Knowing your camera and the Holy Trinity of Photography

They say for a good reason that photography is a joint of art and science. This article will give you a brief introduction into the geeky part of photography and help you step up your skills a fair bit. Maybe even stop using the Automatic mode on your camera. Shutter speed? Aperture? ISO? All that, right here.

What on earth do all these numbers mean? I tried to keep this post as simple as possible but let me know if something is unclear! Getting to know your camera gear is one of the first steps on your way to become a photographer. And of course – manufacturers use various wording, different marketing names, and shortcuts. However, the principles are always the same. For a pretty long time, actually. And for the completeness of the information – I am a Canon user, which might have an impact on some words I use in this article 🙂

Let’s start with the most important aspects (or indicators if you like) which I personally like to call the Holy Trinity of Photography. If you don’t learn anything else about your camera besides these three aspects, you’ll still learn a lot. That’s why the slightly heretic name.

 

The Holy Trinity of Photography consists of these parameters:
  • Shutter speed
  • Aperture
  • ISO speed

All three have one thing in common and in the end do the same – they control the amount of light hitting the sensor of your camera and essentially how your picture will look like. They are all deployed at the same time, you cannot switch one of them off. Changing one might lead to the necessity of changing the other. Please note that all my example images below were taken while changing all 3 parameters at the same time. But before we start looking into each individual aspect, you’ll need to unleash their power by switching your camera into Manual mode.

Get to know your camera - I like to call aperture, shutter speed and ISO the Holy trinity of photography. (Dalibro.com)
Switching to manual mode will open a whole new world of possibilities to you!
  1. Shutter speed

Long shutter speed = more light

Short shutter speed = less light

 



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This parameter tells you how long the shutter will stay open and let light hit the sensor. In other words – it freezes the time. If you set the shutter speed to a longer time, you’ll be able to create some cool effects. Very long times will bring you kind of dreamy, almost surreal effects. The easiest way to illustrate the power of shutter speed is on a photograph of running water. I think the images below are self-explaining:

Get to know your camera - I like to call aperture, shutter speed and ISO the Holy trinity of photography. (Dalibro.com)
The shorter shutter speed, the more “frozen” this stream seems. You’d need a tripod for the first 3 photos.

To be able to play around with shutter speed (e.g. for emphasizing the dynamic movement of your subject), you’ll absolutely need a stable tripod. Otherwise, you’ll just end up with blurry images. Unless you use “the golden rule of handheld shutter speed” – the longest time you may use without a tripod is as many x-th of a second as your used focal length (or “zoom” if you like). Don’t use times longer than that, if you don’t have arms of steel. Check out below:

Get to know your camera - I like to call aperture, shutter speed and ISO the Holy trinity of photography. (Dalibro.com)
Simple rule for defining the slowest shutter speed for handheld pictures.

So logically, the wider lens (e.g. 10-18 mm), the less shaky it is and the longer shutter speed you may use handheld. For long lenses (like 200 mm+), you’re simply going to need a tripod or at least some kind of support. Or a superfast shutter speed since even the slightest shake will make the final image wobbly.

REMEMBER: When using this golden rule, don’t forget to take the crop-sensor factor into your calculation! E.g. I’m using a Canon 80D, a cropped sensor camera. The crop factor is 1,6. That means that when I shoot with focal length 300mm, my handheld minimum shutter speed is not 1/300th of a second but 1/480th of a second!!! (300 x 1,6)

 

  1. Aperture

Large aperture (low F-number) = more light

Small aperture (high F-number) = less light

 

I bet you’ve seen those photos where the main object in focus is as sharp as a razor and everything else is blurred nice and creamy. Such an effect is called “bokeh” in the social media world. It is very popular and exists thanks to an aperture. For everyone else, I prefer the term “depth of field”. Check out the series below to see what effect various apertures have:

Get to know your camera - I like to call aperture, shutter speed and ISO the Holy trinity of photography. (Dalibro.com)
Adjusting aperture having effect on the background blur – with F4 I clearly separated the flowerpot from the background. With F11 you have troubles distinguishing between background and foreground. Also the car on the street pops up.

I will not go too much into detail about what exactly aperture is and how it works – you can imagine it as a pupil of your camera which you can control (unlike your own pupil which stretches wide in dark and shrinks in bright light quite automatically). On your camera, it is the value with “F” in front of it.

Get to know your camera - I like to call aperture, shutter speed and ISO the Holy trinity of photography. (Dalibro.com)
Changing the aperture (F5.6 on this picture)

What you really need to remember is that large aperture generates large amount of background blur (shallow depth of field) and small aperture generates small amount of background blur (large depth of field). Confusingly, the large aperture is represented by a low number and the way around. The aperture boundaries are set by your lens. Now, whereas pretty much all lenses can give you small apertures, not every lens can offer you large apertures (let’s say below F3.5). That makes the latter ones very expensive (and often very heavy too :)).

 

One last thing – always think about your aperture in relation to what you photograph. Landscape photographers will stay mostly somewhere between F9 and F13 to minimize the background blur. Portrait people and videographers will probably enjoy going to F1.4 to F4 to have the nice creamy subject separation. And nightscape photographers will spend most of the time with the highest aperture they have to let as much light in as possible.

 

  1. ISO speed

Large aperture (low F-number) = more light

Small aperture (high F-number) = less light

 

ISO speed in simple language brightens up or darkens the image. If you made it until here, you could rightfully expect that it is not as simple as that. High ISO values increase not only the amount of light flowing onto the camera sensor, but they also introduce more noise.

That’s why many photographers try to keep the ISO as low as possible (which is ISO100 or ISO50 on some cameras), especially in landscape photography. Nevertheless, with good modern cameras, you can go as high as ISO3200 with still very satisfying results. And don’t forget – the best photo is the photo which is done. If I had to choose between lots of noise or no image, I’d always go for lots of noise.

So again – keep in mind what you’re photographing – e.g. wildlife photographers will often go for higher ISO in order to keep the shutter speed as short as possible (thousandths of a second) and reduce the shake as they usually use long lenses.

I took a couple of pictures in a dark room to illustrate the difference between using low, medium and high ISO values.

Get to know your camera - I like to call aperture, shutter speed and ISO the Holy trinity of photography. (Dalibro.com)
Increasing ISO has immediate effect on the amount of noise in your image, try to keep it down!

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