Photography tips for beginners – Part 2

So quite awhile ago I decided to start this little series with some photography tips to help out the beginners. I plan to follow this up with some more intermediate and advanced tips for those who are past the beginner stage.  I have great long list of things I want to write about (including a whole heap of things readers suggested) but you might remember that I did the first post way back in August….. it’s now November!  I fully intended to post in this series much more regularly but our recent overseas trip and well, life, has gotten in the way.

Here we go though, part 2.  If you haven’t read part 1, go and check it out. Some of this advice follows on from that post.  This second post is going to focus on a few settings you should become familiar with on your cameras that will help you out and help you learn.

So, you know in my last post when I said you should go and read your manual and start learning about all the different features your camera has? Well, I totally stand by that advice….. BUT…… don’t feel you have to know everything inside out before you can take a great photo. Sure it helps, and it will help you get the best from your camera, but just go out and start taking photos. You don’t need to know everything about photography or your camera to take a great picture!

Cameras, these days….
They are insanely smart!  Even your entry level DSLR or mirrorless camera is an amazing computer that will take awesome images.  The person behind the camera is the most important thing for making great photographs, but you’ll be surprised at what your camera can do to help you with the technical part of photography.


As the average camera these days is so good, there are a few things it can do to help you take great picture while you concentrate on things your camera isn’t good at, like composition.  No matter how smart your camera is, you still need to decide what to point it at…..and a good composition makes a photo. So you can work on your composition skills, and let the camera do some of the heavy lifting on the technical side of things.



Getting off ‘auto’ mode…..

If you’ve been solely (or mostly) using your camera on full auto mode it’s time to get out off auto and start using your camera to it’s full capability.  Getting off auto does not mean you have to switch to full manual mode straight away. Ideally, you want to eventually be confident enough to use your camera in full manual mode when you need to (or want to) but there are a lot of steps in between that you can take to make it easier.


Some people prefer to just jump in at the deep end and force themselves to learn how to shoot in manual mode from the word-go.  I basically took this approach. I never used the auto mode on my first DSLR, mostly because Anto, who did a lot of photography (mostly on a film SLR) long before I picked up a camera, told me I had better learn to use the camera properly. So learn I did. I can assure you I took a tonne of really terrible photos in the process! This approach is most definitely not for everyone.

The auto modes on most cameras will do a pretty decent (even very good) job in some circumstances, you will, however, start getting better results by having more control over the camera.  If you’ve only ever shot in auto mode then try one of the program modes next.  Most cameras have a range of program modes that essentially work like the generic auto mode (you don’t need to make any adjustments to the settings), but have more specialised settings for the type of photo you are trying to take.



Automatic Program modes – these are usually described by a number of symbols on your camera mode dial or in the menus, and can include portrait mode, macro mode, landscape mode, sports mode, night mode and some cameras even include a kids & pets mode, beach mode, panorama mode or snow mode or several other variations.

program-modes night-portrait

The advantage of using automatic program modes over the generic auto mode is that results are likely to be better if you pick the right mode for your situation. For example, the portrait mode will automatically give you a more shallow depth of field (the background will be softer and out of focus, making your subject stand out), the sports mode will give you a higher shutter speed (to help freeze the action) and so on.



This portrait of Astrid and Soren was taken at an aperture of f1.8, giving a very shallow depth of field. This means Astrid and Soren stand out from the background nicely.


This picture at Fitzroy Falls was shot at a shutter speed of 1.6 seconds and an aperture of f29, meaning everything is in focus and the water is soft and milky from the slow shutter speed.p

The trick is to pick the mode for the type of photograph you are trying to take.  The disadvantages are that you have to fiddle with the mode between each photo if you are swapping your subject matter, and the settings are still not particularly customised.  It is likely to give you better results than straight auto mode and you’ll start thinking about the type of photos you are taking rather than only pointing and shooting.


Program Mode (P)

Some digital cameras have a program mode, usually ‘P’ on the mode dial, in addition to auto mode (in a few cameras Program mode IS full Auto mode… confusing isn’t it!). In those cameras that have both, Program mode is similar to Auto but gives you a little more control over some other features including flash, white balance, ISO etc.  Basically, if you put your camera in program mode it will decide the best settings for your photo and you have the option to adjust a few settings from there. You will need to check your camera’s manual for how the Program mode differs from Auto in your particular model, but it can be a good mode to try if you want the camera to do a lot of the thinking but are starting to play with a few settings.


Aperture Priority (A or Av)

This mode you choose the aperture and ISO and where your camera chooses the shutter speed as to ensure you have a well balanced exposure. Aperture priority mode is useful when you’re looking to control the depth of field in a shot (usually a stationary object where you don’t need to control shutter speed). Choosing a larger number aperture means the aperture (or the opening in your camera when shooting) is smaller and lets less light in. This means you’ll have a larger depth of field (more of the scene will be in focus) but that your camera will choose a slower shutter speed. Small numbers means the opposite (ie your aperture is large, depth of field will be small and your camera will probably choose a faster shutter speed).


Outside of manual mode Aperture priority is probably the most useful mode on your camera.  There are some circumstances where you will want to shoot in full manual mode, but a lot of the time Aperture priority is quicker and easier than manual.  You will still need to understand exposure compensation and the affect aperture has on ISO and shutter speed but aperture priority can be a good place to learn this.  I probably shoot in aperture priority about 60% of the time and manual mode about 40% of the time. A lot of the time it’s easier to get a consistent exposure between shots using aperture priority than manual.


Shutter Priority (S or Tv)

Shutter priority is very similar to aperture priority mode but is the mode where you select a shutter speed and ISO the camera then chooses the aperture. You would use this mode when you want to control over shutter speed. For example when photographing moving subjects (like sports) you might want to choose a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion. On the flip-side of this you might want to capture the movement as a blur of a subject like a waterfall and choose a slow shutter speed. You might also choose a slow shutter speed in lower light situations.


In reality I don’t find this mode particularly useful, all though many people swear by it! When my shutter speed is critical (like the examples above) I usually shoot in full manual because I also want to control my aperture as well. I don’t really have too many circumstances when I am happy to let the camera pick the aperture.2016-11-12_0001 ISO 800, 24mm, f9.0, 0.8sec.

This photo of the Vlatava River in Prague was shot at night (in low light). I wanted a slow shutter speed to smooth out the water, but it was shot in manual mode as I still wanted to control the aperture rather than letting the camera pick it for me.

When you are learning it’s definitely a great mode to experiment with. You can learn a lot about shutter speed  using this mode and it’s easier to use than full manual mode.  Give it a go and see what you think.

User modes
Some camera have user-programmable modes, on Nikon DSLRs these are often on your mode dial as U1 and U2 (Canon are usually C1 and C2).  These are modes that you can program with whichever combination of settings you like, meaning you can quickly change to custom settings without having to fiddle with a bunch of buttons and dials. This can be particularly handy if, for example, 2 people use the camera and have different setting preferences, or if you want to quickly be able to change between the base settings you use for example landscapes versus portraits, enabling you to make quicker adjustments.


Anto and I often share the camera (despite the fact we now own several), and I have been meaning to program the one of these buttons so we can easily swap between us. In reality though, we are both pretty good at changing settings quickly without too much fuss so it hasn’t been an issue.

I am planning to set one ‘U’ button up with settings that are easy for non-photographers to use my camera. When people offer to take a photo of us together and I hand over my camera it can be difficult to explain how to use it. I have my camera set up with back-button focusing, which is foreign to most non-photographers, along with a few other tweaked settings.  I sometimes put the camera in auto mode but I can ideally set up a user mode with some pretty typical settings (and with focus through the shutter button) to make it easier for others to get a half-decent picture when using my camera by just pointing and shooting.


One of the things many people struggle with when learning how to use their camera off auto mode is ISO.  ISO is one of the three things you need to control when when setting your exposure (the others are aperture and shutter speed). If you don’t know what ISO is, basically it’s how sensitive your camera is to available light. When your ISO is low, your camera is less sensitive to light. When you use a high ISO it’s more sensitive to light.  Then, why not crank your ISO right up you say? High ISO introduces digital noise into your photos and can negatively affect the way your image looks with regards to colour, shadows and sharpness.

While it’s really important to understand ISO and how it works in combination with aperture and shutter speed, most cameras have a nifty feature called auto-ISO that means your camera will automatically decide the ISO for you (within limits) while you set the aperture and shutter speed (or just the aperture in aperture priority mode, or shutter speed in shutter-priority mode).

How it works is you set the limits of the ISO range you are happy to use within the Auto-ISO setting and  the minum shutter speed you are wanting to used. The camera will automatically adjust your ISO within these limits to achieve a good exposure while you set the shutter speed and aperture you want.  When the camera hits your ISO cap it will start dropping your shutter speed automatically to balance the exposure, so you need to be aware of this and be able adjust your settings accordingly. So you still need to learn about the exposure triangle, you just don’t necessarily need to adjust ISO for every shot and let your camera do some of the thinking.


The trick to using auto-ISO well is to make sure you set limits you are happy with and to only use auto-ISO when your ISO isn’t critical to the shot. I also wouldn’t use auto-ISO if you couldn’t set the ISO cap and the minimum shutter speed cap (some older cameras won’t let you do this) as it is harder to manage the results.


It is important to try your camera out at different ISOs and look at the resulting images. Different cameras handle high ISOs differently. You’ll pretty quickly figure out that your images looks grainy, the colours muddy and they lack sharpness above a certain ISO.  Some of this can be fixed with post-processing software but the quality of images does degrade at high ISOs.

Now back with my first DSLR (a Nikon D80) if I went above ISO 800 it was pretty ugly.  Above ISO 1600 was essentially unusable, even with post-processing and even if it was only a shot I wanted for myself.  I pretty much always stayed under ISO 1000, which is not very high! My next DSLR was a Nikon D7000, all of a sudden I could could use up to ISO 3200 (on a good day a little higher), a huge improvement, but I still had to nail the exposure and I shoot a lot of the time in low light (all those trips to Europe in Winter, it’s dark, a lot!).  My newest camera is a Nikon D750 and it’s awesome in low light, OK so it’s 2016 awesome, it will probably be average in 3 years time.  I don’t have any issues going to at least ISO 8000 and regularly shoot at ISO 10,000 and 12,800 with minimal noise reduction and very good results.  So, my point is you need to know what ISO you are happy with before you start using Auto-ISO. If you are just  mucking around and taking shots for yourself, it’s a great time to try out auto-ISO and see how you like it.


It’s a small world, Hong Kong Disneyland. ISO 6400, 50mm, f1.8, 1/250

I shot most of my photos on the indoor rides at between ISO 6400 and ISO 10,000.  When I got the exposure right there was virtually no noise in the photos, even at high ISO (no noise reduction was applied).

The other things to remember is that there are times you definitely want to be controlling your ISO yourself.  A few examples are night photography, astrophotography, long-exposures, macro photography and any time you are using a flash.

I found using the auto-ISO setting really useful when first learning about exposure. I could shoot in manual mode but have the camera control my ISO within a pretty narrow range (it was back in my D80 days so I had  a very low cap). It taught me a lot about how shutter-speed, aperture and ISO interacted but I didn’t have to be thinking about my ISO all the time.  While I used it a lot when learning I entirely stopped using it for years, figuring it was better to do everything myself for a while. After not very long I was so used to thinking about ISO, that checking it for every shot is second nature and I rarely think about it.   On my current camera I’ve gone back to using auto-iso every now and then (it is much easier to turn on and off than it used to be on my old camera and does a much better job).  I tend to prefer to control it myself most of the time, but auto-iso has it’s place, and it’s worth checking out.

If you haven’t tried auto-ISO give it a go, but just remember it isn’t for every situation and you have to set an upper limit for it and watch your shutter speed.

Automatic exposure bracketing (AEB)

Most cameras will  automatically shoot ‘brackets’ of shots.  These brackets will usually be 3, 5 or 7 shots that are taken at a range of exposures. You generally take one photo at the ‘correct’ exposure and then the successive shots have slightly different settings, one over-exposed by a pre-determined amount (usually 1/3, 1/2 or 1 stop) and the same amount under-exposed.  The images may be combined, into one High dynamic range image (HDR) , or they may bemused so the exposure can be picked later from the batch.



Autobracketing can be useful to help you learn about exposure and determine whether you are getting your exposure right in camera.  The ‘correct’ exposure is the one that either the camera (or you, depending on the shooting mode you are using) has determined based on your settings.  It may not always be the best exposure for the shot. If you have shots a bracket of exposures this means you have additional shots that may actually be exposed better, resulting in less post-processing and a better final image. It also lets you see if you are getting your exposure right most of the time, or if you are often under-exposing or over-exposing your shots. It also lets you see how the same shot looks slightly under-exposed or over-exposed. This can be very helpful when you are learning about correct exposure.


If you are using autobracketing for this purpose, rather than HDR, a bracket of 3 shots is usually best, more is not going to be overly helpful.  There are also a couple of things you need to be aware of.
1) the camera will always shoot the full bracket (in the order you have specified in your settings). If you take your finger off the shutter button before all 3 shots have been completed then the next time you take a shot it will automatically complete the bracket. For example you only shoot 2 of the 3 shots (correct exposure, 1-stop over-exposed). The next time you press the shutter button it will complete the bracket by under-exposing your image by 1-stop from what you have specified, then start the next bracket.

2) You end up with 3 shots of everything.  If you are using this as a learning tool (or insurance policy when you aren’t sure if you are nailing your exposure) you can easily delete the additional photos after choosing the best exposure, but you will fill up your memory card quicker and need more storage space for images.

3) this doesn’t work particularly well for moving subjects.  If you are shooting your kids running around, they are going to move between exposures, meaning the shots won’t be identical but will be at different exposures that you can’t individually control once the bracket has been started.

Keeping this in mind I found it useful to help me learn about exposure and learn about how my camera metered.  You quickly learn what circumstances you might want to be slightly over-exposing your photos and what circumstances you might want to be under-exposing, and when you can trust your metering is correct. Give it a go one day when you are having a play with your camera, just remember to turn it off when you are finished, or you’ll get a nasty surprise when you get your images off your camera and find the exposures all over the place!

There you go, a few things for you to go and try out with your camera. Remember you don’t have to do them all at once,. But have a play around and what your results are, what settings and features you like and when it suits you to use them.

Next time I will talk a little about the different metering modes on your camera and shooting in raw vs jpeg.  I hope this post has been helpful. I’m always happy to answer any questions, and if you have anything you want me to address in a future post let me know – I’m keeping a list of all your requests!

I promise the next post won’t be quite so long in the writing………


One thought on “Photography tips for beginners – Part 2

Leave a Reply