Knowing your camera’s limitations will get you the best shots


Getting better photos doesn’t have to mean getting a better camera. Instead, part of your growth as a photographer should include understanding the camera you use regularly. Not all cameras are the same and yes, some are better than others. However, that doesn’t mean the camera you have right now can’t take amazing photos. The best photos taken consider the limitations of the camera used.

It takes time to understand your camera’s limitations and the only way you will learn this is by using it. Shooting photos and not paying attention to what is happening based on the conditions you’re shooting in, however, won’t help you learn anything. As you snap photos, it’s very important to pay attention to the lighting conditions, the camera settings, and the results. Learning the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) help you understand what is happening. Keeping the lighting conditions in mind and seeing that the aperture is set to ___ and the shutter speed is __ and the ISO is at ___ give you a reference to what to expect with your camera when you find yourself in similar situations in the future.

Knowing how exposure works with the exposure triangle will give you the best understanding of your camera’s limitations. You can read more about exposure in other posts I have written or elsewhere online. To summarize this, it’s important to know that exposure is controlled by the aperture (how wide the lens is open), the shutter speed (how long the camera is taking an exposure), and ISO (the sensitivity to light). The wider the aperture is (designated by f/number such as f/3.5, where lower numbers indicate wider apertures), the more light is captured but the shallower the depth of field is (stronger effect of blurry background, in focus foreground and vice-versa). The slower the shutter speed (designated with a fraction such as 1/200), the more light is captured, but with added motion blur. Finally, the higher the ISO is set to, the brighter the image is and less light would be required to capture an image, but higher ISOs also create more noise in the image.

Fully understanding these three components to exposure will help you know what to expect from your camera. Aperture and shutter speed will be consistent from camera to camera, for the most part. The amount of noise higher ISOs produce will vary from camera to camera, however. My camera may produce a lot of noise at ISO 1600, but yours might not display that much noise until ISO 6400. Regardless, knowing how your camera will expose for any given lighting situation and the amount of noise the image will produce will help you determine whether or not the shot you’re looking for will turn out and help you compensate for the limitations of your camera.

Exposure is only a part of the equation, though. Sensor sizes vary between cameras as well and this can affect ISO performance, the amount of noise that is generated, and the depth of field. Cameras also vary their preference to where or what they focus on and how they prioritize different pieces of the exposure triangle. Cameras also vary in their speed of focus and delay between you pressing the shutter and the camera responding. All of these are things to be aware of in your camera.

Lastly, if you use a DSLR or similar camera that uses interchangeable lenses, the lens you use can also affect your camera’s limitations. Some lenses are sharper than others, focus faster than others, have different minimum distance limitations, and some let more light in than others. Different lenses also affect the way the shallow depth of field looks. In fact, there are some specialty lenses you can buy to add shapes or effects to the depth of field without affecting the in focus portions of the photo. The shallow depth of field style is often referred to as bokeh.

Knowing how to compensate will be for you to develop as you develop your style, but I will share some tips I have picked up:

  • If your camera has a delay between you pressing the shutter and your camera snapping the photo (shutter lag), get familiar with how long the delay is and anticipate the shot you want. Start to press the shutter before the shot you’re looking for instead of when it happens.
  • Pressing the shutter half-way lets the camera focus and set exposure, holding the shutter half-way lets you hold focus and exposure. This is handy for anticipating a shot and snapping the photo faster. Press the shutter half-way and hold it, then anticipate the shot you want and press it the rest of the way down when the shot is more like what you’re looking for.
  • Burst shots give you more options to work with. Don’t be afraid to use burst mode and hold the shutter for a short while, even if it’s for something that would require 1 shot.
  • If the lighting is too dark and you know the shutter will be too slow, use Tv mode, which is Shutter Priority mode. This lets you set the shutter to a speed you find appropriate and the rest of exposure will be automatic. ¬†You can also set the ISO using this or any other camera mode (usually not in full auto, though) to gain control over noise. You may end up with an underexposed photo, but that may be the look you’re going for too.
  • Choose your focus points if possible. Touchscreen devices usually let you tap the screen to set focus, DSLRs have a set of controls specifically to set focus. This will ensure the camera focuses on exactly what you want. Automatic focus points usually prioritize objects closest to you, which may not be what you want.
  • If your camera has it as an option, turn on Focus Peaking. Most Canon cameras don’t have this feature, but a third-party firmware called Magic Lantern adds this to Canon cameras if supported. Focus Peaking highlights the edges in your shot that are in focus. It helps you visualize what will be in focus and what will not. It’s also incredibly handy for manual focusing. Many photographers have grown to prefer manual focus with focus peaking rather than auto focus as it gives them more control and is almost just as quick.

Lastly, if you’d like to experiment with exposure settings and a few others with a web tool, you can try the CameraSim to study how the settings affect what a photo will look like. It allows you to see how aperture affects the depth of field, the shutter speed affects motion blur, and how ISO affects noise in a photo. Just be sure to click the shutter button to snap the photo and see your results.

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