Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Basics of Manual Settings–Part 1–ISO

I was going to call the post “In Camera Metering for Dummies”, based on a suggestion. However, you are not dummies!!! You are all eager to learn and trying to figure out something new and I think that makes you a SMARTIE! Also, I was originally only going to write about in camera metering. Instead, I am writing a whole series on the basics of manual settings.

Welcome to Part 1!

Parts 2, 3 and 4 will all be in sucession, so click on the "newer posts" link after each tutorial and you'll be directed to the next installment.

One of the hardest things for people new to photography to do is switch out of Auto Mode. Auto mode is nice, it’s comfortable, but it won’t always give you the best photo or the photo you want. Auto usually shoots around f8, with reasonably fast shutter speeds (1/100th) at ISO 400. They’re going for decent depth of field, a well exposed handheld shot and a mid range ISO.

We can do better!

Here’s a rundown of the basics for anyone who is brand new to all of this (or even people who aren’t brand new and may have forgotten or never learned).

Exposure (how bright or dark the subject of our picture is) depends on 3 things. ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

ISO (also know as ASA) refers to how fast your film is. In the digital world, it refers to how fast your sensor records light. ISO 100 is a slow film speed, ISO 1600 is a fast film speed. However, there’s a trade off. Faster film speeds produce grainier pictures (with digital, this is also called noise).

Here’s an example. 2 shots of the same scene on the same night at different ISO settings. Ignore composition and exposure – we’re just looking at noise.

Shot at ISO 200


Shot at ISO 3200


Although, sometimes grain can have a pleasing effect. Especially in black and white. This all depends on taste, but my favorite portrait film to shoot is Kodak Tri-X 400 because it’s grainy.


So how do you choose an ISO setting for a particular shot. Well, it depends on a couple things. First, if you’re shooting film, you put in a film whose speed will serve well for whatever you plan on shooting. You’re stuck with the same speed for the whole roll. For this reason, I personally stick with 400 speed film. It’s a good middle number for all around shots. If you’re going to be shooting outside in the sun, go with 100. Shooting indoors with no flash, pick 800 maybe.

With digital, we can change the ISO for every shot. My rule of thumb is to use the lowest ISO you possibly can for the aperture and shutter speed you need. For example, if it’s sunny and you’re shooting a landscape at f 16, 1/100th of a second (we’ll get to what those mean later) with ISO 100, you’re doing good. If you’re at f 1.4 and 1/8th of a second handheld on ISO 100, you need to turn the ISO up to get a faster shutter speed.

Don’t worry if you’re still confused, since ISO is only 1 of 3 things to consider for your exposure. Once we talk about aperture and shutter speed, I promise you’ll catch on. Until Part 2!

Shasta Betty

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