Workshop Method

Exposure Triangle Tony Cook
Exposure Triangle Chart mrbluetone

Beginners Guide

Students that subscribe to the newsletter will be familiar with my thoughts on how to improve your photography by adopting a more rigorous working methodology.

For those that have not yet subscribed (for news, discount vouchers and links to helpful content), then I shall outline the basic process.

Given that there is a lot of technical information to absorb and remember, I have broken down the creative photography process into a series of easy to follow steps. I teach this to beginners that would like to take more control of their cameras and boost their skills by trying to give them a core knowledge from which they can experiment, using a simple, tried and trusted tick list.

It starts with a basic philosophy.

Light is constant. Cameras try to render pictures that are neither too light or dark.

Cameras are also capable of six useful things.

  1. They can blur backgrounds, for instance, in a sharp portrait with a soft, out-of-focus backdrop.
  2. They can do the opposite, and keep everything sharp as in a quality landscape.
  3. The can speed-up and freeze fast moving subjects such as birds in flight.
  4. They can slow down, and add motion blur. A good example is soft, misty trails in a waterfall.
  5. They can focus on anything you choose, and also track moving objects
  6. They can add light with flash.

A combination of the above will allow you to capture good shots in virtually any situation. In order for us to take advantage of these six conditions, we must avoid the auto-features built into the camera, and start to think for ourselves.

Firstly. It is useful to decide what ‘kind of look’ do you want your picture to have before you start. Do you want a soft background or sharp. Are you trying to freeze water droplets or deliberately make them smoother, for an arty image?

If you can answer this question then you have some ‘intention’.  Great masters like Ansel Adams used this to create some of the best images ever made, and often called it ‘pre-visualization’. In layman terms it simply means deciding what you want your picture to look like, and then working towards it, while adjusting the process, and assessing the results.

In other words, implement a working method that you can rely on.

Here is one useful sequence that I encourage students to follow.


How To Stop Using Auto

  1. Take a shot in ‘auto’ as a test, to see what the camera suggests.
  2. Decide on the final  look of your image and how it may differ from the ‘auto’
  3. Choose a non-auto mode such as Aperture Priority (A/Av).
  4. Select an aperture based on the desired look. More wide open hole for blur, (smaller f: number), or more closed hole (higher f: number) for sharper shots.
  5. Check the shutter speed:  the failure to do this is the most common cause of shaky shots. Minimum desired hand held speed is 1/60th sec. for regular shots.
  6. Increase the ISO to force the camera to ‘go faster’,  i.e. increase the shutter speed to freeze action. Or, decrease the ISO to help the camera ‘go slower’ and create some motion blur.
  7. Take a picture.
  8. Review the picture on the screen and look at the data to decipher any issues.
  9. Use Exposure Compensation to lighten or darken the image to suit and take a second shot.

Allowing light into the camera through a hole in the lens (which creates a small electrical signal), and controlling the amplitude (of that signal) with the ISO button, provides us with a shutter speed.

We need more light, and a higher ISO (boosted signal or gain) to generate a faster shutter speed.

For a slower speed, we need less light and a lower ISO.

This is known as The Exposure Triangle, and once you have a good understanding of how these three things interact, then you can shoot any subject, and begin to experiment with different ‘looks’ whilst retaining control of your exposures.

Putting It All Together

Certainly, there are other factors involved in achieving a particular effect such as correct focusing, the amount of zoom and proximity to the subject, and whether to hand-hold or employ a tripod for stability. These are best demonstrated person to person. However,  I have found it useful to adopt a basic mantra for students starting out with Aperture Priority that goes:

“Choose an aperture. Check your speed. Change your ISO’

This is the basic formula that can help you improve. For Instance there is no need to learn all the f: numbers, as long as you can remember that the biggest hole in the lens (smallest f: number) lets in most light and creates the most blur, and conversely, the smallest hole (largest f: number) keeps things sharper and the lack of light will cause the camera shutter to slow down. Everything in-between is just a variable on this. Holding an old-fashioned lens up to the light and clicking through the apertures on the dial will demonstrate this, as it shows the aperture hole increasing and decreasing as you click.

Maintaining at least 1/60th sec for general photography is a useful rule of thumb. Speed up the shutter (a higher number 1/250th, 1/500th, 1/1000th) by increasing the ISO to freeze action shots. Turn down the ISO for slower speeds (lower numbers i.e. 1/30th, 1/4,  2 secs, etc) for special effects, and use a tripod or a table to avoid camera shake.

As I said, this is the core knowledge that other techniques rely on, so let me show you how it works on a 1-2-1 workshop. Once you learn this correctly, then you will have a reliable working method that can be used to expand your handbook of techniques, and help you figure out the settings that other people use, just by looking at their pictures!!

Then you can begin working on the important things like mood, atmosphere and storytelling, as in this sombre image of a foggy Forth.


copyright Tony Cook
Dark Forth