Category: Cameras

Metering Modes

That’s right. The word “mode” again. And the most important way to adjust our camera to get the right exposure, after exposure compensation.

First, A bunch of Icons

Right, this very advanced drawing that took me a lot of time to make is all of the icons for most of the different metering modes on most cameras.

Metering Modes?

First, make sure you’ve read the section on the histogram. Remember how we consider a ‘correct’ exposure was where the pixel’s brightness values had nothing over or under exposed, and thus largely were clumped in the middle of the histogram?

The metering mode changes what section of the image the camera is measuring. We spoke about histograms at looking at the entire grid of pixels of an image, which it does. Yet, we don’t often really care about the entire grid of pixels of an image.

Changing the metering mode changes how the camera measures the brightness of what it can see.

We call it’s measuring capabilities the ‘meter’. There are separate devices called light meters that measure brightness. Our cameras have a light meter built right into them. we just call it the ‘meter’ since ‘light meter’ is redundant, obviously we’re talking about light, it’s a camera.

First, lets consider a standard metering mode available on almost all cameras (even film cameras!). Center-Weighted metering.

Center Weighted Metering

In center-weighted metering, the camera doesn’t care if the pixels at the edges of the frame are over or under exposed.

Let’s say we have this image of a house and a cat on a sunny day.

Center weighted metering would look at all of the pixels that are red (in the following image) and try to get just those pixels to be middle-grey – in the middle of the histogram.

Notice how some of the red pixels are transparent. It’s looking at images between the center and the edges, and trying to get them to be middle-grey, but not as much as the ones in the center. Thus the term center-weighted.

Consider our first image, If we adjusted the brightness  so the entire image averaged as middle-grey as possible, it would look like the left half of this photo:

The sky is so bright that the camera would have to get a darker exposure, and in the process, it would darken the foreground (the cat, the ground, etc) much more than we want.

In real life, such an effect looks like this:

Sure, our sunset has color… but Tom, a photographer I met on this beach in Naples, is totally underexposed!

Center-Weighted metering could help prevent this. Enough of the ocean and Tom’s face would be considered, and the bright sky would be more ignored.

Spot Metering

What other types of metering are there? The next most important one is spot metering. Spot metering doesn’t take much of an average, but looks at a really small section of the image. This spot is usually right the center or on the currently selected autofocus point. We measure just that spot, and try to make that a middle-grey, correctly exposed, brightness.

The red dot is at the top left of the house

The size of this spot depends on the camera. Nicer cameras tend to have smaller (more accurate) spots.

The secret to spot metering is not hoping that that the center of our image happens to be a middle-grey) tone to base the exposure of the image off of. Instead, we point the spot at exactly the point we want to to be correctly exposed, measuring it, then recomposing and taking the photo, exposed correctly.

Look for something in the scene that is middle grey, point the spot at it, and measure that. Some videoographers use ‘grey cards’, pieces of paper that are the exact right grey tone, that they can put in their scene, under their lights, and get a perfect measurement. We don’t do that, we juts look for something greyish.

When we measure a spot, we may not be pointing the camera in the right direction, how do we ‘lock’ that exposure we measure in, and recompose our scene?

Camera’s all handle that measuring process differently. With Nikon, there is an AE-L (autoexposure-lock) button to press, canon that same button looks like a star, some cameras lock the exposure when they lock focus (camera button held halfway), and this behavior can – of course – change depending on the settings of your camera. The quick answer is to find your specific camera’s manual or guide and read it (try a google search first), this behavior is just a bit too different for each camera for me to cover here.

One more note about spot-metering. One can combine it with exposure compensation for a really powerful workflow. For example, I know that I want a grey sidewalk in the shade to be a few stops darker than middle grey, and then I will have a good exposure. I meter the sidewalk, and use exposure compensation to go minus one or two stops. Perfect.

Spot metering and exposure compensation used to be how I shot _all the time. _I still do most of my street photography using this workflow. I really like the control.

I point my meter at what, in my scene, I know what tone I want. Maybe I point it at a cloud and tell the camera to overexpose – if that cloud is important. Maybe I point it at my cat’s darker fur and tell my camera to underexpose. I like this way of shooting because I know what matters to the photo – the detail in the cats fur, the fluffiness of a cloud – is going to be captured how I want it to be.

Shooting like this, metering spots then exposure compensating those spots to be the brightness you want them to be is very powerful. I highly recommend everybody try it. If nothing else, it will help one learn how to identify brightness in a colorful scene. IE: how to see the world in black and white.

Partial Metering

Sometimes, a spot is too small to get an accurate or consistent exposure. Maybe measuring the grey t-shirt of somebody left you measuring the white text on the shirt, by chance.

Canon introduced partial metering to handle these cases. It’s basically spot metering with a slightly larger spot, and more ‘falloff’ (the red dot would be a smoother gradient).

I like partial metering a lot because I can shoot pretty lazily and don’t want to spend too much time thinking of exactly where the spot should go, yet I still like to measure and recompose as a shooting method.

Matrix / Evalutive / Multi / ESP / Honeycomb / Auto

The last metering mode that most cameras have goes by a million different names. I am going the to call it “smart” metering. Smart metering is when the camera doesn’t just try to reach grey at one average of the image, but looks at different sections of the image, takes a guess as to what is more important, and then tries to get that to be exposed correctly. In other words, it tries to guess what you are taking a photo of based on what information it has – brightness levels of different places in the frame – and expose for that.

This way, one super bright point doesn’t throw off an average. If the camera see’s a bunch of brightness towards the top and darkness towards the bottom, that’s probably the sky and the ground; it will look for other parts of the image to meter off of, and not expose for the sky (remember Tom, above?).

It works by looking at the exposure of different areas on the image that it is taking a photo of, comparing it to a database of exposures for similarly measured images, and choosing the appropriate exposure. In other words: total magic AKA awesome engineering.

Nowadays cameras consider a whole bunch of other information, including the focus distance (what is in focus matters more), the depth of field of the current settings, and way, way more.

It all started when Nikon introduced their matrix metering mode on the Nikon FA. It was so much better than what came before it that most of the time a photographer finally didn’t really need to worry about the exposure.

If you want a good read about the development of this technology, take it from Nikon themselves. (Seriously, it’s a good read).

Wow! It’s super awesome technology that has had an amazing amount of time and energy invested into improving it.

…Yet, it still sucks sometimes.

First, smart metering modes tend to value the auto-focus point too much (IMHO). This makes it worse when using manual focus and/or worse when you focus on something you don’t want to be middle-grey, like a silhouette.

Second, it biases towards it’s own ideas of a ‘correct’ exposure that makes good images “straight out of camera”. Often, we want to over or under expose different parts of our images in order to ensure that these parts have more ‘data’. More contrast coming out of the camera that we can play with while editing. Smart metering modes do not necessarily give us the best image that we can edit with later, it tends to assume you won’t be editing at all.

Finally, it can be inconsistent between two similar shots. In fact, barely moving the camera may accidentally produce two differently exposed images, which makes editing and reviewing the images a pain. This also makes cameras less pleasant to use, as there is nothing a photographer hates more in a camera than unpredictability.

“Photographers these days are too spoiled on their cameras. All their photos look the same!”

This quote is from my grandfather, best I can remember it. He did shoot with a hasselblad medium format camera and almost always used manual controls. He once duct-taped a film camera to the front of his skii’s and jumped out of a helicopter and skii’d down a mountain back in the 60’s. Take that, GoPro!

He is remarking that auto-modes don’t just just some of the hard/monotonous parts of photography and make them easier. They also take over elements that are a crucial part of the creative photographers toolkit. Don’t let your camera get in the way of taking an interesting image!

Manual Exposure

When shooting in manual, most camera’s still go through the effort of metering the scene. The measured output is still visible on the exposure compensation meter (the actual number line on the camera screen), and one can use it as a starting point or reference when dialing in an exposure.

Videos On Metering Modes

The Histogram

Focal Distance and Depth of Field

Before reading this, please understand  depth of field and the focal distance. Remember, the depth of field is how much near-to-far we have in sharp focus, and the focal distance is literally what we adjust when we adjust the focus. What distance away from the camera that the camera is focusing on, from as-close-as-possible to infinity.

There is an interesting and important relationship between these two properties. Let’s first lay it out on the table:

The closer you are focused, the shallower the depth of field. The further you are focused, the deeper the depth of field.

This can be hard to discover without paying attention to, because the relative size of things shrinks as you get further away (ie: perspective),  Thus, how much depth of field you have in terms of image-impact may not change all that much.

Let’s look at two images taken with the exact same image settings. These images were taken in Sacksville waterfowl park, in Canada.

Deep DOF
Shallow DOF

Both of these images were shot at 100ISO, f/8 aperture, 1/500th shutter speed, on a 40mm prime lens, and only about 2 minutes apart.

Notice the depth of field in both images. In the top, it’s what we call ‘deep focus’. Everything from the foreground to the background is in focus. (Okay, not quite everything, I lose a little bit on the railing very close to the camera). In the second flower photo, notice how the background and other flowers are out of focus.

The only thing that changes was the focal distance. Focal distance affects the depth of field. The further away the lens is focused, the deeper the depth of field. This is how I can take both deep focus and blurry-background images without changing my aperture, my lens width, or any other camera setting.

In the following diagram, the blue range is the depth of field. As we focus further from the camera, the depth of field increases.

Exposure Compensation

Exposure Compensation is an absolutely critical feature of the camera to understand.

Exposure Compensation is a way to brighten or darken the image being taken without adjusting any of the properties manually.

You are taking the camera’s measurments (light-metering) and saying “okay, that, but brighter” or “sure, that, but darker”.

The exposure compensation icon is universal. It looks like this:

Exposure Compensation Icon by Martin Chapman Fromm from the Noun Project

Exposure compensation doesn’t do anything in manual mode because we aren’t using the camera’s settings. This is why the exposure compensation button is also – while in manual mode – what often serves to toggle which setting your dial adjusts – shutter speed or aperture, in manual mode.

More Reading on Exposure Compensation

Videos on Exposure Compensation

Shooting Modes


The mode dial is the thing on the top of the camera that has a bunch of weird icons, and the following letters: P, A, S, and M. or P, av, Tv, and M if you’re a canon shooter.

Mode Dial on a Canon 5Dmk3

PASM is an abbreviation of 4 modes for controlling how the camera behaves.

Canon cameras have “PTVAVM”, or “MAVTVP”, either way it doesn’t roll off of the tounge as well. We will say ‘PASM’ to refer to the shooting modes.

Camera’s have two main ways to control how much light gets into a camera. Shutter Speed and Aperture.

We’ll talk about the third, ISO, later. Aperture and Shutter Speed affect not just exposure but the look of an image. ISO is not used to creatively affect the look of an image, so it isn’t as important to understand yet.

P for Program

P is the new auto mode. Now more green camera or A+ or green rectangle mode. It’s P mode for you from NOW ON. P mode handles getting the image to look right for you, but allows you to – if you want – control other settings.

Settings like focus modes, drive modes, Exposure Compensation, and more fancy-schmancy camera talk that we will get back to later.

S (or Tv) for Shutter priority

or Tv for “time-value”

This mode gives a new control for our camera, a dial (probably by the shutter button, on the top. Maybe on the back), that lets us control what the shutter speed is. How long the camera lets light in for. We’ll talk about shutter speed later. Just now that it is measured in seconds, a unit of time; and S mode gives us control over it.

Canon calls it “Tv”. Everybody Else just calls it “s”.

A (or Av) for Apeture priority

Or Av for Aperture-Value.

A stands for Aperture. This mode gives you total control over the size of the hole in the lens, and the camera adjusts everything else to get the shot right. Otherwise, it’s the same as P mode. We’ll be talking about what this means later, just know for now that A mode gives you more control.

M for Manual Mode

This mode lets us control both the aperture, and the shutter speed. Also the ISO, which We’ll get to later. Manual mode means the getting the “right” amount of light is up to us, and the camera won’t make any decisions.

This is often important when you want to shoot consistently – like when stitching images together – and the camera’s decisions can fluxuate slightly. It’s also super useful when we want to take photos that are too dark or too bright.

Later you’ll be out and about shooting in ONLY manual mode. We aren’t there yet. Relax. Everything is going to be okay.

Mode dial on a Canon 70D

Burn The Flower

No more flower (“macro”) mode. No more person-running (“sport”) mode, and no more mountain (“landscape”) mode. These are just variations of program mode that perform better in certain situations.

Sport mode, for example, shoots with a faster shutter speed so shot’s are less likely to be blurry. From now on, if you had to shoot a sporting event and didn’t want blurry shots, you’ll go into S mode and dial up the correct settings yourself.

This advanced control is important because while cameras are really really good at what they do, they’re still limited by many assumptions – the camera doesn’t know what it’s pointed at. Only you know what you are trying to capture and emphasize. It’s also important for learning how these things work!

Becoming a photographer means taking control over these decisions.

The Camera is a Calculator

Let’s go over how What The Camera Does is being changed by the different shooting modes.

So the camera measures the scene and comes to a conclusion about how much light we need. Let’s pretend this is some single unit number, (Perhaps we call this an “exposure Value) and let’s pretend that it arrives at the number 10. We need 9 light for the scene.

Let’s say the ISO gives us 3 units of exposure value, the aperture gets another 3, and the shutter speed gives us the final 3 to get to 9 imaginary units of light. These 3 elements of the camera all factor into how much light there is.

Now, in reality, these elements are probably being multiplied by each other. Like Shutter Speed x Aperture x ISO = Exposure Value. Just… shh. Relax. Relax. Everything is fine. Math is easy. This part doesn’t matter right now. What matters is that all three of these elements contribute to the exposure of the camera. Our camera, on P mode, does all of the math for us. It decides how many units of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to combine together to get the exposure.

On program (p) mode, the camera does it all for us.

On Aperture-priority mode, (A or Av mode on the dial), we control the aperture. We say, okay. I want an f-stop of 1.8. I want an f-stop of 8. We are deciding this unit. Like a recipe, I’m going “I want this much butter no matter what” and the camera is taking the ISO and the Shutter speed (the flour and the salt?) and changing them so our equation works out, and we get the right exposure.

Shutter priority (time value) mode is the same thing, but we control the shutter speed, we lock in this one unit of our equation, and the camera controls the other units. It’s still trying to do the same thing, to get the right amount of light into the camera.

There is no ISO priority mode.

Manual mode, we control the shutter speed and the aperture and the ISO. Fun fact, is many cameras can have the ISO set to a specific number or on ‘AUTO’ on all of these modes. So we can have ISO+Aperture locked in on aperture-priority mode and the camera changes the shutter speed, or we can be in manual mode and putting in totally wrong settings with both the aperture and the shutter speed, but the images look okay because the camera is changing the ISO for us. Then we walk around like “aww yeah I’m shooting manual and I’m nailing the exposure every time” and that’s not really true, but I’m not going to take that from you. You can keep that little victory.

Why no ISO priority mode?

The first reason is because the ISO doesn’t really affect creative decisions. It doesn’t change how an image looks, other than grainyness or noisiness. The higher the ISO, the “worse” the image, but it’s otherwise the same. One always optimizes for a low ISO, and the camera will just do that for us.

So the first reason is because we don’t need one. It would be silly.

Besides, you can go to program (P) mode and still lock the ISO to a specific number on most cameras, which then is basically ISO-priority mode.

The second reason is because of film. Before digital cameras, ISO wasn’t something you could control with the camera at all. It came from what film you decided to buy, with different films rated to different ISO’s. Different films were more or less sensitive to light. You would tell the camera “Okay, I have ISO 400 film in here now” and the camera wen’t “okay” and then you uses your different shooting modes.

Digital cameras came around and we didn’t add an ISO shooting mode, we just added a control that let one change the ISO amounts, or set it to auto. Cameras still behave the same way, otherwise! Neat!

Learning Exposure

Learning path for understanding camera exposure.

Okay, so you understand The Parts of The Camera and What A Camera Does down? Time to talk about exposure!

Here is a path to follow in order to learn camera exposure.

1. Exposure Essentials
2. Exposure and Cameras
2. Shooting Modes
2. Exposure Compensation
2. Shutter Effects
2. Histogram


  1. 6 Reasons Why We Should Ditch the Exposure Triangle

Have fun!

What A Camera Does

Here’s a simple question…

What Does A Camera Do?

Okay, We should probably talk about what these things actually do. Pay attention, this is important. So what do camera’s do? You know, besides take pictures.

Camera’s are measurement devices and storage devices. They use optics (reflecting light through glass) in order to capture an image, save it, and transfer it elsewhere to be used.

Thing Cameras Do Number One: Take Pictures

Camera’s take pictures. They have a button that responds to the photographer (usually) to, at that moment, capture the light that is traveling through a lens (usually) into the camera (most of the time).

So, a camera is like an eye. Eyes see. Eyes see light. Cameras see light. With me so far?

Sometime’s it’s dark out, and other time’s it’s bright. Stay with me. Lights can be on dimmer switches. Right? Right. So light varies in brightness? Of course it does, you know this. You’ve seen a day/night cycle before.

Okay. So, if there isn’t light, there isn’t a photograph. It’s just black. No light = no photo. Camera’s need light. Too much light also means no photo – our photos will just be white. Something between white and black? That’s where an image appears. Let’s recognize light as having a brightness from zero to, uh, some big number. Infinity? (INSIDE OF THE SUN!?).

Camera’s have to change their settings to match this quantity of light, or else the image will be just black, or just white. We call this “overexposed” or “underexposed”.

An “exposure” is another shorthand word for an image from a camera, it refers to the process of capturing the light.

Thing Cameras Do Number Two: Adjust

Camera’s can adjust some properties in order to “let in” more or less light into the camera. They respond to the amount of light in the world in order to get the “correct” amount of light into the camera.

They also need to get this light in focus!

What does “correct” mean? We’ll get back to that later.

Camera’s also have controls that allow the photographer to adjust their settings. These are all those dials and knobs on the outside of fancy cameras. These are super important! Photographers can be picky about how their gear works, and have been reported to fight over what arrangement of dials and knobs is the best. Canon and Nikon users constantly fight over which direction to spin their lens adjustments is best.

So we change settings because we have to get the right amount of light into the camera! How do you know how much light to get into the camera?

Thing Cameras Do Number Three: Measure

Camera’s measure the amount of light in the world. They use this information to adjust themselves – “automatic” modes. Or just to inform you of it’s measurement, and the photographer controls the adjustments themselves – “manual” modes.

So once we capture an image that has the right amount of light… What now?

Thing Cameras Do Number Four: Save Images

Cameras’s Store and Save images. Digital cameras convert the raw data from the sensor into a file format readable by computers (.jpeg), and store that image on a removable memory card so it can easily be transferred to the computer.

In addition to the image, the file also contains metadata (data about the data) like the current date and time, which is super helpful for organizing and sorting the images. JPEG’s are a universal file type – virtually every computer and printer can handle and work with these files. They have small file sizes and are fast to work with, making them an obvious popular choice for image storage.

Thing Cameras Do Number Five: Playback

Cameras have playback, which refers to the ability to look at the images you have taken on a little screen. You can also hook many camera’s up to TV’s or other screens. Most cameras let you delete and rate images, and mark an image as ‘protect’ images which won’t let you accidentally delete it.

Thing Cameras Do Number Six: View Settings

Camera’s also usually give you feedback about what they are doing! They tell you what your battery life, drive mode, shooting mode, aperture, shutter speed, focus mode, auto-exposure mode, remaining storage space, estimated remaining shots left, and more! There’s so much information! Camera’s look strange and complicated because of all this crazy stuff they are telling you.

This guide is going to break each bit of information down one at a time, so if there is something confusing on your camera – just ignore it for now. We’ll cover it soon enough.

Except for battery life. You should figure out where your battery life indicator is. Do that now. Don’t go out shooting with a dead camera! Your images can disappointing and it doesn’t matter because you had fun and learned a lot, but if you can’t even turn your camera on? Ouch. Not a good day. This is almost as important as not dropping the camera.

Let’s Review Because This Is Important

I know this is easy and I am being condescending – of course we all know what camera’s are – but I want you to really think about these aspects of cameras as separate, different, things.

We will be learning the in’s and out’s of the things cameras do at different times, so it’s important to be able to focus on each specific thing. One at a time.

Camera’s measure light, adjust settings, capture an image, and save the image. They let us view these images later, transfer them; and they let us change all sorts of settings and behaviors.

Different cameras do each of these tasks differently.

Many older cameras, for example, couldn’t measure light at all. Photographers got really good at guessing (measuring with our own eyes!) as well as using external tools, appropriatly called “light meters”. Some cameras have many settings fixed and unchangeable. Some camera’s have all mechanical knobs for everything, some cameras use a touchscreen for everything, and everything in between. But the underlying properties of all the settings, adjustments, and why to make them is the same.

In other words, we are trying to learn the underlying principles. How to use a specific camera isn’t very helpful, but by learning these principles you can use any camera.

Learning this is learning photography!

Exposure Essentials

Images are made with light captured from the world. We can consider (or “model”) light in many ways – as particles, waves, and so on. For photographers it’s most convenient to consider light as rays that travel in straight lines and bounce off of things. Simple enough.

Some rays may travel weakly, and some with great intensity. Consider this for brighter light sources and weaker ones. Light also gets weaker in brightness as it travels from a nearby light source.

As rays of light “travel”, a ray of light hitting an object for an instant and one that hits an object for a long time have different effects.

We need to absorb rays of light in order to capture an image. Lets consider the difficulty of focusing this light later, right now, think that if we don’t get enough light, we won’t be able to capture our image.

Remember those old glow-in-the-dark toys? They were greenish?

For one of these to be bright, they had to absorb enough light. If you didn’t leave the lights in the room on for long enough, they wouldn’t be able to glow; or they would glow very differently.

Picture an array of these stars, very densely packed together. If we shine a flashlight on them, but hold up shadow puppets in front of our light, then turn the light off, we will be left with an image – of sorts – of the shadow puppet. That’s…sort of… photography. Kinda. Making images by capturing light. Sure.

Film is made up of a shoot full of tiny little grains. A dense grid of them. These grains – similar to the phosphorescent stars – were sensitive to light. After we shined light at them, we then – through entirely different chemical processes than that with the phosphorescent rocks involving silver halide – we can “develop” the film, which makes the image that projected onto it permanent, no longer sensitive to light.

Then bunch of other things happen that we don’t need to talk about now, and we have an image.

In digital photography, we have image sensors made up of a bunch of little light sensors, each representing a pixel of an image.

In order for these little light sensors to show an image, we need to shoot enough rays of light at them, for a long enough period of time.

If we give them no light, it will be black. Like when you forget to take the lens cap off.

If you give it a lot of light, it will turn white.

Somewhere in-between, if we give it not too little, and not too much light, we can create an image that is grey. And one that is light grey. And one that is dark grey.

Get enough of these little light sensors reading various shades of grey, and you have an image! Images come out of contrasting elements. Dark next to light, and so on. Just like drawing. Blue ink can’t draw well blue paper. White pixels don’t show details next to other white pixels.

If they all were the same brightness of grey… we wouldn’t have an image. We wouldn’t if they were all black or if they were all white either.

Don’t worry. I’ve left my lens cap on enough times to thouroughly test the hypothethis that an all black image makes a good picture. It doesn’t. No need to test that yourself.

The key to getting an image to appear is that the bright parts of our image are not too bright (ie: not solid white), and the dark parts of the image are not too dark (ie: solid black).

Camera’s have a limited range of brightnesses that that they can capture. The range a camera can capture from the darkest point in the scene being just-barely black to the brightest point in the scene that can be not-quite-white is called the dynamic range. Nicer (usually newer, more expensive) cameras have larger dynamic ranges.

If we can capture our grey, detailed, image. Then that image can actually represent the world we pointed the camera at. We can do photography!

A major part of photography is adjusting three settings on the camera – the shutter speed, the aperture, and the ISO, which determine how much light gets into the camera.

The major technical goal of photography is to create an appropriate exposure. One that shows the scene with as much detail as possible: Not all black, not all white.

The Parts Of A Camera

Let’s get our vocabulary consistent! When I mention a part of a camera, you should be able to know which part we are talking about. This will be helpful everywhere, not just while reading this guide.

Learning the parts isn’t just going over this easy stuff (boring!), but making sure we are all on the same page about what we are calling everything.

The Camera Body

Canon 70D. I keep gaff tape over the logo’s of my more expensive cameras and around the edges to make them look less valuable.

The camera body is… you know… the camera. It’s the part you hold. It’s got buttons and you usually look through it.

Most camera bodies contains:

  • The Image Sensor (the thing that captures the image)
  • The Lens
  • The Shutter
  • The Shutter button
  • a 1/4” screw hole (for attaching to things like tripods)
  • Most Controls
  • Batteries
  • Image Storage (SD cards)
  • The viewfinder: The part you look at to preview the image
    DSLR’s contain
  • A mirror that flips up and down inside the camera.
  • An optical viewfinder. No screen to look at, and you can still look through the camera when it’s off.
    The lens locks into place. There’s a button on the front of DSLR’s that unlocks the lens, allow it to twist then come free. This is called a “bayonet” mount. Other mounts, like a screw-on method, used to be widely used. Nowadays it’s bayonet or bust. (insert, turn, lock into place) These risk damaging parts of the camera less, and ensure electrical contacts (for auto focus, and other reasons) are properly aligned and in contact.
Clockwise from the top left: Canon 70D, Canon AE-1, Olympus OM-1, Sony NEX-5t. Note how the bottom left camera does not have a mirror inside of it, nor a little bump on top, and it has no viewfinder. This is a “mirrorless” camera.

DSLR stands for “Digital Single Lens Reflex” camera. “Single Lens Reflex” means the viewfinder – the part you look through, and what the image sensor looks through, is the same: the lens.

This way you see exactly what the camera see’s, so to speak. “Reflex” refers to the mirror bouncing light around up to the viewfinder. The two cameras on the right, above, are “SLR’s” not “DSLR’s”. They are not digital, they shoot on film!

I should get my camera cleaned

You look through this viewfinder, the light is reflected through some optics and mirrors, and out the lens. Nifty! The rubber bit around the viewfinder is to make the camera more comfortable when you press it against your face. Please don’t judge me for how dusty it is. It’s been through a lot. It’s now a backup camera and I play favorites when it comes to cleaning gear.

The Lens

You can look through it! Generally these things are to be handled with care.

Most lenses contain:

  • Glass (sometimes plastic)
  • Focus Adjustment
  • Electrical Contacts
  • Manual or Autofocus switch
  • Sometimes aperture adjustment
  • Lots of markings and data
  • A screw mount for adding filters
  • Sometimes support for a lends hood to snap on
  • Optical Image Stabilization switch
    The button on the front of the camera body unlocks the lens, allowing you to twist and carefully remove it.

Not all cameras have removable lenses. (Photographers use the term Interchangable. A camera that comes with multiple lenses that can be swapped may be called a “Camera System”. We will stick with saying cameras either have “interchangeable” lenses, or they don’t.

The Lens Cap

A random pile of lens caps I had lying around my apartment.

The most easily lost part of the camera, and honestly, the least big deal if it’s lost. Lens caps, I believe, should be kept in our camera bag while we are out shooting, and used when the camera is in storage, resting on a bright day, or otherwise at special risk of being bumped into things and scratched (not while in our hands).

The lens cap, and taking the lens cap off, should not get in the way of shooting! I take mine off when I start, and put it on when I’m done, and not once do I put it on while I am out and about.

Exception: I have a $3000 fisheye lens that the company I shoot for owns. The front glass element bulges out of the camera. I always put the lens cap on this insanely expensive and easily scratched lens.

It’s useful to keep lens caps in the same compartment of a camera bag that the lens is stored, if possible. You’ll see it when you put your lens back, and won’t forget to put the lens cap on. Different lenses in a camera bag can have different lens caps so keeping them organized where their respective lenses go, and not all together, saves a few moments of fumbling for the right cap.

There is one saving grace of the lens cap – super bright days, when the camera is outside. You know how the camera reflects light into your eye? (In other words… you can see through it?) If you point it at the sun, it’s reflecting that light into your eye, like an ant under a magnifying glass. Not great for eyes, or anything near the viewfinder. The lens cap blocks this light as much as it prevents dust, debris, and scratches. Many film camera’s I picked up at thrift stores have very small holes burned into the shutter! Wow!

The Camera Body Cap & The Lens Body Cap

These are important caps! The camera body cap especially, you don’t want to lose. If you do, you’re stuck leaving a lens on your camera at all times to protect the image sensor. This may not sound like that big of a deal, but the convenience of storing a camera neatly or keeping it to the side while dealing with lenses is not to be underestimated.

Super cool thing, they snap into each other! Sometimes I keep an extra SD card inside of this little contraption, when I don’t want to carry as much with me. Mostly I keep them snapped together so I don’t lose them.

The Strap

Straps come in all shapes and sizes and types. Lets just remember to keep ours properly attached to the camera, and use them! Use them!

Don’t leave your strap hanging off of the edge of a table. An animal or small child or whatever may snag on them and drag your camera crashing to the floor.

When I put my camera on a table, I tend to bunch the strap below the camera and put it down. This way I won’t pick up the camera by the strap, but rather pick the camera up, then grab the strap. I do this because if I pick the camera up by the strap, the camera may ‘unwind’ from the strap and bump into the table, potentially damaging the lens, while I’m raising it up.

The Battery

Batteries! Just one battery? Charge it after you shoot, not before. Now it’s charged and ready to go! Keeping your charger either in your bag or at your ‘base station’. If there’s room in your bag, then that’s preferred for being able to charge on the go. If there isn’t room, the charger might be the first to go.

My biggest piece of advice is to get an extra battery.

See the section on Battery Management for more.


One of these is just a microSD Adapter.

Film, CF, SD, microSD, on-board, or whatever. Most cameras have removable memory cards that store all the images captured. Most cameras don’t have much memory outside of the SD card, so don’t lose yours! Camera’s tend to be mighty useless without them. Keep one in the camera when you store it.

When using an SD card, always format (a format deletes everything and gets the card’s file system ready to be used by the camera) it with the camera itself, not your computer or a different camera model/brand. Make sure to do this before using new SD cards, or SD cards that were used by other cameras. Start fresh! It will lessen the chance of data going corrupt on you.

I never format my cards until I have backed up all of my images in at least 3 other locations (computer, local backup hard drive, online). Because of that, I always carry lots of extra SD cards in case one fills up while on a trip.

To keep track of it all, I have a little SD card pouch. Logo up means it’s ready to be used, face-down, contacts-up means it’s full of data and that I shouldn’t touch it. I also label all my SD cards with names (I use various greek letters), so it’s easy to remember who is borrowing/using what, or refer to what images are where, when shooting with others or on long trips. I have a notes file on my phone with lines like “Cleveland day 1 – card DELTA”.

_Many of the cards I own are not pictured, stuffed away in various cameras, bags, pouches, wallets, nooks, cranneys, and at least two forever trapped in a car’s backseat seat-belt hole. _I like to have more SD cards than I need. I have my primary 64gb cards with my pouch, my “system”, but I also picked up a bunch of cheap 8gb cards and I keep one of those in every camera bag, and … just sort of all around where I am likely to find one quickly. Just in case. I recommend you have a system – like my SD card pouch, and I don’t recommend “saturate yourself with SD cards”, but it does work for me as a backup.

As a rule of thumb, you want to buy the fastest SD cards you can afford. Size is secondary. Look for the cards rated read/write speeds, and get the best ones. This will allow your camera to perform better, and there will be less of a wait after taking a photo, before you take the next one. It also makes transfers and backups easier.

Using more, faster, smaller SD cards also is like putting your eggs in many baskets. If something goes wrong – like you drop your camera in a river – there are still some SD cards with some data on them. Hopefully.

You want to keep these shiny contacts clean!

Lens Filters

Lens filters are bits of glass, plastic, acrylic, or anything somewhat transparent. The most common are Haze, UV, and sunlight filters, which are all designed to be able to be left on the camera and forgotten about.

Other filters are designed to only be used in certain scenarios, like Polarizing, Neutral Density, Graduated neutral-density, color, and more.

UV filters block out ultraviolet (UV) light, which can affect an image negatively despite being outside of the visible spectrum of light. We will deal with what filters are used for and when to use them later.

For now, all you need to know is that UV, Haze, or Sunlight filters act as a lens cap that you don’t have to take off. I recommend you keep a UV filter on your lens as a form of protection. A transparent lens cap! Brilliant! It’s cheaper and easier to replace these filters than a broken lens. If they get too dirty, you just take them off, clean them, and put them back on.

If you look at my photo of lenses above, you can tell which lenses I actually use because they have lens filters on them.

Exposure And Cameras

Make sure you understand your exposure essentials before reading this article.

Camera’s control how much light gets in by adjusting one of three things.

  • How LONG the camera lets light in for.
  • How MUCH the camera lets light in at a time.
  • How SENSITIVE the camera is to light.

Shutter Speed, measured in seconds, is how long we let light into. One second? One Thousandth of a second? Less time, less light, and \(all else equal\) the darker the image. I know “speed” is a weird way to talk about “time” but, let it go. Just don’t worry about it. If it really bothers you, then be like Canon and call it “time value” if you want.

Aperture, measured with in “f-stops” \(whatever that means\), is an adjustable hole in the camera. This hole can get bigger or smaller. Basically, it lets the _lens_ get bigger – and let in more light, or smaller, and let in less light. These numbers often have a decimal in them. Like “5 point 6” or “2 point 8”, or just “8”.

ISO, measured in… nothing, it’s just ISO. ISO stands for “International Standards Organization”, the people who decided what numbers to use so that all camera and film manufacturers would agree. Thank’s ISO! It refers to how sensitive the camera is to light.

We call this relationship the Exposure Triangle

Getting The Exposure Correct

Let’s say you’re at a soda machine. You want to fill up your cup with the perfect amount of soda, right to the rim. Too much and it overflows and your hands get all sticky. Too little and you’re left thirsty and dissapointed.

The shutter speed would be how long you hold the cup against the lever, how much time we let the soda out of the machine.

The aperture would be the nozzle. Think about the difference between getting a soda vs. the little water lever. The water trickles out, or comes rushing out.

The ISO would be the size of the cup. How much soda do we need anyway? How much before we are overflowing? Overflowing for a small dixie cup isn’t overflowing for a KFC chicken bucket!

How these different settings work with each other and how they affect your image – we’ll come back to that. Let’s learn how to mess with these settings on our fancy cameras!

To change these settings in action, see he section on shooting modes.

Videos on Exposure

*editors note: wow lots of really long-winded video explanations of the exposure triangle exist. Sorry. Watch a few of these things, and absorb the information. It’s not that difficult.*

These animations are decent.