I mentioned in one of my #50by50 posts (#50by50ish #37 – Take a photography course) that I was taking the Photo 101 course that Henry’s offers, and that I wanted to blog about the actual classes each week. Unfortunately, life intervened and I didn’t get to blogging each week, and the company has also altered their offerings to put more of it online or have one-day workshops than to offer in-person classes over several weeks. Nevertheless, I wanted to blog about it, so here I go.
Week 1 was about camera fundamentals, and if I called it “meet your camera week”, it would be a bit more direct. You learn all the basic controls, what they do, and because it is a generic photography class with everyone having different brands and models, a lot of it was hands-on instruction to walk various people through THEIR camera settings to get it into a relatively common set of options for everyone to start with in the class. Overall for the week, there were six basic areas to cover.
A. DIAL MODES
One of the first things we talked about was that the goal of the course was to give people a lot more confidence to get off of automatic mode and into more manual settings. As such, we started with the obvious — how do you get out of automatic mode?
For different cameras, the dial has slightly different words and letters, but generally you switch the dial from automatic mode (a green A usually) to one of four main manual modes — Program Mode (you change a couple of things, the rest is automatic), S or Tv is shutter priority mode (you set the shutter speed and it figures the rest out), A or Av is aperture priority mode (you set aperture, it figures the rest out) or M for manual mode where you set and control everything.
Nothing particularly surprising in there, but I have the Canon model so it has the Tv and Av labels. Why? Av stands for “aperture value”, which seems understandable. And so Tv is shutter priority…wait, what? The abbreviation is for “time value”, i.e. how long a shutter time you are using. I think Nikon uses A and S, but no biggie, we all adjusted. I was surprised no one asked why it was called Tv, but I figured I was the only one who didn’t know, so I didn’t ask either. I should mention in passing that I was in a group of 10 people as it becomes a bit relevant for week 3 and 4.
B. DISABLE LIGHT STABILIZATION
One thing we did change early on to get everyone to the same spot was to turn off the auto light stabilizer — this stops the camera from overriding your settings and guessing how much light you want in your pics. After all, the whole point of going to manual modes was to have a lot more control. So we turned it off by going to Program Mode (P), pressing Menu, choosing CAMERA 2 as the tab, and turning off AUTO LIGHT STABILIZER.
C. HEY, LOOK, A VIEWFINDER!
Next on the list of things to learn more about was the viewfinder on the camera. Sure, lots of us have smartphones and we want to default to using the little digital display to line things up, but the viewfinder gives you a much better understanding of compositional elements (week 4), and it’s good to get into the habit of using it now. And if you can turn off the screen, your battery will last longer anyway. Just saying.
Anyway, there were two aspects of the viewfinder that were emphasized, and I confess I didn’t know either one. First, while I knew there were little numbers showing up in the viewfinder display, I didn’t know what they were. Across the bottom is usually exposure compensation (week 2) in the middle, key settings for aperture or shutter (bottom left), plus a few other handy things to know. Quite small print, but they’re there. If you press the shutter button down half-way, they appear.
The second thing is that while the camera does the autofocus thing for the actual image in the lens, you can also adjust the viewfinder for YOUR eyes. There is a small dial next to the viewfinder that is a diopter that allows you to adjust the viewfinder focus (not the camera lens, just the viewfinder) to your vision. Some people take their glasses off and adjust it to their prescription; others tweak it slightly to their viewing eye.
D. ISO SETTINGS
I’d love to tell you that it stands for something like “image sensitivity ordering” as that would seem to make some kind of sense, but it really goes back to the International Standards Organization. Yep, it has nothing to do with photography. It was the international way to measure and compare the light sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. In old film cameras, it often was referred to as film speed or the ASA rating. Generally, the higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the camera is to light. Why does it matter?
In photography, imaging, even just plain seeing, you only get a picture or see things by light reflecting off objects and coming into your eye or camera. In order for the camera to “capture” the image, it has to be able to see gradations of light and distinguish between light and dark. People often refer to it as “capturing the light”.
When you’re using your camera, you can tell it how much light you want to capture. If you set it to AUTO ISO, it is a general, all-purpose setting where the camera will figure out how much light that it is seeing coming in, and it will adjust higher if it isn’t getting that much light. In other words, if you have a lot of light, it will set it for ISO 100. If you have only a little light, it will make itself “more” sensitive to the little light there is by adjusting to ISO 6400, for example.
Outside in the daytime or even bright artificial light, and if you’re out of AUTO ISO mode, you will likely set it somewhere between 100-400 ISO. This works well if you’re just using your camera in hand-held mode, or if slightly lower light, with a tripod. But here’s the catch…the more sensitive your setting, the more sensitive the camera is to any change in light, including IF YOU MOVE THE CAMERA. So, generally, the more you up the ISO setting, the more you want to increase stabilization and use a tripod.
If you are in a low-light situation, you might want to go for 800-3200.
If you are in a REALLY low-light situation, you could go to 6400 (the limit on my camera) or more (some go up to 20K+).
Now you might think, “okay, you adjust it just for level of light”. And that’s a good rule of thumb. But that is too simplistic. Cameras always work at capturing light as a trade-off between three things — light sensitivity, how long your shutter is open, and how wide the opening is aka aperture. If you boost light sensitivity, you get more light; if you leave your shutter open longer, you get more light; if you have a really big opening (wide aperture), you get more light. If you do all three, you get a white image with no details.
So, suppose you are outside, it’s a bright sunny day, and you want to take a picture of your cousin out waterskiing. Now, because you know that it’s an object in motion, you need a really fast shutter speed — take a quick pic, freeze the motion, and move on. But the faster the shutter speed, the LESS light the camera is letting in. And if you open the aperture really wide, it’s going to take longer to snap the pic, likely resulting in blurring. So, to compensate for the fast shutter speed, the wise photographer can boost the light sensitivity. Basically saying, “Okay, I need a super fast shutter to open just wide enough to get the shot, and then close really quickly, which will allow me to ‘freeze’ motion, and since that won’t give me much light in that short of time, I’m going to boost the image sensitivity way up.”
I took the following photo a few years ago in a preset scene mode for sports, which at the time, I didn’t really know what the camera was doing, but now I can go back and figure out what it did (actually, this is one of the learning methods in the class — find a photo that we like that we took previously in auto mode, and go back to figure out what the settings were that worked and why). The camera had given me a fast shutter speed of 1/1600th of a second. It kept my aperture fairly open at F5.6, partly as I was zoomed in, and it changed my default bright day setting of about ISO 100 to ISO 400.
Now I was also taking high-res images, maximum pixels, and if it had been a cloudy day, the camera might have bumped me up to ISO 800 or more. Indoors, fast action sports like basketball, the camera would likely go up to ISO 1600 or maybe even 6400. But because the camera was adjusting on the fly to my “fast” settings, and greater light sensitivity, I was able to get this one.
Other reasons to increase light sensitivity is if you MUST get a particular shot, i.e. if you miss it, it’s gone, as it increases likelihood of capturing something. Sports shots are often like that, get it now or it’s gone, but there are other times too.
My Canon Rebel T5i / 700D was considered to be, at the time that I bought it, a high-value entry-level DSLR, and many newbies love it out of the box as the stock lenses all come with powered auto-focus. In fact, most users may never ever take the lens off auto-focus mode. However, we learned that auto-focus needs three factors to be at play:
- AT LEAST MINIMUM DISTANCE: Lenses all have different minimum focus distances. Macro lenses will let you get up close and personal with a flower or bug, but most lenses won’t. A standard lens wants to be back a few feet from your subject. So if you’re closer than that, it can’t auto-focus. You may struggle to get it to focus even manually, but that’s a somewhat separate issue.
- CONTRAST: If you are wearing light colours, like white, against a flat white wall, the camera is going to have trouble figuring out distances. There’s no contrast between you and the wall to tell it that you’re closer and to focus on you. The easiest contrast, most often, is that something is overlapping something else. Your eyes do the same thing. You see a telephone pole off in the distance and a car over to the side. You may not be able to visually tell which one is closer immediately but if you can see wires leading up to the pole, and roadway leading up to the car, you can intellectually guess which one is closer. However, if the car passes in front of the pole, you can immediately tell which is closer, both intellectually and visually. Cameras have limited reasoning ability…they want to see something darker/brighter in front of something lighter (and thus farther away), and if there is a strong contrast between the two, the sensors can pick up the difference almost “visually” rather than “computationally”. If it can’t, it’s going to struggle with any sort of auto-focus. You may even see it struggle as it focuses in and then out, in and then out.
- STILL OR SLOW-MOVING. If the object goes by like the Roadrunner, your camera is going to say, “Umm, what was that?” Because it was moving too fast to focus on it. It couldn’t keep up with focusing, kind of like where it is now, getting ready to take the shot, boom, it’s moved and the focus is off now, refocus, ready to snap, dammit, where did that roadrunner go?
However, while auto-focus is good generally, there is also a propensity to have multi-points of focus and semi-continuous auto-focus. If you instead set it to a single point of focus (a red dot in the middle, for example), you can focus on whatever you want at any distance with a half-press of the shutter and “lock in” that distance. Then, you can move your camera to wherever you want to centre it.
Why would this be useful? The example in the book is looking through some trees at someone who is on a dock to the left. If you focus in the centre, it will focus on the trees and leaves which are about half the distance to the person. Auto-focus will lock there by default, and the person will be blurred. Instead, if you turn your camera and point it at the person, get it in focus for them, pressing half-way down to “lock that distance”, you can then rotate the camera so the trees and leaves are back in the centre, and take the shot. The camera is still focusing on the person (locked to that distance) but the composition will be the trees in the foreground slightly out of focus and the person sharp. You often see this in wedding photos where people are walking through the woods and they are razor sharp at a medium distance but not necessarily centred in the shot. A much easier example to understand is using it focus on something in the distance if you’re at a zoo to “lock the distance” and then turning so you’re shooting through the fence. If you auto-focus normally, it will focus on the fence; if you focus on the distance, the fence more or less fades away.
F. MANUAL PICTURE BRIGHTNESS
But we learned that sometimes you don’t want to adjust ISO because it will mess up other things. How do you brighten a shot without a flash? There is something called manual picture brightness or EV for exposure value. It’s an extra setting that allows you to do +/- increments from 0.0 being neutral. Mine lets me go up and down in 0.3 increments, up to +5 and down to -5. My smartphone does +/- 2 in .5 increments, although most people using their apps have NO idea what the EV does. If you increase EV, your pic is brighter; decrease EV, it goes darker. It just gives you a little more control without messing with the other settings. It is apparently particularly good for difficult lighting like snow (DSLRs often dull it so boost an extra EV nudge) or in low light generally (DSLRs often over-brighten it so reduce it an extra EV nudge or two).
And that was the end of the first week’s class. If I had to say what I got out of the class, I would say:
- More comfort with manual and the dial modes;
- How to control the viewfinder, and even that there was a diopter control;
- The link between ISO and shutter speed for sports shots i.e. how I got the shot I did of the cousin water-skiing;
- How to “lock” focus at one distance and then compose; and,
- How to adjust picture brightness with the exposure value.
In class, we took some pics to practice, mostly playing with things at different distances to get things in focus and then with manually enhancing and reducing exposure values (or over-adjusting in these cases).
Close focus on teacher:
Farther focus on TV:
Boosted the EV:
Decreased the EV:
A good first week…and then we had homework. Yes, homework! Mostly just to replicate some of the practice in the classroom.
A relatively “normal setting” photo:
Close focus, far object blurred:
Far focus, close subject: