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Get Off Auto And Take Better Pet Photos

What would pet travel be without pictures? Capturing your dog’s expression at the Grand Canyon or the Golden Gate Bridge is all part of the fun – even if you’re not a professional photographer.

Ty at Golden Gate

I gave you some pet photo tips a few weeks ago, but now we’re taking things further.

What if by changing a few settings on your camera and spending a couple of hours playing with it, you could significantly improve your pictures? You’d be up for it, right? Well, fasten your seat belts, because we’re about to rock your world.

Perpetually On Auto

About a year and a half ago we upgraded from our point-and-shoot camera to a Sony Nex-3. Knowing nothing about photography, I promptly set it to “Intelligent Auto” and dismissed all the other settings. The camera and I were getting along fine … the pictures were turning out better than they had with our old camera, and I didn’t have to decipher any of that complicated technical terminology. Then we landed in Austin, and I signed up for a class in digital photography.

Remove The Training Wheels

Okay, time for some truth-telling! How many of you never take your camera off “Auto.”

Go ahead, raise your hands …

Yep, that’s what I thought. But what I’ve discovered in this class is that “Auto” is so confining! Remember when your bike had training wheels? Sure, they kept you from tipping over, but they also make it more difficult to turn tight corners and go where you wanted. The same is true for the “Auto” setting on your camera. And making a mistake isn’t nearly as painful as it used to be when someone developed your photos … now we can just hit the delete button!

The first step to gaining your photographic freedom is to locate the owner’s manual that came with your camera. It’s likely that the “Quick Start” guide won’t provide enough information, so either load the CD that came in the box, or find the full manual online. You’re looking for the section that tells you how to set your camera to “Manual.” Go ahead, take the plunge. Oh, and turn off your flash, too.

ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed

Once you’ve nailed that, there are just a few basics to cover before you’re off and running. Remember, a photograph is just your camera capturing the reflections of light that enter the lens. Keeping that in mind makes the rest pretty easy.

There are three ways to adjust how much light enters the camera: the ISO, the aperture, and the shutter speed.

ISO – If you remember the old days of film cameras, you know that you used to buy different “speeds” of film. The 200 speed was for bright, sunny days, the 400 speed was for taking shots inside, and, if you got really fancy, you might have gotten 800 speed for evening shots. Those numbers measured how sensitive the film was to light, and setting the ISO on our digital cameras does the same thing. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive your camera’s sensor is to the light entering it. So, set it low for outside shots on a sunny day and high for shots where the light is limited.

I took this photo in the evening, as the light was fading in Austin, with the ISO on my camera set as high as it would go – and no flash.

Austin, TX

Aperture – Inside your lens are little leaves that open or close to let in more or less light.

Aperture Image

Aperture is also called “f-stop” and you can see the different settings most cameras have in the image above. Notice that the higher the aperture, the more the leaves inside your lens close, and the less light comes though the shutter. Keep in mind that aperture also affects the depth of focus in your photo. At the lower settings the focus will be “shallow,” and at the higher settings the focus will be “deeper.”

In this photo of Ty the aperture on my camera is set as low as possible. I’m inside the RV, and with the camera on “Auto” I’d usually need the flash to get a shot with this little light. By opening the aperture I’m able to get a nice shot, but you’ll see that Ty’s nose is in focus and his dog tags are blurry. That’s an example of a low aperture shot – a lot of light coming in, but a shallow depth of field.

Ty's Close-up

Shutter Speed – The last variable in determining the amount of light that comes into your camera is the shutter speed. This measures how long your camera’s shutter stays open when you push the button. The longer the shutter stays open, the more light comes into the camera. The speed of your object will help you determine the best shutter speed. For  still objects, your shutter can go as low as 1/60 of a second with a hand-held camera. For fast action shots – like Buster running on the beach – you need a faster shutter speed, or he’d just be a blur! Try around 1/250 of a second for starters.

Buster at Austin's Dog Beach

Give It A Shot

So, you have three variables to balance to the amount of light entering your camera: the ISO, the aperture, and the shutter speed. I usually set the ISO first, based on where I’m taking pictures … lower in the sunshine, higher inside, and even higher in the evening.

Next, I think about the object of the photo. If I’m taking a picture of the dogs sleeping, I set the aperture next … for more details in the foreground I use a lower aperture, and if I want the background to be clearer, I use a higher aperture. But if I’m at the dog park trying to catch Buster playing, the shutter speed takes priority over the aperture – the faster Buster goes, the faster the camera needs to go.

Finally, I adjust the remaining variable to get the right exposure based on the other two settings.

Give it a try and have a little fun! Switch over to “Manual,” and you might never go back.

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  • Sue Muir says:

    Yes, totally agree with Mel. Very simple explanations of those mysterious things, Amy. Interesting that you’ve got an Nex-3 and like it. An Nex-5N is on my short list when I finally take the plunge and get a DSLR. Going to the Grand Canyon is on my bucket list (as well as getting a DSLR!). I see Buster and Thank you have beaten me to it:)

  • Mel Freer says:

    Perhaps the best explanation of how to use your camera properly. I have to admit that I’ve gotten quite lazy and have used the Auto button way more than I used to do. I took a camera class and learned how to use my camera, but over time forgot all the settings and what they meant. I’m saving yours because you explained it the best Amy. Nice picture of Austin and Thank you by the way.

  • Lauren M. Forgione says:

    wow. this is making me want to get a “real” camera again. I haven’t used one since high school, and now I have my little point & shoot. boring!

  • Hey Amy, thanks so much for sharing – I am so glad you took that class =) Great post (not unexpected:)

  • I am so lazy with my iPhone. I love that I can shoot and tweet… But I hate it when all the action shots fail of Kenzo & Viva, it makes them look lazy too :) I have to take it up again if we shouldn’y need a real camera. Your getting quite an expensive acquaintance having me investigating RV’s, camera’s, etc. LOL

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