tooling around:vocabulary snapshot

This is the second in a short series of Tooling Around posts about cameras. For Janice’s first post on this topic, click here.

The first step to taking good photos is to read the manual. In fact, make friends with your manual. Take it out to coffee or stay in with a bottle of wine and a good Stilton.

The point is, your camera won’t give you what you want until you know how it likes to be handled.

Why I didn’t think to do that when it dramatically revealed itself inside its Christmas wrappings I do not know. Instead, I apparently tossed the manual sometime during my two moves in so many years. I had to print a new manual from the Canon website. Whoops.

While getting to know your camera you’ll discover that it speaks a different language. You might be fluent in English, Spanish, and Mandarin, but you’ll still be lost because photography is something completely different. Here’s a quick vocabulary lesson for you.

Pixel: picture element; the smallest unit of picture that can be represented or controlled

Pixels have an intimate relationship with resolution, which comes from the Latin word for “process of reducing things into simpler forms.” The more pixels crammed into a given space, such as an 8×10 photograph, the sharper, or clearer, an image will be. More pixels = higher resolution.

Remember when you were a kid and the NES had just come out? My console came with a copy of Super Mario Bros. Remember all that? Please tell me you are old to remember when that happened. And, do you remember how Mario and Luigi had to make it through the Mushroom Kingdon, a land with absolutely no curves? Everything was made of rectangles. That’s because technology in the 1985 only allowed for low resolution, a small number of pixels for the given space, and that resolution didn’t allow the pixels to blend enough for us to see curves.

Just to make things perfectly clear (ha! ha! I’m so funny) here is an image demonstrating a one-inch “R” graphic at various levels of resolution from low to high. The numbers above each square represent the number of pixels present in the vertical and horizontal space.

Click on the image for more information on Pixel Resolution

ISO: how sensitive the image sensor is to the amount of light present. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the image sensor and therefore the possibility to take pictures in low-light situations.

Well, I guess that tells us what we need to know, but I had to read it about three times before I could fully digest that definition. Basically, the ISO setting tells the camera how much light to expect when the shutter button is pushed. The general rule seems to be: higher ISO is better in low light, but might cause noisy (coarse or fuzzy) images; lower ISO is better in bright light conditions, but might lead to blurred pictures.

A flower at ISO 100 and ISO 3200. Click on the image for more info.

f/stops: regulates how much light is allowed through the lens by varying the area of the hole (aperture) the light comes through.

I actually “get” f/stops. They are a lot like a pupil in the human eye. When it is bright outside our pupils get smaller so our eye takes in less light and can focus on the objects around us. When it is dim or dark, our pupils get wider to let in the maximum amount of available light so we can, again, see the objects around us. In the “auto” mode, a digital camera can sense the light almost as well as the human brain, and will direct the “eye” of the camera to open or close the appropriate amount. When you switch the camera off of “auto” it is up to you to tell the camera how much light you want it to take in. You do this through the aperture setting. The higher the number following f, the smaller the opening; the smaller the number following f, the larger the opening.

At first I thought photography was just trying to be contrary, but look at the figure below.  If you replace the “f” with a “1” you see that aperture settings are really fractions. (Except for that 1.4 business down at the bottom. I don’t know what’s up with that.)

Click on the image for more fun with f/stops & aperture.

Hopefully all that made sense. If not, after your coffee date with the manual, I suggest taking your camera out a few times. The manual won’t get jealous. Go out for lunch in the park on a sunny day and take a photo of the same object a few dozen times. Focus on a tree and take a series of photos at different pixel settings. Then take the ISO settings through their paces and follow with the f/stops. Do it all over again in a dim restaurant and again at a little league game. Just take some time to note how each image looks on your camera display and how it looks on your much larger computer screen. Make yourself a cheat sheet of which setting made for the best photos in each setting so when you are trying to snap one of life’s great moments you have quick reference to get a perfect shot.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not a photo professional. Your great response to I’m Gonna Snap scared the wapoo out of me at first. But I’m really thrilled that so many of you responded the way you did. And I’m going to milk it for all it’s worth. To start, I want you guys to use the response box below to tell us your photography experiences and questions. Second, tune in next time for additional camera basics!

5 thoughts on “tooling around:vocabulary snapshot

  1. Thank you for that! For the first time since I got my digital camera (I’m from the era of the box camera!) the f and iso’s etc. actually made sense. Although I’m likely to keep the setting on auto (find it’s OK for what I seem to need), when I have a mo, I’ll give your suggestions a try! You never know: you may well be right, and my pics will look even better!

    Do wish folks who know their stuff did not get so darn technical when they explain things! Their “simplifications” so often are more difficult to fathom than the original instructions!

    Thanks again.

  2. Spot on! It was after I read my camera manual that I started taking much better pics!! Another good tip is don’t be afraid to play around. Do little picture taking experiments with the different settings and the same scene until you figure out what works.

    You don’t have to have some awesome expensive camera to get good enough pictures, either. I can’t manually change the color balance on my camera, but I set mine to the little snowman setting and they don’t turn out too blue that way and by upping the exposure, it’s ok that I don’t have expensive studio lights!

    There’s always room for improvement, though, filing away this post to pore over this weekend, thanks for sharing!

  3. THANK YOU!!! I’ve taken photography classes and that is the FIRST time anyone has ever explained F stops in a way that made sense.

    You have a great sense of humor and a unique way of explaining things. I read about you in Mary Janes Farm and I’m so glad I took the time to visit your web page. I’m putting you in my favorites!

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