Let's learn the basics about your camera

Are you just starting out with this whole photography business thing? Do you have a nice camera that just sits in the closet because you are not quite sure how to use it? Do you pull out your nice SLR camera, but only use it in AUTO mode? Maybe you don't even have a camera yet. Well, I am so glad you are here! We are going to talk about some camera basics today and at the end I will have a little homework assignment for you. This is going to be the first step to success. You have to know how to use your camera before you can take great photos.

If you don't have a camera yet, I would get a SLR Canon or Nikon.

I personally am a Canon user, but I believe both are great. You want to get a camera that allows you to interexchange lenses, because this is going to allow you to grow as a photographer. Stay away from camera and lens packages. It is much better, in my opinion, to research the camera body you want, then the separate lens you want and purchase them separately. In my experience, the quality of what you get is going to better than what you get in a camera/lens kit. When I started I owned a Canon Rebel and bought a 1.8 50mm prime lens, also known as the nifty fifty. I actually highly recommend doing this. This lens is not much over $100 and because it is a prime lens, it is actually quite crisp. So, if budget is small or you are just trying this out, I would suggest starting there.

If there is more money in your budget, I would get something equivalent to a Canon 5D Mark IV.

I have both the 5D Mark II and 5D Mark IV. I bought the Mark II first, then after a couple years I decided I needed a better back up camera than my Canon Rebel. So, naturally, I invested in a Mark IV. Both have be wonderful!

When it comes to lenses, it really is going to depend on what type of photography you do and what your style is. I work a ton with families with young kids, so I like to keep a zoom lens on my camera most of the time. I have the Canon 2.8 24-70mm lens that I use for just about every photo shoot I do. It does a great job and allows me to quickly zoom in and out as needed, which is important when little kids move so much.

I have been eyeing the Canon 1.4 35mm prime lens for a few years now, but have continued to put it off. Prime lenses are know for their crispness. They do NOT zoom in and out, so this means you actually have to be the one to move forward and backwards, etc. (This is the same for the nifty fifty.) This is easily done enough and you for sure get used to it. So do your research and decide which lens you think would work best.

Also, if you didn't know, there are camera stores that allow you to rent a lens. Search around in your area for a camera store and see if they rent their lenses. That could be a good option while you are trying to decide what to invest in. And if all else fails, just go for the nifty fifty. It is cheap and it does a great job. You will get your money's worth from it I am sure.

Here are my basic camera settings.

So, pull out your camera manual book if you need to. These are the settings my camera is almost always on.

  • AF point selection: Manual Selection
  • Picture Style: Neutral
  • White Balance: Usually Shade, unless indoors in the evening. Then I switch to Tungsten or Fluorescent Light.
  • Metering Mode: Evaluative metering
  • Quality: RAW
  • AF Mode: One Shot
  • Drive Mode: Continuous shooting

These settings are basic setting you can adjust on your SLR camera to set you up for taking photos in manual mode.

Now, let's finally talk about manual mode.

Let's talk specifically about SHUTTER SPEED, APERTURE and ISO. These three work together to give your image the amount of light it needs for good exposure. In different lighting situations you will need to adjust these. Okay, let's break this down.

  • Shutter Speed: This is how fast your camera's shutter moves. The bigger the fraction, the slower it moves. (1/10 = slower, 1/500 = faster) When it moves slower, it lets in more light, because there is more time for light to come in. However, the slower it moves, the more likely your photos will be blurry, so you will want to find the sweet spot for each lighting scenario.
  • Aperture: This has to do with how big the lens opening is. All lenses have a limit of how big they can open. If you buy a lens labeled 1.8 35mm, your lens can open as big as 1.8. It can not open up to 1.4 or 1.2, which is a bigger opening. So the smaller the number, the bigger the opening. Imagine a circle window. The smaller the window is, the less light it can let in. The bigger the circle window is, the more light is can let in. Aperture also effect the depth of field. If you like photos with soft and blurred backgrounds (bokeh), you want a lens that can open up to a small aperture (1.2-2.8).
  • ISO: Basically, ISO is going to lighten or darken your photo. The smaller the number (100) the less light is gives. The bigger the number (3200), the more light it gives. However, the bigger the number you have, the more grainy your picture will become. Some people don't mind this, because that is their style. I try to avoid it, because I feel like it looses too much definition for my liking. I try to shoot photos when it is still light enough outside that I don't have to go higher than 800 ISO. If you are out on a sunny day, you are not going to need to have your ISO higher than 100-320, depending on shade, etc. If clouds are out, I will usually have my ISO set between 400-800.
  • Metering: Below is a picture of a camera with the camera meter circled in blue. To change your meter, you will have to adjust shutter speed, aperture or ISO. When you meter, there are a few things people choose to meter off of. I usually pick a person's skin. When I meter using their skin, I like to have the meter right on zero or just under. Like everything else, metering is something you are going to want to practice. Metering is going to change depending on your goal. If you are taking sunset photos with the sun in the background, you are going to find it is way off than what you might think. However, in most lighting situations, you want your metering dash to be close to or on the zero. Having the dash marked left of the zero means your photo will be under exposed (dark). Having the dash marked right of the zero means your photo will be over exposed (bright).
led screen of the back of a canon camera
camera metering on the top of a canon camera

So, how do shutter speed, aperture and ISO work together? Let's think of a couple scenarios.

Scenario 1: You choose to take photos on a sunny day an hour before sunset. The earth is giving lots of light for your camera to use. You are shooting a young family, so you want to keep a fast shutter speed at 1/500, so you don't have blurry photos. If you are like me, you already know you like to shoot with a large aperture, so your camera is set to 2.8. Since the day is bright you set your ISO to 100, then start metering and find your meter has dropped too low. So, what do you choose to adjust? Your shutter speed, aperture or ISO? In this situation, my camera only opens up to as big as a 2.8 aperture, so I can adjust that for more light. I would bump up my ISO, because I know it can brighten up my photo and I won't have to give up my guarantied in focus photos with my fast shutter speed.

Scenario 2: Let's say you are in a home doing a newborn session and the day happens to be cloudy. You will want to take photos near the windows for sure, but you also want to start by bumping your ISO up to maybe 800. Then lower your aperture and try for a shutter speed no slower than 1/200, if there are young kids. You will check your metering and make sure things are lined up. Take a picture. If your metering and photo are a little under-exposed, but not too much, I would continue with those settings. If your photo is too dark or bright make small adjustments until you get close to the settings you need and want. It is definitely a balancing act and you need to practice lots.

Homework Assignment:

  • First, adjust all the basic camera settings I listed above.

  • Second, go take pictures inside and outside and at different parts of your house, during the morning, afternoon and evening. Try it all. Take a photo, see what it is like and keep adjusting and getting your metering right. Try to practice this everyday this month or maybe just once a week, but make time for it. This needs to become second nature. Once you are comfortable shooting in manual mode, this will be a HUGE game changer in your photography skills.

And sorry this was such a long post. My hope is to provide helpful and simple steps to get you where you want to be in your photography journey. Take care!