See the Light - Control your Camera

The arrival of "spring light" has always been an exciting time for visual people. Experienced photographers are hyper-sensitized to the inherent qualities of four season geographical light. They relish the chance to capture these very different light qualities as they enhance their favorite subject matter.

The nuances of subtle seasonal lighting requires that the photographer learn to "see ... when they look." This requires effort and experience, but is something that everyone can learn with dedicated practice. If these subtleties of light are to be accurately captured, similar care must be taken in controlling the camera settings. This is not particularly difficult to do, but it does require a basic knowledge of how cameras work, along with a degree of judgment and discipline. Far from being difficult, it is actually a lot of fun! To be intimately involved with the creative process of making a photograph is very satisfying.

As a professional photographer, I’ve learned that my ability to observe the qualities of any given light source is directly related to my need to operate the camera controls manually. Modern DSLR cameras utilize powerful internal computers that are a marvel of technology and efficiency. Even so, I believe the photographers own thought processes are superior - when fully engaged in the creative process.

Two types of photographers are ideally suited for shooting in the manual exposure mode. They are 1-Highly skilled photographers (or professionals) and 2- Beginning photographers.

I know that many people may be surprised to hear this opinion, but I have my reasons for believing this is true. The truth is this: a more sophisticated knowledge of light and camera technology may be required to accurately shoot in auto exposure modes, as opposed to the knowledge and skills required to shoot by utilizing manual exposure mode.

Here’s some basic information about controlling your camera manually so you will more accurately capture delicate nuances of light while maintaining a satisfying role in the creative process.

Start-up Camera Settings (found in the camera menu)

  • Set Image quality - Choose Fine JPEG or Maximum quality setting.
  • Set Image attributes - including sharpness, contrast, color, etc. Generally the default settings are fine.
  • Set the color space ( Select sRGB ) Note: Most cameras do this as a default setting.
  • Raw or JPEG settings - Use the JPEG setting while you are learning to make work flow efficient and simple.
  • Note: For more clarification read the article – Raw vs. JPEG.

Understanding "The Big Five" - camera settings you must control in order to create the following:

  • Well exposed images. (Not too light and not too dark.)
  • Accurately colored images.
  • Sharply focused images.

Preparatory Steps to Shooting

1. First Consideration: Set the ISO

ISO Defined: The "sensitivity to light" setting of the camera sensor. ISO is short for International Standards Organization.


  • The sensor is less sensitive to light.
  • The sensor's image quality is better in terms of texture, color, contrast, sharpness.
  • Use when light is brighter or stronger.
  • Examples or lower ISO settings are 100 ISO or 200 ISO

High ISO

  • The sensor is more sensitive to light.
  • The sensor's image quality may be worse in terms of texture, color, contrast, sharpness.
  • Use when light is dimmer or weaker, or when very fast shutter speeds are required.
  • Examples are 800 ISO 1600 ISO up to 23,000 ISO on top models

Note: The more expensive "top of the line," camera models will perform better at the High ISO ranges.

Main Point: Try to shoot at the lowest ISO possible for best image quality.

2. Second Consideration: Set the White Balance (WB)

White Balance Defined: When your camera sensor is set to accurately record the color of the light source.

  • All light sources are different colors. Examples: The Sun, light bulbs, shade, fluorescent, flash etc.
  • May be set manually by the photographer, or automatically by the cameras micro-computer.
  • Proper white Balance is when the light source matches the camera sensor setting.

How to set correct White Balance (WB)

  • Observe the predominant light source falling on your subject.
  • Set the camera WB Icons to match this light as closely as possible.
  • Examples of Icon symbols are: Sun, Light Bulb, Shade, Clouds, Fluorescent Tubes, or Auto (AWB)
  • Auto White balance (AWB) works best in mixed light situations.

3. Third Consideration: Set the Shutter Speed

Shutter Speed Defined: "How long you allow light to come into the camera." Longer times let more light let in.

Shutter Speed controls two main purposes / functions in photography:
Function One - It controls how much light enters the camera for exposure.
Function Two - It allows motion to be frozen or blurred.

Shutter speeds are expressed in terms of

  • Hours
  • Minutes
  • Seconds
  • Fractions of a second

Classic Examples: 1 1/2 1/4 1/8 1/15 1/30th 1/60th 1/125th 1/250th 1/500th 1/1000th etc.
Note: Each of the shutter speeds you see here allow either twice as much light – or – half as much light to enter.

In order to make a choice for the initial shutter speed setting ask yourself these two questions:

First Question: Is my subject moving? If so -how fast and in what direction to the camera?

  • Standing still: 1/60
  • Walking slow: 1/125
  • Walking fast: 1/250
  • Playing soccer: 1/500
  • Leaping Dancer: 1/1000
  • Race Car fast: 1/2000
  • Hummingbird: 1/4000

Second Question: Am I moving or shaking? If so- how much?

  • Shaking hands: 1/125 to 1/250
  • Sitting Still: 1/30
  • Standing: 1/60
  • Walking: 1/250
  • Riding in a car: 1/500

Here are a few shutter speed numbers to memorize as a reference in the field:

  • For casual, handheld snapshots of slower moving people, 1/125 of a second is a good choice.
  • Most people are steady enough to take sharp pictures when the camera is set at 1/60 of a second.
  • To freeze little boys playing soccer you will need a fast shutter speed of at least 1/500 of a second to 1/1000 of a sec.
  • To freeze the wings of a hummingbird you need a very fast shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second.
  • To make flowing water look "creamy" you need a very slow shutter speed of 1 full second or longer.

4. Fourth Consideration: Aperture - Set the F-stop (while watching the camera's light meter)

Aperture Defined: "How - large - you set the hole (aperture)." Bigger holes let more light let in.

Aperture size controls two main purposes/functions in photography:

Function One - Aperture controls how much light enters the camera for exposure purposes.
Function Two - Aperture size controls the – depth of field – focus range.

The lens opening is called variously:

  • Aperture
  • f-Stop (the f-number is the focal length divided by the "effective" aperture diameter. ...)
  • f-number
  • Lens opening
  • Iris

Classic examples: F1.4 F2.0 F2.8 F3.5 F4.0 F5.6 F8.0 F11 F16 F22 F32 F64
Note: Full f-stops allow either twice as much light – or – half as much light to enter. Apertures can be set in 1/2 stops or 1/3 stops also.

Good Exposure Defined: When the photographer adjusts the camera settings perfectly to "cook" the digital sensor.

Remember the "Three Legged Stool" of correct photo exposure:

  • Leg One is ISO
  • Leg Two is Aperture
  • Leg Three is Shutter Speed

Light Meters and how they help you set the correct exposure

  • The light meter is located inside your camera. These are of the Reflective type.
  • It measures how much light is reflecting off of your subject and into your camera sensor.
  • Your camera’s light meters can only accurately measure 18% gray reflectance.
  • Subjects that are extra white (light) or extra black (dark) will fool the light meter into recommending or
    auto-setting exposure errors.

The Two Main types of Light Meters

  • Reflective Type - such as the one in your camera.
  • Incident Type - Held in hand to measure light – FALLING – ON YOUR SUBJECT - NOT REFLECTING OFF!

Use AN 18% GRAY CARD FOR PERFECT EXPOSURE! Available at pictureline and also at Jon Williams Photography class events.

5. Fifth Consideration: Set the Focus

Focus Defined: When the most critical elements of the composition are sharp and clear.

  • Focus is not the same thing as blurry images due to the subject or photographer moving.
  • Focus may be very shallow or very deep.
  • Focus may be good though out a range of distances. This is called Depth of Field or Hyper-focal distance.
  • The term Auto-Focus should not be confused with the term Auto- Exposure.

Focus in Practice

  • Focus is either by manual control or by auto control.
  • The focus control is usually on the lens barrel.
  • Auto Focus may be done by zone areas or by point focus.
  • For Portraiture focus on the eyes.
  • For other subjects focus on the most critical points of emphasis in the composition.
  • Wide angle lenses, and smaller apertures create expansive depth of focus.

Suggested Self-Study
Carefully read your camera manual and learn how to set the various functions. Get Control of your camera. Don’t let it control you!

I hope you have a great time using your DSLR camera and new skills! There’s a great deal more to learn in order to become a "competent" photographer. I hope you will continue your progress by attending my future classes and expeditions. Classes are scheduled quarterly and and can be found on my website.

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ApertureDslr basicsExposureIsoJon williamsMarch 2013Shooting in manual