Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Photography 101

I thought I would take a quick break from Belize posts to talk about photography, since I've been discussing disposable cameras and underwater photography and prints and all that good stuff so much lately.

I consider myself a beginner when it comes to photography. Sure, I've been religiously taking photos ever since I got my first point & shoot camera back in middle school and in this age of iPhones and Instagram, we're all amateur photogs, right? But, I never really thought about the science behind cameras (despite years of physics classes) and photography until I decided to purchase a CSC camera. All of a sudden, it really mattered to me that I learn how to take really good photos because otherwise, why did I waste my money on such an expensive piece of equipment if I wasn't going to learn how to use it properly?


Once I got my new camera, I started googling things like "basic photography" and "photography 101" to slowly learn what cameras can do. My favorite resource has been Digital Photography School. They have a lot of basic intro posts as well as more intricate ones and they go well into detail so that's a great place to start, if you're curious like I am.

I just thought I'd share what little I've learned so far, not because the information isn't out there, because it definitely is, but because it's a good exercise for me to try and explain these concepts and also, it's possible that this will help someone.

Photography is all about light and aperture, ISO, and shutter speed all effect how light is used to create an image as it passes through the camera lens to hit the image sensor. Here's my little lame graphic that shows these three basic elements that I usually concern myself with when I'm taking a photograph. I sort of borrowed this off of a few graphics I've seen floating around online but I hand-drew it so no one can yell at me. Don't mind the crooked lines.
Let's start with aperture. Aperture is basically the size of the hole that light will travel through to hit the image sensor as you're snapping a photo. You can imagine that a large aperture will let in more light and a smaller aperture will allow less. Aperture size is measured as "f-stops" and because the f-stop is related to the focal distance and not the radius of the opening, a smaller f-stop means a larger opening and a larger aperture means a smaller opening. It's a little bit misleading.

The smaller f-stop means a shorter focal distance which means a shallow depth of field and vice versa. The photo below was taken with the smallest f-stop available on my lens (f3.5). So, just the berry (and my hand) are in focus while the background is quite blurry. Often times, I like to shoot in Aperture Priority mode because I love this blurred background effect.
When I want more things in my photo to be in focus, I opt for a larger f-stop to deepen my depth of field. This photo below shows an example of that. Had I used a smaller f-stop, only a few of the subjects close to me would've been crisply in focus while the buildings way in the background would have just been a blurred swirl of color.
And that's aperture.

Now let's talk about ISO. Back in the day when cameras weren't digital and required a physical roll of film, you could purchase different types of film with different ISOs depending on what you planned on photographing. ISO is a number that let you know how sensitive that particular roll of film would be to light. In digital photography, ISO refers to the sensitivity of the image sensor, as obviously, digital cameras don't require film. A lower ISO means less sensitive and a higher ISO means more sensitive; so what? Well, if you are shooting a photo in a well-lit area you can take a photo with a lower ISO and achieve crisp and clear photos, for example, outdoors on a sunny day at the park. If you are shooting a photo in a poorly lit area, you'll need a higher ISO to make the images visible, for example, during the candle-blowing portion of a birthday party when the lights are out.

The downside to using a higher ISO is that the image produced is "noisy." With a lower ISO, the film "grain" is tiny (re: smaller pixels) but with a higher ISO the grains are bigger and the effect is a photo where the individual pixels that make up your digital image are distinguished and difficult to ignore.

Let's look at these photos that I took of my pup wearing spectacles. This one was taken with an ISO of 100. The grain isn't noticeable but what I end up with is a big black blob that's completely unrecognizable. My room was poorly lit and my subject was too dark.
When I up the ISO (1600), you can make out GM's nose and lips and fur but the photo is quite grainy now. Plus, the lighter colors - like my white blankets - are washed out. Neither of these photos is ideal but they help to demonstrate how changing ISO affects your photos. Yes, the quality of your photos will be affected when you use a higher ISO but at least you'll be able to see what you're shooting. Also, sometimes, for example: black and white photographs, can look quite artistic and have a "vintage" look to them when the grain is larger.
That's ISO. 

Lastly, I'll discuss shutter speed. Shutter speed is pretty much what it sounds like - it's how quickly the shutter closes (which affects how much light is let in) and it's measured in seconds. So a shutter speed of 1/500 is quite fast compared to a shutter speed of 1/2. Most of the time, I use a shutter speed of 1/60 or a notch or two faster, otherwise, my photos will be blurry because my hands are always shaking a little as I'm snapping the camera. However, if you have a tripod or something to steady yourself on, you can definitely slow down the shutter speed and capture some blurred movement.

An example of when I use a quick shutter speed: photographing animals, babies, or anything that moves quickly. When I photograph my dog, I want to make sure I snap him before he gets distracted or hops away. The photo below captures my dog mid-nose-lick without being blurry because I used a faster shutter speed. However, you have to be careful not to use too fast of a shutter speed or your photo could end up really dark, since v. little light will pass through to hit the sensor.
Sometimes, I want a slower shutter speed because I want to take photos like the one below. For this particular photo, my shutter was open for 10 seconds and it captured the movement of the cabs driving down a street in New York City. Slower shutter speeds can create photos that show movement, like the blur of a runner in a race. Just be sure to keep your hands steady (tripods are handy for this) so that the entire photo isn't blurry.
And that's shutter speed.

The main thing to understand is that these three aspects can't be isolated completely. They have to be balanced in order to prevent an under or overexposed photo. When your camera is set on "auto," it will balance this for you, which means you won't learn much. So set it in "manual" and play with it a little. For that photo above of my dog in glasses, what I could have done to get a prettier shot was to open up my aperture as wide as possible and slow down the shutter speed (while using a tripod probably) while using a lower ISO to avoid the graininess. In the shot of the streaky cab lights, I had my aperture set on the smallest f-stop my camera to prevent the shot from being overexposed a.k.a. bright white and washed out.

Like I said above, I still consider myself a beginner and though I see a lot of improvement in my photos, I have a lot more to learn. That being said, I think using 'aperture priority' and 'shutter speed priority' modes are a great way to start weaning yourself off of your camera's 'auto' without the stress that comes with using 'manual' mode for the first time. Plus, because everyone's cameras are different, I recommend you take a quick flip through your camera manual just to make sure you know all the ins and outs and capabilities of your machine. That's just my two cents.

Cheers and happy snapping.

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