Do you have a lovely DSLR, Mirrorless or MicroFour Thirds camera system?
Is it your pride and joy with more megapixels than you can shake a stick at?
But are some of the pictures just a little underwhelming? Were you expecting something more?
Are you starting to feel you might have bought the wrong system?
Or are you thinking another new lens might just do the trick?
Let’s try something different.
Have you turned that dial on the top off auto? Have you looked closely at the changes that occur if you do that? This series of articles will take you step by step through learning exactly what happens with your camera.
This first one looks at Aperture Priority, usually marked A on the mode dial of your camera.
This is often called a semi automatic mode as the camera still controls the other settings to give a good exposure (most of the time).
So why and how should you use it?
The why is depth of field, which simply put, is how much of the scene is in focus in your photograph. If you set a low number for your aperture, there is only a small portion of the scene in focus. If you set a high number, as much of the scene as possible is in focus.
So why not just set it high all the time?
The problem with using a high aperture setting is that to get a good exposure, the camera has to change the shutter speed, ISO or both. A slow shutter speed introduces motion blur and camera shake and higher ISO lowers the eventual quality of the shot by introducing noise and a grainy texture. It is all about balancing out these three settings of the exposure triangle.
The second consideration is that artistically you may not want all of the picture to be in focus. You can bring the subject of your photo to the attention of the viewer by leaving the surroundings out of focus. This is especially pleasing for portraits and single flowers.
The best way of getting to understand Aperture priority is to get out with your camera. You will also want to be organised so that you can see the differences we are talking about on your own work. We are going to take a set of photographs that will help you to see just what this setting can do for you.
“I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand”
For this set of photos you need to find a location where you can see as far as possible. Don’t worry too much about the aesthetic quality, this is just a test. Choose a nice bright day to see the best results and a composition that includes a third sky.
Use a wide angle on your kit lens, 30mm is fine. Choose a focal point about one third up from the bottom of the picture. Set the ISO setting to 200 (your manual will tell you how to do this if you are not sure).
You will be taking three shots. If you have a tripod set your camera up on it, if not, find something for support while you take the shot, such as a gate post.
Shot 1: Set your camera to Auto and take it exactly as the camera wants.
Shot 2: Set your camera to A. Set the aperture to f8. Again, have a look in your manual if you are not sure how to do this, but it should just be a wheel on the top which alters a setting depending on the mode. In this case you have set aperture priority so the wheel alters the aperture.
Shot 3: With your camera still set at A, set the aperture to f22. Take care here though, as the shot may take relatively slowly. Turn the aperture to a lower number if the duration of the shot is less than 1/30 secs.
With these settings you should find that the last shot will be in focus through most of the picture. With the middle photo, the foreground will likely be out of focus or blurry. That is not always a bad thing as it can help focus the viewers attention on the more important parts of the scene. If your focal point is closer, the background will be softer. The point here, is to see the control you have over the final image.
Check your Auto shot and see what settings it used. Most likely the camera will have used a higher ISO than 200. If that goes too high you will start to see noise in the shadow areas (an uneven texture or spots of colour).
This is an area where your control over the depth of field comes into it’s own. It’s where you can direct the viewers attention to exactly the spot you want. You don’t have to shoot people, your portraits can be of anything from the bouquet you caught at the wedding to your favourite pet.
For this set of shots, best results are obtained from a lens around about 100mm equivalent. It will usually be at the opposite end of the zoom on your kit lens. For a DSLR that would be about 70mm on the dial, for Micro four thirds around 50mm. Again set the ISO to 200mm for the aperture controlled shots.
For each shot focus on the most important part, for a person, this would be the eye closest to you. Choose a bright but slightly overcast day or find an area of light shade. Stand at a distance so that the subject fills most of the frame.
Shot 1. Set the dial to Auto to give yourself a comparison shot.
Shot 2. Set the aperture to a very low number such as f5.6. For a kit lens, this may be as low as it will go. Take your time getting the camera to focus where you intend.
Shot 3. Set the aperture to a higher number such as f11. The shot will take a little longer so keep the camera steady.
For shot 3, quite a lot of the surroundings around your subject will be in focus. Sometimes this can be distracting. Sometimes you will want to include them to give a sense of place, the choice is yours. For shot 2, the surroundings will be out of focus unless they are the same distance from your camera as the subject. This is great if you want all the attention on the subject. You will have a nice soft background that acts as a foil to the portrait.
Compare these to your Auto shot. The shot should still be good, but you haven’t chosen whether or not the background is visible. It may not be how you envisaged. That artistic choice is not in your hands.
When taking close up shots, you will often find that there is very little depth of field at any aperture. This is an area where your camera will find it hard to to decide where to focus and will hunt about looking for the right settings. Setting the aperture helps the camera as it has fewer things to change.
Best results are obtained here if you can use manual focus.
The subject should be in bright but overcast light. Be careful not to cast your own shadow on the subject as you may be quite close. Set your lens to the longest end of the range if you are using a kit lens. Set your camera up with some support as the exposure may be relatively long. Check that you are not too close to your subject by looking for the closest focus distance on your lens barrel. For example my kit lens says 0.2m/0.66ft — infinity.
Shot 1. Set your dial to auto. You may have to be very patient to get a shot at all. Shine a bit of extra light on the subject with your phone’s torch setting or use a piece of white card to reflect more light in. Take more shots moving the camera very slightly to focus on a different spot.
Shot 2. Use the lowest f-number your camera and lens combination will allow. Take more than one shot, focusing on slightly different parts of the subject. Again use extra light if you needed to above.
Shot 3. Set the aperture to f8 and try taking the shots again. You may need even more light this time to get a manageable shutter speed.
For this test you will have quite a few shots to compare. The lowest depth of field will be seen on the shots with the lowest f-number. This may or may not work depending on where you have focused. More of the scene will be in focus at the higher f-number but the shot may have become messy with too much distraction.
You will now have gained experience of your camera’s limitations, and know how to use aperture to get results closer to those you are looking for. The pictures will reflect your unique artistic vision much more closely.
So if the weather is good, get out, get shooting and practise until it becomes second nature. If the weather isn’t so good, set up an indoor closeup with a couple of daylight lamps.
If you enjoyed this article or have some further observations, feel free to share in the comments.