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Camera Equipment, Photographing

Julia’s Predicament: Getting off the Auto Setting

As you may recall in a previous post we talked about Julia’s Predicament, essentially about moving away from the low quality point and shoot cameras to an APSC sensor camera. Having seen the significant difference between the sensor size of a point and shoot and an APSC camera, and the fact that APSC mirrorless cameras are often no larger, Julia decided to upgrade to an APSC mirrorless camera. Armed with concrete information from the last post, Julia was able to communicate to her local camera store her exact needs, successfully avoiding a decision that might be more about a salesperson’s need to fill a quota or rush a sale.  Julia is now the proud owner of an APSC sensor mirrorless camera. The camera is taking excellent pictures but on occasion the fully automatic setting is failing to deliver. So now she is wondering how to get the camera off the automatic mode, so she take even better photographs.

The Quick Answer

There are three primary adjustments on any camera, ISO, “A” (aperture) and “S” (speed). Most photographers set the ISO at the lowest setting, unless there is not enough light. In most cameras the lowest setting is either 100 or 200 ISO. Why the lowest setting? The lowest setting provides the highest quality and least amount of noise. So lets assume you set your ISO at its lowest setting. Then there are only two other settings to worry about, you either manually set your speed, which causes the camera to choose you aperture, or you manually set your aperture which causes the camera to set your speed. None of the suggestions below are for setting the camera on “M” which is full manual, this we should leave to another post. Most photographers prefer to set aperture to manual, so the depth of field stays constant, but this also we should leave to another post.

Fixed Speed

If you are not using a tripod and you to set the speed manually, this causes the camera to choose the aperture as the light changes. The speed you set would depend on how steady your hand is and if their is anything moving in the photograph. Keep in mind if you are shooting with a lens greater than 85mm, the higher the number the greater the magnification of motion you will get. The list below is for lenses below 85mm.

  • 1/60 is good if you have a steady hand and nothing is moving in the scene you are about to shoot. (hand held without a telephoto lens > 85mm, see conversion table)
  • 1/125 is better if you have an unsteady hand. (hand held without a telephoto lens > 85mm, see conversion table)
  • 1/150 – 1/500 can freeze the most action such as sports. (hand held without a telephoto lens > 85mm, see conversion table)
  • 1/1000 – 1/4000 for action that is close to the lens (hand held without a telephoto lens > 85mm, see conversion table)

As the light diminishes the aperture number will fall. This will decrease your depth of field, or reduce what is in focus. Once if falls below the minimum aperture of the lens (this is usually written on the lens, typically on a kit lens it will be f 3.5 – f 5.6), the camera will continue to shoot but you photographs will be underexposed. If this happens raising the ISO will help to stop the underexposure problem.

Fixed Aperture

All lenses have “sweet spots.” In other words the lens is sharpest and has the least flare present, at a certain aperture setting. In most lenses this is f5.6 and f11, you will either need to run a test yourself or do a little research on your lens. Why is this optimal? The lower the number the larger the area of the lens is uses and lenses become less reliable near the edges. The higher the number the more acute the the angle of light and the smaller the area of the lens is used, and therefore the greater the possibility of introducing flair.

Why would you want to set the aperture manually and let the camera choose the speed?

  • it allows you to use the best qualities of the lens improving the quality of the shot.
  • it will give you greater depth of field, meaning that more of the picture will be in focus.
  • it can also give you a shallower depth of field, by using a low f stop like f1.4. This is usually done when taking portraits and you want the background to be out of focus to give the portrait greater emphasis.
  • it allows you to minimize flare.

Keep in mind you will have to check the speed from time to time as the strength of the light changes. If the day becomes too bright and you have a low f stop, you might reach the fastest speed of the camera. In this case the camera would overexpose the shot. You can fix this by increasing the f stop.

In Doors

Shooting indoors generally means there is not enough light. Photographers have a series of strategies to address this problem.

  • Choose a lens with a very low minimum f stop such as f 1.4. In a room lit by artificial light this should allow you to set the speed manually too 1/125 or 1/60 and the camera automatically choose a speed over f1.4. If the room is darker then the ISO may need to be raised to allow for the shot.
  • If you do not have a fast lens ( f 1.4 to f 2.8) and you are using a kit lens then a tripod is a good strategy. Place the camera on a tripod, set the aperture manually (letting the camera choose the speed) and use the timer or a shutter release to trigger the camera. Keep in mind in some churches and public places tripods are prohibited.
  • Create an informal tripod, you can do this by bracing the camera against a pillar or fixed object in the room.
  • If you have neither a fast lens or a tripod, then the only thing to do is raise the ISO, see below to understand the implications of ISO at certain settings.
  • Another strategy of course is to bring your own light source, such as an off camera flash that can be bounced off of walls and ceilings. Keep in mind this does not work well in some environments like art galleries and churches where flash is ofter prohibited. If it is allowed most flashes when synced with the camera will control the camera settings automatically.

A Tripod

Tripods are often the first piece of equipment a photographer will buy after getting a camera, as it will open up a range of possibilities that are not possible without one. Here is a list of things you can do with a tripod:

  • You can do long exposures during the day. For example you can photograph a waterfall and have the rock face sharp as a tack, but the water can be blurred to give it an elegant silky look.
  • You can do high dynamic range photograph, HDR. You can read up on this on the Google Nik software site.
  • When you are using a telephoto lens and you do not have enough light. The tripod in this case will ensure you do not get camera shake, while you are taking the photograph.
  • When you want to freeze the background and show some motion blur when shooting sports. This is a similar technic the the waterfall example above.
  • Night photography of any kind will require a tripod to take the long exposures necessary to capture you image.
  • Photographing star trails. This is a form of night photography that leaves the lens open long enough to blur the movement of the stars in the sky.
  • Time lapse photograph where a series of stills is used to create a movie. For example sunset to sunrise in the four minute movie. If you are interested you can google time lapse photography.
  • Panoramas can be shot more accurately if you have a tripod that allows the camera to be fixed vertically and then rotated horizontally so many degrees for each shot. Most tripods will have a degree chart on the head. The Digital Photography School site has a good explanation.
  • Tripods in most low light situations will help improve the quality of the photograph. In addition to allowing you to make sure the camera horizon line is correct.

Once Julia decides to buy a tripod then she will have to consider the merits of keeping her camera on aperture priority “A,” this will open up a whole new area of photography for her.


If you discover that even with the speed set at 1/125 there is not enough light for the camera to take a picture, and you have no tripod, you may need to put your ISO up to a higher setting. This will allow the camera to take photographs in situations where it can not take them if the ISO is set at 100 or 200.

ISO is really the speed of film or in the case of digital photography the sensitivity of the camera to light; so the higher the ISO setting the more sensitive it is to light. This means if your camera is set on “S” then as you increase the ISO the aperture setting increases, which means the aperture moves, for example, from f/2.8 upwards toward f/22.

What are this issues with Raising the ISO

Raising the ISO can increase noise, but also allows you to pick a more favourable f/stop and changes your depth of field. Here are some quick words about these three variables.


You will notice in your images that the higher the ISO the more noise is in the image (in the film they described this as an increase in grain). This increase in noise is illustrated in the diagram below. (More illustrations can be found on the home site of this image.)

You will need to experiment with your camera, as each camera handles noise differently, some more effectively than others, to find what level of noise is acceptable to you. Its is purely a subjective thing.

Depth of Field

The second thing that happens simultaneously as the aperture settling increases is the depth of field increases, which simply means more of the photograph comes into focus. This is illustrated by the three heads in the following three photographs. In the first photograph at f/2.8 only two heads are in focus, in the second at f/5.6 the third head is less blurred and in the final photograph at f/8.0 the third head is in focus. (Follow this link to Cambridge in Colours webpage for in-depth explanation.) 

ISO f/8.0

The Lens Sweet Spot

Most lens have a range where the f/stop maximizes the quality of the lens. So this is usually around f/5.6 or f/11 (but this various according to the lens) if you have a lower f/stop then more of the lens is used to create the image and as more of the lens is used more distortions can begin to appear, for example vignetting or slightly less sharpness around the edge of the image. To put it simply the lens is most accurate in the middle and less accurate at the edges. You might think why not just go for a very high f/stop, but the higher the f/stop the more likely you are to get diffraction and this will reduce the sharpness of the image. It is best if you can to shoot around f/8 or f/11 with most “kit” lenses but really this particular problem is best left to another day. This issue warrants a discussion about what lens is best for what kind of photography and this can all come later on, after a tripod has been acquired.



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