The Basics of Photography

February 2, 2010

Learn how to use your camera’s fundamental features so you’ll never again be disappointed with blurry, grainy, or underexposed results.

So you purchased a digital camera and have snapped a number of photos, but you are disappointed because the images are a little grainy, blurry or underexposed. You recall the glowing description of the incredible images you would be able to capture with their latest camera.

Well, there is no doubt that your digital camera is capable of capturing vivid detail. But if you don’t understand how to use your camera’s fundamental features, you may find yourself disappointed with blurry, grainy, or underexposed photographs.

You can easily avoid disappointment by acquiring a brief understanding of the photo four fundamentals of photography: aperture, shutter speed, film speed, and focus.

Lens Aperture

The camera’s aperture is the opening in the lens through which light passes and is captured by a digital image sensor. Aperture is called “f/stop,” and is calibrated in numbers. The larger the number, the smaller the lens opening, the smaller the number the larger the lens opening, just opposite of what our common sense tells us should be the case.

In some cameras the size of aperture is either fixed or adjustable, and it may be adjusted either manually or automatically. Combined with shutter speed it is the camera’s primary way of regulating the exposure of your photographs.

If the aperture setting is incorrect it can lead to photos that have been exposed to either too little or too much light. In most cases , low-light situations will require a larger aperture, while brighter light will require a much smaller aperture.

Another factor controlled by aperture is the depth of field your camera can capture. Depth of field is the distance in front of and behind your subject that is still in focus. A small aperture will result in a large depth of field and photos with more overall sharpness, while a large aperture (small f/stop number) will result in a reduced depth of field with the subject in focus but the background is blurry.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed and aperture work hand-in-hand, and adjustments to your camera’s aperture will normally require a change to your shutter speed in order to ensure enough light reaches the digital image sensor to produce the proper exposure. Generally speaking, a large aperture setting will require a faster shutter speed to prevent overexposure, while a smaller aperture will require a slower shutter speed to avoid underexposure.

You can use your camera’s “Aperture Priority” mode to select the most appropriate aperture and let the camera calculate the best shutter speed to expose the image correctly. Aperture Priority settings are especially helpful where you want to control the depth of field of your photographs.

Shutter speed also has an effect on the sharpness of your photos. For example, fast shutter speeds will freeze motion and capture an image without any blur. If you just want part of the photo to be sharp you can choose a slower shutter speed and pan the subject which remains sharp while the background is blurry. This will give your photo a sense of motion.

If you want to take fast action shots you can use your camera’s “Shutter Priority” mode. The Shutter Priority mode lets you select the shutter speed and lets the camera choose the proper aperture. In some cases when you use slow shutter speeds a tripod will may be necessary to make sure that your images are not blurry.

ISO Settings

Sensor speed, also known as ISO, can make a big difference in your photos. ISO, denoted by an ASA or ISO number, describes how sensitive the sensor is to light.

With digital cameras ISO 100 is generally the normal setting, but can be changed to 200, 400, 800, and higher. A higher ISO number is equivalent to a greater sensitivity to light. In bright situations, a low ISO setting is appropriate, while in low-light conditions or fast-action photos higher ISO settings would be appropriate.

At the lower ISO speeds, your camera will produce sharper, more detailed images, but as you increase the ISO setting, your photos will become increasingly grainy. This loss of clarity is called image noise, and is the result of a greater light sensitivity and can be seen as random speckles in your photos. For the best results, use the lowest ISO you can while still getting enough light to get a sharp image.

Proper Focus

But none of this will matter at all if you don’t properly focus your photos. If you use the Automatic Focus function on the camera it will focus on the center of the subject. But you may prefer to focus off-center of the subject.

On some occasions you may want to photograph a subject close up, such as a flower. It could be difficult to focus your camera on a subject which is just a few inches away. If your camera has a macro setting it will allow your camera to focus on objects inches or even mere centimeters away.

Master Your Camera

Because today’s cameras have so many automatic setting it is often easy to capture a sharp photograph. But experienced photographers will tell you that learning to adjust aperture, shutter speed, ISO and proper focus will add significantly to the quality of your photographs.

Remember, keep taking lots and lots of photographs of your kids. You will be glad you did!

Betty Muscott, Child Photographer

Betty Muscott, Child Photographer

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