Photography basics

Are you very much a beginner at photography? Don't worry, we all start at the beginning. Here are some tips to help you get going in choosing a camera, understanding the basics of how cameras work, taking great pictures, and using photo editing software.

Choosing a Camera

A great deal has been written about what camera you 'should' have. And certainly, expensive cameras can help you take great pictures. But even inexpensive cameras these days are amazingly clever at sorting out much of the technical issues and can produce really good images. Even phones are getting better all the time. But the most important part of taking photographs isn't the camera -- it's the brain behind the camera. You are the person who sees the picture, who frames it and presses the button at just the right moment.

Having said this, if you are setting out to buy a camera, then things to consider include:

  • The size and weight of the camera.
  • Whether to go for fixed or removable lenses.
  • How much you want to spend.
  • What other kit you may want to buy (cases, tripod, etc.).

If you go for a fixed-lens camera, you may find it cheaper and have remarkable zoom capability. This may be must enough for you, but if you are thinking longer-term, buying a new camera effectively means buying a new lens. Cameras that have exchangeable lenses let their owners build up a collection of lenses that are useable over many years with the latest technology in the body of the camera.

If you go for an 'SLR' with removable lenses (which most camera club members use), remember that by the time you have added various lenses, tripod and so on, you could be carrying around several kilogrammes of kit on your back (and you'll need a special padded backpack). You can also spend a lot of money, from hundreds to thousands. The more expensive kit costs more and is heavier as it is designed for professionals, for who robustness is a critical requirement.

A neat alternative to SLRs is 'mirrorless' systems which still have replaceable lenses. An important consideration is the size of the sensor, which tends to give better picture, the bigger they get. In fixed lens cameras this is often smaller. SLR and mirrorless system cameras often use a size called 'APS-C'. More expensive cameras use 'full frame' sensors, which are the same size as the old '35mm' film.

If you are price-sensitive, then a good strategy can be to buy last-year's model or even a second-hand camera. Cameras can drop quickly in price and you can move 'up market' at a remarkably good price. You can also hire cameras, especially the more expensive ones, which may give you a period of time to try them out. Many camera club members buy Canon or Nikon systems, although Sony is close behind and other manufacturers also offer good systems. Remember again the first rule: it's the brain behind the camera that is the most import of your photographic kit!

 

How Cameras Work

While modern cameras, like modern cars, have remarkably complex computer, electronic and mechanical systems in them, they basics of photography have not changed since the days of film cameras. In essence, you have four things you can change when taking a photograph: the focal length, the aperture, the speed and the ISO.

The focal length is the effectively the amount of 'zoom' of the lens and is measured in millimetres. The simplest lens is 50mm and makes things appear as if the human eye was looking at the scene. Below this is wide-angle, which can give a wide vision but can make things seems farther away from each other and may distort the image more towards the edge. Above 50mm is telephoto and 'foreshortens' the picture, making separated things seem closer together.

The speed of the photograph is the time that the shutter is open. At low speeds, things that are moving will blur. You can easily also get the blur of camera shake, particularly below about 1/100 second. This is why enthusiasts often use tripods. It can be useful to have a bit of blur, for example to show that a car is moving, but mostly blur is undesirable.

The aperture is like the iris in your eye. It is a hole that can be made larger or smaller and is measured in f-numbers, typically from about f4 (large hole) to f22 (small hole). When the aperture is a low number, the large hole lets in a lot of light quickly so you can take a photograph without movement blur. The price is that at lower f-numbers, less of the picture is in focus at once. As f-numbers get higher, more of the photo will be in focus, but the speed will reduce, increasing the chance of motion blur (even from very small camera movement). As a useful reference, the human eye works at about f-11.

A way of understanding all this is to think of light as being like water. In taking a photograph, you need to get enough light into the camera. When there is plenty of light about, this is like high pressure water, which will whoosh into the camera quickly. In dim conditions, such as indoor and at night, there is less 'water pressure' and so it takes longer for enough light to get in. To get a given amount of light into the camera, a wide hole (low aperture number) will minimise the time for the light to get in (higher speed). But when the hole is smaller (high aperture number), you need to open the shutter for longer to get the same amount of water (light) in.

Much of the time in taking photographs you are balancing aperture and speed to get enough light into the camera without causing unwanted blur (so higher speed is needed) and with enough of the photograph in focus (so smaller hole, bigger aperture number) is needed. In automatic mode, the camera will decide both the best aperture and the best speed. If you want to control how much is in focus, you can set it in aperture priority mode (often 'A' on the control dial). Here, you decide on the aperture to use and the camera sets the speed to ensure enough light gets in. In speed mode ('S' or 'T' on the control dial) you can control the blur and the camera will choose the aperture.

There is also this other element of ISO. In the days of film, you only vary this by changing the film. In digital, you can change it per picture. The basic principle of ISO is something like an amplifier or pump in the water example. When you increase the ISO, you can take the same picture with a smaller hole (aperture) or faster speed. This seems to solve the dilemma of balancing aperture and speed, but the downside is that increasing ISO also increases the graininess and noise in the picture. When you have ISO set to automatic, the camera systems will try to balance this along with speed and aperture, typically increasing it in low light to allow a reasonable aperture and high enough speed to reduce camera shake. The basic ISO is typically 100. This increases to 200, 400 and upwards, often in doubling jumps. It is a mark of the quality of a camera as to how noisy it gets when you increase the ISO. High-end cameras (=very expensive) can often work at ISO 1600 or above with negligible noise. Cheaper cameras would produce very noisy images at these levels.

 

Taking Photographs

The first rule of learning photography is to take pictures. Take lots of them. Try things out. Look at the pictures, then think about how you might have taken a different picture. This is the basic method that most enthusiasts use. If you don't take photos, you won't learn nearly as much. And the great thing about digital photography is that you have instant feedback. You can see the photos immediately after you have taken them.

The next rule is to think about what you want to include. A common mistake is to try to get too much in the photograph, leading to cluttered and confusing images. If you are photographing a person, for example, let them fill the frame, not be a tiny person in the middle of the picture.

Composition is about arranging all the elements of the picture so they work together in a pleasant harmony. It is perhaps the most difficult thing in taking photographs as, unlike artists, we cannot just put things where we want them to be. An important thing to consider in taking pictures is to think about where the eye goes, both initially and subsequently. At the start, the eye will be drawn to bright, big, contrasty elements. It will then jump to other main elements or follow lines. This makes the arrangement of elements important.

Often, the automatic mode will give you an adequate picture. If you want more control, set the focal length, aperture, speed and ISO as discussed above (always keep an eye on these anyway). If you have time to be careful, use a tripod and remote control (or just use the built-in delay) to minimise camera shake. And when you're done, look at the image, zooming in to check that the things should be sharp are sharp.

You can look at the tips page for more suggestions in how to take great pictures.

 

Using Photo Editing Software

Finally, when you have taken you photograph you may want to edit it in some kind of photo editing software on your computer. There are many such programmes available at varying cost. The most powerful and popular for photographers, Photoshop, is also one of the most expensive. Photographers also tend to like Lightroom, which is less flexible but also very good. A 'home' edition of Photoshop is called 'Elements' and much can still be done with this. An alternative and much cheaper alternative to Photoshop which still does much of the same thing is Paint Shop Pro. A completely free alternative that some like is called the 'Gimp'.

The first task when viewing the images may well be to crop it, taking out parts you do not need. You may also want to straigthen any wonky horizons at this time. Then you may want to adjust overall things like colour, contrast, brightness and so on. There are a lot of options here, such as tweaking levels and curves. The way to discover these is just to play with them. As with much of what is talked about here, there are also many helpful videos on YouTube.

The next job is to get local, adjusting parts of the picture, for example in brightening up dark areas and toning down more intrusive bright bits. You can also remove items that are in the way, such as bits of litter or wires dangling across the picture, using 'cloning'. You may want to sharpen up the image (though be careful here as it is very easy to over-do this).

There are many more things you can do with your photograph, including making it rather creative by combining parts of several images. If the sky is a bit dull, for example, you can import some sky from another picture. This is an area where debate starts. Some people think it should just be about the photograph as taken, with no or minimal editing. Other look at it as being creating an image that others enjoy, by any means. In the end, it's up to you.

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