Backpacking Dad Tries Photography

I like to take pictures of things. I am not good at it. The first camera Emily and I owned together was purchased in 2000 for a trip to Europe. It used that newfangled Advanced Photo System film instead of the old rolls-in-tubs kind. We bought twenty rolls of Kodak Advantix film, usually with numbers like “200” or “400” on the side, and headed out. The result of me having access to twenty rolls of film and my own camera for the first time in my life were…unimpressive. That was the trip of the Blurry Bus Photos: pictures taken of things like mountains and windmills and funny European houses and the Eiffel tower, all from the comfort of my Contiki bus seat.

Sure it's a hill. But it's a hill in EUROPE.

My camera had an utterly basic zoom feature, and the option to shoot in small, medium, or (for the insane photographer), Landscape. The Landscape photos were the length of my forearm, when developed, and were pretty expensive, so I made sure to waste a lot of film on them as I played with my new camera.

I love the photos from that trip, but not because they’re any good. They’re about as bad as photos get. But they were taken sincerely, and even a little selectively, especially toward the end of rolls as I realized I was running out of shots. But oh, what would I do if I could go back in time with some rudimentary photography knowledge and a camera with some basic controls for things like “aperture” and “shutter speed”.

I actually didn’t really understand those terms, or what ISO meant, until last night.

I’ve been getting really annoyed with how boring my pictures look, lately. Since the kids were born we’ve only owned digital cameras, point-and-shoot Cybershots or Nikons that can slip into my pocket. My camera actually has a whole bunch of different options on it to control things like focus points, metering, and even, yes “aperture” to a very, very limited degree. It has a button on the dial labeled “ISO”. But I had no idea what to do with any of these options.

When I look at the pictures I take of the kids, or on vacations, some of them come out great and I want to keep them forever, and some of them come out miserably, and if my kids weren’t in them, and if they weren’t the only pictures I had of the kids visiting a certain place or doing a certain thing, I’d delete them in a heartbeat. Having a digital camera has, in a way, made me a worse photographer than I was with my crappy APS camera in 2000. I don’t even try to get the picture just right before I snap, because I have unlimited space to store bad photos. I take twelve bad pictures, then I get one that is kind of okay, and I move on. But I don’t do any adjusting to settings or take the environment or light into consideration before I snap: I just look at the image on the screen and wait until someone is looking at me.

Last night I resolved to really start learning something about photography. I’m not going to go buy a new camera just so I can get some crazy new lenses and get that shutter speed that goes “click-click-click-click” when you see a professional photographer taking multiple pictures. But I want to be able to make pictures look as good as they can with the rather expensive (compared to the $90 camera I bought in 2000) camera I have here: A Sony Cybershot DSC-W120.

I mentioned my problems on Twitter, and immediately received a link to Karen Walrond’s blog post, from that very day, on aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. I learned some very basic, and world-warping, things reading it: aperture can affect how much detail comes from objects in the background of your subject (the one you are focused on); shutter speed freezes objects, or lets them flow (which I kind of knew already), and that the range of shutter speeds is enormous; and finally, that ISO is easily remembered as thinking about little dudes in a dark room grabbing whatever light comes in: The higher the ISO, the more little dudes there are.

I also remembered seeing Peter West Carey (@pwcarey on Twitter), mention over and over and over again that he was doing a 31 Days to Better Photography series this month. Peter has guest-posted for me here before, and he’s the kind of insane adventuring photographer that I wish I seemed like I was when I show off my vacation pictures. Then I could say, “Okay, now here’s Erin and a frickin’ lion. I know it looks like she’s in the lion’s lap, but seriously I’m just really really good at photography. It’s knowing how your camera works. This is a combination of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture I like to call “Terrible Father”. It’s good, right?” I clicked over to Peter’s series and started reading, getting even more in depth about aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and the Exposure Triangle. Or, as Peter explains them: The Exposure Teeter-Totters of Doom. Peter also includes many pictures of bunnies and drawings of yetis. It’s helpful.

Both Peter and Karen write for those of you who have a decent camera, but the principles they talk about are applicable even to my little Cybershot. I can adjust my aperture slightly (though I end up zooming when I do this, so I have to step back to get my subject back to the size I really want it to be), and my camera will try to, based on the metering of light in the frame, a central area, or a point, adjust the shutter speed so that based on the aperture I’ve chosen, and the ISO I’ve selected (also customizable), the exposure itself will be properly lit. This means, for me, that I can actually take pictures that are lit correctly even though I am adjusting other things in order to change the way the images look.

Sort of. It’s an aspiration, I suppose.

I took a bunch of pictures of my cat last night, all from what I hoped was the same focal distance, with different aperture settings. The camera adjusted the shutter speed to accommodate, and I manually flipped through different ISO settings. About all I can say is: even with the camera as customizable as I set it to be, a cat just looks like a cat.

I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

So, the reason these pictures all look, pretty much, the same to me (beyond a slight colouration difference) is that I wasn’t trying to capture anything with the changed settings. Narrow aperture helps keep staggered objects in focus together, but lets less light in, which is compensated for in the lighting of the exposure by either manually adjusting the ISO, which I did in several shots. Or, if the ISO is not changed, the camera will slow down the shutter to let more light into the frame. However…I wasn’t staggering anything in the focus. I was just taking pictures of my same damned cat. He was the only subject I cared about.

So, I guess what I’m saying is…I know a little bit more about photography than I did yesterday. But I’m not better at actually taking pictures. Apart from the Exposure Teeter-Totters of Doom knowledge I now have thanks to Karen and Peter, I still lack things like: knowledge of light, staging, and common sense.

I’m going to keep trying though. I can’t afford a $900 camera that I would only use, really, to easily take the same pictures I could take with this old camera with a little knowledge and practice. If I’m ever going to buy a better camera I need to use it as an upgrade, not a shortcut.

41 thoughts on “Backpacking Dad Tries Photography”

  1. lol! love the first pic…out the window…looks like the photo albums my parents have when they lovingly put my photos (of windows and thumbs…and feet like your lovely wife's toenails…lol) in with the mix!

  2. Some quotes from Ernst Haas:

    -The camera doesn't make a bit of difference. All of them can record what you are seeing. But, you have to SEE.

    -There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.

      1. The one I didn't post, about unicorns.

        Suck it up dude, I have twice as many kids that I have to get smiling together.

        1. I'm convinced that when they're teenagers all the pictures I take of them

          will still have one trying to peel the eyebrow off the other, or looking at

          some damned butterfly floating through the field of vision.

  3. I'm so glad you posted this. I'm just like you, right down to the Cybershot camera. I need to get in gear and learn about it, instead of salivating over DSLRs that I know even less about. Because it's not really the equipment I envy, but the results.

    1. Yeah. Although I also envy the equipment, now that I know a tiny bit about

      aperture. My camera (and yours) has a range between f 2.8 and f 5.8. Those

      crazy cameras Karen and Peter use get even lower, and crazy high (f 22 on

      one shot Peter has of a waterfall. I don't know how much higher they go than

      that). It's ridiculous.

      With the range we have on ours we can't do very much. But I want to try to

      do the most they can handle instead of every damned picture being totally

      flat and focused throughout the frame.

      1. I have one lens that goes down to F 1.8, and another that goes up to F 40. Although I focus more on lower aperture and macro photography.

        I've actually learned that the lenses matter a lot more than the actual camera does.

  4. I have a bunch of photo posts (Foto Friday page on my site) but they are OLD and the writing is HORRIBLE (Well, more horrible than my current writing). I've been updating them for my photo posts at the Bad Moms Club.

    (None of that is a plug for myself, just honestly trying to help.)

    If, come BlogHer, you still haven't figured it out, we'll have a short lesson. All it took for me to "get it" four summers ago was a friend explaining it to me in simple terms.

    And once you get it, it's FUN. :)

  5. Man, it really is about knowing your equipment, whatever it may be, and jumping in all the way, wanting it, doing it, loving it. I used to giggle into my hand so happily when people asked me what lenses I was using… and I was using a damn point and shoot.

    Arm yourself with that fabulous knowledge, then immerse and play, play, play. The more you do it, the more your "eye" will grow. Your mind will stretch and suddenly you'll see things you never noticed at all before. It's Cheshire Cat time, baby.

    I'm sure a fine robot like yourself will be cranking out some FUCKING CAT MASTERPIECES in no time at all.

    1. I switched to dogs tonight to test out some things.

      For instance, despite my belief that a higher f-stop would mean more detail

      from staggered objects behind the subject, because I have to zoom in on the

      subject to also change the f-stop, I end up cutting a bunch of those objects

      out of the frame, so I'm not getting the effect I want. I'm getting less

      flat looking pictures with lower f-stop, unzoomed.

      Grrr.

      Or, maybe I don't understand what aperture is supposed to be doing for me

      with staggering.

      1. I'm unclear as to why you have to zoom when you adjust the aperture on your camera. Enlighten me? You shouldn't have to do that, and you should be able to see a greater depth of focus when you make the change. Absolutely.

        1. Well, there's no manual way to change the f-stop on this thing. But the

          f-stop CAN change. But it only changes when I zoom in and out on a subject.

          So I'm stuck in this weird place where I have to cut out a bunch of the

          background to get the background into more detail with a higher f-stop. And

          with that much of the background cut out, my pictures are looking pretty

          flat.

          1. What setting do you have it in when you're doing these experiments? It's changing the aperture when you zoom automatically to compensate for the amount of light available. But if you're unable to frame the shot you really want, this is not going to help you in your quest to get cool photos by changing the aperture. Framing is important, too!

            Do you have scene settings on your camera? If you spend a little time to learn about them, you can often use them to suit your needs. For example, "landscape" settings will give you a higher aperture value. Not that you really have to use it for a landscape shot, but the assumption is that when you shoot landscapes, you're more likely to want more "stuff" in focus (greater depth of field/larger f-stop #/smaller aperture), rather than just one small area/point (shallow depth of field/smaller f-stop #/larger aperture).

            Conversely, if you want to force the camera to its smaller f-stop range/larger aperture, put it in "Portrait" mode. The assumption is that when you are shooting a portrait, you want the focus on the face/person, and that the background should be more blurry, to make the subject pop out as the important part of the photo. Macro settings often force smaller f-stop/larger aperture also.

          2. I'm on P mode, which lets me change the most things. But those are some

            great points about the scene settings. I assumed they were just shortcuts

            for what I should be able to do manually in the P settings, but it looks

            like they have their own customizable settings and automatic features that I

            can't duplicate just by adjusting within the P menu.

            I'm going to go take some pictures of things on the floor.

          3. His particular camera does not have a Manual Mode option. That's why he said he can't adjust aperture. He has P ("Program Auto") Mode, which automatically sets the shutter speed and aperture to adjust to the scene based on what he chooses for other settings (like flash and exposure). He can't actually set a specific f-stop on the camera. :(

          4. Every camera really should have a Manual Mode. I hate that yours does not. Some people are scared of them (nobody should be, once you learn a few basic principles, Manual Mode will set you free, brotha), and I think you bought a camera designed for people who are afraid of being in control of their shots. Heh.

  6. Can I just say squee because you semi referenced me here LOL ANYWAYS… rule of thirds… if Peter hasn't gone over it yet, look that one up. It will DRAMATICALLY change the look of your photos, but remember that even that rule can be broken ;)

      1. Yes, that was me. Every once in a while, a good thought pops out of my head and I don't squelch it into oblivion LOL And no. KAREN rocks.

  7. Don't listen to her. The Rule Of Thirds is for sissies who don't understand the Rule Of Sixtysixths, which is different than the Jedi nightmare Rule of Sixty Siths.

    I just realized what your Cybershot is doing to make it seems like you have control of your aperture. Because of the design, zooms typically have different minimum apertures for the shortest zoom and longest zoom. Look at a zoom lens and it says something like 3.5-5.6. Your camera is zooming to force the smaller aperture when, kinda really, it's not doing much because you have to zoom. Yes the aperture number is different, but, I'm guessing, you are still at maximum open aperture in both of those cases. That blows.

    And for reference, my apertures start around 3.5 currently on my 26-300mm, because it's such a big range (I brag, the women love that). And the real expensive zooms keep a nice low 2.8 across the whole range, like the nicer 70-200mm.

    Thanks for the mention.

    1. *snicker* I'd like a lesson on the rule of sixtysixth degrees of Kevin Bacon… can you help me with that one?

      I almost didn't want to send my 70-200 back when my rental was done… but that sucker is worth more than my month's rent, and I couldn't see me and the hubby living in it. ;P

    2. I definitely see a difference. If I stagger two subjects, frame the near one

      so it is focused at size X, on the unzoomed mode the far one is both small

      and out of focus. When I zoom, but back up so that the subject is still at

      size X, the far one is now larger and in focus. I assume the larger size has

      to do with the zooming effect overall. Is the focus also because of the

      zoom, and not an actual change in aperture? If so…lame.

    3. Personally, I like to put all the subjects of my photos in the top third of the bottom half of perfect center. But only if there are leading lines and nobody had the audacity to wear white when I was going to take their photo.

      Mmmm, 26-300.

  8. Just my 2 cents: The technical aspect of photography – apertures and shutter speed and light balance, oh my! – ARE important and useful to help you learn how to take better photos.

    But,even more important, in my opinion, is learning to develop your "eye" – creating the habit of framing the picture in your head, trying to communicate something, capturing a "feeling".

    I'm no expert, by a long shot! But I do know that practice, practice, practice makes, well, maybe not perfect, but, better! As does viewing and analyzing photos of photographers whose work you like. Take something they have done and re-create or re-interpret it on your own and I think you might find that the technical aspects of focus and lighting and composition all start to make even more sense and start to come more naturally.

    Best of luck! :)

  9. Good times. I wrote a blog post on photography last week. Was away from computer-net so haven’t posted it yet. ;p
    Rather in line with OneZenMom’s comment above–I’m lacking in tech, but I feel like I have a decent ‘eye’.

  10. Good times. I wrote a blog post on photography last week. Was away from computer-net so haven't posted it yet. ;p
    Rather in line with OneZenMom's comment above–I'm lacking in tech, but I feel like I have a decent 'eye'.

  11. Good times. I wrote a blog post on photography last week. Was away from computer-net so haven’t posted it yet. ;p
    Rather in line with OneZenMom’s comment above–I’m lacking in tech, but I feel like I have a decent ‘eye’.

  12. Good times. I wrote a blog post on photography last week. Was away from computer-net so haven’t posted it yet. ;p
    Rather in line with OneZenMom’s comment above–I’m lacking in tech, but I feel like I have a decent ‘eye’.

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