What settings to use for different situations?


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Apr 19, 2009
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Oshawa, ON, Canada
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Ok I have some questions regarding a Canon PowerShot S5 IS, I have no tripod and no extra flash and I may not be able to get either of them, or a book on aperature, until after I need to do this shoot. It's at a horse show, so can anyone suggest what ISO, F stop, and shutter speed to use for the following situations...

1) Indoor arena, I want to freeze the horses motion and focus on the horse and rider, possibly have the background slightly out of focus, or not... doesn't matter. Most important thing is I want it to be light enough in the picture, and have the horse and rider captured in action, so as bright and clear as possible, with the camera I am working with.

2) Outdoors, bright and sunny outside, doing action shots over jumps

3) Outdoors, not so bright out, doing action shots over jumps

4) Indoor arena, and outdoors, doing still photos, headshots ect.
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In all cases; consult your camera's meter and make adjustments as needed.

OK, I know that doesn't really help you...but we can't really give you specific settings for any situation because it totally depends on the light that you are working with.

Rather than suggestions for settings, what you may need is a basic understanding of exposure and how those settings relate to things like DOF and movement. When you have a good understanding of how & why those settings work to create your exposure, then you can make educated decisions about what settings to use. It's almost always a compromise, so there are always decisions to be made.
here is what I did:
1) read your camear manual

2) read the manual again

3) read the manual and this time play with the camera as you use it

4) get hold of and read Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson - its a good guide to the how's and why's of different camera settings as well as how they (aperture shutter speed and ISO) link together to make exposures as well as detailing what a correct exposure is - as well as what a creativly correct exposure is.

5) shoot shoot and soot some more- experiment and review your settings after shooting (don't delete shots in the field - bring them back and learn from them). Most editing programs have a menu to show camera settings, but if not then rightclick on the image file - go to properties - go to the detail tab - scroll down to find aperture, shutter speed and ISO used in the shot. This will really help to give theory a real world context for you as well.

As some general advice I would say of the 3 settings (aperture shutter speed and ISO) you have to give them an order of priority for each shooting event. For animals in darker lighting conditions your key setting is going to be shutter speed - a shallow depth of field from a wide aperture (small f number) is ok of the eyes are in focus - but motion blur (if its not intended) is just no good.
So unless you have flash to give you more light then shutter speed is your key setting to keep an eye on.

In bright weather you can look to things like depth of field (aperture) since your shutter should have enough light for most things - infact witha horse like the one in your avatar (white areas) you might also want to underexpose shots - use exposure compensation (aperture priority mode) - use a faster shutter speed so that you have less chance of having the whites blowout
After you read all those manuals you will still have choices to make ... so here are some guides to help you make those choices.

1) Rule O' Thumb - Minimum shutter speed should not go lower than the reciprocal of your focal length. focal length = 50mm then minimum shutter should be no less than 1/50-1/60 of a second. 200mm = 1/200 of a second

2) Minimum shutter speed to stop most action is around 1/125 to 1/250. (This is dependant upon the speed of the subject .. a speeding bullet will require a higher shutter speed than a speeding snail.)

3) Most sport images will look better with the principal subject isolated by long focal length and shallow DOF.

4) Hint, for indoors your minimum ISO will probably be around 1600. (So set you ISO, set your aperture wide open, set your shutter speed to 1/250 ... and see what you meter tells you. If you're over exposing adjust/compensate by adjusting your shutter speed higher. If you're underexposing ... go to a faster lens ... and/or adjust your ISO to 3200 ... and good luck most cameras will deliver images which have far too much noise to be usable at this ISO and/or adjust your shutter speed lower ... but remember that this may not stop action ... so you gotta pan or time the shutter release so the subject is at their slowest point (when a subject jumps at the peak of the jump the subject will actually be stopped in mid-air before they descend ... at that point - release the shutter. Look for places where lighting is better ... look for other moments when the action is slowest.

4) For outdoors start at ISO 400 or ISO 200 and see what the camera meter tells you. Still recommend isolation by shallow DOF, adjust shutter speed to accomodate lens length, subject action and F/Stops at wide open or close to wide open.

ISO is going to be highly dependant on camera model as well as personal standards - I would not use my 400D on ISO 1600 as the noise is just too great for my own liking. This might not be a problem to some but it is to me and working out your own ISO limits is important. Whilst noise can always be removed from a shot more than motion blur can its still something many people don't want vast amounts of and if its too great the shot might lost because of that.
For outside I nearly always start with ISO200 and work from their.
I'm sorry but with that camera you have no chance shooting horses in an indoor arena, because you will need to be at ISO3200 F2.8 1/250 absolute minimum
I find noise and an acceptable level of noise is dependant unpopn the drama/impact of the image. The greater the impact the more noise is acceptable. The inherit high action impact of sports usually allows for higher levels of noise and not render the image unsuccessful ...

This image is quite noisy (20D ISO 1600 no noise reduction)

IMO, it works due to the drama of the action .. an image of a flower with equal noise probably wouldn't be successful ... the noise would be too distracting.

I'm sorry but with that camera you have no chance shooting horses in an indoor arena, because you will need to be at ISO3200 F2.8 1/250 absolute minimum

On a P&S even 1600 would generate far too much noise for any image to be successful ... And the shutter lag of a P&S would create more frustration than usable images.

shutter lag is a factor which has to be overcome when using a point and shoot - you have to learn to shoot just before the action to get the shot - and to frame so as to make room on the shot for the subject to move if they are. With that set and sound you just have to get your shutter speed up to get the motion frozen.

Also don't forget about the flash - its not the ideal, but many pets and animals are subjected to flash these days (and even in the past the old racehorse shots were done with flash) so its not impossible. The key part is down to horse, rider and photographer. If you shoot in a sneaky way so as to surprise the horse that will cause problems - if you have a skittish horse not used to flash that is a problem and also if you have a new rider that can be a problem if they cannot control the horse.
You can try a few test shots (without rider) on the horse in a nice neural environement for them - where they have room to move away should they so desire. Some might not bat an eyelid and others might run a mile.
Thank-you so much for everyone's time and input... although I am far too inexperienced when it comes to knowing settings and camera terms ect, as I have seen most of you talk about "noise" and I have no idea what the heck that is.

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