Update: This post is 10 years old but I’m leaving it up as it still has useful information. Just keep that in mind when you read it 🙂
I recommend you at least read this part of the tutorial to get your brain thinking, Part 3 will still totally apply to you if you are using your DSLR in Auto mode, or if you are using a point and shoot camera. Let me get this stuff out of the way here before getting into the meaty beats about how to use light most effectively.
DSLR Camera Modes (Auto vs Manual etc)
Lets take a moment to talk about using a semi-pro or pro camera like the Nikon D80/90. When I first got my fancy camera nearly 3 years ago, I was using it in Auto mode, and sometimes when I am very tired I still do. The scary truth is I’ve used my camera in Auto for many of my published photos, and they not only turned out well, but really amazing sometimes. I felt when I first started using the camera, that it was far more important for me to focus on my use of natural light, composition and styling then it was to stress about how in the world to have the photo come out properly exposed. Proper exposure is a beast, it’s confusing and intimidating. At-least it was to me. All those numbers on all those dials. I had just had a baby, I was sleep deprived, lets just keep it simple shall we? Maybe this helps you not be so intimated by those “pro” cameras, truth is due to technology they are not very scary at all.
So my advice to you is if you just went out and got a fancy DLSR, is to keep it in Auto for a while. It will still take amazing photos. Point and shoot camera’s usually only have an auto setting so there is nothing to worry about there. It’s also a much easier way to learn about your camera, before being overwhelmed by everything else. If you are feeling brave and want to learn manual mode, well thats great too! If that’s your goal then skip auto and get right to manual. I had been waiting on a photography class at my local parks and rec, but it kept getting delayed, so each few months it was delayed, I got more frustrated and one weekend I just popped it in manual and didn’t look back, a few days later we went to the beach, which was a good time for me to play with it in the different light.
A quick bit of advice about M (Manual) Mode
With modern camera’s you have the back-lit viewfinder, this means you can take a photo and immediately see how it came out, but it’s not always an accurate representation of the photos exposure. There is a nifty trick to helping quickly figure out if you photo is under or over exposed. I found the tip in the book “Captured by the light” which is a great book. I love wedding photography because it’s often has natural light situations and reminds me of photographing children because often times the great shot is not in the best place so you have to learn to work in hard lighting.
Using Blinkies or Highlights to get proper exposure
The trick works specificly for DSLR camera’s, and again this is for when you are working in M (manual) mode and want to get the right exposure (meaning the photos is not too dark, or too light). There is on Nikon’s and Canon’s a “view” in the viewfinder called “highlights” and many people call them “blinkies” it’s when any white that is over-exposed or blown out “blinks” on the screen (find it in your manual). When you have the blinkies in a photo you took, you change your f/stop by 1,such as groing from F3 to F4. You can optionally change your shutter speed to let less light in (be faster) and then look again, still have the blinkies? Rinse and repeat until you don’t have blinkies. If I don’t have blinkies initially, just do the opposite until you do, then go one down again knowing you have hit the sweet spot. It has worked really well for me, but it does mean you need to have some white in the scene, such as white clothin and it doesn’t need to be a plain white shirt, any white will do. White flowers, anything wite. One of my daughters is so pale I sometimes use her forehead but I think I just have an unusually pale child!
So it is up to you, you may continue to “train” in Auto, you can jump straight to Manual, or you can play with the other various modes (Nikon: A, S, P; Canon: AV, TV, P,) in which the camera works very much like in Auto, it just lets you pick for example, the F-Stop. If you have a low f/stop such as 2.8 then your going to get a nicely blurry background, if you go up a few stops (but you actually use the term “stop down” which is totally redonkulous) to F11 the background will be in focus. Does it confuse you that when you go UP in numbers in f/stops you actually use the term “down”? Yeah me to! Oh well. Someone explain to me why it’s called kitchener stitch and what it has to do with my kitchen? I do not claim to be a gear head, but I like to get the concepts down as much as possible and understand as much as I can. Here is a more in-depth explanation of all those numbers and dials and their meanings. You can just forget all this if you like, and stick to messing with the blinkies in Manual mode and you will learn the other stuff over time. I highly recommend this guys youtube tutorials, he is freaking amazing and I love him. I used to watch them way before I ever started using the camera in M mode. Some photographers don’t use M mode, but I am a purist and remember the days when you had no view finder to know your photo would come out properly, I like knowing I really understand my camera. I used to always ask my dad “which f-stop and film speed is best for overcast days outside?” and he always knew right off the top of his head. I want to be that powerful too. It’s going to take a lot of work.
I have found for babies that a shutter speed of 200 or 250 works really well. Sometimes there is not enough light so I need my shutter speed to be 100 or even 50 (slower) so more light comes into the lens, this means though if my kids move around, I risk lots of blur. The more light, the less blur, the faster the shutter speed, the less blur.
Also important to mention, I don’t use a flash!!! Natural light is better and I don’t have a proffesional flash yet to bounce off of things, a flash hitting someone directly in the face makes them appear flat and more like a point and shoot camera photograph because you just loose depth, shadows and all the good stuff. For Petite Purls we ask people to never use the flash, this means we get a lof of out-doors photos because most people have a hard time finding good light inside.
The trick to not using a flash in a DSLR in Auto mode is to just tape the flash down or hold it down with your finger. It’s in Auto so it will want to use the flash sometimes, but I don’t let it and it re-adjusts the settings to get the photo. In a point and shoot you can often hit the flash button to turn it off. I swap my camera out of Auto and Manual often so finding the setting each time is a pain, so I just hold it down with my finger. I am more often in manual mode these days so it’s not much of an issue but its easy enough to hold down.
I am going to share a few photos with you and what my camera was set too, along with if it was in Auto or Manual etc.
ISO 200 (Film Speed for the old school people, though it’s really not film speed anymore!)
Exposure / Shutterspeed 0.025 sec (1/40) (this is 1/40 because there was not much light, and luckily he held very still and I was using a very nice lens)
This was also at sunset (hence the golden speckled light on big brothers head behind him) and in a room with a bunch of big windows and no curtains. That’s SOOTC (Straight out of the camera) and pretty darn sharp. He was a great model and didn’t move much. The spots of light on his brother behind him are a bit distracting but otherwise I am happy with the shot.
When you are on flickr, follow some good photographers, and view the EXIF data on their photos, it will tell you all this stuff! If they took the photo and saved it out of photoshop etc as a new file, sometimes that info gets stripped, but often enough you will find it!
ISO 1600 (highest it can go, a high ISO helps the camera see in very low light but pictures get a bit more grainy)
f/2.8 I had to go so high here because it was such low light.
Exposure / Shutter Speed 0.01 sec (1/100)
So you can see her face is a bit blurry, a faster shutter speed of 1/200 would have been nice, but the photo would be too dark, and I can’t set my ISO higher then 1600 and I can’t stop to a lower number because it doesn’t go below 2.8. I was all maxed out here. If she had been a tad closer to the window and looking towards the light, the photo would have been much better and less blurry.
ISO 200 (I could have easily gone down to 100 and it may have solved my problem)
Exposure / Shutter Speed 0.008 sec (1/125)
Here I was not watching my blinkies well enough and parts of her dress are blown out, I really hate when that happens. The sun was coming in and out of the clouds and that’s all it takes to under or over expose a photo in natural light, you have to adjust your settings if the light change even if all you did was step 1 foot farther away from a window inside.
This photo was taken in auto, want to know my dirty little secret? MANY of the older pattern photos on my ravelry page were taken in Auto mode! *gasp* So clearly you can get good results this way, my goal now of course is to be in manual, have more control and take photos like a pro, but clearly you do not HAVE to, to get great photos. You just need good light, which brings us to part 3.