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Basics of Photography – Part 1 – The Craft

Basics of photography, by definition are universal – and have been universal since the dawn of the craft. Tons of past and contemporary photographers have written about them. I know that a simple Google search will confirm that.

So why have I decided to write yet another primer on f-stops and ISOs? It is my hope that maybe, just maybe, those who have struggled to grasp the concepts elsewhere may find the answers here.

I know it’s a bold statement to say that those who haven’t found the answers elsewhere may be able to find them here but everyone is different and if just one reader learns something from this, all the words would have been worth it.

I’ve decided to go beyond the f-stops, shutter speeds and ISOs. In fact, I’ve decided to make it a three-part series. This is to emphasise that f-stops and shutter speeds are just one aspect of photography and there is so much more to the art.

In this series, I will be covering the following –

Part 1 – Craft of Photography – the f-stops, shutter speeds, gear and so on.

Part 2 – Composition – principles behind our photographs, what makes a good photograph, the “rules” of photography.

Part 3 – Creativity – the general concept of creativity and how I think it relates to our photography.

This series will not just be a one-off published to the web – I intend on making it more of a personal wiki of my knowledge and hope to keep it up to date as I learn more about this beautiful art form.

I hope you’ll find this series useful. As I said before, if just one reader gains something from it, it all would have been worth it.


Craft

Photography is a creative pursuit that is achieved by technical means. And just like a painter who needs to be adept at using his or her brushes, as photographers we need to understand and master the technical side of photography.

Only when we master our cameras that it gets out of the way of picture making. We want our cameras to be an extension of our eyes – not just a material, physical thing that simply gets in the way of our eyes and the world.

But before we get to the camera, first let’s start with the word “photography” itself. I find the origins of the word itself rather poetic. Wikipedia explains the essence of it –

The word “photography” was created from the Greek roots φωτός (phōtos), genitive of φῶς (phōs), “light” and γραφή (graphé) “representation by means of lines” or “drawing”, together meaning “drawing with light”.

Drawing with light. How beautiful is that? Definitely much more beautiful and poetic than the just the word photography. Drawing is also a verb – a doing word – which perfectly fits in my way of thinking about photography – that we simply just don’t take our photographs, we make them. We draw them with light.

Controlling Light

On of the basic tenants of photography – or drawing by light – is that we need the right amount of light to expose our images as we want them. The light hits the sensor of our cameras which, by the magic of technology transforms into an image that we see on our LCD screens at the back of the cameras and export to our computers.

There are two ways we control light that enters our cameras – by controlling the aperture size and by controlling how long the aperture stays open for (shutter speed). Aperture is the opening in the lens that allows the light into the camera.

Imagine that we are filling a bucket. There would be two ways to control how much we fill the bucket – we could control the size of the tap – where a bigger tap will let in more water (aperture size) and vice-versa. Or we could control how long we leave the tap open for (shutter speed).

Small tap left open for longer will fill the same amount as a large tap left open for the shorter duration. Same is true of the balance between aperture size and shutter speed in photography.

In photography, we can use both aperture size and shutter speed to control not only the exposure but also the creative expression side of photography.

Aperture Size

An aperture is the opening within the lens that allows the light to come into the lens and hit the camera sensor. All the lenses (that I’ve heard of) come with an ability to control the aperture size at each focal length. The size of the aperture at any given focal length is often called the f-number.

If you’ve ever noticed the something similar to f/1.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/N written in the description of the lens, the number means the biggest aperture size that the lens can achieve. This number is a ratio – therefore bigger the f/N number, smaller the maximum physical size of the aperture.

Consider a 50mm lens. f/1.8 aperture size would mean a physical aperture opening of 50/1.8 = 27.7mm. Similarly, f/22 would mean a physical opening of 50/22 = 2.3mm.

All the DSLRs and mirrorless cameras in the market today allow you to control the f-number at any focal length – as much as the lens will allow. This allows us to control the amount of light that’s entering our cameras.

At this stage, all you need to remember is, smaller the f/N number, bigger the actual size of the aperture resulting in more light hitting the camera. Additional light is typically why f/1.4, f/1.8 lenses – often called fast lenses (no relation to shutter speed) – can demand high costs in the market for their low light performance.

Creative use of aperture and this thing called Depth of Field

Apart from how much light enters the camera, aperture size also controls how much of the picture you get in the focus. This area of focus is called Depth of Field. Generally speaking, higher the f/N, more area in the picture will be in focus. An image shot at f/11 will have lot more of the subject in focus than an image shot at f/1.8. This can be used creatively.

f/1.8 - Shallow Depth of Field

f/1.8 – Shallow Depth of Field

Shutter Speed

Going back to filling our bucket analogy, shutter speed is the time that the tap stays open for. In this case, it’s the time that the camera sensor remains exposed for and this is measured in seconds. Faster the shutter speed, less time that light has to enter the camera and expose the sensor. So faster the shutter speed, darker your photograph will be (all else staying the same). It’s very simple.

Creative use of shutter speed

Creative use of shutter speed is often used to freeze the or show the motion of the subjects. Imagine you are shooting the ocean – slow shutter speed will all you to capture the motion of the water in the photo and fast shutter speed will allow you to freeze the motion of the water. Few examples below explain this visually.

Shutter Speed: 1/250 Second

Shutter Speed: 1/250 Second

Shutter Speed: 8 Seconds

Shutter Speed: 8 Seconds

Shutter Speed: 5 Minutes, 10 Seconds

Shutter Speed: 5 Minutes, 10 Seconds

ISO

The third element of exposure that I haven’t mentioned previously in this article is ISO. ISO number is the sensitivity of the camera sensor to light. Higher the ISO, more sensitive the sensor is to light. This means that higher the ISO, more “amplification” the camera puts on the available light to get a well-exposed picture.

This can come in very handy in situations where the light it low and you are perhaps already shooting at widest aperture available and/or slowest shutter speed that you can. Usually, when shooting handheld at night, you will have to increase ISO otherwise you will get shutter speeds that are too low for practical purposes.

This ability comes at a cost, though. Imagine you have a very small speaker giving out a small amount of sound. To increase the sound, you put a microphone with a bigger speaker next to it to amplify the sound. While this will increase the actual sound level, it will have an impact on the quality of the sound. You will get a loud sound but the quality will not be the same.

Same is true for ISO. Higher the ISO, more digital noise makes its way into the image. This is why we need to be shooting at lowest ISO possible.

ISO is measured in numbers, often starting lowest at 100 and doubling from there going up to 12,800. It is worth remembering that if we move ISO, we are actually not increasing or decreasing the amount of light that’s hitting the sensor like we do when we change aperture size or shutter speed. Changing the ISO changes the amplification effect that the camera places on that light.

Remember is, aim for lowest ISO that you can get away with. In the modern cameras, you can get away to ISO 1600 or so before you start seeing any visible noise in the image.

Measuring Light

To quantify – and measure light in photography, we use a unit called stop. One stop of light has exactly the half the amount of two stops of light.

For example, f/1.4 one stop away from f/2 which, again is one step away from f/2.8. This means that between those aperture sizes, the amount of light doubles or halves – if all else remains the same.

Similarly, with shutter speed, when we go from 1/500 sec. to 1/250 sec, the amount that shutter remains open for doubles – and therefore the amount of light that enters the camera also doubles. To go from 1/500 to 1/250 will be increasing the light by one stop.

We can double the shutter speed (increase by one stop) and halve the aperture size (decrease by one stop) and the amount of light will remain the same.

Light entering the camera is all of the following examples is same –

f/5.6, shutter speed 1/500s, ISO 100

f/8, shutter speed 1/250s, ISO 100

f/32, shutter speed 1/60s, ISO 100

If the above represented one stop of light, you can double the amount of light by changing the following –

f/4, shutter speed 1/500s, ISO 100 (increased aperture size by one stop)

f/8, shutter speed 1/125s, ISO 100 (doubled the shutter speed)

f/32, shutter speed 1/60s, ISO 200 (in this case, while the actual amount of light has remained the same, doubling of ISO to 200 creates the same impact.)


So to summarise – light is controlled by two aspects – aperture size and shutter speed. If you increase the aperture size, you have to decrease the shutter speed to achieve the same amount of light. Both aperture size and shutter speed can also be altered to achieve a creative effect. If the available light is not enough – we can increase the ISO – but that comes at a price – digital noise.

Now to move away from fundamental so exposure to something different: Gear.


Gear

Talking about gear is rather tricky – and can be a bit of a hornet’s nest because everyone’s requirements are different. Rather than trying to see you a piece of gear, I’ll try to lay out few ideas to consider when making a purchase. I am not a gear oriented person at all – if you ask me which camera or lens Cannon is releasing next, I usually wouldn’t have a clue. This is why I’m staying away from specifics and speaking in general terms. I hope it guides you in the right direction.

Camera

The obvious one – you need a camera! However, what camera you need is not always obvious. With mirrorless now getting ever so prominent, the choice is trickier than it’s ever been before.

If you are just starting in photography and are looking for your first camera, I suggest starting with a camera that at the very least allows you to control aperture, shutter speed and ISO for each image. These three are basic tenants of photography and being able to adjust these offers you a large range of options that you can use creatively.

I also recommend going as high quality as you can within your budget. This means that you’ll have room to grow as your skill level increases. The last thing you want is being held back by your gear within few months of buying it. While all cameras do the same basic job – take a photo, each camera has different qualities that will attract a different type of photographers.

Now having said all of this, I suspect that even the most basic level DSLR on the market today are far more advanced than what the masters of photography used in past so you can’t really go wrong.

If you already have a camera that doesn’t allow you to control shutter speed or aperture and you are not able to upgrade at the current time, that’ll be OK too, for a while. You can choose to accept the constraints of your gear and still take very good photographs. These constraints feed into creativity. A quick Google search will reveal tons of gorgeous photographs taken with the humble camera phone.

So to summarise – if you are in the market for a new camera and you are a complete beginner – go for the camera that at the very least allows you to control aperture, shutter speed and ISO. There are other things to consider as well, so do your research.

Lenses

If you are just starting in photography, you’ll probably be just fine with a so-called “walk around lens”. This is a general all purpose lens that typically covers the focal length of around 24mm – 100mm and is typically included with your camera.

Beyond this, there are so-called landscape lenses (usually between 14-24mm), portrait lenses (around 35 – 135mm), wildlife/sports/astrophotography lenses (150mm+) etc. – but really, any of these lenses can be used to shoot any subject – its a matter of what you want to say in your photographs and what visual effect you want to have with your images.

If you only have a walk around lens, that will often be enough for a good while. If I could only have one lens for rest of my photography career, it would be my Canon 24-105mm. When starting in photography, I recommend getting something similar in focal length to that.

Tripod

I’m a big fan of the tripod and carry it everywhere. In case you are wondering, tripods allow you to use slow shutter speeds while making sure that the camera is not moving. Unless there is a reason not to, I prefer using a tripod.

If you are a landscape photographer, you will need a sturdy tripod. A bad tripod will ruin more photographs than it will save, so it pays to go for quality where possible.

I currently use the Manfrotto 190 which is a very sturdy tripod for the price. At the very least, I recommend getting something similar. The only downside of this tripod is that because of its relatively cheap cost, it’s made out of aluminium as opposed to carbon fibre – so that adds a lot of extra weight.

Accessories

There are couple of accessories that I carry with me in my bag –

  • I’m a big fan of ND filters – ND filters help you reduce the light that hits the sensor, allowing you to use slow shutter speeds in bright conditions for creative purposes.
  • Remote shutter – it removes the need to press the shutter button on the camera – thus reducing the camera shake. Quite often, they also have a digital dial and other handy features. Each camera manufacturer has their own remote shutters but quite frankly, you can just get something that does the same job at 1/5th of the price from eBay. That’s what I’ve always done.

Summary

I have a lot more to say on the above topics – but in the interest of not overly complicating things, I quite often had to pull myself back while writing this post. I hope you’ve found it useful.

In next two parts, I’ll be looking at the composition and creative side of photography. These two topics are something I’m also still learning about all the time but I’ll hope to share what I know.

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