Last modified: March 20, 2000.
To start taking photos, all you really need is a camera body, a lens, and some film. Depending on what sorts of photos you plan to take, you'll find that other pieces of equipment may be very useful.
I've arranged the topics in the order I would find most valuable, but your mileage may vary. Here's an index to the topics:
Even if you've got a lot of bright lights in your house and you're using fast film and the camera says that the exposure will be OK, you'll probably be unhappy with photos taken this way because most film you buy is called "daylight" film, and is designed to be shot using light from the sun. If you shoot using indoor (tungsten) light and daylight film, your photos will come out very yellow. (Or if your house is lit using fluorescent light, they'll be green.)
It is possible to buy film designed for tungsten light, but it's typically designed for the tungsten flood lights that would be used in a professional photographer's studio which have a higher color temperature than the ones in your house. You can also correct for the yellow color of your tungsten lights with the right shade of blue filter, but this will cut out even more light (or with a magenta filter to compensate for the green of fluorescent bulbs). Your best bet is to use a flash that totally overpowers the ambient light with the daylight-balanced light from a xenon flash tube.
Depending on how much the camera "knows" about the flash and the flash about the camera, some very sophisticated things are possible nowadays, but, as with many things, you'll find that you'll have to pay money for the extra sophistication.
Very simple flashes will simply fire a flash when the shutter is open, so it is up to you to figure out how much light is going to come back as a result of the flash and to adjust the aperture accordingly. Subjects further away reflect less light, for example.
Some flashes can determine the distance to the subject by "asking" the camera what distance it's focused at, and using that information to guess the proper aperture.
The most interesting flashes use "TTL", or "Through The Lens" control. There's a photo sensor inside the camera that's looking at the light reflected from the film, and when the right amount of light for a correct exposure has been received, the flash "quenches", or shuts off. So if 1/3 of a full-power flash gives correct exposure, that's exactly what you'll get.
On the right is a photo of a Rufous Hummingbird taken using the TTL flash. Quite often, the first time you try this, you'll get a bad photo -- the subject is completely over-exposed and the background is totally black. What has happened is that the camera is waiting until there's enough light to get a proper exposure, and since the bird is so close to the lens, all the light will come from the bird. To get what the camera thinks of as proper exposure, and since nothing is coming from the background, the flash keeps going until there's enough light from the bird, but this is balancing out the pure black background, so the bird is overexposed.
There are a couple of things you can do about this. You can
use a spot meter, so only the center of the frame is properly
exposed, and presumably, that contains the bird, or you can
put a background relatively close so that light from the flash
is also being reflected by the background. That's what I did
here. I just used a yellow sheet of paper; for an artistic
shot, it would be better to put some "natural" greenery close
behind the bird. (The hummingbird feeder is just outside the
shot, of course.)
Flashes may also have the capability of doing "fill flash". If your subjects are people and the background is bright, the "proper" exposure may show the people as silhouettes, but with a little fill-in flash, the faces are brightened. In such cases, sunlight provides most of the light, but a little fill flash brightens up things near the camera.
Red-eye reduction works by pre-flashing (at relatively low power, but possibly with three or four flashes) just before the real shot and flash occurs. Red eye is caused because the flash typically comes from very near the camera, goes through the pupil, is scattered by the orange-red retina, and is refocused at the camera by the eye's lens. In dark rooms, the pupil is especially wide open, so a lot of light is scattered by the retina. The pre-flash causes the eye's iris to close down to make a much tinier pupil which can greatly reduce the amount of red light coming back.
I don't like red-eye reduction because it's really annoying to the people being photographed, and since you have to wait for all the pre-flashing to occur before the actual photo is taken, the actual photo occurs a few tenths of a second after you trip the shutter, not immediately afterward, so you never know quite what you got until the film comes back from the developer.
I think a better solution to the red-eye problem is to take the flash away from the camera. The problem is caused because the source of the light is usually very near the lens. If you can hold the flash a few feet from the camera, the problem usually goes away, and the photo is usually a bit better too, because the light doesn't come from head-on, but rather slightly from the side so there are some small shadows that make things look a bit more natural. To take the flash off the camera you need a flash extension cord. One end plugs into the flash "hot shoe" on the camera, and the flash plugs into the other end. The cord is 3 or 4 feet long so you can hold the flash off to either side (or above or below, although those usually make weirder-looking shots due to the strange shadows, especially below) when you take the photo.
Obviously, if the shutter speed is fast enough, it doesn't matter if the camera moves a little bit while the shutter is open because the blur caused by this movement is very small. But if you want to eliminate blur, the steadier the camera is the better you'll do.
The rule of thumb that tells you how fast the shutter speed has to be to hand-hold a lens of a given focal length is that it should always be faster than 1/L in seconds, where L is the focal length of the lens. In other words, if you have a 100 mm lens, you'd better shoot at 1/100 second (or faster) to avoid blur.
I personally think this is the best case. If you're old and not quite so steady as you used to be, the speed should be higher. If the lens is so heavy that there's a real strain in holding it up, you need a higher speed, and so on.
Of course if you have one of those image-stabilized lenses (Canon currently sells them) you can do a lot better. I have no personal experience with these lenses, however.
If you use long (telephoto) lenses, you almost certainly need a tripod. I try always to use a tripod if I'm shooting lenses 200 mm or longer. I wrote an article on tripods for very long lenses on Philip Greenspun's photo.net pages: Tripods, Heads, and Quick Releases. This is probably more than you want to know, so a short version follows.
I'll also spare you the sad story of my rather large tripod family, unless you really want to read it.
The basic rule is that the heavier the tripod, the better. I once was told by a professional photographer friend that to make a perfect tripod, just weld your camera body to a steel box the size of a piano case and then fill it with rocks. The heavier the tripod, the less it will shake.
The movement problem becomes larger as the focal length of the lenses becomes larger. Not only do the lenses get heavier and harder to support, but a tiny jiggle on a large lens amounts to a much larger movement relative to the size of the film than the same jiggle on a small lens.
If you know you're never going to use large lenses, you can get away with a smaller tripod. I've got experience with both Bogen and Gitzo tripods and I've generally been happy with both, given the price. If price is no object, get the Gitzo.
There are a large variety of tripods, and if you can find a camera store with a whole bunch of different models, you can play around with a lot of them and see what you like and what you don't.
Another trade-off you're going to face is how many leg segments the tripod has. The more of these, the less stable the tripod is going to be, but the smaller it will be folded up.
Finally, a lot of tripods have a center post that you can use to raise the camera a bit. I don't recommend using these -- you're down to one leg again. It's almost best just to get a tripod that doesn't have one, but I confess to using mine a couple of times when the tripod without it was not quite tall enough to get the lens over the top of a fence, and it was either use the center extension or miss the shot.
As important as the tripod is the tripod head you have. It's got to connect the tripod to camera solidly, with as little play as possible. If you're in a shop with tripods and heads, it's good to try hooking a camera to the head, and then seeing how much wiggle you can get.
There are two basic types of heads -- ball heads and pan-and-tilt heads. I prefer the ball heads because if you release one knob, the camera movement is completely free, and you can lock it up again with a single knob. For wildlife, this is great.
On the other hand, if you're doing other sorts of shooting, and you've got the height right, but need to make a minor adjustment in side-to-side position, the pan-and-tilt head will let you do exactly that. Each degree of freedom has it's own control. (To be fair, some ball heads have a separate control for panning without releasing the ball head.)
With one camera and one lens, there's usually no problem, but as soon as you get that second lens you're going to have to worry about how to carry it. Cameras and lenses are not terribly delicate (assuming you've got your lens caps on), but you don't want to bash them around, either.
Most bags and backpacks designed for carrying photographic equipment have padded interiors, designed so that you can adjust the shapes of the compartments to fit the particular camera bodies, lenses, and other stuff that you've got. They usually have places to put film, lens cleaner paper, cable releases, filters, and so on.
The main recommendation I would make is to get something that's at least a little bigger than you think you need. I've never been very good at predicting the next thing I'm going to buy, and it's especially likely when you just get started that you'll make two or three additional trips to the photo store to get a couple of things you discover you need. If you buy a bag at the same time you buy your first camera and lens and teh bag is exactly large enough to hold what you bought and no more, I can almost guarantee you'll be sorry.
I think the best thing to do is to work with some makeshift bag for a month or two, and then when things settle down to a stable kit, you'll be in a better position to get the right thing.
If you get hooked on photography, you'll probably want at least a couple of different bags. I have one by Tamrac that can be converted into a backpack or the straps can be folded and zipped into a pocket that makes it into a great carry-on bag on an airplane. It's about as large as it can be and still fit under an airline seat.
I also have a little "butt pack" that holds a camera, a couple of lenses, and some film that I use when I don't want to haul the whole load around with me, and I have one of those "photo vests" that has a million pockets that's also sometimes useful. You just have to remember what pocket everything is in. The vest, of course, is not as well padded as the bags. The guy who sold me the vest says that it's much better than a standard camera bag because when you get caught taking photos that you're not supposed to be taking, you can run much faster with a vest than a camera bag!
Most camera systems try to make their lenses use only a few filter sizes. For example, in the Nikon system, most of the standard lenses use filters that are either 52 or 62 millimeters in diameter. The oddball large lenses, of course, will use larger filters.
You can purchase step-up rings that let you attach large filters to smaller lenses. I own (for my Nikon system) a 52 to 62 mm step-up filter, so I just buy 62 mm filters (except for UV protection filters, see below). Step-down rings exist too, but don't do this or you'll almost surely wind up with vignetting problems (see vignetting, below).
Buy a filter that's comparable in quality to your lens. It's nuts to spend a zillion dollars on the fanciest lens with triple-coated optics and the fanciest ED glass and then put a filter in front of it that's a piece of crap. All the light that reaches your film goes through the glass in that filter (or plastic in that filter, if it's a piece of crap). Similarly, why spend $100 on the finest B+W filter for a $70 lens? There are some exceptions, of course. For filters that do some wack-o distortion of their own that you're going to use only rarely, why bother with high-quality optics if the purpose of the filter is to distort it anyway?
I like the Nikon and B+W filters. I find Hoya and Tiffen to be slightly lower quality, but pretty good. The Nikon filters are thinner, and I get them when vignetting may be a problem. This almost always means that I've got a really wide-angle lens.
But if you start putting on filters, you may have trouble. Although they are fairly thin, when you screw on a filter, it is like adding a little cylinder to the end of your lens. Imagine the limiting case -- shooting through a hollow pipe. In that case, you'd expect to see a circular image in the center of your film, and blak everywhere else, right?
So imagine cutting off the pipe to make it shorter and shorter and consider what the photos would look like. The shorter the pipe is, the more you'll see, and when it's finally cut down to nothing, you'll see everything. As the pipe gets longer and longer, at some point, it will begin to interfere with the image, at first in a minor way, and then more and more seriously. With a wide-angle lens, the problem will occur much sooner.
On ultra-wide-angle lenses, even a single filter can cause vignetting, so on my 20 mm lens, I use the thin Nikon filter instead of the fatter B+W filter if I can.
If you decide that the effect you want can only be achieved with two different filters -- you want to add a reddish tinge and use a polarizer to cut glare, for example -- then you can "stack" the filters by screwing the polarizer in front of the reddish filter, and you'll get the effect you want, but you'll also run a larger risk of vignetting, since the "pipe" in front of your lens is twice as long.
If you normally use a filter for protection (see the next section), don't get lazy and just stack on another filter if you want some special effect. Take off the protection, put on the new filter, and avoid vignetting problems.
Another thing to beware of is mixing filters and lens hoods. Often the hoods are designed to be as big as possible and yet avoid vignetting. But if you put on a filter plus a hood, some vignetting may occur.
Maybe the best way to state the dogma of this religion is that filters are normally off the lens, and when you put one on, it's for a good reason.
I was a casual member of the first religion until I had an experience that converted me for life. Now I'm a fanatical user of filters for protection. I've also seen a couple of other folks drop cameras and smash their filter but save the lens, so my personal experience indicates that it's a good idea.
Sometimes, of course, I remove the protection filter for a particular shot when I want to be sure to minimize distortion, but then I put it back on when I finish the shot.
Two filters are typically used for protection -- a so-called "skylight" filter and a UV filter. I prefer the UV filter, since it is as close to neutral as possible. The skylight filter has a slight pinkish tinge that helps in some hazy situations and doesn't hurt in most others, but I prefer neutrality by default, and I carry a skylight filter if that's the effect I want.
For a long time, I found it hard to think about color filters, but I now have a way that works for me. Your mileage may vary.
Colored filters can only remove light from a scene; they can't add anything. If you look through a red filter, everything seems reddish not because the filter is adding red; it's because the filter is blocking the non-reds.
So if you're shooting indoors with film that's meant to be used outdoors, the problem is that the tungsten light indoors is more yellow than what the sun puts out (assuming you have tungsten rather than fluorescent lighting). So to make the picture seem normal, you need to block some of the yellow. A yellow filter is totally wrong -- it blocks everything but yellow. You want a blue filter, with the shade of blue corresponding to the amount of yellow your tungsten bulbs are putting out.
Similarly, if you're shooting film that's designed to work well with tungsten light outdoors, it is less sensitive to yellow (because there will be extra yellow that it needs to ignore), so if you're shooting that film outdoors, you need more yellow. But filters can't add color, so you do it by reducing the amount of everything else, and that's exactly what a yellowish filter will do.
You get the idea.
This approach makes it easy to know how to stack filters (although I just told you not to do it in the last section, didn't I?)
Anyway, if you're planning to use the wrong film (indoor film outdoors, or outdoor film indoors), just look up in the filter tables to find out what to use. I think it's easier just to use the right film. I simply always use daylight film, and if I'm indoors, I use a powerful flash which puts out light that's like sunlight. You will notice that folks who take color shots indoors without a flash using daylight film tend to wind up with yellowish pictures because of the yellow tungsten light. Fluorescent light is actually green, and a magenta filter will let through everything but green if you're shooting daylight film in fluorescent light without a flash.
Other than these filters to correct for using the wrong film, there aren't too many colored filters used by photographers using colored film, but there are a couple.
Warming filters (81A, 81B, and sometimes even 81C) are sort of tan, and warm up your subjects, particularly during the middle of the day with a cloudless sky. 81A provides a tiny bit of warming, 81B a significant amount, and 81C, almost too much.
What's going on is that if there's a lot of blue sky, the light falling on your subjects comes mostly from the sun, but a significant amount is sunlight bouncing off the blue sky and then on your subject. Thus the subject will have too much blue light on it, and will appear a bit bluish. To correct for this, these warming filters block out some of the blue-sky blue.
Some people cheat and use reddish or tobacco-colored filters to make sunsets appear better than they are. The 81A, 81B, and 81C will do some of this as well.
Sometimes, if you're making extremely long exposures
(night shots of a city, like the one on the right of San Francisco
behind the Golden Gate Bridge, for example), you start getting funny
colors because of what's called "reciprocity failure" of your film.
At your photo shop you can get the technical information about any
type of film that will tell you how to correct for this. For example,
the information might say something like, "If your shutter is open for
more than 2 seconds, use such-and-such a magenta filter. If it's open
for more than 10 seconds, use this type." and so on.
Don't worry about this unless you're doing really long exposures. In fact, you'll surely forget you read this, and someday you'll take a roll of great photos of the Golden Gate bridge at night with San Francisco behind it using 20 second exposures, and when you get the film back from the lab, you'll suddenly remember about reciprocity failure! At least I learned in San Francisco; you may learn about it somewhere else.
Use a polarizing filter to get rid of glare from glass or off water. You can also use it to darken a blue sky since the light coming from it tends to be polarized.
All polarizing filters allow you to turn the polarizing element to adjust for the angle of polarization of the incoming light, so turn it around while you're looking through the viewfinder to get the effect you want.
If you have a camera with automatic exposure calculations, use a circular polarizer. For totally manual cameras, a linear polarizer works fine and is a lot cheaper.
Usually your problem is to get enough light -- that's why you pay the big bucks for lenses with lots of glass area in front -- but there are a few cases where you want less. For example, if your camera is already loaded with ISO 800 film and it is a very sunny day and your lens only stops down to f/16, you're certain to over-expose your film. But if you put on a 2-stop neutral density filter, it's the same as changing your film to ISO 200, which you may be able to handle.
A very interesting effect I once saw required something like a 13-stop neutral density filter, which reduces the amount of light by a factor of 8192 or so. In other words, the exposure had to be 8192 times as long. To take a shot required a long (half-hour) exposure. The photo I saw was taken in a busy train station where there are always hundreds of people milling about. But since the shutter was open for a half hour, nobody was in the frame long enough to make an image on the film, and the resulting photo looked like an empty station, perhaps with a bum asleep on a bench. The bum shows up because he is in the same place for the entire half-hour exposure.
They are very useful if the sky is bright and you want detail in both the sky and on the ground. Without a split-density filter, you either over-expose the sky (so it will all look white), or you'll under-expose the earth (and it will look completely black). But if you mount a split-intensity, 2-stop neutral-density filter and rotate it so that the dark half is on top, and compose your frame so that the edge of the filter runs along the earth/sky border as much as possible, then the light from the sky will be reduced by two stops and it will be much easier to get both the sky and ground into the same exposure range.
Even among the split-intensity, neutral-density filters there is some variation. You can choose the number of stops difference between the clear part and the gray part, and you can choose the rapidity with which the clear and gray parts meet in the center of the filter glass. If they blend gradually, it's easier to hide the earth/sky edge, but the exposure on the edge may look a little funny. If you were shooting boats on the ocean against a sky, a very sharp division would be fine, since the horizon is basically a perfectly straight line.
A disadvantage of most of these filters is that you're forced to compose the photo so that the boundary between earth and sky passes through the exact center of your film, and that often is a very severe constraint on composition. There exist filters that are rectangular and can be mounted (with a special mounting bracket) in front of the lens with the division between the halves wherever you want it. Remember that with an SLR camera, you can see the effect of the filter simply by looking through the viewfinder, so the filter placement isn't just a wild guess.
There are some even more unusual versions where half is colored and half is clear, but you'll use them even less commonly. One possibility is if you like to "soup up" sunsets with a red or orange or tan filter, and the sunset is over the ocean, you might want a filter that's half orange and half clear.
There is a huge variety of these filters. Most companies that sell them will have a brochure that clearly shows the special effects caused by each one.
Since these special-purpose filters generally seriously distort the light that gets to the film, there's often no point in spending a lot of money for high optical quality in them. Companies like Cokin make a wide variety of plastic filters that fit into special Cokin mounts on the front of your lens. You can buy one mount, and then get as many weirdo filters as you want for a few bucks each. If you get the B+W filters, you'll pay $50 each for them.
It's also a great tool for organizing your slides for a slide show. You can move them around on the surface and see a whole bunch of them at once. If you're using a light table for this purpose, you'll find that the larger the table, the better it works. When I got my table, a friend talked me into getting one that's about 18 inches by 24 inches and I thought it was far too big. It's OK, but now I wish I'd gotten a larger one. Mine is barely large enough to work with 2 (36-shot) rolls of slides. The problem, of course, is that larger light tables take more room to store.
If you care about exact colors, be sure to get a table with bulbs that have an emission spectrum close to daylight. Standard fluorescent bulbs put out a lot of green light so the slides will appear greener than they will in projection or if you make prints from the slides.
There's not much rocket science involved in light tables, so if you have any woodworking ability you can probably make your own for a fraction of the cost of buying one. Just use the right bulbs if you care about color.
For a standard loupe, you can pay anything from $6 (for a plastic piece of crap) to hundreds of dollars. I own two loupes, a Schneider 4-power loupe and a Peak 10-power loupe. The Schneider cost about $120 and the Peak about $40. I don't notice a huge difference between the optical quality of the two, so if I were to do it again, I'd probably get a cheaper 4-power loupe.
If you just get one loupe, get a 4-power version. You get quite a bit of magnification but you can still see the whole slide at once. I got the 10-power much later and I use it as the ultimate check for sharpness when I'm deciding which version of a slide to make a print of. My Peak 10-power loupe has a reticle engraved on it so that I can use it to measure things on the slide down to tiny fractions of a millimeter. I thought it would be cool to have, but I almost never use it. On the other hand, it doesn't get in the way. It might get in the way on the 4-power loupe when I'm looking at the slide as a whole. With the 10-power, I'm only looking at tiny portions of the slide anyway, so I look through parts that don't have the ruler engraved on them.
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