Back To Basics

An in-depth introduction to (D)SLR photography.
Written By: Connor Archard and Roman Verner

Table of Contents
I. Introduction
II. Three Pillars of Exposure
III. Pillar One – Shutter Speed
IV. Pillar Two – Aperture/f-stop
V. Pillar Three – ISO Speed
VI. White Balance
VII. File Size
VIII. Auto-Focus (AF) Modes
IX. Metering Modes
X. Equipment
XI. Final Summation

I. Introduction

This guide is being written in an effort to help amateur photographers grasp a basic understanding of photography, and more importantly, how to use their cameras. There are many topics of interest that are left out of this guide. Again, by reading this guide we hope you will learn the very basic skills required to take a photograph. Where you take your photography from there is up to you.

II. The Three Pillars of Exposure

Exposure is the aspect of a picture’s lighting. The amount of light that gets into your camera and shows up on your picture is determined by the three pillars of exposure that we will be going over: shutter speed, ISO speed, and f-stop. In layman’s terms, the three pillars of exposure are the three things that determine how light or dark your picture is. All three pillars are required to help support what can metaphorically be referred to as the exposure ‘roof.’ If one of the three pillars is not set correctly — not tall enough — the roof will not be supported, and your picture will be either over-exposed — bright — or underexposed — dark. The three pillars of exposure are sometimes referred to as the triangle of exposure. The goal is to have an equilateral triangle, or in other words, a triangle where all three things work in perfect harmony to create a well exposed picture.
[NOTE: The trick of correctly exposing a picture lies within using shutter speeds, ISO, and f-stop values in concert and at the appropriate times. All three are equally important. Neglecting any one will ruin the lighting of a picture.]

III. Pillar One – Shutter Speed

Let us begin with one of the most basic concepts in photography — shutter speed. Shutter speed could be defined as the length of time your camera takes a picture. Each digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera has a sensor located within it. It is usually found right behind where the screen is located. To the user, the sensor is not visible — unless you take off your lens. The sensor is, however, the most important part of the camera. Without the sensor, you cannot take pictures. So what does this mysterious and powerful sensor do? It captures and records light, more specifically, reflected light. The more light waves hit the sensor, the brighter that area will appear in your picture, because the sensor was recording it for a specific amount of time. You as the photographer, get to choose how long your camera records light for. This is done by altering the shutter speed, which is again, the amount of time your camera takes a picture for.

Shutter speed can be represented in different ways. It either appears on your camera as a fraction, or it doesn’t. If it is represented as a fraction, let us say, 1/200, then that’s how long your camera will expose for — 1/200th of a second. Shutter speed is always counted in seconds. The only way shutter speed differs from camera to camera, is how it is represented. As I said two sentences ago, it can be represented as a fraction, but it does not always have to be. Sometimes, it is simply represented as a whole number. If your camera says 200, then it is safe to assume it actually means 1/200th of a second. On cameras that don’t show shutter speed as fractions, a quotation mark is often employed to help you understand when you are taking pictures in whole seconds, and when you are taking pictures at a fraction of a second. It may look like this: 20”, or 20. The 20” means 20 seconds, where as the 20 simply means 1/20th of a second.

Shutter speed is very important, because it determines how blurry some pictures will come out. When you take a hand-held picture for too long, chances are, it will turn out blurry. This is because you were recording the light as your hands move. This is why shutter speed is pillar number one, because without correctly setting the shutter speed, not only may your picture come out dark or light, but it may also come out blurry.

IV. Pillar Two – Aperture/f-stop

Aperture is the second of the three pillars of exposure. Aperture is often the most misunderstood concept of photography, and for good reasons. Aperture, or f-stop, controls two things: depth of field (DOF) and lens light transmittance. Let’s talk about the second topic: lens light transmittance.

When people talk about aperture, they are not actually talking about cameras, instead, they are talking about lenses. You see, when you change aperture, you are physically altering a component in your lens known as the diaphragm blades. The diaphragm blades control how large, or small, the opening inside of your lens is. This, in turn, controls how much light enters your camera and hits the sensor. The smaller the opening, the less light that gets through. A common metaphor people like to envision, is a set of blinds on a window. The more you close the blinds, the less light that enters the room. The more you close the opening in your lens, the less light that enters your camera.

Aperture is represented on your camera via a number that is prefaced with an ‘f’. For example, you can have an aperture of f/1.8, f/2.8, f/11, f/22, etc. — these are not the only f-stop values you can set your lens to. Here is where it may get confusing. The larger the number, the smaller the opening inside your lens is, and therefore the less light that enters your camera. The larger the number, however, the larger your DOF will be. Which is actually our next topic.

Depth of field (DOF), can be briefly defined as what is in focus both in front, and behind, your focus point. A shallow DOF means very little is in focus in front and behind your subject, hence the term ‘shallow’. In terms of f-stop, the smaller the number, the shallower the DOF will be, and the larger the number, the larger your DOF will be.

To summarize, the smaller the f-stop number, the more light that enters your camera, but the shallower your DOF will be. Light and f-stop numbers are therefore inversely proportion, where-as f-stop and DOF are directly proportional. You can automatically see why aperture is the second pillar of exposure — or simply one part of the triangle –, because it controls how much light enters your camera, and both what is in focus in front, and behind, your focal point.

V. Pillar Three – ISO Speed

ISO speed is the last pillar of exposure. ISO, meaning International Organization for Standardization*, is a function of your camera’s sensor. ISO controls how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. A low ISO number translates to a low sensitivity, whereas a high ISO number translates to a high sensitivity. If you are shooting in bright conditions, you want to set your ISO to a relatively low number, and vice-versa if you are shooting at night or in darker conditions. Many people, when they first learn of ISO, often question what the downside of a high ISO is. Surely, you can’t simply raise your ISO and take great pictures at night… right? Right. Sadly, a high ISO, such as 12800, means your sensor is extremely sensitive to light. When you boost your ISO to such a high value, your sensor will actually start to overheat, thus creating something called noise.

Noise is what happens when your cameras sensor starts overheating in very localized places. Noise appears in the form of random colors — often times red, green, and blue. Noise degrades the quality of your pictures by ridding it of detail, and creating distracting colors. Setting ISO, due to the consideration of noise levels, is often a compromise. You must consider how much noise you are willing to deal with, and set your ISO accordingly. Unfortunately, there is no magic ISO number, because noise levels differ from camera to camera.

* [“ISO” is a word that represents the International Standards Organization, or as it is more commonly known, the International Organization for Standardization. This organization is based in Switzerland and they set a lot of international standards, including the measurement system for film sensitivity (which translates to digital photography).] – Citation

VI. White Balance

White balance is one of the most convenient-to-set features on your camera. Most, if not all, cameras have a quick access button located somewhere on the camera body. White balance controls the temperatures of the colors within your picture. An incorrectly set white balance might result in a picture with blue tones, or sometimes orange tones. Below are the symbols that represent the different default white balance settings you should have available on your camera.

Setting white balance is extremely easy, just select the symbol for whatever the lighting conditions are when you are out shooting. If it’s sunny, use daylight. If you’re somewhere in the shade, choose shade. You get the picture (pun intended). However, to set a custom white balance you will need something known as a gray card. If that’s something you would be interested in, you can find one here. While a gray card is the most common card used to set a white balance, the cards themselves can also be black or white. The link will lead you to an Amazon page with a very decent set containing all three for only eight dollars. Since every camera sets custom white balance differently, I would recommend reading the manual to see how your particular camera operates. Gray cards are only typically used when all of the other default settings fail to set a correct white balance.

Besides using a gray card to set white balance, your camera might also have the kelvin scale. A low number on the kelvin scale represents a cool temperature, and vice versa. If your picture is already warm, such as a picture of a candle, you do not need to raise the kelvin scale and make the picture any warmer. In science, the kelvin scale is used very frequently, and although it might sound like a foreign term at first, it’s just another way of reading temperature (Kelvin = Degrees Celsius + 273).

[More sections coming soon. Topics covered in future sections: File Size, Autofocus (AF) Modes, Metering Modes, and Equipment.]


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