What On Earth Do I Do With That Camera?

So you have a camera. You may have been lucky enough to have been given it for Christmas or a birthday. Maybe it's gathering dust in a cupboard, along with those grand plans you had for it. Perhaps it's merely a source of frustration that it cost so much but didn't improve your photographs?

You get that camera, and in your head you see all those photographs in the magazines that your camera must be able to take, right? The reality is often very different. You take the camera out of the box with a feeling of excitement, and spend a few moments playing with it. The gadget in your hand has all those menus and buttons you don't understand... you flip it into auto, and take a few pictures... and become increasingly disappointed. Many people get no further with their photography experience, because they don't realize how easy it actually is to be the master of their camera - rather than it's auto button being the master of them.

Getting Started

To be able to take great pictures you need to know what some of those buttons and settings do - and why those settings are useful to us. You don't need to know what all of the buttons and settings do all at once - that's a sure route to failure. Here's a couple of handy hints to get you going.

Sharpness Vs Blurred Backgrounds

Let's put this into context - we're talking about the difference between these two pictures:

The photo of the duck (above), has a blurred background - you can't see any detail behind the duck, but the duck remains sharp. This effect is great if you are taking portraits and wish the focus to be on the person you are taking the portrait of - who may be a loved family member.

The photo of the street (above) is very different - all the foreground and background is in sharp focus. You can see every detail. This is great for landscapes and "story telling" pictures.

How do I achieve these effects?

The difference with these two photographs is just one setting in your camera. You don't need to know what all the buttons and menus on your camera do - you just need to master one.  In both photographs the "aperture" is set very differently. 

For the technical minded the "aperture" is the size of the hole through which the light enters the camera. A large hole will create the blurred background ("bokeh") effect we see with the duck. A small hole will create the effect in the street view above where everything in front and behind the subject of the photo is in focus. It's a sliding scale - increasing the size of the hole decreases the amount that is in focus both in front of and behind your subject.

The easiest way for you to control the size of the aperture your camera uses to take your picture is to use your camera's "Aperture Priority Mode". So by mastering just one setting in your camera you can impress your friends with some great effects. Here's a video to help you get started with aperture priority Mode:

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Freezing Action Vs Motion Blur

Here we are talking about the difference between these two pictures:

Want to take photos with that great motion blur effect? Tips Take a tripod, or make sure you can rest your camera to keep it still (I once balanced my camera on a traffic light control box to get a great motion blur shot of the Colosseum in Rome – worked a treat… Use a slow shutter speed – this shot was taken at ½ second. The general rule of thumb is that anything slower that 1/125 second will need a tripod/beanbag or other support. It really depends how steady your hand is… Take several pictures at different shutter speeds so that you can get a feel for the effect you’re going to get at different speeds. Don’t be afraid to shoot LOTS of pictures. The delete button is easy to press. . . . . .

You've probably guessed by now there's a theme here. The difference between these two pictures is just one setting. The shutter speeds used to take these photographs were set very differently.

With the picture of the carousel the shutter was open for longer while taking the picture, so that objects had the chance to travel from one part of the frame to another while the shutter remained open. This creates "motion Blur". With the picture of the bird the shutter was only open for a tiny fraction of a second - freezing the bird in mid-air.

The easiest way to control which shutter speed your camera uses is by using your camera's "shutter speed priority mode" (Tv - "Time Value" - if you use Canon). Here's a video to get you started on shutter speed priority:

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