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  Photo Basics

The camera. If you're serious about good photos, you won't just shoot with your cell phone. There's a reason you see pros hauling all that insanely heavy and bulky equipment up the slope. But even if you routinely use your phone to take photos, you can learn something from these lessons. Or at least, you'll understand why you aren't getting the picture you'd envisioned.

I recommend an SLR (single-lens reflex, where the viewfinder actually looks through the lens, not through a second peephole), with a zoom lens. A 28-80 zoom lens isn't too pricey, and will take almost every photo you need. You can quickly frame your photo using the zoom. If you plan to shoot flowers and small details (bugs and insects) the lens should also allow macro focusing.

The camera should be smart, but it shouldn't think it's smarter than you are: It's nice to have autofocus, but you should be able to focus manually or lock the focus while awaiting some action. You should be able to easily control the exposure manually, for example, to specify a shutter setting. (When the bike has major speed, your shutter can't be slow.) And it's nice if it has a pop-up flash, so you can put a little "fill" on a biker's face. Those helmet shadows can be murder.

Add-ons. If you take pictures of mountains, you should buy a polarizing filter. They aren't cheap (around $40), but you'll be amazed what a difference they make. By rotating the polarizer, you can darken the sky so the mountains stand out. You can bring out colors. Trust me. It's worth it.

The deep blue of this sky is courtesy of a polarizer. Without it, the trees would just look black against a powder-blue sky.

The film. Your film is an emulsion of chemical particles. (When the particles are hit by light of certain wavelengths, the chemical changes. The developing process converts this chemical change into colored dyes within the emulsion.)

The speed with which a film reacts to light is called an ASA or ISO rating. A higher number means the film exposes more quickly (with less light). To make the film expose with less light, the individual particles are made larger -- grainier. That's why you want to use the slowest (lowest ASA number) film that you can.

"Slower" film -- lower ASA number -- has more (and finer) particles in the emulsion, and can provide richer colors plus more subtle details. It's also more forgiving if you don't get the exposure absolutely perfect. But the slower film may not expose properly when you're forced to use a fast shutter speed (see below) in low light. Telephoto lenses also reduce the amount of light available, so a faster film may be required.

ISO 200 is a good compromise for typical biking photography. And for any ASA rating, print film is MUCH more forgiving of imperfect exposure than slide film.

Get the exposure right. Or, at least close.  Think you'll just let your camera's microprocessor handle everything for you? Think again. To get the picture you want, you often need to override the automatic settings. So you need a camera that lets you take control.

You have two variables to consider:
Shutter Speed = what fraction of a second the film is exposed. The "125" on your shutter speed control means the film is exposed to light for 1/125th of a second. Longer exposure times mean a greater chance of blur as your subject moves. In general, close-up action photography should be at 1/250th second or faster.
F-stop = how wide the lens is opened. Larger numbers mean the opening is smaller. For example, f-16 is a smaller opening than f-8.

Which of these variables is most important? It depends on the type of picture you'll be taking. For rapid action photos, you want a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. But for landscapes, you'll want to keep both foreground and background in focus. To do this, you must make the lens opening as small as possible, so you select a larger f-stop. When "depth of field" is important, the size of the lens opening may be the most important variable.

This is a "shutter speed critical" photo. I set the shutter for 250, then let the camera's light meter decide on the correct lens opening (f-stop). If I'd let the camera's automatic system select the shutter speed on this cloudy day, the photo of Chad would have been blurry.

Clouds can mess up your exposure. Your automatic camera will make the milky sky gray and everything else will be black.  Whether manually or using the camera's auto-exposure, lock the exposure while aiming at the rider. Then tilt the camera up to shoot. 

This is an "f-stop critical" photo. I wanted to "eliminate" branches and leaves from the background of this photo, or the globe mallow would not stand out. So I opened the aperature all the way to f-2.8, then let the camera select a fast shutter speed to compensate.

Once you've decided which variable is critical, you set it, and let the other one change to get the right exposure. For example, if you narrow the lens opening so less light enters the camera, you reduce the shutter speed (so the film is exposed longer) to compensate.

So as you read the numbers on your camera, the principle to remember is:
           Bigger number = less light.
         Smaller number = more light.

There's a "see-saw" relationship between f-stop and shutter speed. For any given exposure, if you increase the f-stop number (which makes the opening smaller), you decrease the shutter speed number (making the exposure longer). Or, if you decrease the f-stop number, you increase the shutter speed number. All of the following are identical exposures:
             f-stop     shutter
               f-11          60
               f-8            125
               f-5.6         250

This photo of Mike in Pritchett Canyon was taken on an overcast day, just before sundown, in a deep sandstone canyon. There wasn't much light. But this was an action photo -- "shutter speed critical" -- because he was going to come  flying.

My strategy: (1) Lock the focus on manual. (2) Set the shutter to 125, accepting a teeny bit of blur. (3) Set to maximum aperature (lowest f-stop) and override the camera's exposure management system. Then I let the photo shop "pull" the photo out. Not bad for an "underexposure."

The focus. Of course, all is lost if your image is blurry in the final photo. The light needs to be bent precisely so every ray that leaves a particular spot on your subject strikes at one tiny place on your film. If your subject is far away, the light rays arrive at the lens traveling nearly parallel. A bit of bending puts them all on the same spot of your film. If the object you're photographing is closer, the rays of light are spreading out more. These light rays must be bent back inward to a greater degree so they can meet at the same spot on the film. The camera's focus adjustment moves elements within the lens so the light rays are bent precisely for whatever distance you set. (With cheap cameras, the focus distance is set. This means that these cameras will give you a blurry image when shooting close-up.)

The camera's f-stop setting affects how much is in focus -- called "depth of field."  If the opening behind the lens is smaller (high f-stop number), there's less light, but the light rays that make it through the smaller hole are traveling more parallel. Therefore, for light waves originating from different distances away, the amount of bending required is more alike. So the focus is less critical, and more objects will appear in clear focus.

For this photo of Matt overlooking the Colorado River, I wanted to be sure that both the biker and the terrain were in crisp focus. The day was overcast, so the camera wanted to shoot with a wide aperature. Not good for depth of field.

So I narrowed the lens opening (selected a high f-stop number), and let the camera select a slower shutter speed to compensate. The narrow lens opening increases the amount that's in focus.

Conversely, when the aperature is wide, the focus must be more exact to be sure the object you want to photograph is crisp in detail.

Focus (and the depth of field) is also affected by the type of lens you're using. Telephoto lenses and macro lenses are the most sensitive -- they must be focused very precisely, because the depth of field is very narrow. On the other hand, wide-angle lenses give much better depth of field. So if you're wondering whether you'll get a rapidly-moving biker in focus, dial your telephoto back to a wider field of view.

Please go on to the next lesson!

All photos and text on this website are
copyrighted works of Bruce Argyle.

Photo Basics

Composition Guidelines

Shooting Landscapes

Taking Action Photos

Flowers and Detail Photos

Pictures of People

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