Snap it right

IMG_6666It was a chilly, early morning on a Saturday more than a week ago when I would have preferred to be at home in bed instead of driving to Fort Edmonton Park.  But I was excited to learn more about using my Canon EOS Rebel XSi (a fairly basic but capable SLR camera) so I convinced myself that it was worth the effort.  I am definitely a beginner with this camera despite the fact that I’ve had it for years.  I even have a second lens that I received as a birthday gift in 2010.  As someone who loves to travel and take pictures, I was overdue for a proper lesson in photography.  During my trip in Europe last fall, my travel partner tried showing me some tricks and tips about using the SLR.  But a professional class was still a good idea.  Since I aspire to take more amazing pics in many amazing places like my friend Beau Chaitan (see his recent travel blogs here), then I need to be comfortable with the features of my camera.  Now that the class is done, I’ve been playing around with the features more often.  Here are the main lessons that we learned during out session with Learn Photography Canada with James and Barbara.  Hopefully this helps you out as well!  I apologize in advance if I make any mistakes… I’m still fairly new to this.


First, get to know the anatomy of your camera.  Anatomy?  Well, that’s something I can relate to… I love anatomy!  I’m not going to go through all the details here because every camera can be different.  Take out your user guide and locate the important parts- the main dial (for altering the setting you are on), the mode dial (from AV to TV to manual mode “M” to full automatic mode, etc), the shutter button (waiters and tourists always have a hard time finding mine when I force them to take pics of me and my friends), the aperture/exposure compensation button (fun to play with, it is labelled “AV +/-” and is beside the LCD monitor on my camera), lens, flash, etc.  Get to know where things are on your camera.
The next lesson (and most important) was understanding the three important components that affect every picture you take- the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO (International Standards Organization) setting. If you stop reading after this point and apply those principles in AV mode (where you control the aperture and the camera chooses the corresponding appropriate shutter speed), you’re doing fine.

The shutter speed is the number that shows up often as a fraction when you’re about to take the picture.  This is how fast the camera shutter window opens and closes when it captures the image.  If the speed is fast (very low number), then less light will be allowed in but you will get a sharper picture, eg for sports photography.  It the speed is slow (a few seconds, higher numbers), the lens will stay open for longer when capturing the picture and this will allow more light in but can also result in a blurry picture.  Everyone has seen those pictures of the night sky that show the stars as bands across the image?  That is achieved using a long/slow shutter speed (higher number) because the camera shutter is open long enough to capture the earth’s rotation relative to the stars.  The aperture is how open the lens becomes.  Think of like our pupils- they dilate or open up to let more light in when the room light is dim and they constrict or make a really small hole to allow less light in under bright circumstances.  James had these handy pictures of little circles in different circumferences to demonstrate this.  Finally, the ISO is the sensitivity to light.  Remember when we used to use film cameras?  The film would come in 100, 200, or 400 and you would buy 100 for very bright, sunny settings vs 400 for inside or dimmer settings.  The same logic applies here.  The 3 components together determine the EXPOSURE of your picture.
Now that we have a good foundation of basic camera anatomy and function, let’s get into some more specific features:

1.  In AV mode, play with the aperture level outside to change the depth of field.  If you want the effect of a focused nearby subject and blurry background, you can for manipulate the level to achieve this.  Portraits are usually shot with a higher aperture.  This draws your attention to the subject-

Notice the sign in the background- the letters are clear

Notice the sign in the background- the letters are clear

Now when you increase the aperture, the field depth becomes more shallow and the letters in the background are blurred.  This draws your attention to the subject

Now when you increase the aperture, the field depth becomes more shallow and the letters in the background are blurred

2.  The next lesson was about changing focus shift.  I practiced this later with my little cousin.  Basically, you choose your subject and then start to halfway depress the shutter so it knows to focus at this depth.  Then you can slightly shift over and the focus can be off-center-


The focus initially is on my little buddy

and now the focus is on the truck then shifted over so it is off-center but still in focus

… and now the focus is on the truck then shifted over so that it’s off-center but still in focus

3.  Now we’ll talk about the ISO.  Lower ISO results in a sharper image but has a low sensitivity to light so ISO of 100 or 200 should be reserved for bright settings.  ISO of 400 or 1600 are good for dimmer settings (indoors, candle light) but they can result in more “noise” in the image.

4.  A fun trick is to increase time of shutter opening (higher number which means slower speed) to blur people or background “noise” (traffic, cars, etc) and keep the focus on one main object/subject. For example, focus on one monument or stationary person in a busy area and blur pedestrians (they become like ghosts) by lengthening the shutter speed to 1/4-1 second range-

photo taken by Raj Kalsi

photo taken by Raj Kalsi- Grand Central Station, NYC

5.  Taking pictures in manual is a little more challenging but then you have the ability to do more in unique situations.  We learned to balance the exposure indicator value to zero (this was selected on the LCD screen with my camera), then half depress the shutter button.  Next you tinker with balance of aperature (F-value) and shutter speed until it works out and with this, you will not under or over expose.


Lesson #6- Dark object against a bright background. You need to adjust using exposure compensation.

6.  In AV mode, you can trick the camera (exposure compensation) using av +/- button (beside the LCD screen for Canon or often above the LCD screen for Nikon).  For example, James stood in front of a bright window and he was dark, more like a shadow.  In this case, you can overexpose by going into the “+” side of the av +/-.

7.  Lens distortion- the most true to life on a full-frame camera is 50mm zoom, longer (150mm or so) is more flattering for portraits. A wider angle (eg. 18mm) is more distorted.


Using a wide angle, my hand is abnormally large.


With a higher (more narrow) lens angle such as 50 to 120mm, things look less distorted

8.  Another way to deal with the issue noted in lesson #6, use evaluative metering or light metering.  You can go from matrix or multi zone metering which is the camera default to point metering.  Matrix metering is the camera measuring the amount of light by taking an overall average vs spot or point metering where the camera is measuring light at specific focus point.

9.  Yet another way to deal with the issue in lesson #6 of the shadowed subject effect.  In AV mode, choose the aperture that you want then half depress the shutter button to see which shutter speed correlates.  Then switch to manual mode and set this aperture value with shutter speed but add flash.

10.  Use the AF button and switch into al servo in CTS mode for shooting moving objects eg. animals, fast kids, bride down aisle.  This is an option to sports mode.  In my limited experience during the class, I liked using a higher shutter speed for this effect instead.

11.  An application of the F-stop button: for a landscape scene with a waterfall ( a beautiful photo shot by James was the example).  He set the ISO to 100 with a high aperture and used the  F-stop to freeze the water.

12.  Changing the white balance can change the color scale.  Don’t mess around with resetting the white balance in custom, just switch between the pre-set options or you’ll make things more complicated.  Professionals may use custom white balance to whiten bride’s dresses under non-ideal lighting.  Here is my switching around in white balance-IMG_6542 IMG_6544 IMG_6546 IMG_6547 IMG_6548

Note:  They advised us beginners to avoid shooting in automatic mode and to avoid using the “P-mode” and A-dep” (glorified automatics). Stick to AV mode most of the time except for special cases or subtle changes in same room. Tv is the mode for altering only time (shutter speed) but you will rarely use this except to focus on something and blur rest (see above example in Grand Central Station).

Thanks again to James and Barbara for keeping it informative and interesting at the same time!  I enjoyed the fact that we would learn a lesson then they would take us outside so we could practice and ask questions.  Learn Photography Canada also has many different courses that they offer- I would definitely recommend them!  Happy snapping!

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