What Were Your Settings?

As a photographer I am asked all the time what my settings were for a photograph. While it is a great question, and understanding camera settings is very important there is a much, much more important question to ask. The right question to ask is what my feelings were when I created a photograph.

The craftsman in me sees the camera as a tool that helps me accomplish a task – to record the scene in front of me. I adjust my cameras Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO to record the proper amount of light. After all, photography is all about recording light. And to render a scene properly, we need to capture the precise amount of light.

It sounds simple, and it really is – just like we fill a glass with water, we fill our cameras with light. And just like when we fill a glass, there is an amount of water that is just right. Not enough water in the glass and we are left thirsty and wanting more. Too much water in the glass and it spills out of the glass and is lost.

The camera is no different then the glass. Not enough light and the image is underexposed and too dark. If we fill the camera with too much light then the photograph is overexposed.

When we manipulate the Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO on our camera there are many combinations of settings that are all going to record the exact same amount of light.

Dawn Greets Block Island - Mike Dooley - For my birthday I spend the weekend on Block Island, a small island off the southern coast of Rhode Island. On the first afternoon I scouted out this beach, and thought it just might be a nice place to watch the sunrise. I hit the streets at 4 am and had a very nice and peaceful walk along to beach, looking for just the perfect spot. The rock made for a nice foreground. I setup my camera, cranked up my music and watched Mother Nature do her beautiful work. I consider myself blessed to be witness to mornings like this.

Dawn Greets Block Island

For example, the photograph “Dawn Greets Block Island” in this post was shot at ISO 100, f/8.0 for 1.3 seconds. I could have just as easily used settings of ISO 1600, F/5.6 for 1/25 of a second. Both sets of settings are going to record the exact same amount of light. So what difference do the settings make? They make all the difference in the world,  as the photographs themselves are going to be very, very different.

This is when the artist in me comes out to make the final decision. If I chose a relatively fast shutter speed I can freeze the water into crisp waves, full of action and drama. Drops of water are frozen in time and space. However if I choose a relatively slow shutter speed then the water moves a great deal while the shutter is open, causing the water to appear softer, smoother, and more gentle.

Notice the use of the word “relative”, because it is critically important. The shutter speed used to convey or freeze motion has everything to do with the speed at which the subject moves. The shutter speed needed to freeze the action of a motorcycle and a lady bug are going to be very different, as the subjects move at very different speeds. Likewise, water on a beach moves differently as the tides change and the waves change.

As the amount of light changes during the day, and the way the waves change with the tide, knowing the exact settings won’t allow you to recreate this photograph. Understanding the cameras settings will allow you to create a photograph that conveys what you felt when you clicked the shutter.

As I stood on the beach that morning waiting for sunrise I was stuck by how peaceful and tranquil the beach was. Deserted at 4:30 in the morning, the only sound was the soft roll of the tide as it gently caressed the shoreline. It is the artist that chooses what feel he is after, what emotion he is trying to convey with his photograph. It is the craftsman that then uses his understanding of his camera to choose the settings that record both the precise amount of light and the artistic feel. In this photograph I used a relatively slow shutter speed to help convey the peaceful and tranquil feeling I had as I stood on the beach that morning.

I hope you have enjoyed this article, and that it helps you to create the photographs that you desire.

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