Five Tradeoffs Every Photographer Should Know

Five Tradeoffs Every Photographer Should Know

Photography is full of tradeoffs where you gain one thing in exchange for losing another. Here are five tradeoffs that every photographer should know. 

A lot of photography is about controlling technical and creative parameters depending on how you prioritize different aspects of image quality or what you are trying to capture. Here are five key tradeoffs every photographer should understand. 

1. ISO 

ISO, for all practical intents and purposes, refers to how sensitive your sensor is to light. 

Raising ISO

The Pros

  • You can capture images in lower light. This can be useful in a variety of situations in which you cannot use a wider aperture or a slower shutter speed, such as dark reception halls or in astrophotography.
  • You can use a faster shutter speed. If you need to freeze motion and are already at your widest aperture, then raising your ISO is your only option. This can be useful for things like wildlife or sports photography.
  • You can use a narrower aperture. This gives you more depth of field, allowing you to keep more in focus. This is useful for things like group portraits.

The Cons

  • The higher the ISO, the more noise your images will have. This is still preferable to a blurry image due to too slow a shutter speed.
  • As you raise your ISO, you will also have reduced dynamic range.

Lowering ISO

The Pros

  • You will have higher image quality due to increased dynamic range and less noise. 
  • You can use a slower shutter speed. This can be useful is you want to blur motion. You can add an ND filter if you want to further slow your shutter speed.
  • You can use a wider aperture. This gives you less depth of field, allowing you to keep less in focus and have increased background blur and isolate your subject. 

The Cons

  • You may have to use a slower shutter speed, which will make it more difficult if you need to freeze motion or if you are hand-holding a lens with a longer focal length.
  • Similarly, you may have to use a wider aperture. If you need increased depth of field, this can cause difficulty.

2. Aperture

Aperture refers to how wide your lens' diaphragm is opened.

A Wider Aperture

The Pros

  • By letting in more light, you can use a lower ISO, leading to better image quality. 
  • You can use a faster shutter speed for freezing motion or hand-holding a lens with a long focal length.
  • You can isolate your subject through the use of thin depth of field.

The Cons

  • As you approach the widest aperture of your lens, you will likely see a decrease in sharpness. 

A Narrower Aperture

The Pros

  • A middle-range aperture is typically the sharpest for any given lens (normally three to four stops past maximum).
  • You can have more of your image in focus because of the bigger depth of field, useful for things like landscape photography. 
  • You can slow down your shutter speed if desired, such as for creating motion.

The Cons

  • As you approach the narrowest apertures of your lens, you will start to run into issues with diffraction that can rob your image of sharpness.
  • If you need a faster shutter speed, you may run into issues that require you to either raise your ISO or balance shutter speed and aperture in a compromise. 

3. Shutter Speed

Shutter speed refers to the length of time for which your camera sensor is exposed to light.

A Faster Shutter Speed

The Pros

  • A faster shutter speed will allow you to better freeze fast motion and will also counteract camera shake (particularly when handholding longer lenses) more effectively. 
  • A faster shutter speed will also allow you to use a wider aperture if desired. 

The Cons

  • A faster shutter speed means less light will make it to the sensor, requiring you to use either a wider aperture or higher ISO.
  • If you are using flash, you may run into the maximum sync speed of your camera, which is the fastest shutter speed with which you can use flash without resorting to technologies like high speed sync, which come with their own drawbacks.

A Slower Shutter Speed

The Pros

  • A slower shutter speed means more light will make it to the sensor, allowing you to use a lower ISO for better image quality or a narrower aperture for more depth of field.

The Cons

  • A slower shutter speed makes it more likely that you will experience blur from your subject or camera shake.

4. Sensor Size

Larger Sensors

The Pros

  • A larger camera sensor will have better low light performance holding all other variables equal.
  • A larger camera sensor can have larger resolution holding pixel size constant. 
  • Larger sensors tend to have better dynamic range.
  • Larger sensors allow for stronger background blur given the same framing.

The Cons

  • Larger sensors tend to mean larger and heavier camera bodies and lenses.
  • Larger sensors tend to correspond with more expensive cameras and lenses.

Smaller Sensors

The Pros

  • Cameras with smaller sensors tend to be smaller and lighter with correspondingly smaller and lighter lenses.
  • Cameras with smaller sensors tend to be cheaper, as do their lenses.
  • A camera with a smaller sensor will have a longer effective focal length when using the same lens, which can mean significant savings for people like wildlife or sports photographers who need supertelephoto focal lengths. 

The Cons

  • Cameras with smaller sensors make it harder to control depth of field.
  • Cameras with smaller sensors have worse low light performance. 
  • Smaller sensors tend to have worse dynamic range.

5. Raw Versus JPEG

Shooting in Raw

The Pros

  • You get higher post-processing latitude, allowing for more extreme edits. 
  • You can change white balance after the fact, generally without a loss of quality.
  • You have better control over the final image.
  • Your files will have more information, leading to better final images (so long as you process them properly).

The Cons

  • Shooting in raw requires more processing power and storage, which can cause greater expenses on the back end. 
  • Shooting in raw requires more time to produce finished images.

Shooting in JPEG

The Pros

  • Shooting in JPEGs requires less storage and processing power.
  • Shooting in JPEGs allows you to have finished images ready the moment you shoot them. Setting up your camera's JPEG processing properly and taking proper exposures can often produce great in-camera JPEGs. This can be a benefit for situations that require ultra-quick image delivery.
  • Shooting in JPEG requires less time investment.

The Cons

  • JPEG has processing "baked in," meaning you can't edit certain parameters like white balance without a quality loss, and more extreme edits will produce more pronounced issues. 
  • You will have less control over the final product. 
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Robert K Baggs's picture

6. Taking everything you own on photography trips

Ready for anything
Look like a *real* photographer
Burn calories faster than Tour de France cyclists

Spine changes shape
Losing your bag will plunge you into a deep existential crisis
You use only one camera and one lens anyway

Jerome Brill's picture

Can confirm as a generalist photographer, my spine had changed shape. Now I bring an extra tripod to keep me upright.

Alex Reiff's picture

To the pros of a slower shutter speed, I'd also add the intentional inclusion of motion blur. I would also add the trade-off between prime and zoom lenses.

Rashad Hurani's picture

A significant pro of smaller sensor is more effective IBIS

Nitin Chandra's picture

0. Shoot in good light. End of story! :P

Alan Klughammer's picture

Con: depending on your definition of "good" you may miss a lot of images

Nitin Chandra's picture

12 noon :)

Penny Fan's picture

You can also talk about advantage of a smaller sensor, if DoF is needed then smaller sensor win (like for Macro).