Photography theory and equipment

We now live in the wonderful age of affordable digital photography. The camera quality is incredible and intense competition has allowed one to obtain an exceptional camera with lens for well under $1,000.00

But be forewarned, photography is an addiction much like koi keeping. This page contains rudimentary information targeted at the budding photographer
nikon d3

Photography 101

Exposure, Focus & Composition

Great photo's all have several things in common. One is the proper exposure, another is tack sharp images and of course, great composition. Telling a story and having a defined point of interest is key. If you master and combine these skill sets, all that is required then is to apply the law of averages - shoot as many photo's as you possibly can !. Seriously though, the law of averages will help but getting better images requires careful analyses of your results on an ongoing basis


Manually setting certain values is usually better than letting the camera take full control. Proper white balancing and shooting in Shutter [TV - Time Value] or Aperture [AV - Aperture Value] priority is important and necessary to get great photos. Exposure is a function of shutter speed, Aperture and ISO setting. A good camera will have a histogram (graphical exposure display) which you should refer to to help guide you. "Expose the the right" is general advice when dealing with the histogram and you should invest some time reading about histograms as they offer invaluable feedback

Shutter speed will dictate how long the aperture stays open. Waterfalls for example, would often be shot at slower shutter speeds of 1/4 second of slower. Sports need to be shot at at least 1/500th of a second or better yet 1/800th. or more - expect blurry images with slow shutter speeds. A general rule is the shutter speed should be at the very least the reciprocal of your focal length. For example, If you are zoomed in to 135 mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/135th. (1/160th of a second as here is no 1/135th setting). Of course "IS" [Canon "image stabilization] and "VR" [Nikons "Vibration Reduction"] can give up to a 4 stop reduction to this rule so that you might be able to get handheld sharp shots @ 1/15 th. 4 Stops means that at 1/15th, you could actually achieve a shutter speed of 1/125th - of course this would apply to static objects only

ISO is the electronic speed of the sensor. ISO settings will often be set higher in situations with low light. The downside is, the higher the ISO, the more noise [grain] you will see in your photos. Additionally, Dynamic Range takes a hit as well and will be reduced as ISO settings are increased. Newer cameras are always improving sensor technology so that clean images can be captured at 800 and 1600 ISO settings. Even 3200 ISO images are clean on some newer full frame cameras. These high ISO settings are key in getting shots under poor conditions. Remember, OOF [out of focus] images are all but useless. Keeping shutter speeds up - at the cost of increasing ISO settings - may not allow for the cleanest shots, but at least they will be in focus


The last variable of exposure is Aperture. The wider the aperture is open, [lower number] the greater its light gathering ability. However, this is at the cost of depth of field [focus range]. Portraits are often shot at a 2.8 F-stop or wider aperture settings which will blur the background [bokeh] and create an image pop of the subject. This is very effective and a great reason why manually controlling your camera is key

Of course, focusing is trickier as the aperture opens up because of the narrow band of focus - best to use a single focus point and focus on the eyes for example and then recompose. At smaller apertures or F-stops [ie F11, f16, f22 etc] the range of focus or depth of field increases dramatically. This is great for landscape photography when you want everything in focus - foreground, mid ground and background. Generally focusing 1/3 into the scene can produce a photo that is completely in focus. [search "hyperfocal point" for more]

Remember, lenses have sweet spots [usually 3 or so stops from fully open] so shooting with settings like 5.6, 7.1, and 8 will usually give the sharpest shots. As the aperture value increases [aperture closing down] diffraction increases because the light bends to reach the sensor. This will degrade the quality of the final image and can become evident at values as low as F8. Canon L lenses are coveted because they allow for sharp photos wide open

Putting it all Together
Shutter Speed, ISO and Aperture are all intertwined . If you are to progress in the hobby, these relationships need to be fully understood. For example, if the shutter speed increases, the Aperture and/or ISO must be opened/increased to obtain a proper exposure. Once again, a wider aperture allows more light in and the faster ISO setting [400, 800] captures this light quicker

Remember you can't always have it all. In other words, a 1/400 th. shutter speed with a F8 aperture and 100 ISO setting is not going to be available very often. If one of the settings needs to be increased to obtain the proper exposure, ISO is the best choice. It adds noise but will allow faster shutter speeds or a larger focus range enabling you to produce a sharp photo. Remember, post production can be quite effective at cleaning up noise, but cannot turn an OOF [out of focus] photo sharp

For one more practical example, lets say we were photographing a wide landscape shot where we would require everything to be in focus. This means the aperture would have to be closed down allowing less light in but providing a greater depth of field (F11+). As a result of this, less light is getting to the sensor. The shutter speed and/or ISO would need to compensate. With shutter speed, it would have to slow down [1/40th perhaps] as being open longer will allow more light in. Likewise, the ISO could be raised to capture that light more quickly. Again, the goal for ISO is to always keep it low [100 or 200] but available light will not always allow this - knowing how to quickly manipulate the settings for best results takes practice

Remember, photographers will manipulate all these setting to achieve the desired result whether it be everything in focus or shallow depth of field with great bokeh. Of course these technical skills need to be mastered, but at the end of the day, good photography requires a lot of effort, great patience and analytical practice. Additionally, you must know your camera's settings and capabilities backwards and forwards

Top Tips
  • Shoot in raw and learn how to use software to tweak your photo's. Canon provides "Digital Photo Professional" software with their cameras

  • Shoot in the magic hour. This is typically when the sun is rising or setting and the lighting at that time will give the best results

  • Know your equipment. Lenses are sharper at certain apertures and focal lengths. Know your cameras settings intimately so you get react quickly to get the shot

  • Practice and Effort. Sounds obvious but you won't get many good captures without working at it

  • Avoid taking "snapshots". Try different angles, mix up the composition and experiment - take your time

Camera Lenses

Glass is everything. It is best to invest in good lenses from the start. Remember, you are only paying the difference to obtain great glass over mediocre glass. The total cost of ownership will be higher at the end of the day is you buy cheaper lenses and equipment at the beginning only to upgrade it down the road. Tripods are a great example of this

Basic Lenses designations include Prime and Zoom. Prime lenses have a set focal point [ie. 50 mm] and you are unable to zoom in or out with them - you must walk to change composition. They do however, provide the sharpest photo's and are available from fisheye 8 mm all the way up to 600 mm or more

Zoom lenses will allow you to change your field of view [without moving]. Common focal lengths include 17-50mm, 24-105mm, 70-200mm, 100-400mm etc. A great walk around lens which I have is the Canon "L" F4 24-105. It is decent for wider angles and can zoom in well enough for most applications. If you were shooting people indoors in tight quarters, a 17mm lens would be good while a sporting event might require a 400mm capable lens like the Canon "L" 100-400mm F4-5.6. Whether your camera has a crop sensor or not plays a big part in your lens selection - a 24mm lens on a crop is not very wide but very nice on a full frame sensored camera
camera lense

Canon has the most lens options
in their lineup and you should consider its famed "L" lens line which are fantastic with exceptional optics and build quality. If you ever notice "photographers row" at a sporting event, most of them have white "L" lenses with the coveted red ring. While regular lenses tend to falter wide open, "L" lenses provide sharp images at low F-stops and focus better. The "holy trinity" of the canon line is the 35mm L 1.4, 85mm L 1.2 and the 135mm L F2

It is worthwhile to invest in the anti-vibration lenses that are now available from all the major players. Canon has "IS" - image stabilization, Sigma "VR" - vibration reduction etc. These allow sharp hand held photo's at lower shutter speeds [as long at the subject is static or course]. Like koi, your lens purchasing approach should be quality over quantity and I try to buy 1-2 new lenses a year. Turn off your anti vibration when shooting sports and when mounted on a tripod

Good zoom lenses will have a F2.8 or F4.0 fixed apertures which do not change throughout the zoom range . Lesser quality zooms will generally have an increasing F-stop as you zoom in making them "slower" and they can't gather as much light. Again, you need to compensate by increasing ISO [which increases digital noise and decreases dynamic range] or decreasing shutter speed [shutter is open longer risking blurriness] to get a good exposure

Without top notch fast glass, the quality of your photo's will suffer and you may miss out on shots completely. Great lenses won't make you a great photography but they swing the limiting factor over to your skill set
  • This 2 second exposure at F29 gives a nice effect but lacks sharpness
  • At 1/100th objects are sharp but the water is blurred - motion effect
  • Bokeh at a higher F11 due to the distances
  • Poor cameras will show noise at iso 475, particularly at 100% crops

Camera Equipment

Once you get into photography, you quickly learn that it is a money pit - similar to koi keeping I suppose. The picture right shows some of the equipment I have which will help you attain better photographs

My camera is a Canon 50D. It is a pretty nice prosumer camera currently selling for about $1400 CND. Although it comes with a built in flash, this will not deliver the performance of a dedicated unit like the 580 exII flash illustrated. Additionally, taking photo's in portrait mode with the built in flash will place the flash to the side of the camera , not above it

A flash will look the best when it comes from above the camera on a higher angle to the subject. Similar to natural light of from the Sun. To achieve this with portrait shooting you need to buy a "flash bracket". The one pictured is a "stroboframe camera-flip". It works well but is far from the best on the market. See "JustRite Brackets" and "Custom Brackets" for top notch models. To operate a dedicated flash with a bracket you need either a flash cord, wireless trigger or a camera w/built in flash control. ie Canon 7D

The photographer vs. equipment debate that exists on online forums is an interesting one with some suggesting its all about the photographer, no matter what the equipment. It goes without saying you can't buy talent - that's true of any endeavor. But lets face it, without good equipment the pictures will lack the technical quality [ie. resolution, dynamic range, shutter speed] that top flight equipment provides. Talent will show through in composition and timing with any camera, but you need good equipment that doesn't limit your capability

A tripod is a must have item if you are to capture sharp images with slower shutter speeds. This includes landscape and flashless indoor photos where the light is typically poor. There are a lot of cheap tripods on the market and many seasoned photogs have 3-4 of these buried in their closets. Buy a good tripod from the start. I personally have a carbon fibre Gitzo which cost 10x more than my other junk tripods but it is rock solid, lightweight and feature rich. Bogen/Manfrotto are another top brand you should consider

Good tripods start @ about $500.00