Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Photography Tips For Total Beginners By A Non-Photographer

I am going to put it out there from the get-go: I am not a photographer. Nor do I consider myself to take perfect photos (I wish, though!). BUT recently I learned a few tricks that upped my photography game immensely. If you would like to take better photographs with just a few steps, without taking a whole photography course, keep reading. Be mindful, though, that it this post is very content-heavy, so take it easy, and read every paragraph several times if you have to until you fully grasp it.

Your Camera
Up until last year, I used a simple Fujifilm FinePix XP70 point-and-shoot camera. A point-and-shoot is a practical, affordable option. It is great for those who get it out every once in a while at parties or concerts, and aren't really too interested in photography. Point-and-shoot cameras are also extremely practical, as they automatically select the best settings for you by doing a quick reading of the lighting situation you are in. This means that you don't have to worry about adjusting all your settings in order to get the lighting just right (what you call the exposure).

HOWEVER: as you will see below, your photos turn out infinitely better if you are able to control and adjust those settings, because a camera (as smart as they are these days) will never read a situation as well as you would. This is why investing in a good DSLR (stands for Digital Single-Lens Reflex) camera is absolutely worth it and necessary.

Last November I got the Canon EOS Rebel T3. It is one of the most affordable ones out there (Amazon and BestBuy sell it for $399 USD) which isn't cheap but isn't outrageous either. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a DSLR if you want your pictures to be stunning instead of just nice.

The Two Basics
Now we get into the fun stuff. In photography, there are a million settings and terminology to learn, but who has the time for that. Instead, I think that focusing on just two of them makes a world of difference:

Aperture: Simply put, each lens has an opening, and the aperture is the measure of just how small or wide that opening is. The aperture will depend on your lens, not the camera model.

Shutter speed: This one is self-explanatory: it refers to the speed at which the shutter of your camera takes the picture and captures movement.

Now let's find out how to play with those two:

The aperture is the one that will determine if your background is blurry or not. I remember at the beginning when I made the switch from the point-and-shoot to the Canon, I was desperate to find out how to get a blurry background in my pictures, like I saw on all the blogs I loved. Well, the answer to that is very simple: the aperture. In a DSLR, it is represented by a f/ and a number.

Now, the tricky part is this: the wider the opening (aperture) of the lens, the blurrier your background will be (less of the picture will be in focus). However, the wider the aperture, the smaller the number. This means that f/1.8 is a very wide aperture with a very blurry background, whereas f/20 is a very closed one with the whole background in focus. The aperture will come determined by your lens. The one I have at the moment goes down to f/3.8, so fairly wide. Other lenses go all the way down to f/1.2 (super wide), but the wider they go the more expensive and bulky they become.

This photo was taken with a f/4.0 aperture. Notice how the background is very blurry, and only the little plant and my arm are in focus.

Shutter speed is a lot simpler to grasp. A slow shutter speed will make those subjects in the picture who are moving appear blurry. A fast shutter speed will freeze the movement, so that even if your subject is moving, it appears still in the image.
Now, having a super fast shutter speed will not always be the best option: the slower the shutter speed, the more light it lets in. This means that if you are in a low-light situation, a fast shutter speed will make the picture appear much too dark (what they call underexposed), and you will need a slower shutter speed that lets more light in. Similarly, at midday or with very bright lighting, you would probably prefer to use a fast shutter speed, otherwise your photo would be too bright (overexposed). Shutter speeds can go from 20 seconds (incredibly slow, letting in a huge amount of light) down to 1/8000 of a second (how any light gets in is beyond me!).

I took this photo with a shutter speed of 1/320 of a second. It was fast enough to even freeze the water pouring from the hose. 

How to adjust them
Ok, so by now you are probably saying: "Yeah, that's great and all, but how do I adjust them to get the correct exposure?". Well, my friends, I'm afraid you will have to use the manual setting on your camera. Every camera is different, but generally speaking, it is the big letter "M" on your dial.

The manual setting is the one that lets you adjust both your aperture and shutter speed. Let's picture a couple of scenarios and how you would adjust each one:

Scenario 1: You are trying to take a picture of your toddler son. He's cute and all, but the bloody kid moves at a thousand miles per minute. You are indoors, and you would like to have a blurry background so people can't see the mess in your living room.

In this scenario, the predominant aspect would be the shutter speed, as it has to be fast in order to freeze your child's movement. However, you can't go too fast, otherwise you risk the picture being too dark or underexposed. A shutter speed of, say, 1/250 of a second should do. Then you adjust your aperture and bring it down (widening it) as far as it will go (like I said, mine would be f/3.8) in order to get the blurry background you are after. Widening it also lets in more light, counteracting the effect of your fast shutter speed and thus resulting in the correct exposure.

Scenario 2: You are in Holland with your husband and you want to take a picture of the beautiful tulip fields after a nice lunch.

In this case, what matters most to you is the aperture, as you probably want the whole picture to be in focus to capture the landscape, so you close down your aperture to around f/20. This will mean, though, that you are letting in very little light, so you will need to slow down your shutter speed to compensate. It probably won't be too much though, as you are outdoors and it's daytime.
I do recommend that you don't go any slower than 1/60 of a second if you don't have a tripod: a slower speed wouldn't freeze the little involuntary movements we all make when we hold a camera, and your photo won't be as crisp.

The correct combination
Ok, so just how do you know the exact combination of aperture vs. shutter speed that would give you the perfect exposure?  Is it 1/250th of a second and f/3.8 for the first scenario, or  1/300 of a second and f/4.0? How to know for sure?

The only way to know for sure is to look through the viewfinder: that little window you look through to take the picture. When you are looking through it and focusing on your subject, press the shutter button halfway down and you will see a meter appear. Again, each camera is different, but it is basically a number line with positive and negative ends, and a center represented by an 0 or an arrow. Next to that line you will also find the aperture and shutter speed values that you've set.

This is how I explained it to my husband when he was taking photos of me:
- If you see that the pointer under the number line (or meter) is to the left side, your photo will be underexposed, meaning it will be too dark. If it is placed to the right of the 0 or arrow, it is overexposed and it will be too bright. Only when the pointer is right in the center will the exposure be just right.

- To get it to shift to the center, you will need to adjust one of the values: either the aperture or the shutter speed. In order to change one of the two, you need to use your dial. Read your camera manual if you are unsure how to do this, because every camera model varies slightly.

- In case of underexposure: You will either need to open your aperture more (smaller f number) and get a blurrier background (but remember that this is limited by the lens you've got!); or slow down your shutter speed and not freeze as much movement. Both of this options let in more light, and it is just a matter of deciding which one is best for you to adjust in each specific case. For the first scenario, for example, I would change the aperture, as I want the shutter speed to stay fast. Similarly, for the second scenario I'd change the shutter speed as I need a closed aperture.
This is a very underexposed photo I took when I was first becoming familiar with the concept of aperture and shutter speed.

- In case of overexposure: Your picture is too bright, so you need to let in less light. You can either close up the aperture (getting more in focus) or increase your shutter speed and freeze the movement.
Completely overexposed photo, taken the same day as the one above.

It takes a few times of trial and error, but once you get the hang of it and understand the concepts, it becomes much simpler. At the beginning, it took me a good 3-5 minutes to get the pointer to the center of the meter, but now I do it much faster and am much more familiar with which values to adjust for each situation.

The big difference
Now that you know the concepts, you will understand why I said before that in order to take good quality pictures, you need to be able to control your settings and values, which point-and-shoots don't do:

Say that you are at a party at night, and want to take a picture. A point-and-shoot will adjust all the settings automatically for you. Yes, there is no hassle at all and you just, well, point and shoot and it's done. HOWEVER the camera reads a very low-light situation, and it has to adjust the aperture and shutter speed accordingly so you don't get an overexposed picture. A point-and-shoot will not have a very wide aperture, which means that it can't adjust it much to let more light in. It will have to adjust the shutter speed, making it slower and slower until the exposure is right (where the pointer would be at the center of the meter). The result? an incredibly blurry picture, with a lot of detail lost thanks to the very slow shutter speed. Or, it might adjust the shutter speed and aperture only slightly, and then increase the ISO (the sensitivity of the sensor in recording light. In other words, raising the ISO lets more light in without having to alter the aperture and shutter speed). This should only be done if you don't get the correct exposure with your aperture and shutter speed, because the higher the ISO, the worse the picture quality. With a very high ISO, you will get white speckles all over your photo. You can find the ISO option next to the aperture and shutter speed in manual mode.

If you had a DSLR at the party, though, you would have been able to control the aperture and shutter speed levels in order to get the quality you desire. If you still can't get to the center of the meter by adjusting them, that's when you raise your ISO. The ideal ISO is between 100-400, but even up to 6400 will give you an ok quality. Anything above 6400, and those dreadful white speckles will start appearing.

Try it for yourself: grab your point-and-shoot and take a picture at night with the least light possible. I can almost guarantee that it will either be incredibly blurry or full of white speckles (or both!).

For this photo, my camera would have raised the ISO so much that the photo came out full of white speckles, not to mention super blurry. Not good. 

This was on the cruise where my husband and I got engaged in 2012. Our Fujifilm camera not only took an incredibly blurry picture, but it didn't even get the exposure right due to the poor lighting. 

Whoa, that was a mouthful! But I only learned these tips recently, and I thought, there will be some of you out there who also didn't know this and could benefit from it, so I decided to share my new knowledge. I hope I made sense and that this post was of use to at least one of you.
Please feel free to ask any questions you have below in the comments, or if you are a pro, feel free to leave more handy tips!

 photo Button1_zps4b1eff04.png


  1. These tips are great! I just got my first DSLR and am fiddling about trying to get the hang of the fiddly bits. This is a great post for beginners like me! Thanks :)

    1. I'm so very glad you found these useful, Annabel! :)
      Much love!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...