Thursday, January 1, 2015


This is a set of articles about how to do photography, with no pictures. This is on purpose. You're going to make the pictures, and you're going to look at them and see with your own eyes what's happening. This is a learn-by-doing mini course.

The goal here is to get you using your camera effectively, to convey your vision, quickly and with a minimum of technical detail. If I don't think you need to know some technical detail to move forward, I trim it out.

If you're interested in how to use every feature of your camera, this is not for you.

If you want to learn photoshop, this is not for you.

If you want to know what "CMOS sensor" means and how it works, this is not for you.

If you want to know what camera, lens, tripod, strap, whatever to buy, this is not for you.

If you want to know how to use a flash, this is also not for you, although this is an important topic.

If you want to learn, quickly, how to generate an idea for a photograph, and to make a photograph that embodies that idea, this might just be the place to get started on that journey. Read along a bit, and see!

You will need a digital camera that permits manual adjustment of settings. While I am not a "manual mode" zealot, these articles will focus on using the camera in manual mode most of the time, since it's simpler to explain and will get you to the results you're looking for faster. You can learn about other modes easily enough.

You will also need a computer you can load pictures on to from your camera, for examination.

Get a notebook to write things down in. What you write in it is up to you, but you should make notes as you do the various exercises. You may or may not choose to review these notes later, but the act of writing them down is valuable by itself.

Before you begin, you DO NOT need to know what any of the technical terms really mean. If "Aperture" is a word that means nothing to you, that is OK. You can still look it up in your camera's instruction manual, or search the internet. Nothing in these articles will require that you actually know what "Aperture" or any of the dozens and dozens of technical terms actually mean. Quite soon, though, you will know what it does to your photos, and this is what matters.

You DO need to know:

  1. How to turn your camera on and take a picture.
  2. How to focus the lens on a particular object.
  3. How to load pictures onto your computer and look at them
  4. How to set your camera to take pictures in black and white.
  5. How to set the camera to Manual Mode.
  6. In Manual Mode, how to adjust the Shutter Speed
  7. In Manual Mode, how to adjust the Aperture
  8. In Manual Mode, how to adjust the ISO
  9. Where the Meter is in the viewfinder

This will require spending some time with your camera's instruction manual, if there are any of these things you do not currently know.

At this point we'll begin a series of exercises. Some of these exercise will involve taking some pictures, others will be "homework". None of the exercises should take more than about an hour, and I will shoot for shorter. 30 minutes or so.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Basic Manual Mode Shooting

This is exercise number one. The goal here is to understand - in strictly pragmatic terms - how the meter (whatever that is, the details don't matter) in your camera behaves. As with all exercises, even if you think you know the answers, I suggest that you at least briskly whip through it. It may just take you a few minutes, if you really do know the stuff. Working through the necessary button presses and dial-clicks will prepare you for future exercises.

You're going to be adjusting the Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO settings of your camera. It doesn't matter what any of those words mean. If you're curious, there are a lot of resources on the Internet. Your camera's instruction manual probably has some information as well. I don't think it matters.

Step 1.

Set your camera on Manual Mode.

Figure out how to adjust each of these three settings, and figure out where the corresponding number is shown in the viewfinder or other displays in or on your camera.

Just make some adjustments at random and watch the numbers go up and down. Note where the limits are (eventually the number will stop changing, no matter how you click the wheel or press the button). All three settings will have a highest possible setting, and a lowest possible. They may be many many clicks apart.

Step 2.

Now point the camera at something. It hardly matters what. Continue making adjustments of Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO, but now watch what the meter is doing. It might be a double-sided bar graph, or a needle, or something else.

Whatever it is, it will be able to indicate "too high", "too low" and lastly "just right" somewhere between the first two. Don't worry about what "too high" or "too low" or "just right" actually mean. As a side note, "just right" isn't always right. It's just the camera's best guess. You can think of it as "the center" if you like.

Make adjustments to one control at a time, watching the meter, until you can get the meter centered on the "just right" position.

What's going on here is that the camera's meter has an idea of what a "correct" combination of these three settings will make a nice photo. There are many combinations that will work for the meter. Picking any one of the combinations will put the meter on the "just right" position.

Step 3.

Get the meter centered on "just right" and now adjust the Shutter Speed a couple of clicks one direction. The meter should change, and now indicate "too high" or "too low". Now adjust the Aperture a couple of clicks, until the meter goes back to "just right". You might have to back and fill a bit, since as you noted in Step 1, there are limits to how far each of the settings goes up and down.

The point here is that one setting can push the meter off of "just right" and another one can push it back.

Now do the same with each pair of settings. For example, change the ISO a couple clicks up and down, and try to correct by changing the Shutter Speed, and then by changing the Aperture. Any of the three settings can push the meter up or down, and then either of the other two can push the meter back to "just right".

Lessons Learned

At this point you should be able to get the meter in your camera to read "just right" in a variety of combinations of settings for Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. These are the three settings called out in what is often called the Exposure Triangle, which you may look up at your leisure. There is a ton of technical detail, which is not really necessary to know, but which you may find helpful anyways.

If you stopped right here, you'd probably be able to take pretty OK pictures in Manual Mode.

But press on, I beg you!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Shutter, Aperture, and ISO, Part I

In this exercise, you'll adjust Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO separately, to learn what the visual effects of each setting are. You'll actually start taking pictures and looking at them in this exercise.

There are actually three separate exercises here, you can do them in any order.

Exercise 1.

In this exercise you'll be changing the Shutter Speed to see what the effects are.

Find a place where things are moving. Perhaps people or cars passing by.

Set the shutter speed to about 1/30. Alter Aperture and/or ISO settings to get the meter to "just right", centered. You will now take a series of photographs.

Holding the camera quite still, squeeze the shutter button. Do not "push" it, squeeze the grip, exhale gently, and allow the shutter button to compress, until the camera takes a picture. By squeezing the camera rather than pushing the button, you minimize the amount the camera moves around while you're taking a picture. This is a good thing, and should become natural to you.

Ignoring the meter, now, adjust the shutter speed one or two clicks in one direction. Take another picture. Go another couple clicks in the same direction, and take a third picture. Perhaps go a couple more clicks and take one more picture.

Now return the Shutter Speed setting to where you began, the meter should be more or less "just right" again.

Repeat the previous steps, clicking the shutter speed in the other direction.

Examine the resulting pictures. As the Shutter Speed gets faster and faster (1/60, 1/125, 1/250) the pictures should get darker and darker. As the Shutter Speed gets slower and slower (1/15, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2) the picture should get brighter and brighter.

What happens to the objects in motion past the lens?

Exercise 2.

This exercise follows the same pattern as Exercise 1, except you will be adjusting the Aperture.

Find a location with nearer objects, and farther ones. A longish table with objects spread out along it is a good choice. Sit or stand near one end of the table, so there are objects quite close to you (a couple feet, one meter) and objects farther away, past the table (ten feet or three meters, maybe).

Focus on something about middle distance, maybe six feet or two meters away. Make sure there are things farther away, and things closer to you, visible in the pictures you're about to take.

You may choose to set your lens/camera to Manual Focus at this point, to keep the point of focus the same from one shot to the next, as you do the exercise. If you cannot or don't want to, make sure that you focus back on the same object at the same distance for each shot in the exercise.

Set the Aperture setting to about f/8.0. Using the Shutter Speed and ISO settings, get the meter in your camera to read "just right". Now take a picture.

Ignoring the meter, adjust the Aperture settings one or two clicks in one direction. Take another picture. Adjust it another couple of clicks in the same direction, and take another picture. Continue until the Aperture setting will go no farther in that direction.

Return the aperture to f/8.0, the meter should return to "just right" or close to it.

Repeat the steps above, this time adjusting the Aperture one or two clicks in the other direction between each photograph.

Examine the resulting pictures. As the Aperture gets numerically larger (11.0, 16.0, 22.0, 32.0) the pictures should get darker and darker. As the Aperture gets numerically smaller (5.0, 4.5, 2.8) the picture should get brighter and brighter.

What happens visually to objects that are very near you, and very far away from you?

Exercise 3.

This exercise follows the same pattern as Exercise 1, except you will be adjusting the ISO.

The location here is anywhere with a good detailed scene, and not too much light. People always seem to use a bookshelf for this. It's not a bad idea.

Set the ISO to 800. Use the Aperture and Shutter Speed settings to get the meter on to the "just right" position. Take a photo.

Now you know the drill, right? Adjust the ISO a couple of clicks in one direction, ignoring the meter, and take a photo. Continue until the ISO can be adjusted no further in that direction, or until you get bored.

Put the ISO back to 800, and do the same again, adjusting the ISO in the other direction.

Examine the resulting pictures. As the ISO gets numerically larger (1600, 3200, 6400, HI, HIGHER) the pictures should get brighter and brighter. As the ISO gets numerically smaller (400, 200, 100) the picture should get darker and darker.

What else happens? Look closely. It should be apparent at the larger ISO numbers, at least, but it's a somewhat more subtle effect. Pay attention to the way colors look, and to how grainy the picture looks (especially if you zoom in).

Lessons Learned

At this point you should have a pretty good handle on how the three settings we're using affect the resulting picture, visually.

Putting these exercises with the previous one, you should be able to think through, for instance, what the visual effect of the following might be, for example:

Center the meter on "just right" and take a picture. Then change the Aperture a couple of clicks in one direction (which will change the meter), and the Shutter Speed in a suitable direction to get the meter back to "just right". Take a second picture.

How will the first and second pictures be different?

What if you used Aperture and ISO? What about ISO and Shutter Speed?

The effect you see with slower shutter speeds is motion blur. The motion of objects appears as a smearing of the object along the path of motion. In addition, tiny movements of the camera, which are inevitable, will become more and more apparent as an overall softness or smeariness to the picture.

The effect you see with aperture is called Depth of Field. In general, the larger the numerical aperture (8.0, 11.0, 16.0 etc) the more objects closer and further away than whatever you focused on will appear sharp, the Depth of Field will be greater. Smaller numerical apertures will, of course, produce shallower, less Depth of Field.

The effect is more dramatic close up, and less dramatic farther away, which is why we started with a table-top (this is pretty close up, the effect should be quite visible in your pictures). With a numerically small aperture like 2.8 or even 4.0, the only objects that appear sharp are those quite close to the one you focused on.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Looking at Photographs I

You're going to be looking at photographs several times in this mini-course. You should assemble a sort of library of pictures you can come back to over and over, to look at again as you learn different things, and as I ask you to look at pictures in a new way.

Gather magazines, especially those with large ads from fashion brands (Chanel, YSL, Bottega Veneta, and so on). Buy some photo books, or get some from a library. Older books of black&white photos, newer books with contemporary pictures. Bookmark some links to online archives of photographs.

Please do NOT use only online photo sharing services, as these present a very contemporary and narrow view of photography. Ideally, stick to photographs in print media, or photographs at least have been in print media (an online archive of magazine photos is fine, for instance). Photo sharing sites tend to duplicate terrible habits on a gigantic scale, and will teach you all sorts of terrible things.

Spend some time looking at pictures. Try to look at at least several dozen different photos (not just 24 contemporary fashion photos, please, spread yourself across a few genres). Take a minute or two with each one.

With your new experience with shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, try to guess what kind of settings might have been used. Guessing the exact numbers is less important than getting your head around "faster/slower, higher/lower" kinds of ideas. Consider making some notes, perhaps on post-it notes that you paste directly on to the photos.

While you're at it, pay attention to exposure as well. How dark or light are these pictures? What do you suppose the meter would have looked like when shooting each of these pictures?

You can begin to pay a little attention to composition as well. Where are the major shapes located in the frame? Are there lines? Where was the light coming from when the photo was taken (there are likely to have been several light sources) and was the light soft or harsh? Don't worry too much about this.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Shutter, Aperture, and ISO, Part II

This exercise is a repeat of the first exercise, with a small but vital variation.

Exercise 1.

Find somewhere with motion; people, cars, birds, whatever moving past the lens. Ideally, find somewhere different than you did the first time you did the exercise. Adjust the Shutter Speed to 1/30 as before, and center the meter by adjusting Aperture and ISO. Try to get the Aperture setting to somewhere in the middle of its range, 8.0 or so, by manipulating the ISO. Now take a picture. Click the shutter speed a couple of clicks in one direction or another,

and now make a complementary adjustment to Aperture to re-center the meter.

Take another picture.

Proceeed as before, moving the Shutter Speed first in one direction, but continuing to re-center the meter with complementary adjustments to Aperture. Then return to the 1/30 setting, and move in the other direction, always centering the meter with complementary adjustments to Aperture.

Your pictures should all come out about the same brightness now, but the combined effects of your Shutter Speed and complementary Aperture adjustments should be visible, making each picture qualitatively different. If there is very little depth to the scene, the effects of Aperture may be hard to see, but keep an eye on the background.

Exercise 2.

Find somewhere with near and far objects, and something to focus on in the middle. Try to find somewhere new, different from the last time you did this exercise. Perhaps a view looking down a street.

Focus somewhere in the middle, and set the Aperture to 8.0, and center the meter with adjustments to Shutter Speed.

Adjusting the Aperture first in one direction and then the other, while making complementary adjustments to Shutter Speed to keep the meter centered make a series of pictures.

Again, all the pictures should be about the same brightness, but the combined results of the Aperture and the complementary adjustments should be visible. If nothing much is moving, the shutter speed setting may not make much difference, but as it gets quite slow (1/15, 1/8 and so on) the pictures will at any rate get softer/fuzzier simply because it's nearly impossible to hold the camera still enough.

You can combine these two exercises by finding a location with near and far objects, as well as objects in motion. Make a series of photographs, adjusting Shutter Speed and Aperture in a complementary fashion.

Exercise 3.

This is the same deal, but with ISO.

As we've seen, the effects of changing ISO are somewhat more subtle than the other two settings.

In a darker situation, say, indoors, we might change the ISO up and down, and make complementary changes to the Shutter Speed. As you may have already observed in Exercise 1, a faster shutter speed will generally produce sharper pictures, even if nothing in the frame is moving. So, altering the ISO up to larger numerical values can be helpful here.

Experiment indoors, in a room with average-to-dim light. Center the meter, and then take a series of pictures with various ISO settings and various complementary Shutter Speeds.

Lessons Learned

Congratulations! You now know how to take "correctly exposed" photographs in Manual Mode, whatever "correctly exposed" means to your camera's meter. You can also adjust the various settings to various combinations of settings which will produce that same exposure (that same degree of brightness in the picture) but with various different visual effects.

What sorts of things does a slow shutter speed like 1/15 do, versus a faster one like 1/500?

What sorts of things does a numerically small Aperture, like 4.0, do versus a numerically large one like 16.0?

Why would I use a high ISO like 3200, if I didn't particularly want a grainy/noisy picture?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Camera Position

In this exercise you're going to experiment with putting the camera in different places, and orienting it differently.

Find a subject that you like, that you can spend some time shooting, and that has quite a bit of space around it. You'll want to get close, you'll want to stand far away. If you can get up high, as well as down low, that would be a plus.

If you are using a zoom lens, set it to one zoom position and leave it there for the entire exercise. Pick a zoom level that feels about "normal", not too wide, not all telephoto-y.

Find a starting position, somewhere to stand. Middle distance to the subject. If it's possible to get up high above the the subject by climbing something, or going up some steps, or similar, select your starting position near where you would do that, but don't go up just yet.

Pick a set of Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO settings that seem right to you based on previous exercises. You might choose to center the meter, or to go a little one way or the other from the center. Pick these settings now, and stick with them for the exercise. Take a picture and check it on the back of the camera, to make sure you're getting what you had in mind. Then, begin:

Exercise 1.

Standing in your starting position, take a picture of your subject. This is your baseline picture, the first impulse. The odds are excellent that it's pretty boring.

Move closer to the subject, taking pictures as you move in. Let the subject fill the frame completely, and then slop out of the frame. Move in until some detail of the subject is most of the frame.

Return to your original position, and now back away from the subject, continuing to take pictures, until the subject is quite small in the frame.

Exercise 2.

Return to the first place you took a picture.

Crouch down a little and take a picture. Crouch lower and take another. Kneel and take another. Try to get as low as you can, now, and take a final picture.

If you can go up higher over the subject, do that now, taking a series of pictures.

Exercise 3.

Return to your starting position. Or, if you prefer, some other location you've tried out, if somewhere else particularly appealed to you.

Turn your camera 90 degrees, shutter button on the top (unless you've been shooting that way all along, in that case, turn it to the horizontal configuration, shutter button on the right). Take a picture. Try it at various angles in between the "horizontal" and "vertical" orientations.

Now go and review all these pictures. Spend a little time with each one.

How do you feel about each shot? More importantly, how do you feel about one shot versus a different one?

How does the picture look with the camera down low to the ground, versus high up in the air?

How does the picture look when you are close to the subject versus far away?

How does the picture look vertical versus slanted versus horizontal?

Which picture is the best one?

Make notes in your notebook about your reactions to these pictures. The subject is the same, even the exposure is the same (since you left the Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO alone. The only thing which changed was camera position and orientation. How does that effect the pictures?

Friday, December 19, 2014

Looking at Photographs II

Return to the photographs you looked at the first time around, in Looking at Photographs I.

You've got a little more experience with the basic three settings, so you may want to re-evaluate some of these pictures a bit. There's also the new element of camera position to consider, as well as overall exposure.

For each picture ask yourself:
  • Roughly what shutter speed, aperture, and ISO might have been used?
  • Where was the camera relative to the items we can see in the frame?
  • What kind of exposure is it? About "just right" or is it lighter or darker than that?

Make notes as you go.

Now ask yourself these questions about each picture:
  • What was the photographer trying to do? Just document something, create a feeling, make a beautiful picture, sell a product, etc..
  • Did the photographer succeed?
  • How do you feel about the picture?

For instance an advertisement might contain a photograph of a model in a beautiful home. Perhaps the photographer was trying to create a feeling of wealth and luxury. A paparazzi shot might be trying to make a movie star look tawdry or sneaky or fat. A press photo of a politician or CEO might be trying to convey trustworthiness, or the opposite.

Many photos we see in the news might simply be documenting a thing which happened, or which is, but I think you will find a surprising number of even these express a fairly clear viewpoint.

Finally, try to make a connection between the feeling, the idea, of the photograph, and the technical details you noted in the first set of questions.

This is not always obvious. If you can make even a couple of connections you feel good about, at this point, be proud of yourself.

As always, make notes. Write a little bit about any connections you've noted. Perhaps the low camera position made someone look taller and more powerful. Write that down.