photo craft: a date with your camera (in four parts)

Okay. Let’s get back to photo craft today.


If you’re a regular here, you may recall the first in the series, 5 Essential Photography Tips You Probably Know, but Still Need to Remember. If not, give it a quick read—and don’t worry, we’ve saved you a seat at the table, the coffee is hot, your cup awaits.


I deliberated a bit about how much information to cover in this post. I could go on at eye-rolling head drifting off into the clouds lengths about the ins and outs of getting to know your cameras, but I’ll keep it as brief as I can and spare you the zone system (this time…).

Since I don’t want to leave anyone out of the conversation, I’m starting with a sweeping overview and as the series progress, I’ll delve deeper into technical matters. Sound good?

What you should remember, above all, is that learning these craft fundamentals helps to develop your visual voice. No matter what level you’re at right now, if you continue to practice the craft daily, your voice will show up in your work and grow stronger with each photograph you make.

thursday morning photos

Lesson 2. Photo Craft: A date with your camera (in four parts).

Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.—Henri Cartier-Bresson

Part I. Camera Types (a starting point):

Since we all shoot with different and often multiple camera types, I’m going to give a brief run down on five basic models. Hopefully you’ve read your camera manual(s) (nudge, nudge).

DSLR/SLR. DSLR (digital single lens reflex)/SLR (single lens reflex) cameras are more or less the same, except that a DSLR records images onto a digital sensor whereas a SLR records images on negative or positive film. The larger the sensor (where all the individual pixels are stored) or film is—the better the image quality and the lower the noise level will be. Modern D/SLR cameras with automatic and manual capabilities let you control as little or as much as you like by choosing different camera settings and lenses depending on the desired outcome. For DSLRs,  sensor—the more pixels That’s a bit vague, but we’ll get into the photography fundamentals in a minute.

My first SLR was a Pentax K-1000, all manual no auto anything, which I still adore and shoot with. If you’re seriously interested in shooting with film, I recommend adding it to your collection.

Compact (digital and film) cameras. These cameras produce snapshots at the ready, press the button, and your work is done. Not so fast there—many compact cameras offer control over your aperture, shutter speed, and flash. Some perform better than others in low light conditions without a flash, so this should be tested particularly with digital models in which the images taken with a high ISO in low light can get really noisy because of their small sensors.

A few classic film compacts worth looking into are: Olympus u-II, Yashica T4, Contax T2 and T3, and Nikon 35Ti

Camera phones. With the exception of the iPhone4s (which has 8 megapixels and a print size up to 8×10-inches with 1080 p HD video recording capabilities), most camera phones have fixed focus lenses and smaller sensors than DSLRs. The quality of images made in low light conditions on a camera phone tend to be noisy and pixelated, however, if this is intention, use it. Of course with any smartphone, apps and filters are used to get the exposure and look you want for an image. Go to sites for iPhone users include Instagram (a photosharing site for iPhone users), Instagram’s blog, and iPhonography (a blog about all things to do with the iPhone).

Toy cameras. Mostly made from plastic, toy cameras, fall on the opposite end of slick high-resolution cameras. Some have interchangeable lens (like the newer Dianas and Holgas) and each one has it’s own set of quirks and light leaks to contend with, but once you learn how to work with them, the images made with them can be stunning.

Instant (Polaroid or Fuji Instax) cameras. As their name suggests, these cameras produce a single unique print with each click of the shutter, thereby making the resulting one-off images a bit more precious and expensive to work with. Polaroid stopped making cameras and film in 2008 and since then the Impossible Project has worked to bring Polaroid film back to the market. Fuji, however, produces instant film for their line of cameras that may or may not work in a Polaroid camera depending on the model.

thursday morning

Part II. Photography Fundamentals:

Composition—know what’s inside your frame. You can create interesting composition in a number of ways, one, follow the rule of thirds. Pick up your camera and look through the viewfinder/screen. Imagine there is an overlaying grid on top dividing the screen into thirds on both horizontally and vertically. Now imagine lining up whatever interests you inside the frame along these lines or where they intersect. Keep this handy tool in your visual memory and learn to shoot with it in mind.

Focus—make it work for you. Again with the manual (it’s like being in gym class folks, I’m going to make you sweat until you crack it open), you’ll need to read it in order to know how your particular camera focuses, but here’s three main ways to do so: zone focus (if your camera has and is set to zone focus, you need to know the distance between the camera and subject to determine what will fall in and out of focus), manual focus (like the name says, you look through the viewfinder and turn the focusing ring—some cameras have a split screen focusing system with a circle in the center of the screen that lines up when the image is in focus), and autofocus (single focus—best for still subjects since it focuses once before the shutter is released; continuous focus—good for moving subjects since it will continue to refocus; and intelligent focus—the camera makes the choice in the mode as to whether the subject is still or moving). Many cameras allow you to press the shutter button halfway or fully down to preview what’s in focus. Also with autofocus, many newer cameras have a number of focusing points (3 to 30) to choose from and may on the default setting, pick the focusing point for you. In comparison, older camera models have only one in the middle of the frame. You can also lock your focus in single shot autofocus mode: point your camera toward your subject, press the shutter button halfway down, then press the shutter fully down when you’re happy with the composition. To make another photograph using focus lock, repeat these steps.

Exposure—exposing the film or digital sensor inside a camera to the desired amount of light. With too much light, your photo will be too bright and overexposed; too little light and your photo will be too dark and underexposed. Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO ratings all affect how much light reaches the film or sensor, so you if you want to make a photograph instead of letting one happen to you, listen up and take control.

ISO Rating—a measure of how sensitive a film or digital sensor is to light. A low ISO, say 50 or 100 (great for full sun or bright lights) requires a lot of light to make an image whereas a high ISO, say 1600 or 3200 (great for night-time shots) needs very little light to make an image. Lower ISO ratings render higher quality images while higher ISO ratings render lower quality images, more noise and less color saturation.

Aperture—a camera lens has an aperture or opening that allows more or less light in as you open or close it. The trick with aperture is to remember that as the aperture hole gets bigger, it’s f-number measure gets smaller, for example, f/1.8 is a bigger opening and lets in more light than f/11. Think of aperture like the pupil in an eye—on bright sunny days it shrinks to allow less light in. In short, a small f-number gives a big hole that lets in more light, and a big f-number gives a small hole and lets in less light. 

Shutter Speed—refers to how long a film or digital sensor is exposed to light and is measured in fractions of a second. To stop motion, you’ll need to use a fast shutter speed, anything above 1/250 second. To blur motion, use a slow shutter speed. To avoid camera shake with a low shutter speed, the general rule (I break this all the time, by the way) is your shutter speed measure shouldn’t go below the focal length of your lens—if you’re shooting with a 50mm lens, don’t set your shutter speed below 1/50 second. The longer the lens, the faster the shutter speed you’ll need to avoid unwanted camera shake. Lower shutter speeds mean you need to pull out your tripod or come up with a make shift one like a pilsner glass, stack of books, chair (you get the idea). If your lens has an image stabilizer on, use it for hand held shots, however it can cause camera shake on a tripod so be sure to turn it off for those stabilized still shots.

F-stops—every time you change either the aperture or shutter speed, you are halving or doubling the amount of light (measured in f-stops) coming into the camera. Say what? Wait, I know this seems unnecessarily complex, but trust me, you need to understand this. Let me explain. Closing the aperture by 1 stop halves the amount of light coming into the camera; opening it by 1 stop doubles it and the same goes for shutter speed—changing the shutter speed will either half or double the time the shutter is open for. Some cameras will also let you change aperture and shutter speeds by 1/2 or 1/3 stops for even finer tuned exposures.

Shooting mode—if you’re shooting with a DSLR, SLR, or a compact camera, set the mode (for now at least) to full Manual mode. I’m a manual shooter and while you don’t have to follow suit, it’s the best way to learn the fundamentals of photography, so give it a go. Aperture and Shutter Priority have their places—use AP when you want to control the depth of field: set the aperture and allow the camera to choose the shutter speed to get a balanced (according to the camera’s settings) exposure. Use shutter priority when you want to capture motion, either by freezing or blurring it.

Depth of Field—aperture controls depth of field or how much of your picture, in front or behind what you are focusing on,  is in focus. To create a shallow depth of field with little in focus, open up the aperture (set it to a lower f number like f/1.8). At f/1.8, your attention is drawn to a small part of an image since the rest of the background and foreground are blurred. To create a deeper depth of field, close down the aperture (set it to a higher f number like f/11).

Light meters—either in or off camera, light meters are used to determine the correct (and desired) exposure for a given scene. Cameras or light meters measure light in three modes: average, spot, and center-weighted. Older film cameras typically use average metering, which averages out the light coming from all areas to come up with a balanced exposure. When the light is consistent, average metering works well. Spot metering measures light from a small part of a scene, roughly 1 to 5%, which lets you set the exposure for that area only. Center-weighted metering is similar to spot metering, with the exception that it reads 60 to 80% of the image at the center of the frame plus it accounts for a little light that falls around the edges.

Bibliography. Meredith, Kevin. PhotoOp: 52 Inspirational Projects for the Adventurous Image-Maker, Boston: Elsevier, 2010.

thursday breakfast

Part III. The Wrap: photography rules—know them, use them, break them.

Next time, we’re going to look at photographs and learn how to create a unique visual voice (hint, shoot shoot shoot).

thursday reads

Part IV. Photo Prompt—Capturing the Everyday:

Carry a camera with you everywhere you go for 1 week (you probably already do this—don’t stop, okay). Think of your camera as a sketchbook. Try to challenge yourself to see your life in new ways as if you were an outsider looking in. What do you notice? Where is the light? Where are the shadows? What’s inside your frame? Photograph what you obsess over. Photograph what you despise. Photograph what puts you to sleep. Put yourself into the frame, a little or a lot.

Go, go, go and when your finished, leave a link to your photos—I want to read your photo stories!


    • ArtandLemons says

      Jess, I remember one photo class I took right after college, it was my second one, and the instructor tried to teach us the zone system. She was a really good teacher, except that she was terrible at explaining the technical side of photography. When I began teaching, I wanted to do so in a way that was approachable and made sense to everyone in the class. Thanks for your comment, it means a lot to me!

  1. says

    After years of blogging with a P&S, I would cringe with every photo, knowing it could be better. I bought my first DSLR a year ago, set it to Manual, and haven’t changed it since. I am loving my exploration into photography. I’ve been taking a photo a day since January 1st (though it’s usually more than one), and am so excited to see my vision grow and change. Can’t wait for the next post!

  2. says

    What a great overview! I still haven’t totally figured out all the ins and outs on my camera–getting to you know your camera really is a commitment, but it’s amazing what a little knowledge can do–i’m so excited to learn more from you!

  3. says

    I find your blog inspirational and amazing… You can really make anything look so poetic and beautiful. I did take all your notes in about taking good photos.. of course… I have been so bad not to have still read the canon manuel bought two weeks ago… I would love to know what you think of some of my food photos.. if you ever get the time..

    • ArtandLemons says

      Thank you, Lara! Don’t feel bad about not pulling out the manual. Most of us resist it, since well, it’s not exactly thrilling to read. Will take a look at your photos this week and email you a few thoughts.

    • ArtandLemons says

      Welcome, Gretchen and thank you! The funny thing is, I carry around two camera bags with me most places I go. I’ve talked here before about being somewhat of a bag lady (no, not somewhat, I am a bag lady!). One bag holds my digital (Nikon) gear, the other my film cameras (Hasselblad, Pentax K1000, Polaroid Instax). I use either my Nikon or Pentax as a light meter, but mostly have been shooting with the Hasselblad. It’s all pretty funny since I spend a good deal of time designing the *perfect* camera bag in my head to hold my essential (see above) gear. I look forward to checking out your site and Hasselblad photos!


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