Practice makes photos but just shooting isn’t enough – you must perform deliberately and assess your skills. Here is a checklist of 3 important settings to master in order to increase your number of good shots in the new year. Even if you already know these, reviewing the basics keeps your skills well-honed.
Use Your Semi-Automatic Modes and Learn How to Override the Results
In Aperture Priority (Av or A) mode, you set your aperture to taste and your camera picks a shutter speed and ISO for you (great for depth of field work without a lot of movement). In Shutter Priority mode (Tv or S), you set your shutter speed to taste and your camera chooses the f/stop and ISO (great for action). In either of these modes, your camera is trying to figure out what setting to use depending on the amount of light that’s in the scene. These modes are very helpful because you can set and forget your shutter or aperture and let your camera do the rest by adapting to the scene for you. This allows you to focus on the moment and less on exposure settings from scene-to-scene.
These modes might quickly frustrate you when your exposure results aren’t to your liking. In Tv mode, you can change your shutter to be faster or slower to freeze/intentionally blur a subject but the exposure levels will remain the same because your camera will have changed either the ISO or aperture setting at the same time to maintain what it thinks is an exposed scene (especially in a metering mode that dictates trying to keep the entire scene as exposed as possible – metering modes are discussed next). Likewise, in Av mode, you can change your aperture to have a longer or shallower depth of field but the exposure will remain relatively constant thanks to the camera’s quick efforts to adjust the ISO and shutter speed to adapt.
Fortunately, you do not have to just accept the camera’s interpretation of “exposed” if you don’t want to. This is where Exposure Compensation comes in. With either the twist of a dial (like on a Fuji or Olympus Pen) or by holding down the +/- button and spinning one of your controls dials (on my camera, I hold down the +/- button and spin my shutter speed dial), I can override the exposure reading and intentionally over or underexpose my scene by up to 2 or 3 stops (depending on your camera).
Exposure Compensation is a life saver for when everything else in your scene is exactly how you want it – it has the right amount of bokeh (or “out of focus” elements) and the right level of sharpness – but the exposure is just a little off. It is especially useful in snow because the camera will almost always try and meter it closer to middle gray than white. Increasing your Exposure Compensation will counter that in Av or Tv modes easily.
Go shoot a casual event where the results don’t really matter. Experiment letting your camera decide your settings (if you’re shooting a fast-paced event, shoot Shutter Priority and set your shutter to a fast speed) but then use the Exposure Compensation dial to creatively under and overexpose your results purposefully.
Set Your Metering Mode to Expose for the Things You Care About
By default, most cameras are set to a Multi/Matrix or Evaluative metering setting. This is your internal light meter that helps you determine if your settings will under or overexpose your scene (you can see this in action in your viewfinder or LCD).
How good this light metering is for your scene will be determined a lot by what metering mode you’re in. It’s a very important camera setting that many beginner photographers never touch. There are 3 main kinds to choose from:
This metering considers the entire scene and tells you whether your settings will under or overexpose the scene based on its reading of the whole environment. This is a tough job for cameras, especially when faced with a scene that has a lot of bright and dark subjects together. If you don’t really know what you want to expose for, or you’re shooting in a pretty evenly-lit environment, this is the setting to use. It’s a default setting that works for a lot of everyday snapshots.
Center Weighted Metering
This metering considers only the center of the frame. If you’re photographing someone who is backlit but in the center of your frame, the metering is going to only consider the person and not what’s surrounding them. This will result in a light reading only of the subject, which may result in overexposed backgrounds. Shooting a tree in the middle of the frame? This is a great meter setting for it.
However, not everything and everyone is in the center of the frame all of the time. This is where Spot Metering comes in. Spot Metering is often the preferred metering mode for event photography. The camera considers anything that your focus point is on and ignores the rest. This is great for isolating subjects that are important, even at the risk of over or under or overexposing the environment.
Get familiar with the metering mode button or menu setting on your camera and do a natural light portrait session in a semi-automatic mode (to get started, use Av mode in order to lock in a nice out-of-focus background using a wide f/stop and let the camera choose the shutter speed/ISO). Try half of the session in Matrix Metering and the other half in Spot Metering and compare the results.
Learn the Difference Between Focus Area and Focus Mode
If you’re not nailing focus but you feel like you’re doing everything right, your focus area and focus mode might be working against each other. There are 2 settings to consider when using autofocus:
Focusing Area is how your camera knows where in a scene to direct focus. It allows you to pick a certain area in your frame to use your focus points on. It allows you to decide whether you want focus points to prioritize a single target in your scene, a group of targets within a larger set of targets in a scene, or any target in a scene at any time. Your choices will be some variation of the following:
Single Point Selection or Center
Zone-Based Selection (different numbers of points within a restricted area of your angle of view)
Expanded with Selectable Spot (a cluster of points surrounding a single point of your choosing)
Focusing Mode changes the behavior of focus, such as whether a camera will reattempt focus every time a subject moves around or just lands on a designated area and locks focus despite the subject’s movement. Most cameras only have variations of 2 basic Focus Mode types: single mode (AF-S or One Shot) and continuous mode (AF-C or AI Servo). Single modes will put focus exactly where you have placed your focus point in your viewfinder. Continuous modes will reattempt focus when the subject moves within the restrictions you have placed on it with your Focusing Area.
In AF-S, the shutter will often not let you take a picture if the subject falls out of where your focus point is. In AF-C, the camera keeps measuring focus and readjusting for as long as the shutter button is half-pressed. While AF-C is ideal for action, it is a drain on batteries. AF-S can be very precise if you plan your scene.
Changing Your Focus Point
You must learn how to manually change your focus point, especially when using AF-S and Single Point Selection modes.
Here are the steps for manually moving your focus point around (typically – always check your camera’s manual): activate focus point selection (by selecting the button with the little squares, similar to the button in the image above) and then use a wheel or joystick to move it around. You should see your point light up in your viewfinder or on your LCD.
Here is how to find the focus point on most advanced Canon cameras (such as the 5D Mark III):
Here is how to find that on most beginner Canon cameras (such as the Rebel Series):
Here is how to find that on most advanced Nikon cameras (such as the D800):
Here is how to find that on most beginner Nikon cameras (such as the D5500):
The more AF points your camera has, the more flexibility you’ll have in choosing exactly where to place your focus point. Each camera has a different number of AF points at its disposal. While not required for good photography, better and newer cameras tend to have more AF points.
Take your camera out with a moving subject, like your dog. Experiment with how well your camera automatically reassess focusing as your dog walks. Does it improve when you change your focusing area? When your subject is sitting, take the time to practice manually moving your focus point. After awhile, moving your focus point will begin to feel natural. As a beginner, it’s also important to understand exposure and the components that can help you become a better photographer. Utilize our shutter speed chart complete with tips and tricks to help make your shots that much better.
I hope you explore these settings and really learn them in the coming year. You’ll have a better relationship with your camera when you fully explore its potential. Often, people feel they need to upgrade when really they just never learned how to properly set their camera up for success in the first place. Using the appropriate settings at the right time goes well beyond just AF vs MF or Auto vs Manual. There is a lot of gray area to explore! You can also check out our portrait photography tips for more tricks.