The complete beginners guide to photography
So you got your new DSLR or even an old camera from the attic and want to start photography? Great! It's never too late to learn how to take great photos. Here are the basics you need know about your camera to take a perfect picture.
Understanding photography means understanding how a camera works. And it's very easy, so you don't need to be a studied optician or master physics for this. I am pretty sure you already know every camera naturally consists of a lens, film (or in digital cameras the sensor), a shutter mechanism and a lot of buttons and measuring devices to control the interaction of these three main parts. Taking a picture is as easy as gathering light through the lens, focusing it on the film medium or sensor and exposing it steadily for the correct amount. No more no less.
Understanding Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO
By now you probably have noticed your camera has this nifty automatic mode, that does all the work for you. However, if you want to master the skill, you will need to understand the three fundamental parameters of photography, and how to make them play nicely together, according to your needs. Those are called aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
Shutter speed is measured in seconds, or fractions thereof, and describes the length of time, the film material or sensor is exposed to the light. The longer light hits the sensor, the brighter an image will appear, so you will have to choose a shutter speed matching your current light situation to get a proper exposure. When taking pictures in sunlight, you might shoot at e.g. 1/500th of a second, whereas in candlelight your exposure time can easily bump up to a full second or more. The pitfall to this is movement. Obviously, a lot can happen during that second, the most common being you shaking your hands, or your motive moving away. Longer exposure times, therefore, require a steady tripod and don't always work for moving objects.
Aperture is the opening in your lens through which the light travels, and it is varied by an iris mechanism (diaphragm), much like the iris of your eye. A wide open aperture lets lots of light into your camera, whereas with a very narrow aperture only little light travels through a small hole. Here is where beginners get easily confused: The aperture is specified in f-stops, also called focal ratio, as it is the ratio of focal length to entrance pupil diameter (effective aperture). Therefore a high f-value marks a small aperture, and a low value represents a wide open aperture. Most standard zoom lenses have a low aperture from f3.5 to f5.6, more expensive models can do f2.8 and the most expensive ones can go as low as f1.2 to f1.0. Bigger glass means higher price, but let's keep it simple for now.
Unlike shutter speed, which only changes the brightness of your photograph, the aperture has a massive impact on the look of your image, as it controls not only the amount of light but also the depth of field. This is the most important creative factor in your image, and we will discuss it in detail later on. All you need to know, for now, is that aperture and shutter speed interact with each other, a wide open aperture enables you to use a faster shutter (more light equals shorter exposure time), and a smaller aperture (large f-number) requires longer exposure times, much like a huge water hose soaks you in seconds, whereas a tiny splash will barely get your wet. Got it? Think about this for a moment, and try to understand it, you will need to know this, period.
There's one more thing: ISO or film speed. This is the measure of a film's sensitivity to light, and it's modeled alike in digital cameras. Low ISO (100 is standard) means the film takes a fair time to react, hence longer exposure times, more light. High ISO films (e.g. the Ilford Delta 3200) were used in very low light situations to still have an acceptable exposure time. Higher ISO, however, has one major disadvantage: The higher the sensitivity, the more grainy and noisy your photo appears. Although this can be used as an artistic element, most of the time a clear, pristine photo is desired, so working with an ISO as low as possible is preferred.
Analog vs. digital
Ever since the digital age, analog film cameras have been almost extinct from the market, but you have probably heard of them. Film material, however, responds quite different to light and color, in comparison to the modern digital sensors, so both cannot be compared that easily.
Setting up your Camera
To get the most out of your camera, forget about automatic modes and start working in manual mode, and start adjusting ISO, shutter speed and aperture to your needs manually. This is the best way to understand their relationship to each other and to familiarize yourself with the best settings.
Depth of Field
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