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Photo Tips

March 2011


by Mike Rosen


Hi <<First Name>>,

Some readers asked if I might simplify last month's explanation of how to "seize control of your camera" to make correct exposures (check out that discussion by clicking HERE). So below are some simple steps that should help you rise above the automatic, point and shoot level while making the process easier to understand:
  1. Consult your camera owner's manual to be certain you understand how to select and use either the preset scene modes of a basic point and shoot device, or the aperture and shutter speed controls on a more sophisticated compact or DSLR camera.
  2. Now here is where you get to exercise your inner artistic creativity. Before pushing the shutter button, consciously decide why you're taking the picture and which of the following is most important in achieving your vision: (a) deep depth of field to get maximum sharpness from foreground through background; (b) shallow depth of field to isolate your subject so it stands out against a soft background; or (c) fast shutter speed to freeze the action and avoid blur if your subject is moving. 
  3. If your camera is a basic point and shoot, choose the scene mode that best defines your choice in step 2 (landscape, portrait or sports, for example). 
  4. If your camera allows you to manually control exposure settings, which most do these days, choose aperture priority. This allows you to determine the aperture you want (remember, aperture refers to size of lens opening, which is measured by f-stop number). The camera will then automatically select a shutter speed that allows the correct amount of light onto the sensor to achieve a proper exposure with this f-stop. 
  5. How do you select the aperture? 
  • If you choose (a) in step 2 (meaning you want large or deep depth of field, like in a landscape or travel scene for example)--select a large f-stop number such as f/16 or f/22. 
  • If you choose (b) in step 2 (you want small or shallow depth of field, say for a portrait or a flower)--use a small f-stop number like f/2.8 or f/4. 
  • If you choose (c) in step 2 (you want to freeze the action, like in a typical sports or kids shot)--again choose a low f-stop number, such as f/2.8; this large aperture will cause the camera to automatically select a fast shutter speed.
     6.  Now focus, hold the camera steady and shoot!

Here are three examples to specifically illustrate these steps:

Successful flower pictures are difficult because the slightest breeze may cause blur. Also, a cluttered background can be very distracting. The solution is a fast shutter speed to render the primary subject sharp and a shallow depth of field (low f-stop number) to blur the background. In this picture, I used 1/1500th of a second shutter speed with an f/5.6 aperture.


Freezing the action of a dolphin just as it surfaces obviously calls for a fast shutter speed (plus a little luck). Here I shot with 1/320th of a second shutter at f/9. It's not bad, but would have been sharper with a faster exposure. (In photography-speak, I wasn't adequately prepared for the "decisive moment.") Depth of field is irrelevant here because there are no foreground or background elements to keep in sharp focus.

In contrast, this view from under the city pier in Naples, Florida highlights the importance of depth of field when you have both foreground and background elements. Using aperture priority on my camera, I chose a small lens opening of f/18; the camera then selected the correct shutter speed of 1/30th of a second. Note how everything is quite sharp, from the foreground sand and pier detail to the beach-walker and pier supports all the way back. 

I'll discuss a few other important settings (focus, focal length, ISO and white balance) next month, but essentially if you become comfortable with the above steps, you'll be well on your way to raising your photographs to a whole new quality level. 

All the best,

Mike       Like Photo Tips: Make Correct Exposures in a Few Simple Steps on Facebook



PHOTO COURSE: This spring I'm teaching a course on how to make better pictures as part of the OLLI senior education program (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of the University of Minnesota). It will run on seven Wednesday mornings from 10 - 11:30 starting April 6 at Calvary Cooperative in Golden Valley. For details, check out OLLI's spring 2011 course guide by clicking HERE

NEW PHOTO SHOW: I will be exhibiting some of my nature and landscape images at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge (in Bloomington behind the Hilton Hotel near the Mall of America) in June and July. There will be a reception on Sunday, June 5 from 2:00 to 5:00. You're all invited so please mark your calendars. More info coming.


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If you still feel confused or uncertain about camera basics like aperture, shutter speed and depth of field, I suggest you pick up a good book on the subject. There are scores of them, but one I like is Jim Miotke's "Better Photo Basics--The Absolute Beginner's Guide to Taking Photos Like the Pros." You can order it on-line at Amazon for $14.95.

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