A two minute course in basic photography

15 Oct

October 15, 2007

By Geoff Meeker

I take a lot of photographs, for work and personal purposes, and enjoy it tremendously.

When the digital revolution started making film obsolete, I shelved my trusty old Nikon FM2 and purchased a Kodak digital.

The camera takes decent photos but I am not happy with it. It is fully automatic so there is no control over focus, exposure or shutter speed. For this reason, the camera doesn’t always capture what you intend, so you have to manually override or even ‘fool’ its sensors to get the image you desire.

I miss the total flexibility of my fully manual Nikon, which has a 35mm Single Lens Reflex (SLR) mechanism. Two mirrors enable you to look directly through the camera lens, not a separate viewfinder (the mirror pops up to expose the photo when you press the shutter button). Digital SLR’s have been available for some time now but they were expensive. Now that the price is starting to drop, I am giving them a closer look.

Have you ever wanted to “learn” manual (rather than automatic) photography but thought it was too complicated? It isn’t. In fact, I will use the rest of this column to explain how it works.

There are two key functions you need to understand. The first is the shutter, which exposes your image to the film (or digital sensor). You can control how long the shutter, which is housed inside the camera body, stays open. Shutter speeds are measured in fractions of a second, from a full second, half second, quarter second – and so on – right down to a thousandth, which is very fast (many cameras are even faster).

A slow shutter speed is used in low light or when you want to create soft, blurry effects, while a fast speed will freeze action, such as sports play, fast cars and even hummingbird wings. If you are going to hold the camera in your hand, you will want a shutter speed of at least one sixtieth of a second; any slower may require a tripod (due to unsteadiness of the hand).

The second function is the aperture or ‘f-stop’, which is an opening contained inside the lens that works exactly like the iris of your eye. When the light is low, such as at dusk or in a dimly lit room, you open it up to let in more.  On my old manual camera, the aperture is controlled by a ring on the lens barrel. You don’t need to know a lot for now about the measuring system, except that 3.3 is wide open and 22 is closed to the size of a nail hole.

The aperture gives you control over ‘depth of field’, which is the area in your image that stays in focus. When the aperture is wide open, you have a very shallow depth of field. This is great for taking portraits, rendering the subject in sharp focus but blurring the bushes in the background, which creates a pleasing effect.

With the aperture closed down, you have a deep (or long) depth of field, with pretty much everything in focus. This would allow you to keep both the subject in the foreground and the mountains in the background in sharp focus.

The shutter speed and aperture setting work together, giving the flexibility you need to take great shots. When the aperture is wide open, you can use a faster shutter speed. When it is closed down, you use a slower speed. When you look into the viewfinder, the built in light meter tells you if there is too much or not enough light, so you adjust your shutter speed or aperture setting accordingly.

You also need to focus the shot, but that’s easy – just turn the focusing ring on the lens barrel until the image is sharp.

Believe it or not, that’s all you need to know to start taking pictures manually on an SLR. When I learned photography back in the 1980s, I spent a fortune on film and processing. That’s the wonderful thing about digital SLRs… you can shoot like crazy, learn from your mistakes, delete like crazy and not have to worry about processing.

In my next column, I will test drive the new Nikon D80 digital SLR.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.

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