I’m often asked to recommend a “good” camera, one that will take “decent” pictures. I’m wondering if this may actually make a good subject for a blog, so here goes….
I always respond with a question of my own – “what are you going to use your new camera for?” After a bit of digging I usually find that the root of the problem is dissatisfaction with the results from a current camera and a desire to take better pictures.
This is where the conversation can get a bit tricky…., you see it is the photographer that takes the picture; the camera is just a tool. True, there is something to be said for quality comes with a price, but a top of the range camera is no guarantee of great results. A little understanding of the principles of exposure and ensuring you have some basic controls over how your camera works will go a long way to ensure you take better pictures, and hopefully without the need to fork out for a new camera.
So here is a quick run-down of what need to know if find yourself in the situation of wanting a new camera to improve your photography.
Principles of Exposure
Exposure is the amount of light entering your camera which ends up making your final image. Controlling this light will make you a better photographer. The good news is there are just 3 basic elements you need to know about controlling light:
Aperture – this is the opening in your camera’s lens that allows the light in.
Shutter – just inside your camera is a shutter that normally remains closed (preventing any light from entering the camera) and is only opened when you press the shutter release button to take the picture. How long the shutter is left open for (and in most cases we are only talking about fractions of a second) dictates how much light enters your camera.
The sensitivity of your cameras light sensor (or the sensitivity of the film you’re using). This is measured by a rating called “ISO”.
Having a camera that allows you to control these 3 elements gives you much more creative control over your final image.
Let me explain a bit more about these 3 elements and how you can begin to get creative.
So this is an opening inside your camera’s lens. By varying the size of this opening alters the amount of light entering your camera.
The size of the aperture is measured in what’s called “f numbers” or “f stops”. The smaller the number, the larger the opening. So f/1.4 is a bigger opening and allows more light in that f/16.
The really cool thing about altering the aperture is it also affects the “depth of field”. What’s depth of field I hear you say! OK, this refers to the zone of acceptable sharpness in an image – basically the bit that is in focus. Usually there is a zone just in front of the subject you’re focussing on and just behind that is still sharp (in focus). An image with a large depth of field has more area in front and behind your subject that is in focus. A shallow depth of field is the opposite.
For examples of a shallow depth of field take a look at portrait shots by some top photographers like David Bailey or Richard Avedon (head shots in particular). You’ll see that the eyes are in focus but the tip of the nose and the ears may well be out of focus.
Having a large aperture (i.e. a small f stop) creates a shallow depth of field. This is great for portraits, but if you’re into landscape photography you may want a small aperture (f/22) to create a large depth of field.
Understanding shutter speed is simple. When you press the shutter release button, the shutter is opened for a set amount of time. The longer its open the more light gets in.
The cool effect of controlling shutter speed is you can create either motion blur or freeze an action shot. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second 1/50th, 1/100th 1/250th but can be for whole seconds or even minutes. The faster the shutter speed, the less light entering your camera but the more action will be frozen (imagine a sports scene where the players appear frozen in time, a fast shutter speed was used to create that shot).
By contrast, the slower the shutter speed the more light that’s let in. In some circumstances you can create motion blur by using a slow shutter speed (imagine a busy road photographed at night so the car’s headlights appear as a long stream of light, that's done by using a slow shutter speed).
Finally we come to the ISO control. This is how sensitive your camera is to light and is measured by an ISO number (ISO 100 for example). The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the camera’s sensor is, and the better it is at picking up light in the dark.
The sexy thing about altering the ISO setting on your camera is not only can you get away without using flash when the available light is low; using a higher ISO number (more sensitive) can create a grainy effect or “noise” on your final image. This is especially effective if you’re shooting in black & white.
Of course if you want to avoid this noise choose a lower ISO setting (100 to 400), which should suffice for most daylight conditions.
So there you have it, the 3 elements of exposure. Check to see if your camera allows you to alter these elements (you’re looking for settings called “Manual”, “Aperture Priority”, “Shutter Priority” and an ISO setting). If not then you may want to consider replacing your camera to one that does. Play around with the different settings, see how altering one affects the others, and see what results you get and which ones you like.
As I said, it’s the photographer that takes the picture and by understanding these 3 elements of exposure will go a long way to improving your photography.