The first step in capturing amazing visuals is to understand your camera and be able to modify it to obtain the appearance you desire. Although the amount of presets, automated settings, and other features vary per camera, these principles are the key to having complete control over your recording equipment. (All of these ideas apply to still photography as well, but certain portions of this essay are more video-focused.)
Basics Of Photography
Every camera, from your laptop’s small webcam to Nikon and Canon’s full-frame pro cameras, functions on the same set of fundamental principles. They are derived from the word photography, which is derived from the Greek words photos, which means light, and graph, which means to sketch or record — therefore, a photograph is basically a map of light. When you photograph a cityscape, you’re not actually photographing the streets, buildings, or throngs of people; instead, you’re creating a record of the light bouncing off of them.
The most popular method for doing so is to direct light via a lens onto a photosensitive substance, which absorbs it and converts it into an image. The film used to be that light-absorbing canvas, but electronic sensors in current digital cameras have now supplanted it. The light capture is started in either scenario by opening a shutter in front of the photosensitive surface. You may alter the appearance of your image by adjusting the shutter speed, the sensitivity of the digital sensor (ISO), and the amount of light passing through the lens (aperture).
Because your camera only gathers light, it should come as no surprise that well-lit situations seem crisper and prettier than dark and gloomy photos lighted solely by a streetlight – more light just offers you more information to work with. When shooting in low light, the camera must either work harder (higher ISO) or longer (slower shutter speed) to correctly reproduce the image in front of it. That’s where the flash comes in, a strobe of white light timed to the shutter’s opening. However, it comes with its own set of tradeoffs: the flash’s power can wash out fine detail in adjacent subjects or cause the dreaded red-eye effect. Tripods are also useful for preventing blur produced by unsteady hands. They can’t do anything about motion in your composition, and they’re not exactly portable, either.
Finally, the most important photography lesson is that there are always compromises. You’ll need specialized, costly, and cumbersome equipment to get the highest image quality possible. You’ll have to accept that some photographs and creative ideas will be out of reach if mobility is your first concern. There are several additional factors to consider when framing an image — and, as a result, selecting the ideal camera for the job — which we’ve included below. You should have a decent notion of what sort of camera will best fit your needs once you’ve wrapped your brain around what they imply for your desired photographic journey.
The Key Settings
If you’re new to digital photography, the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed are the three things you should learn initially. The three operate together, and if you can manage and control all three, you’ll be able to capture fantastic photographs without touching the rest of your camera. Because they regulate how much light you expose the camera to (aperture), how sensitive the camera is to that light (ISO), and how long your exposure lasts (exposure time), they’re known as the Exposure Triangle (shutter speed).
ISO (not an acronym) stands for International Organization for Standardization, and it indicates the light sensitivity of your camera’s sensor in comparison to a common standard. It was previously called “film speed” because it was a fixed measure of how much light a particular type of film could absorb, although ISO can now be changed in current digital cameras. A brighter image is obtained by digitally amplifying the information acquired during exposure. Therefore a higher ISO means a brighter image. It’s an imprecise process that produces mistakes, which show up in your images as discoloration and noise — the unsightly speckling effect seen in low-light shots.
The highest ISO at which you can create photos that are still usable depends on the quality of your camera’s sensor and noise-reduction software. Canon’s 5D Mark III and Nikon’s D4 are the best in this category among the cameras we’ve examined. They can shoot at ISO 12,800, which is equivalent to ISO 1000 on conventional cameras, allowing you to photograph in much lower light.
The aperture is another dead-simple parameter with convoluted terminology, measured using the hideously confusing f-number system. Basically, most lenses contain an internal element (called a diaphragm) that can be stretched and retracted using camera settings to limit the amount of light passing through them. You may draw the diaphragm back as far as it will go if you need more light in your image, or you can extend it and confine the incoming rays to a smaller, more concentrated hole if you need less. As a result, the aperture is only a measure of the diameter of your lens opening. Lower f-numbers imply a wider aperture, with f/2.8 and lower being the extremes, whereas higher f-numbers suggest more light is blocked.
A wide-open lens has the side consequence of letting in a lot of unfocused light rays. As a result, you’ll have a narrow depth of field, which means anything in front of or behind the region you’re focused on will be fuzzy. Wide aperture settings tend to compress the in-focus region to a razor-thin sliver, especially on adjacent subjects, resulting in the desirable soft background “bokeh” appearance.
When you desire a larger focus, the obvious solution is to close the aperture to f/8 or smaller – this bundles the incoming light into a more concentrated beam, resulting in additional depth in your focus region. Large-sensor cameras can only produce the most extreme depth of field effects; smaller sensors, which keep a generous in-focus depth even at f/1.4, can’t achieve the same defocusing effect.
In contrast to ISO and aperture, which regulate how much light is absorbed once, shutter speed affects how long the camera spends gathering light. The shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second. Thus 1/125 implies the shutter is open for one 125th of a second. Lower shutter speeds allow you to soak up more light, but at the risk of blurry results if your camera and subject aren’t still. Higher shutter speeds mean the camera captures a shorter period of time, which is important for getting blur-free action shots, while lower shutter speeds allow you to soak up more light, but at the risk of blurry results if your camera and subject aren’t still.
You may fiddle with your settings all you want, but your photos will never look their finest until you use a genuinely sharp piece of glass to filter light through. In photography, the difference between sharpness and softness is one of detail: crisp pictures preserve a clear delineation between edges and colors down to the pixel level.
Unfortunately, no clear measure for measuring lens quality has yet been established, so you won’t be able to go into a store and purchase the Superlative Edition of your favorite lens. The fact that lens performance changes with aperture and zoom level are part of the issue. At f/4, the sharpest lenses are usually f/1.8 or f/1.4 lenses that have been stopped down from their maximum aperture. At the very broad (16mm or below) and telephoto (135mm and above) ends of their zoom range, lenses begin to display distortion, which some cameras may automatically correct with software.
There are a handful of simple guiding concepts that might help you get started. First and first, construction materials are important. Both Canon’s L series and Nikon’s higher-end Nikkor lenses are made of genuine glass on the inside and very durable materials on the outside. The non-removable lenses on cheaper cameras and the kit lenses included with DSLRs are both constructed of plastic on the inside and exterior, making them less dependable in the long run and less impressive while reviewing your photos. Although there are some extremely good lenses with plastic optics, you’ll be able to recognize a good lens by its substantial weight and robust feel in general.
The second thing to keep in mind is that prime lenses, which do not have a zoom capability and have a fixed focal length, tend to perform better than zoom lenses due to their simpler structure. For the greatest results, you’ll need a camera with interchangeable lenses and wide-aperture lenses in each of the most popular focal lengths, such as 24mm, 50mm, 80mm, 100mm, and 200mm. Do it only if you’re willing to sacrifice a little sharpness for a lot more versatility. That’s more than a backpack’s worth of stuff to lug about with you (and excellent glass already weights a lot), so do it only if you’re willing to sacrifice a little sharpness for a lot more flexibility.
Shutter lag is a popular fallacy that has nothing to do with the shutter. Sure, there’s a small delay between the command to open and the shutter actually opening, but the automatic focusing and metering algorithms account for the vast majority of the lag. Metering is when the camera determines how long the image should be exposed, whereas focusing is self-explanatory. We now have phones that continually refocus and re-meter the scene in order to be ready at a moment’s notice due to the fact that people want to view the image shot the minute they push a button.
Every phone and camera manufacturer is attempting to avoid the issue of focusing speed, but the only genuine answer is for your camera to have more focusing points paired with a quicker lens focusing motor. One of the areas in which professional cameras still stand head and shoulders above the rest is the reliability and quickness of focusing, especially in low light. The Canon EOS 1D-X has 61 AF points, 41 of which are cross-type AF points. If you use a fast-focusing lens on that camera, shutter lag will be a thing of the past.
If there’s one rule to remember when it comes to photography, it’s that bigger sensors equal better images. Of course, that’s a broad generalization, but it’s founded on a simple scientific fact: the larger the photosensitive surface area, the more light is taken in at a given period. The Nikon 1 series, which disappointed everyone with its tiny CX sensor, to the Nokia Lumia 1020, which is the greatest camera phone on the market owing to its massive 1/1.5-inch sensor, are all instances of this.
Full-frame cameras get their name from the size of their sensors, which correspond to the “full-frame” of 35mm film, and are unsurprisingly the professional’s choice. With a full-frame camera, a 24mm lens gives you exactly that focal length, whereas, with smaller sensors, you’re subjected to a crop factor that tends to turn everything into a slightly more zoomed-in version of itself (i.e., if the sensor is 1.5 times smaller than full-frame, as with Nikon’s popular DX-format, you get 1.5 times the focal length; with a 24mm lens; that would mean an effective focal length of 24mm).
Unfortunately, because price and sensor sizes scale relatively linearly, most enthusiasts are unable to afford medium format or full-frame cameras, which is why today’s most popular digital SLRs, such as the Canon Rebel T4i, use the APS-C format. It’s a win-win situation.
A megapixel includes one million pixels in strict terms; however, knowing that your camera shoots 10 million pixels at a time is rather useless. What you really want to know, and what the megapixel count really means, is how big you can make your image without having to digitally expand it (and suffer the resultant degradation in image quality). A 3-megapixel photo has enough density to be reproduced at 300ppi at the US standard 6-by-4-inch size, whereas 9 megapixels is closer to a normal sheet of paper at the same density. If you lower the pixel density a little, say to 200ppi, you may obtain enormous printouts with a simple 12-megapixel camera. Now, there’s no guarantee that the shot will turn out well – megapixel numbers just indicate the number of data points collected by the camera — but at the very least, you’ll be able to accomplish it.
However, such large pictures are unlikely to be required in practice. The majority of digital photography is seen on computer screens, and if all you need are updated profile photos for Facebook, even a single megapixel will suffice. If you’re shooting for billboards, murals, or other large prints, you’ll want as many megapixels as possible (like the Nikon D800’s 36), but for the ordinary photographer, other factors are considerably more important.
LCD / Viewfinder
Optical viewfinders are an amusing concept. You may question why everyone bothers with the effort until you use one, but then you acquire your first DSLR and realize you can’t live without it. Through a sort of porthole above the camera, mirrors in SLR cameras reflect the precise picture that will be recorded onto the sensor: there’s your viewfinder. The Canon 7D and Nikon D700, for example, have larger, more comfortable viewfinders than entry-level DSLRs. Thus they provide a more luxurious experience. Electronic viewfinders (EVFs) are improving and more competitive, especially in Sony’s series of single-lens translucent (SLT) cameras like the A77, and they provide helpful suggestions and additional information to assist you to improve your picture. It’s a battle of features vs. accuracy, and while purists prefer optical viewfinders, the electronic version is fast catching up.
If your camera doesn’t have a viewfinder, you’ll want to make sure it has a nice LCD. Because you’ll be using it to both frame and evaluate photographs, any flaws in color accuracy or resolution might compel you to play a guessing game you don’t want to play. LCD resolution is measured in dots, with common values of 230,000, 460,000, and 920,000. Obviously, the more dots, the better, but take a minute to inspect the screen’s quality as well. Some of Sony’s and Samsung’s newest cameras include OLED screens, which look amazing. Touchscreens are finally starting to get decent, too, with features like tap-to-focus on the Olympus PEN E-P5 and the totally touch-friendly Canon T4i — they’re not needed yet, but they’re becoming increasingly useful.
Only a few years ago, video recording in still cameras was considered a novelty, but now HD video is a regular and expected function. There are, however, certain hazards to be aware of, such as a number of cameras that lock the focus and zoom when video recording begins (for example, the otherwise superb Canon S95), severely restricting your possibilities. In the cameras that are capable of it, reliable focusing remains a fantasy. If you want your films to be free of the annoying focus jumps that cameras do when they’re confused about what you’re attempting to shoot, you’ll do well to learn to appreciate manual focus.
Due to their increased sensitivity, heavier bodies, and general mechanical zoom and focus systems, cameras with larger sensors make shooting video more difficult than basic point-and-shoots. Because lens operating sounds are frequently picked up by the inbuilt microphone, they give you more to be concerned about. They do, however, provide you access to a variety of dramatic effects that smaller cameras can’t match. Want to open your film with a beautifully circular bokeh that gradually brings your main guy into focus? You’ll need a camera in the Canon 60D class with a wide-aperture lens to match.
Although zoom is a basic notion — it refers to how near you can get to whatever you’re filming without physically moving closer – it’s not always clear what you’re getting. The angle measurements at the widest and closest settings, which measure how much you can fit into your shot, are far more significant than the actual x-multiple of your zoom. A camera with a 28mm lens and a 10x zoom lens will eventually reach closer (280mm) than one with a 24mm lens (240mm when zoomed in), albeit the tradeoff is a little narrower field of vision when zoomed out. The telephoto angle — rather than the x-multiple — is the most crucial quantity if you want to get as close to your subject as possible.
However, keep in mind that cameras with a lot of zooms are difficult to hold still when zoomed in, so taking crisp images may be difficult even with the greatest image stabilization. Furthermore, as previously said, great zoom comes with image quality compromises – lens designers must make a sacrifice somewhere — so if you want a huge zoom range, it won’t provide beautiful photos like a fixed focal length.
Fixed-lens cameras have the advantage when it comes to zooming. Powered zoom devices are common, providing for smooth control at the touch of a button. Interchangeable lenses are more difficult for newcomers to use since their zoom is typically (but not always) regulated manually by a ring around the lens’s body. This provides those who want it with greater detailed control, but it might be off-putting to the average user.
Finally, do yourself a favor and dismiss the concept of “digital zooming.” It’s done by either enlarging the image (and lowering its quality) or cropping it down to a smaller area of the sensor, both of which are much better done with dedicated post-processing software on your computer — while some phones, like the Lumia 1020, offer clever ways to zoom and re-process on your device, they can’t compete with Photoshop or even your average desktop viewer.
Digital image stabilization (IS), like digital zoom, is more of a marketing trick than a practical feature. The visual thing, on the other hand, is a completely different situation. Internal components of optical IS lenses move in the opposite direction of any little movements you make, stabilizing the picture that arrives on the sensor. Nikon’s “Vibration Reduction” is very useful, allowing you to photograph at shutter speeds two or three stops slower than you would normally be able to without motion blur. If with a conventional lens, 1/40 shutter speed is your floor before you start experiencing blurring, the VR version will reduce that to 1/25. The “Optical Image Stabilizer” is what Canon calls it, whereas Panasonic calls it “MegaOIS,” and nearly every other camera and lens manufacturer has its own version.
Image stabilization is built right into the body of Sony and Olympus DSLRs, simplifying lens design and ensuring customers that all of their lenses will be stabilized. Finally, regardless of the method you pick, they all serve the same objective of limiting the negative impacts of unexpected motion and should be very desired in a camera. Optical IS should be the first thing you check for if you’re looking for a camera with a long telephoto zoom.
The white balance is how your camera registers light and assigns a color temperature to your image or video. It’s measured in Kelvin, with the color of each light source having its unique temperature. Midday light is generally approximately 5600 Kelvin (K), with a candle down at 2000K on the “warm” end and a dark shade at 9000K on the “cool” end. Most cameras are quite excellent at establishing your white balance automatically, so don’t be scared to use it — but if you want more flexibility, you can use the in-camera presets or manually change the white balance.
Frame Rate (FR)
The frame rate, often abbreviated as FPS, is the number of frames captured per second of video. (Technically, it’s FIELDS per second unless you’re using a film camera because you’re not actually recording frames of images.) Most feature films are shot at 24 frames per second, web video is commonly shot at 29.97 or 30 frames per second, and broadcast news, live sports, and multi-camera sitcoms are typically shot at 59.94 or 60 frames per second (unless you’re in a country that uses PAL instead of NTSC, which is shot at 25 and 50 frames per second). Many modern consumer cameras, on the other hand, can capture 60, 90, 120, 240, or even 1,000 frames per second!
You may pick any frame rate for your film, but the effects will be significantly different. A lower frame rate, such as 24 fps, can give your video a more cinematic or “film” feel, with considerably more blurred action. Shooting at 29.97 or 30 frames per second gives you a more digital or “video” appearance, while shooting at 59.94 or 60 frames per second gives you a more “soap opera” or “live/broadcast” image with less motion blur.
The maximum size of the resultant picture and its clarity, especially when printed, is determined by the number of pixels. The better the outcomes, the higher the starting resolution. In the computer, you can simply decrease a high-resolution image to a low-resolution image, but not the other way around. The basic line is that you need to know where your photos are going.