Essential Camera Features
After years of using a point-and-shoot camera and never really bothering to learn much more than simply composing my photograph and pressing the shutter button, what I really needed was a well written and comprehensive introduction to all the basic features that one finds in a modern interchangeable-lens camera. In this respect, reading the first eight chapters of Long’s book did the most to improve my skills.
In a style that is both approachable yet thorough, Long covers all the basics in a wonderfully systematic way.
First, Complete Digital Photography introduces the reader to three critical settings and the way in which they all have a reciprocal relationship with each other:
- Shutter speed controls exposure time and motion stopping in an image. Using the traditional shutter settings, all of which progress in roughly half increments—1 second, 1/2 second, 1/4 second, 1/8 second, 1/15 second, and so forth—one controls how long the camera’s sensor is exposed to light.
- Aperture also controls exposure in addition to depth of field, or the depth that is within acceptable focus. Traditional aperture settings are referenced as focal ratios or f-stops: 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, and 16.
- Sensitivity is referenced using ISO numbers that also progress upwards as doubles: 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, and so on. With this setting, the photographer has a third way to control exposure. Essentially, there is a tradeoff between slower exposure and noise: higher sensitivity means faster exposures but an increase in the undesirable “noise” that makes an image appear grainy; lower sensitivity offers less “noise” but with slower exposure times.
Long discusses the reciprocal relationship among shutter speed, aperture, and sensitivity. Going from one setting to the next—adjusting shutter speed from 1/4 to 1/8 second, aperture from 2.8 to 4, or ISO from 100 to 200, for instance—all represent an equivalent increase or decrease of one stop. What’s more, decreasing one setting while increasing another setting—for example, changing shutter speed from 1/50 second to 1/100 second while also changing ISO from 200 to 400—will result in an equivalent exposure. Most cameras offer one-third increments between each major single-stop setting.
Long’s description of how one uses aperture to control depth of focus also triggered an epiphany. Suddenly the depth of field markings on my manual lenses made sense. If, for instance, I have my aperture set to f/2.8, my depth of field will be significantly shallower but my exposures significantly faster than if I used an aperture of f/11.
As I write this, all of this seems painfully rudimentary to me now. But considering my prior experience at the time, which was close to non-existent, I began to understand core photographic concepts, and I found myself able to use them effectively for the first time.
Long’s Complete Digital Photography also discusses core automatic features that most cameras have:
- Autofocus: how it works and how different autofocus modes operate.
- Light meter: how it works and how different metering modes—evaluative or matrix metering, center-weighted averaging, partial metering, and spot metering—measure light. Knowing how a modern light meter works gives me all the most appreciation for what photojournalists were able to do with cameras that were completely manual and that lacked any such capabilities.
- Auto white balance: how it evaluates a scene’s lighting and makes adjustments to the “temperature” of colors in an image.
In the past, the two or three point-and-shoot digital cameras I’ve used and have since disposed of had, in addition to a fully automatic mode, four shooting modes. Yet I never really took the time to learn what those cameras offered beyond the fully automatic mode I stuck to. Long’s Complete Digital Photography finally got me up to speed.
In a characteristically meaningful yet still very approachable way, Long outlined the four shooting modes that one finds on pretty much all cameras:
- Program mode: the camera sets shutter speed and aperture control automatically.
- Shutter Priority mode: the photographer sets shutter speed manually and allows the camera to set aperture automatically.
- Aperture Priority mode: the photographer sets aperture manually and allows the camera to set shutter speed automatically.
- Manual mode: the photographer sets both shutter speed and aperture manually.
After dedicating a handful of pages early in his book on what most cameras will do in full Auto mode, Long dedicates an entire chapter to Program mode. When I have my kit zoom lens attached to my camera—for instance, when I’m on vacation and am taking photographs in an easy-going way—I usually have my camera set to Program mode and let the camera’s autofocus, light meter, and auto white balance features do their jobs.
Even when I’m in Program mode, I still have controls at my disposal. Thanks to Long’s book, I now feel like I’m in a far better position to make intelligent decisions about use two other features that I never really understood:
- Program shift allows me to maintain the same exposure but change my depth of field by shifting shutter speed and aperture in a reciprocal manner.
- Exposure compensation enables me to adjust what the light meter may want to do for an exposure and either brighten or darken my image based on what the ultimate light meter—the human eye—tells me is the better approach.
After having read Long’s book, I found myself in a better position to put this all together when I’m out and about with my camera. Am I in a situation where I want to let the camera make its own exposure decisions except for aperture? Do I want to be able to stop the action of a fast-moving subject? Shutter Priority mode is what’s called for then. Or do I want to create portrait with a shallow focus depth? Aperture Priority mode is the way to go. With both, I also have access to exposure compensation just like I had in Program mode. And since Long introduced me to the ins and outs of shutter speed and aperture, I found myself well equipped finally to understand what these two priority modes offered me as a photographer.
Do I want to go completely old school? Manual mode is the one to go for. Here, too, Long’s Complete Digital Photography was incredibly useful.
Since I’ve been indulging in fully-manual lenses either of the vintage or modern type, and since my camera doesn’t seem to like playing with these manual lenses that I use most often, I’ve been spending most of my time in Manual mode. Learning the simple fact that the exposure compensation indicator doubles as a light meter indicator in Manual mode, I have been enjoying my photograph-making experience most by exercising full control over my exposure times. Since all my manual lenses have analog aperture rings, I never make adjustments to that setting through the camera. And having consistently reached for ISO 200 film when I had a film camera, I tend to gravitate toward manually setting my ISO to 200 before I start shooting, and I rarely if ever change it. Again, the idea is to mimic the film camera experience as much as possible. I find that ISO 200 represents the best balance between reasonable sensitivity and reduced noise. Even for a photographer like me who savors the old-school experience, Long’s book was very useful.
Other Useful Features
Long’s Complete Digital Photography outlined several other useful features that I never really took the time to consult my camera’s manual and understand:
- Picture Styles/Picture Controls: Sometimes certain types of shooting call for making potentially repetitive fine-tuning adjustments that I’d rather let the camera take care of. The Picture Styles setting is one tool that I have access to on my Canon camera. In the world of Nikon cameras, they are referred to as Picture Controls.
- In-camera histograms: Especially when I’m working in Manual mode, having a histogram displayed in my viewfinder helps me make a better judgment about exposure as opposed to relying simply upon the light meter. Other times, however, having that histogram taking up real estate in my viewfinder can be a little annoying when I’m composing a photograph. In those instances, I turn that feature off. But it’s nice to know it’s there when I needed it.
- Exposure bracketing: In conjunction with my camera’s continuous drive mode, I can set the camera to take three pictures, one at the exposure that the light meter deems is the best to use, one at a brighter exposure, and a third at a dimmer one. This is handy features especially for tricky exposure situations.
- Nodal point marking: What does the symbol with a line through a circle on my camera body mean? That indicates the focal plane of the camera. Back in the days of film, the film itself was the focal plane—the point at which rays of light converge into focus. On digital cameras, it indicates where the sensor sits. Either way, it’s nice to know where that point is and what that symbol means.
How a Digital Camera Works
Beyond discussing a multitude of camera features, Ben Long’s Complete Digital Photography removed much of the mystery surrounding what my camera has been doing under the covers all this time.
Early in his book, Long dedicates a whole chapter to discussing how a camera’s sensor works. While at first glance this may seem to be technically excessive especially so early in a book, knowing what a camera sensor does informs one’s understanding of the rationale behind so many of a camera’s feature settings that Long discusses later in his book. I found his description of color filter arrays to be especially useful. Ironically, I found myself drawn to learning more about the advantages of monochrome camera sensors such as those in some of Leica’s very expensive offerings.
Complete Digital Photography also includes a valuable description of what a camera does when it generates JPEGs. I had no idea the camera did so much processing between the time of exposure and the point at which the camera writes a JPEG file to a memory card.
I also had no idea how much data the camera throws out when it creates those JPEGs. As a computer programmer, I especially appreciated a better understanding of raw shooting that Long helped me come to. Having a “digital negative” that I can manipulate on my computer has proven to be invaluable. Rather than being limited to the compressed JPEG images the camera generates, I can use the raw image data and assert far more control over what kind of image I ultimately want to generate.
The Techniques and the Art of Photography
Long’s Complete Digital Photography is not limited merely to the technical aspects of photography. Rather, he gives meaningful attention to the techniques a photographer uses to make an image. Long spends a whole chapter on lighting and another on various special shooting situations like black and white photography and infrared photography. He also gives good attention to landscape photography, where attention to depth of field and hyperfocal distance is critical.
Moreover, Long dedicates a whole chapter to that most elusive area of all: the art of photographic composition. I find that offering advice on composition can be the most problematic area for any author or advice-giver. How does one suggest new ways to compose a photograph to someone while still allowing that person to develop his or her own artistic style? Long succeeds in making good suggestions while by no means imprinting his own style onto others.
Since most of Long’s treatment of postprocessing is centered around using Photoshop, which I don’t use, I haven’t read his chapters on editing too deeply. But one can still draw good insight from his writing on how to leverage the features of other software packages to edit photos. Long discusses using levels and curves to make tonal and color adjustments, converting images to black and white, editing raw files, and much more.
I’m indebted to that gentleman sitting at the library who made me feel just a touch uncomfortable when he made his recommendation to me but who was also responsible for pushing me to seek out Ben Long’s Complete Digital Photography. I highly recommend it! If you are ready to graduate up from the world of point-and-shoot or cell phone cameras and take your skills to the next level, his book really is the best one-volume guide you can get.
Check out Long’s website at completedigitalphotography.com for more information.