Experiment with your camera, part 1

Play with camera settings for effect
By T Martin

Looking to break up the monotony of regular snap-shot photography? Want to unleash the creative photographer within? Turn off the automatic flash and have some fun with just the light provided by your surroundings. Oh, and dust off that tripod; start keeping it handy.

When you use only the light around you without the help from your camera’s built-in or add-on flash, you are photographing “available light.” This is great for natural looking photos that don’t flatten or washout your subjects. If your camera allows you to control your shutter speed and aperture, you can take some great low-light and night-light photos with some help from a sturdy tripod.

Most cameras that allow for manual manipulation of exposure give you the freedom of setting your shutter speed and aperture. However, many modern cameras also have built-in meters that can give you the approximate/recommended settings required for correct exposure. You can use these settings as a guide from which you deviate, creating your own magic through the lens.

Faster lenses also matter. A lens with an f/2.8 allows more light at minimal setting than an f/3.5 lens would. The photos in this article were taken using a Nikon D100 Digital SLR camera with a 28-200mm f/3.5-5.6D zoom lens. Because a shallow depth-of-field reveals more camera and model shake, f/8 or f/11 is recommended for time- and bulb-exposures. Shutter speeds were 2 seconds or greater for each of the photos.

On-location portrait
This photograph was taken indoors under regular tungsten light. After setting the camera on a tripod, the actual exposure was made in 2.9 seconds at f/8 with white balance set to “Incandescent” and lens focal length at 200mm. Because the exposure was made at night, there was no light flooding in through windows or the front door to help the exposure a great deal. The photograph was converted to black and white in Photoshop.

After experimenting and getting a firm handle on taking photos under available light, take things a bit further. Attach different lenses and filters (if you use an SLR). Use any available bracketing feature to get exposures slightly lighter and slightly darker than the exposure you set. Play with angles, focal length and manual exposure a bit more as you become more comfortable with these settings on your camera.

Once set on a tripod, the camera was set to make a 2-second exposure at f/8 with white balance set to “Incandescent.” The final effect was achieved by starting the exposure at 28mm and within the last milliseconds zooming to 62mm, resulting in what appears to be a double exposure.

For real fun, take the show on the road with some outdoor photography at night. Yes, bring the tripod. The photos accompanying this article were taken with a digital SLR camera set on a tripod and attached to a remote trigger, sometimes called a plunger. The trigger allows off-camera shutter operation, further preventing camera shake. Street, traffic and automobile lights provide a wealth of creative shots for night photos. Cameras that do not allow bulb exposure might limit what the photographer can capture with high picture quality.

Light me!
This image was captured in 15.2 seconds at f/8, though a later picture from this series was produced at f/11 with similar results. Just the right amount of street light from overhead and car light behind the model resulted in a pleasant mix of golden hue and streaking, but watch out for other light in the picture! The light from the sign of the pizzeria washed out detail behind the subject.

Unfetter your talent with some available light photography. This article is not a “method” or “definitive order” for learning the techniques for this kind of photography. Instead, use these points to refer to if you find available light to be your perfect retreat from the routine of flash photography. Happy shooting!