Photography basics and DSLRs explained
This post is meant for people who just bought a DSLR and would like a simple, down to earth explanation in plain english, a guide if you wish, for their new acquisition.
A post like this would have helped me a lot back in the day, when I first held a DSLR and was tremendously intimidated by all the gizmos, numbers and settings on it.
Didn’t know what to do with the thing. I knew it had great potential, that this “complicated thing” in my hands is capable of capturing great images in far superior quality than a point & shoot. I wanted to use it as soon as possible, but there were all these barriers I plan to clear out for you, dear reader, so you can start taking advantage of your DSLRs and take\make better pictures as soon as possible!
So let’s get down and dirty. This is my camera. There are many like it, but this one is mine :)
What does “DSLR” mean? Those 4 mysterious words: Digital Single Lens Reflex.
The word digital hopefully doesn’t need any explanation. Single Lens Reflex, well I guess this does. In order to have a clean concept, we’ll take things one step at a time, stair by stair so you leave with a firm understanding of things.
What are a DSLR camera’s basic building blocks?
If we want to break it down really simple, its made up of two things: Camera body & Lens.
I. CAMERA BODY
We’ll start with the “Single Lens Reflex” thingy’, which is a mechanism in the camera’s body. What is the camera’s body made up of? Simple building blocks: 1. Image sensor, 2. Mirror, 3. Shutter, 4. Pentaprism, 5. Viewfinder. Don’t worry, we’ll take a look at each of those in a bit.
There’s the big “hole“, where you attach the lens to the camera body (where you mount the lens), trough which, light enters the camera. Than as light enters the camera body, it hits a mirror that reflects light to this thing called “pentaprism” that reflects the image to the viewfinder where you see the image (the little hole you look into on the back of your camera).
:meeting: Ummm, mister! What’s a pentaprism?
A pentaprism is a five-sided reflecting prism used to deviate a beam of light by 90 degrees. The light reflects inside the prism twice.
Single lens reflex thing refers to this mechanism. Let’s see what happens in the camera body when you press the button. The mirror that we talked about earlier swings upward (this being the reason why you can’t see anything trough the viewfinder when you press the button and take a picture on DSLRs), something (we’ll talk about later) happens in the lens, the shutter which is behind the mirror (imagine this as a curtain in front of the sensor), get’s out of the way so light can reach the sensor (hiding behind the shutter), and thus capture it. An image is light captured on the sensor.
Recap: Mirror lifts, shutter (curtain) opens, light reaches the sensor, woala you have the image saved on to your memory card / film. Afterward, shutter closes, mirror swings down to place and you’re ready to shoot again.
All this happens automatically over a period of milliseconds. Most cameras are able to do this (depending on how much you spend on them), in 3 to 10 times/second.
There’s this “shutter mechanism” that’s like the camera’s :heart: heart. When this stops working, your camera “dies”. Sure, it is fixable but it’s almost as expensive as buying a brand new camera so nobody bothers with it. The life span of your shutter mechanism, again, depends on how much you spend on your camera, which brings me to another little interesting fact about Canon cameras that I’d like to mention.
Canon categorizes it’s cameras in three main categories. Amateur (1), middle range aka Semi Pro (2), and Professional (3). You can identify them by looking at the markings, numbers on a camera. Usually bottom right (left) side (depending from where you view it) on Canon cameras. Example below:
You can identify category one cameras by the three digits followed by a “D“. The “D” stands for digital. Example: 400D. When youu see a xxxD, you instantly know it’s a category one camera. Example: 300D, 350D, 400D … and the latest, when this article was wrote, the 550D.
The Semi Pro range cameras have two digits. Example: xxD, 30D, 40D and so on.
Professional cameras, yeah you guessed it, have one digit xD. Example: 5D, 1D, 7D. Lately Canon introduced four digit models, called entry level, (1000D) but just to be clear the 1000D has about almost the same skill-set as a 400D so… go figure, marketing.
The borders between all of the above is starting to blur but the point I wanted to make, going back to the original subject, the shutter mechanism. The toughness/life span of your shutter mechanism depends on what category camera you buy (how much you spend).
I don’t know all the facts and numbers, but I know that a category one, Canon 400D’s average shutter-mechanism life span is somewhere around ~ 50,000 shots. Five cycles, each of 9999 images/cycle. This doesn’t mean it will instantly die when it reaches that number. It may die sooner, or even be capable of pulling off much more but the average life span of the mechanism in this particular category is 5 cycles.
Last thing we’ll talk about here is that with modern DSLR-s you also have the option to see the image, not only trough the viewfinder but also on your LCD display on the back of your camera. This relatively new feature is called “live view“.
The advantage of this, compared to looking trough the viewfinder is that you see the final result. The image as it’ll be captured. What you’ll see on your computer screen after downloading the images from your camera. You rarely see people with point & shoot cameras looking trough the viewfinder and you rarely see people with DSLRs not looking trough the viewfinder :) This trend is changing. You rarely see people with point and shoot-s anymore and you rarely see people with DSLR-s shooting trough the viewfinder.
Since DSLR prices dropped and have the live view feature, you can see the number of people choosing live view, grow rapidly. Looking at a “big” LCD display on the back of the camera beats the small viewfinder I guess. This feature is useful if you shoot video and you need to focus more precisely, but at the end of the day when it comes to photography I think people are just lazy. I know it’s tempting, but I don’t recommend it, here’s why:
When you look trough the viewfinder you see what’s in front of you like you normally would with your eyes. You’re looking trough a glass basically. In order to take a good picture, expose it properly, you have to set up your camera, picture / anticipate (with your mind’s eye) how the final result will look. This of course, if you’re not shooting in full auto mode, but why buy a DSLR if you’re planning on using it like a point & shoot camera? You will never be able to truly take advantage of your camera’s full potential in full auto mode!!
I advise you to use the viewfinder, that’s how you’ll really learn. I’m not sayin’ not to play with live view, until you understand, practice the basics, but if you really want to be good at this craft, forget about it and start learning, train your mind’s eye as soon and as much as possible. Use the viewfinder ;)
This is something that takes effort, practice, time and patience but it’s worth it I tell ya’. We’re all lazy and want instant results in this fast paced world, but it doesn’t work like that. Just like laying in bed and eating chocolate won’t result in you loosing weight.
(image above, courtesy of dpreview)
(image above, courtesy of dpreview)
Next we’ll talk about the camera’s sensor. Camera sensors are hid behind the shutter which is behind the mirror which is behind the attached lens as we learned. It is a light sensitive piece of equipment. It works based on the same principles our eyes do.
Our image sensors (eyes), have cone-shaped cells inside that are sensitive to red, green and blue. The primary colors. We perceive every other color as a combination of these three primary colors.
Camera sensors have three sensor layers that measure the primary colors and combined woala’ you have your digital image. It’s made up of a mosaic of squares, called pixels. These are very small, in-fact so small they appear uniform an smooth.
Mumbo-jumbo aside, the sensor is made up of pixels. It’s light sensitive. When you talk about light sensitivity (of your sensor) you talk about “ISO“. The ISO setting sets the degree of light sensitivity of the camera’s sensor.
The higher the ISO number the higher the sensor’s sensitivity to light. Lower ISO (sensor sensitivity), requires more time / light. High ISO means, the sensor, recording information / capturing an image requires a shorter time. Let’s clear this up with some examples:
Think of the camera’s sensor this way: Imagine a dark room with a BIG window, with ten black curtains in front of the window. Each curtain stacked one before the other blocks light from entering the room completely, 100%.
Now imagine Count Dracula in the room. :vampire: He is your camera sensor :)
High ISO is means pulling away all the curtains very fast and letting sunlight in the room, thus burning Dracula almost instantly. Setting your camera to a low ISO setting is like pulling away only 1-2 curtains so it takes more time to burn Mr. Dracula ;)
Note: The higher the ISO the noisier, grainier the picture. Remember Dracula! High ISO, ugly sunburns with unequal spots, low ISO, nice equal, Halle Berry skin kind-of-a burn.
Side note: This phenomenon is valid for both film and digital photography, alltho’ there’s a slight difference between the quality of the noise/grain. Film grain is somehow prettier :) (some say).
When shooting with an analog film camera, your film is the sensor. In digital cameras you can change the sensor’s light sensitivity (ISO) very fast with the push of a button, while with analog cameras you have to change the film, which is not pleasant, nor a fast process.
Recap: When increasing the sensitivity (ISO), the output of the sensor is amplified, so less light is needed. Unfortunately that also amplifies the undesired noise, that’s why you should avoid high ISO settings whenever possible. But maybe you fancy the noise. Maybe it gives you the look you are chasing. There are no rules here. Who saz’ there are, are dinosaurs. Don’t pay attention to them.
Next, full frame sensor (essentials). Full frame sensors are the modern day equal of 35 mm film (36×24 mm) frame.
The image above shows you the difference. APS-C stands for Advanced Photo System type-C. (In Canon’s lineup only the 5D and higher like the 1D have a full frame sensor). What they mean by that and what it truly is: Cheaper, budget versions of a normal “full frame” sensor aka 35 mm film. (This doesn’t mean they are bad. It mainly means less dept of field. The full frame sensors are superior, that’s why they’re also more expensive).
A lens you use on a non-full frame camera will be a new experience on full frame. On cameras with smaller sensors there’s a crop factor. On a 400D for example, you have a 1.6x crop factor. We’ll be discussing focal length later on, for now if I already mentioned it, focal length is the distance measured in mm-s from the optical center of the lens to the focal point (sensor or film).
Last thing we haven’t discussed is the shutter, shutter speed. Remember Dracula? The curtain? The curtain is the shutter. With DSLR-s you can set the speed of this “curtain” and by this, control how long the image sensor is exposed to light! When you see something like “1/250” or “1/80” or “1/8” or “1/4000“, know that this is the shutter’s speed setting.
The “1” stands for one second “/” divided to “x number“. So when you see 1/250, it means the shutter opens and gives light access to the sensor for 1/250’th of a second. 1:250 equals 0.004 seconds, 1/4000 equals 0.00025 seconds, and so on.
You can also set the shutter to stay open for multiple seconds (even minutes) if you or the situation demands it. When you see 0″8, 1, 6, you know that’s seconds. If you see for example 6, that means the shutter is set to stay open, exposing the sensor to light for 6 seconds. It’s that easy. You’ll get the hang of it, trust me ;)
Recap: 1/80 is one 80’th of a second, 6″ is six seconds.
II. CAMERA LENS
Now that we know what’s inside our DSLR and also the basic concepts based upon which it works. Let’s move on to the interchangeable parts, the LENS! :party:
Interchangeable, yes and the good thing about them, most of them anyways is that they can be mounted on whatever category camera you use. The lens you use on your xxxD camera will be a new experience as I mentioned before on a professional, full frame camera. We’ll also introduce aperture.
Remember, we talked about something happening in the lens when taking a picture? Well that was the “aperture“. Think of it as an opening. Also referred to as “f-stop“, “f“.
Before we go into dissecting, let’s take a look at what components a lens is made up of? Pretty simple compared to a camera’s body, it’s Glass (made from sand btw among other things), aperture mechanism, some electronics, metals and plastic.
What is this aperture thing? It’s a set of blades that by rotating can create an opening, a “door” for the light to pass. You might have seen aperture-mechanism-like-doors in science fiction movies. Multiple blades that rotate and open, close. Here’s an sketch:
The example above is only a reference in order for you to have a general idea about the mechanism’s function. It serves as the pupil in the human eye. Let’s say you are outside on a sunny day. Take a look at other people’s eyes or your own if you have a mirror. See how small the little opening / black hole (called pupillary) is? Now do the same thing at night or in a dark room, where there’s very weak light. The opening in the middle of the eye adjusts, opens up to let in more light.
In a low light situation the opening in the eye opens wide in order to let more light into the eyes. In a situation where there’s plenty of light, let’s say a sunny summer day outside, the opening narrows down. Same thing happens in cameras. Aperture controls how much light enters the camera trough the lens. The size, or opening of the aperture also controls depth of field in an image but we’ll get to that after the break.
When you see an “f“, know that the setting has to do with the aperture, the opening of the lens.
Recap: Aperture = a hole, an opening, that lets light in your camera.
Let’s take a look at another few examples of aperture settings. At first it may seem a little hard to get a handle on but it’ll burn in when you start using it.
You’ll see f/1.2, f/2.8, f /8, f/32 and so on an so forth. What’s tricky to get into your head is this: The smaller the number the bigger the opening. f/1.2 is a very big, wide opening, while setting the aperture to f/32 results in the blades forming a very small hole. Big number equals small opening, small number means big opening … yeah I know, I felt the same way you probably do now, when I was first greeted with this info, I was like what?! :eek:
Big (aperture number) hole/opening, letting in more light is represented by a small f number. Ex: f/1
Small (aperture number) hole/opening, letting in less light is represented by a big f number. Ex: f/32
I know it seems irrational and complicated, especially if you think about the rest we talked about earlier, your brain is probably hurting by now. Urging you to stop reading this crap and play tetris or watch The Jace Hall Show or something, anything but this … trust me, with time and practice you’ll get the hang of it! ;)
Why I keep repeating myself is so you get these concepts right from the start, so there’ll be no confusions later.
The sooner you learn these the better. You only have to understand the three things we talked about: ISO (camera sensor’s light sensitivity setting), shutter speed (you know, the curtain thing, 1/250) and aperture (opening of the lens) and the connection between them. When you have a firm understanding of these you can start your journey, start to express yourself and your vision trough the photos you take.
You have to get to a point where your camera will be like one of your limbs. Second nature. You won’t think about the settings or where this or that button is, everything will work instinctively. As I said before, second nature, so you can focus on more important things like capturing the moment, composing and correctly exposing it so that the final result will make people’s jaws drop, get you with 40 virgins and last but not least filthy rich :P beyond your imagination. :yes: :)
Hopefully you won’t stop here and give up like a pussy, sayin’: fuck you guys, I’m going back to my point & shoot camera. ISO, light sensitivity, aperture, shutter, curtains, Dracula?!?! I can’t take it anymore!!!! Push, click, woala’ I have an image, what’s all this crap for?!?! I had enough of this nightmare!
Slap-slap :hypnotized: , snap out of it! Where were we? Oh yeah, aperture!
f/32 (big f-number), small opening, less light.
f/1 (small f-number), big opening, more light.
I can’t bash and flood your brain with this enough times :) & don’t worry if you don’t get the hang of it right from the start, very few people do and as I said before, the ones who say they did… lie! It takes practice and some hands-on experience …and oh yeah, another thing aperture controls… dept of field! Very important.
Take a look at the following:
(big opening / smaller / even smaller)
Top view and front view of three human heads and the effect of the different aperture settings, how they affect dept of field in an image. f/1.8 very narrow depth of field because of the big opening. f/8 smaller opening, resulting in having more things in focus.
The bigger the opening (small “f” number) the narrower the DOF (dept of field), small portion of the image/subject in focus.
The smaller the opening (big “f” number) the wider, deeper the DOF. As you increase the number, more things come into focus.
(f/1.8, big opening, narrow DOF)
(f/22, small opening, more things in focus)
…and that about raps it up when it comes to lens. You have a couple of glass elements, the aperture mechanism, some electronics, wrapped in a plastic & metal casing with connectors usually made out of gold. Don’t get to excited tho’ :) only the small bumps where the lens connects electronically to the body to transfer the (exif) data (time, date, the camera settings used to capture the image, lens data, aperture settings, copyright information, even GPS data… that kind of stuff. All these get embedded into your image so you can view them on your computer later on, neat huh? :) ).
One last thing. There are a few different types of lens for you to choose from and spend kazillion hard earned dallaz’ on. You’ll hear people talking about lens that fit into one of the following categories: prime, zoom, tilt & shift and so on. I suggest we focus on the first two for now, prime and zoom lens… your first lens will (probably) be a zoom lens anyhows’. They are the most inexpensive and allow you to cover a wide variety of situations… usually are inferior when compared to prime (fixed focal length) lens in regards of both, build and image quality but we’ll go there later on, probably at the end, where I’ll share my humble, personal experience with cameras & lens.
This about raps it up folks!
These were the basic need to knows about a DSLR camera components and functionality concepts. Let’s move on shall we?!
Just like in real life, everything is connected, which brings us (finally) to the delicate connection between aperture, shutter speed and ISO…
III. THE DELICATE CONNECTION BETWEEN ISO, APERTURE AND SHUTTER SPEED
Also known as the exposure triangle. What? Triangle? How do these three things connect?
With any DSLR you can shoot the same image in (at least) three different ways, juggling with these three settings that are at your disposal.
Let’s say we’re shooting a landscape. We set our aperture to let’s say f/8. That’s one down two to go. Now we shoot the first picture with an ISO setting of 200 and a shutter speed of 1/160 (a time period of 0.0062 seconds). We have our first image.
Now, we take our second shot. We’ll leave the aperture at f/8. but we’ll set our ISO to 800 and set our shutter speed accordingly, to 1/2000 (this means 0.0005 seconds). We have another identical image but taken with different settings.
In order to get a purrty’ :rainbow: , correctly exposed photographs, you need to play with these three settings. You lost me right? :) No problem, carry on.
I don’t know about you but I’m a visual kind-a-type-of guy, I like examples so let’s see a couple. Let’s say you have a chart with three bars and those three bars combined need to give you 100%, so if you have bar A, B and C for example if A is 30%, B 60%, C can only be 10%. You can choose to set them as follows, resulting in the same 100%, A 30% but B 45% so C will be 25%.
This is kind of how ISO, shutter speed and aperture relate to one another. If you change one, you will probably have to change the other, they are all connected and all are crucial when it comes to results. This is how you should think of the connection between them. Some more examples + the triangle I mentioned before, this is how it looks like:
If you stop for a second and think about it, it isn’t so complicated (ok, maybe it is, if you only read about these things and didn’t actually take a couple hundred images with your DSLR yet but hey, that’s why you’re here reading this for).
The wider your lens is open, (remember small “f” stop, big opening) the more light comes in the camera (reaching your sensor) ergo, less time is required to capture an image (shutter speed).
Same with the other two. The higher the ISO number (sensitivity to light) the less time is required to (burn Dracula) capture a correctly exposed image.
Shutter speed, same story, the longer the shutter is open (slow shutter speed), the more light comes in. Fast shutter speed > less light and so on.
When you take a picture, expose an image, you juggle with these three.
:meeting: Hey dude, what’s this exposure thing you keep talking about?
Yeah, my bad. Exposure is the amount of light received by the sensor (film), determined by the combination of the three things I bashed and harassed your brain with ’till now. Aperture, how wide you open the lens’s aperture. Shutter speed, how long you keep the sensor exposed to light… and ISO, the degree of sensitivity to light, of the sensor. Simple, see?
:meeting: Umm, ok, how do I know I have a correctly exposed image? Give me examples. I want to see photos man! Enough with this theory crap.
First option is to look at the picture you took. If it’s too dark it’s under-exposed. If it’s burned out, it’s over-exposed. If it’s in between these two it’s probably correctly exposed. If you want to dig deeper and go beyond what your eyes see and want to see the truth about your exposing skills you check your histogram.
(example of over-exposure)
(a little under-exposed)
(example of an decent exposure)
(example of an under-exposed image)
These images are, of course exaggerated and the histogram is awful but they are here, just so you get the main idea.
:meeting: Um, ok. What’s a histogram?
Well this is what a histogram looks like.
You can go back to the images above and take a look at them again. You have the histogram in the bottom right of each image. Example: Let’s take a look at the mosaic below. Tiles which we will sort by color and than stack them up accordingly. The more we have of one particular color, the higher the stack. Under the mosaic we have a histogram. The histogram represent the color distribution of the colors in an image.
An digital image is basically a mosaic of tiled squares called pixels (remember our talk about the camera’s sensor?) which are so small that they appear uniform and smooth.
(random digital image)
(if you enlarge it, you’ll see what it’s made up of, yepp, you guessed it, a tile of square pixels!)
If you look at the histograms of the images above where we talked about exposure, you don’t see colors in the histogram. You see black “mountain like shapes“. Why is that you might ask?
256 levels of brightness from black to white. Black being 0 (left side) and white being 255 (right side). This gives us 254 levels of gray in between. Just like we did in the colored mosaic example, the camera automatically sorts the pixels of an image into 256 levels of brightness. The more bright colors you have in an image, the more higher the bar gets in that area of the histogram, so yeah, the height of each bar making up the “mountains” in the histogram is given by how many pixels of a certain brightness level are in that area. We can also choose to sort them by color (red, green and blue or cmyk). This is how a version of that looks like:
Giving you information on how much detail, how much data/information you have, and where. Midtones, shadows & highlights. Below you’ll find some images. Shot with different settings to demonstrate the things we talked about when we discussed the exposure triangle.
(aperture: f/8, shutter speed: 0.4, iso: 1600)
(aperture: f/8, shutter speed: 6, iso: 100)
(aperture: f/1.8, shutter speed: 0.4, iso: 100)
(aperture: f/22, shutter speed: 13, iso: 400)
If everything went well, by now you should have a firm, basic understanding of your camera, lens, exposure and dept of field. The hard part is over and we’re almost ready folks!! :sun: Let’s move on to all those numbers and signs on your camera and lens. What do they mean.
IV. APPLYING CONCEPTS. MEANINGS OF THE “CARVINGS” ON YOUR CAMERA AND LENS
How to communicate with your camera. Let’s say you just unpacked your brand new fresh & funky DSLR camera. Let’s say you didn’t buy it with a kit lens (that you will, in the near future put back in it’s original box & will never use again nor will you be able to sell it cuz nobody want’s that useless piece of 18-55 mm sh*t). Let’s say you bought a body and a separate lens you fancied, or an experienced friend recommended .
You have everything unpacked and you’re ready & eager to go. You know all the theory, now you need to practice it but in order to do that you need to be able to communicate with your gear. You have to know what’s what. Where and how to set it up. We’ll look at that now.
First you take off the lens cap from the bottom of your lens. You have to rotate it, clock (or counter clock) wise. It’s only a plastic cover protecting the lens and the connectors on it, be gentle tho’.
Than, when you’re ready with that, you search for a red (or white) dot on the lens. Interesting fact: the luxury category lens, in Canon‘s lineup, have a red line ’round the lens (that pops out & almost burns your eyes + shouts: the owner of this lens is filthy rich).
This is how your lens without the lens cap should look like, and by now you probably found the red dot I was talking about. Now, fast and carefully, you take the cap off from the camera’s body (“big hole“). That’s where you’ll mount the lens. You should be looking at something similar to this:
:meeting: Why should I do this fast Mister? To avoid dust and :poop: poop like that getting in the camera body, eventually on the sensor or inside the lens, that’s why. A small piece of dust either in the camera or in/on the lens can seriously mess with your images.
Let’s say you have the camera facing you like on the picture above. What you need to do is: take the lens, turn it around so the bottom of the lens (from where you took the lens cap off) faces the camera’s “big hole” :) and put the lens on top of the hole, guided by the red dot on the body and the red dot on the lens. The only way the lens will properly connect, is if the red dots are aligned.
When you’re done with that, turn/rotate the lens to the right (clockwise) until you hear and feel a “click“. By than you should have your lens, properly attached to your camera’s body! Hurrraaay congratulations!! :party:
Ok, but now you might ask yourself, how do you take it off in case you have another lens and you want to mount? All you have to do is:
Push the button I point out on the image above and rotate the lens counter clockwise slowly. This is about it. Nothing complicated. Might seem complicated at the start but, soon you’ll be changing lens like you change… I dunno’, wallpapers on your computer… diapers, condoms, girlfriends, underwear, -insert whatever here-. The only thing you have to be careful about is, that when you change lens, do it carefully and fast in a preferably clean, dust-free environment. You don’t want to damage the connectors on the camera or the lens, nor do you want dust or dirt in your lens or on your sensor, mirror, whatever. A small piece of dust that you might not even see, can end up looking like a big dark magnified spot on all your images. Like here:
:meeting: Hey Mister! Why do I need a lens in the first place? Why can’t I just take pictures without the lens?
Well, the answer is, because the lens projects part of the scene onto the sensor (/film). It’s like wanting to see without a pupil, kind-of, in lack of a better example. The lens is your optics, the body is like… the inside of your eye, the back of it being the sensor, where the image reflects.
Are you still with me? I hope I get trough to you with all these examples somehow.
Don’t believe me? Go ahead, take off your lens and take a shot without a lens attached and see what the resulting image looks like. I tried it to. It’s the best way to learn. It’s like baby vision. :)
Let’s get back on track and focus. Lens, carvings, signs.
Take a random zoom or prime lens as an example. First of all, what’s the difference?
Prime lens have a fixed focal length.
In the case of a zoom lens, your focal length changes as you zoom.
What will you find on a lens?
A focus ring, a zoom ring (in the case of zoom lens), auto/manual focus switch and a lock switch (zoom lens).
Let’s take this “Canon 50 mm f/1.8 II” lens, that you see on the right. The box that it came in I mean. What do all those numbers and letters mean?
50mm – this is the focal length of the lens. There’s a distance of 50 mm between the lens’s optical center and the sensor.
f/1.8 – this tells you how wide it can open. It’s aperture capability. The smaller the number the better and usually more expensive the lens.
Don’t be surprised if someone uses the expression, “speed of the lens“, “fast lens“. If you think about it. The bigger the opening… allowing more light to enter… equals… less time required to capture the image, meaning it’s fast. See? It’s easy.
II – well this only means “mark two“, second generation of Canon’s 50mm, f/1.8 legendary lens. Why legendary? It’s Canon’s cheapest lens and for what it’s worth it’s a great bargain. A must have! Moving on, let’s take a look at a zoom lens:
The zoom range of this particular lens as you can see is “28-200“. This means the minimum focal length is 28 mm from the sensor and the maximum is 200 mm. Next important carving that you’ll see on the next image is: “1:3.8-5.6“.
This, as you hopefully know by now, has something to do with aperture. It’s a cheaper zoom lens, that’s why there are two numbers on it, not just one like on the (prime) lens we looked at before, from Canon. There are, naturally zoom lens that only have one number, meaning they can be used at maximum aperture trough the full focal length of the lens. These usually cost more pennies.
When the lens above is at a focal length of 28 mm, the maximum aperture, (the widest opening the lens is capable of) is f/3.8.
When you zoom it to the max, at a focal length of 200 mm the maximum aperture (the widest it can open) is f/5.6.
So, that’s the Tamron 28-200, 3.8-5.6 lens.
At 28 mm the biggest opening it’s capable of is: f/3.8. At 200 mm it’s: f/5.6. As you can see, as you zoom (change the focal length) the lens slows down. That about covers it. Now you’ll be able to read any lens you come across.
:meeting: How do I turn my camera on?
Pretty easy. You search for on/off “carvings” and flip the switch. :) That’s where you’ll also be greeted by a dial with strange symbols and letters on it:
Before going into describing those, I’d just like to mention a symbol (followed by some numbers). This symbol resembles a little flower, and refers to macro. You can also see it among the symbols on the dial. What does it mean on the lens? The numbers given next to this symbol on the lens tell you the minimum focusing distance. The minimum distance from which the lens can focus. In the case presented above, this distance is 0.45 meters (1.5 ft). If you try to focus on something that’s closer than that range (0.45 m from the lens)… well it’s in-vain.
The dial and the different modes you can set:
First, the rectangle shape. In this mode the camera is in full automatic mode. Everything is calculated / guessed by the camera, you only have to press the button.
What you see under this symbol, are all automated modes, for a specific setting. First under the full auto mode is a symbol that looks like a face. This is for portraits. Under that, mountain and a cloud like symbol, this is for landscapes, followed by macro, sports, night shots and auto-no-flash mode. In this mode the camera tries to take the shot with the flash excluded as an option. It tries to get the best result without the use of flash.
The modes you’ll find above the fully automated mode, are much more interesting.
The first one: “P”
This is very similar to full auto mode, but you can set ISO and another couple of things manually.
Next one: “Tv”
A mode called Shutter Priority. “T“, I guess comes from “time“. In this mode your camera is in “semi” auto mode, meaning all you have to set is the shutter speed. The camera handles the rest (ISO & aperture).
Aperture Priority. In this mode, you only have to bother with setting the desired opening. Shutter speeds and ISO are set accordingly, by the camera.
The best one: “M”
Manual, FULL MANUAL mode. Master mode as some joke about it :) If you want to have a steep, fast learning curve I suggest, you turn the dial to this mode and leave it there. Practice-practice-practice. That’s what I did. This mode makes you learn all the buttons, settings, makes you understand the concepts we talked about. Teaches you to take full advantage of your camera/gear. Sure, you’ll miss a couple of shots, that’s for sure, but if you push yourself in this mode, trust me, with time it will be rewarding. You will not only have a firm understanding of how things work in real-life situations but you’ll be good at it and more importantly, you’ll be fast. This mode makes you think. Trains your mind’s eye!
The last one: Never used it. It’s called Automatic Dept Of Field. Setting the camera to this mode from what I’ve read, is useful when you shoot a group of people. The camera ensures that all the subjects covered by the focusing points, close or far from the camera, are sharp (within the DOF).
This is about it. Full manual mode rules. You don’t even have to look at the buttons, fastest way to get to know your camera, thus operating it becomes second nature. This is how I use my camera 99% of the time. Sometimes I switch to aperture priority (av) but that’s about it.
Next thing we’ll discuss is the little dial next to the viewfinder (adjuster dial). Take a look in your viewfinder and try to turn the dial, up or down. This helps you set up the optics of the viewfinder to match you eye’s diopters. This is set up correctly when you look into the viewfinder and those little rectangles with dots in them are sharp/in focus. What looks sharp in the viewfinder when you focus will be sharp when you take the shot. If you don’t set this up, you might find that what seemed to be in focus trough the viewfinder was not what was in focus in real life, so this is one of the first things I recommend you, to have set up. It’s really important. Have you ever tried on grandma’s glasses? You’ll have the same experience looking trough the viewfinder if you don’t set it up correctly to your individual needs, eyes.
Next, we look at what you’ll see if you look into the viewfinder.
Most important, the focus points. This particular camera has 9. This varies depending on what camera you buy. For me it doesn’t really matter I only use one :) The rest of the indicators are pretty obvious. I recommend reading the chapter that describes these in detail, in the manual that comes with the camera. The important ones are the exposure level, aperture and shutter speed, indicators. Maybe the focus information bulb on the far right. This last one blinks if the camera/lens can’t or didn’t focus. In fact if it blinks the camera will refuse to take the shot if the lens is in auto-focus mode (in manual mode it leaves the focusing part up to you and trusts your judgement). When this bulb is constantly on it means it did focus and the camera is ready to take the shot. The information you receive when looking into the viewfinder may vary based on your camera’s make and model. This particular one for example, doesn’t show the ISO setting if you noticed.
Ok, so we’ve discussed most of the buttons and signs and the meanings of them, now let’s see how you take an actual shot. On the image above I point to a button. The trigger button. This is a two phase button, meaning that when you push it half way down it tries to focus and when you push it all the way down it takes the shot (if it could focus on something. If not the bulb we talked about earlier will blink and will refuse to take the shot).
Next to it there’s a dial. Multipurpose dial. Why I say it’s multipurpose is because in full manual mode you set the shutter speed and also aperture with it (on this particular model, the 400D). It’s function varies based on which mode you’re in. This only applies to this particular camera.
On the 400D, under the viewfinder there’s a sensor. The purpose of that is to turn off the LCD screen (so it doesn’t drain battery power) when it detects something in front of it. There’s no reason why it should be on, while you are looking trough the viewfinder.
Now that we’ve scratched the surface on almost everything we can move on to the epilogue. Including a few words about lens accessories, filters. Before you give in to the urge to buy some filters you should take a look at some details, numbers that’ll tell ya’ the diameter of the lens so you can order the right accessories. On the image below, that particular number is 52mm, meaning you can mount 52mm accessories on it.
On the other lens we looked at, the Tamron 28-200 (3.8-5.6) this number is 62mm. So you have to be very careful what extras you spend your money on, or what lens you buy. The filters bought for one lens might not fit the other so pay attention to these factors before spending your hard earned money.
Another quick tip/rule worth mentioning is about the relation of a lens’s focal length and shutter speed. If you want to avoid blurry images, caused by camera shake. Let’s say you try to take a shot holding the camera in hand, in a :poop:-y light situation, where you’re at the limits of your gear. One solution would be to use a tripod or monopod. If you don’t have one or the situation doesn’t allow you to use one, there’s this rule you could try to apply to avoid blurry, shakey’ images. The “1/focal length” rule. If you use a 50 mm lens, in order to be sure there’s no blur caused by camera shake, try to shoot at a shutter speed of 1/50 or faster. If you have a 200 mm lens, shoot at 1/200 or faster. So the shutter speed should be at least equal (or faster) with the focal length at which you’re shooting.
V. MORE ADVICE / PERSONAL OPINIONS
They say your first 100.000 pictures are your worst. I bought my Canon 400D in 2008, June, 06. I really loved this camera. We’ve been trough a lot :) …he’s retired now, since I have the Canon 5D Mk2.
I’ve had it with me 9 out of 10 times, wherever I went, whenever I could. You might want to consider doing the same. A very useful tip, if you carry your camera on your shoulder. Carry it so the lens faces/looks at your back. The back of the camera should be facing the direction you walk in. This way you’ll protect, your lens, and camera, from bumping into objects that could damage it. Minor thing that makes a huge difference.
I don’t use any protective bags. While you unpack your camera from some bag or whatnot, start it, set it, the moment’s gone. I own a tamrac backpack tho’, it’s neatly compartmented. It can hold 1-2 (DSLR) bodies, a few extra lens and whatnot. There’s a compartment for a 14-15″ laptop too. I rarely use it tho’. Only on longer trips. It’s weatherproof and all that so it’s really handy. Here’s my two cameras. The 5D was a dream come true.
(image above, courtesy of dpreview)
(image above, courtesy of dpreview)
(image above, courtesy of dpreview)
(image above, courtesy of dpreview)
My current photo gear after 3+ years since I had my first DSLR, the 400D. There isn’t any special hardware there except for the 5D body maybe. I went for a full frame body instead of quality lens. Limited budgets and decisions walk hand in hand. It was either my 400D + some higher quality lens or a full frame body. From what I’ve seen, most of the people go for a mid-range body + good lens combo. I went for the full frame, I knew my old lens will be like new ones anyhows’ + I’m not sure the 400D would have had enough life in it left until I had the money to upgrade again. This way I have a backup camera, I could get used to the full frame sensor and my lens wish-list boiled down very clearly.
If you want to buy a DSLR, don’t look at kit offers. Buy a body and a separate lens. Don’t touch the kit lens if possible. Whenever you can, buy fast lenses. The fastest you can afford. If you buy a zoom lens, try to buy one that can handle all the focal lengths with one, maximum aperture. Use prime lens. No zoom lens will ever dominate the quality you get from a prime, fixed focal length lens. If you can’t afford Canon L lens, look at what Tamron and Sigma has to offer. Take your camera with you everywhere and use it in full manual mode.
From what I know now if I had the money I’d invest in these, in the following order:
1. Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L USM, 2. Canon 85mm f/1.8 USM or the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II USM, if money wasn’t an issue, next would be 3. Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, 4. Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, maybe a tilt shift lens just for the kicks of it 5. Canon 24mm f/3.5L II, and a dedicated macro lens would also be nice 6. Canon 65mm f/2.8, 7. Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS USM… and these are just the lens :)
That reminds me… do you know how and from what these jewels are made of? If you’re interested you’ll like the following videos. Really, really interesting!
…before I end this post I’d like to share a graph that put a smile on my face and hopefully will do the same for you :) so true…
Hope this helps people who are just getting started. Hope it helps lay a solid foundation that you can build on. Took some time to do this… and these are just the basics… :)
I wish you all, happy “hunting“! ;) :yes:
PS: For further reading, reviews and that sort of thing you might want to check/bookmark the following pages:
Dpreview / fredmiranda / the montley pixel / the digital picture / steve’s digicams /and a neat online EXIF veiwer,
maybe canon rumors if you are into rumors :)
For inspiration check out these guys. I look up to them:
Severin Koller, Zack Arias, DavidduChemin, Vincent Laforet, Chris Weeks
(If you enjoyed reading this and found it helpful, please consider supporting it, by clicking this link and donating. Thank you!)
Well written, with clear logic and really enjoyable style. Thumbs up! :)
DSLR for dummies … when will appear in the shop ????? Congratulations !
Thank you for the kind comments. You really consider this would be a good book? ….thank you so much!!
niiice. maybe i’ll learn something new :)
Keep up the good work
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!! :D :peace:
Nice, quintessential writing, packed with useful tips.
* (if I’m not mistaken the abbrev. “Tv” mode comes from “time value”)
Mate, thanks for the quick dslr 101.
Although I am still not 100% clear on some aspects of a dslr camera, your explanation helped me coming to grip on the fundamental, and the pictures you have, showing how the shutter, ISO, and aperture are supposed to work made it much easier for me to understand the mechanic of these three.
Hey Roger! :)
I’m glad you found it useful + that you took the time to leave a comment. Much appreciated! If you have any other thoughts / feedback about it or questions just go ahead.
Thank you very much for the clear and concise explanation.
It was very easy for me to follow and keep up with it – so thank you once again.
You should set up a paypal donations link – I would happily give you some money for that information. I’m sure others would too.
Wow. I stumbled into your blog while I was trying to understand the zoom range in DSLR; one of your pictures was listed in the google images and this post comes as a comprehensive guide for any beginner.
I am amazed by the amount of time you spent addressing every nuances of DSLR in this post. Your similes and diagrams are lucid and easy to understand.
I’m indeed happy to read your blog and would recommend to any DSLR virgins.
I’ve although a feedback to give you – now that we use wide screen PC monitors, would it be possible to resize the post to fit the whole screen than just the middle?
I look forward to buying a second hand DSLR and practise in full manual mode. Thank you!