The D(i)S(ney)LR Series: Know Your Camera - (1) Exposure
I already know what repeat readers are thinking: Emily, what the heck? Didn't you just get done telling us not to bother dragging a DSLR to the parks? Yes. Yes, I did. But you and I both know that there are people out there that have put good money into a good camera, and, gosh darn it, they are going to use it. Back when I first discontinued the Weekly Peanut, I asked my Instagram followers what they wanted to see from MinkFlamingos, and photography tips was a hugely popular answer. So... how do I approach this? Just share camera settings for different scenarios? I'm a teacher; that's just not good enough. So I'm taking you to photography school... sort of... Disney style.
I'm hoping to familiarize you with the basic settings on your camera and WHY they exist in these first articles. Future articles will tackle specific shooting scenarios and my advice to make the most of your camera in each of those scenarios AND WHY I make those settings choices.
Shoot. Shoot a lot. Nobody knows how many throw away shots you have except you. All that matters is that you get the ONE good shot. Even if it took 50 for you to get there.
If you've been leaving your camera in auto, do you know what your camera is doing for you? It's prioritizing EXPOSURE. Exposure refers to the overall light level, whether things are too dark or too bright, etc. One of the easiest but least aesthetically appealing ways to get something in focus is to pop up your on camera flash, which is generally the first thing your camera will do if it feels like it's even the tiniest bit on the dark side wherever you are. I say to you NO!! STOP IT! RIGHT NOW! Most DSLR's have ways to compensate for low light WITHOUT using flash (keep reading!).
On your viewfinder, there's a meter that measures the ambient light and factors in the current settings on your camera to gauge how exposed your shot will be. Yup. It's usually across the bottom of the viewfinder, and there's a moving line that follows that meter to let you know how well exposed the camera thinks your current shot is, with the goal being for your gauge to be at the center of the meter (to the right is over-exposed, left is under). How this is figured out is largely based on where your focus point is (the little dot that moves around depending on where you are choosing to focus, look to a coming article for more on controlling your Focus), then the camera looks at the overall light levels of the shot and sort of... averages it together, for lack of getting too complicated. This also means that the meter is NOT foolproof, with lots of factors such as backlighting completely throwing the meter off. This is why I take test shots: no matter what my meter is telling me or how good of a feel I have for my settings, I need to see what it looks like when I take the shot.
My general tip when it comes to exposure is aim to be right in the middle or just a TINY bit underexposed. Under-exposed is easier to fix in editing than over exposed (over exposed shots don't really have any data to recover and will look like... well... not great.
You first have to decide what area of your photo you are going to expose for: brights or shadow.
The idea is that either the brightest area of your shot will be at the right level and your darkest areas will not show a lot of detail, or you expose for the lowest areas of light (the shadows) and then the brighter areas of the frame will be overexposed and not have detail.
So how does exposure work? The way a film camera takes pictures: a piece of film is exposed to light for a particular fragment of time. While that light is being let into the camera an image is recorded onto the film. Digital cameras work under the same principals, except light is being read onto a sensor instead of a piece of film. Ambient lighting obviously has a factor (Full Sunlight vs. the Boo To You night parade). But how do you control exposure levels INSIDE your camera? Behold: the Triangle of Exposure!
Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. All of these are working together (with ambient lighting) to decide the exposure for your shot.
APERTURE- Your aperture (also referred to as IRIS, some cameras will have a little i to indicate where these settings can be changed) refers to the opening within your LENS that controls how much light is being let into the camera. If you look at any lens, it will have some numbers on it. You might see something like 35mm f1.8. 35mm refers to the focal length (a conversation for another day), but the f number refers to the WIDEST possible aperture for that lens. The lower the number, the larger you can open the aperture, the better a lens is at shooting in low light. Some zoom lenses will even have a range, such as f3.5:5.6. This means that, depending on your focal length (the mm), the maximum aperture might be different. All lenses have the ability to be set to a very small aperture, such as an f16 or f22, the only real difference with lenses as far as aperture goes is the widest possible setting. You will be hard pressed to find a zoom lens that goes wider than 2.8. Primes (non zoom) might go as low as 1.4 or more. All of these lenses are potentially exponentially more expensive than the stock zoom lenses that are usually packaged with a DSLR. Quick note: while expensive lenses are a GREAT way to improve the overall quality of your photography, they are not REMOTELY NECESSARY for you to take good shots with your camera (says the girl sitting on a bag of 10 lenses, but seriously, I don't NEED them).
Depending on how much ambient light you are shooting with, you CAN change your aperture to compensate for those light levels and improve your exposure. With that being said, I RARELY use aperture to get the exposure I want. Why? Because aperture has the strongest effect on something called Depth of Field (I'll tackle this concept in article 2- Focus). So we move on to...
SHUTTER SPEED- Shutter speed refers to HOW LONG your shutter of your camera remains open to expose your sensor to light (aperture- how much light, shutter speed, how long). Most shutter speeds are going to be working in fractions of seconds. The only time you're dealing with longer is for "long exposure" shots, such as fireworks or nighttime still photography (but that's a WHOLE other beast).
Shutter speed is the easiest and fastest setting to make minimal adjustments to on the fly if you're working in manual. On my Nikon it's a little knob by my thumb. With a tiny nudge one way or the other, I can move my meter a step left or right to compensate for minor differences in exposure between, say, one side of the Tangled float (in direct sun) vs. a side that is more in shade. Shutter speed also affects motion blur: the longer you have the shutter open, the more likely it is for any moving aspect of what you're shooting at (or even the minuscule movements of you holding the camera) to have a blurring effect. My general advice is, even if shooting static non-moving subjects, you don't want to go below 1/80 second without a tripod if you can help it. For moving subjects (parades, toddlers, dance shows), you'll be much happier keeping it at 1/250 or faster. I'll go into more detail about Shutter Speed when we get to Focus in Article 2.
ISO- For people who remember shooting on Film, ISO is the digital medium's attempt to mimic film speed. I suppose the simplest way to explain it would be to call it GAIN or Light Sensitivity. Essentially, the sensor boosts or digitally lifts the overall exposure levels of the frame indiscriminately to attempt to compensate for exposure. However, the higher you push your ISO, the more grainy your photo will look. With that being said, I find myself being able to clean up ISO grain with relative ease in editing as long as it's under 5000, and I'm not blowing up the picture past around an 8"x10".
So when it comes to choosing your camera settings for exposure, I set my ISO first based on the ambient lighting. I NEVER use auto-ISO, since most scenarios that might call for it are low lighting/spot lit shows (such as Hocus Pocus or Finding Nemo), and your on camera meter is NOT your friend for spot lighting shows (I mean, it can be if you adjust your meter settings, too, but that's a level of complicated I'm trying not to dive into just yet in these articles). If I'm shooting in DIRECT and/or Full sun (castle show, Magic Kingdom daytime parades, outdoor unshaded character meetings), I usually let my ISO hover between 100-800 (TEST SHOTS TEST SHOTS TEST SHOTS). The lower your ISO is, the less work you have to do in editing. However, if you keep pushing your ISO lower, you may have to compensate a bit with Shutter Speed or Aperture. But I say again, choose your aperture setting (if you can) based on things I'm going to discuss in article 2. When you're first starting out and shooting in full sun? Try working with an f8. Again, the Shutter Speed is where I do my on the fly tweaking once I've decided on where I want my ISO and Aperture to hang out for the duration of the particular scenario I'm going to shoot. Yes, this means every time I change locations, the camera settings are rechecked and adjusted. That's as it should be.
There's one last thing to touch on for Exposure, and that's White Balance. White looks different to your camera based on the TYPE of ambient light being used to expose a shot (sunlight looks blue, incandescents look yellow, etc etc). I don't beat myself up too much about having White Balance 100% nailed down, especially if I'm in a hurry, because I shoot RAW and I spend a lot of time color correcting my shots (it's a huge peeve of mine). With that said, you can really set yourself up for less work and better happiness with your shots out of the camera if you choose a White Balance that's reasonably close to what you're working with at your location. It can even make a bit of a difference with exposure, I've found.
Come back soon for Chapter 2. I'll be digging a little deeper to discuss how and why you can control what is in focus in your photo.