5 Things Every Photographer Should Know

Just starting out? Get to grips with these camera functions before anything else

I was one of the lucky ones, starting out on a non-digital SLR camera. An Olympus OM-1 where loading the film was the first really important ‘setting’ I had to master. Then there was the ASA and the Manual Focus – two features that no longer exist / are necessary with today’s modern marvels.

The Photography Workshops that I teach in Copenhagen always start out in the exact same fashion, but each and every trainee learns in a different way. So today I thought I’d write a blog post to clearly outline the First Five Things you should understand about your camera.

ISO

This is where I start on every photoshoot. The first question I ask myself is, what are the lighting conditions like? Most cameras have an ISO button somewhere on the camera, or failing that, actually inside the menu settings.

Basically, the ISO controls How Sensitive the Sensor is to Light. The lower the number, the less sensitive. So on a bright sunny day in the middle of summer, when the light is super strong and bright, the sensor doesn’t need to work too hard to soak up any available light. So it chills out. I tend to set my ISO between 100-200 on a day like that. If it’s looking a bit cloudy or overcast, then I start around 400. Moving inside where the light is diminished? Crank it up to at least 800 and adjust as necessary.

Unfortunately increasing the ISO comes at a price: pixel noise and grain. The amount differs from camera to camera, but you can generally except that anything above 800 is going to give your pictures a grainy quality and even a few random dots of blue, red and green. This is caused by the sensor heating up as it goes in to overdrive. But remember, it’s better to have a noisy, sharp image than a blurry one. More on that later…

White Balance

Our eyes, over millions of years, have evolved to recognise whiteness. Camera’s, on the other hand, have not. That’s because white light is made up of the seven colours of the rainbow, and therefore not all light sources produce the same colour. Take, for instance, your bedside lamp. It has an orange tinge to it (quite a powerful one, actually) so the cast it produces over everything in the room looks a bit orange, too. In photography we call this colour cast Tungsten.

And then there’s that horrible green colour cast produced by fluorescent lights. My gran’s kitchen has them, and so do most buildings and subway tunnels that are lit up in the evening. When photographing in cities at night, the amount of background light from fluorescent bulbs is pretty high.

When photographing in these situations we have to tell our cameras what light sources we are shooting in. Most of the time Auto does a pretty good job, but that’s not always the case. For instance, on a cloudy day red is the first colour in the spectrum to fade away (just like underwater). Red has the shortest wavelength of them all, which is why it’s the first to go. So in these conditions the camera needs a little help putting the red back in. Selecting the Cloudy White Balance option will achieve this result, and it also helps make skin tones appear warmer. Most photographers will use this WB setting even when it’s not cloudy, especially when photographing people.

Metering

Often overlooked by many amateur photographers, the metering settings can make all the difference to your photos.

Most cameras come with three basic settings: Matrix, Spot and Centre-Weighted. So let’s imagine our viewfinder as we look through the camera prior to taking a picture. Depending on the make and model, each camera has a number of areas located on the sensor that record the amount of light that hits it. If we imagine our viewfinder represents what the sensor eventually sees, then we can easily grasp what is dark (a black jacket, maybe), what is light (the sun in the background) and any grey bits in between (the road our model is standing on, for example).

In Matrix Metering (where I live 90% of the time) the sensor takes a light reading from as many of these areas as possible (again, depending on the make and model) and produces an average. In other words, yes the bright sun will play an important factor in the final image, but so too will the dark jacket and the light bouncing off the grey road.

But there are times when you don’t want all light sources considered. Like when the church doors open and the bride and her father are standing there for the first time. Behind them both you can be sure there’ll be a huge patch of bright light streaming in from outside. If this light makes up the majority of your scene, then the bride and her dad are gonna be silhouettes pretty much. Not good. In a perfect world you’ll be using flash, but that’s not always allowed or possible. So change over to Spot Metering, or maybe even Centre-Weighted. The difference between the two is that Spot will only take a light reading from the focus point you have set in your camera, whereas Centre-Weighted will do the same, but will also include anything that tightly surrounds this area.

A good way to practice this is to find something small and black, like a cup or a button, and place it in front of a bright light source. The sun or a torch will do. Then snap away using all three metering options and check out the results. Chances are, though, that you’ll remain in Matrix most of the time.

Shutter

The difference between a nice sharp image and one with motion blur is all down to what shutter speed you select.

Try to imagine water running through a tap and collecting in a bowl. The longer you leave that tap on, the more water you’re going to get. The same applies to photography, where the bowl becomes the sensor, the water becomes light, and the amount of time you leave the tap on equates to how long you leave your shutter open.

The shutter works a lot like a pair of curtains. If you opened the curtains for a split second then you’d’ only get a glimpse of what was happening outside. But if you leave them open for longer then you start to witness so much more. Cars driving past, or someone jogging by. How much of this you want to see depends on you and what mood you’re in.

Shutter speeds are measured in seconds and fractions of. So a three second exposure would appear as 3″ on your camera, whereas 250th of a second would appear thus: 1/250 or just 250.

Generally speaking, I was always told to never go lower than 1/80th of a second, simply because I couldn’t hold the camera steady enough. Nowadays I can hold it at much slower speeds, but it’s a good rule of thumb if you’re just starting out. Maybe even 1/125th just to make sure. Over time you can practice your technique and hone your skills, but for now this is a good place to start.

NB: If you use a flash on your camera, make sure you have a shutter speed SLOWER than 1/250, otherwise your images will get two underexposed bars at the top and bottom known as banding.

Aperture

Ah, the Golden Nugget and the subject I have to repeat throughout the workshops. The most confusing thing about it is the fact that opposites apply here. Let me explain.

Going back to our tap image, this time we’re going to have two side-by-side. The setup is exactly the same, but the diameter of the first tap is one inch and the second is two inches. By leaving both taps running for ten seconds, which bowl will have the most water?

Of course, the correct answer is the second tap, because twice as much water is escaping through the two inch diameter than the one inch.

In photography, the lenses that we buy each come with a minimum and maximum diameter. And because we photographers ‘paint with light’, then the manufacturers know that we want more diameter to play with, which equals a more expensive lens.

So if a perfect circle is represented by the number 1, then we know that the larger the number, the SMALLER the aperture. i.e. less light reaching the sensor. Take a look at any of your lenses and you’ll notice on the barrel or just above the glass a bunch of numbers. One group will look like this 1:3.5/5.6. This number shows us that particular lens’s MAXIMUM aperture (how wide it will go). The reason you have 3.5/5.6 is because (in this case) you’re using a zoom lens. In other words, a lens that can take a wide landscape picture, maybe at 17mm, and then can zoom in on something far away, say, 55mm. When shooting the wide 17mm picture, the widest possible aperture that can be achieved by camera and lens is 3.5, but when shooting at 55mm that aperture shrinks even more, giving you f5.6 (apertures are measured in Focal Stops, called f numbers).

Right now you might be asking, why would I want to use anything higher than f5.6? Well, there are two reasons. The first is that, obviously, going all the way to f22 can be useful on a bright sunny day. The aperture ring is tiny at f22, so less light is getting through, meaning we can have a slower shutter speed if we want to show something moving (think of the knob of the tap and the diameter of the tap working together in harmony to get just the right amount of water in the bowl – as you increase or decrease one, you must do the opposite with the other).

The second reason is Depth of Field. DoF determines how much of your image is in focus and how much isn’t. When we shoot at f1.4 or f2.8 we get lots of light to work with, but we also get a small depth of field. In other words, the subject is very sharp and in focus, but immediately the background starts to lose focus, as does the foreground. This is a nice technique for portraits or close-ups of products, because the viewer automatically focuses on what’s sharp – the subject.

But if we take a nice landscape of a beach with some mountains in the background then we want most, if not all, of it in focus. That’s when we’d dial it up to f22 or even f36 if your camera allows it. In these circumstances you’d probably need a tripod, because as the amount of light decreases through the narrow aperture, so increases the amount of time the shutter needs to remain open for to compensate for that lack of light. Remember, slow shutter speeds equal motion, so your camera needs to be super steady.

Which brings us nicely back to the start: your ISO settings.

The aperture or shutter speeds you choose are all down to the ISO you select in the beginning. If your sensor is sensitive to the light then a wide aperture letting in lots of light is gonna burn it. Like throwing bleach on a pair of jeans. But choosing a lower ISO makes that Bleach Assault seem more like a little sprinkling instead.

Of course, it’s entirely down to you which settings you choose, but hopefully this is blog post can help you make a much more informed decision. So get out there, start learning how to use that tiny but amazing machine in your hand, and let me know how you get on…

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