You might have heard of the “10.000-hour rule” Malcolm Gladwell mentions in his book “Outliers”. He believes that the key to success in any field is to practice “the right way” for 10.000 hours on average. Let’s say you practice 90 mins every day, you would complete the 10.000 hours in approximately 18 years. That’s a long time. Personally, I think being great at something takes a lot of practice and a lot of time, but not that long. Obviously, it also depends on how one defines “great”.
In my humble opinion, the key is to practice consistently and most importantly to practice the right way. Using photography as an example, it is pointless to run around with a camera in hand taking pictures of anything you get in front of your glass. You will certainly improve your photography skills after a while and up to a certain degree but eventually, you won’t move forward anymore.
In wildlife photography, I believe these are three very important elements you should learn in order to improve your photography:
1. Understanding the exposure triangle
2. Learn to handle your camera
3. Experience in the field (camera)
Apart from the above, it is just as important to gain as much knowledge as possible about animals and their behaviour, how to approach them the right way, etc., if you are a wildlife photographer, or the procedure of a wedding if you are a wedding photographer. I’m going to talk about that in another blog post. For now, let’s dive into the first point:
Understanding the exposure triangle
Before we dig into the parts of the exposure triangle, you should first make sure to stay away from the automatic mode of your camera from now on. Generally, there is nothing wrong with shooting in automatic mode, but if you want to improve your photography skills you’ll have to avoid it.
With that being said, let’s start.
If you aren’t a complete beginner in photography, you’ll have probably heard of ISO, aperture and shutter speed before. Those are the three elements of the exposure triangle and also the most relevant parameters you’ll need to understand in order to compose an image properly. These three parts have a direct effect on each other. Changing one of them requires changing at least one of the other two as well. When all three are balanced correctly, you create a proper exposure.
ISO is short for International Standards Organisation (also known as International Organisation for Standards). The International Organisation of Standards defines the criteria that is used by camera manufacturers to calibrate the ISO settings on their cameras. That way different camera and lens combinations are supposed to produce the same results at the same ISO, aperture and shutter speed settings. So, if you use a Canon 7DII with f/4.5, 1/1000th of a second and ISO 200 the image should look the same as an image shot with a Nikon D7200 with the same settings.
Now you know what ISO stands for but what is it?
In short: ISO measures the sensitivity of the cameras sensor to light. The lower the ISO number the less sensitive it is to the light, while a higher ISO number increases the sensitivity of the sensor. ISO settings of most modern digital cameras start at 100 or 200 and increase in value by factor two. If your cameras ISO starts at 100 it will look like this: 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, etc.. ISO 200 is twice as sensitive as ISO 100, ISO 400 is four times as sensitive as ISO 100 and so on.
Ideally, you should always try to keep the ISO as low as possible to get the highest image quality. However, this isn’t always possible, especially when working in low-light conditions like early mornings and late afternoons/evenings. The more you push the ISO number up, the higher the risk of introducing noise to your image. But. You mustn’t be afraid of high ISO’s. An image with a bit of noise is better than no image at all and you can always try to fix it in post-processing.
Aperture is located in your lens and not in the camera body. You can look at it as a hole through which light travels into the body. Depending on how much light is available this hole either expands or it shrinks. To understand it better, think of the way your eyes work. Based on the available light your pupils expand or shrink. When you walk into a dark room your eyes take a short moment to adjust. The pupils expand to let in more light. If you go outside on a sunny day the opposite happens. Lots of light is available so your pupils only have to let in a little bit of it. Hence, they shrink.
The size of a lens aperture is measured in “f-stops” which is short for fractional stops. So, it’ll look like this: f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, etc.. This is where it gets slightly confusing. Logically, you would think the smaller the number the smaller the hole in the lens., but the opposite is the case. The smaller the number the bigger the hole and the bigger the number the smaller the hole. (Check the graphic below)
Controlling the amount of light that eventually hits the camera's sensor is half of what aperture does. The other half is controlling the depth of field, which is the more exciting part, because it allows you to get really creative with your photography.
Let’s use the human eye as an example again. Imagine sitting on your couch watching TV. Whatever is on the screen is in focus. The couch table in front of you and the picture on the wall behind your TV isn’t in focus. It means you have a foreground a mid-ground and a background. By focusing on the TV, you decide that your eyes only produce a sharp mid-ground while foreground and background are not important and therefore not sharp. That’s just how it works in photography. By setting your aperture you decide which area is in focus or rather how much in front and behind your focus point is sharp.
Cameras have a so-called shutter, which is located on front of its sensor. Once you hit the shutter button to take a picture, this shutter opens for a certain period of time allowing the sensor to be exposed to light. This period of time is called shutter speed and just like aperture, it is a chance for the photographer to get creative. Shutter speed is measured in seconds and fractions of a second. The longest shutter speed on most DSLR’s is normally 30 seconds and the fastest is 1/8000 (one eight thousandth of a second) which is very fast.
Next to aperture, shutter speed is also a way to get creative. With a shutter speed of 1/500th or 1/1000th of a second and faster you can freeze action in your image. That allows you to make fast objects like birds in flight look like they stand still. Slow shutter speeds on the other hand will allow you to blur moving objects. When it comes to slow speeds you should consider camera shake you automatically introduce to your image by hand-holding your camera. It’s impossible not to move or shake. If you go slower than 1/60th you will need a tripod or some form of stabilizer that keeps the image clear.
If you are only planning on taking pictures of your family dinner or your dog once in a blue moon, automatic mode will be enough and you don’t really have to worry about the exposure triangle. In that case you could also just use your smartphone camera instead. However, everyone that buys a digital camera will most likely have the intention to take more control of his or her photography and in that case understanding ISO, aperture and shutter speed is absolutely vital. Just like everything else in life it takes practice, patience and consistency to be confident in using these parameters the right way.
This is also only a brief introduction to the elements of the exposure triangle. I will go more into depth in future posts.