Taking charge of your digital camera Pt. 1
September 7, 2011 5:56 AM - Open Thread - denton
What would Life In Brooklyn be without photos of Brooklyn?

Today we take it for granted that a simple rather inexpensive pocket camera will produce well exposed well focused images without much effort on our part. Japanese engineers have over the past few decades mounted a concerted effort to turn cameras from a difficult-to-use object that required considerable practice and training, into a mass market device that everybody has and everybody uses without much effort. They have succeeded brilliantly. (It remains to be seen how smartphones will impact the market).

When I first became interested in photography, as a boy in the 1960s, there was a lot to learn. First, you had to measure the light with a light meter. Then you had transfer the shutter speed and aperture settings to the camera from the meter. Finally, if the subject was still around (haha), you had to focus the camera. And after tripping the shutter release you had to wind the film to the next frame.

In the 1960s, manufacturers figured out how to get the light meter into the camera and have it measure the light through the lens. The 1970s brought exposure automation (no need to manually transfer meter settings). The 1980s brought electronics and metering improvements and especially, auto-focus. In the 1990s it all came together in easy to use cameras (but you still couldn’t put them in your shirt pocket). And of course the digital juggernaut, combined with these usability improvements, has brought us to where we are today. Simple, inexpensive, pocketable cameras that will give us excellent photographs 90% of the time (it’s the 10% I want to talk about).

I’ve been interested in doing a simple series on digital photography ever since a few younger acquaintances have gotten more interested in photography and have ‘upgraded’ from p&s (point and shoot) cameras to DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras(1)–see footnote at end). However, if you don’t have a DSLR, keep reading: Most cameras today have what is called a ‘mode dial’ and even the ones that don’t offer some of these options within menus.

Unfortunately we can’t do inline images here so I’ll be linking to photos describing what I am discussing. Here’s a photo of a typical ‘Mode Dial’. Some others have little drawings of mountains, flowers, and all kinds of things, but what we’re interested in is the three main ones that will appear on just about every camera with a Mode Dial.


They are P (Program Mode), A (Aperture Mode), T (Time Mode), and, on more sophisticated cameras B (Bulb Mode).

My acquaintances have said, I know what P mode is, but what are these other modes, how do I use them, and why should I bother to learn what they do? The answer is that while P Mode (aka idiot mode) will get you good results most of the time, there are other times when you will want to exert some manual control over certain camera functions to make your photography better.

We will be examining when, why, and how to use these other modes in this series.

First, let’s discuss how an image is placed on a light collecting medium (for this series I will refer to it as a sensor, as in digital, but all this also applies to film).

There is an optimal amount of light for any given photograph that will give us a pleasing picture, that is, not too light, not too dark, and with good detail in both the shadows and highlights. This amount of light is determined by three factors.

-First, the sensitivity to light of the sensor itself. That is expressed in ISO, as in ISO 100, ISO 400, etc. The higher the number, the more sensitive to light the sensor is (there is more to it than that, but let’s keep it simple here).

-Second, the amount of time the shutter stays open, which is expressed in fractions of a second. 1/125, 1/60, etc. Of course, the amount of time the shutter stays open has other implications. For example, if the shutter is open too long, the photo will be blurry since your hands will shake. Most people cannot hand hold a camera and expect a sharp photo at shutter speeds less than 1/60 of a second (again, many caveats). Note that the shutter speed doubles or halves at each setting (1/250 second being half the time of 1/125 second).

-Third, the aperture size. The aperture is the hole in the lens diaphragm that lets light through to the sensor. When a lens is ‘wide open’ it will obviously let much more light in than when it is ‘stopped down’. Apertures also have numbers: f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6 etc. The higher the number the less light is let through to the sensor. It is not quite as obvious as shutter speed but these numbers also function in the same way: Going up or down the scale doubles or halves the amount of light striking the sensor with each f stop. (i.e., f/2.8 allows double the light to the sensor as f4.0).

So, obviously, if we are sitting in a nice romantic restaurant with our honey, we will be looking at a high ISO, a low shutter speed, and a large aperture. Conversely, if we’re at the beach on a sunny day looking to capture our honey in a bathing suit, we’ll be thinking low ISO, high shutter speed, small aperture.

So why worry if the camera will figure this out? Because the optical properties of the lens change depending on aperture, as will our photos. And there are times when you may want to use a slow shutter speed, not a fast one, or vice versa. We can use these different modes (Aperture Mode and Time Mode) to exploit these properties, exercise more creative control over our images, and ultimately increasing the percentage of photos that we find pleasing.

Back to my acquaintances with their cameras set on ‘P’ mode. P, as in Program. In ‘P’ mode, the camera will select both an aperture, and a shutter speed. A sort of middle of the road aperture and shutter speed. You don’t have to think about it, which is why we also refer to it as ‘idiot mode’. Most of the time, it works and works well. It’s what I keep my own cameras set to when I am walking around. It’s knowing when to turn that Mode dial off ‘P’ Mode that we’ll address in the next installment.

(1). SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex. A SLR contains some form of pentaprism that allows the light coming in through the lens to be directed through the viewfinder. This is significant because it allows you to see exactly what the lens sees (an early example of WYSIWYG thinking). All SLRs allow you to affix different lenses, so whether you shoot with a super wide angle lens, or a super telephoto lens, you will at all times see an accurate portrayal of your subject.

Tuesday Open Thread
September 6, 2011 7:08 AM - Open Thread - BoerumHillScott
Back to Work....

Happy Labor Day
September 5, 2011 9:03 AM - Open Thread - dibs

Saturday Open Thread
September 3, 2011 8:14 AM - Open Thread - dibs

Additional domain name - lifeinbklyn.com
September 2, 2011 8:26 AM - About LifeinBklyn - BoerumHillScott
Yesterday evening, I registered lifeinbklyn.com and pointed it here.
I did this both to help people with spelling/memory problems, as well as to keep someone else in the future from registering a name so similar to hours.

In the first few days of the site, it was mentioned that it would be a more logical name of our site, since bklyn is a more common abbreviation than bkln. There is no technical reason why would could not promote that as the primary name. It is not a question that I have any strong feelings on.

The only downside from switching names is that people who are logged in under one URL would have to re-log in if they enter the other.

Friday Open Thread
September 2, 2011 7:50 AM - Open Thread - BoerumHillScott

Thursday Open Thread
September 1, 2011 7:11 AM - Open Thread - BoerumHillScott

Wednesday Open Thread
August 31, 2011 7:05 AM - Open Thread - BoerumHillScott

Registration now required
August 30, 2011 12:37 PM - Open Thread - bxgrl
LifeinBkln now requires you to register before you can post on the site. We hate to do it, but we want to keep spam to a minimum. And we love new members!

Tuesday Open Thread
August 30, 2011 7:33 AM - Open Thread - BoerumHillScott

Monday Open Thread: The Aftermath
August 29, 2011 6:33 AM - Open Thread - BoerumHillScott

Sunday Open Thread - The CobbleSnaps Birthday Edition!
August 28, 2011 1:07 AM - Open Thread - InsertSnappyNameHere