Proper exposure for any photographic situation is a balancing act between light, depth of field, movement, and camera noise. Determining why you choose one exposure setting over another depends on what you need in order to capture the image in your mind, OR make the best possible photograph given actual circumstances. So lets explore these ideas using a real world example of a deceptively simple photograph I made a few years ago.
Setting The Scene
Walking along the edge of this lake close to our campsite in the Adirondacks, I was struck by the beauty and simplicity of what was in fact a rather complicated scene . It was only this small section of the opposite shore that stood out as harmonious and visually appealing. The cloud shapes helped as well. While I had noticed the shapes and reflections for some time, it wasn’t until the light did its magic for a few minutes that it really came together for me visually, and I felt compelled to setup my camera.
What I mean by “compelled” is that it just felt right- I had a reaction that was emotional – I had some deeper connection and thought it was worth photographing. When this happens, which is often the case when there’s beautiful light, I’m reminded why patience is so key to landscape photography. While you may just want to shoot, try and become aware of those rare moments when something “extra” happens inside. Whether you become more focused, introspective, emotional,peaceful, or just blissfully happy. These are all signs that you’re connecting to the scene, and there’s a much better chance you’ll have something worth sharing with others.
Ok, so I’ve decided to make a picture, now what?
My first decision is to use my 70-200mm zoom lens. This is because (a) I want to “extract” a section of the scene, which is on the opposite side of the lake. And (b) a zoom lens will allow me to flatten the image somewhat, creating more of a layered look, from bottom to top. Plus I didn’t have any foreground elements to work with, so no need to go wide, which also would have made the image more cluttered and complex.
Next was determining depth of field. The closest elements were the lily pads about 100 feet away, so I wanted them to be sharp together with the hills in the background. Now I have to admit I don’t know exactly what the depth of field is for 70mm at f/8, but I know it’s around 75 feet to infinity. A quick check of my hyperfocal distance calculator right now shows me the following:
So I wasn’t too far off…hyperfocal distance is 67′ 3″ which means when focusing at that point, anything from half that distance (33′ 7″) to infinity is going to be sharp. Now I said I didn’t know exactly what it was, so how do you check to to see if you have enough depth of field? Two ways:
- Use the depth of field preview button on your camera – you do this before you take the shot. Pressing this basically closes down the aperture to whatever setting you have, and lets you visually check for sharpness in the foreground and background. (Not all cameras have a depth of field button, but most recent models do.)
- Check the LCD preview to zoom in and check for sharpness – do this after you take the shot.
The potential downside to either of these methods is that they are not 100% reliable for several reasons. A few that come to mind are:
- You don’t have a depth of field preview button
- Small aperture settings make the preview too dark to see clearly (especially smaller than f/11)
- Camera LCD is small which makes it hard to determine sharpness.
So bottom line is become familiar with depth of field at different focal lengths and apertures. then use any of these methods if possible to confirm your settings. Worse case scenario, make a few images at varying apertures to make sure you get the depth of field you need.
Finally, it was on to shutter speed. My camera was set at ISO 100, so a reading of the distant hills (green foliage is always a good place to get an average reading) gave me a shutter speed of 1/40 sec. I was on a tripod, so normally this would be fine. However, though you can’t tell from the photo, the lily pads were in fact moving ever so slightly – almost gliding on the surface of the lake, and at 70mm, I was somewhat concerned with blur from movement. Basically I wanted a slightly faster shutter speed to get as sharp an image as possible. I have 2 choices – a larger aperture, or higher ISO. Mind you the light is changing quickly and I love the way the lake looks “right now.”
We don’t want to sacrifice depth of field, so I raised the ISO two stops to 400, changed the shutter speed to 1/160, and made the exposure. Checking the histogram afterwards shows I clipped the top left hand side of the sky ever so slightly, but that’s ok, I like the mystery and drama that adds, plus the sky above the hills is not that important to me, what is important is the reflections in the water where the clouds are. I make another exposure just because you never know…the light is changing…and I’m done.
Interestingly, when I imported the file into Lightroom, the sky was in fact NOT clipped, showing again how camera manufacturers are conservative when it comes to histograms and clipping. So again, when possible, expose to the right.
Putting this whole process into words makes it feel somewhat laborious and complicated, and I suppose it is when you have to think about all of these things in the field. And certainly I really didn’t touch on composition and the decisions that go into that. However, I hope it helps you understand the steps I took mentally, and how I arrived at several decisions about settings. And this is always evolving for me, as it should be for you. Nothing is static in creativity, and so always keep an open mind.
But once you internalize the concepts – depth of field, shutter speed, and how they affect the overall image, it really does become easier. The art of creating successful images never gets easy, but that’s not really about settings, that’s about telling stories. However, I’m sure you can see that when the tools become an aid rather than a distraction, it allows your creativity to flow unimpeded to the task at hand. And that’s a much better place to be than fighting with your camera. In fact it’s the only place where you can really excel in your photography. I hope this look at my process helps you get there faster.
Questions or feedback, please let me know – it benefits everyone when you share your experiences with all of us. Thanks for reading!