Shooting in Manual – the easy way!

All those buttons and dials on an SLR can be a little daunting. Everyone knows that you’re “supposed” to shoot in Manual mode, but it’s all rather complicated; yet another thing to think about when you’d rather be concentrating what’s in front of your camera.

It’s so easy to slip into the habit of using one of the Priority modes, or even Auto. I used Aperture Priority mode for the first couple years I had my camera, I loved it, I could choose the depth of field by adjusting the aperture and let my camera do the rest.

Then one day a lightbulb went off and I realised that shooting in Manual is only one little adjustment – two if you’re currently shooting in Auto. I challenged myself to shoot only Manual for a week and simply forgot to switch back. In fact when I was on a shoot a little while later I decided to use my old-faithful Aperture Priority to make it easier while I was shooting, the lack of my new-found control frustrated me so much I switched back to Manual and haven’t used anything else since!

So here’s how.

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An Investigation Into Focal Length

This afternoon I dragged my brother out of the house on his day off to help me with an experiment. You may notice his collar turned up in the following pictures, that’s to keep out the rain that decided to suddenly descend on us when we got to the woods, and then the sleet that followed. He didn’t run away. Have I mentioned how lucky I am to have a brother who’s such a good sport? Very lucky!

Anyway. Today’s experiment was about properly understanding focal length. Not the science behind it, that’s for someone a little more technically minded (I bet my brother could explain it to me after a few minutes of research), but rather about the effect our focal length choices have on the images we take.

I’m aware that I love the look of certain lenses (my beloved 85mm 1.8 for example), while others just don’t inspire me so much, but I’ve never shot with each lens in turn to really understand what they do to the scene in front of me.

For this experiment I set up the camera on a tripod so it would remain at an even height throughout and I asked my brother to stand in one spot without moving an inch. As well as the angle of field, I wanted to demonstrate the effect that focal length has on depth of field, in other words the way the background softens with longer focal lengths, so I set the camera to stay at f/5.6 no matter which lens I was using. In this way the background would only be affected by the focal length and not the more usual method of changing the aperture. The only exposure setting I adjusted while shooting was the shutter speed to work with the light when it changed slightly due to the sun.

Before I show you the pictures it’s worth mentioning that I’m shooting on a Canon 550D with a multiplier of about 1.6, so technically all these focal lengths are the equivalent of slightly higher than I’ve labeled them (30mm becomes 48mm, 85mm becomes 136mm etc) and the same lenses on another body may look a little different, but the relative difference between each focal length remains exactly the same.

With each focal length change I had to take a step or two back to keep the composition as similar as possible. And this is what I got…

18-55mm kit lens:

(Photo taken at: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800)

(Photo taken at: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800)

Sigma 30mm 1.4:

(Photo taken at: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800)

(Photo taken at: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800)

Canon 50mm 1.8 (a.k.a. the “nifty fifty“):

(Photo taken at: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800)

(Photo taken at: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800)

Sigma 70-300mm zoom lens:

(Photo taken at: 1/500, f/5.6, ISO 800)

(Photo taken at: 1/500, f/5.6, ISO 800)

Canon 85mm 1.8:

(Photo taken at: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800)

(Photo taken at: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800)

And back to the Sigma 70-300mm zoom for the rest:

(Photo taken at: 1/500, f/5.6, ISO 800)

(Photo taken at: 1/500, f/5.6, ISO 800)

(Photo taken at: 1/500, f/5.6, ISO 800)

(Photo taken at: 1/500, f/5.6, ISO 800)

(Photo taken at: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800)

(Photo taken at: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800)

And here is the widest photo next to the longest photo for a comparison:

(Photos taken at: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800 and: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800)

(Photos taken at: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800 and: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800)

Looking at these it’s easy to see why telephoto lenses are often considered “portrait lenses”. There is less distortion on his face, and the soft background even at f/5.6 makes the subject become the main focus of the image.

But my favourite part of this experiment was finally really understanding what it means when you hear that telephoto lenses “compress” the foreground and background. I’ve understood it in theory but haven’t seen a before/after example in my own photos before.

Let’s look at the side by side again:

(Photos taken at: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800 and: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800)

(Photos taken at: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800 and: 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800)

Look at the tree over his shoulder in the first photo, then look at it again in the second photo, it seems to have moved forward about a dozen or so metres, or in other words, it has been compressed! I had no idea quite how dramatic the effect can be, but now that I’m aware of it I will certainly be using this knowledge while planning future shoots.

I’m planning more forays into the world of focal length. In the meantime, what’s your favourite lens or focal length? Which do you not like so much? Email or comment below and let me know!

Harnessing The Power Of Sunflare

Large sunflare over the beach in Hastings

(Photo taken at: 1/400, f/16, ISO 100 – with florescent WB)

This past few days has brought with it glorious sunshine. In England when the sun comes out, people go a little crazy, off come half the clothes, and everyone crowds onto the nearest patch of grass.

In my case my craziness reveals itself in my love for making things sparkle. I’ll take any excuse to create little shining stars across an image, the more or the bigger the stars, the better. To celebrate another beautiful summer morning, I thought I’d share a little tip to help you play with flare yourself.

-Keep reading to find out more…>

Exposure – ISO explained

This is part of a four-part series on exposure.

Click here to read an overview of exposure, and for shutter speed, and aperture.

ISO

Once your aperture has allowed your chosen amount of light into the lens, and the shutter speed has controlled the length of time the light has passed through the lens, the ISO controls how much of that light is absorbed.

The ISO is the camera’s measurement of light sensitivity. In analog photography, a higher ISO film absorbs the light faster, and film with a lower ISO number absorbs light more slowly. In digital photography it works in the same way, just with an electronic sensor in place of the film. A low number equals slower absorption.

Like both shutter speed and aperture, the ISO increases in stops that double or halve the light absorbed.

standard digital ISO range

Standard digital ISO range

Some newer dSLRs have a higher range than this, but the principle is still the same. These stops correlate with the shutter speed and aperture stops. One ISO stop up or down equals one f/stop up or down, or one shutter speed stop.

Okay, that’s interesting, right? But how is it useful?

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Exposure – Aperture and DoF

This is part of a four-part series on exposure.

Click here to read an overview of exposure, and for shutter speed and ISO.

Aperture

The opening to the camera lens is called the aperture. You are able control the size of this opening, in increments known as f/stops, thereby choosing the amount of light you want to let through the lens and into the camera in one go. The f/stop numbers go from small; when the aperture is at its widest, to large; when the aperture is small.

To demonstrate, here is a lens aperture at f/2.8:

Camera aperture at f/2.8

f/2.8

And here is an aperture at f/16:

Lens aperture at f/16

f/16

While the shutter speed lets you chose how long the light enters the camera, the aperture lets you choose how much light is able to enter in that time. Closing the aperture is known as “stopping down”, while opening it is “stopping up”. Even though modern digital cameras generally have the ability to be set to 1/2-stops, or 1/3-stops, the range of full f/stops is still useful to be aware of because it corresponds to the standard range of shutter speeds (which is also more varied on modern cameras).

Full f/stop range: f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22, f/32
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Exposure – Shutter Speed

This is part of a four-part series on exposure.

Click here to read an overview of exposure, and about shutter speed and aperture.

Shutter Speed

Last week we talked about basics of exposure – essentially what does what. I’d like to begin going into these in some more detail, starting today with Shutter Speed.

Shutter speed, aperture and ISO are inextricably linked together. To achieve your perfect image, all of them are equally important and they have to balance each other out. Sometimes this link is more or less obvious than at other times, but it’s always there.

There are countless combinations of these three elements that will grant you a technically accurate exposure… that is, provide enough light to show all the detail in the picture, without it being under or over-exposed. This is generally pretty easy to achieve; set your camera to auto and press the shutter button.

But the real fun begins when you start to look at possible photo opportunities with some understanding of the way each of these elements will affect your image. Then, instead of simply trying to get the right amount of light to create an “okay” looking photo, you can choose your settings creatively to gain the best result from the subject in front of you.

Before taking each photo you can think, “Do I want this whole scene in focus? Or do I want to isolate just one area and blur the rest?”, “Do I want to freeze the motion in my photo? Or would I prefer a stretch of sweeping motion-blur to create a different, more dynamic effect?”, and even, “Do I want this image to have a completely smooth finish, or would this subject be complimented by a more gritty, noisy texture?”

As you make a practice of thinking like this, and of experimenting whenever possible, more and more possibilities become obvious with every photo opportunity.

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Exposure – Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO explained

This is the first part of a four-part series on exposure.

Click here to read more about shutter speedaperture, and ISO.

Exposure – an overview

No matter how manual or high-tech your camera may be, or what kind of photos you like to take, what photography really boils down to is exposure. It’s all about making sure the right amount of light reaches your film or electronic sensor to create the desired effect.

There are three things that affect the final exposure: the shutter speed, the aperture, and the ISO. Each one of these aspects works with the other two to create a perfect image.

It’s impossible to go into any kind of depth on such a huge subject with just this one post, so for today I’ll give a quick overview of all three from both a technical point of view, and a creative one. In the following weeks I’ll write about each of them in more detail.

1: Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is probably the most commonly understood aspect of exposure. This is the length of time the shutter is open for, thus allowing light onto the film or sensor. It’s a very simple idea; a fast shutter speed is open for a shorter time and lets in less light, a slow shutter speed is open longer and lets in more light.

The shutter speed is measured in seconds, and fractions of a second. For instance, 1/250 is a two hundred and fiftieth of a second, 1/1000 is one one-thousandth, and so on, and if you take the speed down you get to full seconds, such as 2”, which is two whole seconds.

Creative effect

Apart from the way they control the light, each one of the aspects of exposure has its own special influence on the image’s style. The effect of the shutter speed is the way it captures motion in an image.

A fast shutter speed will freeze action, which is great when taking photos of children, animals, drops of water, or anything else that doesn’t stay still for long.

I dragged my brother out into the cold garden this morning to juggle so I could demonstrate this for you properly. These photos aren’t works of art, but they get the idea across. The first photo was taken with a fast shutter speed; you can see the juggling balls frozen in midair.

(Photo taken at 1/1000, f/1.8, ISO 200)

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