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People take pictures of each other, just to prove that they really existed…!
- Ray Davies -

Photography has become so essential to our lives that we take it for granted. Like breathing, we just assume it is going to happen. This is the way we document our own personal histories. Who doesn’t have baby photos saved up in boxes collecting dust and taking up space in the attic or basement? Without a doubt the camera was there for our baby’s first birthday, our little boy’s first haircut and our first family trip to the mountains. The camera preserves and documents precious memories. Yes, we do take photos simply to prove that these memories really existed! But why? Because for us, our own life’s stories are the most important things we have and the camera is the magic box that for almost two centuries has made it a snap and a pleasure to record.

Today’s lesson is going to be all about how to maximize your basic know-how of this “life-story” -making machine. Get up and get your camera in hand, because you’re going to need it. As promised last issue, we will go through camera mechanics step by step, and by the end of the article you will be a mini-expert in some of the basics. Last month’s article was all about the different qualities of light (by the way, did you do your homework?!) We are going to see that light is everything when it comes to the technical side of the camera as well. Shutter speed, aperture, and film type are all related to the intensity of light that strikes your film. One thing should be made clear first: Although technical proficiency with your camera doesn’t necessarily guarantee perfect results, it would be the rare photographer who takes great photos without the technical know-how. I didn’t really start taking great photos on a consistent level until I knew how the camera worked like the back of my hand. Let’s get an early start with Jeffrey Shutterbug #2!

First off, this article is going to be referring to the manual 35mm camera (or an modern automatic camera which can be switched to full manual settings). Without a doubt, digital photography is making big waves and this column will not ignore this fact. However, even if you do decide to get into digital photography, I highly recommend you learn the basics with a 35 mm traditional film model. There is no better way to understanding the principles of photography than to do everything manually, and what better way to do this than with a manual camera?

Okay, let’s begin! Think of your camera as nothing but a small box. No matter how much it costs, no matter how many bells and whistles it has, it is only a light tight box until you decide otherwise. You are the light master, which means you are in full control of just how much light will strike the film. Manipulating how the light effects your photography can be a very complicated subject and several books have been written on the topic, but what must be considered essential is to achieve a decent-looking photograph, you must learn to properly control the quantity of light. Everyone starts off with the two basic ways to do this: Shutter speed and aperture control.

Both of these controls are inter-related so if you change one setting you will have to alter the other. We’ll get into that a little later in this article but, stop right now and look at your camera! It’s full of numbers isn’t it? Don’t panic . . . You probably see a bunch of numbers on a round knob usually found on the right side of the camera, and there are usually numbers to be found around the lens as well.

Shutter Speed -- Controls Light and the Movement of Your Subject.

Let’s start with the numbers on the knob, as they control the shutter speed of the camera. If your camera is an automatic model allowing for manual settings, these numbers can usually be found on an LCD screen on the ride side of the camera and should be controlled by a rotary dial or push button of some sort. The velocity of the shutter (which is actually the mechanism of the camera that opens when you snap a photo) is the exact time the opening allows the light to expose the film. Typically the standard speeds start at 1 second and continue through ½ second, ¼ second, 1/8 second, 1/15 second, 1/30 second, 1/60 second, 1/125 second, 1/250 second, 1/500 second, 1/1000 second and 1/2000 of a second. The higher the number, the shorter the time because shutter speeds are measured in fractions, of course. Some cameras even give you shutter speeds up to 1/12,000 second! There is also typically a “B” or bulb setting which allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you like, granted you keep the shutter button pressed down.

But controlling shutter speed means controlling the appearance of motion as well as how much light enters your camera. Have you ever seen a picture of a young Michael Jordan soaring toward the basket frozen in flight, tongue wagging as he is about to slam it home? We can do with the camera what his opponents could not on the basketball court, that is we can freeze his motion -- no matter how fast he is flying -- with the shutter speed control. If “freezing” the motion of MJ is the point, then it will be essential to use a shutter speed of at least 1/125 or 1/250 depending on how fast he is flying. If your subject is a jet or a Formula One racer, you’ll need a much faster speed. Try 1/1000 or even faster and you stop a supersonic fighter in its tracks! The best way to see the effects is to experiment with several rolls of film.

Sometimes it’s more attractive or artistic to “blur” motion. Want to see MJ’s actual flight path or movement? Use a shutter speed of 1/30 or less. The moment the shutter opens and closes is relatively long and this allows him to fly across the film plane and record his movement in the photo. We are usually taught that a good photograph is one that is sharp and in focus, but this blurring effect can be extremely attractive when recording movement in waterfalls, traffic-light trails and star movements. The possibilities are endless so, again, you will need to experiment with some rolls of film. I’ve used slow shutter speeds to record the movement of a musician’s hand while frantically stroking his guitar (see accompanying image). Don’t forget, when using a very slow shutter speed, you will need to set the camera onto a tripod (see sidebar for the “rule”).

Aperture- Controls Light and Depth of Field.

The other light control, other than shutter speed, is called the aperture. Aperture literally means “opening” and your camera lens can be set to varying sizes depending on how much light you would like to expose the film. Think of the aperture of your camera lens like you would a mechanical version of the iris (the black part) of your eye. Go to the mirror and close your eyes for 10 seconds covering them with your hands. Open them suddenly and watch your irises contract from a very big size. Look carefully into a light and watch them contract even more! Like the eye, your camera has a way to control how much light will be allowed to enter and expose the film. The difference is that you must control this manually. This is usually done by turning a numbered ring on the lens barrel, but can also be set by a knob or dial if using a more modern model.

Take a look at the lens and you should see some numbers like these: 22, 16, 11, 8, 5.6, 4, 2.8, 2. These numbers represent the aperture sizes. That is, the size of the opening in the lens. Technically they are referred to as “f-stops” and, like the numbers used for the shutter speeds, are fractions. Because 4 is actually ¼ and 16 is 1/16, it follows that the lower the number the larger the actual size of the opening: ¼ is bigger than 1/16, right? It also follows that if you open your lens to an f-stop of 4 it will let in more light than an f-stop of 16. Furthermore, since each number represents an f-stop of light from the previous number, it will let in twice as much or one-half the amount of light depending upon the direction you turn the barrel ring. For example, setting your aperture to 4 lets in twice the light as 5.6. An aperture of 8 conversely will let in only a half the amount of light of 5.6. Get it?

To understand this better, I highly recommend you remove the lens from the camera body and point it toward the sky or a bright light source. Turn the aperture ring while looking through the glass and you will see that 16 is half as wide as 11, which is half as wide as 8 and so forth.

Jeffrey Shutterbug Glossary (every month we include a glossary of technical terms and names of photographers for your learning pleasure. Feel free to cut it out and paste the selection into a special notebook!)
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