Today I am thinking about one of the things in my life that I am passionate about, something that goes well with travel and many other things in life.
That something is Photography.
When I was a young boy I took pictures with a Kodak Brownie box camera. While attending broadcasting technical school in Washington D.C. in 1972, I tried my hand at shooting transparencies (slides) with my dad’s old Agfa 35mm rangefinder with a bellow lens. I had some success with it, during daylight hours anyway. When the first Panda Bears arrived from China at the Washington National Zoo, I attended the acceptance ceremony, hosted by Pat Nixon. I was up in the press stands snapping away. I still have those pictures.
A few years later I found myself high in the mountains above Nogales, Arizona. As a network news cameraman (videographer), I was there to tape the assembly of one of the first network broadcast satellite dishes built in the southwest. I was running around with a heavy shoulder mounted portable video camera, with a battery belt strapped to my waste and carrying a three quarter inch video tape recorder. I taped the building of the dish, which was mounted on a platform overlooking a five hundred foot drop. The techs building the dish, one was my brother, had to strap themselves to the dish legs to keep from falling to the rocks far below. I captured on tape a number of beautiful sunsets and sunrises. My brother did the same with his Olympus OM-1 35mm SLR film camera.
Later, after watching my recordings and knowing what was on his exposed film, I decided that I had to get my own 35mm camera. A few months later I visited a catalog showroom in Norfolk, Virginia where I purchased a Minolta XG-1 SLR along with an accessory package that was composed of a bag, a cheap 135mm lens, a flash, and a lens cleaning kit. This purchase started a long love affair with photography which would include many more cameras, and lenses, lots of reading, including the 16 volume Time-Life photography library (which I still own), and one day a complete color darkroom set up in my wife’s laundry room. I stored mixed chemicals and boxes of paper in the refrigerator. This was not always popular with all members of my family.
I became a semi-pro photographer. I use the term semi-pro because I did not do it to make a living but I did make money at it. I made money shooting weddings, portraits, and other special events. I also made money selling my pictures at art shows. I was one of the photographers at the PBS television station I worked at. My function as video engineer, both in the studio and on remote locations, gave me an opportunity to shoot still shots behind the scenes. These shots were displayed in bank lobbies and libraries around this area and I sold copies to various people who saw them. My pictures were also published a few times in the local paper. The money I made went to feed my habit of taking pictures. It paid for film, chemicals, paper, and new equipment. I also entered a number of photo contests sponsored by local camera shops and cities. I won a few prizes, none of great monetary value, but winning meant a lot to me. The contest gave me the chance to meet other shooters, some of which became friends, and I learned a lot from them.
I had my darkroom for about four years and then the opportunity to start my own phone business presented itself. I then had to make a decision about what was going to get most of my time and energy. I thought about what the head photography curator of the Chrysler Museum said to me when he was judging the photography at one of the local outdoor art shows where my work was on display. He asked me if I really took the pictures. He was pointing to one in particular when he asked this. Taken a bit back I answered with an emphatic Yes. He then told me I did good work and to keep at it.
To make a really good picture took two shots, one in the field and one in the darkroom. To give up my darkroom meant giving up my ability to make the kind of finished art I wanted to make. However, I needed to make money to take care of my growing family, so it was a sad day when I sold my easels, large darkroom timer, trays, color developing drums, really good Saunders C760 dichroic color photo enlarger and watched them go out my back door.
I went into film withdrawal. I threw myself into the phone business and didn't touch a camera again for months.
Eventually I did get back into it. I purchased a new Minolta 550si Auto Focus camera. I took pictures with that camera as my telephone business took me around the world. I shot pictures of my kids, of the mountains, the sea. Not having a darkroom, I concentrated more on making a better picture inside the camera. I intensified my study of light, depth of field, the capability of different lenses, the best techniques for using a flash. I purchased a Minolta Dimage digital rangefinder camera when that technology was new. I was disappointed. I liked the instant picture, but I found the quality to be very lacking compared to film, so I stayed with that medium for quite a long time. I did scan many negatives and slides for posting on various picture hosting sites. I did post production work on some of those scanned images using different software programs including PhotoShop and others. In other words I was dabbling into the world of digital photography. I dabbled around the edges anyway, but I still could not see a real compelling reason to buy a DSLR.
One day about seven years ago my daughter Jeri called me and said she was getting married. Jeri and her fiancé Tom would be hosting the event at the Little Switzerland Lodge and Resort on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Marion, North Carolina. The lodge had a staff photographer and as part of their wedding package, he would take pictures during the ceremony. She wanted me to take all the before and after and some during the wedding before I walked her “down the isle”. She wanted my shots, like the staff photographer’s, to be digital. She then informed me she would buy the camera for me. This presented me with a very interesting opportunity.
I purchased the ten mega pixel Sony Alpha 100 DSLR. This camera had just hit the market a few weeks before Jeri’s call. The bundle included the camera body, 18-70 zoom lens, battery and charger. It cost one thousand dollars. I had a hard time with that price, but considering all my Minolta AF lenses would still work with the new camera, the cost was worth it. However, I could not allow Jeri to spend that kind of money so we split the purchase. I had a few days to learn the ins and outs of the camera. It wasn’t that hard. I took a couple of classes at the Ritz camera store where I bought the camera. I tried, but I found the classes to be a waste of time. I could have taught them, plus I got tired of hearing that the only camera you should own is a Nikon. That is a most silly untrue thing for someone who works in a camera store to say.
Jeri and Tom were married on October 7, 2006. I took some shots before the ceremony started, then sat aside my camera (and my cell phone) to walk my daughter down the stone pathway to the side of her soon to be husband. I wished I could have been in two places at once. I really wanted to shoot her walking down the isle. Maybe I needed a small drone to hover in front of us and I could have used a remote control? Just kidding.
My daughter Christine recently took a digital photography course at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. Christine enrolled to pick up some, what she thought, would be a few easy credit hours. She found out the class was not that easy and she also found out that she liked it. She liked taking pictures with my borrowed Sony Alpha 100, a camera that met the class requirements. She now has her own cameras, a Sony SLT a58 and the Sony A99v pro DSLR. The two of us have spent quite a bit of time on the phone discussing photography, including the various parts of a DSLR, lenses, and how they all work together. We have also talked about techniques, how to develop an “eye” for a good shot. Christine grew up around photography; it was a part of her life just like computers and telephones. Now photography is a part of her life again and I have enjoyed helping her.
Working with Christine started me thinking.
I thought I could provide a few lessons in digital photography, specifically Digital SLR photography here. If you want to get into taking really good pictures, something a lot more than a snap shot, then I can help. I will provide lots of information, both basic and advanced, about choosing and using a DSLR. To make it really interesting I may provide some tasks for you as well, that all depends on the responses I receive here of course.
Shall we begin? Today’s lesson is a bit of an introduction.
In order to become a better photographer you need to know two main things.
1. How to use your equipment.
2. How to use your eyes.
What is a DSLR? It is a Digital Single Lens Reflex camera. It combines the optics and mechanics of a Single Lens Camera with a digital sensor instead of film. The term SLR or Single Lens Reflex, refers to the fact that light, passes through the lens, hits a mirror which turns the image right side up and displays it on the viewfinder focusing screen. When the picture is taken the mirror flips up (reflex) as the shutter opens, the iris in the lens closes, and the sensor is exposed. The final image looks very close to what was seen in the viewfinder.
The best DSLRs have interchangeable lenses. They can have an optical or electronic viewfinder. My newest Sony DSLR has an LCD viewfinder. It is technically an SLT not an SLR. The mirror is translucent (T) which allows light to the viewfinder and exposes the sensor at the same time without the mirror moving during the shot. There are many advantages to this that I will tell you about later. In all other aspects my camera is still a DSLR
A DSLR with interchangeable lens provides you with almost total control over the image you want to capture. You can adjust the exposure of the shot. Exposure is a combination of the sensitivity of the sensor to light, the speed of the shutter, and the aperture or opening of the iris of the lens. These three things all work together.
Exposure starts with the ISO setting. ISO is also known as ASA or DIN. These acronyms are so old no one remembers what they stand for anymore. They are the acronyms of the original folks who set the standards for film. What does this have to do with digital photography? Digital photography still uses those standards. Those standards are used to determine how to set the camera to capture a correctly exposed image.
The exposure process is a combination of three things…ISO number, which sets the sensitivity of the internal light meter; shutter speed, which determines how long the sensor is exposed to light, we are talking hundredths of seconds here; and the aperture setting or F-stop which determines how large or small the opening of the lens iris. (see chart above)
A DSLR will set all the above for you automatically or you can decide for yourself. You do have control. You can set the camera for shutter priority meaning you choose the shutter speed; the camera sets the correct lens aperture or F-stop for you. You can reverse that and set the aperture yourself and the camera sets the shutter speed. The third choice, and it is the one that most photography instructors want their students to use, is full manual. You set it all using the camera’s meter.
Let me give an example. The camera is set for an ISO of 200. The f-stop of the camera is set at 5.6; the shutter speed will be at 125 hundreds of a second. How do I know that? Because the meter in my camera tells me. Now if I want to set it myself then there will be an indicator in the viewfinder to let me know when I have the correct exposure. Each manufacturer or camera has its own way of doing that. There might be a vertical or horizontal scale with an arrow or pointer that needs to be set on zero. Older film cameras used a ring and a needle… you adjusted the shutter and F-stop until the needle was in the ring and then take the shot.
Typically film cameras had an ISO setting as low as 25 to as high as 6400 or more. These settings matched the speed of the film which was on the canister. For example: Kodak Kodachrome daylight film could have an ASA of 25. This was a great film for taking bright colored and very sharp slides in bright daylight. Kodak Ektachrome 400 was good for taking pictures in low light without a flash.
The higher the ISO the less light you need to expose the picture. The lower the ISO setting the more light you need. So why not use a high ISO all the time? Well that sounds reasonable, but because of the way the other parts of the exposure process work the final picture may have results you don’t want.
Film has an emulsion consisting of fine grains of silver halide salt particles suspended in a gelatin. These salts based on size determined the sensitivity of the film to light, the more sliver particles the less light, the less light the higher the ISO. The more particles the film contains the grainier the film. This translates to a grainier picture from the developed negative or slide. The bigger the picture the more noticeable this grain becomes. Digital photography experiences the same thing only the grain is called noise. (take another look at the chart). The higher the ISO setting the less light you need but the noise, or digital grain, increases. Some cameras produce more noise at higher ISO than others. The older Sony A100 is noticeably noisier at ISO 400 than my newer A57 SLT which creates more digital noise than my A77II SLT.
Now the question changes to: why use a higher ISO if it increases noise? The answer is because it increases the shutter speed as well.
Why is that an advantage?
Simple answer is that a faster shutter speed makes it easier to hold the camera steady and capture the shot. In other words, a faster shutter speed reduces or eliminates a thing called blur. (see chart above) With a fast shutter speed you can freeze your subject. You can catch a bird in flight; freeze a baseball pitcher's curve ball in the air. With a fast shutter speed you can take multiple pictures per second as you pan and follow a track star or a horse racing with its neck outstretched as it passes the winning post.
A high ISO setting allows for hand held shooting in low light…to a point anyway. I love shooting in low light. I prefer the term available light. If the light is really low then your exposure setting could require a slow shutter speed and as I said that could make it hard to hold the camera steady during the exposure. One way to reduce camera movement is to hold it properly. Elbows tucked in against your body, left hand under the lens with palm up and cradling the lens. This type of hold also helps to keep your fingers from getting in the shot. Another way to reduce camera movement is to take advantage of DSLRs that have built in anti shake. Sony has named this function Steady Shot. Sony built this function into the camera body, some camera makers build it into the lens. I prefer Sony’s method because it reduces the size and weight of their lenses.
The best way to avoid camera shake when shooting a long exposure is to use a monopod or even better a tripod. Both of these pieces of equipment are essential to the serious photographer.
I think this is a good start to our online photography course. Next time I will discuss in further detail the relationship between lens settings and focus range also known as depth of field. Controlling DOF is a great advantage that DSLRs provide over the conventional point and shoot camera.