When you’re setting your camera’s ISO, shutter speed, and aperture manually, you’re in, well…Manual mode. You have to be. You wouldn’t be able to set those options otherwise. And really, Manual mode isn’t as scary as it seems. You can begin by setting what you think is correct for whatever type of shot you’re going for and adjust as you proceed. That’s the beauty of owning a digital camera. You can test things out with as many photos as you’d like and not have to pay for any film or developing.
I’ve written some pretty good posts on how these three aspects of the photography triangle work and I’ll link to them below. To keep your interest with something new in this post though, I thought I’d offer you a few scenarios and then tell you how I’d set my camera if I were shooting in them. I’ll leave out the specifics and focus more on where I’d direction these settings. This way, you’ll get a good idea of what you may need to do if you ever find yourself in similar situations. Or, at least you’ll have a starting point.
For the first scenario, let’s say I’m standing outside on a clear day at either just before dawn or just after dusk. They call this the blue hour. The air is still, so nothing is moving. There’s very little light in the atmosphere, but there is some to work with. I’d like to take a landscape photo of a valley full of trees and fields.
Because there is hardly any light, I’ll need to set my aperture to the largest setting as possible. I’ll need as much light as I can possibly muster going through that lens. I will need to be careful of my depth of field though, so if there’s anything in the foreground that I’ll want sharp and in focus, I’ll need to keep that in mind. If there is, I’ll reduce the size of the aperture until appropriate. Learn about hyperfocal distance here.
The nice thing is, since there is no movement in the scene, I can lengthen the time of the shutter speed as much as I want to obtain the exposure I’m after. And because I can take liberties with both the aperture size as well as the shutter speed, I’ll leave the ISO down at 100 or less. I won’t need to compensation for that. So really, it’ll be a balancing act between the aperture and shutter speed primarily, depending on how I have to set the aperture due to the depth of field issue. When a scene is still like this, shutter speed is key. Use all the leeway it gives you to compensate for the other settings.
For the second scenario, let’s say I’m standing on the side of a soccer field taking photos of the players. The action is fast and there’s lots of sun outside. I’d like to get close ups of each player that contain no blur. This is definitely an advanced type of shooting, so here goes. Let’s start with the obvious first. The goal is to take photos of the players close up and with no blur, so we’ll need to set the shutter speed so it’s very fast. To stop motion, the shutter speed will need to be about 1/1000th of a second. Fast shutter speeds like this don’t allow a lot of light through. To compensate, I’ll need to open up my aperture. The aperture size will depend on how far I am from the player I’m taking photos of and how much depth of field I’d like in my shots. If I want lots of depth of field, I’ll open up the aperture wide. If I don’t want lots of depth of field, I’ll shrink it down some. To compensate for the amount of light the aperture is letting through, I’ll adjust my ISO. A big aperture will most likely need a low ISO value and a smaller aperture will need a higher one.
For the third scenario, let’s say I’m at a night birthday party or some sort of an indoor party where there’s movement and not a lot of light. Again, since I definitely don’t want motion blur, I’ll need to start off with an appropriate shutter speed. Since parties might not have as much action and movement as soccer games would, I’ll set the shutter speed to 1/500th of a second. The next thing I’ll focus on is aperture size. Again, I’ll want lots of light to hit the camera’s sensor, so I’ll adjust the aperture as wide as it’ll go. If the exposure is still low after these adjustments, I’ll increase the ISO value. Actually, I’ll probably leave the ISO value set to Auto so the camera can figure out the correct exposure. It’s oftentimes a good idea to keep ISO set to Auto in cases like these.
Obviously, there are many more scenarios, but these demonstrate how you’ll need to start off with what’s most important and then work backwards from there. I like Auto ISO and adjusting the shutter speed and aperture. This gives me lots of freedom and control. To read and learn more about photography exposure and the photography triangle, please click through the links below.
Photography Basics: Shutter Speed, Aperture & ISO
Working With the Exposure Triangle to Adjust Scene Brightness
When to Use Exposure Compensation
What Is Camera Exposure?
Understanding Exposure Compensation in Photography
Comment: Thanks for explaining ISO and shutter speed techniques. I had some confusion, but it’s been cleared up. I normally just like to use auto ISO and auto shutter speed. Not because I know how to do it manually. I am a beginner and would like to know everything slowly.
Reply: Agreed. Slowly is the best way to learn photography. Another great way to learn is to get out there and practice. As you take lots of photos, you’ll discover various necessities. You’ll ask lots of questions for how to do this or how to do that. Bring a notepad or something and write down all your questions. Then, come back here or another photography forum or blog and ask those questions. We’d be happy to help you.