Photography for beginners – Know Thy camera

I actually started this basic series before, but did not continued it. Now I’ll try again, kind of from scratch.

The first part of the beginners tips would be: get to know your camera. This is also the last one, since as your photography improves you’ll need more and more features of you camera.

What is to be known? Basically everything! First of all, what type of camera do you have? What modes does it have? What other features? Knobs? Whistles? Bells?

Canon EOS 60D Front (photo: Digital Trends)

Canon EOS 60D Front (photo: Digital Trends)

All cameras have a shutter release (the button that takes the picture). You usually press it half way and the camera does focus and metering. Some cameras will have additional buttons that will lock the focus and the lock the metering, in a way you can for example recompose the shot easily and keep the setting even without holding the shutter release half way pressed. Very handy when you want to pre-focus and take the shot later, when your subject come along.

Next comes the modes. Cameras come with a fully automated-no override possible-mode (some green mark), which is useless (mentioned on a previous post). This will pop-up the flash in the worst moment possible. There’s a program mode (P), automatic but smarter. Doesn’t pop up the flash and allows overrides, becoming very useful in a day to day situation like you kids birthday party. There are several scenic modes (drawings), which might come in handy in the above scenario.

Now, good cameras come with aperture priority (A or Av), shutter priority (T or Tv) and manual (M). In addition there’s bulb (B) and custom modes (C or C1, C2 depending on how many are allowed).

Canon EOS 60D Top (photo: Digital Trends)

Canon EOS 60D Top (photo: Digital Trends)

Custom modes allow you to preset a certain configurations of the camera and have them a hand easily anytime (see a previous post). Bulb will keep the shutter opened as long as the release is pressed. Great for astrophotography, very long exposures of night scenes or flowing water and for light painting.

Aperture priority. Here you control the aperture and the camera does the rest. This way you have control over the depth of field and the camera makes sure the exposure is right.

Shutter priority. Here is the opposite, you tell the shutter speed and the camera does the rest. You have control over motion.

Manual. You control everything, the camera will just inform you about the exposure. That gives you all kinds of creative control.

In most of the modes you can regain some control using exposure compensation. If you think the shot is too dark or too bright, you can override the metering of the camera and say you want it one third of a stop or two stops brighter, or darker. Fully automatic modes will not allow you that, it thinks it knows better, and manual and bulb mode also not, since you can do it manually.

dSRL cameras will allow you to also control the flash, as in when to pop and also the power via flash exposure compensation. Also the pop-up flash can control an external flash wirelessly, in some cases.

You can also define which ISO to use, or auto ISO, giving you control on the amount of noise in the image.

Focus and metering modes are also a nice control to have.

Focus usually can be (called different ways, depending on brand, I’ll give the Canon names here):

– One shot – where you press the shutter release half way, it locks the focus until you take the shot or release the button. Good for steady subjects.

– AI Servo – which is a tracking focus, where while you have the shutter release pressed half way the focus is always taken in the focus point, but it does not lock. That allows you to pan for a moving object and to shoot any time.

– AI Focus – that is an automatic decision between one shot and servo. The camera decides according to what it thinks is going on in the scene. It makes mistakes but it’s pretty good.

– Manual Focus – and finally manual focus, where you turn the focus ring yourself and have it focused, or out of focus!!

Metering is the camera evaluating the light conditions and defining exposure. Names depend on brand also (I’ll give Canon EOS names). It can use the whole field of view (Evaluative metering), it can use the central region (Partial metering) which is good for backlit subjects, use the very central region, the very central spot (Spot metering) great for rapidly variable light situations and one where the metering gives different weights to the central region and the whole image. Different options for different usages.

Canon EOS 60D Back (photo: Digital Trends)

Canon EOS 60D Back (photo: Digital Trends)

Closing the “how you shoot” part we have the drive, that tells you how many frames and how fast they’ll come. A single frame, no matter how long you hold the shutter release you have one single shot, slow and fast burst mode, you hold the shutter release and the camera keeps shooting. This part usually also holds the self timer part and the wireless remote shutter release (both allow you to be in your own shot and reduce vibration from pressing the shutter release).

Cameras have some bracketing modes. Exposure bracket, taking three or five shots with, e.g., one or two stops in between then. If you are in aperture priority the camera will change the shutter speed, if you are in shutter priority it will change the aperture. White balance bracketing, shifting the temperature between shots.

What is white balance? For a given illumination you are telling the camera which color is white. A tungsten light is orangish, while a fluorescent light is greenish. Your eyes compensate automatically for it, but your camera doesn’t, so you have to tell it. White balance is controlled by a temperature and a tint. Usually cameras have presets for daylight, tungsten, cloudy and so on, a pretty good auto mode and a custom mode where you tell it.

You can choose the file type, between jpeg and raw (in rare occasions tiff). Jpeg are compressed format that allow very little after the fact, while raw allows you a lot of control on exposure, white balance, color correction and so on. Raw format are larger than jpegs and a proprietary format from each brand. Everything has pros and cons.

You can also, in some cameras make custom menus, bringing to a 1 click access menu, functions that you use more often. I have flash control and format card in this custom menu, for examples, so those functions can be performed easily.

Closing down, there’s a lot of features in each camera and one has to know which and how to use them. When to use a spot metering, with tracking focus, with in a 2 stops bracketing in fast burst mode!!! Most of all you need to know them without much thinking, second nature stuff. If you have to think how to set the aperture or how to exposure compensate, the moment will be gone before you are able to shoot. Even if you are dealing with something that doesn’t move, light evolves and the good light might be gone before you’ve found the button that does what you need.

How do you learn this? Cameras are more or less homogeneous in that sense and at the same time each model is its own world.

Reading the manual is a good start. There are websites that teach you the highlights of each model also. Specific books and on-line training are also available. Having all this information is important, but it won’t help if you don’t practice. Spend time with your gear! Use it, try it, find your way around the camera. Apply what you learn to your style.

Photography is a hands on exercise, so hands on!

Photography for Beginners


About Cris Da Rocha

Astrophysicist, DB manager, cyclist, musician and, why not, "photographer to be". Back to enjoy photography after many years ... it's cool. Might share something nice and get something new.
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2 Responses to Photography for beginners – Know Thy camera

  1. Pingback: Photography for beginners – Exposure | Photo and Coffee

  2. Pingback: Photography for beginners – Shutter Speed | Photo and Coffee

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