Friday, August 26, 2011

Photography Lessons

I have noticed a common theme in a lot of my interviews.  It appears that many of you are looking to improve your photography.  I am not a photography expert, but I have friends who are.  So today, we have our first guest post discussion photography.  Max is a local photographer in the Washington, DC area specializing in military retirement photography.

Modern digital photography is one of the great benefits to come out of the digital revolution – new cameras and equipment are always being developed and photo editing software programs allow the user to create virtually anything they can imagine.  The downside to all this is that, like with any other digital product, it becomes difficult to determine exactly what your requirements are as far as equipment.  Part of the lure of photography has always been the technical specifications of the equipment, e.g. the quality of the lens, film speed, flash output, etc., but digital photography adds to that list of concerns with questions such as, ‘how many megapixels do I need?’, ‘how many modes should my camera have,’ etc.  We naturally tend to assume that more is better, so we invest large amounts of money into new equipment in the hope that more megapixels will equal better photos.  Sadly, this is not the case, and many budding photographers fall victim to this thinking and spend more money than they need to only to find that their photos have not improved.  The reality is that, despite all the advances in equipment, the basics of what makes a great photograph have not changed and it’s possible, perhaps easier, to achieve professional quality photos without the latest and greatest camera on the market.  In this post I will introduce you to the basics of photography and show you how the quality of your photographs is largely independent of the quality of the equipment.

There are two aspects of a photograph that determine its overall quality:  Lighting and composition.  Composition is largely a matter of preference, although there are certain basic guidelines, and will be discussed in a future post.  In order to understand lighting you need to understand how your camera works.  All cameras, no matter how fancy or expensive they are, boil down to three things:  Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO (also known as film speed).  

Shutter speed is the amount of time you are exposing your film (or digital sensor) to light.  Typical cameras have a shutter speed range between 1/5000 of a second (very fast) to 30 seconds (very slow).  The longer the shutter is open, the more the film is exposed to light and the brighter your picture will be.  The trade-off is that lower shutter speed tends to result in blurry photos, especially if the subject of your picture is in motion.  

Here the shutter speed is set for 2 seconds, much too slow to capture a moving baby, as evidenced by the resulting blurriness of both baby and mom

The same picture but taken with a shutter speed of 1/200 of a second.  Mom and baby are both nice and crisp

The general rule of thumb for determining the minimum shutter speed you can use before blurring occurs is to take your lens length and convert it to a fraction of 1 over the lens length.  E.g. if you are using a zoom lens set at 200mm, any shutter speed less than 1/200th will be blurry.  

Aperture refers to the size of the opening through which light passes on its way from the lens to the film.  Typical cameras have a range from 3.5mm to 26mm.  The smaller the number (which is inversely proportional to the actual size of the opening, i.e a smaller number equals a bigger opening) the more light is let in.  The trade-off is more light equals less area in focus.  This is because aperture controls the depth of field, which is the amount of the photo that the lens is able to bring into focus.  A high aperture like 3.5mm means a more shallow depth of field, i.e. not as much of the photo will be in focus, and a low aperture like 26mm means a deep depth of field, i.e. more of the photo will be in focus.  

A high aperture of 3.6 blurs the background

A low aperture of 25 allows the background to be more in focus
If you are taking a picture of a landscape and you want as much of the scene to be in focus as possible, use a low aperture.   If you are taking a portrait type picture and you want only the subject to be in focus, use a high aperture.  

ISO can be thought of as referring to how quickly your film is capable of absorbing the light – think of ISO as ‘light monsters;’ the more monsters there are, the faster they can gobble up the light.  ISOs typically range from 100 (slow) to 800 (fast) but modern digital cameras can artificially go much higher.  A higher ISO means your film will absorb the light more quickly, meaning you can use a higher shutter speed or lower aperture.  The downside to increasing the ISO is that as you get into the higher numbers you start to introduce ‘noise’ into your pictures.  ISO is generally the least understood part of lighting so for beginners your best bet is to set the ISO to a nice middle number like 400 and call it a day. 

Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are the three key elements of proper lighting and you’ll notice that not once during my explanations did I mention megapixels, number of shooting modes, or any of the other bells and whistles that drive up the price of a camera.  By better understanding these three elements and how they interact with each other, the better you will understand how your camera works, especially in regards to the pre-programmed modes that you find on modern digital cameras.  Next post I’ll discuss some of these modes and how you can use them to improve both your understanding of proper lighting as well as the overall quality of your photographs.     

I don't know about you, but I learned quite a bit from Max.  I especially liked the technical details dumbed down for those of us who aren't as technical in the field, like light monsters I can get behind those!  
If you are interested in seeing some great photography, please stop over to Maxell Photography DCAlso, if this was helpful to you please let me know and we can continue additional guest posts.

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