Hey there. You probably clicked on this link for one of a few reasons. Maybe you’re a regular reader. Maybe you’re curious about photography. Maybe you wanted to give my editors some sweet, sweet click revenue. Maybe you meant to give prospect.org or the blokes over at prospectmagazine.co.uk some of that sweet click cash, in which case, wrong site. Maybe a hacker is controlling your computer through a botnet and reading this in between stealing your credit card number, downloading your cringiest personal information, and writing suspiciously vague spam emails about Dr. Oz’s revolutionary new brain pills. Whatever it is, I’m assuming it’s the first option, so let’s go with that. Ever since the first man first took the first stone blade and etched his musings on the side of a cave, society has been recording itself and it’s images for a long time, whether through paintings, sculptures, or the words you’re reading right now. But I’m not just talking about imagery here; I’m talking photography. So let’s get right to it.
Photography is a pretty simple art form in principle: Just aim the glass lens at whatever you want to capture, hold down a button, boom, pow, flash, lather, rinse, repeat. But it’s actually a craft with a very long and convoluted history, one I don’t totally understand myself, but here’s a couple fun facts. Did you know that photography was sorta invented sometime between the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E. when the famous philosophers Mo Di, Aristotle, and Euclid kinda described a primitive pinhole camera system which used some sorta convoluted light processes to project light imagery into a box, or uh, something? Or that the first real permanently developed photograph came sometime circa 1827, when some French inventor guy named Joseph Nicéphore Niépce used an even more convoluted series of processes called heliography that involved sunlight, cement, and some chemistry stuff, to capture a grainy picture from outside a window? Not the most high quality stuff here, but it laid the groundwork for companies like Polaroid and Eastman Kodak to develop their own unique film processes, which in turn laid the foundation for digital cameras and DSLRs in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, and that’s what I’m going to get to the real point about here, because who really cares about those other ones anymore?
So, what should amateur newbie shutterscrubs like you or me have to know about digital photography, besides the whole holding the camera straight and pointing and shooting part? Well, a couple of things, and so like any good journalist with integrity, I’ll list them:
1. Let There Be Light (or Shadows)
Any scrub can just point and shoot a selfie on their smartphone or easily capture a party with their DSLR’s prime lens in a split second using autofocus, but who can’t? Sure, a camera’s default automatic settings can be a very useful convenience sometimes for efficiently taking pictures or recording video, but if you use them as a crutch, you can miss out on understanding some of the finer details to really hone the look of your pictures. One of the biggest ones to consider is the essential trifecta of exposure: aperture, ISO, and shutter speed, how they play off one another, and how you can hone them to give your pictures the visual aesthetic you want.
The aperture is basically the “pupil” of your camera lens, the size of the opening that lets light into the camera’s sensors. This opening is measured in a rate known as f-stops, and like golf, you want to strive for the lower numbers. F-stops like f/1.6 or f/2.8, the larger and more open the aperture can be for light, giving you the most freedom to mess around with your depth of field ( what’s in focus vs. what’s out of focus) and make it as deep or as shallow as you’d like. ISO on the other hand, is the camera’s sensitivity to light. Most DSLR cameras have a default setting of around 100 to 200 ISO, which in the daytime will give you some of the crispest, noise free pictures as possible. It gets a little trickier when you shoot in night or low light indoor settings however. Overblowing the ISO to 3200 might turn your shot into a blurry, grainy mess, but one that’s too low at night might not capture enough detail. This is something I’ve still been messing around with myself, and you’re kind of out of luck with a smartphone, but if you have a DSLR I’d recommend experimenting with adjusting your ISO (which you should be able to do through the Menu or the Q/Quick Controls button) so you can try to find as happy a medium as possible.
What do you do if that doesn’t work? Mess around with the shutter speed. Shutter speed isn’t actually a measure of speed so much as it is the time your camera’s sensors are exposed to light as the shutter opens. For the best results you want to make sure that the shutter speed is adjusted accordingly with your ISO and aperture, but at the same time, but at the same time, don’t be afraid to tweak that either with the camera’s dial on the top right, and utilizing the aperture (Av), shutter (S on Nikon cameras, Tv on Canon models), and ISO (Sv) priority mode’s on your DSLR’s mode selection dial to leave room for experimentation, trial, and error. Lots and lots and lots of errors.
2. Staying Focused (or unfocused)
Whereas the basic trifecta of exposure measures how light is detected by the camera, your camera’s focal range, or depth of field, will measure and control the ranges of how that light is either focused or unfocused into the camera. If you ever need to do wider angle shots of things from forests to city skylines, you’ll want to go with a deeper depth of field with a higher f/stop number to capture as much of the vivid detail as you can. But if you want to capture a subject more intimately, abstractly, or stylized, then a shallower depth of field would be the way to go for a blurrier, bokeh (A.K.A. the cool way light dilates from how the sensor renders it at a shallower depth)-filled shot.
How do you make the depth of field shallower or deeper? Pretty easily actually. Do you ever remember those dumb sayings you’d hear as a little kid, like righty tighty, lefty loosey? Ironically, that doesn’t apply here. When you flip the auto switch off and turn the lens right, you actually get a looser, wider, more zoomed-out and open view of the scene with less of a blur. However, when you turn left, you actually get a tighter, blurrier shot of your subject. How you utilize that is all up to you.
3. Color Correction (or not)
Where do I start with this one? Color correction is arguably one of the most experimental elements of photography, both the easiest to succeed with and the easiest to botch horribly. I won’t go over every app or terminology since there’s quintillions out there and I’d like to keep this article a little shorter than Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but here’s some basic stuff to know. Since the advent of Instagram smartphone cameras have obviously had plenty of options for filtering and adjusting colors in pictures, and lots of DSLR cameras do too. Most have in-camera creative filter options through the Q/Quick Controls menu, as well as polarizing and UV filters that you can screw on to the front of the lens. As somebody who shoots at random stuff outside a lot, I’d recommend a polarizing filter as they protect the lens from dust and scratches, along with subtly accentuating what you want to see (especially in the sky) more and lessen what you don’t want to see (like glare), but unless you have a clear direction you want to go with, try not to hinge on the in camera stuff.
For example, if you want to shoot a film noir inspired photo album, but don’t have an endless array of Venetian blinds and 500 Watt stage lights to play around with, there’s still plenty of ways you can achieve that shadowy, monochrome look, but just save them for post. It’s understandable if you want to get that practical look, but shooting in boring, raw colors leaves you more room to get crazy with them later on. But how do you do this? I don’t want to get too in depth about color theory, color wheels, and meticulously leveling RGB wavelengths, since I’m an amateur who doesn’t entirely understand that stuff and isn’t much of an expert, and (presumably) you aren’t either, but with a lot of the quick tools in programs like Photoshop CS5 and Apple iPhoto, you don’t need to be. In CS5 for instance, just go up to the Window option, select the “Layers” box, go to the black and white circle icon on the bottom right, right click, and voila, you’re instantly hit with a load of color correction toolbars at your disposal. Simply just drag them left to right to mix and match the filters, contrast, saturation (or desaturation), and picture vibrance to however you see fit. iPhoto simplifies this even further with three basic editing tabs: Quick Fixes (which lets you crop, enhance, and retouch any grain or blemishes out of your photos), Effects (giving you a set of basic filter templates to blend), and Adjust (enabling you with a set of Photoshop-esque bars to adjust the color temperature, shadow levels, and more).
Color correction is so easy nowadays, that you can even do it on your phone! Two personal favorite apps of mine are Tadaa and Mextures. With Tadaa, you can emulate a DSLR’s depth-of-field blur by simply swiping objects in and out of focus with your fingers, and it has a HUGE package of filters, borders, and adjustment options. Best of all, it’s free (save for a few in-app purchases, nothing too overpriced or restrictive though)! Mextures ($1.99 on the App Store) however, is like a catalog of Instagram filters on steroids, letting you brew together our own unique Molotov cocktail of epic filters and textures. And, if you aren’t feeling that creative, you can borrow a whole ton of presets curated by professional photographers. If you want to be low budget or take up iPhone photography casually, these apps are ESSENTIAL starters. Just remember to keep it bland (at first) so you’ll be open to add whatever cool stuff you’d want later.
4. Disregard ALL of the Above (or don’t)
Now that I just went over the most basic of basic knowledge when it comes to getting good-looking pictures, now what? Well, as a very wise man once said, don’t let your dreams be dreams. Ever. Whatever you do, long as that “whatever” isn’t robbing banks or spamming people with Dr. Oz ads, DO IT! That could apply to anything from taking up photography as a living or shooting pictures on your own terms here and there. And if you botch your shots at first, don’t win any contests, or have a shoot that goes terribly, who cares? I’m not going to lie or pretend that I’m some expert freelance photographer. In fact, recently I was asked to shoot last minute for a Christmas fundraiser, and just about everything that could’ve gone wrong went wrong. I’ve also been using a site called Snapwire (Snapwi.re) for entering photo contests, and so far I’ve made a whopping $0.00 off them.
So no, I’m not exactly what you’d call the foremost authority on this stuff (yet), but I’ve been trying to learn it over the year, and I hope you will too. Maybe not like how I did, or with none of these tips altogether, but hey, who cares, right? Just shoot whatever, wherever, whenever, and hope for the best.