ISO confused?

I so confused, too.  Sorry, bad humor, I know.  Today I’d like to give a very basic explanation of what ISO is and how you can use it in your photography.

In digital photography, ISO refers to how sensitive the sensor is to light.  The higher the ISO, the more sensitive to light.  ISO is one of the three components that combine to form the exposure of a photograph, along with aperture and shutter speed.  Understanding these components and how they interact can help you take better photographs.

The higher the ISO, the brighter your photos will be, all other things kept equal.  This sounds like a good thing, right?  It is, to a point, but only to a certain extent and only under certain conditions.

There is a disadvantage to turning up the ISO.  The higher the ISO, the more noise there is in the photo.  Noise is anything that appears in the photo that was not in the actual scene, usually giving the photo a grainy appearance.  How high you can increase the ISO before noise becomes a problem varies based on the camera, the largest factor being the sensor size of the camera.  An expensive professional camera with a large sensor may be able to go up to ISO 3200 without noticeable noise.  On the flip side, a cheap point and shoot camera with a small sensor may not get past ISO 400 without noise becoming an issue.

ISO Photo

The two photos above were both shot on a tripod in a dark room.  If you look closely you can see the noise on the photo shot at ISO 6400, especially near the top of the photo.  It isn’t too bad since it was shot on a fairly nice camera but if you look at the zoomed in photo below you can definitely see the increased noise on the top half which is from the ISO 6400 photo.

ISO image zoomed in to show noise

Does this mean that high ISO is bad?  No, of course not.  Look at the first image comparing the two photos again.  Yes, there is noise there but if you weren’t looking for it, the noise wouldn’t be that noticeable.  Let’s go back to the beginning again.  A higher ISO means more light.  The other ways to get more light to get the correct exposure are by adjusting the aperture or the shutter speed.  The aperture on these photos was already as large as it could be so the lower ISO on the left hand image meant the shutter speed was slower to allow enough light into the camera.  What if the camera hadn’t be on a tripod?

ISO 800 image shot with no tripod

There is the result.  Because of the slow shutter speed the photo came out blurry.  And the blurriness is much more noticeable than the noise in the image above.  This is an example of a time when it makes sense to crank up the ISO even if it means there’s a little noise. Any time you’re shooting poorly lit scenes by hand and don’t want to use flash (or the subject is far enough away that flash wouldn’t be effective), it’s better to have some noise than a blurry picture.  Or if you are using a tripod but there are objects in your photo which are moving, you may be better off with some noise but those objects being sharp instead of coming out blurry.

On the flip side, there is no point in using a higher ISO in brighter scenes (a sunny day, for example) when there is already enough light coming into the camera.  If you’re using a tripod and shooting a stationary subject, keeping the ISO a bit lower and allowing a longer shutter speed may provide a better result.  Most cameras automatically adjust the ISO pretty well on their own, staying at ISO 100 in any fairly bright scene and only increasing it when the lighting of the photo you’re taking needs it.  However, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on it, especially in darker scenes were you may want to make it higher or lower than what your camera thinks it should be.

I hope this makes ISO a little more clear, understanding how ISO works is a key tool to understanding how to get the most out of your camera.  I not so confused, now.

Until next time, happy shooting.

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Photography Vocabulary 101

If you’re new to digital photography, all of the photography lingo can sound like Greek.  So, here’s a list of the commonly used terms and very simple definitions of what they mean.

  • Point and Shoot – a small camera, the kind that can fit in your pocket
  • DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) – larger more expensive cameras which have a body which you can attach different lenses to, used by professionals but also by hobbyists as well
  • Megapixels – the number of little dots that make up an image taken by a camera; commonly misinterpreted to be the biggest determinant of camera quality by consumers
  • ISO – the sensitivity of the sensor to light; higher ISO can help to take pictures in low light settings but can also cause noise
  • Aperture – how large the opening is that lets light into the camera; larger aperture can help create shallow depth of field
  • F-Stop – measurement of aperture; smaller F-Stop equals larger aperture and vice versa
  • Depth of Field – refers to how deep the plane of a photo is which is in focus; a photo with a shallow depth of field has a blurry background
  • Shutter Speed – how long the camera keeps the shutter open to take a picture; slow shutter speeds can cause blurry photos but can also be used for stylistic purposes
  • Aperture Priority (Av) – mode on DSLR where you select the aperture and the camera automatically determines shutter speed and ISO
  • Shutter Priority (Tv) – mode on DSLR where you select the shutter speed and camera automatically determines the aperture and ISO
  • Manual (M) – mode on DSLR where you select the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO
  • RAW – a photo file format which must be processed on a computer before the photo can be printed or shared; allows greater flexibility during post-processing but is a larger file
  • JPEG – the most common photography file type; photos are instantly ready to be shared after being taken but can still be processed; smaller files than RAW and not as many adjustments can be made in post-processing
  • Post-Processing – making adjustments to the photo which was taken; common adjustments include cropping, adjusting brightness, colors, and contrast; popular post-processing programs include Photoshop (and Photoshop Elements), Lightroom, Aperture, and Picasa
  • Photoshop – the most popular photo editing program; images which have been digitally altered are often referred to as “photoshopped”
  • Full Frame Sensor – A DSLR with a sensor the same size as 35mm film camera
  • Crop Sensor – cameras with smaller sensors than 35mm film cameras resulting in an image which is cropped compared to taking a photo in a full frame camera with a lens of the same focal length
  • Focal Length – measured in mm; think of it as similar to zoom in point and shoot cameras, larger focal lengths in lenses are like larger zoom
  • Wide Angle Lens – lenses with small focal length (35mm and under), used for shooting large scenes, like landscapes or buildings
  • Telephoto Lens – lenses with large focal length (85mm and over), used for shooting smaller objects or objects a long ways away
  • Lens Hood – a piece of plastic which screws on to the end of the lens to block the sun and prevent glare on the lens
  • White balance – camera adjusts what it thinks white (and thus the other colors) should look like based on what type of light you are shooting in
  • High Dynamic Range (HDR) – a type of photography in which multiple photos of different exposures are combined to form an image which is able to display both very bright and very dark areas properly exposed in the same image
  • Flickr ( – A popular photo sharing site where people upload their photos to share them with others

Lots of exciting stuff coming up soon, including a photo video from France, technical articles on ISO, aperture, and shutter speed (all made as simple as possible), and things pros say which you shouldn’t listen to as a new photographer.  Until next time, happy shooting.

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5 Mistakes No Photographer Should Make…

…and I’ve made them all.  These things are mostly common sense, but it can’t hurt to be reminded of them, or to learn them through my mistakes instead of your own if you’re a new photographer.

1. The camera can’t take pictures if there isn’t a memory card in it. This may seem like the most obvious thing in the world, but two days ago I went out for a walk with the dogs, camera in hand, and realized 10 minutes later that there was no card in the camera because I had left it in the computer after copying photos off of the SD card.  It’s a good idea to make sure you have an extra memory card in your camera bag in case you should forget to take the card out of your computer after copying files.  Memory cards are cheap, there’s not reason not to have at least one extra around in case you need it.  It’s also a good idea to put the card back in your camera as soon as you finish copying files over, or like me, you may forget about it.

2. The camera can’t take pictures if the batteries are dead. Again, absolute common sense.  While we’re at it, the camera can’t take pictures if there is no battery in it.  But how many people have you seen have the battery in their camera die before?  I’ll admit it, I’ve done it before, but never again.  Buy yourself an extra battery and keep it in your camera bag, they’re cheap and it’s good security in case your battery should die, or you should forget your main battery in the charger (not saying I’ve ever done that before…).  And don’t make the mistake of thinking that since you have two batteries you can wait until the second one is almost dead to charge either of them, treat the second one as for emergencies only and you’ll never find yourself staring at the perfect shot with no juice left to take it.

3. Buy yourself a tripod. You can get a halfway decent tripod for fairly inexpensive and I guarantee you’ll get use out of it at some point.  Night photography, long exposure photography, self photography, HDR photography…  It may not be something you’ll use on a daily basis but it’ll help you get photos you couldn’t otherwise get.  The photo to the right of the Magic Fountain in Barcelona, Spain is a perfect example of a shot I never would have gotten without a tripod.  I have plenty of blurry photos from my pre-tripod days to remind me how good of an investment my tripod is even if it doesn’t get used that often.

4.  When in doubt, take the photo. If you’re out taking photos and you can’t decide whether or not to take a photo of something, do it.  There’s absolutely no down side.  Memory cards are so big and so cheap now that you should never run out of space and if you decide later that you don’t like the photo, it’s easy to delete it.  It’s not like the old days of film when every photo you took cost money.  You’ll never regret taking a photo that you don’t like but you will regret it if there’s something you consider taking a photo of and don’t, then later decide that you wish you had the photo.

5.  Backup, backup, backup. If you only have one copy of your photos you’re going to lose them sooner or later.  Hard drives die.  Laptops get stolen.  Fires, floods, mudslides, small children, pets, and the Loch Ness Monster all have the potential to destroy your computer and everything saved on it.  At the very least, get an external hard drive and keep a copy of your photos on there.  Better yet, make sure you have a copy of your photos off site whether it be keeping a hard drive at a friend’s house or using an online backup site like Carbonite.  An external hard drive won’t do you much good if it’s sitting next to the computer in the house that just burned down or was taken by the same burglar that stole your computer.  And never wait to copy files off of a flash drive until after it has gone through the washing machine in the pocket of your jeans.

That’s all for today, not exactly rocket surgery or brain science but sometimes it’s the simplest things that make the difference.  Until next time, happy shooting

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Sharing isn’t just for kindergarden

There are plenty of times when it’s easy to find motivation to take photographs: traveling, getting together with family or friends, parades, sporting events, birthdays, etc.  No one has a problem finding reasons to pull out their cameras on these occasions.  However, what about those times when you’re at home and there’s nothing in particular giving you a reason to shoot?  This is something I’ve come to know well, I spent 5 months traveling in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.  Obviously in that time I had no shortage of motivation to shoot, in fact I have a couple thousand photos still waiting to be edited.  But now that I’m home, seeing the same neighborhood every day, what is the motivation to keep pulling my camera out every day?

This is the first in a series of articles providing ideas to help you find the motivation to take more photos and to hone your skills at the same time.

As the title suggests, this article is going to focus on sharing.  With the internet it has become so easy to share photographs with others.  Facebook, Twitter, E-mail, and Smart Phones have made it extremely easy to share your photos with your friends and family.  This is great, photography is so much better when you can share your work with others.  However, your friends and family are most likely interested in the pictures that result from the times mentioned above when it’s easy to find motivation to shoot and might not be as interested in your “everyday” photography.

Luckily there are plenty of other photographers on the internet, sharing their photos and providing feedback on the photos of others.  For me, knowing that other people are viewing my photos motivates me to keep shooting.  It’s like having a buddy to go to the gym with, it’s easy to find an excuse to skip going if you do it alone, but if you go with someone you don’t want to let them down by not going.  If you know other people view and enjoy your photos, you feel motivated to keep taking pictures and keep uploading them.

One great resource for photographers to share their work on the internet is Flickr.  I, like many people I’d imagine, didn’t understand the “right” way to use Flickr at first.  It’s simple, you upload  your photos and that’s all there is to it, right?  Not so much, Flickr is a community; to get the most out of it, you need to put something into it.  I have three recommendations in particular.  By following these ideas myself I’ve found that I get more out of Flickr than I used to.

My first recommendation is to look at the photos other people have uploaded and comment on them.  This serves two purposes, the first being that looking at other people’s photos and analyzing them will help you better your own photography.  The second is that the more you comment on other photos, the more likely people are to comment on your photos.

The second way to get more out of Flickr is to join groups.  There are tons of groups on Flickr, from groups based on location to groups based on the camera you shoot with to groups based on subject matter.  Live in Oregon and love shooting photos of waterfalls?  There’s a Flickr group for that.  Find groups that fit your interests, join them, and get involved.

My final piece of advice, which I picked up from a podcast I was listening to, is to only upload a photo or two every day.  This will motivate you to put more effort into the photos you do upload.  If you find a shot you like and you know it’s the one you’re going to upload, you’ll spend more time focusing on the fine details of composition and post-processing and create a better photo.  The second advantage is that by only uploading your most interesting photos people are more likely to view and comment on them since they won’t get lost amongst your other, potentially less interesting photos.

There are other sites out there similar to Flickr.  I’m sure those sites are perfectly good as well, Flickr just happens to be the most popular site and the one that I personally use.  But the concepts apply equally to other photo sharing sites.

I hope you found this information useful.  Until next time, happy shooting…and uploading…and viewing…and commenting…you get the idea.

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Welcome to the land of photography

Welcome to my new website.  In the coming days, weeks, months you will find this page filled with photos, my thoughts on photography, ideas to make your photography better, and monkeys.  Seriously, who doesn’t love monkeys?  I am by no means a professional photographer but I hope to provide information that I have found extremely useful as I work on my own photography skills.

I started listening to photography podcasts before I purchased my first DSLR about a year ago.  I’ve also started reading blogs from several photographers whose work I enjoy.  A lot of it is great stuff but it is largely aimed at people who know their stuff already and like many areas of technology, it can get a little too technical for the “Average Joe” sometimes.  I plan to do the opposite, making things as simple as possible.  I plan to provide practical suggestions for improving your photography: ways to get motivated to take more and better photos, simple post-processing that assumes you have Picasa or maybe Photoshop Elements (not everyone has $600 to buy Photoshop), and insight into how I shot my best photos.

Check out my new Flickr site, it is also new.  I’m following the advice of one of the photographers from a podcast I listen to and only uploading one or two photos per day but making sure they’re quality photos.  Also, check the links page for some of my favorite photography related websites and podcasts.  Some of the info may be a little advanced for the beginner photographer but the information is really good.  Lastly, follow me on Twitter if you want to read about what I ate for lunch today.  Just kidding, I try to only post interesting things, so I won’t bother you with tweets about the pizza I had for lunch today.

Until we meet again, happy shooting!

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