How I shoot

Interested in how I shoot the images I do.    Good.  You have come to the right place.  I found when I first got into photography that a lot of explanations try to be all encompassing and by doing so end up providing a lot more information than I actually wanted and needed.   The first camera book I read was 500 pages or so of very detailed technical information.  I wasn’t much better off when I finished reading it than when I started.  I was actually a little more confused.

It explained a lot of ‘what’ but very little ‘why’.   The tendency of authors to fill pages upon pages with very detailed technical information often frustrates readers who have no points of reference for all of the facts they are hearing.   Often this causes people to lose interest before they have learned what they started out to learn in the first place.    It did for me at first when starting out in photography.   Mostly people just want to understand enough to get started and begin taking images.    Here I will try to explain what settings I use and why I use them.

File Formats

The first thing you have to decide is what format do you want to shoot.   Most cameras offer different sizes of JPEG and several sizes of RAW files.  I shoot RAW files without exception.  There are a lot of benefits of shooting RAW that significantly outweigh any downsides.   RAW files capture the most amount of information available from your camera’s sensor allowing you a tremendous amount of options in post processing.

To process a RAW file, and ultimately convert it to JPEG for broader consumption you will need to use an application that can process RAW files such as Adobe’s Lightroom (which I use), Apple’s Aperture or your camera’s raw processing software.    You can change white balance, brightness, contrast, and a whole host of other things non-destructively meaning that you can make the change and then change your mind and change it again.   This is especially helpful if weeks, months or even years later you repurpose a photograph and need to make changes.  The changes never impact your original file as all ‘settings’ are written to a side file.

I typically do very little, if any, post processing of my photos.  If I need to tweak white balance, exposure or remove dust I want to be working with the highest quality file.   Here is an example of the controls in Adobe’s Lightroom.

Adobe Lightroom Controls

There are a couple of trade offs you need to make when shooting RAW.  First the files are huge.   Mine are about 35MB per photograph.   This means you need to buy extra memory cards and have plenty of storage, both of which are getting cheaper all the time.    When shooting my Leica I typically carry four or five 8GB 30MB/sec memory cards with me.   I used to use larger but I find the Leica performs better on smaller memory cards.    For storage at home I have five 2TB Western Digital My Book Drives.   I also have four 500GB portable Western Digital drives I carry with me when I am traveling as I backup daily to ensure I never lose data.  Storage is very cheap these days so file size should not prevent you from shooting RAW.

One other trade off with RAW is your previews can tend to look flat on your camera’s LCD screen as there is no processing happening in the camera.   I tend to not use my camera’s LCD to evaluate my pictures other than ensure my framing was correct.   I’m finding relying on my camera’s display can mislead me and it is best to view your images on your PC or Mac.

White Balance

One topic that can be a little confusing is white balance.    What you need to know is there are color casts at different times of the day or with different sources of light that can cause the colors in your photos to look un-natural such as too blue, green or yellow.  Typically you can see this in the tone of the skin of whomever you are photographing.   Here is an example of some shots where the White Balance is not correct.

A visual example of White Balance

The goal of white balance is to make sure that colors are rendered correctly like in the last picture in the frame.   I typically leave my camera on Auto White Balance  as my Leica does a very good job of handling and balancing White Balance.  This works for about 99% of my shots.   There are times when the lighting is a little more difficult such as having mixed lighting sources – house lights, light coming through a window and a flash for example.   In this case I might use my X-Rite Color Checker passport to help me correct my White Balance and ensure colors are rendering properly.   Basically you take a photograph of this in your scene then can set a camera profile in Lightroom.   I use this each year when we shoot our family photos at Christmas.

Color Checker Passport

For me those are the two big decisions you need to make in terms of settings in the camera, everything else is made while shooting.    Now let’s review the principles of exposure together.   We have a couple of variables to control our exposure and how light hits our camera’s sensor:  ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture.

ISO – In film photography this determines how sensitive your film was to light. In the digital world it is how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. The higher the ISO the more sensitive your camera will be to light, but this comes at the cost of adding digital noise into your pictures and often at the cost of image quality.

Shutter Speed – This is how long you leave your shutter open thus how long you allow light to hit your camera’s sensor.   You can use this to freeze or imply motion depending on the photograph you are trying to create.

Aperture – How much light you let pass through your lens and onto the sensor. This also controls depth of field or how much of the photograph is in focus.

With time and practice these settings and the outcomes become second nature to you.  It simply takes time and practice to learn how to combine them together to get the effect you are looking for.    Understanding this isn’t the end all of photography but rather the beginning.   These are simply tools to help you achieve the outcome you are looking for.

ISO

ISO or film speed was it is known in Film Photography determines how sensitive your film (in the digital world your sensor) is to light.   When shooting at night you might need to increase your ISO so you have a proper exposure but this comes at the expensive of image quality.  Below are some examples of the impact of increasing your ISO on image quality.  You can see as your increase your ISO you are also increasing the digital noise in your photograph.

A visual explanation of ISO

I want the highest quality images possible so I keep my ISO on my Leica at 160 most of the time.  Different cameras have different abilities of dealing with high ISO.   My Nikon D3s is extremely good at creating high quality images at high ISO.  Some cameras can shoot at incredibly high ISO with very little noise.  I suggest you do a similar test with your camera to determine what is the level of acceptable noise for you.   My basic rule of thumb is I only raise my ISO as a last resort.  There are also creative uses for ISO as sometimes you want to add grain into a photo such as shooting a city at night in Black and White.

Shutter Speed

The next part of exposure to understand is Shutter Speed.   This is simply how long you allow light to hit your sensor.   The simple question you need to answer is do you want to freeze motion or imply motion?   Maybe a taxi is driving by such as in the picture below and you want to stop it and freeze it razor sharp.  You would need a very quick shutter speed such as 1/1000 or 1/750 of a second to stop the taxi.   Perhaps you want to show that a scene you are looking at is very busy and you want to imply motion by capturing the blur of the taxi as it races by so 1/10 of a second might be a better choice.  You can see in this example at 1/750th of a second we could freeze the taxi keeping it sharp and as we slow our shutter speed down to .7 of a second the taxi is all but a blur.

A visual explanation of Shutter Speed

There is no right or wrong with shutter speed but simply what is the effect you want to create.    One consideration you need to think about with Shutter Speed is camera shake.  At a certain point either the movement of your hands or the pressing of the shutter will cause a slight shake that can be visible within the picture.  There are all sorts of rules of thumb out there but basically if you are shooting at a shutter speed of less than 1/50 of a second, you should be considering using a tripod to avoid camera shake.   As you practice and get better you can hand hold to even slower speeds.  Other things you can do to avoid or reduce camera shake is using a soft release button or a timed release so the camera has time to stabilize after you press the shutter and before taking the picture or simply rest it on a table verus holding it in your hands.

Aperture

The last part of exposure and the one I leverage the most is Aperture.  Aperture refers to the size of the diameter of the lens.  The larger the f-stop the smaller the opening.  This is counter-intuitive and can be confusing.  Typically the smaller the f-stop the brighter the lens.   This is often also considered a better lens as well due to the versatility and creative potential of the lens.  Lenses with large f-stops such as 1.4, 1.2, 1 and .95 are called ‘fast lenses’.   I tend to buy fast lenses when possible.  Aside from the creative potential they are great for night shooting.

A visual explanation of Aperture

The creative part of Aperture is controlling what is called Depth of Field, or how much of your photograph is in focus.   Look at the pictures below:

at f/2.8 only the figure is in focus, you can’t really even make out the disk drives behind him.

at f/8 the figures behind him are beginning to become sharp

at f/32 everything is sharp and you can clearly read the labels on each drive.

At f/2.8 the figure is clearly the stand out in the picture where at f/32 he does not stand out nearly as much as he gets a bit lost with all of the busy background.

A visual explanation of Aperture

I tend to favor selective focus so I typically shoot with a big aperture.   The creative options here are really endless.

Lastly focusing…

I always focus manually as you simply get much better images, especially if you are shooting at a big aperture like I like to.  The opportunity for the camera selecting the wrong focus point is too great.

OK so how do we put this all together?

File Format – Raw

White Balance – Auto (most of the time)

ISO – Leave it on the lowest possible

Focus – Manual

This leaves us with a few questions we need to answer:  Are we trying to imply or freeze motion?   Do we want to selectively focus on a certain subject or capture a lot of detail from front to back?  I typically let the answer to these be the primary driver of the setting I use.  For example: if I am looking to isolate a subject I will choose a big aperture such as f/1.4 or f/2.  I have my ISO locked on ISO 160 so all I need to do is adjust my Shutter Speed for a proper exposure, or even better put my camera in Aperture Priority and let the camera set the corresponding Shutter Speed.  If I am trying to capture the trail lights of a car for example, I might set my shutter speed to 2 or 4 seconds and then adjust my aperture for a proper exposure.

I am shooting in Aperture Priority most of the time.  If you are getting started I suggest shooting in Manual Mode for a while as it is a great way to learn how the settings impact your image.  If you are struggling with shooting in Manual Mode try using Aperture Priority or Time (shutter speed) Priority.    In these modes, you set the priority, Shutter Speed or Aperture and the camera will set the other settings accordingly for a proper exposure.    Once you have the shot you want with Aperture Priority or Time Priority, you can switch to Manual mode and you can tweak from here.  Just remember that each setting f/1.4  at 1/90, f/2.8 at 1/60, f/5.6 at 1/15 and f/11 at 4 seconds are all proper exposures but all will give you very different looking photos depending on the creative outcome you are looking for.    Find a subject and practice on the various settings to see how different of a result you can get.

I hope you found this helpful.  If there are other topics you want me to cover, please drop me a line or leave a comment.   As you start to learn the fundamentals you can apply them through some of the lessons in 10 lessons I learnt from daily shooting.

 

28 Comments

  1. This is a great write up for photographers of all levels. Awesome examples and good job making it easy to understand. I’ll be recommending this page to some up and comers when they ask me for advice. ;-)

  2. Thank you very much. I read different shooting guide but your guidance is very easy to understand with example photos. Very useful for newbie like me. Thanks again.

  3. Thanks for the feedback Tungdt… glad it was helpful for you.

  4. Hi there,

    Great website and some good pointers. I was wondering one thing. When I am out and about and taking photos I sometimes struggle with where to take a camera meter reading for. for example if I was taking a photos of a hilly landscape with blue skies with a few clouds, where would I take that reading from. I find it quite tough in some circumstances to get a good even level with exposure.

    If you have any tips it would be greatly appreciated!

    Many thanks

    Richard

  5. Great writeup. One subject that continues to elude me is Metering Modes. I understand how to set each one, but not when to use each one.

  6. You made us explore photography.I will follow up with you in future……….
    Also could you recommand a handy camera which is affordable(price), just to take my family photos for both indoor and outdoor ………

    Thank You,

    Jose.

  7. Jose – Glad it hear it makes you explore your photography. There are a lot of choices in cameras. I think affordable is always a relative thing. My handy camera for shooting my family is my FujiFilm x100. I completely love it.

  8. Hi Brian – Not my strongest topic. I use to drive myself crazy trying to switch them all of the time. The best advice I got was to pick whichever one works best of me, learn it and then continue to use that knowing when you need to adjust exposure.

  9. sir, i have nikon L120 coolpix.. i read you saying to capture image in RAW format. can you tell how to capture in RAW format

  10. Hi Pardeep – I am not sure if your camera supports RAW or not but under image quality or some similar setting your should be able to choose JPEG, JPEG Fine, etc and one option will be RAW if your camera supports the RAW format.

  11. Wow. How to take a great photograph in one page. Love the visual examples. My favorite is the shutter speed one I think!

  12. nice and simple .. understand a bit more now need to practice .. Thanks Dave .. I am a happy bunny ..:)

  13. Amazing tutorial Dave. I am super new to DSLR. Just bought Nikon DSLR but i’m shooting in Auto :) But learning a lot from experts like you.

    You tutorial is just amazing with straight to the point explanation. The visual examples just great. You are an amazing teacher.

    Thanks for a great starters photography guide.

    Please write some more when you find time.

    For me this is precious page :)

    Thanks and regards,
    Krishnam

  14. Very helpful, very thorough discussion of the basics of photography. Thanks for sharing!

  15. Thanks Krishnam…

  16. What a great explanation. I am always being asked the basics of photography and I am just not a great teacher. I will definitely share this link.

    Now – how bout a tutorial on strobe lights?

  17. Just read this Dave. Was a bit late but a really good post.
    I like how you share your information with us.
    Thanks.

  18. Dave, thanks allot for explaining all this in one page! Your photo’s really inspire me to take more photos just like you. I am not pro but i am learning the steps of photography. Thanks

  19. Thanks James. I am glad it was helpful. If there are any parts that are not clear or if you have a question please just let me know.

  20. Thank you very much for this. I’ve been struggling with the Shutter Speed & Aperture and this helped.

    I just had one question. The example with the 750 shutter speed is exactly what I want my result to be however, in the scenario I have, I am limited to a 85-250 mm 4-5.6 and very low lighting. I am using this for gymnastics. We are saving for the 70-200 2.8, but for now this is what I have to work with.

    I’ve been bouncing back/forth with Aperture Priority & Shutter Priority. I can get “some” nice pictures but most of them I have part crisp & other part blurry.

    Am I kidding myself to think I can get good results with this? If I can make do for now, what do you suggest?

    I appreciate your feed back. :)

  21. Hi Margaret – Trying setting it to Shutter Priority and raise up your ISO a bit. If you are shooting gymnastics I assume the most important point is freezing the subject so you want the shutter speed to be the priority vs the aperture. You will notice a marked difference with the 2.8 in the quality of the images you can capture. Good Luck!

  22. Pull 80 is basically an over-exposed ISO160. It lessens the dynamic range and has blues turning cyan. For best image quality, you should therefore in my opinion stick to the base ISO, which is 160. Cheers.

  23. Just wondering: If you are shooting RAW, does it really matter what the camera’s white balance is set to? Or is that info used by Lightroom (or ACR) to use as a starting point?

  24. Alan – It’s the default setting Lightroom starts with.

  25. this is a very nice explanation, i was thinking to start photography but quit the idea whenever i saw the huge piece of paper called book on photography.

    thanks again for the easy and understandable language

    cheers

    Manoj

  26. Thanks Manoj… Glad it was helpful.

  27. Mon appareil photo Nikon P510 n’a malheureusement de format Raw. C’est un bon petit bijou, equipé d’un zOOm surprenant mais il lui manque ce fameux format Raw qui lui fait defaut…le seul, à mon sens.. Merci encore une fois :)

  28. Excellent post. Keep posting such kind of info on your page.

    Im really impressed by it.
    Hi there, You have done a fantastic job. I’ll
    certainly digg it and personally suggest to my friends.
    I am confident they will be benefited from this site.

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