Camera resolution and sensor size:
What kind of camera to get and the number of mega pixels you get should be based on what you really plan to take pictures of, and how serious you want to get. If you just want a camera that you can take a picture of the family dog every holiday, or
occasional snapshots of the kids, then a simple consumer point and shoot that is 5-7 megapixels will be more than fine. They feature smaller sized sensors that will yield prints up to 8x10 or 11x14 easy, possibly 13x19 with some resizing.
If you plan on taking pictures more seriously, or want to get huge prints (13x19, 16x20, 24x36) from your camera, and you plan on really getting into photography, then you'll want to go with a digital SLR with at least 8mp, preferably more (10, 12, even 16). You'll also want to look into getting a APS-C or full frame sensor D SLR body, as the larger sensor will have larger photosites (the individual "pixels" on a camera sensor that record light) The bigger the photo site, the more detail it can capture, thus the better images you can capture with more detail and more dynamic range (range of recorded light from shadows to highlights). below you can see the size of a consumer sensor on the left, and a typical aps-c sized sensor on a prosumer or pro digital SLR...the SLR is about 5 times larger, thus able to capture more detail.
Everyone that has an SLR should have at least a few filters, and some are more necessary than others. I'd recommend you purchase a uv or skylight filter for each lens you have, and screw it on...and then never take it off. Why you ask? Because a UV or skylight filter will not detract from your image at all, in fact they'll help cut down on UV rays coming into your camera, making images if anything a little clearer, and they'll protect your expensive lenses from dust, scratches, and getting dinged up. I have one on each of my lenses, and they have saved me having to buy new lenses many times. It's alot easier to replace a 10-15$ filter than a 1400$ lens.
Polarizer: A polarizer will help cut down on reflections and glare in such objects as water, and windows. I'm not gonna get into the technical aspects, but a polarizer is also a must have filter, at least I recommend it. It can help make sky's bluer , grass greener, etc...It boosts saturation in colors and boosts contrast in your images...as well as cutting down on glare. See the images below. The one on the left was without a polarizer, the one on the right is...notice the lack of reflections?
Ever wonder how photographers get water to blend together like its a silky sheet? Simple. Use a tripod and then use a shutter speed ranging from 1/2 second to 2-4 seconds...depending on the effect you want. Your results will look something like this:
Photography is one of the few arts where it's ok to break the rules, but only after you learn the basics. One key thing is composition, and the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is a guideline that will help you compose your images better, to make them more visually appealing to the human eye, without as much regard for the actual subject. Imagine dividing your image up into 9 squares, so that it would look something like this.
As you can see, the horizon falls on the bottom third, and the image is composed such that the tree falls on the right third. If the horizon were half way up the image, or the tree were in the middle of the shot, it would not be as naturally appealing to the human eye as if it were setup the way it is in that photo. While you don't have to follow the rule of thirds every time you take a picture, and in some cases it may be better to NOT use the rule of thirds, for beginners you will see your images improve dramatically if key points in your shot fall along the intersections of the thirds.
Aperture directly controls Depth of Field, and it does this by opening the iris in your camera lens to different sized openings, expressed as fractional numbers. I'm not gonna get too technical but a good general thing to remember is that each higher number is 1/2 the size of the numer before it, and the same in reverse. so for example..if you have a lens that is F8, and then go change it to F11, the diaphragm is half as small at F11 as it was at F8. The lower the number for Aperture settings, the wider the opening on your lens is, the more light that comes in, and the shallower your depth of field (explained later) will be. Here is a diagram showing you the size of different Aperture sizes, expressed as "F-Stops"
Shutter speed controls how fast the camera takes the picture. Shutter speed is a creative tool that you can use to get the effects you want in your image. Want to make a helicopters blades stop in mid air, as if it were hanging there? use a shutter speed of 1/500 of a second or more. Want to make running water look like a smooth silky waterway? use a shutter speed of 1/2 - 2 seconds. The longer the shutter stays open, the more light falls on the camera sensor, and the more things get blurred if they are in motion.
Back in the days of film, ISO was a measurement of how sensitive film was. The lower the iso, the more light it took to expose the film, but the less "speckles" (grain) there were in the image. The higher the ISO, the less amount of light it took to expose it, and the more grain you'd see. Now in digital cameras, ISO is how sensitive the sensor is. I'm not going to get into CCD/CMOS gain and how it actually works, thats too technical for this guide. But it basically operates the same way. When you turn up the ISO on a digital camera, the sensor in your camera becomes more sensitive to light falling on it, thus it can take pictures in darker and darker conditions, but at the same time, you get something called Noise, which is the digital equivalent of film grain. Noise can be reduced using programs such as Neat Image or Noise Ninja, and many professional digital SLR cameras are getting better at reducing high-ISO noise, so much so that some cameras shooting at 1600 or even 3200 ISO look as if they were shot at only ISO 400 or 800.
Out of focus control (depth of field)
Ever wonder how you see some photos and only part of it will be in focus, and then the rest is blured out, and then on some other photos, like landscapes, everything is in focus? The technique at work here is called Depth of field.
There are 2 ways to control DOF, but I'm only going to talk about the real one, and not the photoshop one. The real way involves controlling the size of the Aperture. The wider your lens, the less things are in focus beyond and in front of what you are focused on. This is kinda hard for me to explain, so I hope these two images below will help you figure out what i mean. The one on the left was taken with an Aperture setting of 2.4, the one on the right was taken with a setting of F8. Notice how in the left shot, only the first card is in focus, while in the right shot, all the cards are in focus. notice: you will be hard pressed to find many lenses that are faster (wider) than 2.8 there are a few 2, 1.8, 1.4, and possibly even 1.2 lenses out there, but they are all prime lenses (single focal length) lenses.
Theres an old saying that goes "just because it costs more doesn't necessarilly mean its better. Well, for somethings that is true, but in photography, it rarely is not. If you were presented with a 90$ lens, and a similar lens, but costing 900$, chances are you will get much better usability and images from the 900$ version.
Many things make up lenses, but they have 3 basic parts. the glass elements inside that focus and bend the light so that it falls straight onto the sensor, the electronics to control focusing of the lens, among other things, and the body of the lens. Cheap lenses are cheap for a reason. I will use two examples from Nikon below. (Canon fans please bear with me, I'm a Nikon guy, and i know you have comperable lenses to these two).
First lens: AF Zoom-NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4-5.6G ~$133.00
Second lens:AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED ~$1700$
So as you can see the two have similar zoom ranges, and for all intents and purposes, basically are the exact same lens, however one costs 1500$ more than the other..whats the difference? Many! First of all, the 70-200 VR lens is a faster lens, which means it has a wider aperture so you can use it in lower light environments, such as sports arenas. Also, it is a solid 2.8 meaning that weather you zoom to 70mm or 200mm, your widest aperture can be 2.8. the 70-300 lens starts at F4 when zoomed out, but as you zoom the lens, it goes up till it hits 5.6...so you need more light to be able to use this lens. Also the 70-300 is an external zoom lens, meaning it extends out from the body, whereas the 70-200 is internal, so the lens doesn't change shape or rotate as you zoom. The VR lens also has Vibration reduction, which allows you to shoot with slower shutter speeds hand held...great for when you forgot your tripod. The VR lens has better coatings on the lens elements that help control ghosting, color fringing, and other problems that you might see on the 70-300. And last but not least, construction. The 70-200 VR lens is made out of magnesium alloy, while the 70-300 is made of plastic. Trust me I've dropped my 70-200 many times, and it has taken a beating very well. You drop the 70-300, and my guess is you'll have a handful of little lens pieces to pick up.
Oh and one added feature i forgot, the 70-200 VR lens focuses much faster than the 70-300. So as you can see in just this one example, you get a much more solid lens, that will produce better looking pictures when you go with the lens that costs more.
Lenses part 2
When you set out to buy a D-SLR, you'll want to think about what you'll want to mostly be shooting before buying your lenses. If you are unsure, then my recommendation is to start off with at least 2 zooms. something along the lines of 24-85 or so, and then something like 70-200. That way with just two lenses you can cover a range of 10x zoom, without spending thousands of dollars. When you start to get good at taking pictures, or decide you really want to get into specialized markets, then you could go with something like a macro lens, a fisheye lens, or specialty prime lenses that are good for certain things, such as 85 and 105mm lenses which make EXCELLENT lenses to use if you shoot people. if enough people want to know why certain lenses, such as the 85 and 105mm focal lengths are good for people, and non say, a 35mm lens, or a 200mm lens, then i'll add something to this later, but thats getting more technical.
White Balance is the cameras ability to adjust colors to match the lighting you are shooting under. The difference between the human eye and cameras is that the brain can auto correct for changes in light temperature, while a camera cannot. In the film world, you can either buy special film (tungsten lighting or daylight balanced film...among others, or you can purchase filters so that you can shoot daylight balanced film under fluorescent or tungsten lighting....for example. The problem with digital cameras though is that they aren't smart, and they can't always figure out what the lighting conditions are, even when using auto mode. So here is a quick guide to what white balance settings to use for each type of light.
Flash - Use this only when using a large amount of flash in your images (on camera flash, not daylight balanced strobes). Particularly in night shots or indoor when you don't have much other light illuminating your scene.
Florescent This one is a tricky setting, because there are different types of florescent lights. There are daylight balanced lights, and then there are standard lights, cold cathode fluorescent and many others, but generally this will get you within the ball park and can be touched up later. The only alternative to this is if you your images start to look a little orange or red, youll want to adjust your white balance up, possibly to daylight or the cloudy setting.
Tungsten Tungsten lights produce a more orange or red tone of light, as they are lower in color temperature, so if you were to use a daylight setting instead of tungsten, you would get images that turned out tinted blue.
Daylight and cloudy These two i lumped together because they are rather tricky. I personally shoot with a cloudy setting for all my outdoor shots, regardless if its blue sky or overcast. Why? because it produces a slightly warmer looking image than daylight, which will give you a neutral look. If shooting in a studio however with daylight balanced strobes, then you would want to use that, or if you want neutral color setttings outdoors during a sunny day, then use the daylight setting, but I prefer to use the cloudy setting as it gives me a much more pleasing look to my outdoor portraits.
Automatic and Manual If you have a decent camera, and are shooting in mixed lighting conditions, then I would recommend using auto and letting the camera figure it out, as MOST of the time it does a pretty good job. Another alternative if you have a D-SLR is to take a white card, hold it out in front of the camera in the light you are going to be shooting in, and use your cameras manual button to take a white balance reading off the card. You can use a plain white sheet of paper, just focus the camera manually to infinity on the sheet and set the white balance to it. Each camera is different, so read your manual on how to set custom white balances. Just make sure you change it back when you change lighting scenarios or you'll get funky looking shots.
Tripods, Monopods and Ball Heads
Hand holding a camera is how you'll probably take most of your photos, but what if you're shooting at night, or in a room with very low light, or want to do a group photo or something? Then you'll need a tripod or Monopod. I'm just going to give a brief overview of a monopod and tripod since most people should know what they are already, this is mostly going to be focused on Ball heads.
Tripods: A tripod is a three legged stand with a 1,2 or 3 way head on it. Normally they collapse to a smaller size using telescoping legs, and may have a center column that also extends to increase its reach, some as tall as 5 or 6 feet. They fold up nicely, are compact, and usually light weight.
Monopod: A monopod is similar to a tripod, except it only has one telescoping leg. They are useful for when you don't have time to setup a tripods legs, don't have the space to set one up, or want a camera stand that also acts as a walking stick
Ball Head: A ball head, as its name implies, consists of a ball with a camera mount on it. While a regular tripod can usually only move forward, backward, left, right, and maybe rotate on its axis, a ball head fluidly moves in almost a full circle anywhere you want it, and usually has a quick clamp on it to secure it in the position you want. They allow for more fluid movement of the head, and also allow you to easily put the camera in an angle or position that might take forever using a tripod head. While they are expensive (150$ up to 300 or more) they are a nice addition to your tripod/monopod, and screw on to the tripod. They all come with quick release plates as well so you can take the camera on or off with one hand.
Tonight when I get home I will add the Flash section, as well as how cameras see your scene. I would do it now, but im at work and those sections will take a long time to write, so look for that update tonight.
Sorry for not updating in a while, I've been pretty busy, I just added the tripod section and will have the other 2 uploaded tonight.
Still to add
-Flashes and flash modes on your camera (rear curtain, slow-sync...etc)
-tips for how the camera sees the world, and how to adjust it so blacks are black, and whites are white, instead of grey
-other stuff i can't think of right now cuz it's too late.
I am also open to answering any questions. I am by no means a professional, but I've been taking pictures for about 8-9 years now and have learned a great deal from others, so I feel its my turn to pass some of that knowledge on to other people to help them learn. If you got a question about something, ask away and I'll add it to the guide as a kinda FAQ section.
I'll keep updating this when I have more time to write stuff, also its been a while since I've shot much since I was in the military so some of my knowledge is rusty, but I'll do my best to provide quick beginners info that you can find in one place. If anyone has questions please feel free to ask and i'll add them into the guide
Edited by SirEvan, 18 April 2008 - 17:14.