Power overload. Image by Rumena Zlatkova. View more on https://flickr.com/rumena

Things to consider when buying a new digital camera

Power overload. Image by Rumena Zlatkova. View more on https://flickr.com/rumena

Power overload. Image by Rumena Zlatkova. View more on https://flickr.com/rumena

Buying a digital camera and researching models can be very time-consuming. This article aims to reduce the time you spend searching.

Whether planning to buy your first camera or just looking around for an upgrade, there are so many options to choose from – and so many things to keep in mind. Here are the most important points to think about when you buy a new camera.

Budget

It is always a good idea to have a fixed amount in mind. When looking through different offers and promotions, it is often easy to slip off and spend more money than planned – but if you keep to the budget (and don’t go more than 10 % over it), you would look more carefully and always ask yourself ‘Do I really need this?’

New or used

This decision affects the budget, so you really need to have a strong argument why you need a new camera – do you want the extended warranty, or you have concerns the previous owner could have dropped it or used it on the beach? Or do you prefer to pay less and take something that has already been tried and used – so you won’t be surprised with a defect item that needs returning to the manufacturer.

Camera bag

It’s not just an accessory – in most cases, a bag is a must for the camera you are buying. Check if you can use your old bag (if you have one), or if the new one comes with a bag. But make sure you have an appropriate way to store and carry the camera around, and to protect it from rain, dust and scratches.

Size

Size matters – even more for digital cameras. Larger cameras weigh more, they are more easily recognized (which is not good for street photography and concerts, if that’s what you primarily use the camera for). They are often more expensive, and with more complicated controls. So if you are a newbie, ask yourself what you really need. Of course, the opposite is also true: if you are looking for more control and better image quality, then pocket cameras are probably not the thing for you.

Battery

Some cameras have their own Li-Ion battery which comes with a dedicated charger. Others use standard AA batteries – so wherever you are in the world, you can buy a new pack of batteries and start taking pictures.

Automatic vs. manual controls

Depending on your background, skills and interests, you can choose between cameras with automatic only controls, semi-automatic, or manual. Of course, all consumer cameras (and even the professional ones) have an automatic mode – but not all of them allow for manual controls. Ask yourself if you need to be able to fine tune exposure, aperture, shutter speed and ISO – or you don’t mind the camera deciding for you.

File formats

More and more cameras are now capable of recording in RAW format. It gives you more control over the picture quality, and it is an uncompressed file. But of course, that takes up much more space, and more importantly – takes a lot of time to edit. If you need RAW, then the next question is can the camera shoot in RAW + JPEG – because you might find it more convenient. But if you take hundreds of photos and are not really bothered by editing them, then you probably only need JPEG.

Video capabilities

Even smartphones can record video – so you’d probably want to be able to do that with your digital camera, too. You need to decide if you want HD or you are OK with an SD (standard definition) camera. Bear in mind that HD sometimes only means more size and more problems with editing, playback and encoding – if your camera lens is not good enough, or you only shoot videos at low light conditions (resulting in bad picture quality), you may not need HD.

The other important aspect of video is sound – if you intend to record videos, you should check out the sound quality. Stereo is not crucial for built-in microphones – but definitely review some test footage, and do it with headphones on. You don’t want crisp visuals with poor sound – more and more cameras ship with decent microphones, so make sure yours is one of these models.

Resolution

Contrary to popular belief, more megapixels don’t always mean better picture quality. If two cameras have the same sensor size but one of them has more megapixels, it means that they just made each pixel smaller. In this case, the camera with less megapixels should be the choice. Moreover, better resolutions are usually only needed for professional photography and print – ask yourself how often you print and to what paper sizes. You shouldn’t be paying for megapixels you don’t need. If you do need good picture quality, it’s not the megapixel count you should be looking at – but rather, the camera’s sensor size.

Image stabilisation

The more optical zoom the camera allows, the more risk there is for camera shake to affect the quality of the photos. So for cameras with 6x or more zoom, image stabilization (IS) is a must. However, cameras with little optical zoom (less than 5x) can work well enough without image stabilization. Also, when you’re using a tripod, image stabilization should be off – so if that’s the primary way you take pictures, you may not need IS.

Focal length and optical zoom of the lens

If you take photos of various objects (landscapes, groups of people, portraits, etc.), you probably use different zoom settings for each of them. The smaller the focal length number, the more wide-angle shots you can make (you fit more objects / people in the frame). The bigger the focal length number, the more you can zoom into a scene without physically moving forward. Think about what types of photos you would be making with the camera and decide on the optical characteristics.

Focus range and macro

If you are a fan of macro photos and close-ups, definitely check the focus range of the camera. You’d be surprised how many people buy a camera to take macro photos of flowers and foliage – only to find out their camera doesn’t support the focus range they need.

Display and viewfinder

If most pictures you take are in bright sunlight and you can rarely see the display, you need to check the brightness of the new camera display. Also, you may choose one with an electronic viewfinder – it shows you the same information as the display, and is less affected by sunlight. If you often take photos from unusual angles, or you don’t want to be noticed by your body language that you’re taking a photo, you should try and find a camera with a twisting display – it makes previewing the shot easier and more convenient.

Of course, the camera will not take the photos for you, so in the end, it’s more important what you do with it than the specific model you’re using. So choose a model, but more importantly: start taking photos with it.

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Sunflower and its people. Image by Rumena Zlatkova. View more on https://flickr.com/rumena

Understanding your digital camera’s manual settings for image exposure: Shutter speed, aperture and ISO sensitivity

Sunflower and its people. Image by Rumena Zlatkova. View more on https://flickr.com/rumena

Sunflower and its people. Image by Rumena Zlatkova. View more on https://flickr.com/rumena

The three primary settings in a digital camera are shutter speed, aperture and ISO (light sensitivity). Before diving into the advanced picture controls and techniques, it is a good idea to learn these photography basics. This article explains in detail how changing their parameters affects the final image in terms of light, motion, focus and noise grain.

A basic guideline rule for good image exposure

On a bright sunny day, when taking a picture of a landscape at ISO 100, aperture f/8 and shutter speed 1/125, the result is a well-exposed image with most of the objects in focus. If we want to change one of these parameters up or down to use it for effect, we would need to change another one with the same number of steps to keep the same image exposure. This is the guideline referred to in most photography books and tutorials from the times of film photography. Back then, light metering before the shoot and setting the right exposure was the only way to get well exposed pictures.

But what do all these settings mean?

Controlling the shutter speed

The shutter is the part of the camera which controls how long the film or sensor would be exposed to the light coming from the lens. The slower the speed, the more time the sensor is exposed to the light; the faster the speed – the less time the shutter is open. Shutter speed is measured in seconds, or parts of a second – such as 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/1000. Most consumer cameras today support speeds from 30 seconds to 1/2000th of a second. So in the initial example, when set at 1/125, the shutter allows light to expose the sensor for 1/125th of a second.

Let’s set the three parameters to ISO 100, aperture f/8 and shutter speed 1/125 and see how changing them up or down creates a different effect for the final image.

Shutter speed affects two main aspects in photography: the amount of light captured, and movement.

Shutter speed and light

With ISO 100 and aperture f/8, when taking photos on a sunny day and the object is well lit, the shutter speed usually needs to be set somewhere between 1/125th and 1/640th of a second. If set to a slower speed – say, 1 second exposure time, the sensor would be overexposed, the photo would become too bright and most of the detail would be lost. The photo would contain too many white areas, and even the darker objects would look too bright. If set to a higher speed than needed – say, 1/2000th of a second or higher, the sensor won’t be able to collect enough light, so the objects would look too dark, and most of the photo would be black. Again, the detail would be lost.

Using different shutter speed settings for capturing light (while keeping ISO 100 and f/8)

One example of using slow shutter speed is when photographing cityscapes at night. Since the light is not bright enough, a slower shutter speed – usually over 1 or even 2 seconds – helps expose the sensor with the correct amount of light.

On the contrary, when shooting on a bright sunny day in the snow or at the beach, when the shutter speed is set between 1/500 and 1/1000, the image would be exposed properly and most of the details from the scene would be preserved.

Shutter speed and motion

Often forgotten, camera shake is a common problem to keep in mind when planning a shot. If the shutter speed is set to less than 1/60, even the slightest movement while releasing the shutter could result in a blurred image. To avoid that, photographers often use tripods or monopods to keep the camera steady. Another solution is to increase the shutter speed to something faster than 1/60.

A lot of the time the object itself is moving – sometimes it is a moving car or a group of people, other times it is a waterfall or a windy field.

Motion can be used to achieve various effects – for example, when the photographer needs to ‘freeze’ the moving object in the image so it doesn’t look blurry. In this case, a faster shutter speed should be used. Another option is to capture the motion blur of the object in order to emphasise on the movement – a slower shutter speed is the answer. There is another, third option that needs more practice and maybe a dolly, but is definitely worth trying. If the object is moving, the photographer or camera can move in parallel (this is known as motion tracking) – so the background looks blurry, but the object remains crisp.

Controlling the aperture and getting to know the f/numbers

The aperture (or iris) affects the amount of light that reaches the sensor and the area of the image that is focused. The iris of the camera follows the same basic principles as the human iris.

Aperture and light

When the iris is open wide, it allows more light to reach the eye (or in our case: the sensor). The f/numbers are used to control and signify exactly how wide it is open. The opening is measured in a fraction, since a fully open lens is typically not possible. So if the lens is open halfway, this is represented by f/2. The number represents a ratio of the full lens opening size. This is why, f/1.2 is a very open aperture, allowing a lot of light in, while f/16 means the aperture is almost closed, allowing very little light in. The smaller the number for the denominator, the wider the iris is open and the more light it allows.

Aperture and depth of field

Depth of field (often referred to as DOF) is the area of the image that is focused. It depends on the focal length of the lens and the f/number. The higher the f/number, the wider this area is – so for example, if taking a picture of a flower, setting the f/number to f/16 would result in both the flower and the background being focused. But if the number is set to f/1.2, only the flower (or even part of the flower) would be focused, and everything in front and behind the flower would be blurred.

Light sensitivity, ISO and noise grain

The sensor is the part of the camera that captures the image. Its sensitivity to light can be controlled through the ISO settings. The lowest sensitivity setting in modern cameras is usually ISO 100 or ISO 200. When set to a higher setting, the sensitivity is electronically amplified, and the captured image becomes brighter. But since this is an amplification process, it leads to digital noise. The higher the ISO number, the more amplification is applied to the light sensitive sensor – resulting in more noise grain.

Choosing the correct shutter speed, f/numbers and ISO settings in different light conditions

Remember the basic guideline example? Bright sunny day, ISO 100, aperture f/8, shutter speed 1/125.

The settings for most light conditions can be easily calculated as a variation of this guideline. Whenever a parameter is changed with one step, another one needs to be changed in the opposite direction to compensate for the change in light coming in and to keep the exposure correct.

If the camera doesn’t allow ISO settings as low as 100, then one of the other parameters needs to be changed too. Using ISO 200 would mean higher light sensitivity – so either the shutter speed should be increased from 1/125 to 1/250 to control the amount of light, or the f/number should be changed from f/8 to f/11.

If the weather is very cloudy, it would mean less light going through the lens – so in order to keep the image well exposed, the shutter speed needs to be lowered or the f/number changed for a wider aperture. In this case, lowering the shutter speed would mean higher chance of camera shake affecting the image. The other option – opening the aperture – would make the depth of field more shallow. Sometimes this is the best solution – especially in portrait or macro photography. Opening the aperture would result in the background becoming more blurry and the main object standing out as the only thing that is focused. Changing the f/number would also keep the shutter speed in a safe setting – so it lowers the risk of shaky camera.

Working with this guideline helps photographers spend less time on the technical side and more in the creative process. Because however well-exposed a photo is, it is much more important what story it tells. When you use this guideline, you will free your mind from figuring out exposure parameters and will be able to focus on your ideas, experiment with different composition techniques, testing the limits of your camera and your creativity.

Directing for Drama and Working with Actors – A Few Notes

We just finished the Directing Actors workshop, run by Film Nation. It was an intense day, running from 10 am till 4 pm. We had the chance to work with a professional camera operator and two actors, taking us through the process and giving us tips and advise.

The workshop started with a few icebreaking games which I thought was a brilliant idea – it really improved the energy in the room, and made everyone feel more relaxed and open. We were then given the script for our exercise – a three page scene called ‘The Double Blind Date’, about a girl and a guy meeting each other on a blind date, but both expecting someone else. First the actors just read through the script, but of course there was no real performance – they needed more. So we started inventing the back story of this scene, thinking about their ‘wants’, ‘needs’, their ‘objectives’ and ‘obstacles’.

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