Recently, I went with my family to the Festival of Lights at the Cincinnati Zoo. Every year around Christmas, the zoo opens in the evening for visitors to enjoy millions of Christmas lights decorating every tree and animal enclosure. All the refreshment kiosks are stocked with sweet hot cocoa, you can get pictures with Santa, meet his reindeer, and enjoy a light show on the lake. It's a great time for family and friends, or a romantic date night.
Anyway, we went to the Festival of Lights and I thought I'd bring my camera. I went once before this Christmas season, and it was about 20 degrees out that night... This time, however, it was 35 degrees, which would be much kinder to my camera!
I did my research and determined a few different camera settings I'd try out. I have a Canon Rebel T3, a high school graduation gift to myself, which has provided nearly all the photos I use here on my website and in my Etsy shop. Thanks to some kind photography souls online, I ventured out. Walking into the zoo, I took some test shots with different settings. The photo to the right is the final test shot.
What I settled on:
Shutter speed: 1/50
But wait. What does all that alpha-numeric photography code gibberish mean??? I'm a beginner, too, but teaching is the best way to learn! So, allow me to give you a quick run-through of your camera's manual mode:
ISO ranges from 100 or 200 up to 3200, 6400, etc. An ISO of 100 means it takes 1 second gather light for the shot. 200 is 1/2 a second, 400 is 1/4 of a second, 3200 is 1/32 of a second. ISO is most important as it relates to speed. If you want to take an action shot with little or no blur, you'll want a high ISO. It's also good to set the ISO pretty high for low-light situations, otherwise any shake in the camera will result in a blurry image. The problem is, a high ISO might make your shot look grainy. You'll need to find an ISO that strikes a good balance of light and clarity.
|Shutter: 1/8; f/5.6; ISO 100|
|Shutter: 1/8; f/5.6; ISO 6400|
Aperture acts like the camera's pupil. When there's a lot of light, the pupil of your eye becomes smaller so that it doesn't overwhelm the retina with light. It's the same with a camera: when there's a lot of light, you want your aperture to be smaller so you don't end up with a washed-out picture. Unfortunately, it can get pretty confusing when you start setting the aperture. On your camera, you'll find it shown as an f or f/ followed by a number. The higher the number, the less light you're letting in. The lower the number, the more light. Each step up is 50% less light.
|Shutter: 1/50, ISO 3200, f/5.6|
|Shutter: 1/50, ISO 3200, f/32|
To make things more complicated, aperture also affects the depth of field. The wider the aperture (lower f-stop), the shallower the depth of field. So a very low f-stop would mean a wide aperture, which lets in lots of light, but only very close subjects would be in focus. A high f-stop means a narrow aperture, meaning less light comes in, but the whole thing will be in focus.
|Shutter: 1/500; f/5.6; ISO 6400|
|Shutter; 1/60; f/5.6; ISO 3200|
[returning to my nighttime photography adventure]
Once I reached those settings, I spent the rest of the night playing with manual focus.
I would love to try some long-exposure shots sometime. That is, slow down the shutter speed and allow plenty of light to hit the sensor. I'd also like to go out some evening and use the flash, which I'd turned off for this outing.
I definitely need to work on my understanding of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture in order to get really great pictures in manual mode. I've continued to read up on good nighttime settings, and there are a few changes I want to try next time.
Overall, I'm no photography expert. I'll readily admit it! I spend a lot of time in full-auto mode to photograph my artwork. But, it's fun to switch to manual and try out different settings and combinations. Honestly, there's no way to guarantee a good shot. It takes lots of practice and time spent manipulating the settings in order to build a good understanding of how it all works together. Hopefully, this mini crash-course will help you brave the manual settings on your own SLR or point-and-shoot (yes, even many point-and-shoots have these settings, though you may have to do some mental interpretive dance moves... read your user manual, press some buttons, and try looking for "low light", "night portrait", "long shutter", etc.).
Finally, here are a few helpful articles I've found for understanding ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and how they work together:
The Rule of Equivalent Exposure
Understanding the Sunny 16 Rule
Christmas Light Photography Tips
Taking Photos in the Dark