What is metering and which mode is best to use on my camera?

Question: I’ve heard the term metering but I don’t know what it does and why it’s important. Can you explain what it is? 

Answer: When shooting in auto or the semiautomatic modes, your camera has to estimate one or more settings to give you the most balanced possible exposure. It does this by intelligently analysing the intensity of the light that comes down the lens and reaches the sensor. Metering is also active in manual mode, though this is purely to provide you with a lightmeter reading. The problem is, most scenes have a wide variety of light levels that go from deep shadows to bright highlights, so the camera often has a really difficult job producing an accurate overall exposure. Let’s imagine you’re shooting an indoor portrait against a bright window, for example.

The camera doesn’t know whether you want a perfectly exposed face with a blown out background or whether you’re actually going for a silhouette effect.

Understand metering modes
To help your camera make the most accurate possible exposures, all DSLRs, CSCs and serious compacts have several metering modes you can choose from to suit different shooting conditions. They work either by considering light from across the whole frame, or by placing greater or complete emphasis on one specific part. Once you know what these modes do, and when to use them, you’ll be able to get much more accurate exposures in any shooting situation. Let’s check out the four most common metering modes in more detail.

Metering modes - which one to use when...

Evaluative/Matrix
This is usually the default metering mode for most cameras, taking light into account from across the whole frame. It places greater emphasis on the active focus point, as this is the area you’re most likely to want exposed correctly.

Centre-weighted
As with evaluative metering, the camera takes into account light from across the whole frame, but with more importance placed on the central area. The active AF point isn’t taken into account, so a bright or dark focal point is less likely to affect your exposure.

Partial
Partial metering is similar to spot, but takes into account around 10% of the frame area, ignoring the other 90%. The active area usually follows the active focus point. This mode is ideal for making sure the subject on your active AF point is correctly exposed.

Spot
This very precise mode takes readings from around 3% of the frame area, ignoring the other 97%. On most cameras, this area immediately surrounds the active AF point. Spot metering is often used for portraits, though its results are very unpredictable.

What is aperture?

Question: I’m buying a new lens. How does an aperture work and does the number of diaphragm blades matter? 

Answer: The amount of light that passes through a lens and reaches the sensor is governed partly by the size of an opening in the centre of the lens barrel known as the aperture. By default, the aperture is completely closed off until you take a shot, when it opens for a certain period of time that we commonly call the shutter speed. The aperture itself is created by the movement of a set of blades that make up the diaphragm. In this illustration, the lens has five diaphragm blades, which is generally the minimum number found on mainstream lenses. So how exactly are the number of diaphragm blades significant? In terms of overall image quality, the impact is relatively minimal and not really worth worrying about.

However, the number of blades will impact on the appearance of the out-of-focus areas of your images, also known as the bokeh. It shows up most in the blurred highlights, which will take on the shape of the diaphragm opening. The difference is clear to see in the two images below. Most photographers prefer the look of more circular bokeh, which is created by lenses that have a larger number of blades. For this reason, most lens manufacturers also build their diaphragms with rounded blades (as in the illustration above), keeping the aperture opening as circular as possible. The quality of bokeh tends to be of most importance to portrait photographers, who shoot regularly at wide apertures for out-of-focus backgrounds.

How do I shoot photographs in black & white?

Question: My new camera has a setting to shoot in monochrome. Is it better to use this in-camera setting or convert to monochrome while post-processing? 

Answer: Both methods have their pros and cons. Using your camera’s monochrome setting means that you can review images immediately in black & white. You can then make adjustments according to what your image looks like stripped of colour, such as changing your settings, adding filters or altering the composition. The danger is that if you shoot in JPEG mode, there’s no going back – your images will then remain in black & white forever. The safest option is to shoot in RAW and use the monochrome setting to review images on the LCD screen. As RAWs consist of the ‘raw’ data, they’ll hang on to the original colour too, so you have the choice of both colour and mono back at your computer. RAWs also retain a greater level of tones and detail. Whether you shoot JPEG or RAW, a camera’s monochrome mode is a great way to hone your eye and visualise the world in black & white.

Photoshop
In the adjustments on the right-hand side of the screen, click on Channel Mixer. This creates an Adjustment Layer and opens a Properties box. Tick the Monochrome option in the Properties box

Elements
Open your pic and click on Enhance>Convert to Black and White . Now select a style from the options that appear, adjust Red, Green, Blue and Contrast to suit your image, and click OK. 

Lightroom
Import your pic and hit D to go into the Develop module. Then select Basic from the list of options on the right and select Black & White from the treatment options. Your image will convert to black & white.

Should I switch to shooting RAW?

Question: My new camera has a setting to shoot in monochrome. Is it better to use this in-camera setting or convert to monochrome while post-processing?

Answer: Most cameras (with the exception of entry-level compacts, action cams and most smartphones) offer both JPEG and RAW functionality. In the majority of shooting situations, you probably won’t notice a huge amount of difference between the two, except that RAW files are much larger so write slower and fill up memory cards faster. This doesn’t mean RAWs have a higher resolution, but they do hold more image information, containing all of the ‘raw’ data from the sensor. JPEGs, on the other hand, are quite heavily compressed, so some of the information the sensor collects is simply discarded. In this way you might think of a RAW file as the equivalent of a negative, and a JPEG as the equivalent of a print.

So what information is actually lost during in-camera JPEG conversion? Well, most importantly JPEGs have a smaller dynamic range, so less image data is recorded in shadow and highlight areas. This means if you mis-expose an image at the time of shooting, you may struggle to correct it afterwards. In addition, JPEGs are converted to 8-bit from 12-bit or 14-bit, meaning significantly fewer shades of colour, which can be important when shooting blue skies or other large areas of similar colour. Other symptoms of JPEG compression can include a lack of control over white balance, ugly compression artefacts, oversharpening in-camera, and poor demosaic algorithms that reduce image sharpness.

Quality v Convenience
But while RAW is clearly a better quality format, JPEGs aren’t without their advantages. Their tiny file size allows faster burst shooting and takes up less storage space, and they offer a universal file type. JPEGs can be shared, edited or displayed anywhere without the compatibility issues of RAW. If you don’t process your shots on a computer, you might even prefer the look of JPEGs, which usually look a little punchier straight out of the camera owing to in-camera processing. RAWs offer top quality, but there are times when shooting JPEGs is more convenient.

What is the B mode on my camera for?

Question: I’m just getting to grips with my DSLR but can’t really figure out the B mode. What is this for? 

Answer: The Bulb mode allows users to set a very slow shutter speed for long exposure photography. In all other modes, the longest available exposure time is usually 30 seconds, but in low light conditions this sometimes isn’t enough to achieve a properly exposed image. In Bulb, you can keep the shutter open for as long as required; for several minutes or even hours. Bulb mode is useful for fireworks, vehicle light trails and astro work. It’s usually used with a remote shutter release, as users would otherwise have to keep a finger pressed on the shutter button for the duration of the exposure, leading to camera shake. A sturdy tripod is also needed to keep the camera perfectly still. When shooting in daylight, a neutral density filter will be necessary in order to achieve very long exposures. On some cameras, Bulb is represented by B on the mode dial, but on others it’s accessed by changing the shutter speed setting to beyond 30 seconds. 

Should I buy a hard or soft ND grad filter?

Question: I’m not sure which neutral density grad filter to buy. In what way are hard and soft grads different?

Answer: If you’ve ever shot around sunrise or sunset, you’ve probably noticed how difficult it can be to get the land and the sky exposed correctly in a single shot. This is because the range of light intensity is unusually large, and may even be outside of the camera’s dynamic range. Some parts of the image are simply recorded as pure black or pure white, devoid of any image information. To get around this problem, an ND grad can reduce the light intensity in the sky. ND grads are single sheets of glass or plastic that are tinted at one end, gradually changing to clear at the other end.

This effectively reduces the light intensity range in the scene. It’s the same principle as the tinted strip that you often get at the top of a car windscreen. ND grads are most frequently used by landscape photographers to control bright skies, allowing them to expose the sky and the land correctly within the same image. There are ND grads to suit different shooting situations, so before you invest, think about which you’d get most benefit from.

The first thing to consider is whether to buy a hard or a soft grad. This refers to how steep the gradient is between the tinted and non-tinted parts of the filter. In other words, how rapidly the tinted glass becomes clear. If you’re shooting landscapes with a very flat horizon, such as coastal scenes,  a hard grad, where the gradient is very small, is ideal. On the other hand if you shoot mountain environments, where the horizon is not so flat, the wider gradient of a soft grad is better.

Choose the right strength
The second thing to consider is the density or ‘strength’ of the tint. Darker densities tend to suit sunrises and sunsets, whereas lighter densities tend to suit daytime conditions. If in doubt, invest in a grad kit with a range of densities and hardnesses. Cokin’s H250A ND grad kit is a good option, although as a P-size kit it won’t suit ultra-wide focal lengths. 

No grad filter

No grad filter

Soft grad filter

Soft grad filter

Hard grad filter

Hard grad filter

How do I get a level horizon photograph?

Question: I’ve been really frustrated lately that all my landscapes seem to have a wonky horizon. What am I doing wrong? 

Answer: A slightly slanted horizon is a common mistake in landscape photography, and a sure-fire way to make an image look unbalanced. One reason this can happen is severe lens distortion – but by far the most common cause is the camera not being totally level when the shot is taken. This isn’t always obvious through the viewfinder or even on the LCD, but once the pic is on a computer screen it can look seriously lop-sided. The problem is most noticeable on coastal landscape shots, where the horizon is perfectly flat, and not interrupted by mountains or trees. Here, even a tiny slant is very obvious.

Level up your camera
The good news is that this is a very  easy problem to deal with. If you own  a tripod, chances are that its plate, or the section immediately below the plate, has at least one built-in spirit level (a spirit level on the legs isn’t useful). Get this lined up, and you know your horizon will be perfectly straight. If your tripod doesn’t have this function, pick up an inexpensive plastic spirit level that slides onto the camera’s hotshoe. Alternatively, your camera may have a virtual horizon built in. You can check this by activating Live View, then pressing the Info button until you see the virtual horizon appear overlaid on the screen. Then simply adjust the angle of the camera until the line goes green. 

Adjust with the crop tool
But what about images you’ve already taken? Don’t worry, you can achieve a straight horizon with a simple crop adjustment. Open your image in Photoshop, select the Crop Tool, then hover over any corner until you get a curved, double-ended arrow. Click and drag so the frame is ‘straight’ in relation to the horizon. You can do exactly the same in Elements and Lightroom. 

Accessories to consider...

Hama 2-way spirit level
For tripods without a built-in spirit level, this affordable hotshoe mounted option is ideal. It can be used on any DSLR, and its small size means it will slide into any accessories pocket.

Vanguard VEO 235AB
This lightweight aluminium travel tripod has a spirit level just above the ball head. It’s perfect for travel, boasting a maximum height of 145cm and weight of 1.5kg, which makes it easier to carry over long distances.

Correct distortion for straight horizons
If you’re sure your camera is straight but the horizon still looks off-kilter, your problem may be caused by severe lens distortion. This is particularly common on budget wide-angles, where straight lines near to the edges of the frame appear bent. It’s very easy to remove distortion in post-processing software using the lens correction tools. Let’s take a look at how this is done in Lightroom, Photoshop  and Elements

Lightroom
You’ll find Lightroom’s Lens Corrections panel on the right of the screen. Simply click the Profile tab, then check the Enable Profile Corrections box.

Photoshop/Elements
When opening a RAW file in Photoshop, you’ll first see the Adobe Camera Raw window, which has its own Lens Corrections tab. For JPEGs, which open straight into Photoshop, go to Filter>Lens Correction. In Elements, the Camera Raw window doesn’t have Lens Corrections, so click Open and go to Filter>Correct Camera Distortion.

What lens do I need for wildlife?

Question: I want to shoot more sports and wildlife but I only have a basic DSLR and kit lens. What lens do I really need to buy  to get started?

Answer: Focusing in on a particular photographic genre usually requires an investment in specialist gear. This is especially true for sports and wildlife photography, where a long telephoto lens is often absolutely paramount to getting a decent shot. Unfortunately, high performance equipment doesn’t come cheap, making fast-action photography a more expensive hobby than shooting landscapes or portraits

Choose the right glass
As a general rule, the price of telephoto lenses increases with focal length, although the maximum aperture also has a big impact. Most professional sports and wildlife photographers own a 70-200mm for close-up work, such as shooting a tennis match, and then at least one lens of around 400-600mm. Traditionally, the exceptionally high cost of these longer lenses has put them out of the reach of enthusiasts, but recently both Sigma and Tamron have introduced budget models that have opened up wildlife photography to everyone. I would strongly recommend you consider one of these, or if you’re on a budget, a 2x teleconverter on a shorter lens will suffice. Any other similar option will cost you in excess of £4000. Here are some of the best budget lenses for fast-action shooting.

Three great wildlife lenses to consider...

Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3
Sigma has released two affordable 150-600mm lenses with excellent image quality. The cheaper version (designed for the Contemporary line) has a less complicated optical design, is smaller and lighter, and has no weather-sealing. Aside from a few differences, the lenses are very similar. The more expensive S lens belongs to Sigma’s Sports line. 


Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3
Almost identical in spec to Sigma’s cheaper C-range 150-600mm lens, this budget telephoto with image stabilisation offers a very wide focal range, the equivalent of 225-900mm on an APS-C model. Advantages over the Sigma include wider zoom and focus rings and a slightly closer focusing distance.

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6
This very well-priced full-frame (FX) compatible telephoto zoom comes with Nikon’s Vibration Reduction system built in, reducing the risk of camera shake when used handheld. Unlike the Sigma and Tamron models, the 200-500mm has an aperture of f/5.6 through the whole zoom range. Focusing is powered by Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor for virtually no noise.

Can I stop my lens fogging up?

Question: I shoot a lot of night sky photography but can’t stop my lens fogging up. What can I do to get around this?

Answer: Condensation on the front element is a real problem for astrophotographers, especially when there’s a heavy dew. It’s usually most severe on low ground or near water. In severe cases, a lens can be completely fogged up just five seconds after being wiped clean, making longer exposures almost impossible to achieve.

Fortunately, it is possible to alleviate the problem. The first thing to remember is that sudden changes in temperature can cause condensation to form, so allow your camera to acclimatise to the ambient temperature before you shoot.

The next step is to invest in anti-fog gel or wipes. I’d also recommend a battery-powered hand fan to keep a flow of air moving across the end of the lens. This discourages droplet formation. Serious astro shooters often use heat straps, which are battery-powered heating elements that stop dew from forming on the end of the lens. Hand warmers secured with elastic bands also work well as  a budget alternative.

What is lens distortion?

Question: I’ve noticed that straight lines in my images appear to bend. Is this because of distortion? And if it is, what can I do about this problem?

Answer: There are two main types of distortion. The first is perspective distortion, where a distant object appears smaller than a closer object. This is commonly seen in architectural photography, where buildings appear to lean inwards when shot from ground-level. Perspective distortion can be corrected by using a tilt & shift lens, or with distortion correction software such as DxO’s Viewpoint 2.

The effect is most severe at wider focal lengths, and occurs irrespective of optical quality. The other type of distortion is optical distortion, which is reliant on the quality and design of the glass. It occurs because the shape and arrangement of the elements cause straight lines that run near to the edge of the frame to appear bent. Focal length has a huge impact on optical distortion, with wide-angle lenses producing barrel distortion (where straight lines bend outwards towards the edge) and telephoto lenses producing pincushion distortion (where straight lines bend inwards towards the centre). 

Avoid distortion effects
The easiest way to avoid lens distortion is simply to correct it afterwards in editing software. Lightroom, for example, has lens correction profiles built-in, which do the job in a single click. You can also adjust manually. Some cameras have lens correction built-in, though this is only applied to JPEGs and not RAWs. As a general rule, the more expensive the lens, the less lens distortion you’ll get. Finally, at 50mm there’s hardly any distortion on any lens, so if possible shoot at this focal length by adjusting your position.

Three ways to remove unwanted distortion...

1. Photoshop
Open a RAW file into the Adobe Camera Raw window. Simply click the Lens Corrections icon, select the Profile tab, and check Enable Lens Profile Corrections. This automatically applies the profile for your lens. For JPEGs, go to Filter>Lens Correction . Again, Photoshop will apply the  lens profile.

2. Elements
Open your image in Elements, and if it’s a RAW file, make any basic tweaks in the Camera Raw window before clicking OK. Go to Filter>Correct Camera Distortion. Unlike in Photoshop and Lightroom, this won’t automatically apply lens profiles for your particular make and model, so adjustments must be done manually. This is very straightforward – just tweak the Remove Distortion slider.

3. Lightroom
Import your image in Lightroom, then press D on your keyboard to enter the Develop module. On the right of the screen, scroll down through the control panels until you reach Lens Corrections. Click the Profile tab, and check the Enable Profile Corrections box. This will automatically select the right lens profile. If not, you can always adjust it manually using the  Distortion slider.

What’s the difference between sensor and image stabilisation?

Question: I’m about to buy a new DSLR but I’m confused by the different image stabilisation systems. Could you advise which type is the best?

Answer: When shooting slower shutter speeds handheld, there’s always a risk of camera shake, where even a small amount of movement during the exposure can lead to a blurred image. But image stabilisation systems are designed to banish the blur.  

Sensor v lens
There are two main types of IS on the market – sensor shift and lens shift. Both systems are extremely effective, typically granting sharp handheld results when shooting 4 stops slower than usual. Some advanced systems even have different modes to eliminate movement from just one axis, for smoother panning. So what’s the difference between the two main stabilisation types? In-lens stabilisation, which is used by both Canon and Nikon, is where one or more lens elements are moved by tiny motors to compensate for the movement of the camera. This means that by the time the light reaches the sensor, the stabilisation correction has already been applied. Sensor shift stabilisation differs in that it moves the sensor itself, rather than using any mechanism in the lens. Both types of IS have distinct advantages and disadvantages, though to the average user both systems are more or less identical in terms of effectiveness. Let’s take a look at the key advantages of the two systems.

Sensor shift stabilisation

  • In-camera stabilisation means IS doesn’t have to be built into every lens, keeping lens cost, size and weight to a minimum.  
  • You can use in-body stabilisation on virtually any lens, including older or cheaper lenses that wouldn’t normally have IS built-in.
  • Sensor stabilisation is generally quieter than lens stabilisation, so is better suited to videography or shooting in noise-sensitive environments like weddings. 

Lens shift stabilisation

  • In-lens stabilisation is more effective for longer telephoto lenses, so is better suited to sports and wildlife shooting.
  • Lens shift stabilisation systems can be tailored perfectly to each individual lens,  so tend to be more effective.
  • On DSLRs you can see the stabilised image in real time through the viewfinder before you take the shot, unlike with in-camera IS.

What focal lengths do I need for different subjects?

Question: Could you tell me which focal lengths are best to work with for the different types of photography? 

Answer: You’ve probably read or heard lots of advice about which lenses you should be using for a certain genre of photography. Often the advice is delivered as a hard and fast rule that must be followed if you want professional results. In fact, pro photographers regularly use a very wide range of focal lengths in virtually every genre. This gives them a varied and creative portfolio that can stand out from the crowd. For example, a landscape photographer who uses a 17mm lens to shoot every single image is going to end up with a very one-dimensional body of work. So they may sometimes use a telephoto lens instead.

All that said, there are some focal lengths that generally lend themselves best to certain types of shot, so you’re likely to use them more regularly. Head-and-shoulders portraits, for example, are usually taken at around 85mm (or 50mm on an APS-C camera) as it’s deemed that this gives the kindest perspective for the human face. Actually, the focal length doesn’t alter perspective, but it does dictate where you stand to get the best composition. It’s this changing distance between the camera and subject that has the effect. For this reason the majority of your head and shoulders portrait images, though by no means all, will look best if taken with an 85mm lens. To the right we examine the focal lengths that generally work best for a handful of popular genres.

Fit the focal length to your genre...

Landscapes
Most landscapes are shot wide-angle, which means around 15-25mm on a full-frame body or 10-18mm on APS-C. Longer telephoto lenses are also used to get a ‘compressed perspective’ look, which gives an attractive layered effect.

 

Portraits
As previously mentioned, a classic portrait lens of 85mm (50mm on APS-C bodies) provides the most flattering perspective. 50mm is better for full-body shots. Wide-angle or even fisheye lenses can also be used to create really quirky results.

 

Wildlife and sports
Unless you can get very close to your subject, a long telephoto of at least 300mm is usually required. 600mm is ideal for very skittish subjects. If your camera is very near the subject, perhaps being fired remotely, any focal length can work.

Street and reportage
Most street shooters opt for a 35mm lens, or 24mm on an APS-C camera. This gives them a slightly wider field-of-view than the human eye. However, others like to work from a distance using a 70-200mm, ensuring their shots are completely candid.

What flashgun features do I really need?

Question: I want to invest in a flashgun as I’ve outgrown my camera’s pop-up flash. To be honest, I’m not sure what all the features do and which ones I’ll actually find useful. Please can you shed some light on it?

Answer: Your camera’s built-in flash is adequate for getting you out of a difficult situation, but it’s never going to give you very attractive results. Not only is the light extremely harsh and unflattering, but it always comes directly from the camera, so your creativity is limited. An external hotshoe-mounted flashgun, on the other hand, opens up all sorts of lighting possibilities, and can enable you to achieve very professional results. Before you invest in a new flashgun though, there are some important things you should consider.

Guide number
A flashgun’s guide number, often written as GN, describes its power output. It represents the maximum distance, in metres, at which you can correctly expose a subject, assuming a hypothetical aperture of f/1 and an ISO of 100. It’s important to understand that guide numbers are measured on a logarithmic scale, so if one flash has double the guide number of another, it kicks out 4x the light. Most pop-up flashes have a GN of around ten, whereas decent external units are more like  40-60. Some manufacturers like to muddy the waters a little by using feet instead of metres, and higher ISO settings, which of course results in an inflated guide number. Be aware of this and check the specifications carefully. Look for a flash with a guide number of at least 35.

Bounce flash
Most external flashguns have a tiltable head, allowing you to bounce the light upwards towards a white ceiling. This is then reflected back down onto the subject. Bounce flash is generally more flattering than direct flash, as it vastly increases the effective size of the light source for softer shadows. Light coming from above also mimics normal daylight so it looks very natural. Some more advanced flashguns have heads that tilt side to side as well, allowing you to bounce light off a wall.

Recycle time
When shooting at or around full power, it can take several seconds for some flashgun units to recharge for the next shot. Others can recycle in less than a second. If you’re shooting in a fast-paced environment, such as at a wedding, a very fast recycle time is important, so it’s worth checking the spec sheet before you buy.

Zoom ability
On most premium flashguns, the bulb is able to move backwards and forwards within the head to adjust the angle of the beam of light. For further away subjects, for example, the angle narrows so that all the light is concentrated on the subject. Most zoomable flashes have a zoom range of 24-105mm, and in TTL mode will actually adjust automatically to match the focal length of your lens. So if you’re shooting at 50mm, your flash will adjust to ensure no light is wasted. Some photographers use the zoom function manually for creative effect. By zooming in on the flash but using a wide focal length, you can achieve a spotlight effect.

Wireless control
Most flashguns won’t fire off-camera without the use of a cable or wireless triggers. But some have a built-in wireless control so you can fire it off-camera. This is especially useful for portraits, as it allows you to use more flattering lighting patterns. Some flashes can be fired in a slave mode, which means the flash has a sensor on it that will fire the flash when it detects another flash firing. 

What settings do I need for DSLR video?

Question: I want to start making some movies of my family on my DSLR. Is there anything I need to know before I start?

Answer: Almost all modern DSLRs, CSCs and advanced compacts have Full HD video functionality built-in. The quality is so impressive that many leading video companies are using professional DSLR cameras for high-end TV productions, including 24 and House . So if you own a modern DSLR, you already have everything you need to start shoot professional looking video.

The basic principles of videography are the same as they are for stills photography, therefore so long as you understand that aperture, shutter speed and ISO work together to control exposure you’re already halfway there. You’ll be shooting in manual mode, but the shutter speed stays the same for most of the time, so it is actually more similar to working in aperture-priority mode. This means that you only have to worry about ISO and aperture when balancing your exposure. 

Control audio
Your camera will have a built-in microphone, the sensitivity of which can be changed in the menu. You can buy higher quality external mics that plug into the audio-in port on the side of the camera. There may also be an audio-out port so that you can connect headphones and hear the audio as it’s recorded. Finally, take a quick look at the other video options in the menu, as there may be some useful features, such as wind reduction. Before you start shooting, follow these three steps to get your camera properly set up

Set your camera up for shooting quality movies

1. Set the resolution and frame rate
Put your DSLR in movie mode and select the highest video resolution from your camera’s menu, which on most is Full HD (1080p, not 1080i). Choose a 25fps frame rate, or 50fps if you think you’ll want to slow your footage down. Next change the mode dial to manual, and set a shutter speed of 1/50sec (or 1/100sec if you’re shooting at 50fps).

2. Balance your exposure
Select an ISO of 100 for minimal digital noise and adjust the aperture while looking at the lightmeter through the viewfinder until the exposure is at 0. If you’re shooting in dark conditions, you may need to use a higher ISO to balance the exposure, though this will introduce noise. Note that wide apertures may not be possible in particularly bright conditions.

3. Focus and stabilise
While most cameras can now autofocus during video recording, manual focusing is more accurate and much smoother than an autofocus motor jerking back and forth. So flick the switch on your lens from AF to MF. While you’re there, also turn on image stabilisation if it’s available, unless your camera is mounted on a tripod, in which case it’s best to leave it turned off.

What do the controls on my DSLR camera do?

Question: I bought a DSLR but it’s more complicated than I expected. Could you explain what the buttons and dials around it do?

Answer: Moving up from a basic compact camera or smartphone to a DSLR opens up a whole new range of photographic possibilities. Not only will a more advanced camera give you increased control over the settings you use, but with a little know-how you’ll be able to achieve creative effects such as long exposures and blurry backgrounds. Of course, this added functionality means extra buttons and dials that may seem pretty alien to you when you first pick up the camera...

Start in auto mode
Our advice is to start in full auto mode. Here, your camera will behave like a point-and-shoot compact and you won’t have to worry about settings. Next, move on to P mode, which is similar except you’ll be able to change the balance between shutter speed and aperture and turn off the flash. When you’re more familiar with the camera, you can move on to semi-automatic and manual. Let’s take a look at what some of the key buttons  and dials dotted around your camera actually do.

1. Mode Dial: Here you can set your shooting mode, from fully automatic to manual.

2. Pop Up Flash: This injects light into the scene to help you get a sharp shot.

3. AF Assist Lamp: This light illuminates your subject in dark situations to assist AF.

4. Lens Release Lock: Hold this button down to release the lens before twisting it off your camera’s mount.

5. Command Dial: Flick this to adjust your shutter speed, aperture or ISO value.

6. Hotshoe: A camera’s hotshoe can hold a plethora of accessories, including flashguns, remote triggers and microphones.

7. Dioptre Setting: For short- and long-sighted photographers, dioptric adjustment gives a sharp viewfinder image without the need for glasses. When you first buy a camera, look through the viewfinder and fine-tune the dioptre for your eyes.

8. Video Button: Most DSLRs now shoot up to 30 minutes of continuous Full HD (1080p) video footage with a fast enough card. Video settings are accessed through the menu, and recording is started and stopped with this button.

9. Exposure Compensation: If your image is too bright or too dark, you can tweak exposure with this button – simply hold it in while turning the finger dial. A plus figure (+) will brighten the image and a minus figure (-) will darken it. Not available in auto modes.

10. Display Setting: Some beginner photographers prefer to have their settings permanently visible on the screen during shooting. The display button also brings up vital image information, such as a histogram, if pressed when reviewing images

11. ISO Speed Setting: The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the camera’s sensor. On the plus side this gives you fast shutter speeds, which eliminates blur, but it introduces digital noise. Always use the lowest ISO setting you can.

12. Drove Mode: If you’re shooting sports or wildlife, you may wish to take several shots in quick succession. With this button you can switch to burst mode, which is usually between 4fps and 8fps. You can also set self-timer here.

13. AF Operation Selection: If you want your DSLR to focus once when you halfpress the shutter, use single shot. If you want constant focusing to keep a moving subject sharp, select continuous. Some models also have AF tracking.

14. White Balance: This is how you tell your camera what it should consider pure white in order to remove colour casts. There is an auto white balance setting, but you may need manual settings in tricky lighting conditions.

15. Menu and Quick Menu: To save you trawling through the camera’s main menu system, the Quick menu only displays the most frequently changed settings, including exposure comp, ISO, white balance and metering mode. This gives you fast access to core camera settings.

16. LCD Screen: Digital cameras have an LCD screen that allows you to compose in Live View and also review your shots instantly. Use it to zoom in on them to make sure they’re pin-sharp.

How should I compose a landscape photograph?

Question: I haven’t shot landscapes for some time and really want to get back into it. I remember there being lots of compositional rules that help produce more interesting images. Can you give me a quick recap?

Answer: If it’s been a while since you photographed a landscape, and you feel a little rusty, recap with our seven compositional tips. Remember though, that these are guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules, so don’t feel you have to stick to them if you have a good reason not to. And, of course, don’t attempt to include all seven at every single location. In reality, it’s likely that
you’ll only need two or three to get a strong and impacting composition.

1. Focal length
Traditionally, landscapes are shot on wide-angle lenses, which enable you to capture a large proportion of the scene from a close-up position, and help create a greater feeling of depth. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sometimes consider other focal lengths that can give equally impressive results. A telephoto lens, for example, will encourage you to shoot from further away, producing a ‘compressed’ perspective where the relative scale of the foreground and background is closer to reality.

2. Rule-of-thirds
Divide the frame into nine imaginary rectangles, then compose the shot so that a well-defined section of the scene fills either three or six of those rectangles. You’ll get a more balanced result, for example, if the sky fills either one or two thirds of the frame, than if the horizon is positioned halfway up. You can also place a vertical subject, like a tree, on one of the two upright lines, or a small single image element, like a rock or a boat, on one of the four points where the vertical and horizontal lines intersect. These are often called powerpoints.

3. Foreground interest
When shooting landscapes it can be easy to get caught up in the vastness of it all and forget about the foreground. But having something of interest in the bottom third of the image can really help to anchor the eye and draw the viewer into the shot. It’s sometimes said that foreground interest is the last thing a photographer thinks about but the first thing a viewer sees.

4. Lead-in lines
Lead-in lines are a great way to draw your viewer into the scene and direct them towards the subject. You can use  a fence, a path, a stream, or even a linear cloud formation, so long as whatever you choose directs the eye towards the centre of the frame. It’s generally accepted that lines emanating from the bottom right and left corners of the image are the most effective.

5. Negative space
If the area surrounding your subject is relatively devoid of detail, zoom out a little to include some of this empty space in your shot. Not only will this create a cleaner composition, it can also help you to portray a sense of scale or isolation. Negative space works best when there’s only one main subject, such as a single farmhouse nestled in the middle of a large field.

6. Rule-of-odds
A photograph will generally appear to have more balance and beauty with an odd number of image elements. So if you have an even number of, say, trees in your shot, it’s best to recompose slightly so there is an odd number instead.

7. Look for symmetry
If your landscape is very symmetrical, with one part of the scene strongly mirroring another, you have the opportunity to add balance and harmony to your shot. Compose so that a line of symmetry runs straight through the middle of the frame. This will mean you’ll need to abandon the rule-of-thirds, but this approach can produce a more eye-catching result.

Which focusing mode on my camera is best?

Question: Should I just shoot in my automatic autofocus mode or is it best to select a different one? Could you explain to me what they all do on my camera?

Answer: Getting your subject perfectly sharp is absolutely vital to the success of a shot. It’s most challenging when shooting with very wide apertures where the depth-of-field is extremely shallow, or with fast-moving subjects where the point of focus is constantly changing. Most DSLR focusing systems work slightly differently to those found on CSCs, but both are similar in that the frame is divided up into focus areas or focus points. These can range from nine on basic models, to over 200 on pro cameras. By choosing how you want these areas or points to behave, you can give yourself the best chance of achieving a sharp image. Or you might opt to turn them off entirely and focus manually for maximum accuracy. Here we take a look at the different focusing modes, and why they’re best for certain types of picture.

Understanding the four main camera focusing modes...

One-shot AF/Single Servo AF
The camera will acquire focus only once when the shutter button is half-pressed. Usually, this is using just one AF point, though some cameras allow a cluster of points to be used. Most photographers prefer to select this point themselves, which allows pin-point focusing ideal for portraits and landscapes. Alternatively, auto-area AF forces the camera to choose the point automatically, usually selecting the object closest to the camera. 

AI Focus/Automatic AF
In this mode the camera automatically detects whether the subject is moving or stationary, and selects either AF-S (one-shot AF) or AF-C (AI servo). This is a good mode to use if your subject is mostly stationary, but might move unexpectedly, such as a deer or a child playing. If you’re not comfortable switching between the two main focusing modes, this is the best option to use to get started. 

AI Servo/Continuous AF
With the shutter button half-pressed, the camera continually acquires focus, which is ideal for any subject that moves towards or away from the camera. In this mode you can either have just one active AF point, which will keep whatever covers this part of the frame sharp, or choose a larger group of points. You can also activate 3D tracking, which will keep your subject sharp wherever  it moves within the frame. 

Manual focus/MF
As fast and accurate as modern autofocus systems are, there are occasions when you’ll get more accurate results with it turned off. If you’re into night sky or macro photography, for example, you’ll work almost entirely in manual. For really accurate results, activate Live View, use the zoom buttons to enlarge a section of the image to 5x or 10x, then use the D-pad to choose the area of the frame you want to see in detail.

How do I clean my camera's sensor?

Question: I keep seeing lots of black spots on my images, especially when I shoot a clear blue sky. Are there any steps I can take to fix this issue.

Answer: There comes a time in every camera’s life when, despite your best efforts, the sensor surface picks up specks of dirt. This is more likely to be an issue if you regularly change your lenses outside, where dust, sand and water can easily get in. Even if you shoot primarily inside, such as in a studio, oil and grease from the inner workings of your camera can still splatter onto your sensor. You might find that you don’t even notice these little marks until you are shooting a clear and bright background that really shows just how dirty your sensor actually is. Some cameras have automatic sensor-cleaning systems, although they’re not always effective. 

Cleaning your sensor
You may decide that getting your sensor cleaned professionally is the best option, but this can cost upwards of about £30. If you’re on a budget, why not try cleaning it yourself? While this might seem like a daunting task, if you work carefully you can’t go wrong. For instructions on how to do this, follow the three steps on the right. If you’re looking to invest in a decent budget sensor-cleaning kit, The Dust Patrol Sensor Cleaning Kit is a great option.  

Prepare your camera
The first thing you need to do is get your camera’s mirror out of the way. If you own a CSC you won’t have this problem, so you can go straight onto Step 2. If you own a DSLR make sure your battery is fully charged, then turn your camera on and go into the Setup Menu. Click the ‘Lock mirror up for cleaning’ option and select Start. Once the mirror is out of the way, you can then remove the lens.

Now clean your sensor
With your sensor exposed, now use a manual air dust blower to remove the dust that is just sitting on the sensor. Ensure that you do not use any canned air or blow on the sensor yourself, as you will run the risk of making it worse. Once you have removed all of the dry dirt, you can try using a wet swab cleaner by following the instruction manual that will come with your cleaning kit.

Check the results 
When you have finished cleaning your sensor, check that there are no marks that you have missed. Put your lens back on and turn off the camera in order to put your mirror back where it should be. Set your aperture to f/22, take a shot of a clear background and then check it on your computer. A clear blue sky works well for this, but a piece of white paper will also do the job.