The 12 Tips of Christmas - Part 2

This past Christmas, I posting 12 tips to improve your photography on my Facebook page ( As Facebook has limited room to post, I'm expanding those tips in this blog. Stay tuned for all twelve tips (some by themselves and some combined), and if you want even more, join me for one of my photo courses!

The Twelve Tips of Christmas

Tip # 11 - Use your Camera Tools

"Understand how shutter speed affects motion in your image - to freeze it or to blur it. Understand how aperture affects depth of field, and how ISO affects how light is captured. These might sound complicated, but they are foundational to understanding how your camera works. Taking some time to understand these concepts and learn how to adjust these settings will help you understand why your camera is producing the image it is, or why it didn't come out the way you wanted it to."

Note: these first couple of tips are technical, and take a little longer to explain, but bear with me... they are necessary to learn if you really want to get to the fun stuff - like learning music before playing the piano, you need to know the basics before you can be a virtuoso.

In my last post I covered the three legs of the photography "stool" that affect exposure. Every camera may adjust these three "tools" in different ways, but they all are adjusting the same three methods of balancing exposure. Understanding how they affect your image will allow you to be creative as you compose your photograph. 

Changing these settings is important to keep your exposure correct, but they are also used to make your image more interesting. Getting to know these tools will help you obtain a good clear image - they also let you be creative in your composition. In this post, I want to delve a little further into how you use those tools to create the image you are looking for.


I'm going to start from the other end of the three legs - the ISO. Remember ISO defines how sensitive the sensor (or film) is to light. A higher ISO number, or faster film, will capture the same image exposure in a much shorter time.

Changing the ISO does not affect your image from the perspective of blur or crispness directly (although it can affect the graininess of your image), but it does give you the opportunity to play with the other two "legs" (Shutter and aperture) in ways you could not if the sensitivity of your film were fixed.

For instance, say you want a fast shutter speed and small aperture (higher f-stop), but you are taking the image in a dark room. You probably won't be able to if you are taking the image at 100 ISO. To get a correct exposure, you need to increase the aperture size (lower f-stop) which will shorten the depth of field, or slow the shutter speed, which could create motion blur.

The solution: Increase your ISO to a point where you can pick the shutter speed and aperture you want. Of course you have to be careful not to go too far, or you image might be so grainy you will destroy it's quality.

ISO doesn't directly allow you creativity in your composition, but it does allows you to use the other two tools more effectively and enables their ability to allow for creativity.


As was discussed in the previous post, changing the aperture will change the depth-of-field of your image. A shorter depth-of-field will blur the background while a larger depth-of-field will keep everything crisp. 

This is where the fun begins. Changing aperture allow you to be more creative in your photography and improve your images. Note that I am not going to include images with these examples intentionally. Imagine the image in your head as you would when you are taking the photo. Imagine changing the settings and take that photo. Practice it with your camera.

Let's say you are taking a portrait of your child opening a Christmas present. The subject is the child and the joy on their face. Perhaps It is important to have some context and the tree in the background shows it is Christmas, but the tree is not really the subject. So you position yourself so the tree is behind your daughter and focus clearly on their eyes. You increase your aperture as wide as possible for your camera and take the photo. The resulting image shows the joy on their face. You see lights blurred around her and green behind them. You are immediately drawn to her angelic face and are not distracted by the Christmas balls and tinsel!

On the other hand, perhaps you are taking a photo of the ice covered fields from the recent ice storm across Ontario. You want to capture the crisp reflections of sunlight in the rippling ice sheets which look like glowing oceans of frozen waves. If you open your aperture wide, you will only capture a small portion in focus and the rest will become a blur. In this case, you want to stop down your aperture to a larger value (smaller aperture) so that you get the maximum depth-of-field and keep as much of your image as possible in focus.

There is no right or wrong way to do this - it is about using your tools to be more creative. 

It's all about your subject and creating an image that best captures them. Using aperture simplifies your image and draws your viewers attention to your subject. Always remember, though, as you adjust your aperture, you will need to adjust your ISO and/or shutter speed to compensate for the change in light entering the camera.

If you are interested, you can find depth-of-field calculator apps and web pages to help you get just the right depth-of-field for your particular camera and aperture setting such as this one (which also has a good explanation of depth-of-field). This might help you learn the tools as well, but in the end they should become second nature.

Shutter Speed

As previously discussed, changing the shutter speed can affect blur in your image and give you sense of motion in your image. This again can allow you a great deal of creativity in capturing your subject.

Let's say your kids like to tear off the Christmas wrapping paper in a mad frenzy with paper flying every which way. You have a choice here, where you set your shutter speed. Either one can produce a really cool image.

If you make your shutter speed faster, all motion in the image will be stopped. As your son throws pieces of wrapping paper in the air and they float down gently back to the ground, a fast shutter speed will instantly freeze the paper pieces in mid air, giving them a snowflake like feeling as they gently drifting down over his head.

On the other hand, if you slow your shutter speed, his hands and the paper pieces will be come a blur of motion indicating the frenzied action.

Neither way is "right" or "wrong". Each gives you a different way to portray the scene and each produces a different mood or feeling. How you set your shutter speed will affect how your viewer feels when they look at the image, so the decision of which shutter speed to use is both a technical one, and an emotional one. 

How are you feeling when the image presents itself to you? What do you see? Do you see the frenzied motion, or are you captured by the little pieces of paper floating down? How can you best adjust your settings to portray that feeling in your image?

Using the "tools"

Using these settings, or "tools" to create the image the way you want it to look is the real fun of photography. Learning to control the tools allows you to capture not just an image, but a glimpse, a fleeting feeling connected to that moment.

It might also be important to note that the person viewing your image may have an entirely different feeling when looking at the motion or blur than you do having been there at the moment. Working to produce a similar feeling can be a challenge, but then the variety of perspectives can be interesting too.

If your images are not grabbing you when you view them, consider how you are using your tools. how can you improve the image so that the subject jumps off the page at you and makes you feel what you did when you took the image. Get to know those tools so you don't have to think too long about them when you see an opportunity. Get to know how to quickly adjust them on your camera so that you are ready when the opportunity presents itself.

Now you are ready to not only capture a photograph, but you are beginning to capture a moment.

Read more on any of the other Tips:

Part 1 - Get to know your gear
Part 2 - Use your camera tools
Part 3 - Use Composition Rules
Part 4 - Tell a Story, and Keep it Simple
Part 5 - Put yourself in a good spot, Be creative
Part 6 - Change it up, Make it Unique
Part 7 - Get the shot quick, be brutal and show your best work

(c) 2013 Gary Scott - Gary's Lens Photography


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