Photography basics: ISO

Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve taken one great shot after another only to get home and realize that the photos are all pixellated and grainy-looking when you pull them up on your computer? If so, there’s a pretty good chance that your ISO was high. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had several cameras and phones that would consistently give me grainy photos when I was shooting indoors on Auto. In today’s photography basics post, we’re going to take a look at ISO and what you can do to about it.

ISO is an acronym that stands for International Organization for Standardization. It’s a standardized scale for measuring your camera’s sensitivity to light; in the olden days, this actually had to do with the kind of film you were using. You can read more about that here since I’m focusing on digital photography. In the digital world, ISO determines how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. A higher ISO makes it more sensitive, so you can take photos with a high shutter speed or with a small aperture in low light. However, ISO also introduces noise to your images, which can be undesirable.

I zoomed in on this one so the noise would be more apparent. Click to see the full version.

The noise comes from the way your camera’s sensor works. A high ISO setting causes it to group pixels together, which is what creates those grainy off-color dots you see in a noisy photo. Cameras with larger sensors tend to have more pixels and smoother images in low light. Full frame cameras, which have sensors the same size as a 35mm film frame, are really good for shooting smooth images at higher ISO settings. Of course, a full frame camera is going to set you back more than a few pennies…It may not be worth the investment if you don’t have money burning a hole in your pocket and you’re not inclined to go pro. Newer cameras (say those made within the last 3 years or so) also get better low-light photos than older cameras; they’re designed to reduce the amount of noise and give the grain aesthetic appeal.

In my experience, I got a lot of noisy photos when I was only shooting in auto. Since I’ve switched to manual and taken control of my exposure, I rarely have issues with noise anymore because I try to keep my ISO setting as low as possible. Sometimes it’s unavoidable depending on what you’re trying to photograph, though.

Typical situations where you might want a higher ISO setting are indoor sporting events, concerts (make sure photography is permitted before you go), caves, nighttime or overcast outdoor shoots, or anywhere you need to take a quick picture but just don’t have enough light. Extremely long exposures can also create noise by causing your camera’s sensor to overheat–which is another reason you need to make time to really learn the strengths and weaknesses of your gear. A flash will help but it can also make your images look harsh or washed out, and some places don’t allow flash photography, so it’s not always the best way to go.

Here are a few examples. I took these pictures at the Lost Sea Adventure, a cave in Sweetwater, TN.

This formation was well lit already, but shooting with a low ISO was still too dark. Flash helped to brighten things up a bit more and it doesn’t look too washed out.

 

Anthodites on the cave ceiling. The noise example above is a zoom-in on this shot.
The sea itself is stocked with rainbow trout. Again, you can see the graininess in the water that’s due to the high ISO setting.

Later, I’d like to come back to this subject and talk in detail about things that can be done to reduce the amount of noise that’s present in photos taken with a high ISO setting. For now, I’m just going to give you a few bullet points.

  • Newer cameras have some built in noise reduction, and if your camera is less than about 3 years old, this post may be irrelevant to you. But if you’re a dinosaur like me, there are things you can do without shelling out the big bucks to replace your camera. I mean, unless you just want to buy another camera. (Don’t we all? I like my T3, but I’d looooove to upgrade to a full frame).
  • Keep your shutter speed as low as possible and your aperture as wide as possible.
  • Use a tripod and shutter remote.
  • Consider shooting in black and white instead of color.
  • Shoot in RAW whenever you can. JPEG files are already compressed and inherently contain noise called JPEG artifacts. I have my camera set up to record images as both a RAW (CR2) file and a JPEG. The downside to shooting in RAW is that you have to convert the files before you can upload them anywhere, and a lot of low end editing software and web apps don’t support the RAW format.
  • Edit. I can’t help you much with this one at this time, but you can find tutorials online if you look. The laptop I have right now doesn’t support Photoshop or Lightroom very well. When I upgrade to a better system, I’ll go over this in more detail. I know there are people who criticize photographers for editing photos, but I think some editing is just a part of the process. Authors don’t get criticized for editing their books. How is cleaning up some noise any different than ironing out spelling errors or bad dialogue?

I think that’s all I’ve got for today. Next week, I’m planning to spend a little time going over the math behind the elements of exposure and the relationships they have with each other and with your camera’s sensor. It’s going to be a little more advanced, but I’m hoping it won’t be confusing if you read my other posts first (links in case you missed them: exposure, shutter speed, aperture). In the meantime, please make sure you share this with your friends! Do you have any questions for me? Is there a topic you’d like to see me cover as part of my basics series? Please let me know by leaving a comment below. Thank you!

Photography Basics: Aperture

Welcome to another photography basics post! This week we’re continuing the exposure theme and talking about aperture. Your shutter speed, ISO, and aperture settings work together to form the foundation of an image by controlling how much light reaches the sensor of your camera, as well as how it happens.

Aperture is probably my favorite element of the exposure triangle because it allows you to add depth to your photos. Here’s how it works. If you imagine that your camera’s lens is its eye, the aperture is the pupil. It dilates or contracts to allow light to reach the retina or, in the camera’s case, the sensor. A wider aperture, like a wider pupil, allows more light to pass through to the sensor while a narrow aperture keeps some light out.

I might come back and replace this one later…

Different lenses will have different aperture ranges available to them, so keep that in mind when you’re shooting; you might end up needing to move around a bit or even switch lenses to get the best possible photo.

I think the most confusing part to aperture is how it is measured. Aperture is expressed in f-stops; the higher the f-number, the smaller the opening. So an aperture of f/16 is a fairly small opening, while f/1.4 is very large. There is a reason behind this, but it’s…a lot of math. I plan to go over all of the math behind exposure stops in a later post, after we’ve finished going over all three of the basic elements, but I thought I’d leave it out today for simplicity’s sake. I’m not sure how many of you are interested in the mathematical and technical side of photography, and how many of you are more interested in the creative side, but I’ll hazard a guess that it’s mostly the latter. So let’s keep going.

The biggest creative aspect to controlling your aperture is having control over your depth of field. This will allow you to take sweeping landscape shots with every part of the image is in razor sharp focus or, if you’d rather, you can take portraits with soft blurs or bokeh behind your subject. You have to be mindful of your depth of field when you’re composing a shot and selecting your aperture setting, otherwise your subject may end up a little out of focus.

Notice how the sunflower in front is in focus and the other is not? Oops. My aperture should have been a little smaller to get both flowers looking sharp.

When I’m shooting a subject that is not in motion, I try to determine my aperture first so I know what part of the image needs to be in focus, and then use shutter speed and ISO to compensate for the amount of light that comes through the lens opening. Most DSLRs have an aperture priority mode, which helps you to keep your exposure balanced while giving you control over your depth of field, but I prefer shooting in manual and having full control over my camera.

When taking landscape photos, you generally want to have a small aperture so the entire scene is in focus. I haven’t done a lot of landscape photography at this point, but I do have a few examples to share with you.

Mead’s Quarry

Here’s a shot from my walk around Mead’s Quarry the other day. A small aperture (f/10) allowed me to take full advantage of the morning sun and beautiful landscape. I probably could have gone a little smaller and gotten an even better shot, but I think this is pretty good. I love the reflection of the rocks in the water.

Knoxville taken from Sharp’s Ridge. It’s a shame about the power lines because this is a magnificent view.

This shot is from Sharp’s Ridge. Once again, I used a small aperture (f/16) to really take in the scenery. If it had been a clear day, we would have gotten a really great view of the mountains in the distance, but I think this is still pretty good.

Now let’s look at some of the benefits of using a large aperture.

In my experience, a large aperture is better for portraits or for shots where you want to have a dramatic blurred background or foreground. Have a look at some of these to see what I mean.

French macarons from Honey Bee Bakery in Knoxville

See how the macaron in front is clear and the others are blurred? I shot this with f/2.5 to give it that soft look. I wish I had better lighting in my kitchen, but renters can’t be choosers I guess. (And we’re planning on moving soon anyway, so keep your fingers crossed that I find a place with good lighting). This kind of shooting is good for food bloggers who want to show off their delicious creations. It would also be an attractive way for someone to display items they’re trying to sell online.

A hibiscus on a wire bench.

This is a pretty cool one. Both the foreground and background are blurred, leaving the flower and the back of the bench in focus. The aperture for this shot was f/7.1, which is sort of a middle ground.

I hope those were good examples for you. If you have any questions, please be sure to ask in the comments below or send me a message on Facebook. I want these articles to be easy to understand and helpful for beginners who are branching out into manual mode. If it’s overwhelming for you to shoot strictly in manual like I do, try experimenting with aperture priority if that’s a feature your camera offers.

Remember, you can also use your ISO and shutter speed to control how much light is in an image. These three elements play off of each other, and figuring out the best way to balance them takes some practice. Don’t be discouraged if your first foray into manual mode doesn’t give you perfect results; just keep trying until you get it right. Next week, we’ll cover the last element of exposure, ISO. In the meantime, please be sure to comment and share!

 

Photography Basics: Exposure at a Glance

Welcome to my basics series! Although a lot of my posts involve DSLR shooting, since that’s what I primarily use, I wanted to create some articles that would be universal to photography with almost any digital camera. For those of you who don’t know, DSLR stands for Digital Single-Lens Reflex, and it refers to the way the camera uses a single lens and a mirror to process light into images. At this time, I’m more interested in the art of taking photos than in the more technical details of how a camera works; I’m planning on writing some posts in the future about different types of gear when I start getting ready to upgrade my equipment, but today is not that day. Today we’re talking about exposure, which is the foundation of photography no matter what kind of camera you’re using.

But I won’t leave you tech fans high and dry. If you want to know more about the differences between types of cameras on the market, here is a Wikipedia article that talks about DSLRs, traditional digital cameras, and the newer mirrorless system cameras. Enjoy!

Exposure is basically how bright or dark your image appears. It’s something I’ve touched on before here and here, but so far have not discussed in detail. It’s one of those things that seems simple in theory but can be tricky to master.

I’m going out on a limb here and guessing that most beginner photographers shoot in Auto, or whatever their camera’s approximation of Auto is. It’s easy and safe, and most cameras will probably produce decent pictures in Auto. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But what if you want to do better than decent? Well, then it’s time to get out of the safe zone that Auto mode provides and start taking control of your photography. This is a process, by the way–don’t be discouraged if your pictures are bad at first. Set aside time to practice and you’ll eventually see your hard work pay off.

This was taken on auto at sunset. It’s not a bad photo overall, but I prefer the manual version below.
This one was taken in manual, just a few seconds after the auto picture. It is a bit darker, but I feel like the sunset looks much deeper. Honestly, I probably should have gotten in place a few minutes earlier.

The first step in the process is to dig out your camera manual and figure out how to change the settings. You’re looking for three things–shutter speed, aperture (or f-stops), and ISO. If you don’t have the manual, look for your camera model in a search engine and see if one is available to view online or download. If you’re shooting with your smartphone, consider an app that will give you that level of control over your phone’s camera. Open Camera (Android) or Halide (iOS) came up after a quick Google search for me; I don’t use either of them, though, so I can’t tell you how well they perform. You’ll have to try them out on your own and then come back and tell me about them. (I’m 100% guilty of leaving my phone in Auto all the time; I don’t take pictures with it all that often.)

Step two is learning how these three elements interact with one another to create an image. This one’s going to take some practice. For now, we’ll just go over what the elements are.

Shutter speed–In a digital camera, shutter speed refers to the amount of time the camera’s sensor is exposed to light. In a nutshell, high shutter speeds are good for bright places, while slower ones will allow more light to reach your sensor when it’s dark. But wait, there’s more! Your shutter speed will also determine how much motion is in an image. A high speed will allow you to capture subjects in motion while lower speeds introduce blur. Shutter speed is usually measured in seconds or fractions of a second. We’ll talk more about this next week.

This was shot at a fairly high (I want to say 1/250 but of course I didn’t write it down) shutter speed. As you can see, the water in the fountain is “frozen” midair.
Same fountain, same time, the big change was a much slower shutter speed. I also had to adjust aperture to keep from overexposing the shot. You can see the motion of the water here, and the background is brighter as well.

Aperture–We’ve talked about aperture before, and we will again. You can’t have a complete understanding of exposure without learning about all three elements, and I feel like this one allows you a great degree of creative control over your photos. Aperture is the opening in the lens of your camera (and different lenses will allow you to achieve different apertures, which is another bonus of a DSLR or a camera that allows you to switch out lenses); it’s measured in F-stops. Small numbers are wider openings, which allow more light to pass through the lens. Large numbers are smaller openings and let in less light. But that’s not all! Your aperture also determines your depth-of-field, or which parts of the photo are in focus. Large numbers are good for landscape photos or pictures where you want everything to be the same level of focus. Small numbers are good for softness or artistic blur.

This field of sunflowers was shot at a high f-stop (I want to say 16 or 20), so all of the flowers have about the same amount of focus.
This sunflower was shot at an aperture of F 1.8, the widest I can produce at the moment. The image in the foreground is fairly sharp and the soft background makes it stand out even more.

ISO–The ISO determines how sensitive your camera is to light. Lower numbers are less sensitive, while high numbers are more sensitive. Like shutter speed and aperture, ISO is also a twofold element. A high ISO will allow you to take photos in darker environments, but it also introduces noise to your photos. I don’t care for noisy photos, and I had a serious problem with cameras taking very noisy pictures in low light. So taking control of this was a big deal for me. I tend to shoot with a low ISO and only change it if I can’t get the shot I want by altering my shutter speed and aperture.

Here’s an example of a photo with noise. I shot this on Auto a long time ago. See all the speckles in the background? That’s noise caused by a high ISO.

When you’re getting ready to take a photo, exposure is one of the first things you need to consider. It’s not just how bright or dark you want your image to be, but also how you want to capture motion, depth-of-field, and the amount of noise you’re willing to put up with to achieve your desired shot. It’s a balancing act. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to try to show you how to manipulate all three of these elements so that you can find the balance in your own photography.

Thanks for reading, everyone! Please come back next Friday for a more in-depth look at shutter speed. I’m working on putting some really cool stuff together for you. In the meantime, you can follow me on Facebook for more pictures, articles, and other goodies.

 

 

Aperture

The other day, I went over a few things you can do to help improve your photography. Exposure was on the list, and aperture is one of the elements of exposure. I hadn’t planned to write anything about aperture or exposure so soon because I feel that I have yet to master the topic, but when I was out shooting the other day, I managed to take a couple of photos that I think illustrate it really well.

Basically, aperture determines how wide your camera’s shutter opens when you take a photo. It is measured in F-stops; low numbers are a shallow depth of field, and high numbers are deeper. Aperture can also affect the amount of light in the photo, so it works with your shutter speed and ISO to determine how light or dark your pictures are. I am not going to get into detail on all that today, though; I’m not sure I understand it well enough to explain it in detail and keep things interesting. Instead, I’m just going to show you what I shot.

mockingbird and babies
A mockingbird and its babies perched on a sign

See how the trees are in focus, and the birds are not? I shot this with a high F-stop, to compensate for my high shutter speed and the cloudy day. When I realized what I had done, I decreased my F-stop for a more shallow depth of field, and took the picture below.

mockingbird and babies
A clearer picture of the birds

Now the birds are clear, and the shallow depth of field has put the background out of focus, making the birds stand out even more. Had I dropped my F-stop even further, I might have had an even better photo. I was just experimenting with my settings at that time, and unfortunately the birds flew away before I could decrease my F-stop again and take another shot.

Luckily, I have a few other interesting photos from that day, and I hope they’ll help you to understand what a difference understanding aperture can make to your photography.

red hibiscus
A red hibiscus captured from the side

You can see that the flower is quite sharp, but the background is out of focus. I love photographing flowers; they’re beautiful from every angle, they don’t move much (except when it’s windy) so I don’t have to worry about them getting up and leaving, and it’s usually inexpensive or free. I can change camera settings and practice as much as I want. Yay!

yellow hibiscus
A yellow hibiscus up close

Here’s one more; the flower’s pistil is in focus, but the petals are not. Once again, this is due to a low aperture. It’s sort of my taste to have photos with a sharply focused subject toward the center, usually a close-up, and a shallow depth of field is good for that style of photography. However, a large aperture is better for things like landscape photos, where you want more of the image to be in focus. I don’t do a lot of landscape photography at this point, but I do have a couple of examples.

sunsphere world's fair park
The Sunsphere and World’s Fair Park in downtown Knoxville, TN.
Women's Basketball Hall of Fame
The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame

Although I have other landscape pictures, they were from my days of shooting in auto and hoping for the best, so I’m not going to share them today. I’d rather use this blog for the shots that I’ve taken in manual, so I can keep track of the progress I make. But both of these are examples of subjects you would want to tackle with a fairly large aperture, so you can capture as much detail as you can.

That’s all I have today! If you have questions or comments, please leave them in the comment box below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Five things you can do to improve your photos today

Sooo…Like I said in this post the other day, I’m in the process of working to improve my photography. I can’t afford to take classes, but I have plenty of time to practice right now! Here are some things that have been helpful for me.

Best of all, most of these are things that will only cost you time.

Go over your camera manual and learn what the basic settings are
I know this sounds like a lot, but you don’t have to do it all at once. My Canon’s manual is huge…I downloaded a copy and keep it on my phone, so I can refer to it when I’m out shooting without having to lug the actual booklet around. It’s been a great help, especially when I was shooting indoors one day and realized I didn’t know how to adjust the white balance setting. I just pulled out my phone and from there it was an easy fix.

If you don’t have a manual for your camera, Google your model and see if there is one available online to access or download. If you can’t find one that way, see if you can find a forum and ask others for advice.

Learn a bit about exposure
There are three main elements to exposure: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. It’s a lot to cover here, so I’m not going to go into great detail today. Respectively, they are how wide your shutter is open, how long it stays open, and how sensitive your camera sensor is to available light sources. By manipulating the way these three elements interact with one another, you can control how bright or dark an image is, how much noise is present, motion and blur, and all kinds of things. I’m sure I will write a post just on exposure one day, but in the meantime there are loads of tutorials online that will give you an idea of how this works.

Depending on your camera model and preferred shooting mode, you may have more or less control over each of these elements. Shooting in manual should give you complete control over your exposure, although finding the correct balance every time can be tricky.

Practice mindfully composing photos
Instead of just mindlessly snapping away and hoping for the best, lately I’ve been focusing a lot on composition. Whether it’s during the shooting process itself or afterward when I’m editing, I’m trying to expand my horizons a bit in this area. The rule of thirds is especially difficult for me; a typical photo for me used to be as tight as I could get, with my subject dead in the center. I’m trying to get away from that, although I probably won’t stop shooting that way completely. Sometimes those are the images that just speak to me.

Here’s an example of a mindless photo. I just took it, without thinking about the lighting or composition. That reflection off the sign is awful, isn’t it?
A couple steps to the left got me a much better shot of this exhibit. Granted, it’s not the most interesting subject, but it’s what I had to work with that day.

Another thing I’m trying to do is shoot in such a way that the picture will evoke an emotional response in the viewer, or maybe tell a story. I don’t feel like I have it down to the point that I can explain it very well yet, but I will be sure to post about it when I do.

Study other photographers
This is something I love to do–look at other people’s photos, consider what I like about them, and try to figure out how I might achieve similar effects in my own work. It’s not that I’m trying to duplicate their picture, just that I want to understand their use of light and patterns, focal points, and composition.

Use a tripod
So…This is the only suggestion I’m going to have today of extra equipment that you may want to purchase. It doesn’t have to be expensive, either; I see tripods at Goodwill and other resale shops all the time for $5 and under. Using a tripod can make a huge difference in the quality of your work, especially if you have a slow shutter speed, poor light, or your hands are a bit shaky. If you want to take that a step further, consider getting a shutter remote as well.

Waterfall
I shot this without a tripod, and you can see it’s a little blurry.
I used a tripod for this shot. It’s much clearer, and I was able to set a lower shutter speed and capture the motion of the water.

 

Most importantly, have fun while you’re practicing and learning. Some of this–like going over your manual and studying exposure–can get a little dull, but keep in mind that you’ll probably like your photos a lot better after you have a stronger idea of how the technical details work. Photography as a hobby doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, and if it feels like a chore you might want to consider trying something different. Learning the basics on whatever equipment you currently have on hand will help you get your best photos yet, and it will also give you a better idea of what you might want to look for if or when you choose to upgrade.

Phew, that sure felt like a lot. I hope it was helpful for you! Any questions? Suggestions? Leave me a comment below! If you enjoyed my post, please give it a like and share it with your friends. Thank you!