Beanery Online Literary Magazine

September 15, 2008




Thinking photographically for those with limited camera knowledge.

THE PHOTODOCTOR (aka Mr. Wizard)


     This article was written by THE PHOTODOCTOR after he spent an afternoon assisting me in learning the basics of the new Canon 40D camera I purchased just days prior to leaving for extended travel along the New England coastline. The Photodoctor considers me the most technologically challenged but artistically able photographer he knows (I think I have the description correct, however, it is the essence of his statement about me). Thus, he wrote the following post to assist me and any other photographers who need help). Carolyn C. Holland


     The first thing camera owners need to learn is that the seemly random numbers in the viewfinder mean something: all combined, the Aperture, Shutter Speed, Film Speed (ISO) and the Given Light Source make up the Exposure Value. All of these are adapted and controlled by a “Thinking Photographer.”

     Now, forget all you have learned before. Pull the curtain back. Ask Mr. Wizard for an explanation of these terms and how they interact.

     Photographers are given a light source, eg. where our subject is standing. If the subject is in a sunlit area, you can shoot the subject as is, or you can tone down the light and pump up the color by adding a Polarizing Filter to your lens. A simple rule of thumb is that the polarizer should be used when you feel the need to put on your sunglasses. If the sun is to harsh or if you want to shoot in a shaded area, turn your subject away from the sun and use a flash. This will balance out the light. If you are shooting inside a home, you can put the subject in window light, or you can just use your flash. These simple tips help you control and adapt to the Given Light Source.

     The most misunderstood item of the Exposure Value is the Film Speed. Since 95% of you are using digital now and don’t load up film, the film speed has become an afterthought. However, your film speed is still important, because it references sensitivity of the digital file. Film speed is referenced on your camera as ISO or ASA. Depending on your camera, you could have from 100 to 1600 or higher film speed reference points. These settings tweak the camera processor, enabling it to adapt to different light conditions.

     If you are in high light and you are searching for the best possible digital file to enlarge, you should use 100 or 200 film speed. If you are in medium light or interior light you want to use 400 film speed. If you are in deep shadows or shooting a sports activity in the evening you’ll want to use 800, 1600 or higher. As you see the lower the better. However, if you are in low light, or if you want to extend your flashes output, you can sue a higher number with good results.

     Your Aperture, listed in most publications as an f number, controls the light moving through the lens. It is. Depending on your lens you could have from f1.4 to f32 aperture numbers. The lower the number the more light they let in, the stronger the flash output is and the less depth of field is achieved. The larger the number in steps is the exact opposite. Thus, an f2.8 lets you shoot in lower light, an f5.6 lets you shoot in medium light and an f22 lets you shoot in higher light.

     Let’s twist these around a different way now. Shooting with the flash, with an f22, lets you illuminate only something close to you—an f5.6 gives you a good medium range expectable for most dwellings, while an f2.8 extends the flash into a vast area like a football field.

     If I have not lost you, there is one more twist. An aperture choice of f2.8 will blur the background of most subjects—then in the flash range, the f5.6 aperture gives you a medium range, expectable for most interior shots. However, if you want a landscape shot, then a f22 or higher will give you mostly everything from here to there in focus.

     The Shutter Speed is the easies to understand, because the larger the number the better. All shutter speeds are listed as whole numbers, but are, in real terms, a fraction. Depending on your camera, your shutter speeds can run from 15 seconds to 1/4000 of a second or higher. The faster your shutter clicks the less camera shake.

     If you are hand holding your camera, your usable shutter speeds are 1/60 or higher. If you are using a camera support then you can use all the given shutter speeds. So if you want to cure camera shake or stop the action of a subject use as fast a shutter speeds as you can.

     How do these different aspects of the camera controls interact?

     If are in bright (Given Light Source) light, and choose 100 (Film Speed) selected on your ISO, you’ll have a good choice of Apertures and Shutter Speeds. But if you change one thing, everything else changes. In medium light the film speed should be 400 and your choice of apertures and shutter speeds will be fewer. If you are in lower light, using 800 or 1600 film speed, your choice of apertures and shutter speeds are very limited. So you see everything is connected.

     To summarize let me give you an easier scenario. You want to shoot a scenic landscape with good light while hand holding your camera. Using the Program Function, you have the Exposure Value Shift option. Your film speed is 200.

     The scene you are shooting you are shooting is a city from an overlook. A quick composition tip: place a colorful or interesting element, perhaps purple butterfly weed, in the foreground. Let’s say, for a reference point, the camera is set at f8 at 1/250, but you want the focus to run completely to the background. You can roll your control wheel, usually by the shutter button, to raise the aperture. A switch from f8 to f16 will gain the focus area needed. Because your camera has program shift it will automatically change the shutter speed to 1/60 and you can put the purple butterfly weed in the lower right or left hand corner and shoot the scene.

     In a situational shift like this you have to be sure to never drop below 1/60, unless you are using a tripod, since lower shutter speeds create too much camera shake.

     If the light is too low then the film speed can be changed to assist this adaptation. If the sun is too bright, adding a polarizing filter will cut the light and deepen the blue sky.  

     Next, you want to concentrate on the purple butterfly weed and not the scenic shot. You need to flip this exposure value used to shoot the city view by returning to your original reference point: good light with 200 film speed and f8 at 1/250. A shift is needed to lessen the focus area in the background. Using your control wheel, lower the aperture number from f8 to f5.6 or f4.0, depending on the available lower apertures on your lens. This slight shift will cause a program shift to 1/1000 shutter speed, concentrating the focus area around the purple flowering weed. A bonus: the higher shutter speeds lower the amount of camera shake.

     Always remember, as a “Thinking Photographer,” you control all the aspects of the Exposure Value, enhancing the scenes you are given.

     I hope I have helped you warm up to all those confusing numbers in your camera’s viewfinder by putting them into a real-world, understandable, situations. As time permits I will drop a line or two, with helpful hints, onto a Beanery Online Literary Magazine post. However, you can always feel free to ask Mr. Wizard anything by posting them in the comment box below, or e-mailing Mr. Wizard at

     Good Luck, God Bless and Good Shooting!


The Beanery Online Literary Magazine welcomes The Photodoctor (Mr. Wizard) to our writing site. His articles will be posted in the category PHOTODOCTOR, and his bio will be posted in the BIO category later. Meanwhile, I am breaking in my new camera along my journey, and I am writing a post to be posted later in the 2008 NEW ENGLAND category at


  1. I would not recomend to use apertures starting from F16 and higher, cause at this point the difraction effect appears and your pictures become not as sharp as they could be

    Comment by fotomaniac — September 17, 2008 @ 10:34 am | Reply

  2. I am very aware of the amount of beginning photographers that seek information over the Internet, so I parse my word carefully, always checking my facts. The lack of people checking their facts or making everyone aware they are expressing their opinion, and why, causes me pause.. This brings me to the comments of FOTOMANIAC:

    I would not recomend to use apertures starting from F16 and higher, cause at this point the difraction effect appears and your pictures become not as sharp as they could be
    Comment by fotomaniac — September 17, 2008 @ 10:34 am

    I found the main word in the comment, diffraction, to be an old school term and found it in the expert ramblings of my mentor, Ansel Adams. In my twenty five or so years of photography I have collected a library of Adams, White, Hedgecoe, Rowell, Lepp and others. I use these to fact check my writings, but also rely on my extensive life experiences. He is Ansel Adams thoughts about diffraction, and then I will follow up with a few thoughts backed up by my life experiences:

    Diffraction (The Camera, by Ansel Adams Page 74) Light passing a sharp edge (such as the aperture blades in a lens) has the property of “bending” slightly around the edge, an effect known as diffraction (not to be confused with refraction). In practical photography, this effect is significant only at the smallest apertures; the light passing the aperture blades is slightly spread and diffused, causing a reduction in image sharpness. Since at small apertures there is a higher proportion of diffracted light to the total light forming the image, diffraction accounts for at he slight loss of image quality at the smallest stops. It is for the reason that many small camera lenses do not stop down beyond f/16 or f/22. The photographer should be aware of this effect because, with diffraction causing some loss of sharpness at small apertures, and certain aberrations (see below) degrading image quality at large stops, a lens usually gives its best image quality somewhere near the middle of its aperture range. If necessary, test photographs can be made to determine the aperture that gives optimum quality.

    I want to tell you that I have been honored to speak to and study under many photographers who worked personally with Ansel Adams. I also want to clarify everything by telling you that I revere the words off Ansel Adams, almost as much as those of John, Paul and Luke.

    Ansel Adams wrote in his Autobiography, Image quality is not the product of a machine, but the person who directs the machine, and there are no limits to imagination and expression(1984).

    FOTOMANIAC showed his limitations but saying that, “I would not recomend to use apertures starting from F16 and higher,”

    I have found it quite rewarding to shoot a scene off of a tripod and use a f16 or f22 (When focused properly everything should be in focus.) Then find a smaller part of the scene and shoot it at f5.6 (When focused and composed properly the background should render a watercolor effect) Then change to a macro lens and focus on one specific item at a f2.8 aperture. (When focused and composed properly the background will be eliminated.) This tri-aperture effect visualizing the scene has won me praise of my instructors and many awards in photographic contests. Photography is about the give and take of many different aspects, and eliminating one do to the “slight loss of image quality” is way to limiting for the type of photography I am into.

    So FOTOMANIAC my “Old School Remedy” has been a bit harsh, but to help everyone concerned, I would recommend when you comment, in the future, you follow up with what photographic experience has caused you to feel this way.

    When my “Old School Remedies” don’t cure the problem, I am proud to say the Photodoctor does make house calls, as seen with my dear friend Carolyn. Drop me a line at and tell me about your specific photographic problems.

    Photography is all about adapting to difficult situations, knowing this I would prescribe everyone visit the Westmoreland Photographers Society’s website, and if in the area follow up with a visit to their next meeting at St.Vincents College on October the thirteenth and get to meet the Photodoctor and other learned photographers in person.

    Comment by The Photodoctor — October 2, 2008 @ 3:35 pm | Reply

  3. Good writeup as a whole, this is a good place for beginning photographers to come and learn more about their camera. Balancing all the configuration of a camera takes practice and time to master. Between white ballance, ISO, shutter speed, aperture, RAW/jpg, etc., the more references the better.

    Here is one more article covering ISO, it’s benefits and a description of how/what the ISO values represent.

    Comment by Adam Parker — December 3, 2008 @ 5:42 pm | Reply

  4. I know this was a while back, but one golden rule of photography is “no free lunch” as far as lower than ideal light conditions go:

    You can open the aperture wider (but that costs depth of field)
    You can slow the shutter speed (but a 1/x speed any slower than focal length is generally too slow for hand holding – longer focal lengths magnify any hand movement), if you have no remote release, try to place the camera in a stable hands-off position and use the timer.
    You can use a faster film (film) or increase ISO setting (digital), but that increases grain or noise.

    There is one free lunch, actually, it is using the hyperfocal setting, though difficult on autofocus cameras – the point being that for a particular aperture, there is a range of acceptable sharpness to either side of the main focus, so in hyperfocal setting, the furthest limit is placed at infinity, so then everything from the near limit to infinity is in acceptable focus (this is how fixed focus cameras work).

    With auto, the camera will normally lock focus, exposure and auto white balance when the shutter is half pressed.

    One other tip, many cameras on auto will tend to burn out small highlights, say a small off-white flower, so if altering settings is inconvenient, add some more light material when locking the exposure. You can usually retrieve detail from shadow in digital, but burned highlights are gone forever.

    Comment by Matthew — January 17, 2010 @ 10:40 pm | Reply


    Pingback by JANUARY DAYS OF CELEBRATION: Part 2 | CAROLYN'S COMPOSITIONS — December 28, 2013 @ 11:29 pm | Reply

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