Beginner-to-Intermediate Digital SLR Photography Tutorial

Who this is for: anyone — from having no equipment and wanting to get started, to having 10+ years experience with a DSLR with moderate photoshop skills. It’s a constant work-in-progress, meaning it’ll never be done, and at its inception it covers more of the basics than the advanced stuff.

The idea is simple: I know what I know mostly from good friends (who were professional photographers), great tutorials and examples I found by chance, and experimenting. Throughout this process (which is still ongoing) I learned that it’s important not to have “secrets”, and sharing what you know is more beneficial to the community overall than it is likely to create competitors. So, here goes… And an obvious disclaimer: i’m sure i’m wrong about some things, and over time my opinions will change. Nothing written here is claimed to be certain.

How to read this tutorial: If you’re looking for advice, then look for the text in green. If you’re looking to learn how things work (more time involved) then read the text in black.

This is a work in-progress, so if you enjoy it, you’ll want to check back every now and then to get updates.



Camera Form-factors, Buying and Selling, New vs Used

This guide focuses on digital SLRs, which are the larger cameras that have interchangeable lenses and don’t fit in a woman’s small purse.

Form-factor. If you don’t have a DSLR already, first check that a DSLR is really the right form-factor for you: if it is your only camera, are you alright with lugging it around when you are walking around foreign cities while on vacation? That means you’ll have to set it down when you go to a restaurant, and worry about it getting stolen. Is it okay that it’ll never fit in your pocket or purse, and that you’ll likely always need a dedicated bag for it? If you have doubts, then consider one of three other form-factors, all of which take superb photos (links last updated Feb. 2012):

Smallest: mobile phones. The iPhone 4S takes fantastic photos because it has a multi-element lens and well-tuned software. It has built-in HDR capabilities. Take a look at ND’s iPhone photography blog post if you’re interested. ND takes fantastic photos with his iPhone!

Small: compact point-and-shoot cameras like the Canon S95. There are standard and premium models (the S95 is a premium model from Canon that is getting so popular, it might just become the standard!), and while they will need a flash in low-light situations, they don’t need a flash for all indoor shots (like they used to). They fit easily in your pocket. There are also trendy premium cameras that have the vintage look, like the X100 from Fujifilm - and these are generally very good cameras, but extremely expensive.

Mid-size: less compact but still fit in a purse or small bag, like the Canon G11 or one of the mirroless cameras from Nikon (like the Nikon V1) or Sony (like the Sony NEX-5N or NEX-7). Mirrorless cameras also have interchangeable lenses like DSLRs – but you look through an electronic viewfinder, or use the screen on the back (no optical viewfinder). They are noticeably bigger than compact cameras but never require a flash and produce photos that are as good as consumer-grade DSLRs. Why I don’t have one: because in early 2012 they are expensive (same price as a DSLR) and they don’t fit in my hands well.

Buying used is often a good idea!  There are many people around the world who buy very expensive things that they don’t really use, and then sell them. It’s possible to get a fantastic camera at a good price, just because it is no longer the newest model. I know all the marketing you see tells you that the newer cameras have vastly improved technology and take infinitely better photos, and to an extent it is true that technology for digital cameras has progressed quickly, but that doesn’t mean new is always the best option!

Break it down into two parts: cameras (we’ll talk about DSLRs only here) and lenses. First, about technology improvements: camera improvements are roughly exponential (the difference between a digital SLR 10 years ago and now is very and immediately noticeable), and lens improvements are linear (the difference between a lens made 10 years ago and a lens made now is usually only noticeable to a few people). But that doesn’t mean buy cameras new and lenses used — for example, when a camera is dropped, it tends to either keep working 100% fine, or completely stop working. The same isn’t true for a lens: once dropped, it can have all sorts of defects that are hard to detect and have various impacts on image quality from subtle to very noticeable. So here’s how I approach this…

If you don’t have a DSLR already, then i’d suggest buying a used model that’s one generation old already. For example, at the moment the consumer-grade Canon SLRs are about $699 new with a kit lens. For the same price you can buy the camera body of the Canon 5D Mk1 used, a full-frame pro camera, and then you can get a lens on ebay for a couple of hundred bucks. The quality difference is noticeable: of course the full-frame camera is better (more discussion on this below). What you give up is warranty, the capability of video (use your mobile phone for video!), and tech advancements like face-detection.

If you already have a DSLR and you’re looking at buying lenses, then decide if you are doing so as a hobbyist or if you’re gonna go pro. If hobbyist, then pick the right lens (see below) and buy it used as long as you have a source that you trust (ie. you have good eBay experience and you know how to safely buy things over eBay) — otherwise buy new. It’s fine to buy an older lens, and in a few cases older lenses are better in certain aspects: for example when considering a Nikon 50mm f/1.4 lens, the older ‘D’ variant focuses faster than the newer & more expensive ‘G’ variant. If you’re gonna go pro one day (charge money), then decide if this lens is going to become your workhorse, your go-to lens. If yes, buy it new; if no, buy it used. In general you should be looking to save at least 20% off the price of the lens’ new cost — otherwise it is not worth buying the lens used and you should buy it new instead.

Selling. In general cameras lose their value like a car: a lot in the first year, a fairly linear amount per-year after that, and they bottom out eventually (ie. I reckon you’ll never find a Canon 5D Mk1 in good condition for under $500 while they are still working). Lenses lose their value much more slowly, in a fairly linear pattern. Don’t sell a lens that you might want to use in the future, or one that a friend might need soon. Do searches on completed auctions (ebay, ricardo.ch etc) and figure out what price you should ask. Pay attention to listing details in your auction like whether you are the first or second owner, condition including marks and scratches, and why you are selling it (a reason indicates that it isn’t because it is broken!).


Camera Sensors: sizes (“full frame”, APS-C etc), types, and considerations

The thing in a digital camera that records the image is called the sensor. Sensors come in all different sizes, and in different aspect ratios too (3:2 and 16:9 are the most common) which means that your images will fit differently on different screens (unless you crop them). By far the most important thing to think about is the size of the sensor, because the bigger the sensor, the higher “quality” the image is — most noticeably with respect to performance in low-light. Do you hate flash photos? Ok, then a bigger sensor is probably going to make you happier than a smaller one. Size doesn’t guarantee performance (could go on an unrelated tangent here… :D), for example the newer Nikon V1 mirrorless camera has a tiny sensor and takes low-light pictures that are comparable to the older full-frame Canon 5D Mk1… so technology definitely plays a role. But if you are comparing cameras of the same generation, then it is certainly true that bigger is better.

Sensor sizes start small and go up to pro medium and large format systems (>$30k for camera body). The most common sensor size is APS-C, called “DX” in Nikon terminology (APS-C is what is found in over 80% of all DSLRs – if it doesn’t say, this is probably what it is!), and the newer smaller mirrorless sizes like micro-4/3 (“Four Thirds”) and Nikon’s new 1-series’ “CX” sensor. The following chart shows all of these in comparison to the monster-sized Kodak medium-format KAF sensor (note that the Nikon 1-series’ CX sensor is missing — it is a smaller than the Four Thirds system sensor size; for a visualization with the CX sensor in it, see this wikipedia picture):

credit: not mine, linked from wikipedia

If you compare APS-C to full-frame, you’ll see full-frame is at almost 3x bigger. Therefore, if you have a normal DSLR like the Nikon D7000 or the Canon 600D (Rebel T3i) that has some number of X megapixels (MP), then the full-frame variant that has the same number of X MP will actually have much larger pixels. The larger the pixel, the less chance it gets the measurement wrong (called noise), which leads to full-frame sensors having better lowlight performance. Less noise also means more detail, because the algorithms that cameras & processing software run to reduce noise intrinsically destroy detail. Take a look at the high ISO samples further on, and you’ll see what “noise” is.

Naturally, the bigger the sensor, the bigger the camera — and more expensive too. Full-frame cameras are targeted more at pros, and instead of being around $600-1000 new for the body like an APS-C camera, they will be more like $2500-3000 new for the body (and up from there!). But see above’s discussion of used cameras: you can pick up a used full-frame Canon 5D Mk1 for $700 or so in early 2012.



There are two main things you need to know about, when you think about lenses: the focal length (ie. 18-55mm), and the aperture or f-stop (ie. f/3.5-5.6). You also need to know that some lenses are full-frame lenses (ie. the image projected from the back of the lens covers the whole full-frame sensor area), or crop-sensor (APS-C) lenses (ie. the image projected from the back of the lens only covers an APS-C-sized area). You can use a full-frame lens on any camera. You “cannot” use a crop-sensor lens on a full-frame camera (it results in only the middle part of the image being exposed and sometimes doesn’t even work). In Nikon terms a full-frame lens is FX, and a crop-sensor lens is DX. In Canon terms they are EF and EF-S respectively. Yes, that means that super cheap $120 Canon 50mm f/1.8 EF lens is actually going to work fine on your full-frame camera.

The focal length refers to the zoom: there are wide-angle lenses like a 20mm fixed lens (“fixed” means “does not zoom”), super telephoto lenses like a 600mm fixed lens (want to capture that freckle on your wife’s nose from 2 miles away?), and everything in between. There are zoom lenses which offer the ability to shoot a range like 18-55mm — these are what most people are used to using. My eye “sees” a length of something like 70mm, so if I want to take a picture of someone’s face, then I probably want a lens near 70mm (as it turns out, 85mm is better). If I want to take a picture of a landscape, then 20mm is good. If I want to take pics of sports, then i’d want more like 200mm. Sensor-size makes a difference to how “zoomed in” the same lens appears on different cameras: when a lens is rated at 50mm, it means it looks like 50mm on a full-frame camera. All sensor-sizes smaller than full-frame have a multiplier, meaning the image is more zoomed-in, because the dimensions of the image captured (sensor size) is smaller. The most common sensor size is APS-C, which has a 1.5x (Nikon) or 1.6x (Canon) multiplier, meaning that a 50mm lens on a consumer Nikon DSLR is actually 75mm. That’s why the zoom lens that comes with a cheap new consumer DSLR is 18-55mm — because after multiplying by 1.5x it is actually 27-82mm. For some, this is a reason NOT to go full-frame – for example if you want to shoot pictures of birds, or sports, or anything where you want to zoom in a lot, then you probably want a top-end APS-C camera so that you get an extra 1.5x zoom for free.

The aperture is what determines the depth of field, ie. how much blur there is in front-of and behind the point where you focused. The lower the number, the more blur there is (except where the focus point is, of course): when shooting at f/13 you will see that everything is in focus (no blur), and when shooting at f/2 you will see a lot of blur (also called a narrow or tight depth of field). The depth of field changes the more you zoom in! The more zoomed-in you are, the more blur (narrower depth of field) you get. That means that at 18mm, you can hardly see the difference between f/2 and f/4. But at 200mm there is a gigantic difference betweeen f/2 and f/4. It also means that at 18mm, you get virtually no blur at f/3.5. But if you had a 600mm lens at f/3.5, everything except the focus point would be very blurry!

Generally speaking there are 4 quality-levels of lenses: cheap consumer lenses (like the one your camera came with), good consumer lenses (like the 18-200mm from Nikon), pro lenses (like the 24-70mm f/2.8), and specialty lenses (like tilt/shift aka PC-E lenses). Lenses tend to have 2 aspects of quality – how they are built (ruggedness and feel), and the image quality they produce. This post shows the build and image quality of Canon and Nikon lenses comparitively and i’ve found it to be very accurate (see www.radiantlite.com for more, including Canon vs Sony and others). In general, cheap consumer lenses shouldn’t be bought new, because so many people are getting rid of them on eBay. There’s nothing wrong with using a cheap consumer lens, especially if you’re going for a vintage or classical look, or you’re going to heavily edit the photos anyways!  Good consumer lenses cost about $500-1000 for zooms, and about $200-$400 for fixed lenses (like the 35mm f/1.8 or 50mm f/1.8). Note that none of the consumer zooms have a good aperture for making that nice creamy blur — you have to buy a fixed lens like the 50mm f/1.8 if you want to stay at the consumer price point for that, or get a pro lens. Pro lenses are generally around $1,200-$2,500 depending on what you want; speciality lenses like tilt/shift lenses for architecture or fisheye lenses are all over the place (fisheyes are generally around $600-700).

Want to know which lens to buy, or buy next? Sure, here’s the list. Buy them in this order, remembering that the more you have, the slower you’ll learn. The list below assumes you are on a tight budget and don’t have much to spend.

  1. Fast fixed lens: 35mm f/1.8 or 50mm f/1.8. Yes, you really want a lens that doesn’t zoom, and yes, you really should get this one first. You’ll be able to make that nice creamy blur (see notes on bokeh below), and you’ll be forced to learn good composition using your feet instead of a zoom, and trust me that really helps you learn faster when you are starting. How to shoot this lens: set your camera to ‘A’ and f/2.8 (not a typo) for inside and f/4 for outside (for landscapes, f/8). No, you don’t need the f/1.4 lens, the f/1.8 is definitely good enough!
  2. Good all-purpose zoom. Canon: 18-105mm, Nikon: 18-200mm (pricey but very good). How to shoot this lens: leave your camera on auto to start with, and practice framing / composition
  3. Once you get to this point, don’t buy any more lenses! Get good with these two. If you really want more, then replace your all-purpose zoom with a pro lens, the 24-70mm f/2.8 ($1200-1800).

If you really want a long zoom lens, then get the 70-300mm, but be warned, it is really only going to help you for very specific things, like sports. It is heavy and not fun to lug around, and will probably just sit on your shelf. I would not buy this lens – instead, save up and get the 18-200mm. Under NO circumstances buy the 55-200mm, which is often sold in kits. It (the normal non-VR/IS version) is terrible! And useless to boot. Avoid the 55-200mm at all costs, even if it is cheap.

My lens mix at the moment, as a pro:

  • My 24-70mm f/2.8 is my workhorse, it’s on my camera 70% of the time
  • My 85mm f/1.4 is my portrait lens, it’s on my camera 10% of the time
  • The other 10% of the time, my 50mm f/1.4 or 20mm f/2.8 (great walkaround lens) is on my camera

Think about how heavy and bulky the lens you are looking at is. For instance, I have a 20mm f/2.8 which is small and light, and on an APS-C (standard DSLR) camera it produces a nice 30mm image. I call this my “walkaround” lens because i can leave it on without worrying about it being heavy, it is relatively affordable ($350 i think) and high quality (this is the Nikon 20mm f/2.8D).

Also, think about whether you might ever want to go full-frame in the future (see more notes below). If yes, then buy all of your lenses as full-frame lenses from the very start. It’ll be more expensive, but much less so than changing in the future if you get up to 3 or 4 lenses…


Shake-reduction aka Image Stabilization aka Vibration Reduction

In Nikon terminlogy this is “VR”. In Canon-land this is “IS”. Basically, at least one element in the lens vibrates quickly to compensate for the unsteadiness of your hands. Results vary across different lenses, but the different is a couple of “stops” — meaning if you are actually shooting at f/4, then you might get results as if as much light as f/3.5 or f/3.2 was being used. Or more easy to understand: you can shoot pictures slower than you normally would be able to, without getting nasty motion-blur in the image.

In general I don’t think shake-reduction is worth investing in: it makes lenses heavier and perhaps more fragile and delicate. It is certainly useful in longer focal lengths (say above 85mm), because the more zoomed-in you are, the more motion-blur the same amount of camera-shake produces. So if you’re looking at a 200mm lens, VR/IS would be great. For an 18-55mm lens it probably makes no difference! Also if the lens is “fast” (means good aperture, like say f/2.8 as opposed to only f/4), then VR/IS isn’t required — you can just up the aperture when it is getting dark. Or if your camera is full-frame, then you can just up the ISO accomodate. So, nice if you get it for free, but I wouldn’t choose a lens based on having/not-having shake-reduction.


Bokeh and Lens Sharpness

Above I alluded to lens quality (build and image quality). But what is this “image quality”, really? Well it’s two things: first a lack of “bad stuff”: vignetting (corners getting darker than the center), chromatic aberrations (the most common one: seeing cyan or magenta colors along bright edges), and distortion (straight lines being warped). In general you’ll find that lenses exhibit less of these bad things if they are not “wide-open”, meaning they are not at their maximum aperture. For example my 50mm f/1.4D has bad vignetting at f/1.4, but at f/4 it has none. Ditto chromatic aberrations – in general, stopping-down (e.g. going from f/1.4 to f/2) a few notches from a lenses’ maximum aperture will drastically increase the quality of an image — including sharpness. Some of these bad things like vignetting can be totally corrected in software (make sure you shoot in RAW!). Others, like certain kinds of chromatic aberrations, cannot: for example the type of aberration that makes cyan and magenta colors just in front of and behind the field of focus cannot be corrected in software. Most (if not all) lenses have aberrations like these, so don’t bother looking for the “perfect lens”; instead, look for a lens that suits you and just make sure it doesn’t have horrible problems at the settings you’ll use it most often at. What I mean by that: I almost never want to shoot a photo at f/1.4, so it doesn’t matter to me that may 50mm has problems at f/1.4. But if my 50mm had problems at f/2, i’d get rid of it (it doesn’t!)

The second thing is “good stuff”: sharpness, which is the ability of a lens to resolve fine details, like the individual strands of your wife’s hair when zoomed in at 100%; and quality of bokeh. First let’s talk about bokeh, because it’s awesome. Bokeh is the fancy word photographers use to refer to the out-of-focus blur that you get with a tight depth of field, specifically, the highlights: if you have a point light-source in the background (a light-bulb, candle, etc) and you focus on something in front of it at an aperture like f/2.8, you’ll see it turns into a round ball. Here’s an image with lots of bokeh — it is a christmas tree, deliberately not in focus (behind the focal point):

Nikon D90 w/ Nikon 24-70mm at 58mm and f/2.8

It turns out there are two parts of bokeh that make it pleasing or displeasing (well, more if you are really picky :D) — how “harsh” the bokeh is, meaning whether it has a bright ring around it (bad) or whether the transition from the middle of each “bubble” to the outside is smooth and consistent (good); and secondly how the transition from in-focus to out-of-focus looks (this isn’t about highlight-bokeh like the picture above, this is about how the subject is isolated from the background and how natural it looks) — take a look at this photo, which I think has good transition from in- to out-of-focus:

Nikon D700 w/ Nikon 85mm f/1.4G at f/1.4

So how do you get great bokeh? Well, for the most part it is about which lens you use. The Nikon 85mm f/1.4G costs a mint, but it is a cream-machine — even wide-open at f/1.4, images look fantastic. You’ll have to read up on which lenses are best for good bokeh. The 24-70mm has great bokeh too.

Sharpness is the other “good thing” about a lens that matters — and it basically concerns whether fine details like wisps of hair or leaves in the distance are preseved in the image, or just not captured (ie. blurred). For sharpness, there’s a test called MTF which measures the ability to capture fine details. See photozone.de, which has excellent reviews of lenses, including MTF charts. Some lenses are a lot sharper than others; for example my 50mm f/1.4D isn’t that sharp of a lens, especially wide-open (f/1.4) and compared to my 85mm. But sharpness isn’t always important! For portraits I shoot with my 50mm, I usually don’t care for a really sharp image and the lens does a great job for what I want it to do. Sharpness is important when you have lots of detail in an image, like a forest in wintertime or a sandy dune. Don’t measure the performance of a lens just based on how sharp it is.

There are numerous other things to think about when purchasing a lens. For example if it is a zoom lens, how much twisting do you have to do, to get it to go from all the way zoomed-out to all the way zoomed-in? If it is a well-designed lens like the 24-70mm, you’ll find it’s exactly the natural amount of twist your hand has easily. In other words, not awkward. Also look at the build quality of a lens — is it rugged, with zoom and focus feeling smooth but not loose? You can read about that on lens review sites.

Canon Vs Nikon, and other manufacturers

The two most popular manufacturers of DSLRs are Canon and Nikon, with Sony following very closely behind (and coming up fast). Other important players include Pentax, Fujifilm, and Olympus. I often get asked, which is best, Canon or Nikon? My response is always the same: neither. The best is which feels best in your hands. I’m gonna write that again:

The best DSLR for you is the one that feels best in your hands.

Because at the end of the day, while one camera might be a little better than another, what’s most important is whether you actually use it! You won’t use a camera that feels awkward or like a toy in your hands. You won’t use a camera that feels too big or too small, or that you are always worried about dropping – even if it is the best damn tech ever to-date. That’s why I’m a Nikon guy – not because Nikon is better than Canon, but because their cameras feel much nicer in my hands. The differences in image quality between different DSLRs, especially those in the same class, is often barely noticeable.

Here are some other differences between Nikon and Canon:

  • Canon releases cameras faster than Nikon. As a totally wild guesstimate, i’d say Canon releases 3 cameras for every 2 that Nikon releases
  • Canon’s RAW images tend to be sharper than Nikon’s RAW images (this can be considered by some as a loss of detail, but this is also usually desired)
  • Nikon’s metering systems (how the camera chooses the exposure) are usually a little bit better than Canon’s
  • Nikon’s autofocus systems are usually noticeably better than Canon’s (but this may be about to change: rumour is Canon is working on a brand-new system)
  • Nikon’s flash system is, IMO, easier to use and more powerful than Canon’s, when it comes to getting multiple flashes to sync together.
  • Canon has a wider selection of lenses (more focal lengths, more choices). One important exception: a good cheap consumer 35mm fixed lens is missing from Canon’s lineup as of early 2012
  • Canon lenses are generally better value than Nikon lenses: for example the pro workhorse 24-70mm f/2.8 lens is $1200 for Canon and $1800 for Nikon, and they are virtually identical in quality

Ok, so I just came to this page to figure out which DSLR to buy, so uh… what do I buy?!

First, go to a store, and pick up each current model of Canon and Nikon DSLRs in your hand. Decide on which brand feels better. If neither, then try Sony and Pentax.

So you’re back from the store — wow, there’s a ton of choice even if you limit yourself to just Nikon and Canon, right?! So let’s break this down: once you’ve got your brand, here are how Canon and Nikon position their DSLRs (Sony is similar), from cheapest to most expensive. The idea isn’t to look at the models, the idea is to get a feeling for how the market segregation goes. The prices are likely NOT correct anymore – they are just a comparison to each other, so you can see where the price jumps are. Last updated Feb 2012.

APS-C sensor-size:

  • Cheapest: Entry level DSLR (around $500)
    • Canon: models like 1100D aka Rebel T3
    • Nikon: models like D3100
  • Cheap: Consumer DSLR (around $900)
    • Canon: models like 600D aka Rebel T3i or 550D aka Rebel T2i
    • Nikon: models like D5100
  • Mid-range: Consumer DSLR (around $1300)
    • Canon: models like 60D
    • Nikon: models like D7000
  • Prosumer, or pro-APS-C choice (price varies a lot: $1300-$2000)
    • Canon: models like 7D (excellent video quality)
    • Nikon: models like D300s (a bit out of date, should be refreshed soon)

Full-frame sensor-size:

  • Smaller full-frame (around $2500-3000 new)
    • Canon: models like 5D MkII
    • Nikon: models like D700 (older), D800 (just announced)
  • Most expensive: Top-end big pro ($5000-8000)
    • Canon: models like 1Ds (not actually full-frame, is APS-H, see chart above), 1Dx, and the new EOS X
    • Nikon: models like D3s (older), D4 (just announced)
Generally speaking, the higher up on that list (cheaper) a camera is, the less options and settings it has. The lower down on the list (more expensive), the more options and settings it has. If you learn slowly or get easily put-off by electronics or computers, take that into consideration and maybe opt for something higher up (simpler), because that way you won’t be confronted with so many buttons, knobs, and dials.
Ok great so now you have a brand and you know the possibilities, but which one should you go for? The answer is budget-based, and it works like this:
  1. Figure out how much you can spend in total on all photography-related things, $X. In this example i’ll use $X = $1,500.
  2. Subtract at least $150 from $X for memory cards, a bag, and possibly an extra battery. Bag-wise I love my LowePro Slingshot (there are at least 3 different sizes) because it can be slung in front of you to load/unload the camera without taking the bag off (go to the store and try it)
  3. Decide if you need a new camera, or if you are willing to buy used. Also decide if you will aim for full-frame or not. In this example, i’d go used and aim for full-frame. Start with the lens you want (not with the camera!) because it is better to spend more money on the lens than the camera. But here since I want full-frame, i’d go for a cheap Nikon 50mm f/1.8 (FX lens) which i see on eBay new for $150 — because it is cheap, decent quality, and if I replace it with something in the future then I don’t lose much. That leaves me with $1500 – $150 – $150 = $1200
  4. With the amount you have left ($1200), get the best camera you can. In this example there isn’t really a full-frame Nikon that’s available for $1200 used that i’d buy, so either i’d find another couple hundred and get the D700, or, i’d switch to Canon and get the same Canon lens and the Canon 5Dmk1 camera (which is one generation older than the D700).



I generally don’t use a flash, because I don’t really like the photos they create. But sometimes I do, and I admit they are definitely important in some situations, like when you’re at a wedding and people are backlit by a bright sun and you want a decent exposure of the sky (because it is pretty). In that case you’d use fill-flash (more details below).

Under no circumstances will you ever want to use the flash that comes on a camera to actually light up anything. The only reason those are useful is to communicate (via flashing!) to other flashes for multi-flash photography, which is called “commander mode” in Nikon terms. So don’t expect that you can buy a multi-thousand-dollar DSLR and get away without buying a flash, if you want to do flash photography. Nope: you gotta buy a flash gun too (ie. a unit that sticks on top of the camera). In the Nikon world, there are generally 3 models of flash: cheap (cannot be a master or slave), mid-range (can be a master and slave, like the SB-600), and top (can be a master and slave, like the SB-900). I’d get the top if you’re really going to do flash photography, because as you’ll discover, fill-flash requires quite a lot of power in bright daylight situations (and the top flashes are more powerful), and the price difference between the cheap units and the expensive flash units is really not that much.

Then there is flash equipment that isn’t camera mounted, some of which is mobile, most of which sticks in your studio. I don’t have much experience here, other than using the Elinchrome Ranger Quadra series pretty often. That’s a killer set — about $2,500, very mobile. And made in Switzerland! :)

If you’re in doubt, don’t buy a flash to start. Only get one when you think you’ve mastered some lenses first. The rule of thumb is that the more you have, the slower you’ll learn.


Developing the “Eye”

If you take hundreds and hundreds of photos but never really look at them, you probably won’t get better at photography.

If you only ever look at your own photos, and don’t spend time finding and exploring other people’s photos, and thinking about why you enjoy photos from someone else, then you probably won’t get better at photography.

If you edit photos but have no idea what you’re striving for, or have no inspiration (nothing to strive for which you can see good examples of in already-existing photos), then you probably won’t get better at photography.

So: look at your photos with a critical eye, discover other photographers and look at their photos, and think about why you like what you like.

The key to developing an “eye” is to make sure that for any action you take — snapping a snapshot, carefully composing a photo, editing something quickly on your iPhone, carefully photoshopping something, whatever — that before you begin, you have a goal in mind of what you want to achieve. Then when you’re done, compare how close you came. That means looking at all the pictures you take, so if you are just holding down the shutter and taking 1000 without thinking, then it’s better to take fewer and engage your grey-matter (brain).  It isn’t important whether you created what you were striving for. Instead, what’s important is that each time you do this (hold an image in your mind and try to make it), that the difference between your goal image and your result is smaller every time, and that you discover new things accidentally along the way. That’s why it’s so important to draw inspiration from the work of others, because by doing this you expand your horizons, broaden your goals, and at the same time get new ideas you wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Experimenting is key, but I prefer to have a loose set of goals when experimenting so that there is at least some focus. In general the rule should be “more time with less equipment”. Sure you could borrow 4 lenses from your friend, and you might get some killer shots too — but if you really want to develop your core skillset, then I recommend narrowing it down to one camera body, one or two lenses, and lots of time. Play in areas you like: available light & no tripod is your thing? Great, then just work on that first (don’t worry about flash etc). There are a ton of ways to experiment: what you shoot (landscapes? people?), how you shoot (street-style? posed? paparazzi from a distance?), how you edit (vintage? high-contrast? black and white?), and how you present (own website? flickr? 500px? collage?). It’s good to start playing with the whole process ie. not just shooting, but editing and presenting too, because most of the stuff you’ll need to learn you can do so just by “doing”.

You should also work to understand what aspects of your photography have improved over time, and which haven’t. If i’m honest and I look across my photos from the last few years, I can see that certain things have really improved (my editing, my selection of apertures / focal field), and other things haven’t improved so much (perspective). I’m not saying you should only work on things you don’t do well or beat yourself up about them, but if someone asks you what you do worst, you should already know the answer. When you’re shooting you should keep these things in mind and adjust / experiment accordingly — for example I know in some situations I have to fight to get the right perspective, and because i’m aware of this I will take many more photos in these situations than I normally would.




There are a lot of different things people will say are the “most important” about how you take photos. I’m not convinced there is a “most important”, but if there was, it’s framing: where you put the subject of your photo (if there is one) in the frame, where you put the horizon, and the perspective you use to capture it all (eg. zoomed out and physically very close or zoomed in and physically very far away).

First, a bit on perspective - go to this webpage and view from left (most zoomed in / big mm) to right (most zoomed out / small mm). Note how the shape of her face changes, most drastically at the furthest right. For human subjects, you can see why it is nice to be at 85mm or more (full-frame of course; if APS-C then 50mm is fine). For landscapes you’ll find that super wide-angle (ie. 18mm) is great – and fun for artistic or funky perspectives & framing like this one or this one.

Next, learn the rule of thirds. It’s easy: first check if your camera has an option to turn on a grid, either through the viewfinder, or on the screen at the back (depends how you like to shoot). If not, then just imagine the grid in your mind: imagine two vertical lines and two horizonal lines across the frame, dividing the view into 9 squares — each line is a third of the way across the frame. That means that the squares created by the lines are all equal size. Now the rule of thirds is simple: put the subject near the intersection of any two lines. In other words, the subject is always one-third of the distance across the frame, both horizontally and vertically. Why do this? Well, try it out and see: take a human subject and shoot them dead centered. Then shoot the exact same shot using the rule of thirds. You’ll find that most of the time the rule-of-thirds makes subjects more interesting. As you get more experienced, try playing around, moving the subject a little off to one side, or to the middle etc. You’ll get the hang of it.

Another tip: frame the photo so that it highlights or even exaggerates the subject(s) of the photo. For instance if you have 2 people and one is much bigger than the other (say big husband small wife), then use a wide-angle perspective to make him tower over her, or go the other way around — shoot it so he’s small underneath her. If you’re shooting a barren landscape, make the sky huge (80% of the frame) to convey it. If you’re capturing some abstract scene of light & shadow, then make the shadow come from the center to the bottom so it looks like it’s rushing towards you. There are a ton of framing / perspective tutorials out there — get with the google.

There are definitely some perspective problems that at the beginning you should avoid. For example when shooting a couple of people, avoid the urge to try taking the photo from a height of less than their shoulders (ie squatting and taking the photo from low down). One sees people doing this all the time — group shot, photographer squatting down — it makes for terrible photos unless you are going for a specific thing. In general the human eye sees another person at eye-level, so unless you’re deviating from normal on purpose, try shooting photos of human subjects at eye level with them (your camera is eye level, then tilted up or down as you like). This is more important the wider you are zoomed out; ie. at 35mm and below you really have to be careful, or everyone’s heads will look really small and their feet really big, or for some reason all you’ll be able to see in the photo is people’s chests.


I’ll be the first to admit this is an area where I’m still learning. There’s nothing like the disappointment of a perfect picture that’s slightly out of focus, enough to make it a throwaway. The tighter your depth of field (lower aperture like f/2.8) or greater your zoom (ie. 105mm), the more important focus is. If you’re shooting 18mm at f/6.3, you don’t really care — everything will be in focus.

In general your camera will have at least two modes for focusing: either you pick the focal point yourself, or the camera does. Newer cameas have what’s called “3D tracking” as well, which is basically the ability to identify the object you’ve focused on and follow it as it moves across the frame. In consumer DSLRs the 3D tracking isn’t usually good enough to be useful as of early 2012 and i’d avoid it (surprisingly, on the smaller Nikon V1/J1 mirrorless cameras, it is superb! I guess that’s because they are a newer generation of camera). So, especially for learning, i’d stick to either the fully automatic “camera chooses focal point” method if you are still learning the basic controls of the camera (like aperture and shutter speed), or picking your own focal point (which should be the default as soon as you can manage it).

If you’re shooting street photography, or a city, or anything where your aperture is bigger than f/6.3, then probably the focal point doesn’t really matter so much and you can leave the camera in auto. For landscapes or shots where there is detail all the way to infinity distance, then it is worth learning that focusing on infinity is not the way to get everything in focus! Because actually what’s in focus is stuff in front and behind the focal point, so if you focus at infinity, then you lose out on all the stuff behind the focal point (you miss out on something like 1/3 to half of what could all be in focus). To find the optimal point for focusing in a landscape, you can check out Ken Rockwell’s guide, and read about hyperfocal focussing — hint, scroll down till you get to “Finally, actual photography!”. You need a lens that has distance scales. Here’s the really short version: shoot at f/11 if you can, and f/8 if you cannot; focus on the nearest thing that needs to be in good focus, and then move the focus 2/3rds from wherever it is now to infinity.

If you’re shooting portrait, or anything at f/4 or lower, then definitely pick the focal point yourself. If things are moving/changing rapidly, like kids playing, or cars racing around, then you probably need to leave it on auto (auto pick focal point), because you won’t be fast enough to move the focal point around to get the shot.

When you pick the focal point yourself, you can do it using two methods: by moving the focal point left/right up/down with the camera controls to get it where it needs to be; or, by moving the camera so that the focal point is where you want it, focusing and getting “focus lock” (which means you hear a beep) by pressing the trigger button halfway down, keeping your finger on the button so that it’s still halfway pressed to keep the focus locked, moving the camera so that the frame is composed how you want it, and  finally pressing the button all the way to take the picture. The latter method (get focus lock, then move the camera a bit) is easier, but you should only use it at f/4 and above, because below that (say f/2) you’ll find that there’s too much difference after moving the camera only a little bit and the focus point won’t be correct; in these cases you need to manually move the focus point yourself. If you’re composing a subject at the edge of the frame where there’s no focal point available, and you’re at f/2 or lower, then try to move the camera side-to-side only, ie by moving your feet a quarter-step left or right — don’t move the camera with your hands because you’ll have a swivelling motion which will affect the focus (and likely screw it up).

So what should you focus on? For the sake of example let’s assume you have at least one person in the frame which is the subject, so you want them to be in focus. Well, if you’re shooting at f/4 or higher, then just focus anywhere on the person and it’ll be good enough. If you’re shooting below f/4, then probably you should pick the face to focus on. If you’re shooting a portrait at f/2 or even lower, then it gets more important exactly where you focus: in general you want about 1/3 of the out-of-focus part to be in front of the focus-field, and the other 2/3rds that are out-of-focus to be behind the focus-field. That means that you should generally have the focal point pretty close to the foreground rather than closer to the background. You can experiment with this, but you’ll quickly see that the human eye doesn’t really like foregrounds that are out of focus! For shooting at f/2 and shooting a person, a good focus point is the bridge of the nose where it is between the eyes. That means the eyes are more or less in focus (maybe a little behind the focus field), and hardly any of the subject is in front of the focus field (perhaps just the nose). Of course the perspective makes a big difference — you have to practice at this. If you’re shooting from the side, or not dead on, then probably focus on a point that’s a little behind the front eye (the eye of the subject that’s closest to you). If you focus right on the front eye, you’ll probably find too much of the image is out of focus. Don’t be afraid to stop down a little in these cases and shoot at f/3.2 or f/3.5. Some amazing portraits are shot at f/5.6! Don’t fall into the trap of shooting everything at f/2.8 just because that’s what your lens can do.

A lot of people are playing with iPhone apps that can edit images and quickly make things look out of focus (ie. tilt-and-shift in Snapseed), and therefore ask what’s the point of shooting with stuff out of focus, if you can just add it in editing. It is a reasonable question! Well, for some images where the focus field would have a very quick transition of out-in-out -of-focus, you could easily do it in photoshop because it is likely that you can just use a flat gradient. But for images where there are complex objects (like a face) which is directly next to a background that should be out-of-focus, or worse, getting out of focus but not quite, then it’s really quite hard or at least time-consuming to do that in photoshop. Best to learn how to do that with the camera directly. Did you see the note above about getting a fixed f/1.8 lens as your first lens? :) Don’t get me wrong, i’m definitely a fan of doing some occasional blurring in photoshop, but usually it is as an additional stylistic element that I add to an image that was already good-looking when it came out of the camera.

Camera Controls, settings, and modes

Note: I’m going to give directions for Nikon cameras, but Canon is almost identical, and others (Sony, Pentax, Fuji, etc) are super similar. You’ll figure it out — or ask me if you can’t.

RAW vs JPG: easy, always shoot in RAW. Just in case you didn’t hear, never ever shoot in JPG only – you will regret it either immediately or later, but you will definitely regret it. The reason is that when you shoot in RAW you can choose some settings (like white balance) later — as opposed to when you shoot JPG, if you get the settings wrong then you are screwed. Another very important reason to always shoot in RAW is because there’s waaay more “headroom” to edit the photo later. What that means is that you can brighten the shadows and they’ll still have some details in them, whereas a JPG would not details in the shadows. Or darken the highlights, same story. Don’t complain that RAW takes more space – storage is cheap when Thailand isn’t flooded, and so are memory cards.

Modes: Unless you have a pro camera, then your camera probably has two kinds of modes: lettered modes (like ‘A’ and ‘P’) and picture modes (like “little picture of a woman” and “little picture of running man”). You should use the lettered modes, because they force you to understand what they do — the picture modes are the ones for when you don’t have time to think. It’s not bad to use the picture modes when you have to — for example I never shoot sport and the odd time I find myself doing so, I inevitably switch to “running man” mode because i’m too lazy to work out all the settings myself — but in general, stick with the letter modes.

The letter modes are:

  • P for “program” – you just choose white balance and ISO. Camera chooses the rest. Optional: can tell the camera to under/over-expose.
  • S for “shutter”- you choose the shutter-speed (and still white balance and ISO). Camera chooses the aperture. Optional: can tell the camera to under/over-expose.
  • A for “aperture” – you choose the aperture (and still white balance and ISO). Camera chooses shutter speed. Optional: can tell the camera to under/over-expose.
  • M for “manual” – you choose white balance, ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Camera takes a nap cuz it ain’t gotta do nothin’. You can’t tell the camera to under/over-expose, cuz you’re choosing all the settings!

In general if you are trying to improve your photography, then I recommend you shoot in ‘A’ mode for most situations, and ‘M’ when you’re doing flash photography. So, what do all these things mean?

  • Exposure - how bright the image is. Sounds easy, but actually choosing the right exposure separates the amateurs from the pros. A lot influences the right choice, like how you want to edit the photo, how the camera meters (means, how the camera selects the exposure — some cameras over-expose so you want to tell it to under-expose in order to get the right exposure. My Nikon D90 was like that). Some pics are better under-exposed, most notably portraits. Some are better over exposed, most notably where the subject can fade to white (ie white curtains, white sky, whatever). If you have a photo where there is a wide dynamic range, meaning that there are some really dark spots with detail as well as some really bright spots that also have detail (ie. landscape with dark trees in the shade as well as blazingly bright snowy mountains), then generally you want to underexpose (meter for the bright spots). Or, see HDR below.
  • White balance (WB) – what white actually looks like. The human eye is amazing – it can figure out what’s white in any amount of light! Computers and digital cameras are much less clever, and need to be told. A white-balance has two numerical values – one for the white-balance itself, and one for the tint. For example daylight is WB=5500, and tint=+10, according to Adobe. The good news? you’re always going to shoot in RAW, and that means you can leave WB set to auto because you can just choose it later on your computer. You don’t lose anything when you change a RAW’s white-balance.
  • ISO - how sensitive the camera sensor is. A lower ISO means less sensitive, which means the same amount of light would result in a darker image when compared to a higher ISO. A lower ISO means less noise, that is, more detail captured. A higher ISO means more noise, or less detail captured. “Noise” has two types: luminant and chromatic noise. Luminant noise is what makes images grainy. Chromatic noise makes nasty false-colored spots everywhere and is never nice like luminant noise sometimes is. APS-C cameras don’t look nice at higher ISO — the image looks all garbagey because the quality of the noise isn’t nice. Full-frame cameras have a nicer grain at high ISO.

Two full-frame cameras at normal (low) ISO – credit photographybay:

The two same cameras at medium ISO – credit photographybay:
The two same cameras at extremely high ISO – credit photographybay:
  • Aperture - see above — how wide the hole in the middle of the lens is when the photo is taken. An aperture of f/1.8 (aperture is wide open) would have a very tight depth of field (a lot of blur behind and in front of the subject), whereas an aperture of f/22 (lens is stopped down as much as possible, so that the hole the light travels through is a pinprick) means everything is in focus. Naturally the more you stop down, the less light you get because that hole is smaller.
  • Shutter speed - how long the light is exposed to the sensor. Faster means darker. Regular speeds are measured in 1/x of a second, like 1/80 of a second. Cameras usually just print “80″ in the viewfinder to mean 1/80 of a second. FYI, human hands are typically steady until about 1/50 of a second. Any slower than that (ie. 1/20) and the image will be blurry unless you use a tripod or have extremely good shake-reduction in your lens or camera (Nikon terminology: VR. Canon: IS). Of course if you are a surgeon, you’re laughing because your hands are steady at 1/20 no problem :)

I wrote above that in modes like P/A/S/M you have to choose the ISO. Well, most modern cameras have a feature called “Auto ISO”, which means that the camera chooses the ISO for you automatically, even in these modes. It works like this: you set the base ISO, say ISO 200, which is what the camera tries to use. Then you set the slowest shutter speed you consider acceptable, which should be the slowest shutter speed your hands can hold the camera steady at (exception: if things are moving around a lot, you’d want to jack the speed up faster). The camera will try to use the base ISO, but whenever there’s not enough light given the settings you’ve selected and the result is a shutter speed slower than what you picked, then the camera will automatically raise the ISO until the shutter speed is what you specified. You can also set a max ISO, meaning, you’re telling the camera never to exceed this ISO even if the shutter speed is too slow. Auto ISO is a neat feature and I recommend using it at the beginning, and to be honest I still leave it on myself a lot of the time. But purists will quickly tell you that you’re not learning properly if you use this feature, so do turn it off occasionally and manually pick the ISO. Doing so is easy: you want grain, or it’s dark? Ok, go for a higher ISO. Otherwise go for the lowest ISO possible, meaning the ISO for which there’s enough light to use (200 hopefully).

Control-wise, you have hopefully figured out most of this already, or you’re capable of reading the manual your camera came with. Two things to mention: you can get a focus-lock by holding down the shutter release (trigger) button half-way down, which usually results in the camera making a beep to let you know it’s got a focus-lock (which means it thinks it knows where to focus — no beep means camera isn’t sure, and may not be ready to fire). Ok that locks the focus, but not the exposure; that’s why there’s often a separate button for that, like “AE/AF (lock)”. That sounds complicated but it’s important to learn this control if you have it! It stands for auto-exposure / auto-focus lock, and means that once the camera goes beep (from you holding down the shutter release button halfway), you can then hold this AE/AF-L button down (and let go of the shutter release button), recompose the image (move the camera around), and fire — and you’ll get the same focus and exposure you had when you head the beep.

Cameras have different “release modes”, which means what happens when you press the shutter button (when you “release the shutter” – because it used to be that the shutter was powered by a spring, not a battery :D). In general you have single release (just take one photo), continuous release (as long as you hold your finger down on the button, then the camera keeps taking photos), and timer options (wait X seconds before taking the photo after the button is pressed). Higher-end cameras usually also have a setting to determine how fast the continuous shooting is, because although your camera might be capable of 5fps (5 photographs per second), you might find that too fast. In general I recommend leaving your camera in continuous release mode, and getting good at pressing and releasing the shutter button fast enough to do what you want: a quick press for just 1 photo, or holding it down for more. The benefit of this is that you have one less setting to manage, because you can do continuous shooting at any time.

Cameras have different metering modes, which means how the camera figures out how to expose the image. Remember that the camera doesn’t know that it’s getting dark out, or that it is a sunset, or that you actually wanted a silhouette — you can tell the camera these things by using exposure compensation (ie. set -1.3EV for sunset), unless of course you’re in manual mode (then it’s up to you). But how does the camera actually figure out how bright the image is? Well, it uses a separate metering sensor to check some points in the image to see how bright they are. What you can choose is which points it checks, which is the metering mode, which look like this:

By default your camera will probably use the matrix metering mode, which is the correct default – if you don’t know what you’re doing, leave it at this, because matrix means that it checks the most important parts of the image and makes a decision based on those. The other one to use is spot-metering, which is when you say that you want the point at which you focus on to be perfectly exposed, even at the expense of other parts of the image — ie blowing out the sky (all white) or competely dark parts elsewhere. When you use spot-metering, be careful if you use the technique for focusing that involves moving the camera after getting focus-lock, because for many cameras that will NOT lock the exposure and you’ll get a different spot metered than what you expect. For that, you need the AE/AF-lock button, which is described above. Also remember that the spot you are metering cannot be really really small — if you get into a situation like that, then probably you should just be using manual mode instead.



Ok so there are all these things, how do they work together?

Well, here is my thought process when i’m taking a photo. It might not be the best but it works for me:

  1. Choose aperture first. Do I want the subject isolated with a nice background blur, or everything in focus? This is what determines the aperture. If I have a subject that I want nicely isolated or there’s very little light and i don’t have a tripod, then i’ll use an aperture like f/2.8 if there’s not much of interest behind the subject, or f/4 if there’s quite a bit behind the subject and it is a large distance (ie. more than 10m) behind the subject. You might need to change lenses if you don’t have the right one on…
  2. If this is the first image you took in these conditions (this place, these settings), then check all the settings in the viewfinder. Look through the viewfinder and compose the image, press the trigger button halfway down and see what the camera picks for its values. Is the shutter speed fast enough? Is the ISO low enough (you might need to consult the back or top of the camera to see the ISO)? If it all looks good, then…
  3. Frame the image. Is the subject somewhere interesting (see rule-of-thirds above)? Is there something distracting in the photo (someone’s jacket) that you could get rid of manually, or by reframing the picture? What’s the perspective like — are lines straight, do people’s faces look normal? If you want some artistic exaggeration, are you seeing what you imagined?  If you are taking a series of photos (ie. a posed photograph where a couple is standing looking directly into the camera), then think about what different photographs you want. Are they all framed the same, or does it make sense to try a couple different things (zoom in/out, get closer to subjects, put subjects in corner of frame, etc) ?
  4. Pick the focal point, or check that the camera picks the right one. Hold down the trigger button halfway to get a focus-lock and see if the illuminated focus point makes sense. If not, put it in manual mode or change the point.
  5. (time permitting) Take a couple of test shots. Look at them quickly on the back of the camera — and if you are using an aperture of f/2.8 or lower and you used the focusing method of moving the camera between getting focus-lock and taking the picture, then zoom in on one of the pictures (on the back screen of the camera) and check that your subject is in focus. Check the eyes and hair, as they are usually the things that you can check the focus of even with a tiny camera screen.
  6. (when applicable) Get the subjects to do a couple of different things. If you want smiles, tell a joke. If you want serious, and your subjects are smiling and laughing, then forget it — try different poses instead. Posing people is tough, and even worse is someone who thinks they can come up with lots of “interesting” poses, all of which look terrible. But you can work them through it – just be specific in what you ask for. If you’re doing a pro shooting, then hopefully you’ve already looked at photos similar to what you are trying to create now, and you have some poses in mind. You can even sketch poses ahead of time in a pocket-notebook, in case you forget in the heat of the moment what you wanted. That works really well when starting out!

While you’re shooting, don’t forget to:

  • Keep a good balance of conversation as well as concentrating on photography. If this is your sister’s visit to see you, make sure you spend more time talking with her than spending on your camera! If you’ve been paid to take photographs of a person, make sure you keep up a conversation with them that ensures smiles and laughs when appropriate. That’s a tough thing for many people to do — this might be a topic for a whole other section… Practice (at socializing) makes perfect.
  • Look around you, not just in front of you! You might be trying to get a nice photo of a tree, while right next to you something much more exciting like two kids being adorable together is happening, and you don’t even notice. Don’t just look around, think about what’s going on (where people are going, the mood of the group if applicable, how much time you have left where you are) and react accordingly.
  • Use your feet. Don’t get stuck just taking photos in one or two places. Walk around and look first (before taking photos) if you have time, to find the best frame you can find.
  • Have at least one nerdy moment per day that you’re with your camera. If you want to learn then you have to invest time, and you can’t necessarily know when that’ll be required. If you see something interesting, sacrifice 5-10 minutes (a long time) to stop what you’re doing and methodically capture it in a photo — geek out, photography style! If you think you can make this happen, you can’t — usually I find moments like these are unpredictable. If you aren’t doing this once per day that you’re out with your camera, then change what you’re doing until it does happen: where you go, who you are with, what you are after, etc.
  • Occasionally check how much space you have left on your memory card, and whether your battery is depleting faster than expected
  • Occasionally go back and review multiple photos you took (on the back of the camera) to see if your photos have a nice variety to them, in case when you look at them later on the computer you realize that the images don’t work. Play around at get photos of different types (vary the aperture, poses, subjects, etc)
  • Keep an eye on all of your equipment. Did you remember to put that lens away properly when you last switched lenses? Are all of your bags in your sight or even within your reach, in case thieves are watching?


Techniques for Shooting in specific circumstances

Bright background & Dark subject

When you take a picture and you find that you are forced to choose between a silhouetted subject (can’t see the face) or a burned-out background (ie. all white sky, can’t see the clouds), then there are 3 approaches you can use if you don’t want a silhouette:

  • Fill-flash
  • Expose for the face and use clever editing later (note, may require full-frame camera)
  • HDR (explained later)

Fill-flash means that the flash gun is providing less light than the predominant light source in the frame (usually the sun). Or, written another way, the flash is “filling out” the dark parts of the subject. This is a technique i’m still learning, but it works well when you have specific details in the background you wish to preserve, ie. a beautiful sunset with your wife as the subject. You definitely need a flash gun, not the flash that comes with your camera. As always with flash photography, off-camera flash is best, meaning if you have somewhere off to the side of the subject to position the flash at about neck level, that’s going to make the nicer lighting of the subject.

As far as settings go you’re better off reading a specific tutorial on fill-flash, but I generally leave my flash on auto and use the camera controls to specify a negative flash exposure compensation of something like -1.3, meaning the flash is firing at considerably less power than the automatic mode would normally choose. Keep an eye on the bright area (sky) to make sure it keeps its detail (and color), and less is more — IMO it is better to under-expose your subject even with the fill-flash. One disadvantage of fill-flash (to me) is that the color of the overall image is a bit wacky: the background has natural colors because it is naturally lit (unless you’re inside), and the subject has tinted flash-colors (ie skin appears a bit pinker). It could be that you’re supposed to use some gels for this — I haven’t gotten that far yet :)

Exposing for the face is another way of saying “use point metering when shooting the photo” (see above). What should happen when you’re point metering during shooting in this situation is that your subject’s face is normally exposed (perhaps a little under-exposed but not much), and lots of the rest of the image is over-exposed (completely white or very bright). At this point your image looks like crap – but have faith, you can edit this to look great. Try this in Photoshop:

  1. While doing RAW settings (ie. Camera RAW), go to default settings (not auto), make sure fill light is 0, and adjust exposure so that the subject’s face is normally exposed, if this isn’t the case already. If you need to adjust the exposure by more than 0.7EV or so in either direction, then probably this method won’t work — just keep playing around with how you take photos like this until you get it right.
  2. Still in RAW settings (Camera RAW), adjust the recovery (highlight recovery) until there is about half of the detail recovered in the over-exposed areas. Usually in PS this results in recovery of something like 40-65. Yes, I know that’s reaaallly high. Set blacks to 3-5 (not more than 5), set contrast to be moderate (+25-35), and play with other settings as you like
  3. Open the image. I’ll presume photoshop…
  4. Apply whatever sharpening you like (ie. Nikon needs more than Canon)
  5. Warm the colors a bunch (white-balance adjust upward). If you’re doing it manually: subtract from the blue channel, add to the red channel. Hopefully you have an action for this.
  6. Apply a bunch more contrast using an action that defogs and adds luma+chroma contrast
  7. Make the image “faded” with a color that’s going to be somewhere near yellow/orange. If you use actions like Totally Rad Actions (AWESOME, try’em), then you want to use Get Faded (Spring) or (Summer).

Boom, doesn’t that look awesome? Here is an example:


Ok, in the future i’ll add (hopefully):

o   Weddings

·         Shooting

o   Flash photography

o   Reacting to…

§  How the people are acting

§  What your photos look like

§  Changing light

o   Advanced

§ — hyperfocal focusing

·         Processing

o   Organizing for long-term: file storage, RAID and redundancy, etc

o   Filtering

o   Editing

o   HDR

o   Backup and Archival