Basic Photography

Top 10 Photographic Techniques
Automatic Cameras
Aperture Priority
Shutter Priority
Program Mode
Selective Meter Readings (Automatic Cameras)
Manual Exposure with Built-In Meters
Selective Meter Readings (Manual Cameras)
Incident-Light Exposure Meters
Battery Power
Bracketing exposures


Accurate exposure is important in producing a high-quality photograph, and it is critical when you use a slide film. Exposure is the amount of light reaching the film. Each film requires a specific amount of light to produce a picture of the proper brightness. How much light a film requires depends on its speed. The versatility of your camera enables you to shoot pictures at sunrise, during a blizzard or rainstorm, in your family room, or at a night baseball game.

For such unusual lighting situations, a light meter is a must. Most 35mm cameras have built-in meters. The built-in meters of SLR cameras indicate the shutter speed and aperture required for correct exposure. Those cameras that set the aperture and shutter speed are automatic-exposure cameras. Those that leave it up to you to set the shutter speed and aperture are manual exposure cameras. Many cameras offer both automatic and manual exposure.

Top 10 Photographic Techniques

Our most helpful advice to amateur photographers is distilled in these select techniques. No matter how experienced or inexperienced a photographer you may be, these tips can increase your yield of pictures you will be proud to show and share!

Keep Your Camera Ready

How many once-in-a-lifetime pictures have you missed because you didn't have a camera with you? It's easy to avoid that frustration by keeping a camera handy.

Spontaneous moments make priceless pictures. To capture them, you need a camera with you. If your regular camera is too large to carry conveniently, consider a low-cost pocket-sized model or a single use camera as a standby.

Get Close

As a general rule, the closer you get to the subject, the better your pictures will be. Getting close eliminates distracting, unnecessary backgrounds and shows the subject clearly.

Think about showing just enough of the scene to make the picture clear and interesting. Be sure to check your camera manual to learn the closest distance at which your camera takes sharp pictures. Many point-and-shoot cameras cannot focus closer than four feet from the subject.

Keep People Busy

When photographing people, keep them busy! Your pictures will have a feeling of lively spontaneity. To avoid stiff, static poses, prompt your subjects to be active. Their expressions will be more relaxed and natural.

Use a Simple Background

A simple background focuses attention on the subject and makes clear, strong pictures. Take control and move your subject or your camera to find a simple, uncluttered background.

Place the Subject Off-Center

There is nothing wrong with placing the subject in the center of your viewfinder. However, placing the subject off-center can make the composition more dynamic and interesting to the eye.

Include Foreground in Scenics

When taking scenic pictures, try including objects in the foreground. Elements in the foreground add a sense of distance, depth, and dimension. 

Look for Good Lighting

Adequate lighting is essential to expose film, but good lighting can make your pictures more interesting, colorful, dimensional, and flattering to the subject. Strong sunlight is only one of many types of good lighting. 

Some people are surprised to learn that cloudy, overcast days provide the best lighting for pictures of people. Bright sun makes people squint, and it throws harsh shadows. On overcast days, the light is soft and flattering to faces. 

Hold Your Camera Steady

Sometimes good pictures are missed by overlooking the basics. Holding the camera steady is vital for sharp, clear pictures. When you push the shutter button, press it gently rather than jabbing it. Even slight camera movement can rob your pictures of sharpness. Use a brace to steady your arm or use a tripod, if available. 

Use Your Flash

You can improve your pictures by taking full advantage of the flash built into most cameras. It provides extra light when you need it, especially indoors, and it freezes action for sharp pictures.

Be sure to stay within the "flash range." This is the range of distance that will be properly exposed. A typical range is four to twelve feet. Check your camera manual for the effective range of your flash.

Flash can improve pictures outdoors, as well as indoors. Using flash outdoors will soften shadows and brighten colors.

Choose the Right Film

The three most popular print film speeds are 800, 400, 200, and 100. All cameras are capable of handling these film speeds. As the speed increases (the larger the number) so does the grain and cost of the film. Each time you double the film speed you cut in half the amount of light necessary to properly expose the film.

Regardless of your picture-taking situation, these easy-to-use films offer wide ranges of speeds to capture each and every situation providing clear, sharp prints with brilliant color. They are designed for general picture-taking situations, exposure with daylight or electronic flash, to see color the way the human eye sees color with sharpness unsurpassed by any other film.

100-speed film: It is the best in bright sun delivering bright, clear pictures with a striking combination of vibrant, accurate color, and vividly sharp detail. Great for close-ups and still-life shots.

200-speed film: For when you need an all-around performer. It turns up the color in variable light with good all-around sharpness. Great for slow to moderate action, this film works in a variety of indoor and outdoor situations.

400-speed film: For when you want a film that does it all with rich color and great sharpness. Ideal for extended flash range, as well as outdoor shots. It has outstanding flexibility in a variety of lighting situations that makes it perfect for sports and action.

800-speed film: Great for pictures in most light and action conditions. Truly, it's the film that adjusts to the widest range of picture-taking conditions.

Automatic Cameras

Most new cameras set the exposure and film speed automatically. Not all automatic cameras, however, have the same features. Many compact 35 mm cameras have very simple exposure systems and allow little (if any) control of exposure. Some sophisticated SLR models offer several exposure modes. Between the two are cameras that have only partial auto-exposure systems. These may require you to make part of the exposure decision-setting the shutter speed or aperture, for example. If your camera has several exposure modes, knowing the advantages of each mode is of great importance in making the most of auto-exposure capability.

Automatic cameras that offer a choice of modes do so to suit different needs, such as extending depth of field or stopping action. Other modes optimize results with a particular piece of equipment, such as a telephoto lens. Below is a look at each of the different auto-exposure modes. Read your instruction manual for specifics about your camera.

Aperture Priority

In this mode you select the aperture and the camera automatically picks a shutter speed for correct exposure. Aperture priority is ideal if you want to control depth of field. By choosing a small aperture for extensive depth of field or a large one for selective focus, you get the benefits of auto-exposure while being able to manipulate scene sharpness.

Shutter Priority

In this mode you set the shutter and the camera sets the aperture required for correct exposure. You can choose a fast shutter speed to halt action subjects or a longer shutter speed to accentuate motion (to blur water going over a waterfall, for instance).

If the shutter speed you have selected requires an aperture beyond the range of your lens, you may have to adjust the shutter speed or use a faster or slower film. If you wanted to make a 1-second exposure in daylight with medium-speed film, for example, even a very small aperture, such as f/22, wouldn't be small enough to give proper exposure. The solution in this example would be to switch to a slower film or to use a neutral density filter.

Program Mode

Cameras that offer a full program mode choose both the aperture and the shutter speed for you. In the normal program mode, the camera provides a moderate shutter speed (one that is safe for handheld shooting and a relatively stationary subject) and a moderate aperture for an average amount of depth of field. Unless you have specific creative or technical demands that require other settings, this is the best mode for general photography.

Some cameras have a feature called program shift that allows you to choose any equivalent combination of shutter speed and aperture by simply turning a dial or pressing a button (usually near the shutter release). With this feature you can let the camera figure the exact exposure, but then quickly tailor the exposure combination to your subject's needs. If the camera meter chooses a combination of 1/125 sec at f/8, for example, you could shift to an equivalent exposure: 1/250 sec at f/5.6, 1/60 sec at f/11, etc.

Two special program modes that some cameras feature are a depth-of-field program and an action program. Both are full program modes (aperture and shutter speed are chosen for you), but they allow you to tailor the exposure system to a particular type of subject. When set to the depth mode, for example, the camera will automatically choose the smallest possible aperture that still allows a safe handheld shutter speed. This is a good mode to use in scenic photography when you want great depth of field. Similarly, in the action-program mode, the camera will pick a fast shutter speed with a large aperture to stop fast-moving subjects.

Some cameras that use interchangeable lenses often switch automatically to these special program modes as you switch lenses to choose a mode that best complements the specific focal length of the lens. For example, if you're using a telephoto lens (typically the cutoff point is 135 mm or longer), the camera will automatically go into the action mode and set a fast shutter speed to prevent blurred pictures caused by camera shake. If you attach a wide-angle lens, the camera will switch to the depth program and select an aperture that will give the maximum available depth of field-since gaining maximum depth of field is a prime reason for using a wide-angle lens.

What about zoom lenses? Cameras with a choice of programmed exposure modes often have sensors in the lens mount that monitor focal length and set the program mode accordingly.

Finally, you can use most automatic cameras in a full manual exposure mode by selecting the manual mode on the mode selection switch. In the manual mode you are free to select both aperture and shutter speed, to handle a particularly difficult subject or to create an imaginative effect.

Selective Meter Readings (Automatic Cameras)

Automatic cameras are programmed to give you good exposures with subjects of average brightness under average lighting conditions, and generally they do this job very well. But you won't always be working under average lighting conditions or with average subjects. The meter in your automatic camera can be fooled-although some exposure systems are more foolproof than others.

A few automatic cameras, for example, are able to evaluate even the most complex light situations and provide accurate exposure information. They do this with a system called matrix or zone metering. In this type of metering system, the camera's computer divides the picture area into a grid. It compares various data such as contrast, brightness, and subject size, and then uses this information to make "educated" exposure decisions. In some cameras these decisions are based on comparisons with hundreds of thousands of exposure patterns that have been programmed into the camera's memory. This type of camera can make a correct exposure even if, for example, the main subject is backlighted.

The exposure corrections we suggest for unusual lighting conditions may not always be needed for cameras with matrix or zone metering.

If your camera has such a system, study your pictures to see how accurate the meter is in handling tricky lighting. If it sometimes falls short, you may be able to switch to an averaging meter mode (or manual) and follow our recommendations.

No matter how sophisticated the metering system, all automatic cameras occasionally need your guidance. And most provide one or more controls that can alter the exposure. Common controls are the spot meter, exposure lock, backlight button, and exposure compensation control. With any exposure-compensation feature, be sure to set it back to its neutral or zero position when you change subjects or settings.

A spot meter enables you to take a reading from a small area (usually marked by a circle in the center of the viewfinder) that you deem important, such as a brightly colored flower against a black background. To activate this feature, you would typically depress the spot-metering button and then activate the meter by pressing the shutter release part way. As long as you keep the shutter release depressed (or until you take the picture), the meter will lock in this spot reading. With some cameras, just pressing the spot button locks the exposure until you take a picture.

A memory-lock button lets you take a reading from the entire metering area and hold that reading until you take the picture. By moving in close (physically or with a zoom lens) to fill the frame with the main subject and locking the reading, you can get accurate exposure for the important part of the scene-a face, for instance. As long as the exposure remains locked, you can recompose the scene in any way you want and still get the right exposure.

Memory-lock is particularly useful in very contrasty situations. For example, if you needed to make a close-up meter reading of a dark subject in front of a light background (or vice versa), you could move in close to make the reading, push the memory-lock button to hold the exposure, and then move back to your original shooting position to take the picture. If you were using a zoom lens, you could zoom to the longest focal length, take a reading and lock it, and then recompose the scene by adjusting the zoom setting.

An exposure compensation control lets you alter the exposure automatically by up to plus or minus 2 or 3 stops, usually in 1/2 or 1/3 stop increments. Exposure compensation is useful for backlighted scenes and for very bright or dark subjects that would normally mislead the meter.

Some simpler cameras have a similar but less sophisticated exposure-compensation feature called a backlight button. This is actually an exposure-compensation button that gives a fixed amount-usually 1 1/2 or 2 stops-of extra exposure to compensate for dark foreground subjects (like faces) in strongly backlighted situations.

If your automatic camera doesn't have a compensation control or a backlight button, it may be possible to change the exposure by changing the setting on the film-speed dial. All you have to remember is that each time you double the film speed, you decrease exposure by one stop; each time you halve the speed, you increase exposure by one stop.

To correct the exposure by altering the film-speed setting or using any type of compensation feature, you first have to know the amount of correction that's needed. Estimating the correction is fairly simple for overall light or dark scenes, especially when they don't include people. Also the amount of correction isn't as critical when you are using color negative film, which has a fairly wide exposure latitude.

For example, a sunlit, snow-covered hill would cause a meter to underexpose the scene so that the snow would appear gray rather than bright white. Since this kind of scene usually requires 1 stop more exposure than that indicated by the meter, simply divide the film speed by 2 (effectively adding 1 stop of exposure) and set this lower film speed on the film-speed dial-or set + 1 stop on the compensation control. With a 200-speed film, for instance, you would set the dial to 100. Conversely, if you were photographing a very dark scene that the camera would normally overexpose, multiply the film speed by 2 (ISO 400 instead of 200, for example) -or set -1 stop on the compensation control.

With cameras that set the ISO speed automatically for DX-encoded films, you may or may not be able to alter the ISO speed. If you do change ISO speeds in mid-roll, be sure to set the correct speed back when you're done, or you will alter the exposure for the rest of the roll.

Manual Exposure with Built-In Meters

Most manually adjustable SLR cameras have a built-in reflected-light exposure meter that takes light readings through the camera lens (called TTL metering). Some built-in meters measure the light as it enters the lens and hits sensors on or near the reflex mirror; others measure the intensity of the light at the film plane (called 0TF or "off-the-film" metering).

One important way that meters differ is in the area where they measure the light. Most TTL meters measure the average of all the light reflecting from a scene. Others take a weighted reading. In meters that weigh the reading, a small area has the greatest influence on exposure determination, but the remaining picture area also exerts some influence. Some cameras have TTL meters that work on the same principle as a spot meter; they read only a small segment of the scene.

Using a built-in meter is easy. Once you've set the film speed on your camera dial (not necessary with a camera that senses DX-encoded film), all you have to do is aim your camera at the scene, and the meter will measure the light reflecting from the scene. You then adjust the aperture or shutter speed (or both) until a viewfinder display indicates you have set the exposure correctly. The correct exposure may be indicated by matching a needle to a specific mark or area in the viewfinder, or by a lighted display.

When you set the shutter speed and aperture, consider subject demands. With moving subjects, for example, you may want to select a shutter speed fast enough to stop action, and then find an aperture to give the correct exposure. With breathtaking vistas, you may want to select an aperture small enough to make a picture sharp from foreground to background, and then find an appropriate shutter speed.

Selective Meter Readings (Manual Cameras)

The exposure indicated by the camera's meter works well for most subjects. But you will encounter difficult situations where you'll have to use the built-in meter to make more interpretive, or selective, readings.

Very contrasty scenes that have large dark and bright areas, for example, may require selective meter readings. An overall meter reading from the camera position is affected by the large areas in the scene, such as light or dark foregrounds or backgrounds. If the main subject (a person, for example) is surrounded by a large area that is much lighter or darker than the subject, the meter will indicate an exposure that's correct for the background, but wrong for the main subject.

In situations such as this, you should make a selective meter reading. For example, move in and make a close-up reading of the subject (a person's face or body) that excludes the unimportant light or dark area. You may sacrifice detail in the larger background or foreground area, but the main subject will be correctly exposed. When you make a close-up reading, be careful not to measure your own shadow or the shadow of your camera. If you have a spot-metering camera, making a selective reading is just a matter of centering the important subject area in the spot-metering zone.

Scenes that include a large proportion of sky often require selective meter readings. Since the sky is usually brighter than other parts of the scene, your exposure meter may indicate too little exposure. As a result, a subject that's darker than the sky will probably be underexposed. This effect is even greater with overcast skies than with blue skies. One trick to avoid this problem is to aim your camera down slightly when taking a light reading so that the meter isn't fooled by the bright sky.

In backlighted scenes, the background is often sunlit and therefore brighter than the subject. Also, light coming from behind the subject may shine directly into the lens or metering cell. Both situations often result in underexposure of your subject. The solution is to take a close-up reading, being careful to shade the lens from extraneous light.

If you're using a zoom lens, taking close-up readings is easy, since you can often do it without changing your shooting position. Simply zoom the lens to its longest focal length, take a reading from the important areas of the scene, and then return to the focal length that you want to use for shooting the picture. Be sure to use the exposure you determined from the close-up reading, even if the meter is warning you of under or overexposure when you change the zoom setting to take the picture.

Sometimes a large very light area or a large very dark area is an important part of the picture, and you'll want to be sure that it is exposed correctly. Vistas filled with snow or white sand fall into this category. If you used an overall or average meter reading, the scene would be underexposed-too dark. White subjects, such as snow scenes, would come out a drab gray instead of white because the meter is trying to make everything in the scene an "average" tone. This type of scene usually requires about 1 to 1 1/2 stops more exposure than indicated by the meter. It's a good idea to compare the camera settings you have determined with your TTL meter with those recommended in the film instructions. If your meter reading is much less, you'll probably get better results by following the film instructions.

Conversely, when you encounter an important dark scene-a black horse against a dark forest, for example you'll want to use 1 to 1 1/2 stops less exposure than the meter indicates. Otherwise your meter, in its effort to average all subjects, will cause your horse and background to record too light. You'll get a gray horse instead of a black one. For difficult scenes like these, it's often a good idea to bracket your exposures to get a properly exposed picture.

Finally, if a scene has both very bright and very dark areas, make a meter reading of the brightest and darkest areas that are important to your picture and then use a setting midway between the two. This won't guarantee you perfect exposure of all parts of the scene, but it will keep the meter from being swayed too far in either direction. 

Incident-Light Exposure Meters

Incident-light meters measure the illumination falling on the scene. You hold this type of meter in the same light that's illuminating the subject, usually near the subject, and point the meter at the camera (unless the instruction manual for your meter recommends a different technique).

Exposure determined by an incident-light meter assumes that the subject has average reflectance. Fortunately, most scenes have average reflectance, so the exposure indicated by an incident-light meter is good for most picture-taking situations. However, if a very bright or very dark area is an important part of the picture and detail recorded in that area in the picture is wanted, you should modify the exposure indicated by the meter:

Use a lens opening 1/2 to 1 stop smaller than the meter indicates if a bright subject is the most important part of the picture. Use a lens opening 1/2 to 1 stop larger than the meter indicates if a dark subject is the most important part. 

If the scene is unevenly lighted and you want the best overall exposure, make incident-light readings in the lightest and darkest areas of illumination that are important to the picture. Then use the f-number that's midway between those that the meter indicates.

Battery Power

To obtain accurate readings from a meter, be sure the batteries that power it are in good condition. Cameras that have other automatic features, such as autofocus, auto-wind and rewind, and built-in flash depend even more on battery power. Many cameras have a battery-check indicator to tell you when batteries are okay; it's a good practice to check this indicator frequently, especially before an important shooting event such as a party or vacation. The video screen on digital cameras quickly drains batteries. With some digital cameras you can turn off the screen and use it like a regular camera for longer battery life.

If your camera doesn't have a battery checking device and the exposure meter behaves erratically or the camera doesn't operate normally, it's probably time to replace the batteries. Clean contacts are important too; if batteries seem weak, clean the contacts in your camera and on the batteries with a rough cloth or pencil eraser. Most batteries will last about a year in normal use, although lithium batteries usually last longer. Actual battery life will depend on the number of battery-dependent features your camera has and how many rolls of film you shoot. When AA batteries are required, use alkaline batteries.

Remember, too, that batteries weaken quickly in cold weather. It's a good idea to carry a set of spare batteries. In the winter, put them in an inside pocket to keep them warm, and then switch them when the batteries in your camera become weak. Battery strength returns when cold batteries warm up.

Bracketing exposures

There may be times when very unusual lighting or subject brightness will exhaust the versatility of you and your meter. To be sure of getting the best exposure when this happens, it's wise to bracket your exposures. Take a picture at the exposure setting indicated by your meter, another with 1 stop less exposure, and a third with 1 stop more. If it's a case of now or never, also shoot pictures with 2 stops more and 2 stops less exposure than the meter indicates. 1/60 sec f/8, 1 stop overexposed 1/60 sec f/11, film speed ISO 64, normal exposure 1/60 sec f/16, 1 stop underexposed.

A few automatic cameras have autobracketing features. You choose the amount of bracketing (usually up to plus or minus 2 stops in half or third stop increments) and the camera motor drive will automatically fire off a series of pictures in rapid succession when you press the shutter button. Most cameras with this feature make 3 bracketed exposures, but at least one has the capability to make up to 19 bracketed exposures.

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