Understanding Photography 3 Pillars

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There are three keys or pillars to a good shot. Those are Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. Understanding how to use these three settings are the basis for taking good photos. There are of course many other factors like white balance, sun, etc but, without these three things all being perfectly aligned you will probably not get the results you are looking for.

This will be a brief description of Photography’s 3 Pillars in this first of our 4 part series. We will then break down the 3 settings in the next articles to give you a good basis to begin getting the images you desire. Shooting pictures on Auto in today’s DSLR cameras will often yield excellent results but there are times that they will not. Here is a photo shot in Mongolia. You can see that the photo is in focus, the colors are good but the sky is a total blown-out waste and the landscape in the distance is very overexposed due to sunlight. There are only two ways to stop this from happening. You can adjust your ISO to make the entire image darker and then adjust it post processing. Or you can use a graduated filter on your lens which we will explain more in a later article. In this photo, a grad filter would have been the best option.

Blown out Sky in Mongolia
Blown out Sky in Mongolia

To get those pin sharp photos that have the right amount of light and to be able to freeze motion for certain photos you will need to have all three pillars working together like this photo that was taken in Cannes, France. As you can see the photo is in focus and the images are as sharp on buildings that were about a mile away as the buildings in the foreground.

So let’s get started:

Pillars #1: Aperture

When we talk about Aperture we are talking about the size of the opening in your camera’s lens. This opening is what determines the amount of light that reaches your camera lens. That is what then determines how light or dark your photo appears after shooting. That aperture is measured in a term called ‘f-stops’ and can be adjusted as needed depending on the conditions. This is where it can be a little confusing at first. The smaller the f-stop the more light will reach your lens and the larger the f-stop will give you less light. That is the one thing in photography that has always seemed a little backward to me but it will become second nature to you very soon.

The size also controls how you photos focus will appear. A small f-stop will give you a photograph that has a pinpoint focus on the object you focus on but the background will gradually blur toward the edges of the photos. These work well for many portraits and of objects that are close to you. For a photograph where the entire photograph is in focus, you will need a large f-stop such as f-16. These are primarily used in shooting street photos or large landscape photographs like the ones below.

Cannes Waterfront
Cannes Waterfront

The size of the aperture also helps control the depth of field or the range of distance in an image that appears focused or sharp. A small aperture (large f-number) creates a large depth-of-field, meaning an overall sharper image in which the foreground and the background are in focus. A large aperture (small f-number) creates a shallow depth-of-field, in which the subject of the image is in sharp focus and the background is soft and blurred.

1st of 3 Pillars: Aperture

Pillars #2: Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter remains open and that will determine the light that is allowed in as well. The speed comes in increments like 1/4s, 1/60s, 1/250s, 1/500s all the way up to as much as 1/5000 or more. The ultra high speeds are great for images such as a bird flying, sports photos and anything else with fast movement to freeze that image with no blur. Slower speeds are good for things like giving water that is flowing a smooth appearance or for shooting in low light conditions. Keep in mind that the longer the shutter is open the more camera shake you may experience and the very slow speeds should only be used with a tripod or when you are braced against something like a pole or wall to avoid this camera movement.

2nd of 3 Pillars: Shutter Speed

Here is a good shot of a wrestling match taking place in Mongolia’s Nadaam Festival.

Stop Motion
Stop Motion
Smooth Water
Smooth Water

Pillars #3: ISO

Last but not least is ISO. That is the setting that controls the amount of light necessary to achieve the desired exposure in your photograph. Too low of an ISO and the photo will be dark and too high can overexpose your photograph.

You can shoot all of your daytime photos at very low ISO numbers from 100 to 400 but, when shooting night or very low light photos you can at times have to go as high as 1600. That is my personal cap since anything above this will give you so much grain or “noise” that the photograph will not be useable. You can always use a good DeNoise product like Topaz offers but too much noise reduction and you will loose the sharpness in the photograph. You are much better off using Shutter Speed in low light conditions than using an ISO that is too high.

3rd of 3 Pillars: ISO

Put Them All Together

3 Pillars Exposure Chart

You can get photographs that you will be very happy with but to achieve this you will need to have these three pillars all working as one tool. Over or under use of any of the three can results in a bad image. Read the next three in-depth tutorials to get a better understanding of all three.

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