Photography is as personal as the tools you use. There is no right or wrong camera as each model has its pro’s and con’s and these are distributed between the features you want and the price you are willing to pay to have them. I get asked all the time if I prefer Nikon over Canon with the person asking expecting some sort of Android Vs iOS or PC Vs Mac reply. My answer is this. If I had the money I would have a Nikon setup, a Canon setup, a Sony setup and if I was that rich a Hasselblad setup (the supercar of the camera world). Why? Because they all do different things well. The market has shaped the products produced by all those companies and each has something to offer a person looking to create imagery. And this is more of a personal gripe, but if you find yourself in a heated debate about which brand is better without any reference to image making on both a practical and emotional level, then you have well and truly missed the point of photography.
So what is my brand of choice? I use Nikon because when I bought my first camera the D70 was the best value for the money at that time and the guy in the shop advised my to buy that over the classic 350D. Nowadays there isn’t a great difference between the models of all the major brands in any given price bracket. My mind wanders between some hefty megapixel beast, or the practicalities and reality of a 20-24mp camera body and the smaller storage required for them. I dont shoot press so I have no need for wifi. As of writing I have the following bodies for the following reasons:
Main event work body
Out and about
Mobile filming rig
Google Pixel 2
Osmo Mobile 2
This list of gear has evolved over a period of time based on my own needs and money available. Your choice will come down to what your friends use, what the magazines and websites recommend, what you think you like and what you can actually afford. It’s worth adding that most top end smart phones do an absolutely amazing job of creating images and are actually little media machines with apps that allow creative possibilities for someone who may not want to invest in a dSLR/Computer setup. Lenses from the likes of Moment and Moondog open up a world of endless creative possibilities.
But despite the glory that camera bodies are sold on, they only help facilitate the process of image creation. The most important part of the photographic system is the lens. The quality of the glass you use will affect the sharpness, contrast, bokeh and colour quality of the photograph you take. Most beginner kits fulfil all the basic requirements and there is no need to splash out thousands of pounds on gear you will not need or understand how to use. Plus, you need to work out how to use that lens first before you move onto other lenses so you actually know why you need them.
SETTING YOUR CAMERA UP CORRECTLY
All of the examples I will be giving are aimed at dSLR’s, but most top end point-and-shoot camera’s have all the basic functionality of a dSLR so most of what is written below you can use. It is important to have your camera setup correctly. This makes creating photographs and editing them an easier process, allowing more time to be spent on creative editing, and less time on corrective and re-constructive editing. So, before we go any further attach your lens, remove the lens cap, insert a memory card, put the battery in (I know, I know this is obvious) and turn the camera on!
SET YOUR FILE TYPE TO RAW
Try to always shoot in your cameras native RAW file format. This file type will give you greater detail and more options when editing. JPEGS, even lossless ones, compress the image you take. They do serve a purpose in some workflows but in general try to avoid using them.
It is worth noting that the preview image you see on your camera’s rear screen is an interpretation of the photograph you have just taken based on the options selected in your camera image optimisation settings. If you are shooting jpeg then you will see the camera preview when you open your photograph on your computer, but, if you are shooting RAW the photograph WILL appear visually different from the preview on the back of your camera when loaded into Camera RAW or Lightroom. Do not panic or get frustrated, all editing software has a default setting for RAW files it uses when they are imported. There are ways to get around this using import presets and I will show you how to do this at a later date.
Set your camera to record photographs in RAW format.
SET ALL IN CAMERA IMAGE OPTIMISATION SETTINGS TO ZERO
If you have set your file type to RAW, then all of these settings will not affect the RAW file that is produced as they can all be set during import in post. These settings affect jpeg files. So, why shoot jpeg after being told to shoot RAW? The option exists for people who do not have access to a computer to edit their images, if they are printing directly from the camera or if they have limited hard drive storage. They also exist for people shooting jpeg as a back-up for fast network distribution (sports photographers for example). If you are using your camera for one of these purposes then it will be trial and error, as is the case with all editing, to find the ideal settings for your particular use.
These settings will also affect what you see on your camera’s display. I use them specifically to get as much light out of the screen as possible so i can see as much detail as possible. When you are working in a dynamic environment like a wedding or a sports competition, you don’t want to be fighting with the rear display to guess if you have nailed the exposure. Having a flat image that allows you to make that assessment quickly is the priority for me as I dont want my thinking to be side tracked by technical issues like this. I want to look at the image, check it and then move on.
The settings i change are increasing the display brightness to max (this setting is usually on a different menu option) and then dropping the contrast to the lowest minus number.
Find your image optimisation menu and leave all settings as neutral as possible or at zero.
TURN OFF ALL IN CAMERA NOISE REDUCTION
Turn off your cameras noise reduction and never turn it on again. For RAW it won’t matter when editing on your PC but it will affect what you see on the back of your camera. If you shoot jpeg it will affect the final file. Your editing software does a better job at managing noise. I have seen many MANY times on various online sites people claiming using editing software is cheating. Firstly, what are you trying win? Secondly it is not “cheating” to use editing software to create a specific artistic look, or to use such software for image retouching and reconstruction. This IS part of the process of producing photographs. Manipulation of what you see in front of you when taking a photograph starts with how you use light to shape contrast and colour, then what lens you use to create the perspective of the scene you are capturing, to the camera body you you, through to how you choose to manipulate pixels on the computer. In the days of film, the typeof film you used and the processes you used in the darkroom affected how the final photograph turned out.
Turn off in camera noise reduction.
SET THE COLOUR SPACE TO sRGB
Your digital camera uses a mathematical model known as a colour space to help the capture and interpretation of colour from what you see as colour (the visible spectrum) to the digital format via the camera’s imaging sensor and on board computer. In your camera these are based on red, green and blue colour values. Most cameras will allow you to choose the colour space in a image optimising menu buried somewhere deep in its menu system (if you dont know where it is have a look and find it now). Usually you are given a choice of sRGB or AdobeRGB.
Adobe RGB is a specialist colour space that compresses colour values and requires specific software to uncompress them. It has roughly 35% move colour available to it than sRGB but comes with some major draw backs most notably that no major publishing platform uses it. But, it has a larger colour spectrum available and makes ideal for printing.
sRGB is the world standard for digital images and is used in printing and on the Internet (there is a trick to improving colour accuracy on the net in photoshop, again I will talk about this at a later date). It has also been around much longer AdobeRGB so all the standards used in modern display technology uses this colour space.
There is debate about which is better to use. Adobe RGB will give you more colour in your image and if you have a monitor that supports display those colours and a printing process that does too then shoot in this colour space. As most of your photographs will end up on the net on instagram, 500px, facebook, deviant art or some other photo community then setting your camera to sRGB will allow it to produce images that reproduce the colour and tone that is supported on most modern display (monitors, tv, smart phones etc). As you progress and if you start to shoot for printed reproduction then switching to AdobeRGB will be a more preferable option.
To begin with select sRGB in your camera menu.
CHECK WHITE BALANCE AND SET TO AUTO
We all think we know what white is. In the physical sense we perceive white when all of the colour sensitive cone cells in the human eye are stimulated in nearly equal amounts. But, we interpret white differently in many different natural colour environments and are able to distinguish it even in warm or cold colour environments. Cameras have a white balance setting so they can render colours and neutral tones correctly in a given colour light environment in an attempt to keep what we think is white, as white. Hence the term white balance (sometimes called grey-balance). White balance is an entirely different subject together, on which many books have been written. The important thing to remember here is that, as a beginner, getting that white as accurate as possible is not important yet as there are other area’s to focus on like composition and camera techniques. This is why all good dSLR’s and top end point and shoots have an auto white balance mode.
The majority of all colour problems in a photograph will be down to the assigned white balance. If you shoot RAW this will not be as much of a problem as it can be altered afterwards, but if you shoot in jpeg it will be harder to correct. Most of the time when I shoot in RAW I leave the white balance set to auto as it allows me to spend less time checking a photographs colour and more time concentrating on the job at hand. This dosnt mean it should be ignored, there are jobs when taking a manual white balance reading or shooting a grey card are required for colour accuracy as your final product has to match the subject being captured. But altering the colour of a photograph to suit a time of day or a specific mood will be part of your creative process.
Set your cameras white balance to auto.
The grandfather of dull photography lessons, so what is it? Basically it is the mechanism that allows your camera to work out the correct exposure for the scene you are photographing. There are usually four options: Matrix, Centre-weighted, spot and highlight weighted. For the purpose of this lesson, set the camera to Matrix metering as this setting calculates an exposure based on the overall scene and usually nails it most of the time. If i’m shooting in aperture priority i usually use matrix in conjunction with the exposure compensation setting (the +/- button) to fine tune the exposure.
Centre weighted, whilst monitoring the overall scene, pays more attention to the centre of the frame. Spot metering meters a small circle in the middle of your frame and then calculates exposure. Highlight-weighted aims to reduce loss of details in highlights which is handy for unbalanced situations.
CHECK ISO AND SET TO THE APPROPRIATE LEVEL
What is ISO and what is the appropriate level to set it to. ISO is one of those things that can confuse beginners at first, but it isn’t a vastly hard concept to get your head around.
ISO (International Organization of Standards) is the sensitivity of your camera’s imaging sensor. It is one point of the exposure triangle (we will get to this at the bottom of the page) ISO was originally used to describe the sensitivity of photographic film and has been passed over to the digital world as an equivalent measurement system. A low number of iso 50 -200 equals low sensitivity, low levels of noise in your image, smooth gradients, accurate colour representation and fine details. A high number, iso 1200 – 6400, will result in a high sensitivity, visible levels of noise, rough gradients, poor representation of colour and a loss in fine detail. Both have their advantages and disadvantages depending on the situation you find yourself shooting in which I will talk about later.
With all of this in mind what is the appropriate level? Try the following. If you have strong light set the iso as low as possible (this includes good sunlight and any type of flash or direct lighting). As the light source gets weaker increase the iso. To give you some situational examples:
Shooting a landscape or a portrait using flash then you would aim to keep the iso low.
Photographing sports then raising the iso to about 500 allows you to have faster shutter speeds with aa aperture of f/5 – f/5.6 which should make your shots nice and crispy.
If you are shooting the milky way then you would use iso 1600-2400 with a 20 second exposure (or higher with a sony body) or if you were trying to photograph moving subjects in a low light situation to keep your shutter speed around 100th of a second.
If you are in a situation where light levels are changing, but you want to keep the shutter speed and aperture the same then use auto iso.
The only real way to understand when and how to use different iso levels is to experiment, but use the above as a guide.
CHOOSE AND USE THE CORRECT EXPOSURE MODE
All worthwhile cameras come with the standard four exposure modes:
Aperture-Priority Auto (A)
Shutter-Priority Auto (S)
Programmed Auto (P)
Exposure modes control the relationship between the lenses aperture blades (these control the amount and angle of light travelling through the lens) and the shutter mechanism.
Manual – will give you full control over how long the shutter mechanism remains open and the depth of field (the area of the photograph in focus) as controlled by the aperture. Practically, it is good for studio work and conditions where light levels are consistent.
Aperture priority – will allow you to set the depth of field for any given focal length whilst the camera works out the correct shutter speed. This is useful for when you are working fast and want full control over you depth of field, like at a wedding or an outdoors portrait shoot, or if you are using exposure bracketing (a technique involving taking several photographs of a composition at different exposures).
Shutter priority – is best suited to situations where your subject is moving fast, like sports, where you want the shutter speed to remain constant.
Programmed Priority – I have still yet to find a practical use for this exposure mode, I’m sure there is one but it does sit lonely and unused on my camera. I suspect it is for complete beginners who just want to use their camera before learning all of the settings. Nothing wrong with that….as long as you learn the other settings!
Experiment with these four settings, DO NOT get stuck using only one because you find them confusing. The exposure modes are the key to capturing a near correctly exposed photograph and knowing when to use them will come with time and experimentation.
The two modes I have only ever used in my work are Manual and Aperture Priority. I use manual shutter in three specific situations.
1) In the studio where I am using controlled lighting and radio triggers.
2) When i am using auto-iso. When I shoot events like a wedding or sports, I keep the aperture and shutter fixed and let the auto-iso do the job. You can define the range the iso can go to so you can prevent the camera from going above a certain iso level.
3) When I am shooting panoramas with a tilt shift. The tilt shift I own plays tricks with the aperture priority setting on my camera. So I work out my shutter speed on my central image and then keep that fixed along with fixing iso and aperture.
Aperture priority is the mode I use when I have no control over the light intensity. If you are shooting HDR’s outside then you can use aperture priority. And the same goes for outdoor portraits. You can do most things with manual exposure, but if you’re concentrated on your subject and the light intensity changes you will get your exposure wrong.
SETTING THE CORRECT SHUTTER SPEED AND APERTURE
Setting the shutter speed and aperture are the other two points of the exposure triangle. Most cameras have an electronic analog exposure display (see photo above) which you can find either in the viewfinder, on the rear LCD or on the control panel (if your camera has one). What we are trying to do with this 99% of the time is to get the indicator mark to land on the zero in the middle of the scale (the optimal exposure). There are a many different combinations of shutter speed and aperture to get the optimal exposure, but what we are trying to do is take a creative image not a mathematically accurate one. The type of exposure mode will determine which one of these you set. If you are shooting in full manual, then you will need to set both shutter and apertures. If you are shooting in aperture priority, then you will only need to change the aperture as the camera does the work with the shutter speed.
The lens aperture is a set of blades that acts to narrow light as it enters the lens. This mechanism controls what is known as depth of field. To set the depth of field you will need to alter the apertures f-number. A low f number (f/2.8) will let lots of light through the lens, increasing your shutter speed and will give you a thin area of sharp focus. This will give you an out of focus background which is ideal for creative portraiture, sport and macro work. A high f number (f/10 to f/22) reduces the amount of light passing through the lens, lowering the shutter speed and gives us a deep area of focus. It is good for capturing scenes that are expansive like landscapes or architecture and for studio portrait work.
Setting your camera’s shutter speed will be dependent upon what exposure mode you have selected. If you are using aperture-priority then the shutter speed will be worked out for you. To see this in action, set your camera to aperture priority and simply move the camera around. You will see the shutter speed reading changing. If you point your camera at a scene with lots of light the shutter speed increases and becomes very fast. Most dSLR’s have a maximum shutter speed of either 1/4000th or 1/8000th of a second. If you point the camera at a scene with low light levels, like in a room or in a forest, the shutter speed will reduce. Again, there is a maximum in camera limit to this which is 30 seconds on most models. If you are using manual exposure mode then you will now need to adjust the shutter speed to get the optimal exposure. As mentioned before, try to get the indicator mark to land on the zero in the middle of the scale.
All of the information you need to calculate the best exposure for your photo can be found: on the rear screen by pressing, on most cameras, the info button; in the viewfinder and on the top LCD as pictured above.
THE EXPOSURE TRIANGLE
As mentioned further up your exposure is controlled by the aperture, shutter speed & ISO settings and each one has an effect on the other. Exposure starts with setting the aperture as this is the prime creative point when building your composition. After checking the shutter speed, if it is to slow then increase the ISO until the shutter speed is fast enough.
Shooting a long exposure at night you would use a long shutter speed, a wide aperture and a low ISO to reduce noise.
Shooting a creative/focused portrait during the day you would use a narrow depth of field, a fast shutter speed and a low ISO. If the exposure is still to bright you would use a ND filter to balance the exposure
Photographing sports you would set your aperture and shutter speed but set the ISO to auto. This way you control motion blur with shutter speed, control depth of field for the desired creative effect but allow iso to account for changes in light intensity.
The only real way to learn how this relationship works is to spend a small amount of time just experimenting with each element in different light situations.
There is also another tool on your camera that is available to you to help you decide if your exposure is accurate. Press the play button on the rear of camera and have a look at the camera’s histogram which shows the distribution of tones from pure black to pure white. If the level chart is stacked to the right, your shot is over exposed. If it is stacked to the left, it is underexposed.