Like any other worthwhile venture photography has a specialized language. This language doesn’t matter much when you are using a cell phone or point-and-shoot camera because all of the decisions are made for you. However, when you buy your first DSLR you will have the ability to take control of the settings from the camera’s processor and put it into your own hands. At that point, you will need to know what you are doing and that means you will need to speak the language. (DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. This is the digital equivalent of a SLR camera. The difference between this and a traditional SLR is that a DSLR doesn’t need film. The photograph is recorded on a digital image sensor and saved onto a memory card.)
Before we begin I need to let you know about a basic assumption I have made – you are a beginner. No shame in that; we were all beginners once. I mention that because if you have been a photographer for some time then this post will probably tell you things you already know. But if you are new to photography and want to get the most out of your camera and take the best photographs possible, learning the language is essential.
First, let’s talk about the things that determine the amount of light your camera “sees” and its sensitivity to that light.
- Shutter Speed – This is one of the most neglected factors to taking a photo, but this happens to be one of the most important. Basically, a camera’s shutter speed pertains to the length of time your camera’s shutter stays open when you click to shoot. If you see terms like “1/15” on the back of your camera screen or viewfinder, then that means a shutter is open for a fifteenth of a second; “1/1000” means the shutter speed is a thousandth of a second, and so on and so forth. A high shutter speed will “freeze” motion while a low shutter speed will “capture” motion.
- Aperture – The aperture is important since it determines the amount of light coming in through the lens of your camera. The aperture is the opening inside the lens that allows light through. Aperture is measured in “f” numbers – a ratio of the diameter of the opening and the focal length of the lens. The aperture can be adjusted – a larger opening allows more light in, a smaller one less. The aperture also has an effect on the depth of field. A smaller opening (higher “f” number) produces greaterdepth of field. The reverse happens with a larger opening (smaller “f” number).
- ISO – “ISO” stands for International Organization of Standardization. ISO is a term “borrowed” from film photography. In film photography the ISO was a measure of how sensitive film was to light. It was called film speed. The higher the number, the more sensitive it was (and the film was called “fast film”). E.g. ISO 100 was not that sensitive, ISO 1600 was very sensitive. In digital photography the number (still called “ISO”) refers to how sensitive the image sensor is to light. By making the sensor more sensitive to light, photos can be shot with higher shutter speeds and/or in lower light. The downside of making the image sensor more sensitive is that it introduces noise into the picture. Noise is the digital equivalent of film grain. For your purpose, though, ISO pertains to your camera’s sensitivity to light—specifically, through its sensor. Here’s a quick example: higher ISO values are meant for quick shutter speeds (see above). However, that means it will churn out grainier images because its high ISO makes it highly sensitive to light. On the other hand, a lower ISO value means you end up with less grainy images. Low ISO settings are critical to landscape and still life photography while high ISO setting work well for low light and actions photography.
If you combine all of these three factors above, then you’ll end up with a “combination” that will prove right for your shooting situation. Ask us if you want any more specific help!
I used some terms in these definitions that I also need to define (Isn’t that always the way?). In discussing ISO I mentioned “noise.” What is that?
- Noise – In digital photography terminology, noise is the digital equivalent of film grain. It shows up on digital photographs as small colored blotches, usually in the darker areas of an image. Noise often goes overlooked in snapshots, but becomes very obvious if enlargements are made.Noise is worse in digital photos taken in low light. It can be removed to some extent by software, but a better quality digital camera will usually produce less noise in the first place.
Unlike film grain which can add atmosphere to a photograph, digital noise is generally considered to be unattractive. Digital photographers looking for a “grainy” effect aim to start with a clean image (i.e. free from digital noise), and then add the grain effect afterwards using software.
Then there is this business of depth of field that I talked about along with the aperture.
- Depth of Field – the zone of acceptable sharpness in front of and behind the subject on which the lens is focused. Since this element is very important, another simpler way to explain is the amount of distance between the nearest and farthest objects that appear in acceptably sharp focus in a photograph. Depth of field depends on the lens opening, the focal length of the lens, and the distance from the lens to the subject or can be explain as in simpler terms as the zone of sharpest focus in front of, behind, and around the subject on which the lens is focused.
For portrait photography it’s usually best to have a shallow depth of field (i.e. keep only main subject in focus). This allows the subject stand out from the background.
- Sensor – Since we are using digital cameras we don’t have film, we have a sensor. The subject of sensors is big and important so I will be following up with a post devoted just to them but for now, here is thumbnail description. The sensor is the electronic chip that records the image in a digital camera. They come in two main types. CCD (Charge-Coupled Device) and CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) are the most common. CCDs are used almost exclusively in compact cameras, CMOS sensors are used in larger, and more expensive DSLRs. When it comes to sensors, size matters. The size of sensor that a camera has ultimately determines how much light it uses to create an image. In very simple terms, image sensors (the digital equivalent of the film your father might have used in his camera) consist of millions of light-sensitive spots called photosites which are used to record information about what is seen through the lens. Therefore, it stands to reason that a bigger sensor can have more photosites and therefore gain more information than a smaller one and produce better images. In addition, small photosites packed closely together suffer from “spillover” which creates noise. Think about it this way, if you had a compact camera with a typically small image sensor, its photosites would be dwarfed by those of a DSLR with the same number of megapixels, but a much bigger sensor. Able to gain more information, the large DSLR photosites would be capable of turning out photos with better dynamic range, less noise and improved low light performance than its smaller-sensored sibling.
- Resolution – In digital photography terminology, resolution is a measure of the number of pixels there are on a sensor. The resolution of digital cameras is measured in “megapixels” – millions of pixels. Most DSLR cameras are rated between 12 megapixes and 24 megapixels. Its easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the higher the count, the better our quality will be. But, remember, size matters. My cell phone has a 16 megapixel sensor in it but a 12 megapixel DSLR will produce much better, sharper images. That is because the sensor is bigger, allowing for larger photosites. That means more information and less noise. Which we know makes for happy photographers.
- JPEG – In digital photography terminology, JPEG is a type of lossy file format. Stands for Joint Photographic Experts G It is the most common file format used in digital photography. Lossy refers to a type of compression used to save the image. The camera strips out data (parts of the photo) that the human eye probably won’t notice. This is called “compressing” the file. It keeps the size of the file down so that more images can be stored on the camera’s memory card.
The level of compression is set by the photographer and will affect image quality. The more the image is compressed, the more data is thrown away (and a small file size is the result).
The danger is that if a file is compressed too much (i.e. lots of data is thrown away), the quality of the image suffers. The photos are “pixelated”.
On digital cameras the highest quality setting (usually called “Best” or “Fine”) results in less data being lost, and a good quality image is produced.
- RAW – RAW files are the actual data taken directly from a digital camera’s image sensor. They have not been processed by the camera at all. This means they are the purest image file possible in digital photography. Different camera manufacturers have different names for their own RAW files. For example, Canon uses the digital photography terminology “RAW”, Nikon uses different digital photography terminology – “NEF”. They are incompatible with each other. Whereas every computer can show JPEG images, RAW files need specific software. This is always supplied by the manufacturer when you purchase a digital camera.
- MEMORY CARD – Essential for digital photography! It is the digital equivalent of film – traditional cameras record photos onto film, digital cameras save photos onto a memory card. Memory cards come in different shapes and sizes. You need to use the correct memory card for your digital camera. SD cards are the most widely used. The amount of memory per card varies. Popular memory capacities typically range from 2GB to 32GB. I usually use a 32GB card and I wouldn’t recommend anything smaller than 8GB. You’ll be surprised at how fast you can fill up one of these cards shooting high resolution images.
The language of photography is certainly much more extensive than these 10 terms. And, of course, there is much more than we had space for here to the 10 I chose. However, if you have these then you will be able to understand that pesky owner’s manual (and yes, you do need to read it!). It will also essential to understanding all the tips and techniques that are available here, on other sites and in articles found on-line and in photo magazines.