On Photography

June 19th, 2009

I bought my first DSLR about a 3/4 year ago, so I am pretty new to “real” photography. I will try to summarize what I learned so far, for the interested beginner. I learned a lot from the site of Ken Rockwell, and I will add links to some articles on his web site where appropriate. There are a lot of people out there who criticize Ken, but I guess you are old enough to make up your own mind :)

My equipment

Following Ken’s advice, I bought a Nikon D40
+ Cheap: Ca. 300 Euro incl. 18-55 lens
+ Light: Body weights only 530g, lens 230g
+ Can make flash pictures at 1/500s
+ Ken wrote a manual for it, explaining every setting
+ Using normal SD cards
o Proprietary Nikon rechargeable battery
– Only 6 mega pixel, 3.008 x 2.000. I guess this should be enough.
– Modern Nikon cameras (D-90, D-700) got better metering and can work in very dim light
– No support for automatic bracketing
– Doesn’t work with all (older) Nikon lenses

If you are willing to pay more to get more, you might go for a D-90 at ca. 1000 Euro incl. 18-105 lens or D-700 at ca. 2100 Euro excl. Lens.

I also bought the very small flash Nikon SB-400 (ca. 120 Euro)
+ Light and small
+ Can be tilted to flash indirectly via ceiling
+ Normal batteries
+ Enough flash power for most situations
+ Supports Nikon’s TTL flash system
+ Light weight: Only 180g incl. batteries
+ Using normal batteries (2xAA)
o Can be manually controlled only with D-40
– Can’t be tilted sideways: no indirect ceiling flash when holding camera vertical

What else?
* A clear, multi-coated UV filter to protect the lens (Hoya UV Super HMC)
* A diffuser bag for the flash
* A small bag to carry everything (Tuff Luv)
* A leather hand grip (Matin)

All together: 1.200 g

Basic Photography knowledge

Most important should be choice of the motif: An interesting subject, your position (distance, height), the composition of the picture.

Technically, the basic settings are aperture (f-stop), shutter speed and ISO-setting.

The shutter speed controls the blur of the movement: While you need speeds like 1/500 to really freeze movements, you might take great pictures even with 1/30 (see below).


Left site: Blurred at 1/80. Right side: Frozen movement with 1/500
[click image to enlarge]

The F-stop controls the depth of field, from a single sharp subject in front of a blurred background to a picture where front and background both is sharp.

Small F-Stop 5.60 = small depth of field

Unfortunately, fast shutter speeds and wide depths of field don’t come for free: both will make your picture darker, so you need more light – you cannot freely choose them.

To get the same exposure, if you choose a faster shutter speed, you will need a greater aperture (smaller F-Stop) if still available, and vice versa. The ISO-setting allows you to get both, and to make pictures in very dim light, at the cost of more noise (the noise is much more visible if the resulting pictures is still underexposed).

How I take pictures

Following Ken’s advice, I boosted the colors a little bit in camera, using Color Mode: IIIa and Saturation: +. This is a matter of taste.


Boosted colors and maybe a little help from the uv-filter

As a default I use auto-focus, where the camera automatically picks the closest object. I learned that I do more mistakes if I choose the area manually. I also normally will use an automatic white balance, and only adjust if needed.

Along the same line, I mostly use P-Mode with Nikon-feature Auto-ISO, which sets everything automatic, and adjust only if needed. In dim light, I get smaller F-stops which is fine with me, since I mostly take pictures of people or interesting motifs, so I don’t care to much about or even want a blurred background. The slower shutter speeds are more problematic:

Shutter speed problem one: you move. I try to use lamp posts etc. as an improvised tripod.

Shutter speed problem two: the motif moves. In poor lightning, I normally do series of pictures, as Ken recommends. I always have my camera in Continuous mode, which means that it takes a series of pictures if I hold the shutter pressed.


Sharp image at 1/30s (shot as series)
[click image to enlarge]

Working with a Nikon D-40, you will notices that the exposure will often need correction (normally one would prefer “matrix” metering, but I am right now trying “centre weighted”). I will use the exposure compensation +/- to get a brighter or darker picture (still in automatic P-mode, camera chooses F-Stop and shutter speed automatically).

I often use the RGB-histogram to check the exposure, using
Ken’s “Secret RGH histogram trick”: Playback picture, choose OK to get retouch Menu, Select Filter Effects, Color Balance to see a real RGB histogram.

Fortunately, you’ll get used to your camera on this, knowing when to use which correction after taking only a short glance. While running most settings on automatic, I use exposure compensation quite often.

If I am not happy with the automatic P-mode settings even with exposure compensation, this often means that I will use a flash, or go to manual mode, to get the best out of poor light.

Two more hints: Depending on your lens smaller F-Stops will be available if you zoom out, meaning you can take pictures in darker conditions.

If you are taking pictures at night with a very slow shutter speed and a tripod (e.g. some seconds), you want to use a low ISO value (e.g. ISO 200 with 30 seconds exposure).

Using flash

Flash is not very useful for groups and large scenes. It is more useful for single subjects not too far away from the camera, which are isolated from the background.

Flash is very important for me. If I use flash, I am trying to use indirect flash bounced via ceiling. Most of my indoor/dancing pictures are done with indirect flash. It almost always looks perfect.


Indirect flash. i love it.

If I cannot use indirect flash, e.g. outdoors or with high ceiling, I use a diffuser. This works more or less if the subject isn’t too close to the camera or to far away, e.g. a distance of 2-3 meters. I also use flash (with diffuser) in very bright light, e.g. a bright summer day, to soften the shadows.


Diffuser in action


Without flash: A lot of hard shadows in the faces
[click to enlarge]


With flash: Less shadows
[click to enlarge]

Direct flash always needs a lot of adjustments (more/less flash), until it fits.


Direct flash gone wrong

Post processing
On one day using my camera, I normally take about 200 pictures (including serial shots of a single motif). There will be about 40 I keep, and about 10-20 I show to other people.

Raw format gives you more options to save a picture afterwards: You simple have more bits per pixel, 12-14 vs. 8 with JPG. Nevertheless, I only shoot jpegs because converting also takes time, and I am already struggling to sort through all the pictures without this extra step. I am trying to get a proper exposure already in camera.

Have fun!

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