If you bought a super smartphone for photos / video and leave it on auto, what a waste. Here’s what to do. Photo and Video 101.

To a serious videographer or photographer, there is no more depressing letter than “A”.

This is because to the majority of camera users – no matter the flavour be smartphone, dSLR, 4/3rds, compact, camcorder, cinema camera or whatever – the letter ”A” stands for “automatic”, and this is the mode they place the camera or (insert image capture device of choice here) 99.9% of the time.

Alongside this are cries such as “I *must* have the new iPhone 12 / Samsung Galaxy 21/ whatever, I just *must*”.

And when asked why, the answer is usually around the area of the “camera is better”, said just before placing said device in Automatic mode.

Again.

So, figuring the root problem, or at least HOPING it is the root problem and not just laziness, here is a quick primer of the terms and functions available in your camera, and why you should use them. Which, scary as it may seem, means you take it off that damned Auto mode.

Aperture

This is how “wide” open the lens is to let in light to reach the sensor that records the image(s). F22 lets a very small amount of light in and F2.8 lets in a lot ie the smaller the number, the more light is allowed onto the sensor. It sounds incongruous I know but get used to it.  By the way, the F number is also called an f-stop.

Shutter Speed

This is how long the shutter stays open to let the light in through the aperture onto the sensor. Measured in seconds and fractions of a second, in contrast to the f-stop value, the smaller the number, the less amount of light gets through. So, a shutter speed of say 1/60th of a second, lets light through the aperture, no matter IT’S value, for exactly 1/60th of a second. A shutter speed of 10 seconds lets light through to the sensor for, just that, 10 seconds, and again, it does not matter what the f-stop setting is.

ISO

In the past, when “film” was actually used, this was known as ASA, and is a measure of how sensitive the emulsion on the film is to light. A lower number means less sensitivity and a higher number, well, higher sensitivity. Yes, this one is the right way around I know, praise be to ISO (International Standards Organisation), the actual body that determines these things.

So, when light is low, you *could* use an ISO setting that is higher to compensate. An “average” ISO (ASA) in the days of film was 200, used on a bright sunny day. ASA400 would be used on an overcast day.

Today as the ISO of a camera’s setting is determined by electronics, ridiculous numbers are available; for example, a Canon 1D dSLR pro camera can go to 51,200 ISO.

Be aware though, while it might be tempting to crank up the ISO rating i9n low light, the downside is that the higher you go, the more “grain” you add to your image. There is NO substitute for real light, ever.

AF

This simply stands for “auto focus” and when on, allows the camera’s magic to work out what part of a scene should be in focus. Often married to face or eye detection, AF takes out the guess work of having to manually get the lens at the right setting.

If at all possible, NEVER turn on auto focus This is because errors can and do occur as the camera lens “hunts” for something, anything, to focus on,, and thus imparts unforced errors into your picture as it focussed on for example, the lamp pole with a light on it 10 metres away and not your fiancé’s dazzling blue eyes right in front of you. .

MP (Megapixels)

This is how many individual dots – more or less – are going to make up your final image. Of course, this is in reality limited to the device used for viewing – a printed image or a screen say – and how good your own eyesight is.

This is why in real terms, figures for the layman or casual or even enthusiast photo/videographer, such as 30 MP are ridiculous. Referring back to the Canon 1D, probably accepted as the pro’s pro camera, this is rated at 18.1MP by way of example.

Fps

Or frames per second. This is a number used to show how many individual “pictures” are shot each second when shooting video. As a guide, Australian TV plays back at 25fps.

So why shoot at higher frame rates of 50fps, 60fps or even 240 fps? This allows you to create slow motion imagery by playing it back at 25 fps. Some specialist cameras shoot at 1000 fps (or more) allowing extreme slo-mo in sporting event shooting for example.

Zoom

OK this is a no brainer you may think. It is obvious that zooming in a subject using a camera’s zoom function makes the object bigger and saves energy as you don’t have to walk closer to it to get your shot.

But zooming also affects the depth of field and that can be bad. Very bad.

Worse, some camera / camcorder still insist on publishing the electronic zoom values available from their devices. In the bad old days (the 90s and early noughties), this became a marketing badge of honour in that “my zoom is bigger than your zoom”, when in reality unlike analogue zoom, which uses the optics of the lens (the glass) to magnify just like Galileo intended, instead individual pixels are blown up electronically thus giving a distorted image.

Ergo, NEVER use electronic zoom functions. And avoid normal zoom as often as you can. Simply get closer to the subject.

Depth of Field

This can take an article all by itself to explain. Here is one I prepared earlier and the accompanying tutorial which involved a trip to Exmouth on Western Australia’s Coral Coast.

Depth of field refers to at what distance is something in focus, and in the real world, the greater the zoom, the shallower the depth of field. This is also allied with the aperture setting, further giving a distortion. It makes the amount of the subject matter in the image less and less in focus depending on the zoom factor and aperture setting.

An example is in motor sport shooting, whereby using the correct combo of zoom, aperture and to a degree, shutter speed, you can make a racing car appear “frozen”, but the background blurred.

By skilful manipulation of these settings, you can take it a step further and have the background AND the car’s wheels blurred giving an even greater impression of speed. For examples, see my good friend Rossco Gibbo’s images as he is a master of this technique. (He is also a damn fine landscape and wildflowers photographer just quietly).

Long Exposure Photography

This is a technique used to get a sense of time in a still shot. Again referring back to Ross Gibb Photography, he has an image which is one of my favourites, taken on the mountain at the Bathurst  12 hour motor race where he has left the shutter open for a full 30 seconds thus getting an incredible vision of blurred tail lights of all the vehicles in the race as they went past in the dead of night into a single shot.

The same technique is used to gain those incredible star trail shots you see.

The Flash

This may seem like a no brainer as well, but trust me, many, many people misunderstand the use of the inbuilt flash system of your camera / smartphone. For example, how many times – either in real life or on TV – have you seen flashes going off when people shoot sporting events or live concerts? And it is pointless, as a flash, depending on the camera or smartphone, is good for maybe 5 metres at the very best. So save your battery life.

Working on the maxim of my good friend and Master Photographer, Peter Aitchison, photography (and indeed videography) is simply “painting with light”, so a flash is used to augment the available light – or lack thereof – inside its own limitations.

So, firing off the flash to get a piccie of ScoMo at the Sharkies game when you are 20 metres away from him is a fruitless exercise, but using it to light your beloved’s face when she has her back to a beautiful sunrise on a summer’s evening is a good use, assuming she is only a couple of metres away, and all the other settings are in sync (aperture, shutter speed, ISO etc).

Putting it all Together

By understanding all of these things and how they interact, from both a video and photography standpoint, is the key to creating those brilliant shots you see from people such as Pieter deVries or the aforementioned Ross Gibb and Peter Aitchison.

Yes, it has a learning curve, yes, it takes practice and yes, it takes time. And along the way, you also have to learn about composition and lighting (and perhaps audio), but the end results are well worth it, you’ll see.

(By the way, if you need basic lighting and audio stuff and any ancillary cables and adaptors, drop into your local Jaycar store as they have them all. For top shelf audio, see the range from Sennheiser)

So, get your smartphone, compact camera, camcorder, GoPro or even DJI drone or whatever out of your pocket or backpack, turn OFF all auto settings and start experimenting. Make notes as you go and detail what settings were used for specific images so you can duplicate them later.

Conclusion

What’s that? But you only WANT to take happy snaps? Well then guess what? In that case you have just blown serious money as for that, an el cheapo second-hand phone from Cash Converters will have done you just fine.

AND you just wasted 10 minutes reading this.

So go on… give it a go! There are wondrous things out there that demand your photographic and video attention.

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