Simple explanations of important camera functions/ settings/ parameters

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A recent email from a beginner/ amateur user on which camera settings to use under what conditions provided the motivation for this post. In addition to there never being a one-size-fits-all answer, it occurred to me that the reason why a lot of users are confused is partially down to poor product and UI design on the part of the camera companies, and overambition on the part of the user.

Cameras tend to come in one of two flavors: firstly, fully automated, dumbing down, hiding or completely eliminating all photographic functions/ controls or obfuscating them to the user behind language or parameters that doesn’t necessarily make sense intuitively, such as ‘blur control’. The second type of camera lets it all hang out: it’s so manually intimidating and complex, offering control over everything from critical exposure functions to the color of the LCD backlight or number of images taken when using the self timer, and at what interval – that the new or even slightly unfamiliar user has no idea where to begin. And to compound things, camera makers often make inexplicably baffling changes to the UI between each generation – for instance, the +/- indicators on the exposure compensation scale for the D700/D3 generation runs in the opposite direction to the D800/D4. Why? Nobody knows. Maybe the person designing the silk screen stencil for the top panel LCD didn’t refer to the previous model, or think that there might be photographers out there still using both generations of camera. (Sure, you can make the rotation direction of the dials match, but it doesn’t help the fact that either way, one of the cameras is going to have the display move in an unintuitive direction in use – which may slow you down enough to miss a shot, or you ignore it and land up drastically over- or under- exposed.)

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Human nature forms the other barrier: whilst most of us have a decent idea of the limits of their own ability, we might not be so willing to admit it to others. And like it or not, in today’s consumer society, the size and complexity of your camera is a subtle, or perhaps not-so-subtle, telegraph to the rest of the world about both your spending power and your photographic prowess. (Of course, whether either is accurate or not is a completely different topic.) It seems to be especially true where I live, where you see almost everybody carrying a DSLR – yet using it in the green mode and looking surprised when the flash pops up by itself. The upshot of this is that almost every consumer will buy more camera than they need, either convinced by the marketing mantra of ‘more better’, the smooth-talking salesperson, wanting to outdo their friends, or thinking they can ‘grow into it’.

A casual survey of my non-serious-photographer friends reveals that most of them don’t know how to do anything more than turn the camera on, zoom, press the shutter to take a picture; and perhaps turn the flash on and off. It also makes me wonder why ‘simple’ compacts are still so darn complicated to operate. The disconnect is that there are also a good number of them using prosumer DSLRs – think D7000s or 60Ds and the like. It’s both a shame for them that due to the intimidating nature of the cameras, they may never progress any further; yet be frustrated that the camera doesn’t behave quite as expected. Why is the shot dark? Why is it always focusing on the background? Etc.

Important photographic controls boil down to two things: one set that controls the look of the image, and one set that controls the behaviour of the camera.

Image parameters, in order of importance

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Focal length – The perspective and field of view of your frame. Note that this comes before all other considerations, because if you misuse your perspective or select the wrong field of view for a given subject, then no matter how technically perfect the image, it won’t save you from poor composition.

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Aperture – The size of the lens opening; controls both the amount of light entering the camera, as well as the depth of field or the range that is in focus. Smaller f-numbers indicate a larger opening, which equals more light and higher shutter speeds, but also shallower depth of field. Isolate subjects with out-of-focus backgrounds by using a larger aperture. Using a small aperture in low light will yield insufficient shutter speed to produce a sharp image unless you’re using a tripod or very high ISO.

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Shutter speed – The amount of time for which the shutter stays open. The longer this duration, the higher the chance of you, or the subject moving, and subsequently producing a blurred image. This can be desirable if there are clearly static elements in the scene to serve as a visual anchor point, such as rocks and blurred water, etc. The faster the subject, the higher the shutter speed you need to freeze its motion. To handhold a reasonably high-resolution camera safely and produce an image that is crisp at the 100% actual-pixel level (assuming the subject is in focus), you need 1/[focal length in 35mm equivalent]s, or half that (1/2x) to be safe.

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Sensitivity/ ISO – The ‘gain’ or amplification on the signal from the sensor. Doubling the ISO doubles the gain, which in turn doubles the shutter speed. However, you’re also doubling both the information part of the signal as well as the noise, so every increase in ISO necessarily comes with an associated penalty in image noise. However, most cameras have a decent usable range that makes it possible to set auto-ISO within this range, and let the camera automatically boost sensitivity when the shutter speed falls below the set threshold (usually 1/focal length or faster) – this way you both never miss a shot due to insufficient shutter speed, and cameras can frequently set finer increments than is possible manually, minimizing noise.

White balance – The neutral color point of the image, or the RGB gain mix required to achieve white under a particular ambient lighting situation. For the most part, you can leave this in automatic and tweak the RAW file afterwards; however for extremely warm or cold ambient light (tungsten, shade) you may want to manually choose the respective presets to prevent overexposure of a single channel – once a channel is blown, you can’t recover it afterwards.

Note that the simple way to reduce your workload is to run the camera in aperture priority, auto-ISO and auto-white balance; just make sure that your selected shutter speed thresholds for auto-ISO fall within your desired range – slower if you want to blur motion or are using a wider lens, and vice versa. I normally have my cameras configured this way, unless I’m doing work that requires me to balance flash and ambient, or color-critical work; in which case I’ll go manual for everything.

Camera control parameters, in order of importance

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Focus point/area – The shallower the depth of field, the more important it is to have some control over exactly what the camera is focusing on. Without this, you will find your subject out of focus – especially if off center. The camera can’t read your mind (or at least not yet). This said, put your camera in either center point and do the focus-half press to lock-then recompose technique, or choose your focus point manually. Make sure your subject is the most contrasty thing under the selected point, and large enough to be picked up by the AF system.

Focus mode – Single (AF-S), continuous (AF-C), or manual (MF)? Single means that the camera stops focusing once focus has been achieved for the first time. This is good for static subjects. Continuous means that the camera will continue to adjust focus until you release the shutter, which is desirable for moving subjects or very shallow depth of field lenses (a situation that may appear static – a portrait, say – may actually have motion of a few millimetres in either direction by the subject or photographer, and that’s enough to cause noticeable softness when using a very shallow depth of field lens). And finally, manual focus of course means DIY. I always have my phase detect AF cameras (DSLRs) set in AF-C, and the contrast detect cameras in AF-S; the reason for the latter choice is simple: the hit rate is much higher, and contrast detect cameras all have smaller sensors, which makes them more tolerant of minor focus errors.

And to be honest, the rest you really don’t need to worry about. For years, we’ve managed with nothing but these controls – in fact, in the early film days, you couldn’t even change your ISO easily from shot to shot, there was no such thing as colour, and there was no such thing as AF-Tracking – so really, you should be able to make a strong image focusing only on three of the parameters.

Master these, and you’ll find that you now feel in control of your camera and the images it produces, instead of vice-versa. Shooting fully manual is a good way to both learn to control your camera instinctively, as well as build an intuitive understanding for how changing a given parameter affects the look of the image; eventually you’ll build a sense for what the right parameters should be for a given shooting situation. Even if you’re an experienced photographer, sometimes a little reminder to reprioritize the important things can be helpful – the fewer things you have to think about when shooting, the better. Note that we haven’t touched on composition – that was the subject of extensive analysis in this article. MT

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Comments

  1. I always advice my friends that have DSLR to use the “A” mode and watch the the effect of changing the f-number. Otherwise, I tell them to use “P” and change the set according to taste…

  2. Reblogged this on Gunnar Brewer Photography and commented:
    Very Informational post for those that are new to photography check it out.

  3. This was great. Clearing up so many questions I’ve had and tried and failed to find answers for. I thank you eternally for this.

  4. Hi Ming, your articles is getting more interesting day by day. At times, it is very technical but still palatable to layman like myself. I must say thank you and please continue coming up with great articles in future. Cheers.

  5. The best way to learn the basics is to give the digital camera a rest for a month and shoot with only a cheap old ($200) film camera. Get your films developed and printed as you finish each roll. Cheap old canon and nikon slr cameras will accept modern dslr lenses as long as they have an aperture ring.

    Good tips can also be gained by looking at the work of photographers such as Erwitt, Salgado, and HCB on google images. Whilst looking at such wonderful work, bear in mind that most famous photographers, both past and present, would probably advise you to develop your own style and not copy others.

    Most iconic images by the guys i mentioned above were taken with cameras and lenses inferior to todays high tech equipment, so its talent alone which counts, and the best equipment will not make you a better photographer.

    For me, the best way to learn photography is to try as many avenues of photography as possible, including street, landscape, fashion, and macro. Keep your crap shots as you’ll learn as much from them as your keepers. Practice, Practice, Practice.
    Oh, and travel to as many far-flung destinations as your budget and free time allow

    • Feedback from film isn’t as fast as digital, even if you develop after each roll. And it’s hideously expensive to experiment this way, which means unless you’re extremely well moneyed, you’re going to restrict yourself a lot. And to make it worse, you’ll have to relearn a lot of the shooting process when you do eventually go digital, assuming you want to be serious about it and include raw/ postprocessing into your workflow to maximize image quality.

      You absolutely hit the nail on the head with the last comment though: it’s all about practice, regardless of system/ camera.

      What we really need is a cheap, reasonably large-sensored digital camera with no extra ‘crap’ – a digital FM3A or K1000. The Leicas are close, but they’re just too expensive.

      • Because it is expensive and you dont get instant feedback like with digital, you become FAR more selective about what you shoot with film. This is an important lesson for people who have never shot film.

        Digital leicas are too expensive, but then a used M6 ttl will last you a lifetime, so represents exceptional value for money. Summilux lenses are expensive, but the image quality can be exceptional, and when shooting film you will never need to upgrade from a current summilux lens.

        I no longer like the look of digital, and do not want to spend hours doing PP. In my opinion, film is somehow more real and honest

        • That’s very true, but I’d probably shoot a bit of digital first, just so you’re not wasting film in the experimentation stages. That said, I just bought a film camera here in Tokyo…

          Film doesn’t give me the throughput or control I require. Still, that doesn’t mean I don’t miss Velvia 50, nor that I’d think about using it for my own personal adventures occasionally.

  6. Jerome Cornick says:

    Thank you for an excellent article. But I am troubled by one thing you mention: Focal length – The perspective and field of view of your frame. There is a popular misconception that the focal length of a lens some how changes the perspective of a scene. Whereas in fact it is simply the camera to subject distance which alters the perspective between near and far objects. Focal length has no effect on perspective (its only attribute is to change angle of view).

    I remember having this fact drummed into my head by the senior lecturer when I studied photography many years ago,

    Regards
    Jerome Cornick

    • Whilst what you mention is technically true if you include the effect of change in format, it isn’t true at all if you’re talking about different focal lengths on the same format. Being 10m away from something cannot possibly produce the same perspective with a 12mm lens on FX as a 600mm.

  7. Willi Kampmann says:

    I started out with a NEX-3, and most of the time I used it in M mode with manual prime lenses. I often got pictures that weren’t ideally exposed or that had higher ISO than necessary, simply because I had to do everything myself, fast – and the NEX-3 doesn’t have a lot of buttons or even dials to begin with. But this really helped me understand the basics of photography, like the triangle relationship between aperture, shutter speed and ISO, and even perspective and FOV.

    Now I shoot an OM-D, usually in aperture priority. I’ve grown really fond of the Olympus 12–50 zoom lens and in fact, I can operate zoom lenses much better now that I understand the importance of perspective. Before the NEX-3 I was just a casual point’n’shooter, using the zoom only as a substitute for going the distance myself. Now I understand that I have to set up the perspective first and only then think about the FOV (and, in consequence, the zoom factor). It still takes me a bit sometimes to set everything up, but now I always know what I want and why. So, manual modes and primes are IMO the best way to learn how to operate your camera!

    I wouldn’t recommend film cameras, though. They’re great, but they slow down the learning process: You have to write down exactly how you set up your camera for every single shot, then have the film get processed, and then analyze the results. That takes like forever and chances are, you won’t remember the circumstances when you took the shot, like difficult lighting conditions. I think EVIL cameras are just perfect for this: they are truly WYSIWYG – you can see how the various parameters affect your photo in real-time, right through the view finder. You are learning on the spot, not afterwards reviewing the back LCD or even at home.

  8. Ming,

    I have a proposition for you.

    You are a talented writer who often uses the Olympus OM-D/E-M5. As you know, the OM-D/E-M5 is a very popular camera and the O-MD line is likely to become even more so in the future.

    Here’s the problem, and the solution: the Owner’s Manual of the E-M5, although marginally better then those of other Olympus cameras, is pretty bad–at times, unintelligible. Certainly incomplete.

    The solution: “A GUIDE TO USING THE OM-D / E-M5″, by Ming Thein. This would be (I believe) the first of your many future books on cameras and photography. This can only propel your career.

    Do approach the better camera/photography publishers with this idea. Refer them to your blog for writing samples. If one is not interested, go to the next. (Many of the great writers in history were turned down several times before a smart one picked them up.)

    Do give this idea your consideration. I think you are the man for the job!

    My “commission” for this enterprise: a signed copy of the first edition.

    Well, What do you think?

    Joseph

    • Thanks for the idea, Joseph – it’s something I’ve thought about before, but I don’t know if it makes sense because a) I barely have any spare time as it is, between commercial work and the site; b) the way I shoot/ set up the camera isn’t the same as the way most people shoot in practice (as I’ve discovered by using many other people’s cameras) – and it isn’t intuitive but a holdover of the way I originally learned on my first cameras; c) there’s no one-size-fits all setting for even similar subjects and similar situations; you have to watch and adapt to the light. We’ll see…

  9. Great to re-visit basics! With regard to AF-S/AF-C, Something came to mind after the article, cameras like the A99 & D600 offer both PDAF & CDAF (correct me if I am misunderstood), what do u select in those instances ?

    Thank again for a great article and sharing your techniques and insights into your shooting preference/style.

  10. Another great article! I’d like to add another option for those who are really new to photography and are struggling with the basic non-auto modes; buy a simple film camera which allows full manual control but does not have any distracting options. I myself learned how to shoot manually on a Zenit camera (Soviet era design :-). This was certainly not the most exciting camera I could have bought, but it worked very well for me since it allowed me to do just four things; set focus, ISO, shutter speed and aperture. These days, manual slr’s cost next to nothing on the used market and in my opinion, this is the best photographic investment you can make if you really want to learn.

    • Thanks Juergen – film is a good idea for simplicity EXCEPT you do not have the benefit of quick feedback, so you might forget what you changed if you don’t develop the film for a while – plus it’s expensive to learn. If only we had the digital equivalent of say a Nikon FM3A…

  11. I kinda understand the reason behind this post. But i feel it still gets caught in a bit of a “no man’s land”.

    A novice, even with good intentions, won’t understand too much. Good example is my wife and mother. Both are genuinely interested in taking good photographs, but the moment i try to explain (in much simpler language than what you’ve used; not that simpler language is better, but because i’m not as verbostically talented as you) things such as Aperture, Shutter, ISO, etc., their eyes just glaze over and i know they are unable to absorb or comprehend.

    And for an enthusiast or above levels of experience, the article touches familiar and well worn territory.

    If anything, i think there needs to be a way to explain things in a way that the novices will “get”.

    For me, i took the easy way out. For my mom and wife, they each have their own cameras (which are way beyond what they realistically need, despite being compact P&S). Each cam has 2 programmable modes. I set one for “bright light” and one for “dark/dusk or darker”. That’s all i tell them. Choose one for bright. Choose the other for dark. Occasionally they get things mixed up with hilarious results, but generally it helps and produces much better shots compared to the ubiquitous green modes.

    For them, i suppose A, P, S, ISO, f-stops, EV +- etc all don’t matter. They just want to be able to take a photo that looks good in the family album.

    • It’s aimed at the increasing segment of my readers who are caught between the two, not at you or your mother. There’s aperture priority and the green camera mode for that.

      I think the other comments more than validate my reasons for writing it.

  12. Thank you for this! That was quick, informative, friendly and to the point. Would you say that beginners should ideally start with a point and shoot camera and progress to learn on a dslr only when they exhaust / outgrow / master a simpler camera, or should they start with a dslr and the manual mode, however intimidating it is? Is there any benefit to learning on film over learning on digital? Thank you very much for your art and your blog, lovely and informative reading and perhaps the friendliest online community. Keep up the great work!

    • Starting with a DSLR is better because you have no DOF control with a point and shoot – this means you’ll find it difficult to understand one of the most useful fundamental photographic functions – the aperture. Thanks!

    • As Ming Thein siad, a DSLR would be better than a P&S. Also, a lower and/or older model is preferable. Then, mount a cheap and fast prime on it.

      For example, a Nikon 50/1.8D lens on a D70 for the body because it has 2 exposure dials and an AF motor in the body.

      Another option is to get a previous model mirrorless camera, like E-PL2 or G3 (if you want a viewfinder) and adapt vintage lens on it, like Minolta 45/2. Manual focus only though.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Mastering the Exposure Triangle: Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISOHow to use a slr cameraUnderstanding Your Camera – Shooting ModesSimple explanations of important camera functions/ settings/ parameters – Ming Thein [...]

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  3. [...] A recent email from a beginner/ amateur user on which camera settings to use under what conditions provided the motivation for this post. In addition to there never being a one-size-fits-all answer, it occurred to me that the reason why a lot of users are confused is partially down to poor product and UI design on the part of the camera companies, and overambition on the part of the user.   Cameras tend to come in one of two flavors: firstly, fully automated, dumbing down, hiding or completely eliminating all photographic functions/ controls or obfuscating them to the user behind language or parameters that doesn’t necessarily make sense intuitively, such as ‘blur control’. The second type of camera lets it all hang out: it’s so manually intimidating and complex, offering control over everything from critical exposure functions to the color of the LCD backlight or number of images taken when using the self timer, and at what interval – that the new or even slightly unfamiliar user has no idea where to begin. And to compound things, camera makers often make inexplicably baffling changes to the UI between each generation – for instance, the +/- indicators on the exposure compensation scale for the D700/D3 generation runs in the opposite direction to the D800/D4. Why? Nobody knows. Maybe the person designing the silk screen stencil for the top panel LCD didn’t refer to the previous model, or think that there might be photographers out there still using both generations of camera. (Sure, you can make the rotation direction of the dials match, but it doesn’t help the fact that either way, one of the cameras is going to have the display move in an unintuitive direction in use – which may slow you down enough to miss a shot, or you ignore it and land up drastically over- or under- exposed.)  [...]

  4. [...]   A recent email from a beginner/ amateur user on which camera settings to use under what conditions provided the motivation for this post. In addition to there never being a one-size-fits-all answer, it occurred to me that the reason why a lot of users are confused is partially down to poor product and UI design on the part of the camera companies, and overambition on the part of the user. Cameras tend to come in one of two flavors: firstly, fully automated, dumbing down, hiding or completely eliminating all photographic functions/ controls or obfuscating them to the user behind language or parameters that doesn’t necessarily make sense intuitively, such as ‘blur control’. The second type of camera lets it all hang out: it’s so manually intimidating and complex, offering control over everything from critical exposure functions to the color of the LCD backlight or number of images taken when using the self timer, and at what interval – that the new or even slightly unfamiliar user has no idea where to begin. And to compound things, camera makers often make inexplicably baffling changes to the UI between each generation – for instance, the +/- indicators on the exposure compensation scale for the D700/D3 generation runs in the opposite direction to the D800/D4. Why? Nobody knows. Maybe the person designing the silk screen stencil for the top panel LCD didn’t refer to the previous model, or think that there might be photographers out there still using both generations of camera. (Sure, you can make the rotation direction of the dials match, but it doesn’t help the fact that either way, one of the cameras is going to have the display move in an unintuitive direction in use – which may slow you down enough to miss a shot, or you ignore it and land up drastically over- or under- exposed.)…..  [...]

  5. [...] A recent email from a beginner/ amateur user on which camera settings to use under what conditions provided the motivation for this post. In addition to there never being a one-size-fits-all answer, it occurred to me that the reason why a lot of users are confused is partially down to poor product and UI design on the part of the camera companies, and overambition on the part of the user.  [...]

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