September 26, 2012 - I've learned a great deal since joining this paper in November of 2010.
When I came to the paper what I knew how to do was write a story in a certain style and interview people. I've learned much in the two years I've been here but if any one skill stands out as something I treasure it's photography.
Photography, as a hobby, is changing drastically with the advent of the smartphone camera, most of which are now at an eight megapixel (the resolution at which the camera takes an image) standard.
What once cost hundreds of dollars in a compact point and shoot no longer has a place because everyone with a smartphone has one built in. This in turn has driven the price of SLR (single lens reflex) cameras down, as they are the only true step up from your average point and shoot.
Now I see SLR's everywhere, with expensive lens, monopods and all manner of pricy additions slapped on to a $1,500 camera. Then I cringe when a hobbyist takes all that equipment and trivializes it by shooting on auto. Nothing says "I didn't even read the manual" like shooting a sports game with the built in flash on while using a telephoto (long distance) lens.
So here's the plan. I'll use the rest of this column to try and share some basic knowledge of what I know about cameras and photography. I won't favor any brands or techniques, but I will describe what some of the little buttons on the back of that camera mean. In return, please never use a flash at a sporting event ever again and try not to sell your photos at a highly discounted price publicly.
There are hard-working professionals out there that are feeling the burn of the economy and with every parent and student picking up a camera, times are tough for those who truly know their craft.
We'll start with the three most basic settings on your camera: shutter speed, aperture (or f-stop) and ISO. Every one of these settings will increase or decrease the amount of light let in, which can translate to an overexposed, an underexposed, or a perfect picture.
SLRs are often equipped with a light meter that activates when you depress the shutter button halfway - the closer to the center, the closer you are to normal exposure. You can play with it either way (I tend to shoot slightly in favor of overexposed because it works better with black and white photos) but in general, keeping the light meter centered is the best way to go.
So flip your dial over to the manual (M) setting and let's begin.
First is shutter speed, which controls how fast the shutter opens and closes. Knowing how this setting works will help with fast moving subjects like sports, dancing and any other activity that involves a lot of rapid movement. Essentially those numbers you see when you scroll up and down are the denominator in a fraction of a second. When the number is 100, your shutter will open and close in 1/100 of a second. If the speed is too slow, the subject will be blurry.
So if you're shooting a sport, try to set this to around 320 or 500, or faster if you can afford the light. Remember, the faster you open and close your shutter, the less light is let in and the darker the shot will be.
The key to sports photography is to balance the different settings to capture the subject while letting in enough light. Fortunately with digital cameras, a lot of trial and error is possible and even fun.
So now that you have the appropriate shutter speed set, let's talk about aperture. This controls how wide the shutter opens when you snap a photo. The wider it opens the more light is let in and vice versa. What it means in terms of your picture is how great the depth of field is.
A good way to simulate depth of field is to hold one finger up to you face and focus your eyes on it. When you focus on your finger, you'll notice that the background around your finger is blurry.
This is what it's like to have a very low f-stop, which is great for single subjects.
Now look at an object 10-20 feet away and notice how even though you're focused on a car, the road, a tree and even another car are all fairly crisp. This is what it's like to have very high aperture and is great for scenic or high contrast shots because everything in the shot remains in focus.
Lens with low apertures are better but a lens with an f-stop of 1.4 or 1.8 will usually sell for around $3000, depending on the zoom. Oh yes, zoom typically forces your camera to raise the aperture, so it's good practice to get as close as you can to your subject.
The final piece to photo success is knowing a little about ISO (International Standardization Organization.) This one is a bit more complicated and dates back to the days when film was used, but simply put it increases your camera's sensitivity to light.
Increasing the ISO makes the image brighter, but the downside is a subtle graininess known as noise that becomes more prominent at higher ISO settings.
Many modern cameras can usually get away with high ISOs because the sensors have increased in quality, but generally, if you can get away with it, try to keep your ISO under 800.
After that it's simply a matter of playing with the settings to find your ideal shot. It will be hard at first, but after even a month of frequent shooting, you should start to get an idea of what you can do with your camera. Try everything you can before pulling out the flash too and I cannot stress enough not to use a built in flash at sporting events.
Nothing says "embarrassment" quite like watching a player blink just in time to miss.
As a final thought, if you want to continue learning more, a great resource to use is kenrockwell.com. The man lives and breathes cameras and has far too many, but the end result is an encyclopedic knowledge of photography.
Happy hunting, photo-bugs!