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I have a phrase to describe geeks: jargon-mongers. They revel in feeling a (often misplaced) sense of elevation by sounding Mr. (or Ms.) Know-Alls, even as they try to instil an inferiority complex in others. Some of this lot can be found amongst photographers too; let them not rattle you.

Cameras are increasingly getting more complex with advances in technology. Amateurs and even professionals can easily get overwhelmed with all the possible settings. But fret not. In reality, most photographers including top pros usually change only a few settings – stick to these in most situations and you will do just fine.

  1. Aperture: This is the mechanical iris of the camera and the size to which it opens controls the amount of light going through. The wider it opens, the more light can go in. To maintain the same exposure, you can set faster shutter speeds proportionately (referred to as ‘Stops’ in photography). Or vice versa. In lower light conditions, a bigger aperture helps as you can shoot at higher shutter speeds. Aperture also controls the Depth of Field – it is the distance that is in focus before and after the point you are focussed on. This is useful in getting desired creative effects – you can control the sharp or blurred parts of the image.
  1. Shutter Speed: This is useful in capturing motion of your subject. A faster shutter speed can freeze a subject while a slower one can cause a moving subject to be blurry and smeary. Again, it can be used for desired creative effects. When shooting in low light, a slower shutter allows more light in but you may need a tripod to avoid shake. 
  1. ISO: Traditionally, ISO referred to the sensitivity of camera film with ratings of 100, 200, 400 etc. Digital cameras use the same numbering system; the higher the ISO, the more sensitive the sensor where the image is recorded. In other words, higher ISO require lesser exposure too ‘see’ a scene. By taking ISO up, you can shoot with a smaller aperture or a faster shutter speed for the same exposure. But higher ISO comes at a price; depending on the camera, images develop a noise at higher ISO. Noise refers to visual distortion; this can be in the form of grains, random variations of brightness and discolouration in images. Most DSLRs give you almost noiseless images till ISO 800; the higher end ones are more tolerant as you increase the ISO.
  1. Focus Points: It is natural that you want the image to be sharpest where the main subject is situated in the frame. The camera normally chooses on its own. When a camera locks focus, it will illuminate or flash the focus point or points it chose. But this may not be what you desire. Depending on the camera, you can choose focussing zones or even points for the sharpest zone in the image. Using a focus point also helps when you are trying to autofocus in low light; you can pick a focus point that locks onto the brightest spot in the frame and calculate exposure from there.
  1. Lens and Focal Lengths: The camera may be the brain in creating a photograph, but the lens are the eyes and the heart. You need to figure what lens work for your subject. You can choose between fixed focal lengths (called prime lenses), or zooms. You can go for those with smaller focal lengths to shoot wide, or bigger ones to zoom in. And then there is the Aperture. The wider the Aperture in the lens, the more expensive it can be. But Aperture offer greater latitude when shooting in less than ideal conditions, or to generate creative effects.
  1. Depth of Field: As briefly discussed above, this is the area in focus before and after the main focused point. This can be used for creative purposes depending how blurry or sharp you want different areas of the image to be. The wider the Aperture, or longer the focal length of the lens, the shallower the DoF.
  1. Image Format: When you shoot an image, the camera processes the same and follows this with a compression process before storing it in the JPEG format. This reduces the size and quality of the original image, quantum depending on the camera and your settings. You can also choose the image into another format: RAW. Most DSLRs and some point-and-shoot cameras give you the option to save images as JPEG and/or RAW. The latter are a lossless format – there is no in-camera processing. The file size is larger as more data is being stored; but this allows you greater latitude in post-processing the image.

Get the above right, and you may not need to worry much about other settings. Go click.

‘Photography Tips’ is a series of posts for all photographers including beginners, hobbyists, amateurs and even prosumers and professionals . What I share are not-so-technical but anecdotal and experiential tips. Follow all posts under the Photography Tips category – and feel free to post any further queries to me in comments below or at ajay@ajayjain.com. If you want to join an offline session on travel blogging / photography / filmmaking, check out the Kunzum Media Lab.

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