Photography — By Ben on 19 March 2009
Understanding your digital camera’s features

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Before I start this post I want to say again that I am not a professional photographer. I took some classes a long time ago when I was in high school and I have been experimenting a lot with my cameras, but that doesn’t make me a pro. Everything I know and share here is what I have been learning lately in regards to food photography. I am doing this because a lot of people have helped me understand it and I want to pass along this knowledge. If this helps at least one person in understanding photography a little bit better then I’ll be a very happy cook :)

When people ask for advice on how to take better pictures, the usual answer is to not use a flash and take pictures next to a window with lots of natural light. That’s very fine advice, but there is a lot more to that. We love to cook and we want to share our delicious dishes with the world in the form of beautiful photographs so we want to know more about our little cameras, right? Right. I am glad you agree with me, so let’s move on.

First we need to understand that photography is all about light. It was true in the 19th century and it is still true today. What the camera sees through the lens and records in film (and now digitally) is light reflected from the subject. There are many variables that will determine how the camera sees and interprets that light and that will give us many different results.

In this era of digital photography cameras have become available to anyone bringing their prices down. So now we find point and shoot cameras with features that were only available in bulky, expensive professional cameras some years ago.

To be able to understand the variables in light we need to understand some of these basic features. I am not going to go technical here (I myself don’t understand many of the technical language), instead I will show you with pictures some of those variables. I did a little exercise with my Canon Powershot a540 (a point and shoot) using this salad to demonstrate some of its features.

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The last two pictures were taken with my Canon D60, but the following ones were taken with my point and shoot and haven’t been edited in any way. Maybe in the future I’ll write about some editing tips, but I need to learn more about it first. The digital photography world is new to me.

When it comes to exposure there are three variables on the camera that affect your pictures:

ISO is the measure of light sensitivity. In film photography this is the film speed. The bigger the number the faster the film. Fast films are used to shoot in low light conditions and sports. The same rule is true in digital photography, but it now refers to the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor to light. Just keep in mind that bigger ISO numbers reduce the images quality in most point and shoots.

Aperture is the opening in the lens when the picture is taken. The smaller the number the bigger the aperture will be letting more light in through the lens. So an aperture of f3.5 will let more light through the lens than an f5 aperture.

Shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter opens to let light in. In other words, it is the amount of time your sensor is exposed to the light. The longer the shutter stays opened the more light the sensor will “see”. This is measured in seconds and fractions of a second so when you see 1/250 that means the shutter will remain opened for 250th of a second. 1/1000 will be a faster speed than 1/60. Fast shutter speeds are used when the amount of light is abundant or you want to freeze some action, for example when shooting a sports event. Just keep in mind that slower shutter speeds (1/40 and lower) will require that you keep the camera steady. Any minimum shaking of the camera will result in blurry pictures. For slow speeds I recommend using a tripod and the timer feature to assure a crisp image.

So how does this come together when photographing food?  Here are the pictures I talked about.

This first picture was taken in Auto mode. The camera reads the amount of light and determines the ISO speed, Aperture and Shutter speed. That’s fine when you have tons of light, but it is not fun when light is limited or when you want to be creative.

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In your camera you will see different modes, the one most of us use in the beginning is Auto, but there are three more I want to focus on right now:

Tv means shutter speed priority. In this mode you set the shutter speed and the camera calculates the aperture.

Av means aperture priority. In this mode you set the aperture and the camera calculates the shutter speed.

M means manual and here you set the shutter speed and aperture yourself.

See how the same subject is seeing differently by the camera when you play with this features and modes:

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ISO: 100 Aperture: f3.5 Shutter speed: 1/125

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ISO: 400 Aperture: f3.5 Shutter speed: 1/125

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ISO: 200 Aperture: f3.5 Shutter speed: 1/60

As you can see the same subject with the same amount of reflected light is seeing differently by the camera when we change the variables. These are the basics you have to know before you start playing with your camera’s “creative mode”. The best thing about digital photography is that you can see the results right away and change the settings accordingly.

This information is more extensively explained in many photography sites and blogs, but I wanted to write it here without all the technical language. I hope you find it helpful. However, I think that the best way to learn your camera’s settings is to get it out of its case and start shooting. It doesn’t matter what. Get an apple and shoot it in different light conditions with different settings. The only way to master your camera is by using it!

This is only one of many tips about food photography I have learned. I like to study other food pictures and learn about them. Another way to learn is by letting others critique our work. That’s why I have started a new board in my forum for this. If you want to participate and learn from what others have to say, share your pictures with us and join the conversation. I am sure we all can learn from one another. :)

Please let me know if you found this post useful and if you’d like me to write more about this topic.

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About Author

grew up around food. His family owned a restaurant in Mexico City and he spent a big deal of his childhood helping and learning after school the art of creating delicious dishes from simple ingredients. He created this blog to share his kitchen adventures with the world.

(32) Readers Comments

  1. very useful tips , thanks for sharing ..do write more , looking forward to more ..

  2. Good post Ben! I am sure a lot of people will benefit from some extra knowledge of their camera’s!

  3. Thanks Ben for all the useful information. I am secretly hoping that my camera stops working so that I can buy a new one. When you have time, can you please post it on BloggerAid as well?

  4. Thanks for sharing these tips…I had no idea…am gonna look for my cameras manual to understand these functions better….

  5. Excellent advice Ben:D

  6. Thank You!

  7. thanks so much for those tips..very informative post!

  8. Not a big deal, well, maybe on here it is, but some point and shoots, like Panasonic, have an automatic setting for pictures of FOOD.

  9. Gracias por esta información. He aprendido muchísimo.

  10. Just amazingggg :D

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