Taking the perfect shot

By Jess Teideman January 28, 2015
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Taking photographs with modern cameras has become simple, but capturing truly beautiful images still remains a skill to be mastered

THE TINY BALLS OF hail drum into my face as I kneel in the mud, frantically trying to cover my camera and protect it from the onslaught. I am in Cannonball Bay near Granville Harbour on Tasmania’s wild western coast and, up until the sudden arrival of the hail storm, I was crouched behind my camera, eye pressed to the viewfinder, hoping I had the right shutter speed to take a picture of the waves below crashing into lichen-covered rocks.

I have always been interested in photography, captivated ever since my grandfather let me take a (somewhat out of focus) shot with his Canon AE-1. I bought my first SLR in high school and upgraded to a digital SLR in the last years of my university degree. As I became busier, however, I found the auto mode on my camera and I were becoming very close friends. It just became easier to turn the dial to the little green square and shoot away.

I envied those who could take and create beautiful images, and being on the picture desk did nothing to suppress my jealousy of how seamless some photographers made it look.

So, when a recent upgrade of my camera body forced me to rethink my skill set, I did the only thing I could. I attempted to retrain my automatic-addicted brain and go back to basics… with the help of one of Australia’s photographic masters, Steve Parish.

The right camera

As with all adventure gear, equipping yourself with the right equipment is essential, but finding a camera to suit your specific needs and budget can be a challenge.

How many megapixels do you need? Do you need a full frame or crop sensor? How many points of focus are necessary? If you don’t know the answers to these questions you’re going to have to do some research; chat to the guy in your local camera store, annoy friends with endless questions or hunt around on the internet for information about camera bodies and lenses.

If you find a camera you think fits the bill, but you’re not 100 per cent certain, hire before you buy. Getting a feel for a camera before you fork out the cash to buy it is a great option.

Once you’ve bought a camera, read the manual, experiment with different settings and test your lenses. Find your lens’ sweet spot; the stop where everything is at its sharpest.

Taking care of your gear

Looking after your gear will ensure that when it’s needed, it works. Finding dust marks or fingerprints all over your images after a full-day’s shoot is frustrating… and unnecessary. Always carry a cleaning cloth and cleaning spray – a blower brush can also be handy, particularly if you are shooting in dusty or sandy conditions.

A simple plastic shopping bag can be your camera’s saviour should it start to rain. Keep one in your kit. You should also have your camera and lenses professionally cleaned from time to time.

[TIP] Never use the review on your camera as an indication of focus. By all means, look at the image to make sure you have a nice composition, but always leave the reviewing of focus to when you upload to your PC or laptop. The screen, and screen resolution, on your camera are too small to accurately identify focus.

What is the exposure triangle?

Getting a well-exposed image with the desired depth of field relies on the principle of the exposure triangle.

The triangle itself refers to the way in which the different elements of the camera interact and influence one another in order to take a shot. The three elements that create the exposure triangle are the aperture setting , ISO and shutter speed. Various combinations of these three things can be used to achieve the same exposure, and the key is knowing which one of these to adjust, as each setting also influences other image properties. For example, aperture affects depth of field, shutter speed affects motion blur and ISO speed affects image noise.

What is Aperture?

Aperture, referred to as the f-stop value, controls the area over which light can enter your camera and also affects the depth of field of an image. Setting the exposure for an image can be somewhat confusing because the area of the opening increases as the f-stop decreases.

In other words, the smaller the f-stop value, the more light passes through the camera lens and vice versa. The f-stop also influences the depth of field – or area of an image that is in focus. A shallow depth of field, created by a large aperture, enables you to focus on one focal point of a shot, such as a face, while de-emphasising the background and foreground of an image. A large depth of field will make the entire image sharp, such as in landscape photographs.

What is ISO?

ISO refers to how sensitive the digital sensor is to light. It is measured by numbers, the lowest number being least sensitive to light; the highest being most sensitive. Well-lit scenes with good natural light are ideal for low ISO settings. However, in low-light situations, adjusting the ISO to a higher setting enables you to compensate for the larger aperture and slower shutter speed by increasing the camera’s sensitivity to light. This function may be useful in areas where there is no room for a tripod and you want to avoid camera shake from a slow shutter speed, but beware, the higher the ISO, the more digital noise is produced in your image.

What is shutter speed?

Shutter speed is the length of time a camera’s shutter is open when taking a photograph. It is measured in seconds or fractions of a second. When considering which shutter speed to use you should always ask yourself whether anything in your scene is moving. If there is movement in the scene there are two choices to make: you can choose to freeze the movement (so the object looks still) or to create an intentional blur (giving the image a sense of movement). To freeze movement choose a faster shutter speed and to create an image with blur use a slower shutter speed. The speed you choose will depend on how much of your image is moving and how much motion blur you wish to create. Using slow shutter speeds will sometimes require the use of a tripod to avoid introducing camera movement and unintentional blur.

How to get right exposure

Ensuring that all aspects of the triangle interact in the correct manner can be achieved by using the MAPS settings on your camera: manual, aperture priority, program and shutter priority settings. 

Using manual mode

Manual mode, displayed as M on most camera mode dials, allows you to have full control over the elements of the exposure triangle by setting shutter speed, ISO and aperture independently.

Using shutter speed priority

Shutter speed priority allows you to choose the shutter speed you wish to shoot at while the camera chooses the appropriate aperture. The impact of different shutter speeds enables you to control the movement in an image. If you want to freeze the motion in an image by selecting a fast shutter speed (say 1/2000), the camera takes into consideration how much light is available and adjusts the aperture accordingly. To create blur by selecting a slower shutter speed (such as 1/125), the camera will automatically select a smaller aperture.

Letting the camera determine the aperture will also affect the depth of field. A faster shutter speed with a wider aperture will result in a narrow depth of field, while a slower shutter speed with a narrow aperture will result in a greater depth of field.
Like aperture priority, this mode allows the photographer to control one important aspect that affects the style of the picture, while allowing the camera to automatically handle the other settings.

Using program mode

In Program mode you set the ISO and the camera automatically adjusts aperture and shutter settings according to the built-in exposure meter. This mode differs from full automatic as it enables you to manually adjust other influencing elements such as white balance. Program mode, as with all manual modes, also allows you to adjust the exposure compensation value (EV). This setting is needed because the camera can sometimes make incorrect assumptions about the lighting of an image.

Your camera is calibrated to expose images correctly for scenes that have a mix of dark and light areas. This works well in most situations, as images tend to have both brighter areas (such as sky) and darker areas (shadows). However, this can cause problems if your image is very bright (such as in the snow) or very dark (as in deep green forest areas). In very bright scenes, the camera registers the bright area as the midpoint, making the snow appear grey. Similarly, for dark scenes where the camera will choose a dark area as the midpoint, other objects in the image will appear too bright. EV compensation helps to fix this by telling the camera to expose at a higher or lower setting than it thinks is right. For very bright settings (like the snow or beach), set an EV value as a positive number (+1/3, +1 etc). For very dark scenes, choose a negative EV number.

Using aperture priority

Aperture priority, often abbreviated A or Av (for Aperture value) on a mode dial, allows the user to choose a specific aperture value while the camera selects the appropriate shutter speed for proper exposure.

Manually adjusting the aperture lets you control depth of field in your image. In landscape photography, when you require all objects in the foreground, middle distance and background to be in focus, a narrow aperture is necessary and shutter speed is often irrelevant. In portraiture, a wide aperture allows you to make one focal point and blur out a distracting background.

Another common use of aperture priority mode is to determine correct shutter speed. You could select a small aperture when photographing a waterfall, to allow the water to blur through the frame. When shooting a portrait in dim light, you could choose to open the lens to its maximum aperture to allow enough light for good exposure.

[TIP] Use your histogram. This nifty feature included in most DSLR cameras is a variable graph that shows the areas where all of a scene’s brightness levels are found, from the darkest to the brightest. These values are arrayed across the graph from left (darkest) to right (brightest). The vertical axis (the height of points on the graph) shows how much of the image is found at any particular brightness level. Checking the histogram after a shot can inform you whether it will be under- or over-exposed, and you can then adjust shutter speed, aperture or ISO for correct exposure.

Think about your composition

Being able to capture a well exposed and in focus image is of little consequence if the image is not thoughtfully composed. A practiced outline for composition is the ‘rule of thirds’. The basic principle behind the rule of thirds is to imagine dividing an image into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that you have nine sectors – most DSLR cameras will have this as an option you can view through the viewfinder. The theory is that if you place points of interest in the intersections, or along the lines, your image will be more balanced.

Composition also encompasses the focal point(s) of your image. The focal point will draw a viewer’s attention and hold it. A focal point can be anything within a frame, but placing it in a prominent area (the rule of thirds can help with this) can enhance its power.

One of the most effective ways to enhance your image, and to create interesting focal points, is to change the angle of your shot. Try getting down level with a lizard, or eye-to-eye with a bird, using the rule of thirds to fill your frame. Looking up, down and around you while setting up a shot will help you find the most appealing aspect to create an interesting and well-composed image.

Taking multiple shots of the same scene is also a useful habit to adopt (especially with such large-capacity memory cards available now that can store plenty of images). Try taking four different styles of each composed image. Shooting one (or more) of a landscape, portrait, tight or wide shot will ensure that, when it comes to reviewing your images, you won’t suffer shooter’s regret – wishing you would have zoomed in or changed the orientation of an image.

Always shoot in RAW

Always shoot in RAW (if you can). RAW is an uncompressed, digital negative of an image. Images in RAW show a higher dynamic range (the amount of tonal range detail from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights) and are not processed by your camera as they are in JPEG format, meaning that the image is not adjusted and compressed by your camera. The downside? You will need some form of post-production software to edit RAW files.

When reviewing an image on a PC or laptop, always view at 100 per cent. This will allow you to see if the image is in focus or not, and whether the exposure is the same through the lights and shadows of the image.