05 February 2010

Taking control of your camera: an introductory guide to photography

This is the first in a series of articles that explain the fundamentals of photography. I'll cover everything from setting the right shutter speed to controlling depth of field, and I promise to do it all without assuming any previous knowledge of photography.

Understanding exposure
Controlling shutter speed
Coming next: Focus explained.

Introduction

Learning photography is like climbing a distant mountain: you struggle up a rock face and hope to see the peak, only to find that a new challenge lies ahead.

I love photography because no matter how much you practise, it always throws up a new challenge. Learning photography is like climbing a distant mountain: you struggle up a rock face and hope to see the peak, only to find that a new challenge lies ahead. In truth there is no "peak" to learning photography, because as your photography improves, so your own personal standards and expectations increase.

This perpetual challenge keeps photography fresh and exciting, but at times it can be desperately frustrating. Have you ever seen a beautiful landscape, but find that your photos fail to convey that beauty? Have you missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because you couldn't get the shot quick enough, or taken the "perfect photo," only to find that it was blurred because you used the wrong shutter speed? We've all been there, and it can leave us wondering what on Earth we're doing wrong.
In this series of articles I hope to do my bit to help. I'll explain how to use your camera's most important controls in order to take better photos. I'll introduce the fundamentals of photography, and explain how to apply them in the real world. If you're new to photography, have been taking photos for some time but don't often stray from the "auto" setting, or you simply want to brush up on some foundation skills, then read on.

The fundamentals

Since Joseph Nicéphore Niépce produced the first photograph nearly 200 years ago, photography (and the camera) have evolved beyond anything that the early pioneers could have dreamt of. But at the fundamental level the same principles apply. All cameras depend on just four basic controls. These are:
  • Shutter speed
  • Focus
  • Aperture
  • Sensitivity (ISO speed)
So why is the modern digital camera crammed full of functions and features? The fact is that most of these features simply provide different ways of assessing a scene, in order to set those four controls for you. Today's cameras are pretty good at this. They employ state-of-the-art microchips to take the hard work out of photography. But there are times when they make a complete hash of it. There are also times when you want to do something creative and the camera seems hellbent on stopping you. That's when it becomes important to understand the four fundamentals, so that you, the photographer, can take over.
In the following articles I'll step through each of these controls in turn, but before I do so I'd like to introduce something even more fundamental to photography...
Next article: Understanding Exposure.

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