Ever wonder why the photos from your latest DSLR camera or highest megapixel camera phone turn out dark, blurry and missing the oomph?
You are not alone. We buy these latest cameras and phones thinking that they will help us take better, well exposed photos. Yet, with the increase in megapixel, processing power, bigger and better lenses, the photos leave us wondering what went wrong…
Let’s try to understand what makes a great photo, what are the key ingredients of a well exposed photo, and how you can start taking better quality photos almost instantly, as you begin to understand and implement these basic principles of photography.
3 Key Elements of a Well Exposed Photo
We often think that it is the camera that makes great photos. But most of the time, it is not the camera, rather how you handle the camera, the composition, and the key elements of a scene before you press the Shutter button that make the difference between an average photo and a great photo!
A decent, good looking photo is composed well, following the rules of great compositions. It has enough light, is sharp and focused, and shows what the photographer wanted to show to us, clearly and confidently. We’ll talk about great composition in another article. Let’s see what make a well exposed photo first.
The three key elements of a well exposed photo are:
- Shutter Speed
Let’s understand these Basic Principles of Photography.
What is Aperture?
Aperture is the size of the opening in the lens that makes it possible for light to enter through the lens, reach the sensor and get it exposed. Aperture values are usually seen as 1.2, 2, 2.4, 2.8, 3.5, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, 32 etc. Aperture is written as f/2.8.
You can see the maximum aperture listed on a camera’s lens. And upon checking the spec of your mobile phone, you can check the widest aperture setting too on your DSLR or camera phone too!
The smaller the aperture value, the bigger the lens hole is, to let the light into the camera. So a f/1.2 aperture lets in double the light of a f/2 aperture. The higher the aperture value, the lesser the light reaching the sensor. Therefore, an aperture of f/22 is a tiny hole, letting in very less light.
Generally, the more light that enters the lens, the better it is. However in indoor settings, churches, evenings and night, or on cloudy days, there is not enough ambient light to catch the entire spectrum of light.
Our eyes can see many things, but the camera’s opening is not as wide or capable as a human eye. It catches far less light than we can see.
Thus, when we think there is enough light, it is not sufficient for the camera, and it generates dark images. So to get more light into the camera, you will have to open up the aperture to a bigger sized hole (Smaller f value).
A larger aperture is great, but not always. There are pros and cons of a large and a small aperture on the resulting picture.
A larger aperture will result in a shallow depth of field, and the background will be generally blurred. A smaller aperture (larger f value) will result in a higher depth of field, and most of the front and background will be in focus.
The end effect is intentional, and depends on you, the photographer… whether you want to focus only on the rose, or the rose and the entire plant, and the entire jungle behind it.
This is the first aspect of a good photo. Choosing the right aperture opening to light in the right amount of light.
Next, let’s understand how Shutter speed impacts a well exposed photo.
What is Shutter Speed?
Shutter speed refers to the time the shutter opens (just like the opening and closing of our eyelids). It is usually in milli seconds. Common values you might have seen are 1/125, meaning One hundred and Twenty-fifth of a second. That’s pretty fast. Compare it to the human eye, which blinks at 1/300 to 1/400 of a second (even faster…)
The camera has to capture the entire light coming from the aperture within this time. Close your eyes, and blink quickly, and then close the eyes. Think how much of the room, and every object in the room, its colour did you captured? Not much right. Well, the camera sensor is very sensitive to light, and works pretty fast, very efficiently, in a very very short time.
The slower the shutter speed, the more time to capture the scene. The faster the shutter speed, the less time to capture the scene.
Of course, you want the shutter speed slow enough to capture the entire scene, but if the shutter is too slow, and the object moves, the photo is blurred. Even if the object stays stationary, the camera may shake, and again you get a blurry photo.
If you think that you have steady hands, take a shot at 1/4, 1/60 and 1/500 on your camera, without moving the camera. Now see the result, zoom into the picture, and compare which one is sharper, and which one is blurred. I was really surprised when I zoomed in to see each picture below 1/100 of a second slightly blurred.
If you are shooting birds, wildlife or sports with a telephoto lens, even a speed of 1/250 of a second may result in a blurred shot, because the hand may shake slightly, the camera may shake, pressing the shutter button will cause camera shake, and cause some vibrations inside the camera. On top of this, if the bird is flying, or the sportsman is moving, that creates another dimension to the movement, causing it to blur the image.
On the other hand, to avoid camera shake, if you increase the shutter speed, the camera shutter may not open for enough time to capture the shot accurately, resulting in dark images.
Thus, there are many things to think about when choosing an appropriate shutter speed for your photo. You need to balance the need to avoid camera shake, and to capture enough light to make a good quality photo, and the movement of the subject.
A tripod is recommended so that we can forget about camera shake, and rather focus on the capturing of enough light to capture our subject well exposed.
Lastly, let’s look at the third key principle of great photography – ISO.
What is ISO?
In the days of film cameras, there was film speed of ISO 100, ISO 200, ISO 400 available from Kodak, Fuji film etc. The higher the ISO of the film, the faster it was in capturing the light… making it more suitable for shooting in darker places or indoors.
With digital cameras, there is no film; just a sensor inside the camera, which captures the light. It is made of thousands of photo diodes, like pixels that capture the light when the shutter is opened.
Upon increasing the ISO value, you can increase the intensity of the photo diodes to capture the photo. With the increased sensitivity, lesser light is needed to capture the photo. But increasing the ISO value too high makes these photo diodes too hot, capturing noise, grain and small specs of too bright light, spoiling the photo.
Modern digital cameras have ISO ranging from 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, and all the way to 12500, 25600 and even higher. Usually, photos are acceptable only up to ISO 1600 or ISO 3200, after which it is a compromise between quality and grain.
A slightly grainy photo, captured at a much higher ISO, for an important occasion is better than no photo, but a less grainy photo is better than a more grainy photo. So try to keep the ISO as low as possible.
Generally, a lower ISO is preferred to capture the photo at the highest quality.
During the day, in sunlight, you can use, ISO 100, in shade ISO 200, and on cloudy days, use ISO 200 or ISO 400.
Indoors, depending on lighting, you may have to start from ISO 800, 1600 etc. If you are using Flash, it may be ok to use ISO 400 or 800. Experiment and see, since a lot depends on the available lighting in the room, window light etc.
Once you look at the available light and the surrounding light at your subject, you’ll be able to choose the right ISO for your shot. Take a few test shots at different ISO to compare and see what is the lowest ISO you can use, without compromising too much on quality.
Next Steps To Taking Better, Well Exposed Photos
You may be feeling overwhelmed at the number of things you have to consider to take better photos.
Don’t worry too much!
Most modern cameras allow you to tweak only one aspect of these three at any time, and leave the camera to pick the appropriate values for the other 2 aspects.
So in the beginning, I’d recommend that you can start to move your camera from complete Auto mode to the Aperture Priority Mode (Av in Canon, A in Nikon), and only focus on learning Aperture.
Experiment with a bigger aperture (smallest f value), and then take the same photo with the smallest aperture (highest f value). Compare, and learn how aperture makes a big difference in the overall photo.
Once you feel comfortable with using Aperture, you can then move to tweaking Shutter Speeds from slower to faster, one at a time.
Leave the ISO to the last, but do experiment to learn about quality and grain, and how much ISO impacts the photo.
Balancing the right Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO are the 3 key things that will help you to take well exposed photos.
With experimentation, you will become better at choosing better values for these 3 key aspects, and you will begin to see a difference in your photos almost immediately.
Hope this helps. Do let me know if you have any questions. You can leave a comment about your questions, or if this article helped you in any way. I’d love to see your comments, and help you in any way I can.
Written By Vinai Prakash, founder of PhotographyChamp. Vinai is an avid photographer, who loves to experiment with photography, Photoshop and talk photography gear! He teaches Photoshop Courses in Singapore among other things.