BY MIKE HALL
Mike Hall LRPS is back with a beginner’s guide to taking more control over your camera and unlocking your creativity – with just the twist of a dial…
Back in December 2020, I wrote an article for Image Space about my journey to becoming a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society. I talked at the time about how up until a few years ago I had “all the gear, but no idea.” That may be a brutally frank admission, but until you actually measure where you stand in any discipline, you’ll have no idea about how to make that judgement call.
I also said that in 2015, I really started to work on my photography and push myself. I put myself under a lot of pressure to complete a 365 challenge – to take a photograph every day in a studied way (if possible!) for an entire year. The results were mixed: sometimes because of the weather, sometimes because I didn’t get it quite right, sometimes because I rushed it due to other time pressures, sometimes because I was plain flat out of inspiration.
But the one trick that I learned more from than anything else was this: to step away from automatic mode and put the camera in my control.
Did I suddenly become a master of manual settings overnight? No – and nor did I need to be. What I did, and what I still do to a large extent now, was to set my camera to Aperture Priority – and here’s why.
Imagine this. You’re driving up a long, straight road, and there’s no traffic. That road goes on for miles, you have both hands on the wheel, but there’s nothing to brake for – you’re using cruise control for the speed, and your gearbox is automatic. That’s not far from what a camera in full Auto Mode is doing for you. It sets the shutter speed, the ISO, and the aperture for you – all you need to do is point and make sure it’s in focus.
Now: imagine the road isn’t straight anymore. It’s got some sharper turns in it, some downhill sections – so you’ve turned off cruise control and you’re covering the brakes. The gears are still in automatic but you’re still working harder than you were – however, you’re able to react to more situations. That’s Aperture Priority.
Aperture is the setting that controls the amount of light through the iris of the lens. You may well hear terms like F1.8, or even see that written on the side of your lens. We need to cover another topic briefly to explain why aperture matters, and it’s called depth of field.
To keep it simple, the lower the F number on the side of your lens, the greater the capacity for that lens to let in light. But there’s also a snag – which is the lower the number, the harder it is to keep your entire image sharp. Have you ever seen a photo of a group of people where the people in the front are in focus, but the people at the back are a bit fuzzy? That’s depth of field for you. It’s basically the distance between the nearest object and the furthest object which are acceptably sharp in your photo.
The lower that f number, the shorter that distance is between those two points. So why wouldn’t you want to keep everything in focus?
Well, the answer is simple: that’s what makes an image less interesting.
Automatic mode is great to start with – everything is in focus, for still images, family photos and so on, it’s absolutely fine. One of the first skills is learning to hold the camera straight and not chop people’s heads off (I wasted a lot of film when I was eight!) but once you’ve mastered that, auto mode isn’t going to teach you much. Think of auto mode as a huge set of compromises. The camera is working to do its best to keep you happy – but by doing so, it won’t let you experiment much. In contrast, just moving to Aperture Priority will definitely teach you. Soon, you’ll learn why for portraits, it can be really powerful to have the background out of focus and the subject pin sharp, or – sometimes – why the opposite is true too.
It doesn’t matter if you start out with a ton of blurry shots. The idea is to look at them and learn from them. Study the settings when you put the images on screen and see what they are telling you.
Remember, the lower the F number, the shallower that depth of field is. One of my lenses has a depth of field so shallow that if you’re more than 20 – 30cm behind the leading figure in the shot, you’ll be out of focus. But in Auto mode, you’ll never find that out!
Soon you’ll find that by controlling Aperture you’ll have a much greater range of artistic freedom in all of your shots, whatever subject you’re capturing.
Have you noticed something missing? Shutter speed? Why haven’t I mentioned it? Because for now, it doesn’t matter. If you have kept ISO in auto, and are just focusing on depth of field, then the camera is still taking care of that for you.
Shutter speed matters for action scenes, and for long exposure (where the shutter is held open for a long time), but we’ll talk more about that another day.
Right now, it’s time to explore photography with aperture. Go play, and enjoy the journey!
Mike Hall LRPS is a photographer and owner of Northwall Gallery (www.northwallgallery.com)