Learning Photography

We’ve just entered a brand new calendar year, so I’ll start with that. Happy new year everyone!

New year warrants some new learnings, I know. But I’ll start with something that I got into a couple of months ago and that has changed the way I see the world. It is digital photography.

Like probably many people at some point or other in their lives, I started getting unusually fascinated by pictures. Not just pictures for the sake of pretty pictures, but pictures as a medium to tell stories and pictures as a canvas for creativity. At this point, I know for a fact that no matter how trivial an activity looks, there’s usually a lot more than what meets the eye and surely this was the case with photography. After all, it isn’t one of the most popular professions and side hobby for no reason.

I started reading a book (Understanding Exposure by Brian Peterson) that was a gift from a friend and it got me very involved in photography. I understood the basics, and then a bit more. I put into practiced what I’d learned by taking pictures of the places I traveled to and people I met. I used photo editing tools to give extra character to my pictures. I shared them on social media as a reminder to my future self, and now I’m writing this article about how I’m feeling as a reminder to myself but also a general guide to anyone stumbling upon this from search engines.

I’ll list down some interesting avenues where I spent the most time on, and probably you will too in case you decide to take up this beautiful hobby!

Equipment

If you’re like me, this is where you’ll spend the most time in the beginning — finding the right equipment. Any seasoned professional will tell you that it doesn’t matter nearly as much as the many other things you’ll learn down this path. All I can add to that is that the most important aspect of having the right equipment is that you should be excited to use it and carry with you. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive or the most shinny, but it should bring a smile to your face when you pick it up to leave your house (you wanting to pick it up when leaving your house when you go for a walk is implicitly implied here).

If you do basic research before buying stuff online, it is hard to go wrong with your first equipment. You’ll find yourself asking questions like what size sensor the camera should have, or what lenses to go for, but if you have limited money like most people, you’ll quickly realize the best options for a given budget aren’t all that many and from among those, you’ll probably be fine with either as a beginner.

For me, apart from the happiness factor of the equipment, the other very important factor is knowing the limits of your equipment. If it is a beginner’s camera, or a used old pro piece of equipment (or any, for that matter, but especially these), it has to have some quirks that you need to be aware of. Lack of high dynamic range, poor low light performance, not weather proof camera body, lens performance quirks, lack of 4K video or image stabilization to name a few. When you know the limits, you won’t be disappointed when your equipment doesn’t perform as per your expectations. Given how good phone cameras are these days, this is especially important as your phone will most likely take better pictures (bright colors with good contrasts and HDR) than your camera right out of the box.

The last piece of equipment advice is to make it easy to take your camera with you. After the initial excitement runs out, you don’t want to just find an excuse to not have your camera with you. I read somewhere that the best camera and lens is the one you have with you.

Exposure triangle

Even after centuries after the first photograph was ever taken, some of the basics of this trade haven’t changed. At the absolute basic, a photograph is just some light projected on a light sensitive film. This opening of the light sensitive film to light is called an exposure. A good exposure has three important components, forming the exposure triangle. The exposure triangle is formed by a simple set of parameters

  1. How long do we expose the film?
  2. How sensitive the film is?
  3. What’s the size of the opening through which light falls on the light-sensitive film?

They are referred to as shutter speed, ISO and aperture respectively. All three do the same thing — control exposure or amount of light information captured by the film or sensor (in case of digital photography) — but each has its own tradeoffs. A clear understanding of the tradeoffs and when to prioritize what will help you take more controlled pictures.

Exposure triangle
WClarke and Samsara, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Shutter speed refers to the amount of time the “shutter” of the camera stays open. The longer it is open, the more light the sensor (or film, but I’ll use sensor as I’m guessing the vast majority of people think of digital photography when they hear the word photography) gathers. But if the shutter speeds are too slow (as in, it stays open for longer), your picture can turn out blurred if the camera isn’t kept steady for the duration of the exposure. On the other hand, too high shutter speeds can result in darker images as there just wasn’t enough light to properly illuminate the sensor.

ISO is the sensitivity or gain of the sensor. Just like with a microphone, increasing the sensitivity or gain increases the amount of sound captured, but also the noise. Digital cameras usually have an ISO range, like 100 to 6400 that you can choose depending on the situation.

Aperture is the size of the opening of the lens that focuses the image on the sensor. Naturally, larger opening results in more light captured. But interestingly, larger openings create a narrower plane of focus (creating beautiful bokah effect) which, while beautiful for some kind of pictures, isn’t always ideal and you have to “stop down” or increase the aperture number or reduce the size of the opening to get the desired depth of field.

Lenses – Reading the specifications

If you are able to afford an interchangeable lens camera (which is quite an appropriate name for a camera that you can attach different lenses to) you’ll be presented with a wide array of lenses you can buy that have very cryptic specifications. While it gets more complicated the more you know, a lens will generally have a few key specifications

Canon 18-55mm kit lens

Focal length

Specifies how wide or zoomed the perspective of the lens is.

Wide angle lenses are useful to capture a wide exposure, like landscapes while zoom lenses are useful to get closer to the subject without getting physically close. As you can guess, zoom lenses rule in the world of animal and sports photography.

It usually is measured in millimeters, and is either one number (For example, 50mm for prime or single focal length lenses) or a range (For example, 18-55mm for zoom lenses).

(Peak) Aperture

It is the measure of how large the camera’s lens can open and as a side effect, how blurry the foreground and background of your picture can get. It is measured in f-stop numbers and just like with focal length, it is either one number (For example, f1.8 for prime lenses) or a range (For example, f3.5-5.6 for zoom lenses).

Apertures
By KoeppiK – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78136658

Something to note is that a lens can always “stop down”, or shrink the size of its opening. The number on the lens is the maximum it can open for the focal length.

Just like with focal length, you don’t necessarily need to know what that number technically means to be able to select and operate the lens correctly. But it doesn’t hurt to know.

Image stabilization

Image stabilization is the ability of the lens (or camera) to reduce the impact of shaking on the final picture. Zoom lenses typically have image stabilization, while prime lenses typically don’t. The larger the focal length (or zoomed perspective), the more important having a stabilized lens becomes because the more “zoomed” your perspective is, the more prominent slight vibrations of your hand become.

Composition, and how it changes the way you see the world

While I can spend hours talking about topics like DSLRs vs mirrorless cameras, Sony vs Canon and the like, I think we can all agree those are better suited for Reddit and other internet forums. Here, I’d like to be a bit more personal and talk about something a bit more abstract and not technical. The experience of photography.

I’ve used smartphones with really good cameras. On multiple occasions I’ve owned a mobile phone with camera that was considered “flagship” at the time I bought it. Even then, I wasn’t exposed to the way of photography until I actually got hands on my first DSLR, my first “manual” camera.

I think I understand part of the reason. With phone cameras, you’re an operator of a blackbox. Sure, most phones take decent pictures most of the times (especially these days). They’re consistent, compact, internet enabled and always in our pockets. They’re also quick to share pictures on chat and social apps, which is arguably the end goal for many people taking pictures.

And don’t get me wrong. My phone takes wonderful pictures. Right out of the box, my iPhone 13 takes pictures that are arguably better to look at than my massive Canon 7D’s pictures with their poppy colors and HDR. But there’s no spark, no connection. When I take a good photo with my iPhone, I think the phone did a good job. When I take a bad one, I think the phone did a bad job.

That’s what makes manual photography so interesting. I own the composition and exposure. I envision the result before I take a picture and see if it worked out, and not simply like or dislike it after.

And if I fail, I know why. Or at least I know it was something that I did and I can improve upon it. This realization to see  failure, a bad photo in this case, as just another opportunity to learn something new is what’s different between taking a picture with my phone and my 12 year old Canon DSLR.

The photos themselves have character and a story to tell for they are just an extension of your imagination at this point.

In closing

Ever since I started carrying my camera around, I started seeing beautiful compositions in even the most mundane of things.

butterfly

I started noticing everything consciously for that’s where my next best picture could lie. Everyday streets had graffiti that I had never bothered to look at, or birds and animals and the detail in their creation. Even people and their faces seemed interesting — people that I’d known for years, even my parents. It filled me with gratitude for the beautiful world that we live in, and this experience of being alive.

I learned what “pause and ponder” meant and I started doing that even when I didn’t have my camera with me. Interesting what a hobby can do to you.

Thank you for reading!

 

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