Photography Trifecta

August 25, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Hi and welcome to my first blog post.  Today I'm going to try and explain what I think of as the 'Photography Trifecta'.  And being from the Saratoga area, by this I mean, the three camera settings you must be familiar with to win, place or show (Sorry, I'm writing this on Traver's weekend so horse racing is on my mind).  

When I ask people (or when people ask me) about their problems understanding photography, they all too often are confused by these three things:

  • Aperture (read 'F-Stops') 
  • Shutter Speed
  • ISO Speed (read 'Film Speed')

and as such I've discovered people tend to fear using Manual mode.  Hopefully I'll be able to make you feel a bit more comfortable.  But before I begin, please let me reiterate, I am not a professional -- I'm just going to try and explain my understanding of how everything works at a level I'm hoping will be easy enough to understand.  I would love any feedback or questions you have in the comment section below.  Thanks!



Lets begin by stating these three things are in a constant battle with each other, and your goal (when shooting in manual mode) is to make them play nicely together.  They each impact the others and they each have an impact the resulting photo.  Are you ready to show these setting who is boss, and force them to place nice?  I hope so.


#1 The Aperture

Part 1:   This is the mechanical opening which allows light into your camera, the smaller it is (larger f-stop value) the less light gets in.  A large f-stop value will enhance shadows for your landscapes and depending on circumstances, will often give you the 'star' type of effect from a bright spot in the frame (the sun, a bright light, etc).  If you want some values to experiment with here, google 'The rule of 16' (which I think are more of guidelines - but should give you some ideas of what to try).  

Part 2: Aside from the impacts on your landscapes (as I noted in part 1), for portraits think of this guy as the primary control for your depth-of-field.  That is: how much is in focus.  The smaller the aperture (larger F stop) the more is in focus.  So for portraits, where you want to blur the background, you will want to try and have this f-stop number as small as possible (say F/3.5 for example) [which gives you a wide open aperture] and be as zoomed in as much as possible on your subject.  This will focus on your subject and assuming there is an adequate gap between them and the background, it will nicely blur your background.  


#2 The Shutter Speed

This should be pretty self explanatory.  This setting is how the time-frame which the camera is actually absorbing the light and capturing the picture.  While this concept may be clear, there are things to consider when setting this value manually.  The faster the shutter, the less light gets in.  Other things to consider when choosing a shutter speed are objects in motion -- the longer the shutter is closed, the more blur will be in the photo.  While this is great for things like waterfalls to give them the nice soft, flowy look, this isn't ideal for sports and action shots.   The best way to learn what works here (in my opinion) is to experiment.  And as a side note... my guideline is when you're using a shutter speed any longer than 1/25 or 1/30 of a second, you really should be using a tripod -- freehand you won't be able to hold the camera still enough to not have the photo be blurry.   Additionally, the longer the shutter is open, the more light will get in, so you may over expose (or conversely, under expose) -- so again, I encourage experimentation.  Many times I'll let the camera choose this value for me, unless I have a specific reason to set this value (I'll explain what I mean by this in a few moments).


#3 The ISO setting

In the days of 35mm film, this value represents the 'film speed', the rate at which the film would absorb light, a higher value meant the film would absorb light quicker, and thus you could have a quicker shutter to capture the same shot.  Unfortunately, this comes with a price.  The higher the ISO setting, the more noise you will get in your photo.  So, ideally you will want to shoot with the lowest setting possible, giving you the best quality photo.  This is also where your camera model really makes a difference.  DSLRs often will have better 'noise reduction' capability than point+shoot digital cameras; meaning with a DSLR you can 'get away with' a higher ISO setting and still get a good quality photo.  Times you will want a higher ISO are typically going to be low light conditions.  For example, you're taking photos of an evening soccer game, and your subject is too far away to utilize a flash -- you will need a fast enough shutter to capture the action without introducing much blur (you'll also have your F stop set as low as possible - to let in as much light as possible) and you will likely have to increase the ISO speed to tell the camera to (basically) tolerate noise in place of quality to get the results you're striving for.  Basically, my suggestion/guideline for ISO is to always shoot with as low of an ISO setting as you can.  If you've chosen an aperture value and shutter speed and the photos are coming out too dark... it's time to bump up the ISO setting.  



So *hopefully* that has outlined what the 3 parts of this trifecta are, and how they impact the resulting photo.  And hopefully you understand how they fit together and have to play nice to get you through the day.  


Next (as I alluded to before) let's talk about some of the other settings on your camera aside from a true 'manual' mode where you have to set all of these settings.  Most cameras that support a manual mode, also have a 'shutter' mode and an 'aperture' mode (typically Tv and Av, respectively).  These modes *typically* allow you to set 2 of the 3 items we've discussed and allow the camera to choose the remaining setting.  For example, you want to shoot a waterfall: you set your ISO to the lowest value tolerable, and then set the shutter speed to say 1 second in 'Tv' (shutter speed mode), the camera will take it's best guess for the f-stop and set it for you.     Similarly, if you want to shoot a portrait, you could set your ISO as desired, and your F-Stop as low as possible (to get the blurry background) and then let the camera choose the shutter speed for you.  If you're looking to get into shooting manually, I would encourage you to 'play' with these settings and take a look at the values it chooses for you, it will help you learn what will work and what won't.   Note these options on the mode dial below (they may also appear as just an "A" or "S"):




Now let's go over some sample scenarios and how I might choose my settings to give you some ideas.



Scenario #1:  Waterfall

My typical thought process:  Lowest ISO, Largest F-stop (meaning smallest opening, letting in the least amount of light), which allows us to set the shutter speed as long as possible.  You will want to take a few shots and then review them on your LCD to ensure you're not over/under exposing them, and if you are, adjust the shutter speed as needed.  

Here is an example:

Falling through the Green The settings for this shot were: F/18 (reduce the amount of light coming in) and a 30 second exposure with an ISO 100 (as low as I can manually set it on my camera).  The long exposure gave the motion blur you typically seek in a waterfall, the ISO made a nice noise-free image, and the aperture allowed for the long exposure.  I also did an exposure bias of -1/3 to help slightly underexpose the image and draw out the color (I could have done this by altering the shutter speed as well).  



Scenario #2: Portrait

My typical thought process: Lowest ISO, smallest f-stop (to get that blurry background), then adjust the shutter speed as needed to prevent over/under exposure.  I would not go for anything less than 1/30th of a second without good reason or you risk the photo becoming blurry.  Depending on lighting you will want to consider a flash to shorten the exposure time (and also to be used as a fill light to reduce shadows on the subject).  

Here is an example:

This shot did not use a fill flash, the lighting is all natural.  The aperture is F/5.6 (as low as this lens would go), shutter is 1/400 and ISO is 100.  The wide open aperture allowed a lot of light in, meaning I had to use a quick shutter to prevent overexposure, but it allowed a nice blur in the background drawing your attention to the intended location.  



Scenario #3: Landscapes

My typical thought process: Lowest ISO.  The f-stop choice will depend on the time of day.  If it's very sunny/bright you'll want to choose a larger f-stop setting to limit the light coming into the camera -- this will also dramaticize your shadows (on sunny days maybe start with an f/16 value and adjust as needed).  If it's overcast, or something similar, you'll want to decrease the f-stop to allow more light in.  The shutter speed will also depend on the lighting, you'll have to balance it with the aperture setting.  The higher the f-stop, you may need a longer exposure, but this will depend on your unique circumstances.  I tend to slightly underexpose my landscapes which will make more shadows, but also will boost the color saturation.  

Here's an example:

Long Sands Sunrise This is using F/22, ISO 100, and a 10 second exposure.  The aperture limits the light in, so I could lengthen the exposure to draw out the color.  




If you have any other scenarios you'd like my opinion on, feel free to ask in the comments.


Obviously, this is an overview of these concepts, but my hope is it helped you understand them and how they play together, so now you can go forth and experiment and become comfortable with them on your own.  Then come back and teach me :)


Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think, if this helped you (or not), what I could have done differently, etc.  Since this is my first try at a blog, I hope it was satisfactory.  If you do like it, and have ideas/questions/etc that you'd like me to address in a new blog entry, I'd like to hear this as well.  







To learn more, here are some suggested reading articles I've come across:

A few tips on background separation and aperture settings for portraits:


More technical information on the subjects we've discussed:


Information on setting your aperture to get the starburst effect we discussed briefly:



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