The Basics of Photography: Part One

Photography is first and foremost about the ability to capture light. So the first thing we can look at is: what is light? What is this mysterious phenomena physics calls the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum? According to science, our eyes interpret the passage of the electromagnetic flows, and our brain assigns color to various nuances in wavelength, (390-700nm) giving us perception of color by utilizing three different kinds of receptors in the human eye.

In other words, the visible spectrum of light is the passage of electromagnetic flows, and their reflections, through the material world.

Secondly, the brain responds to shapes, composition, and previous memories of things it has seen. It adds another layer of interpretation over the brain’s deciphering of electromagnetic events the eye registers.

What we see in the outer world, and how we interact with what we see, moves us from simple perception into emotional states. What we see depends on our state of consciousness, and the emotional or cognitive context of shape and color. The context of shape and color can also trigger a psycho-emotional response within us. If light is fading, and you come across a discarded piece of rope on the road, your body may react as though you are seeing a snake about to attack you. If you witness the dawning of a day, your body responds as it always does each morning, with a surge of hopefulness, recognizing the joy of being alive. Light evokes, creates emotional responses, or directs our consciousness in certain directions.

If you are an energy healer, or sensitive to multiple dimensions of reality, you are also “seeing” the world through your “third eye”, you are unconsciously sensitive to alternate realities and events. This sensitivity will exist parallel to the visible light, and will influence your photography. In early photography, through the use of film, the hidden worlds around us would occasionally be captured by the camera, such as deceased individuals showing up in a photograph of a family. Digital photography has reduced the incidents of a bleed-through from the spirit world into the material world in which we live, possibly because sensor technology does not register light in the same way as a developed film roll would.

Capturing light requires a lens through which to focus and enhance it, utilizing the camera obscura mechanism and adding in either a chemical reaction to fix the image (film photography) or a digital image sensor that converts attenuated light into tiny electrical charges. Digital cameras today use either the Bayer filter sensor (Canon, Nikon, Sony, and others), or the X-Trans sensor favored by Fujifilm.

The image generated by camera sensors is constantly being improved, allowing for greater dynamic range and increasing sensitivity in low-light situations. Additionally, the size of the camera sensor has noticeable impact on image quality, although technology is rapidly removing many of the advantages larger sensors have had over smaller ones.

In a nutshell, the capturing of light is a mechanical event governed by the technology used by the camera to take the shot. In the end, an image is produced and captured, and it is up to the developer of that image to further enhance emotional and contextual meaning to what is captured in any moment. But that meaning begins to be applied in the seconds leading up to the shutter release button, not at the point the image is captured. In a powerful albeit subtle marriage, the intent and art of the photographer blends with the mechanical capture of digital information, and further refined during the post-processing at a later time. Art is produced by interaction with the camera and the subject, and not as a casual byproduct of the camera alone.

What do you need to take a photograph?

A digital camera body. The camera will include a built-in light meter (to assess exposure values for you), manual and auto focusing options, and an LCD screen to help both compose and to review your photograph. It will probably be either a full frame camera (equivalent to a 35mm film camera) or an APS-C sensor camera, although much smaller sensors can be found, such as in mobile phone cameras.

A lens (your choices are a prime or fixed-focal length lens, or the convenient zoom, a variable-focal length lens)

A tripod to steady your camera and lens, or sensor stabilization technology where the camera or lens corrects for image shaking at longer focal lengths (135mm and above) during handheld shots. A photography beanbag can also be used to steady your lens.

Lens Filters to modify the ambient light, such as polarizing filters to reduce glare, or light-level reducing (ND) filters to adjust the shutter speed in certain situations.

Light modification tools, such as speed lights, to illuminate your subject in low-light situations, or to induce creative light and shadow effects into your composition.

An understanding of how the three aspects of your camera work together to give you your intended result. These are:

Aperture size

Shutter speed

ISO or sensor sensitivity limitation

If you are a beginning photographer don’t be intimidated by this as your camera has been programmed to make standard choices for you, albeit once you tell it what you want. Aperture priority mode will adjust your camera around your decision about the aperture size of your lens. Shutter speed mode will adjust the aperture and ISO in order to make the shot possible by freezing motion, avoiding shaky photographs. You can also adjust the ISO or sensor sensitivity settings according to your needs, to eliminate ugly digital noise in your shot that creeps in at low light levels.

Finally, most cameras come with a zoom lens that cover the most useful focal lengths: from wide-angle (16-24mm) for landscapes, to normal vision viewpoints (35-50mm), for portrait use (70-135mm), macro use (90-100mm designed for macro) and higher focal lengths for sports and wildlife shooting (200-400mm, and beyond).

Use your camera phone!

In fact, to start out with photography you don’t even need to own a camera. Your mobile phone and other devices will probably have a basic-level camera and fixed-focal length lens built into it. Mobile phone cameras are an ideal way to begin photography.
Once you are familiar with the basic triangle of camera function – Aperture, shutter speed, ISO – you are better served in shooting as much as possible in manual mode, reserving the programmed modes for casual snap shot shooting, or for high-speed shots that require autofocus of a moving subject, as in wildlife photography.

The joy of photography

If you are a beginner to photography, now is the time to pick up your mobile phone with built in camera, or your digital camera, and go outside your home to photograph something. Anything at all. Play with the programmed modes, with a view to understanding the exposure triangle of Aperture size, Shutter speed, and ISO sensitivity. Push the technology you have to its limits, and see what it is capable of capturing in your everyday world. Then, download the photographs from the camera memory card into a computer software program that allows you to view, to crop, and to creatively modify, your photographs. If your camera allows it, shoot in both the RAW format and in a jpeg version.

The four areas of photography to start with are: landscapes or natural settings, city shots or street photography, portraits or making a flattering photograph of another human (or pet), and macro photography, close-up shots of interesting objects.

Try out a few shots of each genre, and see what captures the interest of your creative eye. Then, play around with the exposure triangle and see what is possible with different apertures, and various shutter speeds. Don’t stop until you have at least one photograph that you enjoy looking at, or that moves you. Then, show your photos to others, or post them on social media. Photographs are to be shared, rather than hoarded. And, most of all, have fun interacting with our amazing world, and freezing moments of life in time with your shots.

(c) 2018 by Dean Ramsden. All rights reserved.

This article is the second in a series. Go here for the first article.

The third article in this series: my personal journey, gear, and preferences. Coming Soon.