Saturday, September 19, 2009

Camera Mumble Jumbo

If you are new to photography there are many terms that you likely read about, or see on your camera controls and you don't know what they mean or how to use them. The first thing I recommend is that you read your camera's manual. In fact I should dig out my own manual and read it again (and the manual for each one of my lenses and flash too).

Do you always shoot on fully automatic (green square mode on a Canon) but would like to improve your images? Time to start taking control. There are many things you can do that have nothing to do with your camera at all and those are very important too, but today I will focus on your camera controls.


Many cameras have a preset 'zone' - they are the ones that are upside down in the image above. Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports, Backlight, and No flash.  Read your manual to find out how to use those. What I have going to focus on is the 'creative zone' settings. And in particular P, Tv, Av, and M. (by the way, I know and use Canon dSLRs. If you have another make, the concepts will be similar but maybe under different names.)

P stands for program mode. This give you a tad more control over some parameters but still does many things for you. On a Canon, it lets you shot RAW format pictures rather than JPG. I you aren't shooting RAW, make a note as something to do someday. It also gives you control over ISO. The camera still makes choices over exposure settings. About the only time I use P mode is when doing indoor family snapshots.

Tv - is for Time Value. Often spoken about as shutter priority. What this means as that you get to directly control the shutter time. The camera will adjust the other major parameter, aperture, to give you proper exposure. (and perhaps it will adjust ISO as well, see the paragraph on ISO). Tv is good for when the most important aspect is controlling motion in your image. Do you want to make a waterfall like cotton candy? Then perhaps you would set your shutter to 1 or 2 seconds. This would let the water blur nicely. Use a tripod or be very well braced for this slow of a speed. Want to freeze the action in a soccer game? Then you might want to explore 1/500 or faster. These are just starting point suggestions. A lot of the values are influenced by the lighting at the time as well.

Av - is for Aperture Value. Since I don't do much sports, this is the setting I use a lot. The major thing this control is the Depth-of-Field, which I just discussed the other day. Wide open Apertures like f/1.4 or f/2.8 let lots of light into the lens and also means your backgrounds can be nicely simplified with a blurry feel. Those are nice for portraits. Small apertures like f/11 for f/16 are give a very deep depth-of-field and are good for landscapes or Macro images.

M - is for Manual. Some people think this also affects autofocus. It doesn't. See the paragraph below about focus. Manual mode gives you complete control over both Aperture and Shutter speed. This is useful when the subject of you picture has a fairly predictable brightness level but maybe the background might be changing. An example of this is you might be tracking a bird in flight overhead. As the bird flies past open sky, clouds and tress the background brightness changes a lot. But the bird does not. For most of us the bird will only be filling a fraction of the frame as well (because we can't afford a Long lens. By manually setting the exposure to properly expose the bird, it doesn't matter what is behind the bird.

Focus: With the modern Canon EOS system autofocus is controlled by the AF and MF switch on the lens barrel. This is true for all Canon lenses except the most esoteric ones, like the tilt-shift lenses (like this one, by the way if you have one of those I'd like to borrow it).

Take your camera out of the bag and try each one of those settings and learn how to change the values look at the differences it makes in your images. Don't wait until that time when you are in a once-in-a-lifetime  situation. Learn your equipment now.
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