Being a great photographer starts with understanding the basic elements of a camera. With the evolution of technology, a simple box with a hole on one side has become a daunting monstrosity with endless buttons and features. But a digital SLR today shares the same functions and concepts as the original camera obscura. On Saturday morning, I shared these concepts with seven students to make them better portrait photographers.
Since everyone had just recently picked up a camera, we started off focusing the lesson more on understanding how a camera works. The exposure triangle—ISO, aperture, and shutter speed—are settings that allow the camera to take in light. No light = no picture. Too much light = picture is too bright. Too little light = picture is too dark. So it is the photographer’s job to tell the camera to take in the perfect amount of light in order to get perfect exposure. By adjusting the three settings, we can control the exposure; shutter speed controls how long the image is being exposed, aperture controls how much light is entering the camera, and ISO controls the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. Learn to balance the three and you will always be able to get the image you want!
I stressed the importance of learning to shoot on manual and making conscious decisions when first starting out, but today, I had my students set their camera to aperture priority mode. When photographing portraits, a photographer has to find great light, look for decent backgrounds, and on top of that, work with the subject in front of them. Shooting in aperture priority eliminates having to manually adjust for exposure, but still gives the photographer control of the depth of field. Other than exposure, the three settings have another purpose, aperture’s being the ability to adjust the depth of field. When shooting with a bigger aperture, we get those nice blurry backgrounds that are ideal for portrait photography.
So as we stepped out to photograph our model, Andon, we made sure to open up our apertures and start with ISO 100. In aperture priority, the camera automatically matched the perfect shutter speed for correct exposure. We first did head shots of Andon positioned in different lighting. With the sun out, I had the students take a picture of him with the sun in front, sun on the side, and sun in back. They were able to look back on their photos and see the difference between direct sunlight on the face versus indirect lighting.
We moved on from lighting to using our telephoto lenses and positioning ourselves properly. The telephoto lens allows us to compress the image and really work with the environment provided. Instead of worrying about all the mergers and unwanted people in the background, stepping back and zooming in gives us the ability to choose a specific element (bush, tree, walkway) and have it fill the entire frame. We practiced with a few different backgrounds and poses, as well as working on our framing—from the full body to the extreme close up. On top of that, we also spotted some natural elements that can be used like a frame to draw attention to our subject.
We ended with Andon doing some sprints for us. Most of the students wanted sharp photos of their kids. Understanding focus as well as how to freeze motion was the key. I explained how even though the shutter speed was currently fast enough for hand-holding a camera, when you throw in movement from the subject, it needs to even be faster. So we raised our ISO to 800, trading in noise for a sharp frozen subject. Next, I explained the two different ways a camera focuses, and why we need to shoot on AF-C (Nikon) and AI Servo (Canon) in order to focus on our subject properly. With these continuous focus modes, the camera will constantly focus so long as the focus point remains on the subject. We practiced several times, and like a video game, the students practiced keeping that focus point moving with Andon as he sprinted, weaved, and jumped. After the third attempt, we were able to get some amazingly sharp photos!
After our group picture, we headed back inside where I showed the students quickly how to adjust their exposure settings on manual mode. While shooting in aperture priority today eased the learning curve a bit, working with photos on manual can help with truly understanding the concept of a camera. And it was with that I bid farewell to this group! Considering the excitement, I have no doubt they will continue to work on their skills on their own!
Until next time,
Mary and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team!
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