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Photography 1.01: How Your Camera Makes a Photograph

Updated on June 7, 2020
Photography Focus profile image

I am passionate about photography and love to teach what I've learned during my 30+ years of working as a professional photographer.

Many new photographers are a bit in the dark when it comes to understanding what happens when they take a photo. Before getting started with your camera it can be helpful to understand a little of what happens when you press the shutter release button.

In this article, you’ll learn some foundational information that will help you understand photography better.

Cameras have been around for a long time and essentially their basic functions haven't changed. The cameras we use today are pretty much the same as the camera my great grandfather used back in the 1880s.

What a Camera Is

A camera is a box with a hole that lets the light in. It has a light-sensitive surface inside it to capture the image. The amount of light is controlled by the size of the hole, how long the light-sensitive surface is exposed to the light, and how responsive that surface is to light.

In modern cameras these three things are known as the shutter speed, aperture, (or f-stop,) and the ISO. Of course now they are all very advanced technologically and produce incredible results even if you don’t understand much about them or how to use them.

In my great grandfather’s day he had a much simpler and bigger camera. It was made of wood and he used glass plates coated with a light-sensitive emulsion to capture his images. His shutter release would have been manual, so he had to time his exposures by counting. The aperture would have been very simple and limited.

Today, the same principles apply. To make a well-exposed photo the amount of light entering the camera during an exposure, must be correct. If too much light enters the photo will be overexposed and the picture will look very bright. If not enough light reaches the light-sensitive surface, the picture will be underexposed and look very dark.

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Modern Digital Cameras

Modern digital cameras have tools built in to assist us in obtaining well-exposed photos. These automatic exposure modes are easier to use but can restrict potential creative use of your camera. I am a firm believer that learning to manually use the controls on your camera will make you a better photographer.

You can leave the exposure choice up to the auto-exposure modes on your camera. You will get evenly exposed pictures most of the time. However, when using manual mode you have more creative control over the exposure. This greatly affect the look and feel of your photographs.

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What Photography Is

The word ‘photography’ means writing (or painting) with light. When you can control the amount of light that makes a photo your photos potentially have more artistic expression.

Auto-exposure relies on pre-programmed algorithms your camera uses to determine and set the exposure. The results are usually predictable and can be boring. Your camera does not know what you’re taking a photo of. Nor do the technicians in the lab who designed the AI in your camera. When you learn to make creative exposure choices you’ll take more interesting photos than you can if you use any of the auto-exposure modes on your camera.

Learn manual mode takes time, study, and practice, but it is well worth the effort. I’ll write more about this in other articles late. But first I will write a series of foundational articles teaching about camera basics.

With each of these articles, I’ll include a practical challenge to give you a better opportunity to learn what I am teaching. By taking part in these challenges you will put into practice what you’re learning so will remember it better.

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Photography Challenge: 1.01

Lens - Standard

Exposure Mode - Manual mode

Focus Mode – Any

Location – Outdoors

Time – Any time of day

I want you to step back in time. Imagine you’re back in the last century and using a big old box camera with glass plate negatives. Find something easy to photograph in good light. Something that’s not moving is your best option.

Take some photos with your camera set to manual mode. If you know about the exposure meter, try not to look at it. I want you to guess your exposure without using the exposure meter to measure the light with. You have to guess. See if you can control your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to make some well-exposed photos.

Try another series looking at the exposure meter. If you’re not sure what that is, don’t worry because I will teach you about it in another article.

Don’t be concerned that you aren’t producing masterpiece photos during these challenges. During the early stages of learning photography, it’s actually better if you are making mistakes because that way you’ll learn more.

Don’t delete any of your photos. You’ll be able to look back at them in a short while and see how much your photography has improved.

Each time you work on one of these challenges, make notes about what you are doing and why. This will help you learn.

Let Me Know How You Get On

Please let me know how you get on. I'd love to know!

Feel free to post some links to your photos from this challenge in the comments section.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Photography Focus

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