Photography is painting with light. As strange as that sounds, it’s true. You need to control the light if you want your pictures to be the best quality they can be. If a photo is “over-exposed”, that means too much light has entered the frame and the image appears whited-out. An “under-exposed” image is the exact opposite – the frame does not have enough light, so it appears dark and can be hard to see the subject.
The best way to avoid these problems is to make sure you have the correct settings for your camera. Auto mode should theoretically take care of this, though most photographers will tell you that that doesn’t work very well. Your best bet to insure the highest quality is to use manual mode and configure everything by hand. The problem is that that’s easier said than done.
The two main ways to adjust the amount of light in a frame are to change the shutter speed and the f-stop. Shutter speed adjusts the light by controlling how fast or slow the shutter closes. F-stop works similarly to the the pupil in your eye; it can enlarge in low-light situations to allow more light in as well as contract to filter out unnecessary light.
So, what setting do you actually use? Well… The short answer is that it varies greatly depending on your camera and the light where you’re shooting. For instance, my camera might work best outdoors with a f-11 aperture and a 1/200 shutter speed, while someone else might need to use a f-14 and 1/500 shutter speed. The camera you use can change the settings you need.
Another big factor is the setting where you are shooting. For instance, in the typical indoor lighting at my house, I usually shoot with my camera set at f-5.6 and a 1/60 shutter speed. When I go outside to shoot in the sunshine, I change my settings to anything from f-9 to f-16 and 1/100 to 1/4000 shutter speed. It really just depends.
How do you choose the right setting? You experiment and shoot around. Really, you just have to try different things and see what works. Take a shot or two and check your settings. You can tell when they’re off because the pictures will look either too light or too dark. Adjust accordingly, then shoot a couple more images. Eventually, you’ll figure out some baseline settings to start with in certain situations. (Like my f-5.6 and 1/60 shutter speed.)
As I’ve said before, just have fun! You will eventually pick this up, even though it might not feel like it. Keep shooting, and send us some comments with questions or suggestions.