Sunday, September 19, 2010


I get asked many questions about my photography, so I thought doing a series of posts on some of these common questions would be a great idea! First of all - I do need to say that I am a completely natural light photographer. I do not have a studio, I know very little about studio lighting. But I have learned quite a lot about using natural light, which is of course, my favorite kind of photography. Natural light lends a quality of "realness" to an image - it freezes a picture in our minds of exactly what we saw. For today, I'm going to just cover the basics. (Please pardon my squished together paragraphs - blogger isn't cooeperating).
Q: The question I get asked the most is "What kind of camera and lenses do you have?"
A: I am a Canon girl - I started with a Canon 40D, which is now my back up camera, and I now use the Canon 5D Mark II. I have only two lenses - the Canon 50 mm 1.4 which is super for low light situations because of the 1.4 ap. In general, a prime lens (meaning it doesn't zoom - your feet do that part!) gives a very crisp sharp image for not a whole lot of $$$. This is a good place for a new photographer to start with a lens. The eye sees at a range of 50 mm, making this lens a great starter lens. The other lens I use which rarely leaves my camera is the Canon 24-70 2.8 L series . I can't say enough about this amazing lens! I had to work for a few years before I could justify the expense of this one, but it most definitely has been worth the money. (I most certainly have a wish list of other lenses that I would like to have - but these are working just fine for now).
HOWEVER, the first point I want to stress is that anyone can take great pictures - you DO NOT need any expensive equipment. It's very easy to fall into the trap as novice photographers of thinking that we need better equipment to take better pictures. My advice to you is to find a camera that you can easily get to the controls that you need to use. There are a few things that you need to be able to readily access on your camera if you want to get serious about the art of photography - aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focal points. If you have to search and dig through your menu on your camera, then you won't be able to snap a picture at the right settings quick enough. Starting with a basic digital SLR camera such as the Canon Rebel is more than sufficient to be able to learn photography. And when coupled with a really good lens, I have seen some incredible images come from a very basic camera.
Q: I want to learn how to take incredible pictures - where do I start?
A: Get ready for this one - SET YOUR CAMERA COMPLETELY TO MANUAL. This will, in fact, make you want to throw your camera out the window repeatedly when you first start. I'm not kidding. But this is the single most important piece of advice I received when I started to jump into this photography thing with both feet. On a Canon - the little dial at the top with the "M" on it - this is what you want.
This is the only, only way to really understand how everything works together inside your camera. It will also help you understand why taking pictures in the automatic modes never quite turn out the way you would like. Although - I always keep my lens set at automatic focus (to answer Hannah's question who struggles with manual focus). I do select "where" I want to focus, but I let the lens do the focusing for me. We will talk more on focus later. When you take a picture in an automatic mode, inside your camera is a light meter and it takes into account all the light and dark areas in the image you are about to take and it decides what ap, shutter speed, and ISO to use. Your brain is MUCH smarter than your cameras brain. When you have complete control over everything your camera is doing, you will have a much better outcome. However, in order to get even close to getting a correct exposure while in the manual setting, you have to understand three main things. Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, and how all three of them work together. Now - I'm not claiming to be an expert on this, but I just wanted to share with you what I do know - and hopefully be able to help you understand it better. So, go dust off your camera manual and start learning!!
APERTURE: This is the term for the opening that determines the amount of light admitted - technically. But I like to desribe it as, photographically speaking, the lower the number of aperture you use (a really, really low ap would be 1.4 on the lens mentioned above) means the smaller the area of your image that will be in focus. Using a low aperture makes the beautiful bokeh (the blurriness in the background) that is desirable in portrait photography.
But, say you were taking a family portrait, and you needed 4-6 faces all in focus at the same time, then you will want to use a much higher aperture - around 6.0 or higher. The lower the number on your aperture, the smaller area of focus you will have (this also gets into depth of field which we will talk more about later), and the less light you need. With a higher aperture, more of your image will be in focus, less pretty bokeh in the background.
SHUTTER SPEED: Let's move on to shutter speed. Shutter speed is defined as the amount of time the shutter stays open while taking a photograph. You can see in this picture that the lower the number of the shutter speed, the more blur you are likely to have. In this picture, the shutter stayed open for 1/10 of a second, which is a pretty long time for a shutter to be open. Notice I am inside in a rather dark hallway with light coming in behind the subject. Not an ideal place for a picture spot.
Now in this picture, which is obviously outside in bright sunshine, I allowed my shutter speed to be 1/320 of a second. This is a much, MUCH shorter time for the shutter to be open, therefore "freezing" my twirling subject. (This little sweetie does LOVE to twirl - such a willing subject).
ISO: The third important factor to understand is ISO. The best way to think of ISO is waaaaay back when we all used to buy actual film for our cameras - remember choosing either 100 when you would be shooting in bright light, or maybe spending more and going for a 400 or an 800 film that was able to produce much better quality under low light situations? This is pretty much ISO. (Which stands for International Standards Organisation if you are interested). The cool thing about digital SLR cameras, is that if you want to change your ISO - you don't have to change your whole roll of film!! Isn't technology great? If I am shooting outside, I pretty much always have my ISO at it's lowest setting, 100. If the light is starting to fade and I am already at the lowest shutter speed available for getting proper exposure of my subject without motion blur, then this is when my ISO will come in handy. I can bump up my ISO to 200, 400, 800 or even higher - (my spiffy 5D lets me take my ISO up sky-high and still get good quality). Bumping up the ISO will allow you to use a higher shutter speed to make sure your subject is in focus without motion blur. The drawback to using a higher ISO is that you will start to get "noise" in your image - also known as that grainy look, which sometimes can be a pretty cool thing.
So - let me try to sum up how these three things work together. Shutter speed and aperture are buddies - these are your two main components of getting a correct exposure (meaning not too light and not too dark, with accurate color). ISO can be their friend to help them get along better - he can help out when you have a low light situation.
Reading the book Understanding Exposure by Brian Peterson is a great read for trying to understand how all these things work together. This book is what finally made it "click" for me (pun most definitely intended). Your goal in photography is always trying to get correct exposure. YOU need to be the one to do that - not your camera. Your camera is not as smart as it thinks it is.
Another important thing to remember when learning to shoot natural light in manual - turn off your flash, turn off your flash, turn off your flah (yep - talkin to you Petro!!) :) You can't learn the beauty of natural light if you are adding in artificial light. After you have mastered the basics of photography, then adding in additional light sources can be beneficial. This is really tricky - and I'm still learning this one myself.
One final thing that is so, so easy to understand and implement and can make a HUGE difference in your photographs beginning today is a little thing called the Rule of Thirds. You may have learned about this in an art class at some point. And sometimes when you look through your camera, you may even see a little grid like this right on your screen. The human eye is naturally drawn to these four points of an image. Our tendency is to want to center everything perfectly when taking a picture. This is usually a no-no. NO-NO!! Don't do that. Unless it's a very close up picture, centering a subject in an image makes it very boring, not interesting, just flat out dull. Instead - try to get your subject at one of these four points. Or if there is more than one subject in your image - using two of these points works very well also.
See how in this image if I had this beautiful girl right in the middle - it just wouldn't be quite as interesting? There is some space there in the direction she is looking which gives our minds a little more to think about as we look as this image. Make sense?
I know this probably seems like a lot of information - and maybe even very confusing. It took me several months of studying these components to understand how they work individually and together. But it really will be worth learning! I promise! I knew NOTHING about any of these things just a few years ago, and was able to completely teach myself just by learning these things myself. A couple of photography forums that really, really helped me to learn were:
PLUS - I made myself take at least one picture a day for a year with my camera in manual. If you are committed to learning the art of photography - you can do it!!
Stay tuned for Part Two and beyond, where we will discuss: getting correct exposure, understanding white balance, composition, using focal points, getting sharp focus, reading the light, bouncing flash, finding the light, post-processing and lots more!!
I'm still taking photography related questions - feel free to leave questions in the comments section.


Mama Duck said...

Thank you so much for this post! I have been trying to learn my camera (Nikon D60) and I get so overwhelmed reading the manual. Your tips are going to help me so much! Just curious how much do you use photoshop? Or does your camera do most the work for you? Blessing to you

midwest mama said...

Thank you! I've been trying to find the impetus to really learn how to take better pictures and this article is really really helpful.

petro said...

LOLOL! Were you just trying to check and see if I am still reading! OK< I get the message! heehee. I actually just got a new lense...the lower end was all we could swing right now, but I am already doing much better without my flash. Thank you for your patience! Excellent lesson. Thank you, thank you thank you!!

Kimberly said...

Yay!! Thanks so much! I remember you telling me before that I would get it after I read "Understanding Exposure" and I felt like a complete idiot after I read it and still didn't get it! :) You know me...I have to have things really laid out in a s...l...o...w.. manor. NOW it makes more sense to me! Thanks for taking the time! I'm off to get started on manual right now. :)

Wendy said...

Guess what's in my hand--yep, my camera. Guess what it's set on--yep, manual. Thank you for the tips. I'm off to take a few "practice" pictures and see what happens :). Can't wait for the next class in Photography 101.

Carrie said...

Thanks so much, Heather! I can't wait for part 2!!! ;)

Kris said...

Heather - I was SOOOO excited to see your blog topic today!!!! I already reserved to book at the library and can't wait to dig in. I have been looking for someone to teach me how to use my camera and your blog is PERFECT! Can you tell how excited I am? My husband thinks I am crazy!!! LOL!!! Onto Part II tomorrow.

Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.