Point, manually adjust thingometer, click
September 22, 2009 10:09 AM   Subscribe

I would like to teach myself photography, ideally from a book (a good website would work too.) I'm at the point-and-shoot level, but my camera has so many neat settings I want to try...

I have a Canon PowerShot A590 and a desire to learn more about photography. I love taking pictures, but I know nothing about how my camera actually 'works'. I just leave it set on easy mode and point it at things. I, um, know how to zoom in. Maybe if I'm feeling really crazy I will hit the little 'macro' button.

What I'm after is a book or website that will, step by step and beginning with the easiest stuff, tell me how to use the manual settings on my camera. Ideally it would include 'assignments' for me to do.

Every website I've found on my own either tries to teach me the goddamn Rule of Thirds again, or it assumes I know what 'f-stop' means.

(I've taken a ton of art classes, so I'm set with regards to composition, although I don't mind if it's included.)
posted by showbiz_liz to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I'm at a similar place as you: I sort-of know what the settings are, only from my basic read-through of the manual and futzing around with it. But what exactly those settings are, I am unclear and which are the ideal settings for certain situations, I need help.

If you haven't read through the users manual, do so. It's dry and probably doesn't include as many examples as you'd like, but it's a good start to understanding your particular camera.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:20 AM on September 22, 2009

What you probably want to learn is manual exposure, which is the combination of how you set shutter speed, aperture and ISO. It affects everything about the photo.

The book Understanding Exposure is very helpful, and available everywhere. Even if you just go to your local bookstore and look through it, it will be immensely helpful.

This link is helpful for beginners.

Also this one.

List of books for beginners.

You should also consider getting an SLR or DSLR.
posted by kdern at 10:27 AM on September 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

Most of the books I have around are film-centric, so I'm not sure if they'll be of interest to you. It's not hard to take a knowledge of film and apply it to a digital system (shooting digital is a lot like shooting slide film), but if you have no interest at all in ever shooting film, you might find it boring.

Case in point: I've always liked The Craft of Photography by David Vestal (now out of print, but used copies are available). However, it's definitely written for someone interested in B&W chemical photography, and the author has a definite f/64-ish "straight photography" stance that may not be everyone's cup of tea, artistically. If you happened to run across a cheap copy somewhere though, it's worth picking up.

The Langford books--Langford's Basic Photography, Langford's Advanced Photography, etc.--are frequently used in highschool and college photography courses. (I think I may have once owned an earlier edition of it, but I don't have it anymore.) The newer editions look like they're mainly concerned with digital photography, or at least cover it. Either the basic or advanced might be worth a look.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:30 AM on September 22, 2009

The Canon camera manuals are actually pretty good at explaining some of this. If you don't have the hardcopy, you can easily find it in pdf online. On preview, as the thief mentioned, read through it thoroughly.

For the assignments...ProudPhotography is a website-based course where you interact with a pro and have to go through a series of assignments, one at a time. There is a cost, but it's only like $100 or something. Scroll-down through the fluff to the course outline to get an idea. Don't blame me though if you pony-up the cash and find that it's not what you are looking for.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 10:38 AM on September 22, 2009

Firstly, congratulations on making the jump into photography, and may I recommend that you freeze your credit card in a block of ice? The hobby can become addictive... (though doesn't need to be).

Normally, I'd say you'd benefit from one of the Magic Lantern Guides as they bridge the factual ("This switch does X") with the creative. However, they don't appear to have one for your camera, though if the controls are similar, perhaps the guide for the PowerShot G10/G11 might suffice.

Seconding kdern, though: you'll get far more bang if you get a Canon or Nikon DSLR, though bodies start at around $700, which may be more than you're willing to spend right now.

Best wishes!
posted by Imhotep is Invisible at 10:39 AM on September 22, 2009

Response by poster: I am quite interested in eventually switching to a nicer camera, but I'm a student, so my current little guy is all I can afford right now. Besides, I'd like to get these basics down before I make that kind of investment.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:46 AM on September 22, 2009

Black and White Photography: A Basic Manual by Henry Horenstein
posted by The Michael The at 11:02 AM on September 22, 2009

Personally I would leave the technical stuff for later, and just take photos of everything interesting you see, every day. Get down on the ground if you need to :) Your best tool will be your eye, and you'll best learn how to compose a great photo by taking as many as possible.
posted by mahke at 11:13 AM on September 22, 2009

Canon Powershot cameras are pretty good as far as point and shooters go, but in the long run it'll teach you some bad habits. What you want to master in addition to manual exposure (mentioned above) is manual focus, which is actually related to aperture and shutter speed. Becoming skilled with manual focus on a point and shoot is basically impossible. Don't worry, learning this stuff is easier than it may seem, once it "clicks" for you it'll become simple and you'll never unlearn it.

If you have a community college nearby it's probably worthwhile to enroll in a beginner B&W class. You can find a pretty great film SLR for around $50 with lens, check Craigslist for older Canon, Olympus, or Minolta with full manual focus (Nikon and Pentax are a little more [~$100-$150], but for good reasons). Try splitting the cost of film and photo paper with another student by buying in bulk (100m of film and 500 sheets of 8"x10" should be pretty good for two students).

Or for about the same price as film, paper, tuition, lab fees, etc. you could get an Olympus dSLR body (E-500 body is ~$200) and an older manual lens and adapter (50mm f1.8 ~$50). I'd recommend this setup for learning because it doesn't have liveview and you'll have to set your aperture and focus manually. Olympus dSLRs have a slightly smaller sensor, but will give you much more bang for the buck than Canon or Nikon. Of course if you go this route you'll need to teach yourself some things, but Olympus camera manuals are available free online.

Check out your local library's selection of photo books and find some photographers you like and might want to emulate. Pay attention to how the artist used focus, exposure, color, focal strength of lens, etc. to create images. Also pay attention to what that artist did to put themselves out into the world to be able to capture what they did in photo (this is rarely taught...anywhere but is a huge component of making great photos).

Get a Flickr account, it's free. There are some great photographers there and most people leave the full photo information available so when you see a photo you like you can see what camera, exposure, and lens they used. Also, if you post regularly you can see long term growth in your own craft as time goes by.

Good luck, have fun.
posted by Locobot at 11:54 AM on September 22, 2009

Start here. Or, more specifically, start here. That website is chock full of information that you are looking for. Even the parts that go into more detail than you need will help you in the long run.

DEFINITELY get a Flickr account, I love it. Check out the 'explore' section of the site.

Definitely head to your local library and ask abut books and clubs.

Buy a Canon Rebel XS soon. Just kidding... Good luck!
posted by sneakyalien at 12:09 PM on September 22, 2009

Best answer: Sometimes I wonder why amateurs consider photography some dark art full of mystery and intrigue. There's really very little to learn until you get into complicated, multi-light set-ups, but even then, it's not too hard.

There are exactly three things on the camera that effect the exposure: Shutter speed, Aperture (the size of the opening in the lens), and ISO (how sensitive to light is the film/digital sensor). I'll go through all three. Aperture is also called f-stop. The easy explanation is the last paragraph, starting with "All you really need to know." It's easy to remember. Everything else I've written here is just explanation with some number examples

With point and shoot cameras, high ISO settings, those which are more sensitive to light, aren't very good. If the maximum setting is 400, keep it at 200 or lower; if the max is 1600, maybe 800 or better 400 is the maximum you should use. Otherwise, pictures will be full of ugly digital noise. ISO choice is done. For each doubling of the ISO number, the amount of light going into the camera will increase by 1 unit.

Setting the aperture is like squinting your eye. Your camera probably starts between 2.8 and 5.6. Consider the lowest number the same as keeping your eyes (or pupil) wide open. When you go out into the sun from a dark room, it's hard to see. So you've got to squint. Equivalently, with a camera, you need to make the aperture number bigger, which makes the lens opening smaller, which in turn makes less light go into the camera. Notice, also, that when you squint, it's a little easier to see things further away. Similarly, with a larger aperture number, a greater distance is in focus. With point and shoot cameras, Aperture settings make less difference to the picture's focus. There's a slightly complicated physic-related reason for this, but who cares about that. Just remember that if you want things in the background out of focus, use the lowest aperture number you can. If you want everything in focus, use the highest number you can. Also, with your particular camera, the lens can't be as wide open when you're zoomed in. At full zoom, the lowest aperture is 5.5. However, with your digital camera, the small digital sensor size will make it difficult to get the backgrounds fully out of focus. So don't worry about aperture very much. Also, for each increment of aperture (they're weird increments: 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11...) the amount of light going into the camera is decreased by 1 unit.

Shutter speed should be pretty easy to figure out, too. Most of the time, you'll be using numbers that are fractions of a second. 1/200 (or perhaps it'll just say 200) = one two-hundredth of a second. A good rule of thumb is that you can't hand-hold the camera and get sharp picture if the fraction of a second is a number lower than the focal length of your lens. Look on the front of your camera lens. It should give a number followed by mm. Digital point-and-shoot's are a little weird, because they use really small lenses because of their small sensor size. Theoretically, you could learn to hand-hold at 1/5 of a second when zoomed out (your lens is a 5.8-23.2). As you zoom out, theoretically you could hand-hold at 1/23 of a second. At full-frame film equivalent, the lens is a 35mm to 140mm. So, you need at least 1/35 of a second when zoomed out, and 1/140 when zoomed in. But, the small camera size makes it really easy to jiggle the camera when you push the shutter button, so you'll probably have some difficulty with that. The shorter that fraction of second for the shutter, the easier it will be to hold the camera and get a sharp picture, just as it will be easier to freeze the action of a fast-moving object. For people sitting around a table, use a shutter speed no longer than 1/60. For shooting a soccer match, you'll need 1/250 or perhaps even shorter like 1/400. Also, for each halving of the shutter speed number (1/60 to 1/125...it's not an exact half), the amount of light going into the camera will decrease by 1 unit.

And because all of these adjust the amount of light coming into the camera, you need to adjust all three in relation to one another. Available light won't let you always use 1/8000 at a high aperture number like 22 (under which settings with your camera everything from 3 feet onward would be in focus, and you might even get a speeding bullet frozen in action). If you want a high aperture, you'll need to have a longer shutter speed. Each increment of the aperture or shutter speed in one direction can be mitigated by a corresponding adjustment of the other in the other direction. Let's take an exposure at ISO 400, aperture 2.8, shutter speed 1/125. If you want to keep the exposure the same but change the aperture, going from aperture 2.8 to 4, you would change the shutter speed from 1/125 to 1/60. Now, the same amount of light will be entering the camera. Or, imagine people are moving around and you need to keep the shutter speed the same...just double the ISO. So, now the aperture is 4 and shutter speed is 1/125, but the ISO is 800. The exposure will allow the same amount of light.

The one thing I haven't mentioned is flash. Basic flash use is easy. With your camera, I think shutter speed does not affect the flash. This is due to the type of shutter that most digital point-and-shoots have. So, your flash will work just the same at 1 second exposure as at 1/8000th. But, to control the amount of flash that enters the camera--another way to say this is, "to control the distance that your flash reaches at proper exposure"--you need to adjust the ISO and aperture. Just remember what those do. Higher ISO means more powerful flash. Higher aperture number means less powerful flash. It's best to work with aperture instead of ISO settings. Flash is too bright? Increase the aperture number. Flash doesn't reach your subject? Decrease the aperture number. With SLR cameras, shutter speed matters with flash, but it still doesn't affect the brightness. If you go beyond the sync speed (usually around 1/250), the flash will not illuminate the full frame. This has to do with the way the shutter moves and how the camera catches the flash. It doesn't affect your camera.

All you really need to know:

ISO is light sensitivity. Higher number means less light needed. Aperture is like squinting your eye. Higher number means more light needed and more stuff is in focus. Shutter speed is what keeps the image and action sharp. High number (shorter fraction of a second) means more light needed and easier to hand-hold and freeze action. Change one, and you'll need to change another to keep the exposure the same. Keep your shutter speed shorter than 1/60th. With a digital point and shoot, keep the ISO as low as you can, and don't use the highest number your camera is capable of. Longer lenses (zoomed in lenses) are harder to hand-hold and keep the image sharp, but they more easily make backgrounds out of focus. Aperture and ISO control flash distance and power. That's it.
posted by msbrauer at 4:45 PM on September 22, 2009 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: Dang, msbrauer. Thank you! (I'm looking into a lot of these book recommendations right now, too.)
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:47 PM on September 22, 2009

Don't fret about getting a better camera just yet. If you can't take good shots with a cheaper camera, you won't be able to take good shots with an expensive camera. Better cameras give you more control and open up more possiblities, but you can always work your way up later.
posted by azpenguin at 5:50 PM on September 22, 2009

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