How hard can it be to take a picture

I will try to demystify the complexities of taking a photo with this post, is it as complex as it might seem for a newcomer just wanting to take some beautiful pictures? and who doesn't understand all the technical terms that drifts on the air in the various photo communities. Some of the requests I have received suggests there is a need for that, so I'll give it a shot.

I believe that many with a modern DSLR experiences what many pilots also are experiencing namely information overflow, too much information for the pilots to safely fly the plane, but then there is always the autopilot (equals auto mode on the camera), and don't fear they are really good these days :)

To get everyone involved from the start, I will assume you know nothing about photography and go on from there, so please don't be offended and feel I'm talking down to anyone, I would not dream of it, Im just starting from scratch.

So the way I will approach this is to take it one step at a time and first go through the very basics and make it as simple as possible so you can get a clear picture of what is going on in the camera and what happens when you turn the various buttons and dials and how it affects the final photo.

How hard can it be to take a picture

Chapter 1

Aperture, Exposure and ISO

The following applies to any type or brand of camera you have or would buy.

No matter how many buttons and dials that are on your camera, these three things are the key things on it, Aperture, Exposure and ISO and many of the images that we today consider to be the best in the world is taken only by controlling two of them namely Aperture and Exposure.

In layman's terms:

Aperture: how big a hole the camera allows light to enter by.

          With a large hole, low f value, shallow depth of field, only a small part of the image is in focus

          With a small hole, high f value, large depth of field, both foreground and background in focus

          Lenses are determining this but we'll get to it in Chapter 3

Exposure: how long time the hole is open and lets light in.

          At a high shutter speed, lets you freeze a bird during landing

          At a slow shutter speed, lets you create beautiful light trail at night

ISO: how light sensitive the film or sensor is.

          High ISO lets you photograph your four years old on Christmas Eve

          Cranking up the ISO does come with a price, the higher the number the more grainy image

One could argue at least the first two did more or less the same thing added more or less light to the sensor or film, so why one and not the other, whereas the third is an electronic amplification of the sensor's light sensitivity in digital cameras, and chemical light sensitivity of the film in film cameras, kind of the same thing...right, but that's what photo is all about light, light and light, and how it is applied to the sensor or film.

I think getting these three things right is very important when it comes to the technical aspect of photography and once you have understood those properly, the rest of the technical details follows easily.

Since I am a graphic designer and photographer, you will almost be able to figure out that I am a big fan of visual learning so let's get some pictures and look at how the settings of the three parameters Aperture, Exposure and ISO have been on these and why.

Purple star

The goal of this picture was to get a macro picture with as shallow Depth of field (DOF) as possible

          Aperture: f 2.8

          Exposure: 1/50

          ISO: 800

Aperture

Set to as large a hole as possible, equal as low a value as possible f 2.8 with the equipment used (it is the lens that determines this number which  we will return to in chapter 3).

Exposure

Set to 1/50 of a second, it's really a  long exposure time  for handheld shots even with a camera that has image stabilization. If you are really good and have steady hands you can manage 1/30s but I would not recommend below 1/60s and if possible use your tripod with such long exposure times, but I know that if I'm lucky I can get down to 1/30s so I took the chance with this photo.

ISO

Set to 800 this is a high number and it will result in more noise, grainy image in some cameras, the
sweet spot  for most camera it is about 100 in my 160, but I had to turn it up to 800 to get a fast enough Exposure speed so it was possible to hold the camera by hand.

So what you have seen here is the dependence between the Aperture, Exposure and ISO relative to what you want to achieve, and as you will see in the following examples what you  can not get from one or two of the others, you can often borrow at the third, but there is a price to pay.


The summary of the settings in the picture must be

The value of the Aperture should be as low as possible, with this equipment it is f 2.8, so I could get the shallow depth of field I wanted.

There was very little light in the scene so I had to turn up the ISO to 800 so I could get the shutter speed down to 1/50s so I could hold the camera with my hand.

Is anyone down there

The goal of this picture was to catch the bird during landing

          Aperture: f 4.0

          Exposure: 1/1000

          ISO: 800

Aperture

Set to as large a hole as possible, equal as low a value as possible. f 4.0 with the equipment used

Exposure

Set to 1/1000s fast shutter speed to freeze the bird's movement in the air.

ISO

Set to ISO 800 to amplify light sensitivity enough so I could keep the fast shutter speed


The summary of the settings in the picture must be

In order to achieve the aim of this image, it was necessary to let as much light in as possible so therefore a large Aperture and to freeze the bird in motion a fast Exposure time is needed and in order to maintain that it was necessary to turn up the ISO to 800.

Out for a smoke

The goal of this last picture of this chapter was to catch the mood of a winter night in Sweden

          Aperture: f 5.6

          Exposure: 30s

          ISO: 160

Aperture

Set to f 5.6 to get a little more depth of field

Exposure

Set to 30 sek long exposure on a tripod 

ISO

Set to ISO 160 the sweet spot  for my  camera

The summary of the settings in the picture must be

Since this is a night shot and there is no motion in the picture you can set ISO to what is optimal for your camera and the Aperture to the value that gives you the depth of field you want and only worry about Exposure and make it long enough to get the image properly exposed. A good piece of advice is a stable tripod is very important for these long exposures.


I hope that this has helped some, I have tried to keep it as simple as possible without too much  technical gibberish, of course there is more to it than the above, but I think it is a good start and can help you to visualize what is going on in your camera, in understanding the relationship between Aperture, Exposure and ISO.

Next chapter will be about camera types and sensors, but until then go and shoot some pictures, the best way to learn and remember to have fun.

Chapter 2

Cameras, sensors and a lot of pixels

When it comes to talking about sensors, it is very easy to go propeller hat on the subject, but I will save that for a later project and will try my best as i did in Chapter 1 to keep it basic and simple.  

The lens and sensor on a camera are the two most important parts for the technical quality of the image and this chapter is mostly about sensors, but it's necessary to talk a little about cameras, not brands but types, and here I will mention and go through the four types most people know and use.

Please pay no attention to the brand in the following examples they are only chosen because it is what I have around me and use, and is not a testimony of the necessarily best available on the market, they are chosen for their example value alone.

 

What are pixels?

Each of the small squares you see in the picture represents a pixel and are the light emitting points (LEDs) you  are seeing on your screen right now and  together they are forming the picture. On the sensor it's, the number of photosensitive points which collects light and make the electronic representation of the image you are shooting and can be displayed on a screen or printed on paper.

The following examples is four test shots taken with different cameras under the exact same lighting conditions and with all the cameras in macro mode, in order to compare the importance of sensor sizes, and what we're looking for is, 1 dynamics, 2 depth of field (DOF), 3 low light performance and 4 ISO noise.


It should be mentioned already here that the lenses also have a significant impact on the sensor capability, but I will get into to that in Chapter 3.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II:

Lens: Canon Macro EF 100mm f 1:2.8 L IS USM

Lens: Canon Macro EF 100mm f 1:2.8 L IS USM

The actual size of a Full Frame sensor

The actual size of a Full Frame sensor

Light: 2 softboxes of approx. 700 watts each

Camera settings: Aperture f 2.8 Shutter speed: 1/125

ISO: 160

Light: 2 softboxes of approx. 700 watts each

Camera settings: Aperture f 2.8 Shutter speed: 1/500

ISO: 160

Light: 1 pen light

Camera settings: Aperture f 2.8 Shutter speed: 1/13

ISO: 160

Light: 1 pen light

Camera settings: Aperture f 2.8 Shutter speed: 1/30

ISO: 800

This camera has a large sensor (Full Frame) with 21.000.000 light sensitive pixels spread over 864mm2 a large surface that can receive a lot of light.

1  Good dynamics throughout the tonal range.

2  Good shallow deep of field and a beautiful fade.

3 Good low light performance and still maintain a large dynamic range.

4  Not much noise when amplifying the sensor's sensitivity to 800 ISO.

Konica Minolta DiMAGE A2:

Lens: 7.2-50.8mm f 1:2.8-3.5 7x optical zoom fixed lens

Lens: 7.2-50.8mm f 1:2.8-3.5 7x optical zoom fixed lens

The actual size of the sensor

The actual size of the sensor

Light: 2 softboxes of approx. 700 watts each

Camera settings: Aperture f 3.5 Shutter speed: 1/100

ISO: 64

Light: 2 softboxes of approx. 700 watts each

Camera settings: Aperture f 4.5 Shutter speed: 1/60

ISO: 64

Light: 1 pen light

Camera settings: Aperture f 3.5 Shutter speed: 1.0

ISO: 64

Light: 1 pen light

Camera settings: Aperture f 4.5 Shutter speed: 1/30

ISO: 800

This Compact Camera, which is a $1000 camera from 2003, I put in here to show two things, first that even a small sensor with good glass in front can do some good things, and second to show the noise this old sensor produce when you turn up the ISO to 800 which is the max.

The modern version of this type of camera has a much larger sensor, some even a Full Frame and good interchangeable lenses, a camera type, I think we will see much more of in the future.

1  Good dynamics throughout the tonal range.

2  A reasonable shallow deep of field, would have been better in more light, and it must be mentioned that the aperture only goes down to f 3.5 in macro mode, even in manual.

3 Not a good low light performance, but if on a tripod and you give it enough exposure, in this case an entire second and nobody moves, it still has good dynamics.

4  Here it ends in a disaster, even a good noise reduction filter would find it difficult to cope with this one, it is not useful to increase the ISO to more than 200 at this sensor, but it's also 10 years old,
a very long time in sensor years.

Canon IXUS 120 IS:

Lens: 5.0-20.0mm f 1:2.8-5.9 4x optical zoom

Lens: 5.0-20.0mm f 1:2.8-5.9 4x optical zoom

The actual size of the sensor

The actual size of the sensor

Light: 2 softboxes of approx. 700 watts each

Camera settings: Aperture f 2.8 Shutter speed: 1/80

ISO: 80

Light: 2 softboxes of approx. 700 watts each

Camera settings: Aperture f 2.8 Shutter speed: 1/400

ISO: 800

Light: 1 pen light

Camera settings: Aperture f 2.8 Shutter speed: 1/5

ISO: 80

Light: 1 pen light

Camera settings: Aperture f 2.8 Shutter speed: 1/40

ISO: 800

Now we are down to the very small sensors and it starts to have a cost, but I am impressed with how good they are, I know that not only is there 12.000.000 pixels on this small area but there are the same number of corresponding electronic circuits each of which produces noise, all electronic components in a  circuitry produce noise, still they managed to control it, and I know something about how difficult that is, this is jaw dropping technology!


These type of cameras I think has their future behind them, there's no real reason to buy such a camera when smart phone cameras has the quality that they have now, and are becoming better for each release, I don't think there are many who will carry both a compact camera and a camera phone.

1  Fairly good dynamics throughout the tonal range in good light.

2  Nice but not great shallow deep of field.

3 Reasonably good low light performance, but loses some of the dynamics in the tonal range.

4  Not much noise when amplifying the sensor's sensitivity to 800 ISO.

Samsung Galaxy Note:

Lens: a built-in wide angle f 2.7

Lens: a built-in wide angle f 2.7

The actual size of the sensor

The actual size of the sensor

Light: 2 softboxes of approx. 700 watts each

Camera settings: Aperture f 2.7 Shutter speed: 1/290

ISO: 100

Light: 2 softboxes of approx. 700 watts each

Camera settings: Aperture f 2.7 Shutter speed: 1/380

ISO: 100

Light: 1 pen light

Camera settings: Aperture f 2.7 Shutter speed: 1/19

ISO: 100

Light: 1 pen light

Camera settings: Aperture f 2.7 Shutter speed: 1/25

ISO: 800

This smartphone camera has the smallest sensor of the four, but after all they've got room for 8.000.000 pixels in this small area, and however they did it they got away with it in a good way.

1  Good dynamics throughout the tonal range.

2  Not so great shallow depth of field, but better than one would expect of a lens and sensor in this size.

3 Great low light performance for the sensor size.

4  Lower than expected noise for the sensor size, when amplifying the sensor's sensitivity to 800 ISO.


Summary:

I hope that what you got out of this chapter is that size does matter when it comes to sensors, but not so much when it comes to the number of pixels. I would also like if it told you that most modern cameras is able to take technical great pictures and if not "you're holding it wrong" :)


Next chapter will be about lenses.