When first starting out in photography, the switch to full manual mode can be more than intimidating! That is where learning to use Program mode can help you learn more about your camera’s functions and how to control them. Program mode is a great first step to getting off Auto and gaining some of the freedom that the more advanced capabilities of your camera have to offer. So go ahead and find the P for Program mode on your mode dial.
What can Program mode do for you?
In Program mode the camera will still make the majority of the decisions for proper exposure for you. The camera will still choose the shutter speed and aperture based on the light available. This means you will still get correct exposure, but at the same time it unlocks some other features that give you more control. You can then learn about those functions without having to worry about shutter speed, aperture, and proper exposure.
The functions you will be able to learn about and control are ISO (sometimes this mode is called ISO Priority for this reason), white balance, flash, and exposure compensation. Program mode is a great first step away from fully Automatic mode.
What is ISO and why control it?
ISO is the level of sensitivity to light as it hits your sensor. An ISO of 100 is not very sensitive and would be used when there is already plenty of light, such as a bright sunny day. As you move up through the ISO range, to 200, 400, 800 and higher the sensor becomes more and more sensitive to light. To achieve this the sensor is powered with more electrical charge. That electrical charge can lead to noise or digital “grain” in your images.
When you use Auto mode in low light the camera almost always tends to raise the ISO instead of changing the shutter speed or the aperture. When you use Program mode you have manual control over the ISO. You can set and use a low ISO to reduce noise in your images. If the image is underexposed, you can use Exposure Compensation (another “unlocked” feature) to balance the exposure.
What is Exposure Compensation and why control it?
Exposure Compensation is a function that allows you to override the camera to adjust the exposure lighter or darker. On most cameras you can set the exposure compensation up to +3 or -3 stops and use 1/3 stop increments in between to really nail the correct exposure.
Your camera is smart, but not always smart enough. Tricking lighting situations can “fool” the camera sensor into making an image too dark or too bright. In Auto mode you cannot correct this. In Program mode, you can dial in a positive or negative exposure compensation, respectively, to fix this.
Additionally, you can use Exposure Compensation in situations where you have to turn off the flash (another “unlocked” feature in Program mode). Without a flash an image may be underexposed. Using positive Exposure Compensation can adjust the exposure and correct it.
What is the flash and why control it?
For most users, the flash is a pop-up feature on the top of the camera. Some cameras do not have built-in flashes, but instead have a “shoe” where a separate flash can be attached.
In Auto mode, the camera decides if a flash is needed. It often “pops” up when you really don’t want to use it. In some situations, flashes are prohibited such as art museums. Flashes can result in washed out foregrounds and strange shadows in some situations. Flashes can wash out skin tones and create “red-eye” (when the flash light reflects of the back of the eye the subject in the photo has red glowing eyes).
Program mode will allow you to override the decision of the camera. You decide whether to use the flash or not. When paired with Exposure Compensation and the ability to set your ISO, you should be able to get the image’s overall exposure correct.
What is White Balance and why control it?
Different light sources cast different colors and this can affect your images. For example, indoor lights in a school gym can cast a yellow color. Shade can cast a blue color. White Balance is the camera’s adjustments to balance this lighting to a white light (think bright daylight) where colors are more accurate.
In Auto mode, the White Balance is selected automatically by the camera. AWB (Auto White Balance) works accurately much of the time, but once again, certain lighting situations can “fool” the camera. In Program mode you can set your own White Balance.
One way to do this is to select the type of lighting you are shooting in. For example, if I am shooting in the shade, I set the White Balance to Shade (I am telling the camera what type of lights I have in my scene). The camera then knows to balance the blue by adding some warmer tones to my image. The other way to set White Balance is by using Custom White Balance. To do this you would need a white balance card set and follow the steps in your camera manual. Custom White Balance is the best way to get consistent color across a series of images, for example a series of food images for a restaurant menu. By setting the White Balance you are giving the camera the more information about the lighting and it can use this to improve your images.
What is the takeaway?
Program mode is a great first step to getting off Auto mode. You can learn several important camera functions in this mode. If you master Program mode, then move on to Aperture Priority mode and Shutter Priority modes. Once you have those three aspects of exposure mastered individually, it will be much easier to put all three together when you finally switch over to full Manual mode.
If you’d like to try some free hands on lessons using ISO, Aperture Priority, Shutter/Time Priority, we have them on our website http://www.focusedcamera.net along with lots of free cheat sheets and tutorials.
If you’d like to take a class or workshop to “Get Your Camera Off Auto” we offer in-person and remote learning opportunities. Check out our class offerings and get in touch today!
If you are a beginner at photography, there is no rush to jump into Manual Mode. However, if you want to take on the challenge, you will need to understand exposure first. Exposure is a bit complicated, but it is a critical aspect of great photography that can be mastered if you learn the three elements (ISO, aperture, shutter speed) and how these settings are related to one another.
Let me start by saying, understanding exposure and using it to create beautiful images are two totally different things. Just like understanding the concept of time travel and actually time traveling would be two different things! Simply understanding the concept won’t improve your photography unless you practice, practice, practice!
In my beginner groups I am often asked questions similar to “What are the best manual settings for my kid’s soccer game?” My students will request basic settings for different scenarios and the answer “it depends” doesn’t exactly build confidence in my teaching skills. What this demonstrates is a beginner’s limited understanding what manual mode does, what exposure is, and that when using manual mode you can use countless combinations of settings to get the exact same exposure. By the end of this article, you will understand why "it depends" is the correct answer!
First of all, what is exposure?
The term comes from film photography. When light strikes film it starts a reaction and the amount of time the film is “exposed” to the light affects the final image. With digital cameras, exposure is the amount of light reaching your camera’s sensor.
If you overexpose, it means the film or sensor received too much light and your results are much brighter than they should be. Images that are overexposed may have bright white or “blown out” areas. Details in these areas are lost.
When you underexpose, it means the film or sensor did not receive enough light and your final image will be too dark. There will be areas that are completely shadowed and no details can be seen in those areas.
Both overexposure and underexposure can be fixed (somewhat) with editing software. Underexposed images can usually be corrected more easily than overexposed images. Either way, the editing process can result in a loss of quality. It is much better if you can get the exposure correct in the camera by using the proper settings to control exposure.
How do we control exposure?
This is where the “exposure triangle” comes in. There are three settings that interact and work together, often visualized on a triangle diagram connecting the three terms. The settings are aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
These three settings are responsible for how much light hits your sensor and therefore control exposure.
Think of the trio as a three-way see-saw. When you change one, you will have to adjust one or both of the other two to keep your exposure correct, or balanced.
We will get into this in more detail further on and I have some tools to help you, but first we need to learn a little about each element of the triangle.
What is Aperture?
The aperture is the opening inside the camera lens. The aperture setting is how big the opening is. The wider open it is, the more light gets in to the sensor. The more closed it is, the less light gets in to the sensor. Take the lens cap off your camera and look into the lens (from the front of the camera). You should be able to see this opening and some curved looking pieces that are spaced around it. These are the aperture blades. They are what move inside the lens to make the opening wider or more closed. The aperture blades work in a similar way to the human eye. Our pupils will become smaller when the light is bright to keep our vision from becoming “overexposed.” The pupil will become more open (larger) when the lights are dim or dark to try to let more light in so we can see into those shadows and areas that are “underexposed.”
The aperture scale is probably the most difficult part of understanding exposure because the numbers include decimals and the scale numbers are not intuitive. These numbers are often shown with the letter f, such as f/5. The f/ stands for f-stop (for now that is all you need to know).
The basic aperture scale is 1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, and 32.
The reason it is confusing is because smaller numbers, like f/1 are wider apertures and larger numbers like f/16 are narrow apertures. It is counter to how most people think about number scales. We usually think of larger numbers being related to larger things. Once you understand that this scale is the reverse of what we normally “think” then you will be on your way! You do not need to memorize the scale numbers.
In addition to letting in light, aperture also affects the depth of field. Depth of field is how much of your scene is in crisp or sharp focus. Wider apertures create a shallow depth of field. Narrow apertures create a larger depth of field.
More of a scene is in focus with an aperture of f/22 than at f/4. Narrow apertures (big f/#s) are great for landscape photos.
Less of a scene is in focus with an aperture of f/2. Wider apertures (small f/#s) create beautiful blurred backgrounds behind people or flowers. This blur is called bokeh. If the aperture is too wide you can “miss focus” more easily because the depth of field may be so shallow that the front part of a subject is in focus but the back part of it is not.
As an instructor, I usually recommend my students begin with Aperture Priority mode. If you are interested in a lesson on this mode and more about depth of field, check out our free lesson here and our article here. Learning Aperture Priority mode is a great first step to getting into full Manual Mode.
What is Shutter Speed?
The shutter is inside the camera body. If you have a DSLR it is behind the mirror. If you have a mirrorless, you can see it right in front of your sensor. I don’t recommend poking around inside the camera body to find these as you could damage something or introduce dust inside.
The shutter is a like a curtain. When the curtain is closed, no light is hitting the sensor (or film). When the curtain is open, it is letting light in. The shutter speed is how long we leave the curtain open. We can open the shutter (curtain) for fractions of a second, or we can leave it open for minutes.
In low light scenarios we want to allow more light to hit the sensor, so we can leave the shutter open longer to accomplish this. If your shutter is too fast (not enough time to let light in), the image will be underexposed. When it is very bright outside using a fast shutter speed will make the shutter open and close quickly so we don’t overexpose the image.
The basic shutter speed scale is 1/8000th, 1/4000th, 1/2000th, 1/1000th, 1/500th, 1/250th, 1/125th, 1/60th, 1/30th, 1/15th, 1/8th, 1/4th, 1/2, 1 second, 2 seconds, etc.
In addition to controlling light, shutter speed also affects motion or blur. A fast shutter speed will freeze motion, such as a hummingbird in flight. A slow shutter speed will allow your images to have motion blur like the soft blurry waters of a waterfall.
When using slower shutter speeds you may need a tripod and a shutter remote/release to avoid camera shake. If the shutter is slow and you move, your entire image will have camera shake blur. I recommend a shutter speed of 1/250 or faster for handheld and a good general rule is to use a shutter speed that is at least as fast as the length of the lens. For example, if using a 200mm lens use a shutter speed of 1/200 or faster.
When I give lessons, I usually recommend my students work in Shutter (Time) Priority mode right after they have mastered Aperture Priority. These two modes are great stepping stones to getting to full Manual Mode. If you are interested in a free lesson on this mode, check out our free lesson here and if you want to try some long shutter speed images (known as long exposure images) check out our article here on Fireworks photography (also good for light painting with sparklers or flashlights).
What is ISO?
ISO is the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. In the days of film, this sensitivity was related to the amount of silver grains embedded in the film. With digital cameras it is electronic sensitivity. As we “turn up” the electronic sensitivity we increase the amount of light or brightness of an image. We explain this term in depth in our article here.
The basic ISO scale is 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, 12800, 25600, and on.
On most cameras the lowest ISO is ISO 100. The sensitivity or brightness is low. We would use this setting when we already have bright light such as outdoors on a sunny day. When we move indoor and away from windows, or into a heavily shaded forest, we need to increase the sensitivity or brightness, so we turn the ISO up.
The ISO scale doubles with each doubling of light: 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, etc. Unfortunately, higher ISO settings add digital noise or “grain” to your images. Editing programs can help remove some of that grain.
How do we put the three together?
Exposure is determined by these three elements. Proper exposure requires a correct combination of these three which you can accomplish many different ways. Once you have proper exposure, if you change one element, then you must adjust at least one other element or both to keep proper exposure. Think back to the see-saw when you were a kid. If you change the one side you have to change the other to keep balance. Exposure is a little more tricky because we are balancing three things.
Look at the photo below. The camera was set to Auto so the camera chose my settings for me.
The camera selected ISO 400, Shutter 1/80th, and Aperture f/5.6. The camera will always try to select settings somewhere in the “middle.” This is where Auto mode fails. It doesn’t know what you want and the “middle” settings may not be a fast enough shutter to capture the action or a small enough aperture to get the huge depth of field you want for a landscape photo.
We can take the Auto settings and make adjustments in Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual Mode to keep proper exposure AND get the image we want.
In the example above, if there was wind and I wanted to stop the motion of the plant swaying in the breeze, I would need a faster shutter. If I increase the shutter speed, I am opening and closing the “curtain” faster so less light gets in. If I don’t change anything else, my settings would be ISO 400, Shutter 1/250th, and Aperture f/5.6 and my image will end up underexposed like the one below.
By selecting a faster shutter speed, I reduced the amount of light, but I didn't increase the light with any other settings yet. To keep the exposure triangle balanced I will have to adjust one or both of the other elements – ISO and aperture – to make up for the lost light from the faster shutter.
In an underexposed image I need to balance the exposure by increasing the light using my other two settings. I can increase ISO to make it brighter. Or I could open the aperture wider to let more light through the lens. In the image below, I changed the ISO and the exposure is now balanced again.
The final settings were ISO 1600, Shutter 1/250th, and Aperture f/5.6.
How do you know how much to move to keep the balance?
On each of the scales, one movement left or right is equal to halving or doubling of light. The increments along the scales are called "stops." So if you move one element one stop, you must balance another element with one stop. If you move one element two stops, you must balance by moving one element two stops, or by moving both of the other elements but only by one stop each.
We have designed a hands-on tool you can use to practice making exposure adjustments (see our Etsy page), but you can always make your own or use photography apps designed for this purpose. I personally learn better with a physical tool and I use these with my students.
Here’s an example of how it works:
Let's say proper exposure is achieved at ISO 400, Shutter 1/500th, and Aperture f/4. We get this reading by checking the settings the camera chooses when in Auto mode. In the picture below I have moved the sliders to these settings on the scales.
If I want a larger depth of field because I am taking a landscape photo I will need to change the aperture. I will make the aperture smaller (larger f/#) and this will reduce the light entering the camera.
I change the aperture to f/11. I have moved three stops along the scale from f/4, to f/5.6, to/f8, to f/11. This will decrease my light because the aperture is getting smaller and smaller. In the image below I have moved the aperture slider 3 stops to the right side.
Since this is a landscape and I don’t need to stop motion, I can balance the exposure by changing the shutter speed. If I leave the shutter (curtain) open longer I let in more light. How much longer? Three stops!
In the image below I change my shutter from 1/500th, to 1/250th, to 1/125th, to 1/60th on the slider for shutter speed. Three stops to the left. This balances our exposure settings.
But uh-oh! I forgot my tripod! I cannot hold the camera still enough at 1/60th so I am getting too much camera shake.
I can move the shutter speed to 1/125th to be faster (one stop to the right), but then I must change either the aperture or I must adjust the ISO by one stop to the left. I am trying to get more light to balance that faster shutter speed. Since I already have the aperture where I want it for my depth of field and the shutter speed is now set to handle camera shake, I would have to make the change to the ISO (the only element of the three I have remaining). I would increase the ISO by one stop from 400 to 800. I make these changes to my sliders by moving shutter speed slider one to the right and ISO slider one to the left to equal it out.
My new settings are now:
ISO 800, Shutter Speed 1/125th, and Aperture f/11 and I still have proper exposure! Now I can enter these settings into manual mode and my image will have the correct light and it is also adjusted for what I needed to accomplish.
As you can see I could have used a lot of different combinations to make this exposure work.
ISO 1600, Shutter Speed 1/250th, and Aperture f/11 would also balance our exposure.
Which Mode to Use?
It depends! Even professionals don't use full Manual Mode all the time. In some types of photography taking the time to fiddle with all these settings means missing the shot. For example with war/conflict, street, auto racing, or wildlife photography the action can happen quickly.
I always recommend starting in Auto Mode. Pay attention to the settings the camera selects. This will start to train you to see how these settings are related. You can get really good at this and even start to predict what settings the camera will use. Then you will be ready to learn semi-automatic modes (aperture priority and shutter priority).
Aperture priority is best when the depth of field is the most important element of the image.
Shutter priority is best when the action or motion is the most important element of the image.
At this link you can find lessons for both Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority Modes.
Use full Manual Mode after you have had lots of practice and in scenarios where you have time to adjust all of the settings without any pressure.
Learn where the exposure compensation buttons are for your camera (check the user guide, if you don’t have one get it here). With the exposure compensation feature you can override the camera’s settings to quickly make the image darker or brighter. Some cameras also offer exposure bracketing. The camera will take a series of shots typically using three or five different exposure levels.
If all else fails, you can correct the majority of issues in editing (except camera shake – that one can’t be fixed in post!).
Understanding the exposure triangle as a concept is much different than putting it into practice. The best tip that will 100% improve your photography more than anything else is daily practice. You will have to experiment with different settings and shooting modes and over time you will gain more and more control over your camera. Your images will improve and your brainpower won’t be spent on settings. You will able to put your mind to work more creatively and work on composition and exploring your artistic vision.
Now you know that what mode and what settings you use will "depend" on what you want to accomplish. You can balance the exposure using the three elements of the exposure triangle with many different combinations all "depending" on the light, the subject, and the scene.
If you are interested in some basic starting settings, our Basic Camera Settings Cheat Sheets might help. These cards provide basic lens focal lengths, suggested shooting modes and tips for 6 common photography scenarios. To learn more see our sales page. You can also purchase an Exposure Triangle tool like the one used above.
Learn more & download free photography lessons and cheat sheets at http://www.focusedcamera.net
Want your own private Photography Coach? Learn 1-on-1 with us! Prices start as low as $5 per month! For more information click here!
What is ISO? What does ISO mean when it comes to photography?
First of all, let’s get the pronunciation part out of the way. You will hear people pronounce ISO as “eye-so” or “eye-ess-oh.” The correct pronunciation is “eye-so.” Some may argue that ISO stands for International Standards Organization and therefore as an acronym it must be “eye-ess-oh.” This is incorrect. The actual corporation is the International Organization for Standardization and the founders gave themselves the short name ISO from the Greek “isos” which means “equal.” Since ISO is short for “isos” it would obviously be pronounced like a word and not as an acronym. You don’t pronounce all the letters of a word unless you are spelling it. Therefore ISO is pronounced “eye-so.”
Now why is the photography term ISO (which is part of the exposure triangle) related to this corporation anyway?
The International Organization for Standardization sets standards for all sorts of manufactured products, including film and photography products. Their purpose is to make sure everyone around the world uses the same measurements and regulations and thus whatever product you get in one nation is “equal” to what you would get in another nation on the other side of the world. For example, the steps on ladders and stairs in factories are standardized. Imagine what would happen if every staircase used different distances between steps. Lots of accidents! We take for granted that printer paper size is always 8 ½ x 11 (in the US) or that a 3-hole puncher will punch 3 holes in the same places. These “standards” are the work of ISO.
Many decades ago, there was a need to standardize film speeds. Enter ISO. They created a system to numerically measure film’s sensitivity to light. There were also a competing standards known as ASA and DIN which were combined into ISO standards in 1974. So since the 1970s no matter where you bought film and no matter what brand, you were assured that it would work in your camera the exact same way. Boxes of film were sold in 4 common speeds (and some faster and slower speeds that were not as popular). These speeds were 100 (slow), 200 (slow), 400 (fast), and 800 (high speed).
Now don’t be confused by the word speed – this rating system has nothing to do with shutter speed! So what is film speed then?
The film speed indicated how sensitive the film was to light. The slower the film, the less sensitive it was to light. You would use a slow film speed when you already had good lighting, like a bright sunny day. You didn’t need the film to be sensitive to light because you had plenty of it. The faster the film, the more sensitive it was to light. You would need a faster film when you had darker or low light conditions (or for fast moving subjects). You wanted the film to react more intensely and more quickly to the limited light you had.
How do the “speeds” of film work? How did they get the film to react to light differently on those different speeds of film?
Film was created with millions of light-sensitive silver halide crystals called “grains” on the surface. A film that was slower/less sensitive had less “grains” on it. A film that was faster/more sensitive had more “grains” on it. A faster film picked up more light, but it was also more visible in the final image. Once the film was developed, images that were shot using 800 speed film appeared grainy compared to 100 speed film. The grain in a developed film image is from the crystals of silver on the film.
How do the “speeds” of film relate to digital photography?
Today’s DSLR cameras use a sensor instead of film with silver halide crystals. Digital cameras convert the light that enters the camera and hits the sensor into a digital signal. The digital (or electronic) signal is then converted or processed into a visual image. On a digital camera, increasing the ISO setting “turns up” the signal. As the signal is amplified, the increased electrical charge makes the sensor more sensitive to light, but as a consequence digital noise is created. Digital noise has a noticeable “grain” to it that is similar to what is seen in higher speed films. The digital noise may be luminance noise which affects the brightness of pixels (but not the color) or it may be chroma noise which is highly undesirable. Chroma noise consists of colored grain or specks. While both of these can be mitigated to some extent in post editing programs like Photoshop or Lightroom, at a certain point the image quality becomes significantly degraded. The threshold of where this degradation takes place will vary depending on the camera’s processor, sensor size, and megapixel count. Additionally, noise reduction processing is now built in to some digital cameras.
How does the size of your camera sensor and the amount of pixels affect how much digital noise you see?
On a point-and-shoot camera the sensor is very small. It is larger on a compact camera and largest on a full frame camera. When you pack a bunch of pixels into a smaller sensor area you will produce more grain. As you increase the ISO on a point-and-shoot camera you will get noise at a lower ISO than you would with a compact camera. And as you increase ISO on a compact camera you will get noise at a lower ISO than you would with a full frame camera. The larger sensor of a full frame camera allows for lots of pixels and larger pixel size. These larger pixels are more capable of gathering light so the reduced electrical charge required in low light does not create as much digital noise.
So what does all of this mean for your photography?
ISO is one of the three aspects of the Exposure Triangle. Knowing what you now know, that higher ISO creates grain in your images, you will want to try to keep the ISO as low as possible. This means you may have to balance the aperture and shutter speed (the other parts of the exposure triangle) to get proper exposure.
Just like in film, ISO 100 is only good when you already have lots of light. If you don’t have lots of light you will have to open up the aperture (small f/#) or increase shutter speed, or both. Depending on your subject, this is not always possible and adjusting ISO may be the only solution.
Here are a few scenarios. You want to keep ISO low, but it isn’t very sunny. You can use a longer shutter speed as long as your subject is stationary like a landscape or a flower. But if you subject is moving, like at a sporting event, you may have to adjust the aperture, or increase the ISO. You can open up the aperture to f/5.6 or maybe even f/4, but if you widen it to f/2 you may end up with a depth of field that is too shallow to get your entire subject in focus. The Exposure Triangle is a balancing act, like a 3-way see-saw, and sometimes increasing ISO will be the only way to get the image. (See our website for a free Exposure Triangle "Sliders" Cheat Sheet)
Doubling your ISO from 100 to 200, for example, doubles the amount of light sensitivity. Therefore you only need half as much light from your other settings, so you could change the aperture from f/4 to f/5.6 to get greater depth of field, or you could change to a faster shutter speed from 1/125 to 1/250th. Sports photographers will consistently use higher ISO settings than landscape photographers. Photographers that photograph in low light situations will consistently use higher ISO settings than photographers that always take photos of flowers on sunny days.
What is the takeaway?
Lower ISO is always better for your image quality. Increasing ISO will add noise to your images (how much noise will depend on the ISO level and the camera specs). Just remember, when faced with a choice of getting the shot versus only using low ISO, always get the shot even if you have to turn the ISO way up!
If you’d like a hands-on lesson with some practice using ISO settings check out the Free Lessons section of our website. There you will find lessons on aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and more.
All this talk about film bringing on some nostalgia? Want to try some old fashioned film photography?
Pull out that old vintage film camera or purchase one online! You can easily find vintage film cameras to purchase online from many sellers like Tommy's Camera Shop on Etsy, used sellers like KEH (affiliate link), or on Ebay. Film is available at B&H Video and Adorama. You need fast film for overcast days, fast moving subjects, or low light. For fast speed films, try Ilford HP5 Plus 400 or Kodak Portra 400. For very low light, try Kodak T-Max P3200. You can use low speed film for situations with lots of light, such as very bright days. Try Ilford Pan F50 or Ilford FP4 Plus 125. You can use these handheld, but a tripod can help reduce camera shake. Good luck!
Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links. Please read the full version of my disclosures for more information. If you make a purchase through one of these links, we make a small commission (at no cost to you).