(Leica M9 with Leica Summicron 35mm f/2: ISO 400, speed 1/180, f/2 - Silver Efex Pro 2 plugin on Aperture 3)
I joined last night a Photo-walk in downtown Austin with Trey Ratcliff, of Stuckincustoms fame. Over 200 people turned up to the event, and it was fun. I joined a few friends to the event, and as usual was intrigued by the fact that most have great cameras, but have no clue on how to use them properly.
I've practiced photography since I was a teenager, had many teachers / mentors, and I've also read many books. Nevertheless I'm still surprised that you can teach the basics of photography in about 20 minutes to anyone, and that no camera manual (no matter how fancy) ever teaches you that. I'm glad I could teach a few things to Franck and Astrid (portrait above) during the walk.
So here goes (I could go in very specific details but it's not the point) :
1) you first need to understand that light can be measured in 10 f-stops. From 1=white to 10=black. Everything in between are shades of grey. (Technically, it's from 1.4 to 11 because of square roots of 2, but precision here in unnecessary).
2) 3 variables used in conjunction influence how much light you are getting/using. My friend Martin Varsavsky once twitted that 'Light is to photography what wind is to sailing'. I couldn't agree more. 90% of what you do in photography is capturing the light the way you want to. Hence you need to control it, therefore understand what it is. (The remaining 10% is composition. Some would argue it's the other way around ;) but this is a crash-course for beginners). The 3 variables are : Aperture, Speed and Sensitivity. Read here for example about composition.
3) Aperture is usually located on a ring on your lens. It determines how much light is coming through the lens. The smaller the number (ie. f/2), the WIDER : the more light you get. The drawback (or advantage) is that you get a nice blur in front and in the back of the person. WIDE open for portraits, narrow for landscapes (no blur in the background). Summary: Aperture = depth of field control.
4) Speed is usually located on a knob on the side of your camera. It controls how much light you get with time. The drawback or advantage is that you control motion : fast running car, maybe use 1/500s. For water use 1/250s. If your camera is handheld, don't go below 1/60s. My rule of thumb is that you should never use anything below 1/(your focal). Example, if you're using a 50mm lens, use 1/60s. A 135mm, use 1/250s. (because 1/125s is too slow...). Summary: Speed = motion control.
5) Sensitivity (=film speed). In the good old times, you would choose a film roll to go to shoot out with. A 100 ASA (daylight, beach), 200 ASA (cloudy, interiors), 400 ASA (evening, night). Stick to that. There's too many options now, in thirds, up to 3200 or more. Some cameras are great in low light at 6400 ASA/ISO (Canon 5D Mark II), others do a very poor job (Leica M9). In the old times, the more sensitive the film, the more grain you would get, which could be nice and artistic. Now it's called digital noise, and it's ugly. Summary : sensitivity = grain/noise control (stick below 400 ISO).
6) now the beauty of it all is that these 3 variables were calibrated to work together. Add one f-stop of aperture, and decrease one f-stop of any other, and you get the SAME amount of light. Example : go from f/1.4 to f/2 (less light), and from 200 ASA to 100 ASA (more light), and you get the same TOTAL amount of light. Super convenient :) Forget using all those half-stops or third stops that your camera offers for ISO, aperture and speed. Practice using real f-stops ONLY.
7) 2 other variables are very important : let's start with white balance. White is not white all the time. It depends on the light you're getting. The sun in broad daylight gives you 5000-6000 kelvin. A candlelight gives you 1800-2000K. Actually photography gives you a reflected light... You need to tell your camera what light you are getting. This is why you get green or yellow pictures when uncalibrated. Luckily most cameras have settings for daylight, cloudy (warmer yellow), shade, tungstene (the yellow), fluorescent (the green)... Old school guys ran around with coloured filters to control this. I know you can correct this in your favourite software (lightroom, aperture...) but it's a fantastic training to set the white balance BEFORE you shoot. Summary : white balance = colour control
8) the final important variable is the focal length of your lens. Modern cameras use zooms, and I see people happily zooming in and out. Most zooms have actually standard focal lengths written on them : 18mm, 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 100mm, 135mm, etc. As I said above, you need to learn to compose and train your eye to shoot with a specific lens (prime lens) or focal length. Hence choose with what you want to shoot and STICK to that. You should never be getting 38mm or 112mm in your EXIF data anymore.
got it ?
So here is my 5-step routine whenever I shoot :
1) as in the old times, choose a roll of film according to your context. 100, 200 or 400 ISO. not below, not above if you want to avoid digital noise. Let's go for 100.
2) check the light source and set your white balance. Let's say DAYLIGHT.
3) decide what is the lens you want to use to shoot (I don't have a zoom with my Leica, only prime lenses ;). Let's go with 35mm.
4) I have 2 variables left. Speed and Aperture. I usually set Aperture first. If I'm doing a portrait, I'll set my camera somewhere at f/2 - f/5,6. If I'm doing a landscape, I'll set my camera at f/8-f/11.
5) my final variable is now speed. I use the light meter in the camera to get exposure right (not going below 1/60s) and compose.
The beautiful thing is that if conditions don't change much, you only have to adjust as in 5) to keep taking pix at an event, location, or of your subject (+ focus manually if you don't have auto-focus). All in all, it's extremely quick.
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