What is Photography? History and Definition
Photography is much more complex than taking photos on a camera. Photography in its most basic definition dates back to ancient China, where the use of a camera obscura was first documented by a Chinese philosopher in the fifth century B.C. A camera obscura is the phenomenon where a small pinhole on a wall of a dark room allows light to come in. On the wall opposite to the pinhole, an upside-down image of the outside is illuminated. The science behind this strange phenomenon lies in the basic principles of optics, the study of light. Light travels in straight lines until it is blocked by a material, in which case the angle of the light changes. This concept of capturing light and forming an image was studied for hundreds of years, leading to the invention of microscopes to look at tiny living organisms, telescopes to look at the stars, and cameras to take pictures.
Benefits of Photography
Learning how to use a camera to take decent pictures has many benefits. Even as a hobby, photography is very rewarding. You can capture moments and emotions that you can remember forever; birthdays, promotions, trips, or reunions can become great memories to look back on. Even as an amateur, you can earn some cash by taking photos for friends and family if you improve your skills. As the world becomes increasingly digitized, photography is an important medium of sharing information, marketing, and networking with others. Businesses like restaurants and retail constantly use photography to advertise their products, and having this skill can provide a major advantage in the workforce.
Photography: The Exposure Triangle
The basics of photography lie in a three-fold balance between aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. These three factors make up the exposure triangle. You can think of exposure as the overall quality of light in a photo. Some cameras automatically adjust the exposure, but it is useful to be familiar with these settings in order to produce more artistic and unique photos.
1. Photography: Aperture
Aperture refers to the size of the iris of the camera lens, which controls the depth-of-field. Aperture is measured by the f-number that tells how wide the iris is open. A low f-number means more light will be let in by the lens and a high f-number allows less light to be let in by the lens. Aperture doesn’t just control brightness; it also controls the focal length. A low f-number has a shallow depth of field, meaning a smaller portion of the photo will be in focus. This is great for portraits of people or taking close-up pictures of objects. A high f-number has a wide depth of field, meaning most of the picture is focused, which is ideal for wide landscapes.
2. Photography: ISO
ISO controls the camera’s sensitivity to light. ISO does not have anything to do with the lens, but rather with the camera’s digital sensor. A high ISO will brighten up photos, but with a cost. High ISO will also increase the noise of the photo, which makes it grainy.
3. Photography: Shutter Speed
As its name suggests, shutter speed is how fast the shutter is. This controls how long the sensor is exposed to light. A fast shutter speed, such as 1/200, will have a sharp photo even if the subject of the camera is moving. Fast shutter speeds also result in darker photos, since the time that light is exposed is very short. Slow shutter speeds are great for still landscape photos. They let in a lot of light, and so photos are brighter. However, since the shutter is slow, that means subjects that are moving will be very blurry.
Digital Camera Types for Beginners
Modern cameras diverge into two main categories: digital and film. Film cameras were invented before digital cameras, and are still very prominent among photography enthusiasts. Here I will go over the advantages and disadvantages of the three main digital camera types: compact digital, DSLR, and mirrorless.
1. Compact Digital Cameras
Also known as Point-and-Shoot cameras, compact digital cameras are the most easy to use for photography beginners. These cameras automatically adjust the exposure to the background, so all you have to do is push a button to take solid high-definition photos. The downsides of owning this type of camera is that you usually cannot manually adjust shutter speed or aperture, which can limit your creative freedom. Compact Digital Cameras might not be the best option for those who want to go professional and experiment with different styles of photography. Additionally, compact digital cameras do not allow for the changing of different lenses as it comes with a lens already attached. However, if you are wanting a simple, intuitive, and light-weight camera that can shoot high definition photos without much work, these are the ones for you.
2. DSLR Cameras
DSLR stands for digital single lens reflex, which refers to how these cameras work. DSLR cameras are the most popular among professionals and commercial work because of the ability to manually adjust all settings. They also have a wide variety of compatible lenses, making it the ideal camera for many pros and amateurs. On the other hand, DSLR cameras can run on the heavier side compared to the compact digital cameras. They are also more expensive, and some of them can sell for around a thousand dollars. Companies like Canon, Sony, and Nikon sell very popular DSLRs that are more affordable ($200-600) while still offering amazing quality.
3. Mirrorless Cameras
Mirrorless cameras are similar to DSLR, but use an electronic viewfinder instead of a mirror. Mirrorless cameras are newer than DSLR and thus don’t have as much lens variety as DSLR, but this will likely increase as mirrorless cameras are becoming more popular. One of the main advantages of mirrorless cameras is the compact size and weight compared to the DSLR cameras. Even with the smaller size, mirrorless cameras maintain the same high quality imaging as DSLR cameras. Mirrorless cameras can also be a cheaper alternative to a DSLR, which are also offered by most companies.
Although all these different options for cameras can be overwhelming to a beginner photographer, don’t get anxious about the equipment. Photography is all about practice, rather than what model camera or lens you have. As famous photographer Chris Jarvis said, “The gear you can’t afford is not the barrier that’s keeping you from success. Gear has very little to do with photography.” Even with your phone camera, don’t be afraid to experiment with different lighting and angles. You’d be surprised to see what beautiful images come out of your front yard, your grandmother’s old dresser, or the evening sky.
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Paulussen, Frederic. “The Personal Advantages Of Doing Photography At Any Level.” Feb. 11, 2019. https://www.fredericpaulussen.be/advantages-photography/
Wilgus, Jack and Beverly. “What is a camera obscura?” BrightBytes. http://brightbytes.com/cosite/what.html
“What are the Different Types of Cameras Used for Photography?” 42 West. June 9, 2017. https://www.adorama.com/alc/what-are-the-different-types-of-cameras-used-for-photography
Cooke, Alex. “The Exposure Triangle: Understanding How Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO Work Together.” Fstoppers. June 7, 2015. https://fstoppers.com/education/exposure-triangle-understanding-how-aperture-shutter-speed-and-iso-work-together-72878
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