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Beginner notes on photography

[Nerr – posted this too soon; need to upload some other pics to demonstrate, raid the old collection, do links, embed thumbnails…. arrrgghhh. Oh well, here’s the raw unedited version…]

I bought my first DSLR in October 2009, and as I write this now in August 2010, I believe I have come a fair way in learning some important basics in technique that can bring one’s photos out of the holiday-shots category [see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vernacular_photography ] and into the Good Photo area – setting me up well for artistic. This entry is to set down what I have learned in writing – for clarity in my own mind, and for the use of anyone else who is interested.

I will try to make this as simple and brief as possible, and you can pretty much read each section in the order you want, but just straight is probably better.

For more of my photos, see DuCakedHare.co.uk

1) Cameras – or why I wanted a DSLR

a) Digital or Film

If you are not looking to become a professional photographer, there is rarely much discussion on whether to buy a digital or film camera: just go digital. If you are just learning photography, the learning curve will be longer with film – and more expensive. Not only will you have a delay between the time you take the photo and the time they are developed, but there is monetary cost for the materials and development process, and many extra steps to learn in the development process if you intend to do it at home.

If however you are looking to become a professional, take advice from a few experienced sources before making up your mind.

That is all I have to say on the matter, not having done any film processing myself. From here on, I will refer mainly to digital controls, but with only a couple of exceptions, you will find that this directly applies to film as well, as that is where all digital concepts derive from.

b) Point-and-shoot (PaS) vs (D)SLR

You will of course know the main components of a camera, and its functionality:
-the sensor (which in digital replaces film)
-the viewfinder (what you use to view the scene before you actually take the photo)
-the shutter release (the button you press when you take the photo)
-the lens (the deceptively simple-looking glass setup at the front of the camera)
-the zoom control.

What sets DSLR and PaS cameras is the granularity of control you can have over these basics, and the further control you can obtain on other factors at play in the camera.

i) No control

This setup was prevalent in older consumer cameras, and exists still in some novelty cameras. All you are allowed to do is point the camera at the subject, and take the photo with presets built-in to the mechanics.

Typically, these can only be used in bright conditions, as that what they are designed for, and usually only take film. Even with these limitations, this type of camera offers enough for holiday makers, and has one nice feature: when you press the shutter release button, the shutter is released immediately. Great when you’re on holiday with kids (who just never stay still…)

ii) Menu control

Typical of Point and Shoot (PaS) cameras, you have a certain amount of control on your settings through the menus on the LCD screen.

Normally, you have out-of-the-box settings for different scenarios – landscape, portrait, macro, sunset, night and sport are the more common ones.

You can also opt for “manually” adjusting the settings through various menus and buttons.

iii) Direct control

PaS “manual” control however doesn’t beat the type of control you can get with some bridge cameras and full D/SLRs.

Zoom (focal length) and focus are brought back to the lens and can be controlled easily, whilst aperture and exposure can be set through a handy control wheel, or other mechanical means on non-digital cameras. With all this literally at the tip of your fingers, taking the shot becomes much easier. You just need to get used to your camera…

2) Composition – the basic techniques

Whether you are using a no-control PaS or an SLR-grade camera, the following apply to any image making. These concepts actually come from the even older art of painting and illustration. As such, you could do worse than getting a book on art and composition to read at leisure.

a) Vocabulary

Before I get started, I would like to cover some vocabulary that will be useful in discussing photography.

“Focus” – if something is in focus, it is clear, as opposed to blurry. The opposite term is “out of focus”.

“Subject” – the main point of interest of your photo. Subjects can be in focus or out of focus

“Foreground” – anything in the frame closer to you than your subject

“Background” – anything behind your subject

b) Centering

The most basic rule, which states that you should centre your subject in the frame. The following rules break this one. In art, rules are guidelines, and guidelines only; properties of composition that can be explained, rather than relying on a je-ne-sais-quoi feeling.

In art, rules are made to be broken. And not everyone can digest the way others choose to break these rules.

A centred photo

c) Rule of thirds

The Rule of Thirds runs along these lines: divide the frame into three equal horizontal strips, and also into three equal vertical strips. You end up with a grid of nine areas, with lines that define the boundaries, and intersections where these lines cross.

Individual small subjects can be placed on or near the intersections; tall or wide subjects can be placed along the lines, as well as horizon lines or wall lines (for example)

By keeping to the Rule of Thirds, you can easily create a pleasing composition without too much headache. Once you’re used to using the rule however, it’s time to start breaking it…


The couples in the following photo are each separated by the vertical lines, the heads are at the upper horizontal line:


d) Leading the eye

Leading the eye comes into play when your subject confers a sense of direction: a person looking to the side, a chapel that starts wide from the ground and gets narrower to the top, a jetty out into a lake whose origin is out of the frame.

If the subject is looking to the left, put them on the right line in the Rule of Thirds. Since the chapel points upwards, set its base on the bottom line of the Rule. If the jetty is at a diagonal, set it send in the top intersection of the Rule allowing for most of the jetty to be visible.

Again, once accustomed to this rule, break it.

The subject looks to the right of the picture, I left space to the right.

Looking to the right

The eye follows the train to the left, I allowed the front to be to the right.


e) Simplicity

This rule states you should throw the background – and foreground if possible – out of focus, and bring the subject into sharp focus. This allows the viewer to focus their mind on your subject, without being distracted by other irrelevant elements.

Focused on the subject

Of course, again, should you find reason to break it, do so without hesitation.

Subject deliberately out of focus

3) Basic lens control

a) Depth of field

When focusing, you can come across terms of “greater” and “narrower” depths of field. This property is affected by multiple settings, discussed further below, and is one of the most important concepts to know in terms of focusing.

Various objects exist at varying distances from you. Imagine standing in the middle of a highway, and there are intermittent lines drawn on the ground. A greater depth of field will allow you to have more of the lines in focus. A narrower depth of field will constrain the distance at which you get sharp focus to a given distance.

Narrow: On the road

Deep: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ducakedhare/4272524228/

Variations of this is what allows you to take a photo of a person with the background out of focus, or to have both the person and the background in focus at the same time.

b) Aperture (f-stops)

Main property: Aperture controls the amount of light that is allowed to reach the sensor. Aperture is expressed in terms of f-stops, such as f1.8, f5.4, f12, etc.

The smaller the number, the wider the aperture, and the more light is allowed to reach the sensor.

Additional property: with all other properties constant, a wider aperture creates a narrower depth of field, whereas a narrower aperture creates a larger depth of field.


c) Focal length (millimetres)

Main property: The focal length is expressed in millimetres and is better known as “zoom”. The greater the number, the more zoomed in you will be. Note that prime lenses are denoted by their single focal length (for example, 50mm), whereas zoom lenses are denoted by their focal length range (for example 18-70mm). On PaS cameras, there will be no focal length expressed, but a zoom factor (1.5x, 2x, 5x, etc)

Additional property: with all other properties constant, when the focal length is increased, the depth of field is slightly narrowed.

Additional property: with all other properties constant, when the focal length is increased, the amount of light let into the camera is reduced. This subsequently affects the minimum f-value achievable.


d) Exposure (shutter speed in seconds)

Main property: The time the sensor is exposed to light.

By strong daylight you will typically shoot at 1/1000 – 1/4000 second. At night, you may need to allow for anything from 3 to 10 seconds. To capture the trail of stars moving across the skies, you will need exposures starting from around 10 minutes.

Additional property: a longer exposure is more likely to be blurry if subjects move, or if the camera isn’t stable.

Photo taken in a dark setting: Dancers

e) A note on film speed (ISO ratings)

Main property: Film speed determines how sensitive your sensor or film is to light, and is expressed in ISO ratings (ISO numbers)

Low ISO numbers (ISO 50, ISO 100, ISO 200) require longer exposures than high ISO numbers (ISO 800, ISO 1600, ISO 3200)

When shooting in bright conditions, lower ISO is preferred, but darker conditions (when no flash is used) demand require ISO.

Additional property: the higher the ISO, the more noise (grainy specks) will appear in the picture.

At high ISO, in brighter the conditions, the less noise will be perceived.

High ISO: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ducakedhare/4758318432/

f) hyperfocal distance

The hyperfocal distance refers to the distance at which you should focus your lens so that elements remain in focus from far, far away, to a certain distance near you. Typically, this means focusing at the lens’s infinity notch, and everything from a given distance away from you will be in focus.

If you use your focus ring in manual setting, and turn it so that it brings items far away in the distance into focus, you are at infinity. Items at this distance are still in focus, but items any closer are out of focus. This is particularly useful when you want to prevent your camera from “focus hunting” – delaying the moment the shutter activates whilst optimum focus has not been found.

Disposable cameras are set with a very close nearest-distance, which allows you to take those family shots against a mountain range in the distance. It’s also the reason why you can’t be too close to a person to take a photo without them being systematically blurred.

To find your infinity, you can use your auto-focus and focus on something very far away; then switch your focus setting to manual.

The following tool can tell you, for a given lens at a given aperture, what your closest in-focus distance will be: http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html

4) Further techniques

a) Framing (using the environment to frame the subject)

If you can, use objects in your environment. For example, a doorway creates a frame within the frame in which you can place your subject. Or a blanket on the ground, and take the picture from directly above. Or the trunk of a tree with a low-hanging branch, which along with the ground create a three-sided frame.

Opportunities abound, and pay attention to what you frame with to add meaning to the whole picture.

Typical: In an archway

Unusual: In glasses

b) Long exposure

i) Constant movement

Instead of having a freeze-frame of a dancer or sports person, add a bit more time to your exposure to get that dynamic feeling.

Also, this is how the silky waterfall effect is obtained – but you would need a neutral density filter to evenly darken your lens to do that.


ii) Multiple poses / with flash

Set your exposure to 15sec for example, and press the shutter release. Now go in front of the lens and stand in it for 10sec, very still. Walk out of the frame and let the exposure time out. You have now successfully introduced a ghost-you to the setting. Experiment with striking several poses in the same exposure too.

In dark conditions, you can use an off-camera flash to fire when you want (or just a regular halogen lamp that you switch on and off). You only need to flash the pose once and then strike a new pose immediately before striking again.

iii) light painting

In dark conditions, set the exposure to something over 5sec

Have your subject hold a small lit object (such as a phone with its backlight) and move it around. The resulting picture will have lines of brightness where the lit object had moved.


c) “Soft focus”

Whilst strictly an out-of-focus state, the mind can still see enough clarity in the image to interpret it as a type of in-focus technique. To contrast in focus against soft focus, properly in-focus images are said to be “in sharp focus”.


5) Monochromatic (“Black and White”) versus Colour

There is an important consideration to take into account when choosing whether to shoot in monochrome or in colour.

In colour photography you are looking at the play of colours and gradients of colours, their softness or their starkness.

In monochromatic, you are looking for the contrast in amounts of light and dark. Colours, of course, can be mostly disregarded.

A colour-aware picutre: Secret City Garden

(and its monochromatic equivalent Mystic Garden )

A contrast-aware picture: Electric Circus

Both principles: Baths at Dawn

6) Processing in the digital darkroom

I have no experience of processing in the film darkroom, so I will not expand on that beyond this sentence; but suffice to say that digital post production of photos remains controversial amongst photographers.

a) To process or not to process ?

Should you or should you not edit what the camera captured? Is the mark of a photographer indeed in getting it right in-camera first time?

There are many stances to this debate, and many reasonings, between always, never, sometimes, only certain types of editing, only when absolutely necessary… Take your pick.

I like to think of it like this:

If you’re a journalistic photographer, it is risky business to alter an image, for danger of being accused of lying about the reality. The most that you could do is crop, as photo is essentially a crop of a wider scene in itself.

If you’re a fashion photographer, there is no way you will be allowed to leave the photo in its original state. Blemishes in the model’s skin, toning of the light, and other operations must be done to project the message. In this sense, the photographer is not really capturing an image of reality, but creating an image ideal for their message, much in the same way a painter adds allegories to the scene, and caricaturists alter the features of their subjects.

If you’re doing artistic photography, it’s really up to you. There are so many other controversies on what makes “good art” that the editing-or-not debate becomes a moot point.

Processed: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ducakedhare/3501339589/

Unprocessed: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ducakedhare/3501102089/

b) Processing software

Depending on what you want to do to your photos, you will need different software.

Everyone by now will have heard of Photoshop – from being lauded by designers and criticized by social activists, it’s heard of at all levels. From slight adjustments to full alteration and more, Photoshop can do it all. However, it costs several hundreds of dollars; luckily home users can get most of the functionality they are likely to need from Photoshop Elements, for under a hundred dollars.

Much less well known is The GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) which is available for Linux, Mac and PC. Free of charge, this tool was created to rival the abilities and featuers of Photoshop. It has some usability kinks relative to Photoshop, but overall works decently well – as far as I’ve heard.

Mac users have access to iPhoto, Apple’s standard photo organization and adjustment software, shipping with a number of photo effects that many users enjoy. Mac-only, as it comes bundled with the operating system. A down side is that every photo you edit exists as two files – a separate full-sized image file for each of the original copy and the edit copy (and thmbnails for each), which can seriously clog up your hard drive.

Windows users can get a super-light program called Photo! Editor from http://www.pho.to which works alright when it does, but has a number of stability issues. But hey, it costs nothing. Unfortunately, it does not seem to benefit from the code-reviewing and enhancements that come with OpenSource or Free Software Foundation programs.

Both Windows and Mac users can get Adobe Lightroom, which is aimed at professional photographers who mostly organisation capabilities, tone adjustments, and colour effects with fine control and make any blemish removals at the same time. Unlike iPhoto and non-managing software, edits are stored as instructions that are applied to the photo when you open it. The software costs a few hundred to get though.

Apple also has a professional grade photo editing package called Aperture, which also surpasses their iPhoto product, and is (as I have heard say) pretty much the serious competitor to Adobe’s Lightroom – with a similar price tag too.

For the record, I use Lightroom.

c) Typical editing

Once you have your photo editing software, you can experiment with some of the most common edits that you are likely to find yourself applying frequently – I will only name the most common but play around with all the options available.

i) Crop and straighten

Any photo editing software worth its salt allows you to crop your photo (choose a specific area of your photo, and leave out the rest), and straighten it. The programs listed above all have these abilities.

ii) Exposure

You will most definitely want to check that your photo is bright or dark enough for your purpose. Adjust the exposure level for this.

iii) Saturation & Contrast

Saturation affects how flashy the colours become. Highest saturation generally makes them scream out, whilst zero saturation brings the image to black and white. Genrally a good idea to add a slight bit of saturation when you feel there’s a lack of punch. Know however that many good photos play on low saturation for a softer feel. All depends what you want.

Contrast affects the light making bright parts brighter, and dark parts darker. Slightly increasing contrast can improve the light balance of the picture – though again, lower contrast softens the scene.

Contrast and de-saturation

iv) Warmth

Sometimes you will take a picture indoors and it will have that orange tinge to it – it’s time to cool the picture.

Though maybe outdoors on a nice day the picture came out too neutral or fresh – warm it for a more summery feel.


I hope this mini-guide has been useful to you as an introduction to photography. For more information, Wikipedia can explain in further details the topics I have covered.

Check out what other people are doing online at sites like Blipfoto, Flickr, deviantART; and grab a magazine or two centred around art photography to get ideas and further discussion about technique and working in photography.

Finally, I leave you with some advice when considering fil photography, and how to hone your skills:

1) Anytime you think “that’s pretty,” think “is that a shot?” Your first and foremost rule should be: Look for as many photo opportunities as you can.

That is not saying “take as many pictures”. Just look for them, and when you do see something interesting, frame up, compose, and see if you like it. After a while, you may no longer need to frame up to eliminate the “bad shots.”

2) Take any shot that from [1] that you’ve decided works. That’s the only true test. If the result is wrong, study why. You paid money for that mistake: learn from it.

3) As with your own shots, study any picture that grabs your attention, film or digital, magazines, Flickr, newspaper. Why did it work? Where were the lights? What’s the focus? Someone may have got a good shot by accident, but it’s up to you to decide why it worked if you want to do something similar…

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