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Camera Basics for Photography with a DSLR or Mirror-less or Advanced Features on Camera Phones or Point and Shoot Cameras

First steps to taking great photos
Alright newbies to dslrs and many other types of cameras, listen up.  Your new camera is great, but let's be honest, there are way too many functions for you to really understand what is going on with your camera.  I was the same way when I started, and there are so many things that I wish I had known at the beginning that took me years to learn on my own.

How a Camera Works

picture 1
Most people don't bother to ask this question, but if you really want to know how to master your camera, you need to understand how it works. First of all, do you remember those needle toys that left hand prints (picture 1) when you were a kid? That's a lot like many types of cameras(not all). When you take a picture, it records levels of light at a certain depth. This light is usually the red, green, blue light of the color spectrum, but other waves that we cannot see get recorded as well (like infrared) onto a pin-like scale like the one above called pixels. Once recorded, your camera has fancy algorithms that usually will split the light and compare and contrast pixels to add contrast, color, brightness, change white balance to different pixels and remove noise, depending on what you tell it to do.

This information, however, has to first enter your camera and it does this by first creating a survey or histogram of the light in the picture, it also focuses on some portion of the picture to do this, and then it decides how much light will enter the camera based on the use of three things:

ISO-Basically how fast your camera reads light that is entering your camera, the higher your iso, the higher chance you will have grainy, pixelated, or what's called noise in your pictures.
Aperture-This is how wide your lens opens to receive light.  The wider open it is (lower number) the more light enters the camera faster and also the lower the depth of field (how far a camera can focus in a picture)
Shutter speed-This is how long your camera's shutter remains open to record the light entering.  The longer it's open, the greater chance for noise and "camera shake"
(we'll talk more about these later but for now remember that when one goes up or down the other two have to compensate for it)

So why is understanding that important?  It is because it helps you understand a few things common in dslr talk.  It helps you understand the difference between a raw photo or a processed photo like a jpeg.  Raw photos contain all of the information that is taken from the slate, but these are big files because they retain all the information.  When you take a jpeg, on the other hand, you're telling your camera that you want it to edit the information for you, and to compress your image into a smaller and more readable file.  Moral of the story, jpegs the camera will edit the info for you, raw you have to do it yourself.  Now, personally, I love raw files and editing, but jpegs can work if you know how to handle them.  But just an aside, if you're new to photography, but think there is a possibility that you might get into it and want to edit your photos in a couple of years, most cameras have a jpeg + raw setting, it takes up a ton of memory, but it's worth it if you're going someplace that you may never go back to.

Camera Basics

picture 2

Above you see a picture of a common dslr taken from an advanced user mode on my iPhone.  I won't walk through everything, but here are the basics.  The twistable ring on your camera is your friend.  If you want to shoot raw and you want more flexibility you should use the settings
M-Manual gives you full control of all settings
Av-gives you control of aperture, but it will automatically set shutter speed
Tv-gives you control of shutter speed, but it automatically sets aperture.

The other settings, however, are quite powerful:

SCN-has many options such as HDR-takes three pictures at different levels of brightness and stitches them into a picture. This one also has night mode on many cameras, which takes a few pictures at different settings to stitch them together and eliminate shake.
Running guy-for fast action photography, like sports
flower-macro photography, for closeups of things, like flowers.
hill-this is for landscape photography large depth of field.
person-portrait photography
CA-creative auto, gives you options to use with the pictures
x on flash-auto without the flash
Green A-full auto, usually not bad, if you know how to handle your camera.

How to Work Settings

picture 3
This is an example of manual mode with a Canon dslr.  It will look a little different if you're using a Nikon or Pentax, etc, but the concepts are the same.  This  is the most important part of this article and the most important part to understanding how to use your camera, so pay attention as I go through these lines.

15"-This is your shutter speed-in this case I have the speed set to 15 seconds in picture 2 you can see I have it set to 1/15 seconds.  There are a lot of questions on how long you should be able to hold a camera steady with your hands.  Basically I think it's up to you, but here are some basic guidelines for shutter speed.  Lower than 1/1000 seconds you will be freezing time, this is great for rain shots or fast action shots where you want to freeze everything.  Keep in mind that many flash times don't go below 1/200 sec.  1/200-1/40, this is probably where you will spend the majority of your time taking handheld day shots, nothing too important here except you can slow down shots to show movement even during the day.  This is great with waterfalls or seaside shots, but remember to find something to put it on to eliminate the shake of your hands.  Finally anything below 1/10 is for low light photography or night photography.  For that you need a tripod, or find a handy rock or something to put your camera on.

F9.0-This is where you set your aperture. Notice that my iPhone does not have this capacity, most camera phones do not.  The higher the number the smaller the opening for light to get into your camera, but also the wider depth of field or more focused your camera will be.  If you want portrait shots, where you are blurring out the background you want a lower aperture like 2.8.  If you want to capture a landscape you want a much higher aperture from 7.1-as high as your lens can go.  One caution with high apertures, however, is there is something called diffraction which can affect your focus quality with higher apertures, but don't worry too much about it at this stage.  Just remember to set a higher aperture for landscapes and focus about 1/3 of the way up the landscape into the background.  Also most lenses will have a focus peak or best focus range somewhere between F7.1-11

ISO 3200-This is a relatively high iso for my camera, and this is one of the reasons to spend more money on higher level dslrs, they have better iso performance.  For my camera, 3200 starts to push a lot of noise onto my pixels and the pictures just don't look as good anymore.  I try to stay below that, but your camera might be much better.  Just remember to know your iso limits, Usually 100 or 50 is the best because the quality will be perfect, but most cameras nowadays can go up to 800 with hardly any difference in photo quality.

The big level-This is exposure compensation and very important for portraits.  Let's say you're taking pictures but it's a dark day and every time you're in the picture you end up super dark. Move up your exposure comp, and you'll end up much brighter.  What's really happening is your camera is measuring the light and deciding it needs to be dark, so what you do is tell it to go brighter because you know better.  Of course in manual mode this isn't that important since you can do it yourself by changing one of the above functions, but in almost every other mode, you need to make use of this!

-2 2/3-This is my exposure compensation set for flash, this way you can take a picture with flash without blowing out the histogram.

The S with the spindles-This is the most important feature for shooting jpegs, this is how the camera is going to process your data, it will manually apply sharpening, saturation, contrast, and brightness based on what you tell it to do.  I have mine on standard since I shoot in raw and it doesn't matter, but you will want to experiment and find the right setting for you.

AWB-This is auto white balance (on my iPhone it's measured in Kelvin-temperature).  I usually don't mess with this setting unless I have to, once again because I can fix it later, but this is the hardest one to get right.  You can manually set it by bringing a white sheet of paper with you in the setting you use it with, or you can just use presets.  The most important part of white balance, however, is when photos start turning out odd colors, you can usually fix it by playing with the white balance.

We can skip the next one and go on to the setting with the square and the ball in the middle-this is how your histogram is measured, in this case it's taking a center weighted average, this means it looks at the center to see the amount of the light there and then averages it with the non-center to properly compose the histogram.  Once again, this can be wrong, so fix it with exposure compensation.

AI Servo-This is how your camera focuses, not super important at this stage, but basically it tells your camera to continually focus on something moving, or to focus and stop.

The square-This is how many shots you are going to take, for fast speed action, set it to take many at a time.

Finally, there's the timer-the timer setting is great for low light because there is a two second timer.  You can set it push your shutter button and leave it to eliminate shake.

I hope this helps, and feel free to ask me any questions or add anything in the comments.  But for now go out and take some great photos.

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