One of the biggest issues for someone to deal with after they purchase a new DSLR camera is trying to figure out how photography works. I mean, let’s be honest here, there are a ton of buttons and levers to contend with on most cameras out there. On my Canon Rebel T7i, there are 15 buttons on the back alone. On the top, there are four more and that doesn’t include the dial or mode selector. What’s worse is that these buttons aren’t that well explained; they use small symbols and letters, which leaves someone who’s new at the sport doing a lot of guessing and trial and error.
Obviously, the best way to deal with all of this is to learn how your camera operates and how the fundamentals of photography work. It really doesn’t take that long to do. Give me a few hours and I could have you outside shooting away. The knowledge gained today would help you far into the future and with this new knowledge, you would have the ability to get as creative as you wanted to. No more guessing and hoping that a shot would come out perfectly. If you know what you’re doing, you’d set a goal and manipulate your camera to meet that goal. You can’t do that if you’re guessing.
The reality of it is that many folks don’t want to get all that deep into things. The questions most of us ask are, “How do I take photos at night?” Or, “How do I take pictures of star trails?” Or, “How do I get a good picture of the moon?” These are some of the most popular questions out there. And don’t get me wrong, I admit that I do this too. I ask questions like this all the time and then hunt around the internet in an effort to find the answer. Sometimes I simply don’t have the time to work through an entire lesson. I just want to know how to take a decent picture of the moon already. It’s 9pm, I have my camera in my hand, so what do I do? I get it.
I think I’m going to structure today’s post a bit differently than I normally do. What I’m going to do is show you a photo and then I’ll work through the considerations I would take if I wanted to take the same exact photo. I’ll set some goals for the type of photography that was used, based on what I see in the picture. Then, I’ll offer some suggestions that are based on the principles of photography. It’s easier than you think. Trust me.
This is the image I’ll be working from today. It’s of two young people kissing in front of some car headlights. This can be a tricky photo to capture, so hopefully we’ll all learn something.
Setting to Consider While Taking This Photo
Let’s get into the settings now. I already know that you all have DSLR cameras, so that’s not a concern. You have Auto, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and full Manual mode at your fingertips. For this photo, you’ll likely need manual mode the most.
Now let me ask you a question. What jumps out at you when you look at the above photo? If you wanted to take a picture that resembles this one, what one setting do you think is an absolute must? If you had this image in mind before heading out into a snow storm, what one thing would you look up on the internet to help you capture this occasion?
Shutter speed. That’s the answer. Do you see the snowflakes suspended in mid-air? I certainly do. If you’ve ever taken photos of the falling snow before, you know that even though it looks like it’s lazily falling to the ground, it’s actually coming down pretty fast. If this photo were taken using auto mode, the camera may have gotten the lighting right, but it’s almost guaranteed that the shutter speed would be so slow that it would look like spaghetti is hanging from above. And honestly, this photo wouldn’t be nearly good if there were snow flake trails as opposed to independent flakes. So shutter speed truly is a priority. Hmmm…did I just say shutter priority?
This photo was actually take with a 1/400 of a second shutter speed. In my opinion, that’s the slowest you can go with snow like this if you wanted to see the individual flakes. Of course, it depends on what type of snow it is and how fast it’s really coming down, but around 1/400 of a second is good. If this were a daytime shot, I would make the speed even faster at 1/500 of a second because more light would be coming through the lens, but we’re not dealing with daylight here, so forget I said that.
Okay, so far, I could set my camera to use shutter priority and I could set a 1/400 of a second shutter speed. Would that be all I need to do? Probably not.
Now, I just wrote a post the other day that talked about using a slower shutter speed and a lower ISO for night photography. The reason for these settings was because I wasn’t dealing with movement. In a case such as the one in today’s photo, movement is the true priority. That’s why I led with this first shutter speed setting. Now it’s time to deal with two other areas; blur and lighting.
So here’s a little trick you can use to take good photos in any priority mode. If you’re using shutter priority (Tv), go ahead and set up the shot with the shutter speed you’d like to use. Then, push the shutter button half way down to meter the shot. Be sure you can see the settings through either the view finder or on the rear live view screen. See what the camera likes and sets the aperture size to. I, as well as many photographers out there, think this is a great place to start. The camera has sensors built into it that will offer a pretty good indication of what type of light it needs to get a healthy photograph. After a few test shots, you can either open or close the aperture to meet your needs.
You can also reverse this and start off with aperture priority. Meter the shot to see what shutter speed the camera likes and then go from there. It’s the same concept for either priority. One more thing – you can also set up a shot using auto mode and record the settings the camera likes. Then, to get creative with your shot, you can jump to full manual mode and plug in the setting you just recorded. To get creative, move each setting until you get what you’re after. You’re going to need a starting spot, so the easiest thing to do is to let the camera choose if for you.
Just to let you know, even though there are headlights shining in this photo, it still doesn’t compare to daylight. If I took this photo in shutter priority, the camera would likely want a fairly decently sized aperture to compensate for the lack of light that fast shutter speed would cause. In this case, the aperture used was f1.8, which is rather large. If the camera chose that and the test photos made you happy, then stick with shutter priority. If you were getting way too much blur because of the shallow depth of field caused by this large aperture, then you’d have to switch over to full manual mode and then play with the ISO. Because of the way the headlights hit the snow in this scene, it appears that this aperture size worked well.
ISO can work wonders with night photography like this. I’ll tell you, in this shot, that large aperture size saved the day. The ISO used for this photo was only 800, which is pretty low, relatively speaking. It could have been a lot higher if a different lens was used. I have an 18-135mm lens that will only open to f5.6 when zoomed in. If I used that lens for a shot like this, the ISO would have shot through the roof. The camera needs to get light from somewhere and if it’s not getting it through the shutter or the aperture, it’s going to look for it in the ISO (sensor sensitivity to light). This is fine, but the issue we deal with when using high ISO values is noise. The higher the ISO, the more noisy the photo. Even though camera manufacturers have made great strides in reducing high ISO noise, it still exists and it still needs to be considered. When engaging in photography, you’ll need to make compromises here and there. Luckily, we’re in a day and age that offers cameras of such high quality at such little cost. As long as we have a general sense of what we’re doing, we all can take really great photos.
A Few Caveats
I want to remind you that there is no perfect photo. There is only a perfect photo for you. No one can tell you that you captured a scene incorrectly. If you’re happy taking every single picture in auto mode with your DSLR camera, then so be it. Enjoy. There may be times though where you’ll need to step out into a priority mode to acquire a special look you’re after. In these cases, you’ll need to formulate what your goal is. Take that mental image and then translate it into your camera settings. In the case of the photo above, the mental image was very still independent snowflakes, not much blur caused by the shallow depth of field (the odd lighting helped with this) and good enough lighting to make the photo look presentable.
Also, you’ll likely need to experiment with your settings in the field. It’s tough to do this on your couch at home because you can’t replicate what you’re going to experience outside. If you’re doing studio work, then sure, you can replicate that setting every time. If you’re taking pictures of elephants though, you’re going to need to work those settings like it’s nobody’s business. I hope you play around in your back yard before you go on safari though. You don’t want to miss out on those elephants.
Finally, please remember that you can really help out an image in post-processing. Applications such as Adobe Camera Raw, Lightroom and Photoshop can work wonders on otherwise marginal images. In today’s photo, as long as those snowflakes were captured properly, there’s an area of correction that could take place. Not a huge area, but an area.
If you’d like to learn more about photography in general, I encourage you to browse through the posts I’ve written on the subject. In all honesty, there really isn’t that much to learn. Some people are intimidated by what seems like a lot, but if you can get the general concept of how the camera works, you’ll pick this stuff up very quickly. I promise.
I hope I clearly explained how to set up camera exposure for a night time falling snow photo shoot. If you have any questions regarding this post, please leave them in the comment section down below. Thanks for reading!