel a bit like flying blind. Thankfully though, at least the camera can still do the focusing for you.

Q: I thought manual cameras disappeared about 50-odd years ago. What gives?

A:  True.  The need to set everything on the camera by hand started to become obsolete and unnecessary back then.  And indeed, these days the vast majority of serious photographers – both amateurs and pros – prefer to shoot in Aperture Priority Mode.  But having independent control over your aperture size and shutter speed does still have some uses, particularly in some special circumstances.

Q: Like when?

A: One situation which you can very easily try yourself is shooting at night.  Grab yourself a tripod and head for the hills (or a high window).  Set yourself up looking over some nice lights.  Click into Manual Mode and because we want everything in our picture to be nice, clean and sharp, select a small aperture (big number) and the lowest ISO value.  Now concentrate on your shutter, taking the same picture at different shutter speeds.  You will see points of light at faster shutter speeds become beautiful stars with lovely long rays as you slow the shutter down.  We are varying our speeds quite a lot, but because we are in Manual Mode, our aperture isn’t changing as it would in Shutter Priority.  It’s staying small to keep the picture nice and sharp at all distances.  Ever wondered how they do those night shots with rivers of light painted on the roads but not a car to be seen?  It’s done in exactly the same way.  It’s very simple, fun and it’s an excellent way to learn more about your camera while producing some impressive results.

Once you get your head around it, shooting in Manual Mode can be a very creative and rewarding adventure. Good weather is on the way, so I recommend spending a few nights out there with a tripod sometime.

Next week we will look at a couple of other daunting, but very important features of your DSLR – the histogram and exposure compensation.

By Aaron Raisey

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In Focus: Shutter Priority

commentarylogoLast time we talked about some creative options available in Aperture Priority mode on your DSLR – small apertures for pictures with everything in focus and large apertures to be more selective with the subject of your focus.  This week we’ll explore another ‘click’ on your DSLR’s dial – Shutter Priority mode.

Q: What is the shutter?
A: The shutter is your cameras eyelid.  But unlike our eyelids, which remain open most of the time, the camera’s shutter is always closed.  Closed that is, until we push the shutter release button, which briefly opens the shutter allowing light to enter and the camera’s film or sensor to ‘see’ and record the photograph.

Q: What is Shutter Priority mode?
A: In Shutter Priority mode, we control how long the shutter stays open by setting the amount of time it can remain so.  In most DSLRs this ranges from 30 seconds down to 1/4000 of a second or faster.  Of course the longer the shutter stays open, the more light enters the camera.

Q: So how does a faster shutter speed affect my photography?
A: A faster shutter speed allows you to freeze action.  Anything over about 1/500 sec should be enough to successfully capture everyday motion like someone walking or a group of people.  Sports photographers use the fastest shutter speed available – as much as 1/8000 sec – to freeze those amazing moments in time we see in the newspaper or in magazines.

Q: If I slow the shutter down, what happens?
A:You begin to see blurring of movement.  The longer the shutter is open, the more motion is captured on the film or sensor, therefore there is an amount of blurring.  This can be used to great creative effect. For example, try a shutter speed of 1/30 to capture a waterfall at about the natural perception of the human eye, or a speed of 1 sec to give the water a beautiful silky look.   Panning is another technique that employs slower shutter speeds, a shutter speed of about 1/2 to 1/15 while following a moving object such as a car or cyclist can give motion blur to the background, while the subject remains quite sharp.

Q: Anything else I need to know?
A: Yes, just as in Aperture Priority where the camera compensates by setting the shutter speed, when in Shutter Priority the camera automatically adjusts the aperture to compensate for your chosen shutter speed.  Again, you have a limited control over this by using exposure compensation or changing the ISO speed.  Also, while most people can hold a camera reasonably steady for speeds of about 1/100 or faster, at speeds slower than this camera shake is a factor.  A very steady hand becomes important, and consider using a tripod or a monopod for very slow speeds.

On a different subject, I’ve had some messages over the past few weeks pointing out that I only seem to refer to DSLR cameras.  This is a fair accusation, after all there are of course other kids of camera too – film SLRs, rangefinders and regular little point & shoot cameras, for example.  However, this is a reasonable approach because of the constantly growing popularity of DSLRs, especially with those new to photography, and all of the principles and examples I use are easily applied using a DSLR and readily transferable to other kinds of cameras.  Accepted, it is difficult (if not impossible) to apply an Aperture Priority approach with a regular point & shoot, but the concept can perhaps help you understand the art of photography a little more.  Regardless of the kinds of cameras I most often refer to, the most important thing you can do to improve your photography is to get out there and take more pictures.

By Aaron Raisey

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