I see lots of requests for some basic camera advice when people are getting started with slightly more advanced models (here and at work whenever people look at photos and say “how did you do that?”) so I’ve tried to condense it into one article for reference purposes. I don't pretend to know everything (far from it) but hopefully everything is present and correct. Basically this is for high-end bridge cameras (Panasonic FZ series, Fuji Finepix S series etc) and entry level DSLRs (Nikon D40/50, Canon 350/400D). Although there are obviously some major differences between each camera, the basic functions remain fairly constant and as long as they at least have P, A, S and M selections on the mode dial they will be reasonably flexible.
These are the very basics, I’ve not explained why things happen as such, just what will happen when you make certain adjustments and what the actual outcome is for a picture. For example technically I’ve explained Aperture very badly below, but from a practical point of view it’s far easier to keep it simple rather than have to explain the science behind it. Hopefully that keeps things relatively straightforward…
P - Program
The camera controls the aperture and shutter speed.
Use: When you want to guarantee a standard shot from your camera with most things in focus. In normal conditions the camera will select a fairly fast shutter speed to minimize blur from hand-shake and then select the correct aperture to ensure a well exposed image.
A – Aperture Priority
You control the aperture; the camera adjusts the shutter speed accordingly.
Use: In practical terms, the Aperture mode allows you to decide how much of your image will appear to be in sharp focus by selecting an f number. Therefore use this mode when you want everything in sharp focus (a narrow aperture, generally f12-22) or just the subject you are focusing on to be in sharp focus with a blurred background (a wide aperture, generally f1.4-f4)
I’ve focused on the nose for the following 3 sample shots and only changed the aperture for each one. Note how even the models feet are blurred on the first shot, but by the last shot you can see the bedroom in the background clearly. As always though there is a price to pay for having everything sharp - a longer shutter speed is needed - therefore I tripod was required for the last shot but the first two were possible handheld.
It’s worth pointing out at this stage, that all things are not equal in the world of digital photography. An aperture of f2.8 on a DSLR lens will more than likely throw the background out of focus even if the subject you want sharp is a reasonable distance away. However, f2.8 on a bridge camera will not achieve anywhere near the effect of throwing the background out of focus unless the subject is very close to you.
S – Shutter Speed Priority
You control the shutter speed; the camera adjusts the aperture accordingly.
Use: You may want to take some panning shots of cars, so you would slow the shutter speed down to around 1/250th of a second to get the blurred background effect. Conversely you may be photographing a football match and wish to freeze the action; in that case you would have a fast shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second to ensure there is no blur.
M - Manual
You control the aperture and shutter speed.
Use: You may be shooting traffic trails from a motorway bridge, you want a narrow aperture to make sure everything is sharp as far as the eye can see, but you also want to control how long the image is taken for and therefore also set the shutter speed accordingly.
Scene modes try to take the hard work away from you and adjust the settings outside of the normal P mode boundaries to get the desired result. For example Sports Mode on many cameras will adjust to shutter speed to between 1/1000-1/2000 to make sure you capture the moment, Fireworks Mode will change the shutter speed to at least 3 or 4 seconds so you can record the light and colour.
Essentially though they offer nothing that cannot be achieved b yourself in A, S or M mode. If you must use them, take the time to review the pictures and see what settings the camera used (usually available on the LCD screen, it will be something like “1/320, f4.5”) as this will give you a great idea of what is needed to achieve the same effect manually.
This setting is probably tucked away in the menus of some cameras, but it can be a very important tool. There are various steps usually ranging from 100-3200, the extremes are detailed below:
ISO 100 – Good for outdoors and well lit rooms, no or very little noise/grain
ISO 3200 – Good for fairly dark rooms, lots of noise/grain
If you were in a fairly dark room (such as a museum) but you were not allowed to use the flash you may find your pictures are very blurry, you may be able to solve this by increasing the ISO. Always keep in mind that each increase will reduce the quality of your photo, so you need to find a balance between a sharp image and one that isn’t excessively noisy.
ISO 200 – no flash used, image is excessively blurry
ISO 1600 – no flash used and image is pretty sharp
However it is also fairly noisy, so although it may look ok on the web, it may not be acceptable as an A4 print. Below is a crop from the ISO 1600 image showing the noise: