1) Photography Basics

Light

The primary aspect of photography is light.  When you look at a sunset or a friend sitting next to you and are inspired to take a photo, the light you see is most likely what you want to capture.  You'll often hear of light being classified as either hard or soft

Hard lighting is similar to what you see when the subject is in direct sunlight or in a spotlight.  Digital cameras are not as sensitive as your eyes, and have a very hard time getting details from very bright and very dark locations of an image.  In these situations, you'll have to choose which areas, the bright or the dark, you want to have in most detail.  Unless you experiment with High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography or use a flash to help, when hard lighting becomes extreme, or harsh, you'll need to decide which areas to contain the detail.  Hard lighting is somewhat tricky for beginners to take good photographs in, but it's worth the effort.  With hard lighting you can generate depth and shadows in your image to make very interesting shots.

Soft lighting is what you see if the subject is in a shady grove or in the early morning.  Here, there are no stark contrasts between light and dark.  Everything is a bit closer to the same brightness allowing more of the photo have a good amount of detail.  Depending on the type of light, the subject can even appear to glow faintly.  Soft lighting is much more approachable for beginners, and in general very suitable for photography.  This is why if you ever see a professional photo shoot, they will bring van loads of lights and diffusers with them.

All this light moving in through your lens eventually hits a sensor (or film) and needs to be captured.  Sometimes there's not enough to capture the image so a flash can help.  They do have their uses, but I find in practice they are too often abused by non-professionals.  In most cases, the flash (especially on a compact camera) removes the beautiful features of the environment and leaves the photo looking washed out and lacking the character of the scene.  I haven't shot with one in probably five years.

So, to begin with, please put away your flash.  You can always use it later.

Optics

One of the earliest optic systems was a pinhole camera.  In this case a small pinhole is used to allow only light moving through a very small physical location to pass from the scene onto the film or sensor.  Ideally all the light passes through a single point en route to the sensor or film.  If light passes through a larger hole, photons traveling from different points in the scene can travel along different paths still hit the sensor plane at the same location.  This results in a blurry, or out-of-focus, image.  So, in effect, the smaller the pinhole, or aperture, the larger the amount of image in focus.  

If the aperture of a pinhole camera is made larger, the entire image becomes blurrier, which is not generally what you want.  If a lens is put at the point of the aperture, the light can be directed to allow a particular location in the image to be in focus with various sizes of aperture, but at the cost of having other parts of the image out of focus.  With lens systems, the larger the aperture the smaller the area in focus from front-to-back.  The amount of the image in focus is often referred to as the depth-of-field or sometimes bokeh.

Now here is a confusing bit.  Somewhere along the long history of photography, the number indicating the aperture was called the f-number (sometimes referred to as the f-stop), which is a ratio of the focal length to the aperture diameter.  The numbers generally run between 2.8 and 22.  Excellent lenses will push the smaller side to 1.4 or even 1.2.  As defined, the smaller the f-stop the larger the aperture.  I know it's confusing at first, but you'll get used to it.  Plain and simple, the smaller the f-stop the more blurring you'll notice at areas other than the focus point.  Also, the smaller the f-stop the more light that reaches your sensor and the faster you can take an image.  In addition, sometimes terminology like fast and slow are used for lenses with a low or high f-stop value.  We'll touch on the f-stop again in the section on composition. 

 
 
 
small aperture, in focus image
large aperture, out of focus image
large aperture and lens, focus at single depth

Along with the f-stop of a lens, the other important parameter is the focal length, which is an indication of how strongly the lens converges or diverges light.  A full discussion of focal lengths is beyond the scope of this tutorial, but a few points are of great use to the new photographer.  Firstly, the larger the focal length the larger a subject appears to the camera's sensor.  Conversely, the smaller the focal length the more of the scene that can be in the image.  Once again for historical reasons, many SLR lenses are referred to in focal lengths for 35mm film.  Using this as a basis the following ranges occur:
  • 10-30mm - wide angle.  good for landscapes and making spaces appear bigger
  • 30-70mm - standard.  good for everyday use, portraits
  • 70-400mm - telephoto.  good for portraits on the smaller end (70-200), nature, sports
These numbers are primarily useful for those of you with a digital SLR camera.  For those with consumer cameras, the focal lengths are generally not given in 35mm equivalent, sorry.  One thing you may find useful though, is that this is where your 4x, 10x, 20x zoom numbers come from.  It's just the ratio of the larger number to the smaller one for a particular zoom lens.

In general with lenses there are quite a few different parameters.  Manufacturers do a lot work to reduce technical sounding errors such as chromatic aberration, vignetting, and lens flare.  The larger the aperture of the lens (ie F2.8 or less) the harder it is to make a lens sharp.  This is not for lack of trying, but rather the sensor size and physics.  With more optics comes more bulk and more cost. 

One advantage of compact cameras is that the camera and the optics are designed together.  For the higher-end, "prosumer," compact cameras, you can often find really high quality optics.  For SLR cameras, you get what you pay for.  I've found that 400-500 USD tends to be a reasonable price for an entry level DSLR lens.  Most of the professional quality lenses are found around the 1000 USD range and above. 

If you find a lens promising an incredibly large zoom range, say 10x for a DSLR, be wary.  These lenses often have problems in that either they are very slow (high, minimum f-stop) or very soft (produce blurry images).  By and large, when buying lenses you get what you pay for.  On the positive side, the lenses hold their values quite well.  My 70-200mm F2.8L retails now for almost the exact same price (actually a little more) than it did when I bought it, and I can sell it for probably 60-80% of the original cost.  A very wise friend of mine once said, "never buy a lens you're not prepared to keep for life."  I find this exceptionally good advice because once you buy a lens, you'll be reluctant to stop using it.  Even if you are really unsatisfied with it.  Better to have fewer high-quality lenses than many poor-quality ones.

Cameras

Strange that I put optics before cameras, right?  I firmly believe this is the order in which these topics should be addressed.  Optics have been around for years, and while they are making progress every year, it is not as dramatic as those seen with camera electronics in recent years.  My telephoto lens has seen three different camera bodies come and go in its lifetime.  The lens has taken great photos with all bodies, and the upgrade has been primarily due to more pixels and enhanced features.  A cheap lens and a excellent body takes worse pictures than an excellent lens and a cheap body.

Cameras are always changing and come in a variety of sizes and shapes.  To name a few:

 
phone camera
Remember the pinhole camera?  Since there's not a lot of room for optics in your phone, engineers basically opt for a pinhole camera.  Because of the need for a small aperture, the 5MP sensor doesn't get a lot of light.  These cameras work well in bright light, but really struggle in dimmer situations.  On the plus side, you can (and do) take them anywhere.

Due to the scale of this market, a large amount of effort is being put into improving these cameras.  Companies are currently working on technologies such as miniature deformable optics or even 3D light-field cameras.  Whatever happens with the optics side, they'll still have to deal with small sensors though.
 450 USD
 

 compact camera
Before the advent of cameras in mobile phones, this class was your main solution for portable cameras.  While still being small enough to fit in a pocket, they have a slightly bigger form factor and can incorporate better optics.  While they still have trouble in low-light situations, compact cameras offer more optical zoom range than smaller sized cameras. 
 50-300 USD
 
 prosumerProsumer cameras live between the professional lines and the consumer grade cameras.  These can often cost on the same order of magnitude as the lower end SLRs, but have the advantages of incredibly high-quality optics and a more compact size. 

On my path to buying a SLR I had one of these, and I think it a very interesting range in terms of price/performance.
 300-600 USD
 
 SLRSingle-lens reflex cameras are what most people envision when they think of professional cameras.  In this type of camera, there is a mirror in the path of the light through the lens that flips out of the way when an image is taken.

In the last ten years, a big push has been made by manufacturers to make this type more accessible to non-professionals.  All major SLR manufacturers have lower-cost consumer models in their lines.  Since lenses can generally be interchanged with more expensive bodies, this provides an upgrade path if one wishes.
 500-5000 USD
 
I'm sure the Nikon owners out there are already howling about how only Cannon images were used above.  So we might as well discuss this delicate subject.  The web is strewn with detritus from numerous battles of the likes of these (Coke vs. Pepsi, Linux vs. Windows, Vi vs. Emacs, dogs vs. cats, pirates vs. ninjas).  The honest truth is that if you stick to the major manufacturers, it doesn't really matter that much.  Companies like Canon and Nikon have been in fierce battle for market share for years.  If either one was clearly better, they would crush the opponent. 

There are definite differences between manufacturers and what features their cameras provide.  At times one manufacturer surpasses the other for a brief time, but in the end the manufacturers are fairly close.  That being said, I would probably recommend sticking to the major manufacturers (Canon, Nikon, to a lesser extent Olympus with SLRs) if you're looking for a high-quality camera.  If you don't believe me, take a look on the TV and see what the professionals using for photographing a news or sports event. 

Before buying a camera, make sure to check out a review of it at DP Review.  Quality is no longer just the number of megapixels the camera has.  Features to take into consideration are ones such as color resolution, dynamic range, battery life, weight, and durability, as well as advanced features like video, face tracking, burst mode, et cetera.

In the end, a lot comes down to customer preference.  I currently shoot with Canon.  In our household we have:
I personally like the Canon interface, which is generally consistent from consumer cameras through to professional bodies.  I find it a nice blend between simplicity of the interface and fast access to functionality.  Their image quality is excellent for the cameras I've owned.  Canon also has a nice selection of high-quality lenses.  If buying a SLR, the types of lenses available should be significantly more relevant that the features of the current body you're looking at because when you upgrade the body, the lenses can be reused.  You tend to be more locked into an individual manufacturer once you go down that path. 

Another major factor for me, and one often overlooked by people, was the number of my friends shooting with the same brand.  If you have the same type of camera as your friends, it's much easier to occasionally swap lenses.  In this way, I have access to a wide array of lenses for particular occasions that I can't necessarily justify buying and wouldn't come by otherwise.

Be wary of overbuying a camera. Some people decide they really want a SLR camera only to find that it is too big and bulky to take where they want.  Shops make more money when they sell you the more expensive camera, so they are a bit biased.  Don't forget to look at used cameras because a high-quality camera from 2-3 years ago will probably cost the same as a new mediocre camera.  If you have a SLR, it probably won't replace your smaller compact in all instances, so you'll end up needing both.  We'll talk about resolution in the next section, but suffice it to say that for most users a camera with more than 8-megapixel resolution should be sufficient.

Take home from this section

  • Hard vs. soft lighting
  • Leave your flash at home.
  • The lower the f-stop (aperture) the shallower the depth of field.
  • The higher the f-stop the less light available to the sensor.
  • Higher focal lengths means more magnification to the sensor.
  • You get what you pay for when buying lenses.
  • Never buy a lens you're not prepared to keep for life.
  • A cheap lens and an excellent body takes worse pictures than an excellent lens and a cheap body.


Focal plane images courtesy of Wikipedia article on camera lenses.