(Editor’s note: This guest article is by Julie Powell who lives in Narre Warren, Victoria, Australia. She is an award-winning still life photographer who loves to share her passion for this genre with others. She also loves helping other photographers learn this part of the craft. See more of her work on her website. Enjoy!)
Learning a different genre of photography, or especially your first, there is often the angst about what settings to use … but it really does not have to get complicated.
First, your subject is not going anywhere. They are mostly static (not taking errant winds into consideration), but if you are shooting indoors, it’s safe to say you subject will sit still for hours, or even days if required. Using a tripod frees your hands up for more important things, like styling.
You can shoot in Aperture Priority mode, however I often find that Manual mode gives me complete control over my shots. That does not need to be scary either. So let’s break it down.
If you are using a tripod, you can easily set your ISO to 100. It is as simple as that, set and forget.
Aperture gets a little more complex, but we can still break this down. You are most likely up close, so nothing more than f/9 is really required. The smaller the number the smaller the amount of your image will be in focus; the larger the number the larger the focus area will be. An f/1.8 aperture will place most of your image in blur, therefore making it more difficult to obtain good focus. I would generally start at f/2.8 but an f/4.5 is a great midrange to start with. The rest is personal preference — experiment with different f/stops to see which aperture you prefer.
You can leave your white balance on Auto, but if you wish change it to the appropriate setting, select Inside or Shadow light for natural light situations, Flash for flash, etc. Feel free to experiment and create some pretty funky set ups.
For still life I pretty much also use spot metering, as it allows me to get a better reading on my subject.
Shutter speed / exposure
If you know a little something about the Exposure Triangle, you will know that this will be greatly dependent on the ISO and aperture you have just set. Using the exposure meter in your camera you want it roughly set to -0- or perhaps a little under exposed (to the left) for most situations.
Each number represents a stop in exposure, if you are shooting dark and moody you may wish to go 1-2 stops under exposed (to the left of 0) or if shooting white on white you may wish to do 1-2 stops over-exposed (to the right of the 0).
The shutter speed really will be dependent on all of the above. If you shutter speed is slow — say under 1/100s — there is no need to worry about camera shake, as your camera is on a tripod!
Of course there are loads more to tweak in-camera settings, but this really should get you over the hump. Learning every aspect of your camera and its settings can really make the difference in your photography. But it is not always necessary and can cause total overwhelm when you are just starting out. Take your time and learn as you go. But for now your camera settings should look a little like this:
I guess one of the best pieces of wisdom I was given and I will pass onto you, is to just play with your settings, experiment, you cannot hurt your camera (unless you drop it) by fiddling with the settings. The worst that can happen is you end up with a bunch of crappy images. Big deal, digital is cheap and no one got hurt! The upside? You get to learn a little more of what you and your camera are capable of, and perhaps what not to try next time!