Photography: beginners introduction to technical jargon (aperture, f-stops, shutter speed)

Ryan with toy gunA good photograph is one you like – even if you can’t explain why you like it. It doesn’t matter a jot whether it would win a photography competition – or whether it is technically perfect.

Having said that – an understanding of the technical aspects of photography can help you in your quest to take photographs you like. It helps to know why photographs taken in low light can come out blurred or why your landscapes don’t seem very sharp.

Understanding how your camera works gives you more control – so you can take the photographs you want to take and not just get the odd good one by accident. In this very short article I will cover two basic but important concepts that will give you more control of your camera – and therefore of your photography. Those concepts are aperture and shutter speed.

Demystifying the jargon of photography

A camera has a very simple job:

  1. provide a hole that light can pass through
  2. make that hole a certain size
  3. and shut the hole after a certain amount of time.

Light passes through the hole and whatever scene the camera happens to be pointing at is captured either on film or electronically. We call this process, photography.

How the photo jargon relates to the above explanation

In step two the camera provides a hole of a certain size for light to pass through. When describing the size of the hole we say it has a certain aperture. The word aperture is our first bit of jargon; when taking a photograph we can decide what we think will be a suitable aperture for our purpose – which will be based on a combination of things – none of which we will discuss here – because right now we need to keep things simple.

Aperture; the bigger it is the smaller it is

Aperture is measured in f-stops. And the bigger the f-stop – the smaller the hole. Now whoever decided that big numbers means smaller holes was clearly out to confuse new (and old) photographers. At this point we won’t go beyond that explanation – because it’s best we just remember the basic idea – so that we can build on it later.

  • Big f-stops equal small holes.
  • Small f-stops equal big holes.

Shutter speed

Next up we look at number 3 in our list of simple jobs our camera does for us, i.e., ‘shut the hole after a certain amount of time’.

When talking about how long the hole is open for we talk about ‘shutter speed’. Clearly if I am on a mediterranean holiday and my hotel has shutters on the windows – in the morning if I open the shutters on my window for a very short time before closing them – because it’s too bright and hurts my eyes – I open and shut them quickly. That’s a fast shutter speed – and it’s exactly the same on a camera. The shutters open, let some light in and then close. Faster shutter speeds mean the hole is open for a short period of time and only a small amount of light gets in. Slower shutter speeds mean the hole is open longer and more light gets in.

Choosing how long or short your camera shutter should be open for depends on all sorts of things – but one basic idea is that on dull days to get enough light through the hole to imprint a picture we need to have the shutter open longer. On bright days – much more light rushes in during the same period of time – so we don’t need to keep it open for so long.

Shutter speeds are measure in fractions of a second

When your photography books suggests a shutter speed of 1/80 – that 1/80 is being expressed as a fraction of a second. So 1/2 is half a second, 1/4 a quarter of a second and so on.

Lodge these ideas in your head for ever

We have discussed two simple but important ideas – aperture and shutter speed. I know you understand them right now – but you also need to remember them. If you are coming across them for the first time I suggest you take a blank piece of paper and write down your own explanations of what the mean. Write your explanation down ten times and turn the paper over. Leave it for ten minutes and on the blank side write down your explanations another ten times. Tomorrow get another piece of blank paper and write down your explanation once more – keep going until you are wondering why you ever thought these were difficult ideas to grasp.

Stop – you are now a few more steps up the ladder to taking the sort of photographs you can be proud of. 🙂

This article is part of my, ‘guide to photography for beginners like me’ series.

Enjoy your photography
Jim Byrne

20 Creative Photography Exercises for Mobile and SLR

Before taking each of the following photographs think about the light, think about depth of field and think about exposure. If you don’t get the correct exposure change the settings until the exposure is correct and then do the task again.

Four way photography

  1. Take a selfie. Then take a quarter turn to the right and take another. Keep doing that until you are back to where you started. You will end up with four photographs. Take each one from the same angle, i.e. if you take the first with your arm outstretched and above you head take them all like that. There should be a uniformity to the angle you take the photo from.
  2. Repeat the above exercise in different locations. Use different angles and perspectives but for each set of four photos use the same angle.
  3. Take at least one set of four photos standing near a window.
  4. Take a photograph of an individual standing next to a window. Have them standing side-on to the window and take a head and shoulder shots from different sides and different angles.
  5. Have them face on to the window and again take a set of head and shoulder photos from all sides and angles. They should not move or turn as you take these photos.
  6. Take a photograph of yourself or someone else that makes use of the rule of thirds.
  7. Take a portrait but this time place the subject directly in the centre of the frame.
  8. If you have control over the depth of field on you camera take a photo of a member of the workshop with the narrowest depth of field available on your camera. I.e you subject should be sharp but your background should be out of focus. (e.g. f/2.8 or f/4)
  9. If you have control over depth of field take the same photo but with maximum depth of field, i.e the background will be as sharp as the subject. (e.g. f/22)
  10. Take a photo of a persons legs and feet, a photo of their body (including their arms and hands) and a photo of their head and shoulders. Try to find a way that you can imagine them together in a photo frame. Make sure each photo fills the frame and there is no clutter in the background.
  11. Take a photograph of another member of the group and find a way to place a frame around them. I.e. they could be in a doorway or someone could be framing their face with their hands. Or they could be framing themselves with their arms.
  12. Take a portrait of yourself or someone else where only a small part of your face is in the frame. Keep the rest of the frame clutter free.
  13. Take a portrait where the subject is standing in front of a window. The subject should be a dark silhouette against the bright background.
  14. Take a photo form the same standpoint but change the setting of your camera so that you can see the person rather than the light behind them.
  15. Take a photograph that doesn’t have your face in it but it still clearly represents who you are.
  16. Take a portrait that has no horizontal or vertical lines. I.e. not portrait and not landscape. Make it look like it wasn’t a mistake.
  17. Take a photo in a way that makes light visible; i.e. a light flare or dust floating in a shaft of light – just whatever light you can capture.
  18. Take a photo of an object in the gallery that in some way relates to you.
  19. Take a photo without looking. For example, put your camera down at your feet or on a table or take a photo behind your back. Make one of those photos a selfie – don’t look at the screen when you take it.
  20. Find somewhere where you can see a reflection of yourself and take a photo of your reflection.