Most people’s path to a digital SLR involves upgrading from a compact or bridge camera, a point and shoot if you like. They find that their needs have outgrown the capability of their camera. Issues such as high shutter lag, low continues shooting speed, poor high ISO performance and a desire for a move advanced auto-focus system are common reasons for people making the move.
Many will have experience of shooting in auto mode where all the decisions such as ISO, shutter speed and aperture will be controlled by the camera. The attraction of this is the user can just pick the camera up and start shooting. For some this is for ease of use for others this is a fear of getting the settings wrong and missing a shot.
DSLRs also have an auto mode and when someone upgrades from a compact or bridge camera this option must seem very attractive. From their point of view they have got a camera that has addressed the limitations of their previous camera without the need to get involved with complexities of aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
The problem with this is that the camera doesn’t really have any idea what you are shooting. It doesn’t know if you are shooting a fast moving object or shooting a landscape and therefore will use ‘middle of the road’ settings with no emphasis on either shutter speed or aperture to cover as many subject types as it can. In doing so it will produce an image that is very much ‘middle of the road’ as well.
In an attempt to address this, entry and mid-level DSLRs have a number of modes designed to be used to take particular type of photos. Modes such as ‘Sports’ (usually identified by an icon of a sprinter) is meant to be used where you want to capture an action shot, since I’m an aviation photographer I’ll used that one as an example.
With the ‘Sports’ mode selected the camera will prioritise the shutter speed in an attempt to capture a fast moving scene. This will freeze the action but sometimes that isn’t what you want. A higher shutter speed shot is great for capturing a split second of action but if the subject isn’t dramatic then you are left with a shot that has no sense of speed. Shooting in this mode slants the cameras decision towards maximising shutter speed but it doesn’t allow you the option to choose to what extent. You aren’t able to control the extent the background is blurred to give the image that sense of speed.
Another drawback of ‘Sports’ mode is that it doesn’t allow you to balance the trade-off you make to get the high shutter speed. It achieves the shutter speed at the expensive of setting the aperture wide open (where its image quality is at its lowest) to let as much light in as possible and increasing the ISO (which will introduce more noise into the image). If you were shooting in shutter priority and making these decisions you could control the balance between the three.
Hopefully by this stage I’ve at least got you thinking that shooting in auto or a predetermined mode like ‘Sports’ might not be as good as it first appeared.
The alternative is to move to shooting in shutter or aperture priority mode and to start to make decisions for yourself rather than relying on the camera. This does mean you will need to learn about how exposure, shutter speed, aperture and ISO interact with each other. It also means you might get those settings wrong or not have enough time to set the correct settings in time to catch what you want to photograph. That’s the downside of moving away from the safety net that is auto mode but if you don’t ever make the leap your photos will never improve and you will continue to produce photos that don’t stand out. Hopefully you haven’t given up after reading that!
I’m not going to go into too detail about how exposure, shutter speed, aperture and ISO works. There are books available on the subject well so there is little sense for me trying to cover it. This article is meant to help you understand why you should learn about these things rather than teaching you about them. To help you along I’d recommend picking up a copy of Understand Exposure and reading that.
For me the key to getting the correct settings and minimising the downsides of not shooting in auto mode is preparation, both in terms of ahead of when you will be taking pictures and also just before you start to take pictures. Before I set off to a location I’ll always prepare my kit as much as I can. If I’m going to shoot something I’ve not shot before I’ll try to research it. A quick google search will usually provide either articles on the subject, forum posts or websites (very little hasn’t already been done by someone before!). Armed with this I can decide what lenses to take and what to attach to my camera bodies in advance. I may also dial in settings if I’ve had any experience or advice on the type of photography I intend to do, this usually involves a guess of what the weather will be like.
Once I’m at the location if I need to start shooting quickly I’ve already got a lens attached to a camera body and a settings dialled in which would hopefully be close to what I need. That preparation before will avoid having to make rushed decisions and possible mistakes whilst trying to get ready as quick as possible.
If I’ve not had to start shooting when I arrived I’ll spend the time fine tuning my rough guess on settings. Give the camera a quick pan about and keep an eye on the aperture (assuming you are shooting shutter priority) to make sure it doesn’t get too high or too low. Remember that you might be following a subject from an area with lots of light to an area that is dark. A plane landing is a good example of where you will be shooting it against the sky with lots of light but when it touches down the background will have a lot less sky in it and therefore a lot less light. If you set your camera up for shooting against the sky you could find you are using the wrong setting once he is on the runway. Check the camera against both areas and try to find setting that will work for both (dramatically easier on a sunny day that on an overcast day).
If you’ve still got time to spare take some test shots and have a look at them on the back of the camera. A word of warning here, the screens on most cameras don’t give a good idea of how well an image is exposed. You can handle this in two ways. The first is to get to know your screen. I find the screen on my Nikon D300s tend to show a darker image than it is. Since I’m aware of this I don’t correct my settings when I see a ‘dark’ image. The second way is to use the histogram to judge the exposure (again, I’ll refer you back to the book I recommend above for how histograms work).
When you start shooting check the images afterwards. This will allow you to make small changes to the settings until you’re happy or to keep up with any weather changes. Keep the weather very much in mind; you will need to change your settings to suit as the day goes on and the sunrises, sets and then goes down. You will also have to be aware of more sudden changes to the weather. Unless you are shooting on a cloudless day there will be times were the sun is blocked out by cloud cover. This can catch you out and you’ll find yourself with the wrong settings pretty quickly. I’ll always try to keep an eye on the clouds and which way they are moving. That way I can try to get my photos in before the sun it blocked out or at least be prepared to change settings in advance.
Learning to shoot with aperture or shutter priority can be a hard process and you need to go into it with your eyes open. You will miss shots, you will get settings wrong and you will feel like giving up but if you keep at it and try to get a lot of practice you should see an improvement in your photos. If you do have a bad day and come back with photos that you don’t like take a look at them and try to pick out one aspect of where you could improve. Work out what you did wrong and what you should have done. Don’t try to focus on too many things at once. This is very much a building process. Get one bit right and then work on the next bit.