FWCC Digital Photography Starter Kit
Photography can be considered as comprising 5 interrelated stages: Understanding Light and Composition, Image Capture, Image Development, Image Display and Image Appreciation. This short guide will consider just the first 2 of these but there is the opportunity for technical/artistic input at every stage. As you fine tune your image at various stages you will come to understand how this influences the end product.
Modern digital cameras allow us to do virtually everything that the old film cameras did and a great deal more. They also have the huge advantage that you can check your images immediately as well as it not costing anything extra to take lots of shots and discard the ones you don’t like. The scope and immediacy of digital developing is similarly attractive.
Probably the most important single factor in photography is composition. This may be innate though most of us build up a sense of what looks good by observing other photographers’ work and listening to judges’ comments. It does not require expensive equipment but the limitations imposed by the lack of controls in cheap ‘Point and Shoot’ cameras soon become apparent. This is because the ability to exert an influence on what a camera can produce has an effect on the sort of successful compositions which can be achieved. So let’s just run over the basics:
Photography involves focussing light waves bouncing off your chosen subject onto a light sensitive area within the camera. This used to be film which changed chemically when exposed to light but now with digital photography it is a permanent image sensor which converts the light energy into electrical charges. These provide data which the mini-computer inside the camera records onto a removable memory card. When this is connected to or inserted into a computer such as your laptop or desktop, the data can be read by the computer which converts it back into an image on its screen. This image can then be digitally developed and exported to obtain the definitive printed or projected image. The memory card can then be wiped clean and re-formatted to be used again in the camera. Later you will learn more about developing and the subsequent phases.
The photographer is free to choose artificial or the various forms of natural light and is often able to control the way in which it falls on the chosen subject. Even a dim light can produce an image but without light, photography is impossible. This leads us on to the three basic factors involved in turning our focussed light into photographic data.
The longer time the image sensor is exposed to light, the more light energy is available to be turned into good quality data. Effectively this means the denser the final image will become. If this is overdone, the image (or part of it) is too light so that detail is lost. It is then said to be burnt out. This should be avoided as should the other extreme of underexposure where detail is lost because the image is too dark.
Cameras contain a device (traditionally an iris) which can modify the size of the hole through which the light passes. Obviously, with a smaller the hole, less light gets through.
ISO (International Organization for Standardization)
This is a rating of the sensitivity of the image sensor and harks back to the old days when we bought rolls of film with different levels of light sensitivity. The lower the ISO the finer the grain size. This means that better image definition is obtained with the lower ISO rating e.g. 100 or even 80 in some cameras but this does depend on having enough light to do the job despite a deliberately low level of ISO sensitivity. One of the great blessings of digital photography is that it allows us to change the sensor sensitivity from shot to shot as required.
But what is the point of all this? Well it’s all about how we control our images but this is where it gets a bit more complicated. Stick with it though as it’s not really that complicated and once you have mastered it everything else follows seamlessly!
More about Exposure
If there isn’t a lot of light then a longer exposure can be used to let more in. This enables the sensor to do its job but if the exposure is too long then movement of camera or subject can result in a streaky or blurred image. For a still subject an exposure time of 1/60th second is usually OK when using a hand held camera with a 50mm lens. Shake and therefore blur are magnified with a long lens so the rule of thumb is to use the lens length in mm as a fraction of a second as a guide for the exposure time. This means that when you are using a 100mm lens, the minimum exposure with a hand held camera should be about 100th second. In order to ‘freeze’ a bird in flight though, you may require as little as 1,000th second but the sensor still has to receive enough light to make an image. If it isn’t very bright then increasing the size of the aperture will also let a bit more light in. More expensive cameras have stabilised sensors and lenses which help to compensate for camera shake and so can be hand held for longer exposures but nothing can make a moving object sharp if the exposure is too long.
More about Aperture
The aperture also has an effect on the depth of focus. This indicates what range of distance ahead the image will be sharp. In general, a small aperture like f22 gives a greater depth of focus so that virtually all the image is sharp. This is great for landscapes. A large aperture such as f2 lets more light in but it has a smaller depth of focus which means that only a small part of the image will be in sharp focus and the rest will be less well defined to varying degrees. This would not be good for landscapes but can be used imaginatively to draw attention to your chosen subject by blurring out the rest. It is much used in portrait photography and for flower images. The intentionally hazy out of focus area is known as ‘Bokeh’ (pronounced Boh-Kuh). Many lenses give their sharpest images around the mid range of f11. The historical f numbering is admittedly rather contra-intuitive but all you have to remember is that the higher the f value, the smaller the aperture and therefore the less the light admitted to the camera sensor.
You will have spotted a potential conflict in that for photographic reasons, you may want to make alterations to the Exposure and /or Aperture which will further reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor when the light is a bit low anyway. Isn’t this is where good old ISO comes in? Just pump up the sensitivity to make good the shortfall of light which you have brought about. Up to a point certainly but I’m afraid it’s not quite that simple ...
More about ISO
The ISO is indeed used to fine balance your chosen aperture and/or exposure time so that just the right amount of light gets to the sensor. The light meter and mini-computer inside the camera help you to find and achieve this balance. You already know that lower ISO values give the best definition to images but I’m afraid you have to accept that increasing the ISO also increases the ‘noise’ (unwanted speckles or graininess), especially in the darker areas of the image. You have already learned the limitations of a ‘Point and Shoot’ camera, now you have to accept that with any camera you do tend to get what you pay for. The upper end cameras undoubtedly have better sensors which are more tolerant to extremely high ISOs producing less grainy images but they can get a bit pricey. However, you can still produce plenty of good photographs without having to stray into these realms. In any case as each new camera inches ahead with ever more impressive specifications, the previous models, which were hailed as ‘the ultimate’ only a few years before, can be picked up much cheaper.
Even with the best cameras, however, you sometimes have to admit defeat if there isn’t enough light though sometimes a flash can help but that’s another subject.
So that’s it ... You knew I was kidding ... I haven’t said anything about lenses yet. This is a vast subject which again you can make as simple or as complicated as you choose.
Let’s start with prime versus zoom. Prime lenses i.e. lenses of a fixed focus cannot by definition be zoomed but they do tend to produce sharper images. Of these, with a modern full frame camera, probably the best ‘starter’ lens is a 50mm, commonly known as the ‘Nifty Fifty’. Its field of vision (i.e. how far it can see sideways) is fairly similar to that of the human eye. Because it is so popular it can be mass produced to a high specification and is therefore relatively inexpensive but still able to provide sharp images. The cheapest versions are made of plastic so they are light too. Many photographers ‘learn the trade’ with a ‘Nifty Fifty’ for a year or so before they are ready to move on. You may not be able to zoom this sort of lens but don’t forget the ‘Foot Zoom’. By moving closer to the subject, you project a bigger image on to your camera sensor though of course the field of view becomes less. That way you ‘preserve your pixels’. If photographing tigers in the wild, however, a considerably longer lens is indicated!
With any lens, it is worth investing in a lens hood to cut down on flare (unwanted light artefacts) especially when shooting towards the sun, but in any case this should only be done with the greatest caution. Don’t do it until you know how. Another sound investment is a good quality plain glass or Ultra Violet ‘filter’. The UV filter bit harkens back to the days of film but having something in place is still worthwhile if only to protect your expensive lens should the camera be dropped or spattered. Don’t learn the hard way!
Lenses which have a focal length of more than the ‘Nifty Fifty’ produce larger images of smaller areas. Special versions can be used for Close up or even Macro photography to produce images even larger than life size. However, some can become very big, heavy and expensive, especially when they get above 300mm on a full frame camera. These are favoured by wildlife photographers so than they can shoot from a distance but any camera shake is magnified so some support such as a tripod is generally necessary unless your camera has excellent stabilisation built in.
It is worth mentioning that smaller cameras such as Olympus or Lumix have smaller sensors enabling their ‘equivalent’ lenses - i.e. having the same magnification – to be much smaller and lighter than those of a full frame camera but this is at the expense of smaller light sensors. These may still have lots of pixels (currently up to 24 megapixels) but as the pixels are very small not much light can fall on each so noise levels are high. Consequently you are a bit limited because noise becomes apparent at lower ISOs than with a full frame camera.
Lenses which have a focal length below the ‘Nifty Fifty’ become progressively more wide angle and have a greater depth of focus but produce images which are increasingly more distorted. A 24mm lens only creates barely noticeable degree of distortion but has huge depth of focus enabling a wide landscape to display relatively sharply from front to back. This does, of course, preclude capturing a flower with a blurred background.
Shorter lenses which are much wider than 24mm produce increasingly distorted images culminating with the 8mm ‘Fish-eye’ which has 180º angle of view and a minimum focussing distance of 0.3m.
These on the other hand, save the bother of constantly switching lenses for different fields of vision but the good ones are heavy and expensive while prime lenses are always sharper.
Modern cameras fall into four broad categories:
1. Full frame sensor DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) with large heavy bodies and lenses. These are are more expensive but give good results, especially in low light. Canon and Nikon are popular makes but also Sony and Pentax.
2. Smaller APS-C size sensors with electronic viewfinders. These have lighter bodies and lenses which still give excellent results, especially the Fujifilm and Sony versions.
3. Even smaller sensors with Micro 4/3rd cameras from Panasonic Lumix and Olympus, having small light bodies and lenses but still with very good results up to 800 ISO.
4. Bridge Cameras. You get a lot of bangs for your bucks but their impressive long Zoom lenses are only possible because of very small sensors. This means that they can only give good results in very good light. Never settle for less than a one inch sensor but even then, the resolution is markedly inferior to that of a full frame DSLR camera.
So the choice is vast and will be determined by many factors such as whether you are happy to lug about a relatively heavy full frame camera for the quality of image it can offer or whether you want something which is easier to carry around. It could be that you just want a camera which you can slip into your pocket to take on holiday for record shots or for Facebook where small images do not need as much resolution.
Of course how much you are happy or prepared to spend comes into it as well. Many (though by no means all) club photographers seem to end up with Canon or Nikon cameras, though Fujifilm is also becoming popular. Whichever one you start with, however, you will probably stick with that make. This is because your expensive interchangeable lenses usually outlast the camera whilst remaining compatible with subsequent camera bodies of the same but not other makes. But these are not the only good cameras and you should bear in mind that by far the majority of camera sales now, are those in mobile phones. Consequently this is where innovative technology is moving ahead the fastest. Camera phones are well behind DSLRs in capability at the moment but, as with any technology, the whole scene could easily change quite rapidly.
Two important Aids
Finally, remember that the two things which can most improve the results of amateur photographers are the use of a tripod and some sort of cable release. Both of these are designed to reduce camera shake at that crucial moment when you take your carefully composed shot. They are of course unnecessary if the exposure is short enough.
There are other creative controls such as White Balance, Drive Mode, Exposure Compensation and Focus Area to explore as you progress but you know enough already to get going so - Happy shooting before moving on to – ‘Developing your images’.