uLearn.Photography - part of FilmPhotoAcademy.com

Understanding Your Camera


This will be the most technical section as we give you a guide through all the parts of your camera.
  • A Quick Guide
  • Important controls
  • Special Functions
  • Where to find things
  • What some of the jargon means
  • What happens when you take a picture
Once you have completed this section you'll have the jargon under control, you'll understand your camera, you will have the solid grounding for the rest of the course and your photography.

Common Types of Camera


For a moment, I'm going to ignore the fact we've had 150 years of film photography behind us. This course is digital (as is pretty much all photography now).

From left to right: smartphone, compact, micro four-thirds, digital SLR.
Roughly speaking we can divide modern digital cameras into four types:
  • Camera Phones
  • Compact Cameras
  • Micro Four-Thirds
  • 35mm Digital SLRs

The bulk of this course is aimed at the last two of these types, but let us first just have a quick review of phones and compacts to understand why they are OK cameras they don't offer the full flexibility we need.

Camera Phones


Camera phones are astonishingly capable in terms of their digital capture, but their lens quality - their optical quality - is poor because of the need to squash the camera into the narrow depth of a phone.   That said, the best camera you have is "the one you have with you".   My smart phone is my "go to" camera because it is always in my pocket.  I can photograph anything almost anytime.

Compact Cameras


Compact cameras (also called "point and shoot") are a step up from smart phone cameras, with overall better optics, and often similar digital capture. While they are improving all the time they are notorious for being slow. They are bulkier and harder to carry than smart phones yet offer little improvement in actual image.

Crucially what both these types of cameras lack is the facility to change lenses.   The lens is possibly the most important part of your camera.  It is a huge factor in determining the quality of your images and the flexibility of your equipment.
Being able to switch lenses means that you can effectively change your camera from something suitable to photograph flowers to one that can shoot birds flying in distant trees.  Your camera switches from being suitable to photographing building interiors to broad vista landscapes to intimate portraits.

Interchangeable lens

Micro Four-Thirds and 35mm Digital SLRs


Both of these types of cameras offer very similar functions.  The main difference between them is they have different sizes of digital sensor.   DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras are basically old style film cameras converted to digital use.   This gives access to a wide range of equipment using a standard that has been around for 80 years.   Micro Four Thirds (also called mirrorless) is a new format developed jointly between different companies.  The aim was to create a new system designed for digital from the ground-up.

Micro Four Thirds


Micro Four Thirds gives you the chance to use equipment from different manufacturers - essentially doing a mix-and-match to give you whatever kit combination you require.   The main concerns with this format are that (a) the digital sensors may not have the quality of DSLRs, (b) as a new format there are fewer  accessories available.

An example kit: camera body, lenses, flash units, batteries, memory cards and more

Digital SLRs


DSLRs are often "systems", in other words if you buy a Nikon, then you can only use Nikon format equipment with your Nikon camera. Similarly if you have a Canon, then you can't use Nikon equipment on your Canon. For this reason Canon and Nikon (as first and second in size) pretty much dominate the camera brands and sales volumes. The two companies produce near equal quality equipment, with them leap-frogging over each other in product advances.

Despite this "proprietary system" approach, there is a wide range of third party accessories available for both brands.  These include lenses, lighting equipment and much more.  However, you must always check the third party accessory is compatible with your camera.

One of the consequences of this is that when you buy your first camera you are almost buying into the brand forever.  You buy your first camera with cheap lens.  You want a better lens, so you have to buy an expensive lens from the same brand.  Now you want to upgrade your camera, but you have all the money invested in your lens, so you buy a camera from the same brand.  And so on.

Throughout the course I am going to use the term "DSLR" or "digital camera", but nearly all of what you learn will be applicable to any kind of camera.

Choosing Your Camera


Because you are here, you probably already have your camera - and are consequently committed to a manufacturer.   But let me give you my very quick and timeless advice.

Choose the Most Expensive Camera You Can Afford


In other words decide what your budget is, then buy the camera that fits that budget.  Pretty much the more you spend the better equipment you are going to get.
In 2010 "megapixels" was the benchmark for all cameras.  Megapixels are a loose measure of the quality of the photograph.   However all cameras now offer more than enough megapixels for any task.

Choose the Most Expensive Lens You Can Afford


Photographers can get awfully hung up on the "camera" part of the process, but actually the quality of your lens ("the glass" as photographers call it) is much more important. In general your best, most expensive lens you will keep forever, while your cameras will come and go.

Try the Camera in Your Hand


Try both a Micro Four-Thirds and a Digital SLR camera and decide which you feel most comfortable with.
You have to be able to live with your camera.  Does it feel like something you can carry around all day and does it fit in your hands well?   Personally I prefer DSLRs because I have big "man" hands and I find smaller cameras fiddly to work with.

© Slawek Puklo

Decide Your Brand


Particularly with DSLRs you need to decide whether to go Canon or Nikon. Both brands have their supporters with some carrying an almost religious fervour for their chosen brand. Personally I'm a Canon man. I would be reluctant to choose a DSLR that was not one of those two brands however. No other manufacturers are anything like the same size as these two companies.

If you are going for a micro four-thirds camera then brand is less relevant - since the whole point is that it is not a proprietary system. However, I would still recommend choosing a known, successful brand.

If you want to check reviews of your potential cameras then I would recommend the website dpreview.com.   This is the world's leading website for reviewing cameras - though the detail can be a bit intense at times.

Camera Case


We'll discuss later useful and fun accessories you can add to your camera system, but the most immediate requirement you will have is a camera case.   A lot of cameras are sold without one and you need to choose a camera case that works for you.  It must be reasonably roomy and able to hold more than just your camera, but not be too big for you to live with.   
Camera cases can be ever so expensive and many photographers go through many in their lifetime trying to find the "perfect" case.

Computer and Software


You can go to almost any high street chemist or supermarket and have images printed directly from your camera.  Some camera and home printer combinations let you print directly from your camera either over a cable or using wifi.

To get the best out of your digital camera a computer is a must.  Buying computers is whole other story which we are not going to go into here.
A computer will greatly assist and improve your final images.   Dealing with photographs puts a big load on your computer.  A faster computer with more memory is better.
For software there is a wide range of options from free to very expensive.  Your camera will probably come with software to get you started.   The "industry standard" is Photoshop, but this is a big, complicated and expensive option.  Cheaper or free alternatives can still give you very high quality results.   We will discuss software options and how to use software later.

A Quick Guide to Your Camera and How It Works


Your DSLR comes in two parts: the camera and one or more lenses.
The camera body holds the digital sensor, batteries, memory card and computer (yes, there is quite a powerful computer in your digital camera).
The lens is actually a series of glass elements to create a sharp focussed image.   There are many different lens types; we'll go into the details of those shortly.

Here is a generic camera body and lens. The main bulk holds all the electronics, batteries, memory card, digital sensor, and computer chip - everything you need to make the camera function.

Let us take a quick tour of the components:
    • Flash mount: lets you add a camera flash to your camera for shooting in dark conditions.
    • Top LCD Display: shows you the current settings on your camera.
    • Rear LCD Display: shows you camera settings, menu options and crucially allows you to view your photographs.
    • Shutter button: actually takes the picture
    • Function controls: all over the body of the camera are controls for setting the many different functions of your camera.  Don't get daunted by all these options - through the course you will learn what they are all for.
    • Autofocus assist: a small light (often invisible infra-red) which helps the camera autofocus.
    • Memory card slot: all digital cameras use a removable memory card for storing pictures.

Inside the camera:
    • Mirror: reflects the view from the lens into the viewfinder until you take a picture, then it flips out of the way so the light shines on the digital sensor.
    • Pentaprism: a clever bit of glasswork that reflects the image around until it appears in the viewfinder the right way up.
    • Viewfinder: a final lens to see your image through the camera.  The viewfinder also shows electronically information from your camera overlaid on the view.
    • Digital sensor: the "magical" bit that actually records the photograph (more on this later).

The lens:
    • Lens Elements: it often takes 10 or more elements of different glass elements doing different kinds of focussing to create a sharp picture.
    • The diaphragm: controls the amount of light getting onto the sensor - this controls exposure to make sure your pictures are not too dark or light.
    • The focus ring: lets you control the fine focus of your camera by adjusting internal elements.
    • The zoom ring: lets you see a wide or narrow view through the lens by large scale adjustment of the glass elements.
    • Filter ring: to fix filters to the front of the lens to control exposure, colour and create special effects.

What Happens When You Take a Picture?


Before you take a picture you need to point your camera at something to photograph and focus the lens so you get a clear image.

Light comes in through the lens. The light is reflected up by the mirror, bounced around the pentaprism and finally leaves through the viewfinder. Through the viewfinder you see exactly what your camera sees.

When you press the shutter button two things happen - very, very quickly (in less than a 1,000th of a second). Firstly, the mirror flips up out of the way - your viewfinder goes dark when this happens. Secondly, a shutter opens in front of the digital sensor. So now the light comes directly through the lens and is focussed directly onto the sensor without impediment.

Then as soon as the picture is captured the shutter will close again. This prevents any further light falling on the sensor. Then the mirror drops down again. More than anything else it is the sound of the mirror you hear when you take a picture.

The digital sensor has recorded the light levels.  These are translated into digital numbers and saved out to a small but very fast internal memory buffer.   This image is then transferred over to the slower (relatively speaking) memory card.   The internal memory buffer can only hold a few images temporarily.   It lets you take several images quickly - in the space of a second - then save them to the slower removable memory card over a period of seconds.

Understanding the Key Camera Controls


On/off Button


OK, so you have to turn your camera on. But I rarely turn my camera off. The camera will automatically turn itself off after a few minutes. Even though it seems turned off, as soon as I touch the shutter button the camera wakes up instantly. I recommend this so you can take a picture instantly.

Shutter Release


A light press on the shutter release will tell the camera you are ready to take a picture.  The camera will auto-focus and take brightness measurements ready to take a picture.
Pushing the shutter button all the way down actually triggers the photograph.   You don't have to pause between these two.  The camera will normally focus very quickly all in the instant you press the shutter.
However, I would recommend you get into the general habit of the light press so you can check focus, exposure and composition before taking the actual picture.

Viewfinder Focus


Also called a dioptre control. This gives you fine focussing control on the viewfinder. This has nothing to do with the focus of your photographs. You should adjust this small wheel until you can see the sharpest viewfinder image for you. This may be to compensate for wearing spectacles, or indeed, not wearing spectacles.

Mode Selector


This wheel lets you choose a variety of preset image types for the camera. Depending on the setting the camera can either do all the work for you, or none of it. Often you want to choose an option in-between where you are making artistic decisions and the camera does the donkey work.

Rear LCD Screen


The rear screen provides three main functions:
  • Gives you a playback of your photographs
  • Gives you information about current camera settings
  • Lets you access menu options for changing camera settings

Playback Button


Displays your last image on the rear LCD screen. You can then access your other pictures by scrolling backwards or forwards either with a scroll wheel or scroll buttons. You can zoom in to see details in the image.

Menu Options


This is one of the scariest parts of your whole camera.  You press the menu button and then you can access screenfuls of jargon ridden text and obscure icons.  Your next step is to panic and think "what if I change something important and my camera never works again?"
To be honest, you'll never change most of those settings and you'll never need to.   There is no dishonour in ignoring nearly everything presented to you there.

Important Menu Options


When you first get your camera I suggest you do these two things in the menu. Use your camera manual to work out how to get to the right places.

Set your name: this means your name will then be automatically embedded into every photo you take. This might turn out to be very important one day. Not all cameras give this option, or it may only be available when your camera is connected to your computer.

Set the date and time: again this is recorded on every picture you take. Later you can use this to sort pictures, connect them with key events, and remind yourself where and when they were taken.

There are two other functions that you will use often.



Format: lets you prepare your removable memory card for use.   Most memory cards are ready to use when you buy them.   There will be times when to need to refresh your card by formatting it.
Important:  formatting your memory card will REMOVE ALL THE PICTURES ON THE CARD.   

Picture Quality


Picture Quality:  tells your camera how the images will be recorded.   
There is a trade-off between ultimate image quality and the number of images you can store on a memory card.   This is significant and we'll discuss this more thoroughly later.  But in brief: always choose the best quality (sometimes labelled "largest").   Then, for casual snaps you can use the "JPEG" option.  For more serious photographs use the "RAW" option.    If you can, select the "RAW + JPEG" option, which gives you the best of both worlds.

About File Formats


RAW and JPEG are two formats for storing digital images on memory card and hard disk.

RAW files offer much higher quality if you are doing serious processing of your images on a computer afterwards. However, RAW files take up a lot of memory on the card and your computer disk. For example on my camera I can get around 300 RAW files compared to 1,500 JPEG files. RAW files often require special software to be able to view them and print them.

JPEG files are not quite as good in quality as RAW but take significantly less memory. This difference is normally very hard to see though. If you intend just sharing images on the web or computer screen then JPEG will be more than good enough. JPEG files are much more easily dealt with - you can print them directly both at home and in stores. They can be easily posted on FaceBook and the like.

You will probably take a while getting to the point when you need RAW files to get the best out of them. For most of the rest of this course we will assume you are using JPEG files.

Megapixels and Resolution


The overall detail captured by a digital sensor depends largely on the number of pixels (individual points of light recorded) on the digital sensor.   These are always numbered in millions of pixels - or megapixels.   When digital cameras were first launched they had relatively few megapixels and so the exact number was important.  These days any digital SLR will have more than enough resolution to give you a very good picture at any size.   

Megapixels and Images Online


An image posted online needs to be reasonably small.   A full screen image on a large monitor would need around 3 megapixels.   A small image on FaceBook will need less than 1 megapixel.
If you ever need to check, the sum is simple:  width in pixels times height in pixels = total pixels.
A large monitor could display 1,920 x 1,240 pixels = 2,380,800 or 2.3 megapixels
A FaceBook picture is maximum 800 x 800 pixels = 640,000 or 0.6 megapixels

Megapixels and Printing


Pixel count becomes more important when printing, because prints are much larger than computer monitors and show much more detail.
You will usually see this described as Dots Per Inch (DPI).
A good print will need at least 200 dots per inch, 300 dots per inch is better.  More than that is overkill.

If you wanted to print a high quality 8 inch by 10 inch print you would need at least:
8 inches times 300 DPI = 2,400 pixels
10 inches times 300 DPI = 3,000 pixels
2,400 times 3,000 = 7,200,000 or just over 7 mega pixels

To print a good quality poster 20 inches wide, 30 inches deep at 200 DPI we would need:  
20 x 200 = 4,000 pixels wide
30 x 200 = 6,000 pixels high
4,000 times 6,000 = 24,000,000 or 24 mega pixels.
As long as your camera is taking pictures over 15 mega pixels you are recording more than enough information for a reasonable print at any size.   You can use software to enlarge your image suitable for printing at huge sizes - even billboards.

Types of Lens


The main point of the lens is to focus the image onto the digital sensor.   But the lens also controls much more - particularly the angle of view and the aperture - which affects exposure and depth of field.
Lenses are normally defined by two things: focal length and maximum aperture.

Focal length is given in millimetres. A 24mm lens has a very wide angle of view. A 200mm lens has a very narrow angle of view. Wide angle sees much more of the scene, narrow angle (usually referred to as a "long lens") magnifies far away objects.

From left to right: a 50mm fixed lens; a 24-85mm zoom lens; a 75mm to 300mm zoom

A useful working range for everyday photography is about 25mm to 100mm. At 24mm you would be able to get a reasonable view of an interior room or a broad landscape. At 100mm you have a great portrait lens.

A "full-frame" camera uses the larger green frame.  A crop frame only uses the smaller green frame.  This has the same effect has increasing the focal length of your lens (zooming in).

Effective Focal Length


IMPORTANT:  The "Effective Focal Length" of your lens is determined by your camera.   Cameras will have either a "full frame" or a "crop frame" sensor.   A "crop frame" sensor means that the digital sensor is smaller than the normal 35mm film equivalent and so "crops" into just the centre of the picture.
What this means is that your Focal Length has a multiplier, usually around 1.5 times.   So a 100mm lens would actually be the equivalent of a 150mm lens.   Throughout this course I will always use the 35mm focal length.  But you may need to adjust this depending upon your actual camera.

Manufacturers like to turn "crop frame" into a positive, so they may just refer to is a focal length multiplier, extended zoom range or some other terminology.
So for example, taking two Canon models: the 5D is a full frame camera, the 60D is a crop frame with a multiplier of 1.6.
There are some lenses that can ONLY be used on crop frame camera - be aware of this when choosing a new lens.

Prime and Zoom Lenses


A "prime" lens has a fixed focal length. So it will be built to be a 50mm lens for example.

A 50mm prime lens

A 24mm-85mm zoom lens.
A "zoom" lens has a variable focal length.  A typical zoom lens might have a range from 24mm to 100mm.   This means with a single lens you can "zoom out" to capture a wide angle scene, or "zoom in" to capture a close-up from the scene.
Historically "prime" lenses gave much better quality images - because they use fewer glass elements within the lens.  However modern lens technology is so terrific that is unlikely you will be able to tell the difference.
A zoom lens is going to give you much more flexibility in your photography.

Focal Length and Field of View


Lenses with a focal length below 24mm are very wide - and are essentially a special effects lens.
A "normal" range of everyday use is between 24mm and 100mm.   This gives you a good variety from shooting indoors and big landscapes to tight portraits and details.

Lenses with a focal length from 100 to 400mm are more common and would be used when photographing distant objects, say racing cars at a track or wildlife.  
These lenses with a long focal length are sometimes referred to as "telephoto" lenses.  We will use the more common term "long lens".

"Macro" lenses (or "close-up" lenses) allow you to focus on very near objects.  A typical lens might only be able to focus on things 1 metre (3 feet) or further away.   If you want to shoot close-ups then a macro lens will be able to focus on things just a few inches away.

© Markus Grossalber

Interactive Example - Constant Distance


Use the slider to see different fields of view for different focal lengths.
In this example the camera is positioned 2 metres from the girl.  All that is changing is the focal length of the lens.
You can see how much more of the background is visible with a shorter (24mm lens) lens - hence it is also called a wide-angle lens.
As the focal length gets longer (300mm) you can see the field of view decreases until there is no background visible at all and we are concentrated on Leah's face.
Remember nothing has changed except the focal length of the lens.

Interactive Example - Constant Crop


This example is the same setup, but in this case the camera position moves so that the main subject appears the same size in the frame.    
Here you can see how using a different focal length lets you control how much of the surrounding environment is shown in the image.
With the wide angle, short focal length (25mm) you can see a lot of the background - to the detriment of the face which is badly distorted.
As the focal length increases to 100mm the face is no longer distorted and the amount of the background shown is reduced.  There is reasonable separation between the subject and the background.
As the focal length gets very long (300mm) then the subject and background get "squashed" together - they have lost their separation and there is little sense of the distance that separates them.  This is an effect called foreshortening.

Lens Aperture


The lens aperture controls how much light comes into the camera through the lens, so is used to manage exposure.
Much more important though is that it also controls how much of the image from front to back is in focus.  This is called "Depth of Field".   This is an important artistic control.
Lens aperture is measured in "f-stops".   You want a lens with the smallest f-stop possible.   This will be in a range of around f/1.2 to f/4.0.   Prime lenses usually have the smaller f-stops.  Zoom lenses do not normally go very low.
This is a big and important topic and we will return to it in much more detail later on.

Other Useful Accessories


Over time you will build your own collection of useful accessories based on your personal preferences.  Not much is really required to start out with, so don't rush into purchases if you are just starting out.
Cleaning Cloth:  Good first buy, your lens will need cleaning and it is better to use a special cleaning cloth rather than your shirt (which can microscopically scratch the surface of the lens).
Camera Bag:  You are going to want something to carry your camera and accessories around.



Tripod: This lets you fix your camera to a stable position. For wildlife photography this would be a must.



Monopod: a single legged tripod - light and easy to carry but does most of the job of a tripod keeping your camera still. A monopod won't stand up on its own of course!

The monopod collapses down to less than a foot long and weights almost nothing, so is very handy to carry around at all times.



Flashgun or Speedlite: A more powerful and flexible flash than the little pop-up unit on your camera.

There are a gazillion other add-ons, both small and large.  All the photographers I know have their own collection of their personal favourites and you will too.   Very few of them can ever be classed as "essentials", but many of them will make your shooting easier.



Now, I know a lot of you are not going to enjoy your assignment for this section.  I want you to get out your camera manual and go through it, finding all the elements you have learnt in this section so that you understand your camera better.
Find out:
  • Where to adjust the various settings
  • Which controls do what
  • What options your camera has
  • Write out a short sheet with this useful information