Editor: When photographer and reader Scott D. Feldstein offered to write a tutorial on how to put your digital SLR camera to good use this holiday season, we couldn't pass it up. Our new Canon's dial never budged from Auto mode—until now.
You ponied up for a digital SLR camera because you hated the shutter lag on your little point-and-shoot. The good news: Your photos have improved! The bad news? You know they could be even better—if only you dared to let go of the camera's "auto" mode. It's as if you've been creeping around the neighbourhood in a new Mustang using only first gear. No more! It's time to take control, hit the highway, and learn what you can do in program mode. In auto mode your camera makes just about all the decisions for you. Sure, you frame the subject and push the shutter release button, but you never have to think about things like exposure or whether you need to use a flash; the camera handles all of that for you. Most of the time it does a pretty good job, even if the results are a little less than artistic. Switching to program mode, however, allows your camera to make some decisions for you, but also puts three things in your control: the flash, the ISO value, and the white balance.
Let's start! Put the camera in program mode by turning the mode dial to "P" as pictured above.
Your new flash options are easy. The flash will never pop up and fire automatically, no matter how dark the scene is. Instead, you'll have to pop it up yourself if you want to use it. So when should you use it? Volumes could be written about that subject, but the main thing I want you to understand is this: Learning how your camera works lets you avoid using the flash in borderline light situations, but also lets you use it to enhance some well-lit scenarios. Here's what I mean.
Sometimes the best situations to use a flash are ones in which it will never fire automatically, such as this outdoor portrait of my gorgeous fiance.
The light from the flash eliminated shadows from her face while adding a pleasing catchlight to her eyes. To try this technique yourself, pop up the flash manually by pressing the flash button located on the left side of the flash/viewfinder hump as shown.
Conversely, one of the worst situations to use a flash, aesthetically speaking, is one in which it's virtually guaranteed to fire automatically: taking pictures of people in indoor light. The harsh and unflattering light from the flash may cause your subject to look like someone who has just risen from the dead, while their surroundings may become too dark to make out at all.
To avoid the flash in program mode, don't do anything. It will fire only when you invoke it manually by pressing its button, so just don't press it. But how do you take a picture in low-light situations if you don't use the flash? If you do nothing to compensate for the lack of flash, your photos may be dark and/or blurry. What can you do to avoid this? Plenty.
Shutter speed and aperture size are the two key factors that effect how much light gets inside the camera, but we won't be talking about them today. In program mode the camera is still choosing these settings for you. But no matter who is choosing the settings, sometimes shutter and aperture adjustments alone are not enough to pull off a flash-less shot in indoor light. By raising the ISO value, however, you can actually make your camera more sensitive to light, thus requiring less of it to make the correct exposure. Here's how you do it. (The acronym ISO doesn't mean anything even remotely photographic, by the way. It stands for International Standards Organization. Go figure.)
Press and hold the ISO button (1) while simultaneously rotating the command dial (2). You should see the ISO value changing in the LCD status screen (3).
For your indoor flash-less shot, try raising it to at least ISO 800. You can go to 1600 or even higher with some cameras, but there is a drawback: You may find "noise" or oddly coloured speckles in the darker areas of your photo.
Is it worth it? That depends. Sometimes you don't want the look of the flash, sometimes it's intrusive, still other times it can't be used anyway—such as when your subject is too far away to be reached by it. In these cases you have to ask yourself: Is dealing with some noise better than not getting the shot? Using a flash in this birthday party shot would have killed the moment. Instead I went to ISO 800 and got the shot without a flash.
So you've taken control of the flash and dealt with a low-light situation by increasing the ISO setting. Now what? There is one other cool thing that program mode allows you to fiddle with: white balance.
You may never have thought much about it, but in addition to the fact that there is usually more light outside than inside, the colour of the light also differs. Daylight tends to be bluer, whereas tungsten bulbs tend to be yellower. This is usually no problem, as your camera is pretty adept at compensating for these differences automatically. If, however, you notice your photos taking on a weird colour cast, the camera isn't doing a good job and it's time to take matters into your own hands.
Press and hold the white balance button (1) while simultaneously rotating the command dial (2) as shown. You will see various icons in the LCD status screen (3) such as a light bulb, the sun, a cloud, and a fluorescent bulb.
I bet you can guess what kind of light each of these settings is for. Try the one that best describes your circumstances. Experiment! Many people especially like using the cloudy setting outdoors—even when it's not cloudy.
In addition to automatic and the various pre-set white balances, there is another setting you should know about: manual white balance. This one is a little harder to set, but it can really be worth it. You may want to consult your camera's manual for the exact method, but the general idea is that you choose the manual setting using the white balance selection process described above, then take a picture of something completely white. Many pros carry around white cards for just this purpose, but I find that any piece of white paper folded up and jammed into your camera bag works just fine. Whatever you choose, completely fill the frame with white so that no other colour enters the picture at the edges. After setting the white balance with that shot, you can proceed to shoot as many pictures as you like in that environment and be sure that the colours will be accurate.
Congratulations! As Obi-wan famously said, you've taken your first step into a larger world. If it ever seems overwhelming, remember this: Auto mode is always there to fall back on. Besides, switching into program mode doesn't mean you have to do all of the things discussed here. If you simply want to adjust the ISO for changing light conditions, that's fine. You may not need to touch the flash or shift out of automatic white balance.
Speaking of white balance, don't forget to set it back to automatic when you're done messing around. There's nothing worse than happening upon a great subject and snapping away for five minutes, only to discover later that all your shots are a lovely shade of deep blue because your white balance was set for a completely different environment. You should also remember to lower the ISO value when you leave a low-light situation. Automatic white balance and a low ISO value are usually good settings to walk around with. After a while this will become second nature.
Next time we delve into more camera modes, as well as aperture size and shutter speed. Until then, happy shooting!