My husband and I were casually trying to get pregnant in 2014 when we booked our first cruise to Bermuda. A few days before we were to set sail, we realized that we had no camera. My old point-and-shoot had been lost a few years earlier (which still makes me mad because that the was best camera, and I never lose anything!). In the era of cell phone cameras, I just hadn’t needed a standalone camera. I had survived both Y2K and my grandmother’s fears that her refrigerator was going to explode, but I was skeptical that a phone-based camera would perform well in a foreign land. Hoping we’d be pregnant soon, I decided we needed a dedicated camera to capture the million magical moments in the years to come.
Roaming through Best Buy, I came to the conclusion that I would rather chance my cell phone spontaneously combusting in Bermuda than navigate the shoals of camera technology. I could not get over the fact that cameras were now WiFi and Bluetooth enabled, let alone confidently answer more important questions like whether I preferred point-and-shoot, DSLR or mirrorless. I didn’t even know what DSLR stood for, but my techy husband had “been researching mirrorless cameras” (read: did a quick Google search while we were walking in from the parking lot). The salesperson perked up when he learned we were in the market for a several-hundred-dollar camera. He and my husband talked apertures, megapixels, and touch screens. Since my technical expertise was pretty much limited to seeing how far I could zoom in on someone’s pores, I mentally checked out of this conversation. Still worried a WiFi-enabled camera would melt if taken overseas, I meekly nodded when the Sony A6000 was decided upon and mumbled “yeah, sure” when a second telescopic lens was added.
My hopes and dreams dashed
As our maiden voyage began, I prepared to take the most amazing pictures of my life: $1,000 pictures. I snapped away, sure each picture was an artistic triumph. Knowing nothing about lighting or composition, I was confident every shot was an avant garde artistic achievement, perfectly capturing our vacation. With giddy anticipation, I plopped on a deck chair to view my work. Had I missed my calling as a professional photographer? Would people see my photos and beg me to work my magic on them?
Instead, my skin was pale and flat in the harsh noon sun, not light and airy as I had dreamed. My hair was frazzled in the salty air, not the windswept image I had in my mind. I stood in the middle of the frame, swallowed up by the ship’s railings, New York City skyline and freighters in the background. I was undeterred. Perhaps portraits were not my calling – I had skipped the flat iron that morning, after all. As we passed by the Statue of Liberty, I lined up the great lady and let the shutter fly. Portrait, landscape…nope, I cut off her head, back to portrait! Landscapes were my calling…or was this a still life? I was inventing the genre! Again, with bated breath, I pressed the “view” button and waited for genius in 26 megapixels.
Throughout Bermuda, I took hundreds of photos, hoping to stumble across a good one more than thoughtfully practicing any particular skill. Hoping that the stars would align, I eventually realized the problem was not the camera. (But you probably knew that!)
Seeing through a new lens
Four months after that cruise, I was pregnant. Overweight from the fertility medication and holiday indulging, I didn’t want any pictures of my pregnant body. My first attempt to capture my growing belly was taken in our bedroom with only a nightstand lamp on It came out dark and yellow. Months went by without me even touching the camera.
Little C was born the following September. I found myself wanting to take better pictures of her. For Christmas that year, my husband bought me a new camera lens: a 35mm 1.8! (He got it on eBay for much less; it pays to shop around!) He had watched a video online and told me if I made the f-stop low, it would make the aperture wide and I could get this cool effect called bokeh! He showed me pictures online of what bokeh was–a Japanese word meaning “blur”, it means when the subject is in focus and the background is soft and creamily out of focus. We fumbled around with the camera to put it on aperture priority mode and move the f-stop down to 1.8. I took pictures of tea lamps on tables and street lights. I took pictures of my daughter playing and sitting.
To “air” is human, but a good photo is divine
Then, one day, magic happened! After her monthly photo shoot, I put little C in the crib while I cleaned up. Playing adorably and newly able to sit up, she inspired me to grab the camera and take a few more pictures. Fumbling around, I accidentally moved the rear wheel. Everything got brighter! Between the brightness and the bokeh in the background, suddenly my picture looked (somewhat) like the “light and air” photos I drooled over on Pinterest. Through the viewfinder, I could already tell something was different! This picture was the first photo I thought was good. It was the first photo I was proud of. Honestly, it changed my passion for photography. What I had accidentally done was increase the exposure time – the time the shutter is open – thus allowing in more light. I hadn’t yet learned about ISO and shutter speeds (which isn’t available in aperture priority mode anyway, but I didn’t know that either!), but this became my “wheelhouse.” I shot everything in aperture priority for another month, adjusting the exposure compensation as I went.
So, what are the lessons you can learn from my disappointment and trial and “air”?
- Use your camera’s manual! Read it! Change settings!
- Focus on one thing at a time.
- Aperture! Honestly, knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t recommend starting to learn photography with aperture (ISO would be a much better foundation to build on). But I started with one thing and it opened a whole new world. I could make photos brighter or darker! Those first pictures of me, over exposed in the noonday sun, could have been controlled by closing the f-stop a little or reducing the exposure compensation. Those dark pictures of my pregnant self could have been lit by doing just the opposite.
- Practice! Practice! Practice! That one shot was all it took to inspire me. I walked around for weeks adjusting the exposure compensation and f-stop while photographing everything. Also, when I went to get out of manual mode, I knew what aperture priority was and how to manipulate it. Although I now shoot 95% in manual mode, if I am having a problem controlling lighting through ISO and shutter speed, I sometimes flip over the aperture priority and see what I can do.
Going to extremes
Let’s start you off in aperture priority mode! In auto mode, the camera’s sensors calculate and decide everything for you. Unfortunately, the camera doesn’t always know what you want or can’t control competing information. Priority modes, like aperture priority, allow you to control one thing and still rely on the camera’s sensors to do the rest of the calculating. It’s a good first step toward photographic independence! We’re going to work at two extremes of the aperture range to get you comfortable with it.
- Turn that dial to Aperture Priority, often marked “Av”.
- Put something–a canned good, apple, Sophie or whatever you have handy–on a table. Try to empty the space behind it so that the wall or other objects are at least five or more feet away. Turn the aperture down to the lowest number it will go to (probably in the 4s with a kit lens, 1.x or 2s with a non-kit). Stand about a foot away from the object, get down on its level and take your picture.
- Reading your picture: this should give you a shallow depth of field – whatever you used will be in focus and everything behind it slightly out of focus. It should make the object “pop” in your picture. Think about how this would be great for a portrait or head shot! What you’ve done is open the aperture up really wide – as wide as it will go on your lens. It’s allowing a lot of light in. It’s also allowing it to focus on a very small area. Different lenses will have different aperture ranges, but the lower an aperture, the more light and more bokeh you’ll get. (Bokeh is also increased by increasing the focal length, but one thing at a time!) You can learn more about aperture here.
- Staying where you are, turn the aperture up to the highest number it will go to and snap again. Notice the photo might be a little darker (though the camera is fighting that a little by making other adjustments). The big difference will be in your background – it should be a lot more in focus! This is a deep depth of field. The result is a flatter photo, but with more “things” in focus.
Armed with this knowledge, go out into the world and snap. Try it when your little one is in a swing. Take a great picture of your mom at brunch. Don’t necessarily worry about all the middle grounds; instead, get comfortable knowing when to go high and when to go low. It should become an automatic response. We’ll work on fine tuning in a later post, but for now go to the extremes to cement f-stops in your head!
Head out there and start clicking, because it goes by in a flash!