Photography is the art of capturing light with a camera sensor to create an image. And, your goal as a travel photographer is to use light to tell the story of your subject.
So, what separates an average travel photographer from a great one? The fundamentals.
Every travel photographer should have a basic understanding of the three camera settings that control exposure (i.e. the amount of light entering the camera). These are shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.
Knowing how to adjust these settings will help you get the best out of your camera and transform your pictures from ok to great.
So, let’s get started!
The Three Most Important Camera Settings
Shutter speed controls the brightness of a photo. It’s also used to create visual effects, such as freezing action or blurring motion.
It’s controlled by the camera’s shutter, and the shutter button triggers the shutter to open and close. So, shutter speed is the amount of time your camera’s shutter is open and exposed to light.
Using Shutter Speed to Control the Brightness
So, how can you use shutter speed to control the brightness of your images?
This concept is relatively straightforward. The longer the shutter speed, the brighter the photo. The shorter the shutter speed, the darker the photo.
On a bright sunny day, you will usually use a fast shutter speed so that your photo is not overexposed. But, if it’s dark, you will need a longer shutter speed to avoid generating a photo that is underexposed.
In general, slow shutter speeds are usually between 1/100th second to 1 second. Anything over 1 second is considered a long shutter speed and will require the use of a tripod.
Useful Tip: There is an easy way to calculate when you need to use a tripod with longer shutter speeds. Measure 2x the length of your lens. For example, if you are using a 50mm lens, 2×50= 100. So, the slowest shutter speed you can take a picture, without a tripod, is 1/100th second.
Using Shutter Speed to Freeze Action or Blur Motion
Shutter speed is also used to produce visual effects, such as freezing action or blurring motion.
If you want to capture a moving object and freeze its movement, then you will need to use a fast shutter speed. For slower moving objects, shutter speeds of 1/200th and 1/100th second are most frequently used.
If, however, you want to blur the motion of your subject, then you will need to use a long shutter speed.
As an example, landscape photographers often use long shutter speeds to create a sense of motion on rivers or waterfalls. This gives that silky smooth look to the water.
In the photo below, I used a shutter speed of 2.5 seconds to blur the lights of the cars.
Aperture controls two key parameters: the brightness of your photo and the depth of field.
Aperture is the opening in a lens through which light enters the camera. It’s commonly referred to as F-stop and it’s written as “f/” followed by a number, like f/5.6.
Using Aperture to Control Brightness
So, how can you use aperture to control the brightness of your images?
The size of the aperture is directly related to the amount of light that reaches your camera’s sensor. And it works like the human eye. In fact, it’s sometimes called the pupil of your lens. Like your pupil, aperture expands and shrinks, depending on the brightness of your environment.
A large aperture or wide opening will allow more light to pass through, resulting in a brighter image. A small aperture does the opposite, generating a darker picture.
Using Aperture to Control the Depth of Field
Not only does aperture control the brightness of a photo, but also the depth of field.
Controlling the depth of field is critical because it allows you to add dimension to your photos.
- A large aperture gives a blurred background with a shallow focus effect called bokeh.
- A small aperture gives sharp photos, from the foreground to the horizon.
In the photo below, I used f/5.6 to create a blurry background, and draw the viewer’s attention to the purple flowers.
Understanding How Aperture is Written
Now, for the tricky part – understanding how aperture is written. As I stated above, aperture is often referred to as F-stop. You will see it displayed as “f/” followed by a number, such as f/5.6.
Here is the tricky part. Small numbers represent large apertures, whereas large numbers represent small apertures.
As an example, f/2.8 is larger than f/5.6 and much larger than f/11. While this can be confusing, there is an easy explanation.
Aperture is a fraction. So, f/2.8 is really 1/2.8, and if you compare 1/2.8 and 1/11, 1/2.8 is much larger than 1/11. Now, you can see why f/2.8 is so much larger than f/11.
If you don’t like the math part, just remember:
- small numbers = large apertures
- large numbers = small apertures
When to Use Large (Wide) Apertures
Wide apertures, such as f/2.8 – f/4, give you a shallow depth of field and have more of a bokeh effect (i.e. blurry background). These apertures are best for portrait and sports photography.
When to Use Small (Narrow) Apertures
Smaller apertures, such as f/5.6 – f/8, give you a deep depth of field where both the foreground and background are in focus. These apertures are best for landscape photography, street photography, and architecture photography.
- Smaller apertures, such as f/11 – f/16 are also great for landscape and architecture photography. But you need to be careful and pay attention to the sharpness of your images. Sharpness decreases at very small apertures due to lens diffraction.
- Avoid f/22 and smaller. Sharpness suffers at these apertures. For beginning photographers, it’s best to avoid them.
- Apertures such as f/1.4 are used for astrophotography and wedding photography. Lenses with such a wide aperture are often very expensive.
ISO controls your camera’s sensitivity to light and affects the graininess of your photo.
Every camera has a different range of ISO values. The most common values are:
- ISO 100 (low ISO)
- ISO 200
- ISO 400
- ISO 800
- ISO 1600
- ISO 3200
- ISO 6400 (high ISO)
Like shutter speed, this scale is very simple. As the ISO number increases so does the brightness of the picture.
So, doubling the ISO results in a photo that is twice as bright, whereas halving the ISO produces a photo that is twice as dark.
While it seems like a simple concept. There are several caveats. The most important being that ISO also affects the graininess of your photo. A photo taken at a very high ISO will show a lot of grain, or noise, making it unusable.
So, only raise ISO when you are unable to brighten the photo via shutter speed or aperture.
When to Use Low ISO
In general, you should always try to use the lowest or base ISO of your camera. For most cameras, this is ISO 100 or 200, or, for newer cameras, 64.
When there is enough light, you can use your base ISO without a tripod.
But, in dark environments, a tripod will be necessary. In this scenario, you will need to use a long shutter speed to achieve the correct exposure. So, if you want to avoid motion blur, you will need to use a tripod.
In the photo below, I was able to use a long shutter speed (8 seconds) with ISO 100 because I was using a tripod.
When to Use High ISO
Even though it’s ideal to use low ISOs, there are several situations that will require the use of a high ISO. This is usually the case when you want to avoid motion blur and can’t use a slow shutter speed. Both sports and action photography fall into this category.
Useful Tip: Try the auto ISO setting. This setting is available on most cameras. It allows you to set a maximum ISO so that the camera does not cross that limit. If it does reach this number, it will start using longer shutter speeds. I set my maximum ISO to 3200 because I know my camera still produces good pictures with this ISO. Practice and see what works for you.
Now, with a basic understanding of each element, let’s see how they are connected.
These three settings make up what is called the exposure triangle. So, if you change one of these elements, you must change the others to avoid a photo that is either too bright or too dark.
The diagram below shows the exposure triangle and the relationship between each.
Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are the settings you will change the most frequently. So, it’s important to know how to balance all three for any given photo.
How to Maximize Image Quality
Now, with an understanding of travel photography basics, you can focus on maximizing image quality.
Follow these steps to ensure you get the image you intended to capture:
- Select the aperture setting that gives the desired depth of field.
- Set the ISO to its base value.
- Set the shutter speed to whatever setting provides a proper exposure.
- If you have unwanted motion blur, try raising your ISO. Then, use a faster shutter speed. Continue this process until the motion blur disappears.
- If your ISO is getting too high, try using a wider aperture. You might sacrifice some of your depth of field, but that’s better than having too much noise.
Where Should You Start?
The easiest place to start is by using aperture priority mode. Most photographers will tell you to start with manual mode, but this can be overwhelming.
In aperture priority, you set the aperture and the camera selects the shutter speed. And, if you followed the instructions above, your camera will also be on auto ISO mode.
This semi-auto mode gives you control over the exposure and depth of field, so you don’t have to spend a lot of time setting every parameter. It’s also great if you are on the move and don’t have a lot of time.
After a while, when you want more control over your images, you can move to manual mode.
As always, the best way to improve your skills in travel photography is to practice! Never stop learning and improving.
Travel Photography Resources
Travel Photography Tutorials
Photography Life – Best free online tutorial.
Landscape Photography in Depth by Daniel Kordon – This is the most comprehensive professional post-processing tutorial I have done.
Adobe Creative Cloud – The best editing software (Photoshop & Lightroom) used by most travel photographers.
Raya Pro – The best plugin for Photoshop. A powerful luminosity mask software that simplifies your workflow.
The Nik Collection – A series of plugins for polishing your final images.
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