Learning Photography

July 12, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Learning Photography (ask me anything)

     If you just stumbled across this post, take your hands off the mouse, you found what you were looking for (unless you had a terrible typing mishap and were actually looking for photos of people leering or some craziness). I love teaching people the basics of photography and also more advanced methods of achieving the results they're looking for. Before I go into any of that though, the reason why this is exactly the right page for you if you're looking to learn is because I'm going to use this post as an interactive forum for anyone in the world to ask any question related to photography. Literally ask me anything about photography and I'll reply, no trade secrets here. Even if the content below is "below" you or if you're not ready for a "101" course in photography, feel free to let me know where you're at and what information would help you improve. If you live in the Birmingham, AL area I offer one-on-one lessons that will give you an opportunity to see the reasons why you haven't been able to get the results that you want in the past and also the solutions to getting better at your photography so that you can free up your mind to be more creative instead of always being frustrated that your camera is not cooperating with you. 


Know Thyself and Know Thy Camera

     One of the most interesting concepts I've discovered during my career is the relationship and distinction between a person's creative and technical ability and the abilities of their camera. A running wry joke among photographers is the situation where they are approached with gushing compliments by a bystander while shooting about their camera while offering no appreciation of the photographer's own abilities, as if to attribute credit for a great photo in the making to the machine that captured it instead of the artist who envisioned it. This type of thinking has played a big role in a recent shift the attention of camera companies from professionals to amateurs.  There are more beautiful photos being taken now than ever before, but so many people think that the only thing holding them back is their feeble camera, so they run out and spend more than they should for a fancier camera with more buttons only to find that their photos don't improve or actually get worse!! 

     There is an Venn diagram above that describes a person's net potential to create a beautiful photo and the technical ability of a given camera to carry out that person's intentions and "commands" as it were. Take a second and be honest with yourself. Is it more likely that your camera is holding you back from the photos that you could / should be capturing or is it more likely that your own know-how, experience and general abilities are holding the camera back from what it's capable of? It's a sliding scale, but everyone is somewhere between those circles. If your honesty needs a little perspective, consider this: some of the best photographers in world-history never had a camera as advanced as the one on your cell-phone, or the one on the cell phone you threw in a drawer five years ago. The fact that you immediately get visual confirmation of what you shot puts your camera in a different universe from those of Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz or Irving Penn, who created epic photos that any pro would be proud to call their own. The eventual conclusion of this line of reasoning is that if you take take two photographers, a rank amateur and a seasoned pro, and give the rookie a Canon 1Dx with a 24-70mm "L" lens (about $8,500 worth of top-end pro gear at the time of this writing) and give the professional photographer an old Holga (a cheap, plastic, essentially disposable camera with a lens having no zooming ability) 99 times out of 100 the pro will come out with a better photo of a given subject. If you're serious about creating better photos stop drooling over the newest cameras and lenses and start building your knowledge of how your current camera works and the fundamentals of how any camera takes light and transforms it into captured image. 
     One caveat that I will allow is that if your camera has no manual functions then it really is limiting your ability to control it, which will seriously impair your learning process. Most (if not all) cell phone and many P&S (point and shoot) compact cameras are fully automatic only, meaning that you point the camera at the scene and it uses whatever technology and programming it has to make decisions about the scene, adjust the parameters of how the photo is taken, and you get whatever result that produces. As "smart" as cameras are now, they're usually not close to accurate on these decisions and they're rarely dead-on. The key manual functions of a camera that allow you to capture a photo properly and with consistent accuracy are as follows.


The A,B,C's


Shutter speed - a shutter comes in multiple forms now, whether a physical shutter or simply an electronic signal but the function of it in any case is to control the duration of time that light is allowed to enter the camera and exposure either the frame of film or more likely the electronic image sensor that records that light as a photo image.  The speed is normally described as a fraction of a second. The longer the shutter stays open, more light enters the camera and the brighter the image will be. On professional cameras, the speed of the shutter can usually be adjustment anywhere from a blistering 1/8000th of a second all the way to 30 seconds or longer. Also, with any subject that is not perfectly stationary, any movement that occurs between when the shutter is opened and when it shuts will also be captured in a single frame. Any motion that is captured is registered as blur.  You'd be surprised how much motion can happen in a tiny fraction of a second, especially when you consider that if you're holding the camera in your hands, then any movement that you make on your end is translated into the scene that you see in the viewfinder as movement also. Any guesses as to what shutter speed you would need to capture a subject without any blur from this motion? Well it's a trick question because that setting can change depending on many factors, but you might be surprised to know that usually the shutter needs to as fast as 1/100th of a second or faster in order to eliminate visible blur from movement. I'm getting into complicated waters here, but the point is that the shutter speed is a very important setting and letting your camera decide for you what setting it should be at is a recipe for poor photos. Note in the examples below that 1/25th of a sec left me with very shaky results. Automatic and "program" settings may readily select 1/25th as your shutter speed and leave you to recognize that difficult setting and deal with the consequences. Often you can't see motion blur or camera shake on the small LCD screen. Cameras are getting smarter all the time, but they are no where near to being as capable as your own mind at knowing what your intentions are for a photo and what settings would be appropriate to accomplish those intentions.



Aperture - the aperture of the camera, or more accurately the camera's lens functions like the iris in your eye. It is a circular, or roughly circular opening that adjusts in size to create a larger or smaller opening through which light passes. The aperture setting describes the size of that opening has a great affect on the outcome of the photo also. The aperture setting is described by a common f/number as every lens and brand of lens is different. The aperture setting can range from an ultra-wide setting such as f/1.2 to a ultra-narrow setting such as f/22 or f/32. Light passes through the aperture before it reaches the shutter mechanism, so the more light it is let in by the size of the aperture, the more light hits the film or image sensor during the time the sensor is open. and the brighter the resulting photo will be. 
     A quick-minded person might ask "Why not just make one big opening and let all the light in? If the shutter can make the picture brighter or darker, why do you need another device to do the same thing?" Great question, person I just made up! In the same way that the shutter controls or freezes motion blur while it controls brightness, the aperture has a second function also. It controls something called Depth of Field (DOF). The camera lens focuses similar to how your eyes do, choosing a location at a certain distance to focus on and anything closer or farther becomes increasingly out of focus (OOF). Things that are at the exact distance from the lens that the lens is focused for are known as being on a "focal plane", which is spherical around the area the lens can view. The depth of field is a controlled measurement of how deep that plane is from front to back. When the aperture is very small, only a small amount of light comes through and the depth of the area where things are viewed in focus is very wide and much of what the camera sees will be in focus and sharp if your shutter is set correctly to freeze any motion. The wider the aperture, the more light comes through and the shallower that focal plane becomes and less of what you see will be in focus. For the beginner, this seems like the opposite of what you'd want. When the aperture is nice and wide where lots of light comes in for the shutter to work with, very little will be kept in focus, making it easy to miss your shot. When you make the depth of field nice and wide where everything will be in focus, very little light comes into the camera, make it hard to get the photo as bright as you'd like without a dangerously slow shutter speed. This is a huge problem that automatic settings of a camera cannot deal with effectively, which results in photos that are often too dark or too blurry or both. When a photo is too dark or too blurry or both you can either change your settings, or start blasting the scene with flash. I think we've all see plenty of photos where people look like a deer-in-the-headlights standing in the middle of a cave because of flash. 

     Notice the difference in the shots below (exposure was compensated for in-camera for consistent brightness across all images) Notice how the lower the f/number of the aperture used, the blurrier the background. A much slower shutter speed was needed for each shot to gather the same amount of light to the sensor with a smaller aperture.

ISO - once again this is a setting that primarily controls the brightness of the image and it's also very important. I list it thirdly mainly because its secondary effects are less noticeable than that of the shutter and aperture. On a film camera, the ISO setting is not really a setting at all, but rather a rating of the type of film you're using. The higher the rating of the film, the brighter it will render an image with a given set of camera settings. On digital cameras, you have a huge advantage in that you can change the ISO setting at any time without having to swap out rolls of film, and of course that you have dozens of different settings at hand. In the "old days", carrying a full supply of 20 different types of film would be ridiculous, so you did the best you could with what you brought. The way the ISO works in either case is that the higher the setting or rating, the more sensitive the film or image sensor is to light, so the same amount of light hitting the sensor would be more efficient it brightening the image the higher the ISO is set. The secondary effect of the ISO is something that has been intentionally minimized by better camera technology over time as it has less creative value then the blur control of the shutter or the depth of field control of the aperture. The higher you "bump" your ISO on a digital camera, the more the signal coming from the image sensor is electronically amplified and the higher the amplification level, the more "noise" is brought into the photo, especially in dark areas or areas with highly saturated colors. In film, this result is called grain and is a chemical result. Grain is normally better looking than noise and is one reason why so many people still love film while digital is clearly more user-friendly. The noise from a high-ISO image can also damage the damage the quality of the image in terms of its clarity, sharpness and the accuracy of the colors in the scene. This is one area where cameras have come along way recently and ISO levels that used to be unacceptable because of tremendous amounts of noise are now much more usable, although as a general rule, the lower you can set the ISO while still having the ability to control motion blur with usable shutter speeds and control depth of field with usable aperture settings the better. The examples below came from my Canon 5D Mark III which has phenominal capability to shoot cleanly at high ISO, and even it shows noticeable losses in quality at the high end. Chances are your camera isn't nearly as clean as these examples, and your automatic settings might happily let you shoot at the highest setting, forfeiting quality needlessly.

     Chances are, if all that info was new to you then you didn't absorb it all. It's definitely something you have to learn by doing and I won't lie, it doesn't always come like second nature to people, but I hope you realize the importance of these camera settings and that it's critical to have control over them. Most people don't take the time to learn how to use a camera with fully manual settings. Most people use some version of an automatic setting where the camera makes the judgement call about the appropriate brightness of the scene and then adjusts the cameras settings how it sees fit to achieve that exposure (brightness) level. Since true professionals typically use manual controls, the automatic settings normally are designed for use by amateurs and implement very "safe" settings that aim for sharp photos at the cost of accurate exposure and of course throw creative control out the window, which is exactly what most people are looking for when they buy the camera.  Auto modes are fine for cell phones. If you're using a cell phone to take a picture, I hope it wasn't a preconceived plan to take a beautiful photo to be printed and hung on the wall. While it's not impossible, it is highly unlikely to happen. Conclusion, if the camera you have or are looking to buy doesn't offer full manual control of these camera functions you'll want to look at other cameras in your price range that do. If it does have manual control, there will usually either be a big "M" icon on a mode dial somewhere on the camera, or in one of the primary menus if it's a smaller camera.

The Best Camera is the One You have with You

     Don't think that you have to go out and buy the best camera that your credit score will allow. I'll admit, that when it comes to camera gear and electronics in general that I'm usually of the opinion that it's best to buy something that will not only physically last without breaking, but also satisfy your personal needs, expectations and growing wants from it for a period of time that justifies the price tag. If you're new to photography and just want to find out if you have potential to really enjoy it, you probably don't need to spend $1,000+ on a camera that will be meant to last for years and take hundreds of thousands of photos under the harshest and most demanding conditions. Once you get you "chops" you'll find out where you are in the Venn diagram, how much the camera you have is holding back your personal ability, but most importantly how much your ability hinders the camera from delivering the images that it truly can, and that is where improvement happens. Remember, (honesty time) if you're frustrated with your camera and feel like saying "I just can't get good shots with that thing" just bring it to me and I'll set you straight. Not to be prideful, I just want everyone to realize that money can only buy so much and that as played-out as it sounds, beauty and creativity is something you develop inside yourself, not press a button for.
     With all that in mind, if you're just starting out, you probably aren't spending 8-12 hours a day on photography or things related to it. This is how I make my living, so I can justify hauling alot of gear with me anywhere I need it, but for you to get better, the camera itself can't be an inconvenience. Get something you can handle. Avoid the classic rookie mistake of buying cheap lenses immediately because the lens that comes with the camera is no good. One of the best tips I can give you is to immediately pick up a 50mm or 35mm prime lens. Virtually every camera company makes one, or an equivalent. You can read more about prime lenses and alot of other gear here, but the simple reason is that prime lenses are much smaller, lighter and simpler in design than zoom lenses because they have just a single focal length. This allows them to deliver much higher image quality and MOST IMPORTANTLY a much wider maximum aperture for the same price as a lower quality zoom lens with a narrow aperture.
     Take your camera anywhere you can. Your abilities will increase exponentially, but as with almost any worth-while endeavor, the beginning stages are the slowest. Once you master controlling the your manual settings you'll be able to free up your mind to be more and more creative and this is where you'll truly find the enjoyment and fulfillment that you hoped for. Once you can consistently produce technically sound and creative photographs, not just snapshots, you'll be at a place that you can actually use your skills to make money, if that's your aim. Just always remember to not do yourself and others a disservice by pretending to be something you're not. One good photo does not a photographer make, and being a PROFESSIONAL photographer doesn't just mean that you're charging a fee to take pictures. Professionalism has everything to do with how you carry yourself and behave.


Leave your Ego at Home

     I (used to) love to play the guitar. I was never all that good. I never had a real lesson. I taught myself what little I did know. Granted, I taught myself photography also and that turned out well, but music was clearly a different matter for me. I did love going to Guitar Center though, all the "axes" lined up and begging for me to hack out a barely-discernable cover of a song that no one wanted to hear, but I was able to work out tablature for at home. The only credit I can give myself is that I never went in there with the confidence then when I picked up a $2,000 Les Paul, I was about to play a tune worthy of such an instrument. If I had the cash to buy one and thought that I was then ready to start a band and get on the radio I would have been in for a very abrupt and rude awakening.
     Be honest with me and yourself one more time. Do you think that if you go up to anyone who is very good at ANYTHING and ask them, "Did you ever SUCK at what you do?" that most of them would say no?? Of course they did! Sure, there's always a prodigy somewhere like Tiger Woods sinking birdie putts at 6 years old, but most people who have "made it" and can put their pride aside will admit (like I do) that "yeah, I used to be pretty horrible. I'm ashamed to even look at what I used to be proud to call my work." Being lousy is the natural precusor of being not-lousy, don't deceive yourself into thinking that you're already good at this just because you don't want to admit to yourself or others that you're doing something that you're not good at. When you're shooting, avoid the thought that you "nailed it." Work with a pro, take lessons, be teachable. When you see someone point their camera at the same scene and get a better shot than you did, don't be ashamed that you were just shown-up, realize that right then, you have the opportunity to learn how to be better while skipping who-knows-how-many levels of trial and error. Hopefully one day you'll look back and realize that you were no where near as good as you thought you were, but only because you have reached a place where there is a clear improvement to compare to.


    If you skimmed the whole blog and missed it the first time I mentioned, I offer one-on-one and group lessons and workshops. I've trained numerous photographers of every different different skill level and I can definitely help you streamline your own growth in photography. Some people have the sticktoitiveness to hang in there for years until they get to a place that they actually enjoy and are proud of their work, but why wait longer than you have to? Don't do it on your own, contact me today and let me know what would move mountains for you.


© Brendon Pinola Photography 2013





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