Photography Travel

The Beginner’s Guide to Photography’s Holy Trinity

With all the different dSLRs available at reasonable prices now, and the marketing money companies spend to push these cameras, it’s not difficult to think that the camera you buy can create brilliant photos.

Cameras are very smart these days. The Program mode of a camera has so much technology in its favor that it could actually decide all the settings, and all you have to do is press the shutter release.

But technology aside, photography is a creative art. And most of the fun of doing something creative is well, creating. Someone once said that the two most important things in a work of art are technique and impact. Without impact, perfect technique can translate to boring.

Understanding how a camera takes a picture depends on understanding the three most important settings: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO–the holy trinity of photography. Knowing how to use these settings to execute an artistic decision is a skill that will create photos with impact.

I am not a technical learner, so when I take photographs, I don’t really think about the settings before I think about the impact of the image. Impact comes first, and then I decide what to do to achieve it. This is what I call making a “subjective exposure.” A subjective exposure is when I use the settings of the camera to create an effect in the image.

Shutter Speed

Market motion in Vietnam.

When I spotted the two people in the market, I made an immediate decision to show how busy the market was using these two people isolated in the frame. To do this, I slowed down the shutter speed, to create motion blur in the two people. This slowing down of the shutter speed suggests haste, and that is the message in the image. What I did here was to make my shutter speed a lot slower than what I needed to take the photo at 90mm. At that focal length, I needed a shutter speed of at least 1/90s to take a sharp photo, but I slowed the shutter speed down to 1/30s.

Panning with bicycles in Can Tho, Vietnam.

Another way of showing motion is with a technique called panning. Panning can be done in low light, like in the early morning before the sun is really bright, or later in the day when there is less light. To pan, set the camera to Shutter Priority (or Tv), and adjust the shutter speed to around 1/30s for a moving bicycle, or about 1/15s for a walking person. Use a wide focal length, like 17mm for this shot. Focus on the moving subject from one side of the frame, and keeping the shutter button pressed halfway, follow the subject until they get to the middle or end of the frame, then press the shutter release to take the photo. What this action does is to make the subject you focused on sharp while blurring the background.


An aperture decision keeps everything relatively sharp, Nepal.

In this scene, I spotted the girl standing still by the blue wall, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the boy running. I wanted both of them in the photo, but I had to choose to focus on the girl and keep the running boy as sharp as I could. So I focused on the girl, making the wall and her sharp. I also knew that because I had a lot of light available (it was late morning), I could use a small aperture, f/9 or so, and still have a good exposure. So I adjusted the aperture and waited for the boy to run into the frame, and then got the shot.

Greasy boy isolated using wide aperture, Laos.

For this other portrait, I had a small boy who had painted his face with grease. I was talking to his father about the fishing nets he was mending when he ran close by and stopped. He would go away, and then come back again, and when he came back one time, I had my camera ready. I wanted to blur the background to give more emphasis on his face, so I took the photo at a large aperture, f/4, blurring the background and giving the boy’s face more prominence.


Dancer getting ready, Bangkok.

On assignment for CNNGo, I spent a day with classical dancers from rehearsal to that night’s show. My challenge was the low lighting in the dressing rooms and the almost dark lighting of the stage. For the dressing room, I was lucky to have a good fast lens, a 50mm f/1.4. But the only light I had was from the mirror lights, so I pumped up the ISO to 1250, and was able to take a sharp photo at f/2.8 of this  dancer with his costume being sewn on. (For an explanation of why the costumes have to be sewn on the dancers, read the article here.)

Dancers frozen in motion using high ISO, Bangkok.

Later, for the performance, ISO was again my friend. For the performance, I was only allowed to photograph from a row without any other audience, so I needed to use a long lens, the 70-200mm f/2.8. In the near dark of the theatre, I had to bump ISO all the way to something like 64,000 or something really dizzying like that. I got a high enough shutter speed to freeze the motion of the dancers while they did these cartwheels, even with the very low light and the long focal length.

Difficult lighting

Girls in dappled light, Bali.

In situations where there is difficult lighting, like deep shadows and uneven light, decisions about shutter speed, aperture and ISO can help create a good shot.

For the girls under the thatched roof, the dappled light created drama, but I had to be very quick before they moved. So I kept the aperture wide, at f/2.8, and the ISO at 200. The shallow depth of field added to the mystery of the scene.

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