In Laos, I met a young Canadian who did not have a remote clue how to use her expensive Canon camera. She was shooting on M or manual. I suggested that she should never use Manual as making any adjustment overrode the meter. She turned the camera on and on the screen appeared: M – use for maximum creative control. She was an actress and that appealed to her greatly! When she disagreed with me, I tried to explain that normally one would shoot on A (aperture priority) or T (shutter priority) to achieve the most creative control. In broad daylight, she was also using ISO 1600. I suggested that in normal light, she should be using the lowest ISO to get the least grain. Again she disagreed. i asked what adjustments she would make if the scene was completely white, ie a snow scene. She said that she would make the aperture as small as possible so less light would be available!! Eventually the discussion ended in an argument as she disagreed with everything I said. She really understood nothing. I realized that there was no point in discussing anything about a camera. She may have been the extreme but few travelers with SLR cameras understand them.
Carrying a large single reflex camera has become very common with travelers. Adding a lens or two means a large addition to your backpack. Unfortunately almost none of them understands the camera and thus they are unable to gain all the advantages available. They could just as well be carrying a small point and shoot. People buy these cameras in order to take better pictures, and indeed better photography is possible especially with the better lenses. Usually the camera is on A for automatic, or P for program, or one of the icons for landscape, portraiture or close up. There the camera is making all the decisions and little different than using a point and shoot. Despite huge sensors, their pictures are rarely displayed as more than small file jpegs. Rarely are large prints made that might require the fine detail needed. Little effort is expended in taking good pictures. Photography is all about light, but the best times to take pictures, at the beginning or end of the day, are not often taken advantage of. Elements of simple composure are ignored. These cameras are also a target for thieves. Why bother spending all the money and adding all that bulk. I think SLRs are a status symbol for many.
With digital photography, there is no cost (other than time) to taking hundreds or even thousands of pictures a day. Most people stop looking at the scene and merrily snap away taking pictures of everything. I suppose they don’t mind spending hours daily deleting all the useless shots. I learned my photography shooting Fugi Velvia, a high grain slide film with saturated colors. Every picture cost 50 cents. A big photographic day meant taking 30 to 60 pictures. One soon learns when not to take a picture. And I could do nothing to the end result. Photoshop was of no value.
Through reading and belonging to a camera club, i learned a great deal about photography. I actively competed in photographic contests. I have the best lenses and auxillary equipment money can buy, but they now sit in a box. I don’t even carry a point and shoot. I think I would only get into it again if I shot old-fashioned film. I have no interest in carrying heavy, expensive cameras and lenses or sitting in front of a computer deleting pictures or working on them in photoshop. I also have no interest in taking bad pictures. Outstanding photography takes a lot of work – up before dawn to get to a location for the best light, carrying a tripod and then using the best light at the end of the day. We would often nap during the middle of the day when there was no value taking any pictures (unless it was completely overcast). I simply don’t have the energy for that anymore. As a full time traveler, that is where I want to put my energy.
Unfortunately, present day digital photography has little to do with taking good pictures. Photoshop and other editing programs can make up for many errors of technique – remove those electrical wires, make the sky blue, increase the saturation – whatever. It requires good computer skills but not much knowledge of a camera. Maybe that is why nobody knows how to use their camera. However to take really outstanding pictures still requires a good picture to start with. Photoshop can only do so much. Few people enlarge their pictures and put them on the wall – few of them are good enough for that.
I have been traveling for eight years and finally abandoned my camera five years ago. I now look a things differently and try to make a visual image that stays in my memory
Actually learning how to take advantage of all the features of the camera, using the best light, learning how to adjust exposure, and use best composition takes some effort. Hopefully I will be able to give you some insight into how to get the most from your SLR.
A CAMERA SEES DIFFERENTLY THAN THE HUMAN EYE
To understand a camera, the diffferences between how our eyes see and what is possible (or not possible) with a camera should be understood.
1. Infinite focus and depth of field. If you have normal vision, everything from very close to infinity is in focus all the time. The lens in our eye makes instantaneous adjustments. A camera has limited depth of field depending mostly on a. the focal length of the lens – a wide angle lens has more depth of field than a telephoto lens. b. the aperture at which the picture is taken at – a large aperture, eg f2.8 has much less depth of field than f22, a very small aperture.
Using hyperfocal distance charts, one can obtain maximal depth of field for any focal length of lens. For example, a 16mm lens at f22, can focus from half the hyperfocal distance of 18 inches, ie 9 inches, from the film plane or digital sensor, to infinity.
Using large aperatures and/or telephoto lenses, in-focus portraits can be taken against a completely out of focus background.
2. Unlimited contrast. The human eye can see 9 full stops of light intensity. Each stop of light is one half (or twice) the level of light of the previous full stop. For example, at dawn with light on the top of the surrounding mountains, one could be standing in a field of flowers and see everything in perfect detail. A camera can only register 3 full stops of light. A picture of this scene, if the exposure was right for the mountains, would leave the flowers very dark with no detail. Using film, one could only take this picture using a dark filter (called a half graduated filter) across the mountain in light to decrease the light intensity of the full light. Digital photography is much easier: with the camera on a tripod, take 3-5 pictures of the scene exposing for for each level of light intensity, then stitch them together using photoshop or more simply, the HDR button on your camera. This seems like cheating to me.
3. Ability to freeze or prolong motion. The eye can only see in real time. The camera with long shutter speeds can make flowing water look like flowing silk, or with very fast shutter speeds and strobes, isolate the movement of humming bird flight or catch the splash of a drop of fluid. The movement of stars can be shown with very long exposures producing star trails. The same happens with moving cars at night where the lights of the vehicle are long streaks of light and there is no detail of the vehicle.
4. Angle of view. The eye sees everything at one size with a generally big field of view. A camera can see wide angles, so wide that they can produce distorted perspective like with a fish eye lens, or telephoto images with significant magnification. The size of the photo is determined by the shape and size of the sensor, generaly 3×4.
5. Binocular vision. Our eyes see a three dimensional world, cameras flatten perspective.
6. Accentuation of colors or other special effects. Using colored filters, one can add or accentuate special colors. Star filters can give isolated points of light a star effect. Polarizing filters remove reflections from nonmetallic surfaces giving increased color saturation and deepening the color of the sky.
7. With digital photography and photo editing programs, you can do anything. To my mind, this is not photography, but work done in a computer. When digital first came along, we had endless arguments about how much could be changed in photoshop and still be admissable for competitions. Now it seems that anything goes.
THE FOCAL LENGTH OF A LENS.
Lenses can be either a single focal length or zoom lenses. With a full size digital sensor, a 50 mm lens shows things at normal size. Anything less than 50 mm is wide angle and anything more than 50mm is telephoto. If your digital sensor is 50% of full size, these numbers must have 50% added, ie a 16mm lens becomes a 24.
All lenses will have the widest possible aperature written on the barrel. Zoom lenses usually have a range of aperatures, eg a 24-128mm lens could have the numbers 2.8-4 meaning that at 24mm the widest aperture is 2.8 and at 128mm, the widest aperture is 4. Telephoto lenses with wide possible aperatures are very large.
APERTURE AND THE F STOP
The aperture refers to the amount of light that is allowed to enter the lens and is described by the term f stop. It is a confusing number for beginners to understand as the smaller the f stop, the larger the aperture (and the more light entering the lens); and the larger the f stop, the smaller the aperture (and less light enters the lens). That is because it is really a fraction that instead of saying 1/2.8, the fraction is ignored.
The second confusing thing is that the numbers are not numerical multiples. To understand f stops (and thus your camera, it is necessary to memorize the prime f stops. The difference between each prime f stop is that exactly half or twice as much light enters the lens (resulting in a shutter speed twice or half as much with each change of prime f stop).
The prime f stops: 1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, and 22. Very few lenses would have apertures of 1, 1.4 or 2 as these are expensive and large. Apertures this large are also usually not necessary anyway as they result in very fast shutter speeds, again not usually necessary unless one is photographing sports or fast action. This leaves only seven numbers to memorize, hopefully not too large an amount to commit to memory.
If one remember high school math, the area of a circle is calculated using an exponential number. That is why the prime f stops are not simple multiples. Not understanding that they are really fractions and involve exponential numbers is why most people look at f stops, don’t understand them and simply don’t bother.
The meter in the camera calculates the amount of light entering the lens and automatically determines the f stop and shutter speed necessary to produce the right exposure. When you operate the quick control dial to change the aperture, a corresponding change occurs in the shutter speed. Going from f 5.6 to f8 halves the amount of light entering the lens and doubles the shutter speed (for example from 1/60 second to 1/30 second) and the exposure remains exactly the same. That is why you don’t normally ever shoot in M or manual mode: the f stop is changed but there is no corresponding change in the shutter speed and twice or half as much light is entering the lens, changing the exposure and overriding the meter. One of the reasons why you purchased that big, expensive camera is that the meter is generally very accurate and precise – why would you want to override it? (there are reasons but we will get to them later).
USING A-APERTURE PRIORITY MODE OR T-SHUTTER PRIORITY MODE
Rather than using one of the preset picture modes – automatic, program, landscape, portrait, close-up – I would strongly suggest that you only use these two modes. Again why did you buy this camera – you want to exercise the most creative control over the pictures you take, not depend on the camera to determine the shutter speed and depth of field. By using either of these, you will also begin to understand more about how your camera’s meter and exposure system works.
Shutter speed and camera shake. When hand holding a camera, if the shutter speed is too slow, you will get blurred pictures. The rule is: always use a shutter speed at least as fast as 1/the focal length of the lens. Therefore if you are taking a wide angle picture at 28mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/30 second; if the focal length is 128mm , the shutter speed should be at least 1/120 second; if 400mm, it should be at least 1/400 second.
IS (internal stabilization for Canons) and VR (vibration reduction for Nikons)
These are lenses that contain gyros that reduce camera shake, and thus allow you to handhold at slower camera speeds. They help by at least 2-3 stops, that is, at a focal length of 28mm, one can hand hold now at a shutter speed of 1/8 to 1/4 of a second (1/30 divided by 2 = 1/15 second or 1 stop, divided by 2 = 1/8 second or 2 stops, divided by 2 = 1/4 second or 3 stops). Practically you would not usually want to use these slow shutter speeds and I would recommend still shooting using shutter speeds that follow the 1/focal length of the lens rule. IS or VR will then provide a good safety margin.
When I was serious about my photography, I never took a picture without using a tripod. Then shutter speed and camera shake is never a problem. Learn how to hold your camera properly to avoid shake when hand holding.
T or shutter priority mode. If taking pictures and hand holding the camera, set the shutter speed at the time where camera shake is going to be at a minimum. Then you will always have the aperture at its smallest and thus achieve the greatest depth of field for that picture. This would be most useful if shooting landscapes when you want everything in the picture to be in focus.
A or aperture priority mode. The aperture that provides the best pictures is usually about f 8. That aperture uses the best glass in the lens and usually provides adequate depth of field. Use this mode when you want to control depth of field. The larger the aperture, the less the depth of field, and the smaller the aperture, the greater the depth of field.
ADJUSTING EXPOSURE TO COMPENSATE FOR SCENES THAT ARE NOT 18% GREY
The meter in your camera is designed to provide correct exposure when the tone in the scene is 18% grey. That is a difficult concept to convey. When a picture has a predonimance of white or black, the meter will produce an incorrect exposure as it will be exposing as if the scene were 18% grey. Use the histogram to show if the camera is exposing correctly. The exposure compensation mode is a bar numbered from -3 to +3. Look at your manual to determine how to make the compensation.
Scenes that have a predominance of white. In the winter when snow scenes might predominate, the exposure produced by the meter will be incorrect resulting in grey snow and underexposed darker objects. To produce white snow, overexpose the picture by one to three stops. The amount will depend on how much white is present. In a totally white scene, that could be as much as 3 stops. For less white, reduce the overexposure to as little as half or one stop. It takes some practice , but again viewing the histogram will show you if your compensation is adequate.
Scenes that have a predominance of black. I saw this scene often when I was in the Galapagos Islands where there is a lot of black lava. If compensation was not used, the rocks took on a grey tone. To compensate, underexpose the scene by adjusting the exposure by one to three stops depending on the amount of black in the scene.
There are many general rules to use.
1. Take only pictures that have some meaning or purpose rather than simply snapping pictures of everything.
2. Decide what interests you most in a scene and take a picture of only that. Usually it is a much smaller part of the scene than what you might normally include. This reduces unwanted clutter from what is the center of interest and produces more interesting pictures.
3. Rule of thirds. Avoid putting the center of interest in the center of the scene. By placing it about one third off center, you produce a much more dynamic and pleasing picture.
4. Use leading lines. Use things in the scene that may lead your eye to come to rest on the center of interest.
5. Avoid clutter. Avoid things in the scene that detract from the center of interest. Again take a picture only of the part of the scene that interests you most. Watch for power lines and other objects that add nothing to the scene.
6. Avoid objects that may intersect on the center of interest.