How do you go about creating an image?

Johan van Zyl All Authors, Johan Leave a Comment

It is something that we get asked on many Photographic Safaris, “What do you think about before capturing an image”.

Now this may differ from individual to individual, but here is what goes through my mind before pressing the shutter button and creating an image, in this order:

What is my Shutter Speed?

The first thing I will work out in my mind is what image am I looking to create?  Am I looking to freeze the moment, or create motion blur?

My eyes are drawn to the bottom left of my screen when looking at the viewfinder to see what my shutter speed is.  Lets say in this case I want to freeze the moment.  Is my shutter speed fast enough?  Fast enough will be at least 1/focal length, although I will look for a shutter speed of 1/500 and upwards depending on light.

Your shutter speed is the single most important part of creating your image as this will either freeze the moment if your shutter speed is fast enough, or create motion blur if it is too slow.

Shutter speed 1/8 sec

Shutter speed 1/1000 sec

How much depth of field do I want?

After being satisfied with my shutter speed, my eyes will then move to the right, usually situated next to your shutter speed is your Aperture.  Do I want to isolate my subject from the background?  If so, I will dial my aperture to the lowest number, F2.8 or 5.6 for example.  If I feel that I would like more depth in my scene, so include more of the background, I will increase the number to 7.1 or F8 for example.  Remember that the more depth of field you want, the slower your shutter speed will become, so a quick glance at the shutter speed to make sure it is still fast enough.

Image taken at F 2.8 to blur out the background

Image taken at F 7.1 to include more of the scene and background


My ISO basically fits into what it is I am trying to create.  If I feel my Shutter speed is too slow, and my Aperture is at its lowest (number) then my ISO needs to go up in order to up my shutter speed.  If my shutter is too fast (for example 1/8000 for a sleeping Lion) then my ISO will come down.  An easy way to remember is as the sun goes up, ISO goes down.  As the Sun goes down, ISO goes up.  Don’t overthink ISO.  It is merely your camera’s sensitivity to light and all depends on what shutter speed you are looking to get.  In low light, high ISO’s need to be dialled in to help achieve a fast enough shutter speed.  Unfortunately this may results in some noise (pixels you see in the image) but if you are capturing something amazing, rather have some noise than a blurred image.

Image taken at ISO 250

Image taken at ISO 3200

What would I like to achieve from an exposure point of view?

Exposure compensation is something that comes with practice and the more photos you take, the more you will know how much you would like to over or under expose.  After I’m satisfied with my shutter speed, the depth of field that I want in the frame and my ISO is set to balance everything out, take one image and view it on the back of your screen.  What colour is your subject compared to your background?  If for example you are photographing a light subject (Lion) with a dark background (green foliage) you would more often than not want to under expose (moving the exposure meter to the left).  If you have a dark subject (Elephant) against a bright background (clear skies) you want to over expose (move the exposure meter to the right).

Have a look at the blog that Andrew did on Exposure compensation.

Image underexposed by 2 full stops (EV -2).  Notice how it makes the Cheetah stand out, making the dark areas darker and the lighter areas perfectly exposed.

Overexposed by two thirds (EV+2/3).  Note the bright skies and dark subject.  If exposure is left on 0, the skies will be correctly exposed but detail in the Elephant will be lost.

So thats a brief example of how I see scenes before photographing.  Like everything, practice makes perfect and the amount of time it takes for you to adjust settings will decrease considerably the more you photograph.

VERY IMPORTANT – make sure you bring your exposure compensation back to zero after photographing a particular scene, to avoid your next image being over or underexposed.

If you would like some help mastering these arts, why not join our Digital Photography or Wildlife Photography Courses?  It will improve your photography dramatically.

Happy shooting.


About the Author

Johan van Zyl


The opportunity of visiting some of the wildest, undisturbed areas and sharing my passion for wildlife, conservation and photography with like minded people is a privilege that I am forever grateful.

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