Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Basics for Using a DSLR for Travel Photography

I am all for everyone exploring the photographer in them, and with DSLR cameras becoming relatively less expensive these days, many now get the chance to realize that skill. Lately, however, I have been observing that the more advanced the camera a person gets, the more said person tends to think that such advanced camera will do all the work for him. While this may sometimes work, I do think it is completely misguided. Why some do not even bother learning the basics for using a DSLR, I will never understand.

Your camera, however advanced it is, will never be able to replace human judgment and creativity in capturing the beautiful scenery before you. Your DSLR gives you, not great photos, but the tools to take great photos. Trust yourself enough by using your camera's manual settings. I did and while my photos were not exactly NatGeo material, I still revel in the fact that it was me, not my camera, who took those pictures. Armed with the basics for using a DSLR, I took it slowly and got better and better at it.

The basics for using a DSLR are very easy to learn anyway. Once you get a grip on each, you will find yourself discovering the joys of photography. I know I have. So let me share what I have learned so far about the three basic components of photography in the few years I have been a DSLR user.

1. ISO

The ISO, a remnant of film photography, refers to the speed that a film (an actual celluloid film) has to take in light and record an image. This is the first component in the basics for using a DSLR. A higher ISO means the camera becomes extra sensitive to light and records an image faster. Thus, the less light you have available around you, e.g., when shooting at night, the higher your ISO needs to be. The more light you have, i.e., shooting in broad daylight, the less ISO you need to use.

Beijing National Stadium, Bird's Nest
National Stadium a.k.a. "Bird's Nest" in Beijing, China
ISO at 2000 - High ISO gets a rather grainy image.

There is a trade-off here, as you can see. The higher your ISO is, the grainier your image becomes. So though you may be able to shoot in the dark without a flash using a high ISO, you have to take note that the resulting image will appear grainy. Whether that's a good thing is entirely up to you and your aesthetic as a photographer.

Normally, under a bright sun, a 200 to 400 ISO will do. On a cloudy day outside, 800 would suffice. At night or indoors, 1600 or above (depending on the artificial light available, of course) is good. These are not hard-and-fast rules, however. Again, these are just the basics for using a DSLR. Adjust as you see fit and experiment a little.

Swatch Art Peace Hotel, Chartered Bank Building & North China Daily News Building on the Bund, Shanghai
Chiaroscuro-esque buildings along The Bund in Shanghai, China
ISO at 800 - Shooting at night with low ISO could still work!

2. Aperture

I admit. It took a while for me to grasp this second component in the basics for using a DSLR. It does not help that it is in fraction format. Basically, aperture refers to, well, the size of the hole inside the lens through which light will pass.

Depth of field, i.e., how much of your image is focused, is a function of aperture. The higher the aperture (i.e., the bigger the hole), the resulting depth of field will be narrower. A narrow depth of field means you choose to focus on just the foreground, the middle ground, or the background. Never all of them at once. This is ideal for portraits or for when you want to focus on a subject, making it sharp and clear, rendering everything else out of focus.

Cheers to Saigon
Cheers to Saigon, Vietnam
F1.8 - A narrow dept of field means only the subject and the subject alone is focused.

The lower the aperture (i.e., the smaller the hole), the resulting depth of field will be wider. A wider depth of field means the image you get will have all foreground, middle ground and background in focus, thereby preserving every little detail in your image. This is good for landscapes when you want everything clear and sharp.

Crop Terraces at Natubleng, Buguias, Benguet
Stairway to Heaven: Crop Terraces at Benguet, Philippines
F8 - Low aperture results in a very detailed image

Now, here is the fun part. As I mentioned, aperture is in fraction format. Thus, an F1.8 or a 1/1.8 aperture is higher than an F11 or a 1/11 aperture. An F1.8 means the hole in your lens is bigger, which means your depth of field is narrower. An F11 aperture means the hole in your lens is smaller, which means your depth of field is wider. Confused yet? This is still just the basics for using a DSLR. Don't worry. Just think of it this way: F1.8 is for portraits, while f11 is for landscapes.

3. Shutter Speed

This is last thing you need to adjust when taking a photo, the last component in the basics for using a DSLR. Shutter speed refers to how fast a camera takes in light. The slower the shutter speed, the more light goes into your photo. The faster the shutter speed, the less light goes into your photo. Overexposure (burnt images, too much light) and underexposure (dark photos) are a function of shutter speed.

Shutter speed is measured in seconds or parts of a second. The amount of shutter speed you need to use will depend on the first two components: ISO and aperture.

Let's say you are doing a shoot on a bright sunny day. In this situation, the suggested ISO is anywhere from 100 to 400. If you set your aperture to F5 or lower, your camera will tell you, via the camera meter (see below), to adjust your shutter speed to 1000 (of a second) or maybe even higher.

Crater Lake, Mount Pinatubo, Philippines
Crater Lake, Mount Pinatubo, Philippines
ISO at 400, F5.6, 1/1000

Your goal here is to stabilize the meter to the center. When you have done that, then that's the time you click on the button to take your shot. You can of course go one or two stops higher or lower, again depending on your aesthetic. Do not go too high or too low, however, as you risk overexposing or underexposing your image.

Camera Meter: Stabilize to the center
or experiment with exposures, your choice.

That's basically it. Admittedly, the instructions here about the basics for using a DSLR will seem a little too brief and abstract. That is why I encourage every DSLR owner to actually go out and shoot, of course, with their dials set to M (for Manual), and having these three components in mind not as rules though but as mere guideposts. Experiment with the settings all you want. At the end of the day, you are the photographer. It is your decision how an image is taken. You will get the hang of it little by little. And when you actually start deciding actively on how your photo comes out, then you can truly start getting your money's worth on your expensive camera.

Did this post help clear up the basics for using a DSLR for you? Any other questions you might have on using a DSLR?

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