Shutter Speed, Aperture & ISO – Easy System To Master All 3

Shutter Speed, Aperture & ISO – Easy System To Master All 3

January 26, 2020 2 By Peter Engel


Today, I’m not just going to teach you
what shutter speed, aperture, and ISO do – although that is where we’re gonna start.
More importantly, by the end of this video, I’m going to teach you my exact
system, start to finish, to pick the *correct* shutter speed, aperture, and ISO
every time. These are the most important camera settings in photography… so pay
attention! Let’s start with this box that has a
hole in it. It is the basis of all photography. Once we put something like a
film at the back of this box which is sensitive to light, we have a camera. It’s
the simplest camera you can have. But from this incredibly minimalist camera,
we can learn a surprising amount about camera settings. And mastering those
three – shutter speed, aperture, and ISO – depends on having a really deep
intuition of how they work. And to start, the big question you should ask yourself
is: How bright will your photo be? One part of that is just the brightness of
the outside world. We call this the ambient light. And, sometimes, you can
change the ambient light by adding a flash, or you can filter the ambient
light by putting sunglasses on your camera. (Or, if you want to be professional
about it, you could use something like this filter instead!) But a lot of
times, you’ll just have to deal with the amount of light that’s already there. So,
what can we change about the camera itself to capture more or less light?
Well, first you can just change how long you’re taking the picture. If I cover up
the hole, and then I let it open, and then I cover it up again… that was roughly two
seconds where the film was exposed to the outside world. If I had exposed it
for longer, the photo would be brighter, because I literally capture more light.
Now, real cameras don’t have tiny people that cover the lens. Instead, they have
something called a shutter that’s in front of the film itself (or, of course, in
front of the digital camera sensor). And that’s why we call the length of your
exposure your “shutter speed.” In this example, my shutter speed was two seconds.
But on an actual camera, you have a huge range of shutter speeds. The one that I’m
filming with right now shoots everything from 30 seconds at the
long end to a rapid-fire 1/8000th of a second. And it’s not just
about capturing light. Shutter speed also affects how much motion you capture. If
I’ve got a two second shutter speed, like I just showed, and someone walks through
the photo, there’s no way that they’re going to be sharp. They’ll kind of look
like this. And forget moving subjects. Even hand-holding your camera can make a
photo blurry. If too many of your pictures look like this… shutter speed is
the reason why. Because if you’re taking a
two-second long photo, like I talked about a moment ago, it’s pretty much
impossible to hold your hands perfectly steady for two seconds. If you’ve got a
typical lens, you might need 1/30th of a second, or one 50th
instead – maybe even faster – just to get a sharp photo. Okay, we’ve got shutter speed
out of the way. Let’s take another look at this camera. There’s still one more
obvious way to capture a brighter photo, and that is to make this hole larger.
Any time that the area doubles, you’re also doubling the amount of light that
you capture. And, of course, that leads to a brighter photo. And this hole is
something that exists in every camera lens –
we call it the aperture. I’ve got a lens right here, and perhaps you can see that
I’m changing the size of the aperture. And, just like shutter speed, aperture
carries along some side effects. It doesn’t just control how much light you
capture; it also changes something called “depth of field.” Now, what is depth of
field? Well, it’s all about how much of your photo is sharp from front to back.
If you’ve ever seen photos with dreamy, blurry, out-of-focus backgrounds, aperture
is probably the reason why. And the larger the aperture, the larger the blur
in the background. Now, those are the only three ways to capture more light. First,
ambient brightness, and then shutter speed and aperture. But what if your
photo is still too dark? That’s gonna be pretty common with some types of
photography. And in that case, what you can do is increase the sensitivity of
your film – or, the closest digital camera equivalent, which is called “ISO.”
Now, something similar would be opening your dark picture in Photoshop, and then
bumping up the brightness. Of course, when you do any of those, your photo is gonna
start to look something like this… very grainy. (Although this is exaggerating
things a bit!) Because you’re not actually capturing more light. It’s kind of like
getting background static on a microphone that you’ve turned up really
high. So, now you’ve got all the background knowledge. It’s time to
explain my complete system of choosing the perfect shutter speed, aperture, and
ISO every time. And the best way to do that is to look at some example photos. I’ll start with this one… and here are the camera settings that I used for it.
This might look like a difficult photo to take, but my settings here were really
easy. So, first, I always work backwards and start with ISO. By default, I set it
to ISO 100, which is the lowest on my camera. And I do this because – remember –
with ISO you’re not actually capturing more light.
You’ll get cleaner photos if you set a low ISO and brighten your photo with
shutter speed and aperture instead. So, the next step is aperture. I think of
this as the most important camera setting, because it affects depth of
field – and depth of field has a huge creative impact on the appearance of
your photo. And here, I wanted to isolate my subject with a nice, blurry background,
so I used the largest aperture on my lens.
remember, the largest opening means the most blur in the background. And on this
lens, the largest aperture happened to be f/4. So, the next step was just to pick a
shutter speed that gave me the right brightness. Here, that turned out to be
1/250th of a second. And in this case, that was great, because
it was fast enough to get rid of motion blur. Maybe if the Puffin had been
flying, the photo would’ve been blurry at 1/250th of a second.
But, instead, it’s just standing there, and my photo is completely sharp. So, this was
an easy one because I got to use exactly the settings I wanted. And now, let’s look
at a similar, but slightly more complicated example. I took this
dragonfly photo at 1/400th of a second, f/4, ISO 280. And we’ll work
backwards again from ISO. Once again, at first I set it to the lowest value – ISO
100. Then, I move to aperture. I still want a large amount of blur in the background,
so I’m going to use a large aperture. In this case, f/4 once again. And finally, I
moved to shutter speed. Here, I would have gotten the proper exposure at 1/150th of a second. So why didn’t I use that shutter speed? Motion
blur! This dragonfly was on a flower that was moving in the wind, and close-up
photography is already magnifying any camera shake in the first place. So, in
order to get a sharp photo here, I needed to use a faster shutter speed.
Specifically, 1/400th of a second.
That had a ripple effect. And this is also where the “system” comes into play.
It’s kind of like a zig-zag. I’ve done ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. And now I
need to double back. So, back to aperture. I’d rather not change my aperture here,
because I’m happy with my depth of field. So, I’m keeping it at f/4. And that brings
us back to ISO. My photo is too dark with the settings I’ve got right now, so
I have no choice but to bump up the ISO. That’s not ideal, and it is true that
there’s a little bit more grain in this photo if you zoom all the way in, but
it’s much better than capturing motion blur or the wrong depth of field, and
ruining the shot. Now let’s look at a completely different picture. This time, a landscape photo. And again, I started with ISO 100, because it’s the base ISO on my
camera. But then I needed a huge depth of field to capture this photo. It’s not at
all like the previous examples, where I wanted a blurry background. So in this
case, I used a really small aperture: f/16. And this is where I do a side note.
Because if you’ve been paying attention you probably just heard me say that f/16
is a small aperture. And, earlier, I was saying that f/4 is a large aperture. And
those are both true. What a lot of people don’t understand about aperture is that
it’s written as a fraction. If you have 1/4 cup of salt, that’s a pretty large
amount of salt. And if you have 1/16 cup of salt, that’s much
smaller. Aperture is the exact same way. f/4 is pretty large. f/16 is pretty small.
So, jumping back to the photo, I’ve got a low ISO and a small aperture of f/16 to
get maximum depth of field. So now I just need whatever shutter speed gives me the
proper exposure. In this ambient light, that happens to be 1/60th of a
second. And because nothing in the photo is moving, and I was shooting from a
tripod, I’m not really at risk of motion blur. So, those are my final settings. And
here’s another picture, this time a cityscape. I did the same thing as before.
ISO 100 to start, and then depth of field. It wasn’t really an issue here, because
no matter what you do, you can’t really get that shallow a depth of field
when everything is so far away. So, I just set a medium aperture: f/7.1. That’s a
good balance, because medium apertures tend to be a little sharper than the
ones at the extreme. It’s not normally a big – deal depth of field is way more
important – but when everything’s in the distance anyway, you might as well set
one of those medium aperture values. And then it was down to shutter speed. As you
can tell, it’s after sunset when I took this photo. And in order to get the right
brightness, I needed a pretty long shutter speed. In this case, exactly one
second. Now, if I held my camera while taking this picture, the photo would have
been pretty blurry up close, because I can’t keep my hands completely steady
for a full second. But I was using a tripod, which gives you so much more
flexibility in your shutter speed. So, the photo at one second is incredibly sharp.
Although you might notice that some of the ships in the background are blurry,
because they moved during the exposure. It doesn’t really bother me here, because
they’re not the main subject, but that is the way that things are gonna be when
your shutter speed gets too long. Next let’s take a look at a picture that
was very complicated to set properly: this wildlife photo. And maybe you can
start to see some of the difficulties just by looking at it. It’s not too
bright out, my subjects are moving pretty fast, and I want a lot of depth of field.
No out-of-focus backgrounds here, because I really like the iceberg in the
distance. So let’s work through the process again. Start at ISO 100, and then
set your aperture to whatever you need in order to get the right depth of field.
Here – unfortunately, in a way – I need a lot of depth of field. So I’m going to set
f/16. Now, why is this unfortunate? Well, f/16 is a very small aperture – again, like
1/16th of a cup of salt. I do get a lot of depth of field, which is nice,
but the opening in the lens just is very small and does not let in very much
light. And now we’re on to shutter speed. In order to get the proper brightness
here, I would need 1/50th of a second exposure. But that’s just not
gonna work. The birds are flying way too fast. In fact, they’re flying so fast that
I had to set 1/400th of a second, and even that barely worked. When
I zoom in, you can see that the bird on the right
actually has a little bit of motion blur in the wing. Not enough to really
mess up the photo, but clearly 1/400th of a second was the absolute
longest exposure that I could have used here. So, I had to cycle back. I can’t
really change aperture, because I need that depth of field. So, I’m leaving it at
f/16. And then ISO is the only one left. I have no choice here but to bump up the
ISO to 800. Otherwise, my photo is just too dark. Now, I *could* take a photo that’s
really dark and brighten it in Photoshop – but you tend to get better image quality
when you use ISO instead. And those are my final camera settings! Here, you’ll
notice if I zoom in that there’s definitely some grain and discolored
pixels. But that’s a side effect I have to live with. The only way to fix it
would have been with a longer shutter speed or a wider aperture, and both of
those carried consequences that I just wasn’t willing to accept. So, let’s wrap
things up with a Milky Way photo, because these are not easy to take, and a lot of
people want to know how to do it. Here’s the photo in question. We’re going to go
through the same process. Start with ISO 100, then move to aperture. Now, everything
here is somewhat far away from my camera. I’d probably want a medium aperture,
maybe leaning toward a small aperture for depth of field. Let’s say, f/8. And now
we’re on to shutter speed. One thing that’s important for Milky Way
photography is that the stars are moving across the sky. It’s not something that’s
easy to notice with the naked eye, but with a camera, anything longer than
twenty or thirty seconds and you’ll actually get blurry stars in your photo.
And it does depend on your lens, and also the direction that you’re facing, so you
should definitely take some test photos. Here, the absolute longest I could get
away with was 25 seconds. That’s a problem, because at 25 seconds, f/8, and
ISO 100, the photo would’ve looked something like this. Not ideal. So, let’s
keep going through the process. I’ll skip aperture again and leave it at f/8
because I really want that depth of field. Time to bump up my ISO. But it
turns out that in this case I would have needed an ISO of 25,600 just to get a bright enough photo! That is not a good recipe for good
image quality. Here’s a photo that I took in the past at ISO 25,600. So, what’s left?
There’s hardly any ambient light here. I’ve maxed out my shutter speed. A flash
certainly won’t light up the stars because… they’re stars. So, the only thing
left is to use a wider aperture so that I can capture more light. And that’s
exactly what I did. I used the widest aperture on my lens – f/2.8, in this case. I
don’t love doing that for landscape photography, because you do lose depth of
field. But it was my only option here. So that leaves 25 seconds, f/2.8, and then I
get a well-exposed photo at ISO 3200. And those are my final settings. It’s still a
pretty high ISO, and we can definitely see some grain when I zoom in. On top of
that, take a look at this area of the bridge. It’s definitely out of focus,
thanks to my aperture. And there’s no way around that. But, you know… if you look at
the photo as a whole, it’s sharp. Surprisingly sharp, considering that it’s
the Milky Way I’m photographing. I did have to compromise on ISO and depth of
field, and that’s not ideal, but it also doesn’t ruin the photo. So
let’s go back one last time to the “system.” I’ve already demonstrated how it
works, but let me explain the actual steps involved. Now, you start with ISO.
Set the base ISO on your camera. For most cameras, that’s ISO 100. Next, go to
aperture. Set whatever aperture gives you the right depth of field. Whether you
want a shallow focus effect or a huge depth of field, this is where you’ll pick
it. Then, go to shutter speed. Set the value that just gives you a proper
exposure. And that does depend on the ambient light, but a lot of times you’ll
be done after this step. The exception is if you’re getting motion blur at that
shutter speed. If you don’t want motion blur, you have to set a faster shutter
speed – but now your photo is going to be too dark! So, the final step is to get
back that brightness. You *could* just change the ambient light if you have
control over it, but normally this boils down to using a higher ISO, or
potentially a larger aperture. Each one has a compromise, as I’ve shown.
I personally tend to start with ISO because I’m very picky
about my depth of field, and I’d rather keep the same aperture. But, as I showed
in the Milky Way photo, sometimes that just won’t be possible. And there’s the
system! Five steps. I have yet to come across a subject that this doesn’t work
for. It’s also a lot quicker in practice than what I’m talking about it here. If
you’re just shooting one type of subject, you can probably use the same aperture,
and potentially the same ISO, for a bunch of photos in a row. You can even let the
camera automatically float your shutter speed to the right exposure, and that
makes this system almost too quick! Now, I’ve added a couple of related links
below the video, but regardless, by now, you’ve got the
groundwork. Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are more important than any other
settings in photography, and this is a system that won’t let you down.