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Clueless DSLR Users Pt. 1: Harness the Power of the Sun

by Elliott on November 29, 2012

Not too long ago I tweeted a blog entry from PetaPixel that included video ads from Sony that mocked clueless DSLR users who have advanced cameras but don’t know what to do with them. The videos are a little extreme but quite hilarious. If you are one of these clueless DSLR users, read on to see some simple tips to wow your skeptics and escape the clueless DSLR user moniker.

Stop Using Auto-Exposure Modes

Auto-Exposure modes rely on you to be pointing your camera at an item in your viewfinder with the correct luminosity in order for the picture to come out properly exposed. There are different metering modes that can help your camera guess your intent, but you can easily set the camera properly yourself with just a little knowledge and practice.

Back in the days of film cameras, you had to wait until your film or prints came back to see if your pictures were properly exposed. There was a greater need to rely on your meter to at least give you good advice. Also it was hard to keep track of the settings you used to take a picture unless you had a fancy camera like the Contax 645, which printed the camera settings on the border of the film.

Nowadays you can get instant feedback by looking at the picture that you just took and the ability to look at a histogram to see the highs and lows of your picture. You can also see the settings that you used when you took the picture because all of that information (metadata) is in the picture file.

The histogram can help to tell you if your image is under- or over-exposed. If the graph is mostly in the middle of the histogram, then your image is probably in good shape.

There are three main settings you can use to control exposure on your camera – film speed, aperture, and shutter speed. If it’s under- or over-exposed, you can choose to adjust any one or combination of aperture, shutter speed, or film speed settings to make it properly exposed. A smaller aperture number allows the camera to gather more light, as does a faster film speed, and also a slower shutter speed. I’ll cover these settings in more detail in a later post.

Sunny f/16 Rule

It’s easy to take a good picture the first time outside on a sunny day without even using your meter. Set your film speed to ISO 100, your aperture to f/16 and your shutter speed to 1/100th of a second. The Sunny f/16 Rule is that you can set your aperture to f/16 and your shutter speed to be the same value as your ISO setting and your exposure should be correct.

If you really want to wow your skeptics, go out and apply the Sunny f/16 Rule to the moon, day or night, because it’s always sunny on the bright part of the moon.

Because we’re living in the age of DSLRs, if you’re not quite sure of yourself, just look on your camera’s screen and see what your picture looks like. You can also use your histogram to see if most of the image is in the middle of the histogram and there isn’t a spike at either the left or right sides of the histogram.

It’s All Relative

Once you have a baseline setting and knowledge of when to use that setting, you can make logical adjustments from that baseline to come up with the proper setting. Now that you know the Sunny f/16 Rule, you can make a slight adjustment for when the sun is lower in the sky by opening up the aperture by one stop to f/11, doubling the shutter speed to 1/50th of a second, or increasing your film speed by double to be ISO 200. If that isn’t enough, go through that same process again and see if it helps.

With some practice, you will get an idea of what exposure values you can use for common situations you’ll find yourself in. For instance, you may discover that some of the indoor pictures you take may be properly exposed at ISO 1600, f/1.8, 1/100th of a second. With that knowledge, you can start with that setting and take a picture or look at your meter reading to see if it looks good. If it’s not quite right, you can make slight adjustments off of that baseline setting.

The exposure reading gauge will tell you if what you’re pointing your camera at is under-, over-, or perfectly exposed. This one looks good.

Why Is Using Manual Exposure Better Than Auto-Exposure?

Using manual exposure is better than Automatic Exposure for several reasons. First, you will have a better idea about how your camera works. This gives you the ability to make setting changes that will help you get the most out of your camera.

Second, in tricky situations such as low or high lighting, if you were in a dark room or if you’re out in the snow, your camera can easily get confused and may refuse to automatically choose the right setting. If your snow is coming out grey, you would know that you can turn your dial by one or two notches and come up with a perfect picture.

Third, you will no longer be in the category of clueless DSLR user and you can champion the merits of a camera that gives photographers full control.

Your assignment is to switch your camera to manual exposure mode and take a bunch of pictures. It’s not hard to use manual mode to take good pictures. After you get used to it, I think you will rarely go back.

Stay tuned and I will cover some more topics for the clueless DSLR user in later posts…

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