When first starting out in photography, the switch to full manual mode can be more than intimidating! That is where learning to use Program mode can help you learn more about your camera’s functions and how to control them. Program mode is a great first step to getting off Auto and gaining some of the freedom that the more advanced capabilities of your camera have to offer. So go ahead and find the P for Program mode on your mode dial.
What can Program mode do for you?
In Program mode the camera will still make the majority of the decisions for proper exposure for you. The camera will still choose the shutter speed and aperture based on the light available. This means you will still get correct exposure, but at the same time it unlocks some other features that give you more control. You can then learn about those functions without having to worry about shutter speed, aperture, and proper exposure.
The functions you will be able to learn about and control are ISO (sometimes this mode is called ISO Priority for this reason), white balance, flash, and exposure compensation. Program mode is a great first step away from fully Automatic mode.
What is ISO and why control it?
ISO is the level of sensitivity to light as it hits your sensor. An ISO of 100 is not very sensitive and would be used when there is already plenty of light, such as a bright sunny day. As you move up through the ISO range, to 200, 400, 800 and higher the sensor becomes more and more sensitive to light. To achieve this the sensor is powered with more electrical charge. That electrical charge can lead to noise or digital “grain” in your images.
When you use Auto mode in low light the camera almost always tends to raise the ISO instead of changing the shutter speed or the aperture. When you use Program mode you have manual control over the ISO. You can set and use a low ISO to reduce noise in your images. If the image is underexposed, you can use Exposure Compensation (another “unlocked” feature) to balance the exposure.
What is Exposure Compensation and why control it?
Exposure Compensation is a function that allows you to override the camera to adjust the exposure lighter or darker. On most cameras you can set the exposure compensation up to +3 or -3 stops and use 1/3 stop increments in between to really nail the correct exposure.
Your camera is smart, but not always smart enough. Tricking lighting situations can “fool” the camera sensor into making an image too dark or too bright. In Auto mode you cannot correct this. In Program mode, you can dial in a positive or negative exposure compensation, respectively, to fix this.
Additionally, you can use Exposure Compensation in situations where you have to turn off the flash (another “unlocked” feature in Program mode). Without a flash an image may be underexposed. Using positive Exposure Compensation can adjust the exposure and correct it.
What is the flash and why control it?
For most users, the flash is a pop-up feature on the top of the camera. Some cameras do not have built-in flashes, but instead have a “shoe” where a separate flash can be attached.
In Auto mode, the camera decides if a flash is needed. It often “pops” up when you really don’t want to use it. In some situations, flashes are prohibited such as art museums. Flashes can result in washed out foregrounds and strange shadows in some situations. Flashes can wash out skin tones and create “red-eye” (when the flash light reflects of the back of the eye the subject in the photo has red glowing eyes).
Program mode will allow you to override the decision of the camera. You decide whether to use the flash or not. When paired with Exposure Compensation and the ability to set your ISO, you should be able to get the image’s overall exposure correct.
What is White Balance and why control it?
Different light sources cast different colors and this can affect your images. For example, indoor lights in a school gym can cast a yellow color. Shade can cast a blue color. White Balance is the camera’s adjustments to balance this lighting to a white light (think bright daylight) where colors are more accurate.
In Auto mode, the White Balance is selected automatically by the camera. AWB (Auto White Balance) works accurately much of the time, but once again, certain lighting situations can “fool” the camera. In Program mode you can set your own White Balance.
One way to do this is to select the type of lighting you are shooting in. For example, if I am shooting in the shade, I set the White Balance to Shade (I am telling the camera what type of lights I have in my scene). The camera then knows to balance the blue by adding some warmer tones to my image. The other way to set White Balance is by using Custom White Balance. To do this you would need a white balance card set and follow the steps in your camera manual. Custom White Balance is the best way to get consistent color across a series of images, for example a series of food images for a restaurant menu. By setting the White Balance you are giving the camera the more information about the lighting and it can use this to improve your images.
What is the takeaway?
Program mode is a great first step to getting off Auto mode. You can learn several important camera functions in this mode. If you master Program mode, then move on to Aperture Priority mode and Shutter Priority modes. Once you have those three aspects of exposure mastered individually, it will be much easier to put all three together when you finally switch over to full Manual mode.
If you’d like to try some free hands on lessons using ISO, Aperture Priority, Shutter/Time Priority, we have them on our website http://www.focusedcamera.net along with lots of free cheat sheets and tutorials.
If you’d like to take a class or workshop to “Get Your Camera Off Auto” we offer in-person and remote learning opportunities. Check out our class offerings and get in touch today!
FTC Disclaimer: **This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking through my links
Do you have GAS? GAS is the acronym for Gear Acquisition Syndrome. It is the trap many photographers fall into, feeling the need to constantly upgrade or purchase more lenses and equipment. New equipment is always a lot of fun and often sparks some creativity at the outset, but it can get expensive and there is no reason to “break the bank.” Here’s how to save some of your hard earned money.
Rent Cameras & Lenses
There are many online rental centers for camera equipment and they feature a huge variety to choose from. You can rent for a day or for months. It does cost money to rent, but it lets you get to know the equipment and test it out. This way you can discover whether the lens or camera meets your expectations before you pay the full amount to buy it. Many local camera shops have rental centers or you can go with a national rental center, like Aperturent or BorrowLenses.
You can also rent directly from some of the manufacturers. When a new camera model comes out, manufacturers like Canon and Nikon, will sometimes offer 3-day trial rentals of the camera. They often call these “test drives” instead of rentals. If you decide to buy, the cost of the rental is deducted from the cost of the product.
Renting is also a great option when you have a photo shoot where you need a piece of equipment you might not ever use again. If you would rarely use a piece of gear, renting can be more cost effective than buying.
Borrow From a Friend
If you have friends that are photographers (either as hobbyists or as professionals), you might be able to test out a camera or lens they already bought before you buy it also. Join photography hobby groups and professional organizations, or photography sharing groups online or on social media, like Facebook. Once you get to know other group members or attend some events, they might agree to let you use a lens for a few days, or at least while you are at the event to test it out.
You may find the equipment doesn’t impress you as much as you thought it would, or that it’s not that much better than the lens or camera you already own. Either way, you can discover whether that piece of gear is the right fit for you.
Buying used gear can save you hundreds, if not thousands, over time. However, used gear comes with its drawbacks. It is used, so unless you know the seller there is a risk that the equipment will have undisclosed flaws, or worse, arrive broken when sent by shipment. There are no warranties with used gear from private sellers. Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and eBay all have used camera gear sales. We only buy used if we can personally examine and test the equipment face-to-face, but this also has inherent safety risks.
Our recommendation, when buying used, is to buy from a reputable used retailer, like KEH in Atlanta. Their equipment is inspected and rated for its level of wear and tear. You get a clear description of what you are purchasing and they offer a warranty. You can have more confidence in your purchase this way. Using this link will access their site where you can save up to 40% off regular priced used photography equipment. Other sites also offer used equipment for sale, so if you can’t find what you need at KEH, check around.
You can also purchase used gear in thrift shops where you can examine the item before you lay out the cash. Additionally, yard sales and estate sales are great places to pick up used lenses, camera bags, accessories, or even cameras. With the many adapters available in today's market you can also get inexpensive vintage lenses to add to your gear without breaking the bank.
Sell Older Gear
Perhaps you have a lens you rarely use, or you upgraded lenses and still have the old gear. Take an inventory of your gear and see if you are truly using it. There is a chance you will find gear that you have stopped using. If you have gear that is otherwise just collecting dust, consider selling it.
Most camera gear loses value over time, but really good quality lenses can keep their value a longer time. However, don’t wait too long. The longer those lenses or old cameras sit around the more money value you may lose.
You can sell your gear to resellers like KEH. They provide an easy look up tool where you can select the items you have to sell and get a preliminary estimate of your earnings without having to ship the equipment to them right off the bat.
Additionally, you can sell used gear on Craigslist, eBay, and other online sites, as well as on Facebook groups or other social media sites dedicated to photography. Personally, I prefer selling to a reputable company, versus meeting up with individuals that I don’t know or shipping items to people who have bought online.
If you are lucky, you can sell enough old gear to buy that new lens you’ve had your eye on.
Through various online photography groups you may find folks that would be willing to trade gear, either temporarily or permanently. For example, Facebook has multiple buy/sell/trade groups for photography equipment. Joining a local photography group that has monthly meet-ups is another place to possibly find a willing trading partner.
You can also trade in your gear for new gear with online sellers. Again, KEH is a reputable site where you can get a bonus towards your “new to you” purchase (10% if you buy immediately, or 5% if you opt for a KEH gift card). You can arrange your trade by phone or video chat.
Buy Third Party or Off-Brand Lenses
While Sony, Canon, and Nikon have lots of fantastic lenses, they are often expensive. Buying a third party or off-brand lens can provide significant savings.
One of my favorite lenses is the Tamron 18-400mm because of its great price and the large zoom range means I can carry one lens instead of two or three. Tamron, Sigma, and Tokina all make lenses for lower price points than the name brands and many of them are top quality lenses. Some Sigma lenses actually perform better than their name brand equivalents. A website like DXOMark that conducts testing of lenses is a great place to compare lenses to see which will have the better quality. You may find a non-name brand lens that could save you some dollars.
You can also buy non-name brand filters, tripods, batteries, accessories, and memory cards. Personally, we would not suggest third party batteries or memory cards although there are many available. Some cameras won’t function properly with non-name brand batteries and memory cards. And even more importantly, off-brand cards are more likely to corrupt, have failures, or create errors. Check your camera manual for recommended cards and stick to cards that match your camera (like Sony, Fuji, or Nikon cards) or other name brands like Lexar, PNY, or SanDisk.
Watch for Sales & Rebates
There are several times a year when you can expect sales. Typically, camera gear discounts are at their greatest at the end of summer, and after Christmas. However, you can find pre-summer and holiday deals, and sometimes there are discounts at other times of year. If you have social media, like Twitter or Facebook, follow the manufacturers that you usually purchase gear from and you will see their posts when they have sales items or rebates.
Some selling sites also feature alerts, so when certain products go on sale or a rebate is offered you will be notified, or they have pages dedicated to their current sale items (like this one). Rebates can sometimes save you a few hundred dollars. In addition, you can sign up for newsletters and marketing materials from sellers and manufacturers to make sure you don’t miss out.
Buy the Older Model
Over the course of a year, there are several conferences and events during which camera gear manufacturers will announce their new products. As soon as those models start to appear, or a little bit before, the older models they replace will start going on sale. One such conference is CP+ which is usually in late winter or early spring (Feb/Mar).
You don’t need the brand new, most shiny model. None of the improvements in the new model make your current camera or an older model obsolete. Any model of DSLR from the last 5-6 years is perfectly capable of excellent photography in the right hands (a new camera will not help if you don’t know the basics like composition and lighting). Therefore, if you need a new camera, last year’s model will be more than adequate and save you a bunch of money, too.
Don’t Overbuy & Upgrade Slowly
There are so many beginner photographers who suffer from GAS. They have their base camera and kit lens and feel the need to start purchasing other lenses.
Having a plethora of lenses can be a lot of fun and so can all those cool accessories, but they aren’t needed to get great photographs. You do not need all of that gear to get started and to learn photography. It is detrimental to your photography learning to think you need a specific camera body or lens to get a great shot. Think of it this way, if you had your hands on the most expensive camera ever made will your shots be any better if you don’t understand lighting or exposure? If you gave Ansel Adams a $100 point-and-shoot would he still take amazing images? 99% of good photography is the photographer, not the gear.
Having limited gear actually enhances your creativity. It will force you to move around, focus on composition and lighting, and help you learn. Don’t even think about buying new glass or a new camera body until you have stretched the capabilities of your current gear as far as it can go.
If you feel the need to buy an additional lens, start with a “nifty fifty” 50mm prime lens. After you truly get to know the pieces of equipment you have and have mastered those lenses, then consider adding more. The same rule applies to camera bodies. If you upgrade slowly over time you will save money. And as you upgrade, consider all of the previous ways to save we’ve already mentioned. Additionally, we would recommend adding a tripod for steady shooting, a flash for lighting, and upgrading lenses before we would recommend upgrading camera bodies.
Don’t Buy Bundles
When you buy a camera, purchase a camera body and a quality lens separately, or a camera lens combo (although the kit lenses are usually lower quality lenses they are definitely adequate for starting out). Do not buy the kits or bundles that come with a bazillion accessories like cleaning cloths, filter sets, and a cheap plastic tripod. They will claim that you are getting a great deal and loads of savings versus buying all of those items separately, but the selection of equipment in those kits is terrible, cheap quality. Most of them are also things you don’t need, but they “fill” the package to make it look like a good deal. Buy these pieces of equipment as you need them instead, and choose good quality items that you will only need to buy once.
When the time is right, there is nothing wrong with buying a fancy new camera body or a shiny new lens. New gear is always a lot of fun and can spark your creativity. But it isn’t the magic that will make you a great photographer. YOU make the photos. Spending money left and right without understanding the basics will only lead to disappointment because your images won’t get any better despite the potential debt you created.
So have a healthy relationship with your gear buying impulses and don’t let them guide your photographic journey.
Need More Help?
Need a handy reminder card to stop your impulse buying? Print the handout below.
Or when it is time to buy, do you need help figuring out what kind of camera to buy, which accessories are right for you, or what lens might be best for your photography needs? Sign up for one of our Try Before You Buy Classes or a month of coaching advice!
Click here for more lessons, cheat sheets, and helpful videos.
Are mirrorless cameras the way of the future? Are DSLRs going the way of the Dodo bird? Which is better?
The question of which is better, like so many other questions in photography, does not have a “right” answer and is subject to much debate. Similar to the debates of Canon vs. Nikon or film vs digital… there are merits on both sides.
Those that are pro-mirrorless will focus on the simple mechanics, fast and quiet shutter speeds, and slim lightweight design. DSLR fans will claim, the larger camera body is more functional to grip and that optical viewfinders are better than their electronic counterparts.
One thing I have learned over the years is that much of photography is about compromise. We compromise depth of field for lower ISO, or we sacrifice the crisp images of multiple prime lenses to be able to carry just one lightweight zoom in our camera bag. The choice between DSLR and mirrorless is no different.
Camera manufacturers are well aware of the pros and cons of both traditional SLR/DSLR and mirrorless cameras and are working to make adjustments to their new cameras so the gap between the two technologies is constantly narrowing. For example, Canon’s R5 mirrorless offers one of the best autofocus systems, which traditionally was a DSLR advantage.
This blog post will discuss some of the pros and cons of each camera type. First let’s start off with defining the difference mechanically.
An SLR or DSLR uses a system that includes a mirror and a penta mirror (or pentaprism) which allows the photographer to see what is coming through the lens. The mirror reflects the view through the lens up and into the prism which then projects the image into the viewfinder. The mirror flips up and the shutter unit opens and closes when you take an image so the film (SLR) or sensor (DSLR) can be exposed.
A mirrorless camera does not have a mirror and penta mirror. Instead the light that is hitting the sensor is sent to an electronic viewfinder as a digital rendering of the image. The “live view” exposes the sensor when you take an image and there is no mirror in the way (so only the shutter must open and close).
The way the sensors work in both systems is the same, so the actual image quality between a DSLR and a mirrorless is theoretically identical (assuming the two cameras are using the same sensor type/size).
The type of viewfinder is thus the first area where we see pros and cons to each system.
DSLRs use an optical viewfinder to preview an image. This combined with the mirror and penta mirror give an exact view of what the camera will capture in the scene when the photo is snapped. Most DSLRs today also feature an LCD or Live View to preview images.
Mirrorless cameras use an electronic viewfinder or EVF to preview images. The EVF creates an electronic rendering of the scene.
Many photographers prefer the “real” view of the optical viewfinder versus the electronic or digital rendition. The rendering from an EVF is not as accurate as an optical viewfinder because the rendered image depends on the quality of the viewfinder panel. For example, the EVF may present an image with more or less contrast than the actual captured image. In the past, the resolution of EVFs was much lower, but the latest iterations of EVFs are much improved and almost match the quality of optical viewfinders.
EVFs may also lag, especially in low lighting situations. Following a fast-moving subject is much easier with a high-speed DSLR with optical viewfinder than with a mirrorless EVF. This may be especially important to wildlife, action, or sports photographers.
An advantage of an EVF is that you can view the image with changes to color settings and white balance, or exposure, instantly which you cannot do with an optical viewfinder (but you can snap a photo and view it or use Live Mode on the LCD). If you are learning manual mode this “what you see is what you get” feature of a mirrorless may be an advantage.
The technology of EVFs is continuously improving, but for now DSLR cameras have a slight winning advantage when it comes to viewfinders.
DSLR and mirrorless camera types can shoot at fast shutter speeds to capture many images in rapid succession. With the exception of high-end DSLRs, mirrorless cameras have an advantage in speed. There is no mirror that needs to flip out of the way so the simple mechanics of mirrorless cameras allows them to shoot at higher shutter speeds.
Unfortunately, the optical viewfinder creates a “blackout effect” when shooting continuous bursts of images. This makes it harder to track moving subjects. With an optical viewfinder you can continuously track your subject during a burst of images. Some mirrorless camera manufacturers have been working on this issue and higher end models, like the Sony a9, claim to have solved it.
The first mirrorless cameras did not include full-frame sensors, therefore at that time DSLRs were superior in image quality. Now manufactures use the same sensors (APS-C and full-frame) in both their mirrorless models and their DSLRs, so based solely on technology neither system has an advantage when it comes to image quality.
The selling point for mirrorless is that you can get that same image quality in an overall smaller size camera. However, just as bigger is not always better, smaller is not always better either.
Size & Weight
Because a mirrorless camera does not have a mirror and a pentamirror, the construction includes less parts and therefore they are lighter in weight and less bulky than DSLR cameras. However, the bulkier DSLR often feels better in the grip of one’s hands and has ergonomic advantages.
By making a mirrorless camera so compact, the controls must fit onto smaller rectangular shapes. Larger hands may not be comfortable with the smaller size controls. The touchscreens are also often smaller in size. The compact size of mirrorless includes a smaller battery which affects battery life (we will cover this aspect later).
The DSLR’s larger size makes the controls easier to read and see and makes changing camera settings easier (especially for those who are used to the DSLR shape and design).
One big disadvantage to mirrorless is that while the camera may be smaller, the lenses are not. Balancing a large lens on a small camera body – especially one with the very compact rangefinder-style shape – is awkward and uncomfortable over longer periods of time. Manufacturers can keep making camera bodies smaller, but lens size is determined by the sensor size. This means that to make lenses that match the quality and performance of DSLR lenses, the mirrorless lenses will end up almost identical in size (and weight). You can buy additional grips to make it easier to hold a mirrorless camera, but that defeats the “mirrorless is smaller” advantage.
So in this aspect, the advantage lies wherever your personal preferences lie. If you prefer lightweight, or are upgrading from using your phone for photography, then maybe the smaller mirrorless is the way to go. If you prefer a sturdier heft and grip, or use larger and heavier lenses, then a traditional DSLR should be in your camera bag.
In the past, the winner for autofocus speed was the DSLR. For now, higher end DSLRs still have an advantage, but newer mirrorless cameras have made great strides in this area and are quickly diminishing this difference.
Mirrorless cameras mainly use contrast-detect AF. While this type of AF is precise and accurate, it is also slow and inefficient. The camera focuses through a trial-and-error to-and-fro process that is time consuming (comparatively speaking) versus the DSLRs phase-detection AF method.
Phase-detection AF compares two versions of the scene from two angles and quickly decides which way to focus and how far. This happens very quickly.
But just as quickly as that camera can focus, mirrorless camera manufacturers recognized and tackled this issue to try and find a solution. Now some mirrorless cameras use a hybrid AF with phase-detection built into the camera sensor and contrast-detect AF for precision. This makes the AF accurate and fast. This on-sensor phase-detection is now also being added to traditional DSLRs as well.
If you need the fastest autofocus speeds (wildlife, race cars, sports) and your budget allows you to buy the very highest-end cameras, then you should get a DSLR, otherwise, this category is a tie.
Since DSLR cameras have been around so long, there is a plethora of lenses available for them. Including the third party manufacturer lenses available, the selection is comprehensive. By comparison, the selection of lenses for newer mirrorless cameras is small.
Of course, the availability of lenses is growing as these cameras gain popularity. In the micro four thirds mirrorless, such as those from Olympus, there is more lens selection. Additionally, third party manufacturers are also making lenses for mirrorless cameras now and there are several new adapters on the market that allow photographers to use DSLR lenses, as well as legacy lenses, on their mirrorless camera bodies.
At this point, the DSLR cameras probably still have the advantage for lens selection, but not for long.
DSLRs and mirrorless cameras a both shoot video. Mirrorless cameras, because of their design, are intrinsically better for the constant “live view” mode for video recording.
Mirrorless typically have better and more accurate focusing for video. This is because very few DSLRs have on-sensor phase detection points (as previously discussed). Currently, both mirrorless and DSLR can film in HD, but if you want to shoot in 4K, or even 8K, you will more likely find it in a mirrorless camera.
Professional filmmakers will probably elect to purchase cinema cameras instead of mirrorless or DSLR cameras, but for bloggers or vloggers a mirrorless camera is a clear winner. Additionally, the R&D into video is focused mainly in the mirrorless market, so the technology will only improve from where we are today. Many of the newest lenses for mirrorless also include silent autofocus motors, a technology designed for filming. These quiet technologies can be an advantage for wildlife photographers.
If you are mainly a photographer (other than perhaps wildlife), who only needs video on occasion, then a DSLR may still be the way to go.
Stealth & Quiet
You can never get rid of sound completely because when you take a photo the shutter curtains will open and close regardless of whether you are using a DSLR or mirrorless. The mirrorless camera will be quieter because it does not have mirror. On a DSLR, when the mirror moves out of the way and then returns to its starting position it makes two “clapping” noises in quick succession. If you shoot where quiet is key, such as around skittish wildlife or in public libraries, then you will appreciate that mirrorless technology eliminates some of the sound. Some DSLRs dampen the sound, and some offer silent live view modes, but if you want to be assured that your photo taking will be as quiet as possible, then mirrorless is the way to go. (Side note: some mirrorless cameras have a mirror “clapping” sound effect that you can turn off in your settings.)
Mirrorless cameras drain your battery faster because they require the electronic viewfinder (EVF) or LCD to take photos. Therefore a DSLR battery can easily last twice as long or for twice as many shots. The smaller design of mirrorless cameras also means smaller batteries. This creates an even further limit on their capacity. If you don’t mind carrying an extra battery or two, this might not be a deal breaker.
There is no debate when it comes to battery life. DSLRs win hands down.
Cost / Investment
Mirrorless probably is the way of the future, but that is still a long way off. Mirrorless cameras are still catching up and while they can compete with DSLRs on almost every level, a DSLR is still the cheapest way to get into serious photography.
Finding a mirrorless APS-C with a viewfinder for same price as a new beginner DSLR like a Canon Rebel or Nikon D3XXX series is almost impossible. Unless you are willing to compromise and buy a used mirrorless that is more than 5 years old, a DSLR is the best option when you need something budget friendly.
The Final Tally
As with all debates in photography, sometimes there are no real winners and it comes down to personal preference and your shooting style. Which is “better” will really be determined by where you are willing to make compromises, not because one technology is actually intrinsically better than the other, but because each has its own distinct advantages and disadvantages. There may be one or two aspects to a camera system that are crucial to your photography that make the difference in your decision.
So When Should You Choose a DSLR?
So When Should You Choose a Mirrorless?
Hopefully this article has clarified the differences between DSLR and mirrorless and will help you decide which camera system is right for you.
If you still aren't sure, leave us a comment or take a Try Before You Buy Class with us!
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Whether it’s to celebrate the New Year, Fourth of July, Diwali, or a birthday in the backyard, here are a few tips to capture those sparkly, colorful delights!
A fireworks display may seem like a challenge, but even a beginner can get some great photographs with some advance planning and a few specific camera settings. You don’t need fancy extra equipment either – just a tripod, a piece of non-stick tape, and a black piece of paper large enough to hold in front of the camera lens.
Location, Location, Location
Knowing in advance where the fireworks will be allows you to scope out a good location to shoot from. Look for a place with higher ground and an unobstructed view. You don’t want telephone wires or street lights in your shot. A backdrop with some trees or buildings or monuments in the perimeter of the shot can make effective compositions, but these need to be off to the left or right or bottom, not where they will block the fireworks. Pick a place where you can have space to set up your tripod and where the camera will be able to get the full firework in view. Think ahead to when the location will be full of people and make sure that other parked cars or people standing around won’t be in your way. Depending on your camera lens options and whether they are primes or zoom lenses, you might have to visit a few locations before you find one that will work. Plan to be there in advance, while it is still light outside so you can claim your spot!
Which camera lens?
You may not have many options. Many beginning photographers have only the kit lens that came with their camera. This is usually an 18-55mm lens and it is a good choice. Generally speaking, you will want a wider angle lens (the 18mm to 35mm range) so you can get the whole firework and sky around it in view. However, if you will be very far away, you may need a zoom, or even a telephoto lens like an 18-200mm. This brings us back to the location… it is important to scope out the location ahead of time and bring your camera, tripod, and lens with you. Set it up in daylight to make sure your lens and location combination will work.
(For more information about lens focal lengths and their uses see our blog post on this topic.)
What camera settings?
If you are using a new camera or haven’t had time to read your camera manual, you will want to find these settings and practice with them in daylight so you won’t be fumbling around in the dark trying to figure them out. No camera manual? No problem... go to this page to download your manual. Here’s the list of what you will need to know, then we will go over what to do with those settings next:
Getting Set Up and Getting the Right Settings
Set up your tripod. Legs should be open at their widest angle (and locked if your tripod has that function). Decided how “tall” to set the tripod. If you are in windy conditions, you should take care to secure the tripod and if at all possible DO NOT fully extend the leg height and definitely do not raise the center column. This makes the tripod less stable. Once you have the tripod secure (remember you will be moving around it in the dark – you don’t want it falling over), firmly attach the camera. The lens you will be using should be attached and set to the level of zoom (if it is a zoom lens) you plan to use.
If your lens has image stabilization, you can turn that off while on the tripod. If you are attempting photos without a tripod, then leave image stabilization on. A tripod is highly recommended for nighttime photoshoots.
If your camera has settings for noise reduction or long exposure noise reduction, you should turn those on. Also in the settings, change your file type to RAW (this will allow more editing options later).
We are going to be using Manual camera mode, but beforehand, while it is still in Auto camera mode, set the focus on your lens to “infinity.” You should be in location when you do this. First you have to turn off Auto Focus on your lens (a switch on the lens or near the lens on the camera body) or in the camera settings (menu) or both. This is NOT the dial that changes camera modes. Once you have Auto Focus turned off, you will manually turn the focus ring on the lens to the infinity mark* (the symbol on your lens looks like a sideways number 8). It is possible to focus past infinity. Today’s autofocus motors need room to make adjustments at higher speeds so the hard stop that you would find on a manual focus lens is not a hard stop on an autofocus lens. Look for the symbol and notice that you can probably turn past it. Turn back until you are on the symbol. Test the focus during daylight (that is why you are setting up early!). Focus on a very distant object near the horizon, like a building or a tree.* Take some test shots and then zoom in on the photo review on your LCD screen. Make small adjustments to the infinity focus by moving the focus ring on the lens. Once you have the focus locked in, you can use a piece of non-stick tape like painters tape or gaffers tape to hold the focus ring in place. That way if you bump it in the dark it won’t move. You can also use your phone to take a photo of the numbers/markings on the side of your lens once you have it set. Then if it does move while you are in the dark you can use the photo and your flashlight to reset it.
*Alternate method, works with some cameras, but not all, and can be used for lenses with no outer markings for infinity. While the lens is in autofocus mode, use a very white piece of paper that is very well lit, and hold the paper up in front of the lens, about 4 inches from the lens. Make sure the white fills the viewfinder. Then 1/2 press the shutter/autofocus button. This should set the lens to infinity focus. Change over to manual by changing the switch on the lens/body or in settings.
Photo by FocusEd Camera
A word of caution, if you get set up, and once the fireworks start your level of zoom needs to be adjusted, changing the zoom can (and often will) change the focus of the lens as you zoom in and out. Some lenses have fixed focus, but many, many more are variable focus. What this means is that your infinity focus may no longer be set properly. This is why it is important to scope out your location with your camera and lens ahead of time. Get your composition and framing set up and then don’t touch it. However, if you MUST make changes, you will need remove your tape before you zoom in or out. Then take test shots of the fireworks and use your LCD review to check the focus is still good. If not, make adjustments to the focus ring on the lens. Once the focus is set again, reapply your piece of tape to keep the focus locked.
Now we are ready to switch the shooting mode to Manual mode using the camera dial. Changing to Manual mode will now allow you to control all three aspects of the exposure triangle -- ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.
If your camera has a shutter speed setting called “bulb” or a camera Bulb mode, then that is what you will want to use, we will come back to that. Otherwise, for all manual mode users, you can start off with a shutter speed of 1/10 of a second and make adjustments from there. Set your aperture at f/8 to begin with. Set ISO low at 100.
If you are setting shutter speed at 1/10th of a second, take some test shots. If the shot is too dark (underexposed) use a longer shutter speed, open the aperture, or change ISO to 200. If the shot is overexposed, close down the aperture to f/ll.
Longer shutter speeds will capture longer light trails on the fireworks. You can set shutter speeds to several seconds or even longer and this is where a “bulb” setting comes in handy. This setting can also allow you to capture multiple firework bursts in the same exposure. With “bulb” setting once you press and hold, the shutter remains open until you release it. You can do this on camera (but it might produce camera shake) or you can use a shutter remote. Shutter remotes typically cost under $20 and can be used in many different ways for many genres so you will get your money’s worth from one of these gadgets. Be sure to get the right kind for your camera (check compatibility before ordering). Some cameras are equipped with Wi-Fi so with those you can download apps – like Canon’s Camera Connect app -- that let you take the picture from your phone.
For some camera users the "bulb" setting is a camera mode and is on the dial. For other cameras "bulb" setting is in the shutter settings if you continue to increase the shutter time past 30 seconds. In either case, when using “bulb” setting it will affect your shutter speed and allow for longer exposures. Therefore, an aperture setting of f/11 is probably a better starting point so you don’t end up with overexposed images. Start with an ISO of 100. You will need to take some test shots and since fireworks shows typically last 30 minutes you should have the opportunity to make adjustments. Try starting the exposure in “bulb” setting by pressing and holding the remote and leaving it open (continue to hold) for three fireworks bursts, then release. Check your work. You can try four or five bursts and if you start to get overexposure, adjust the aperture by closing it down to f/16 (or by one-third or ½ stops if your camera allows).
Photo by FocusEd Camera
And here is where that black piece of paper I mentioned at the beginning comes into play. When using “bulb” mode you can expose the full firework burst or multiple firework bursts. Just use the black paper to keep the lens covered (hold it in front – does not have to be directly touching) until you want to start exposure and in-between fireworks bursts. This can work with manually set shutter speeds too (set the camera shutter speed to 30 seconds or whatever length your camera allows that you want to try). The steps are like this:
If this seems complicated, take a few deep breaths… this is not beyond your skill level. Read over your camera manual and practice with making the setting adjustments while you are in daylight. In other words, know how to switch the ISO from 100 to 200 and know how to close down the aperture (smaller opening = larger f/# = less light, use when overexposed/image too light) or open the aperture (wider opening = smaller f/# = more light, use when underexposed/image too dark). Know how to set the shutter speed. Start with the settings provided of shutter 1/10th second, ISO 100, and aperture f/8 while focused far out in the distance (manual focus at infinity) on a tripod, and you should get good results!
Want to stay in touch or share your fireworks photos? Follow us on Twitter @focusedcamera and tag us in your posts!
P.S. Have you ever wanted to try “light painting” with sparklers? The process and settings are almost the same – just focus where your subject is instead of out at infinity. Set up the tripod and focus point in daylight beforehand by having your child or friend stand in the location where you will be using the sparklers then lock the focus in (use a piece of non-stick tape and keep the lens set to manual focus).
Wide depth of field is especially desirable for landscape photography. This is where understanding hyperfocal distance becomes important. If you are just starting out, it will be important to understand the basics of depth of field, so before you continue reading, you might want to check out that blog post first.
What is hyperfocal distance?
Hyperfocal distance, in a nutshell, is the point in the foreground that is the closest point the camera can focus while still having acceptably sharp image quality throughout the rest of the image to “infinity” (which is the background/horizon in most images) In other words, it is the point of focus that will yield the greatest depth of field.
When composing an image, if the focus is on the foreground, then the background will be blurry. In a portrait shoot, whether for people or animals, the subject can be in focus and the background can be blurry, and that is normally desirable.
If the focus point is changed to focus on the background, then the foreground will be blurry. When capturing a distant mountain at sunset from an overlook, one can focus on the horizon or “infinity” and won’t notice the blurry foreground because there are no objects in it.
Understanding hyperfocal distance is only important when there are objects both far away and close up that need to be in sharp focus. Focusing at a point in between the close and faraway objects becomes necessary. The calculation of where this point is will depend on several factors like the focal length, the “circle of confusion” for the camera sensor, and the aperture (see the depth of field blog post). When we find the hyperfocal distance point, “acceptable sharpness” will be found throughout the image.
Acceptably sharp – what is that?
Imagine a photograph is hanging on the wall. It is an 8”x10” size photo. If a person with good vision (20/20) stood 10 feet away, and the image looks completely in focus to them throughout, then it is “acceptably sharp.”
The hyperfocal distance point does not create an equal amount of focus in front of and behind the focus point. Depth of field is always greater beyond the subject/focus point than in front of the subject. For example, one-third of the distance may be in front of the focus point and two-thirds behind it. There will be areas that are blurred, but the size of the blur is so small the human eye cannot distinguish the blur from a point of light. This is known as the circle of confusion. There are specific calculations for this and it becomes complicated very quickly (see depth of field blog post for an introduction to “circle of confusion”). While there are a lot of scientific and mathematical calculations that can help locate the hyperfocal distance point, some ways are easier than others, and where the best focus point is may depend on the circumstances of each unique landscape and the particular taste, artistic style, and preference of the photographer. So let’s start there…
Which is better to have in focus, foreground or background?
Since it is a given that some area of a photo will always be out of focus (even if it is so small one can’t see it without pixel peeping or blowing the image up to super large sizes), which is better to have in focus? This will depend on the characteristics of the image one is composing and one’s personal tastes.
Expert photographers have discussed and taken opposite positions over the years. On one side, some photographers suggest that faraway objects need crisper focus in order to be recognizable and that the loss of detail is especially noticeable in enlarged prints. They claim our eyes will be more forgiving if objects in the foreground a slightly blurred. To use this in practice, one would focus beyond the hyperfocal distance (maybe even use infinity) and then adjust the aperture (f/stop) smaller and smaller until foreground objects become focused enough.
Other photographers claim the loss of focus on nearer objects is more noticeable and disturbing and that background focus can be less sharp, especially if they are large and easily identified objects like a mountain. In practice, a photographer would focus at hyperfocal distance or in front of the hyperfocal distance, and again make changes to the aperture (f/stop) to get crisper foreground focus.
Gazebo in Autum - Image by FocusEd Camera
How do I find the hyperfocal distance?
With the exception of a few readers who are math wizards, most of us don’t want to have to do hyperfocal distance calculations on the fly while out in the field. Fortunately, there are hyperfocal distance charts and apps like DoF Table, Digital DoF (my favorite), and PhotoPills that can provide a good starting point for reference. Unfortunately, they are not always accurate and are one-size-fits-all, not taking into account the actual scene. Some lenses also include markings on the side of the lens barrel that give you these calculations, but the easiest method is to use the approximation method of “double the distance.”
How do I use “double the distance?”
A very simplistic way to achieve equal sharpness in the foreground and background is to use a method called “double the distance.” Find the closest object or element in your composition and determine (approximately – exact accuracy is not necessary) how far away it is from the camera sensor (not the end of the lens). Then double that distance and focus at that point. Use live view if available on the camera and use it zoomed in. This method does require some practice at estimating distances, but can be quite effective and efficient once one gets the hang of it.
Keep in mind that depth of field increases with smaller apertures, so if the closest object is not in focus at a certain aperture, then one may have to adjust the aperture. For example, if the camera is set up using a 35mm lens and the closest object that needs to be in focus is 8 feet away and f/8 is not working, increase the f/stop to f/11 or f/16 to bring the focus closer (increased depth of field). Other adjustments may then be required to shutter speed and ISO, so an understanding of the exposure triangle is also essential to achieving the desired outcome.
Should I use a hyperfocal distance chart?
As I stated before, a chart can be a great starting reference point. Find the focal length of the lens being used and the aperture settings, and it provides the closest point for focus where the background will still be “acceptably sharp.” A quick online search of hyperfocal distance charts will give you many options, but a quick look at the options also will demonstrate the inaccuracies I describe. One will find that the numbers don’t match from chart to chart. For example, I pulled up three charts and looked for the focus point if I was using a 24mm lens at f/2.8. The charts told me: 22.3 feet, 22.6 feet, and 21.1 feet. Now since most of us aren’t going to be pulling out a measuring tape to measure off 21 or 22 feet from our camera’s sensor, these numbers are close enough to give us a starting point. We would pick a point of focus that is approximately 22 feet from our camera’s position.
The apps for smartphones do these same calculations and are often a little more exact and definitely more convenient than carrying around paper charts. Unfortunately, these apps, depending on who made the app, can also be very inaccurate. Of the apps available, I prefer Digital DoF, which is free and often gives me good results to start with.
Do I need to know how hyperfocal distance works?
If one plans to take landscape photos, yes. Having an understanding of how hyperfocal distance works and changes with focal length and aperture will allow adjustments in the field that will improve image quality.
Hyperfocal distance moves closer to the camera sensor as smaller apertures are used. Remember smaller apertures make greater depth of field therefore the range of what is in focus moves closer and closer to the camera. The farthest reaches of the focus range are also getting larger, allowing the focus point to move closer (away from the horizon or infinity) while keeping the level of acceptably sharp focus both in front of and behind the focus point.
As the focal length on a lens gets longer, the hyperfocal distance moves farther away. This does not mean, for example on an 85mm lens at f/11 and a hyperfocal distance of 70 feet, that everything closer than 70 feet will be out of focus. On the contrary, the image will be sharp from halfway to 70 feet (35 ft) all the way to infinity. Anything 35 feet or closer will start to lose focus. Remember, double the distance? This is that same principle in reverse.
If you only use a chart, you will be constrained by the limitations of the chart. Going back to “acceptably sharp” focus for a moment, we come across the first limitation of a hyperfocal distance chart. They rely solely on the math calculations that include the “circle of confusion” (which I have also already explained is quite complicated and an internet rabbit hole all its own should you choose to go down it). The problem is that in camera-land long ago and far away, the circle of confusion was set at .03mm to create those charts. For technical folks, that .03mm is the size of the out-of-focus tiny points of light on your camera sensor and they are roughly circular. That .03mm standard is too large for today’s high resolution prints, computer monitors, and cameras, so the charts can’t be the “end all” tool you use.
The second problem, is that the charts (and many of the apps) are one-size-fits-all solutions for all lenses and in the field that does not take into consideration the vast array of possible landscape situations one may find oneself in. Where you should focus should change depending on the scene in front of you!
Let’s look at this this way – we have two very different scenes and for both compositions we are using our 35mm on our full frame camera at f/8.
According to the chart, for both of these should be focused at 17 feet in front of where the camera is standing. Using the chart we would have acceptably sharp focus for both images, but all that means is that both images will have the exact same amount of blur (0.03mm for each pinpoint of light to be exact).
Does that even make sense if we think about it logically? Of course not, the focus point should depend on the scene! For image 2 with the hot air balloon, if there is no foreground why would we want to focus at 17 feet in front of the camera? We wouldn’t, we should focus out at the horizon at “infinity.”
So the takeaway is to start with a reference point, either from a chart, app, or double the distance method, then know how to adjust the hyperfocal distance point and lens focal length and/or aperture to get the best overall sharpness for all images, not just acceptable sharpness for some of them.
Why can’t my camera just calculate the hyperfocal distance and tell me what it is?
Let’s say we are shooting a meadow with a tree off in the distance and even farther away is a mountain range. Let’s also assume the camera can give us a readout to tell us what the hyperfocal distance would be, say its 237 feet. How would we be able to put that into practice? Would we pull out a 237 foot measuring tape or cart around a measuring wheel with us on our shoots? What if there was a lake between us and the mountain and 237 feet puts us into the water? In practice, getting a readout on a camera would be no more accurate than using a focal distance chart or app (taking into account the camera sensor’s circle of confusion and lens focal length/aperture). That readout wouldn’t help that much more than just using the “double the distance” method, although I expect cameras will be adding more features like split screen focus, focus peaking, and live view modes that will make the process of finding hyperfocal distance easier.
So if Double the Distance is easy and works well, how would I use it in practice?
Let’s go back to the example I gave above of a bike rider in the city. The first step in our approach would be to determine if there are any foreground objects nearby – like a fire hydrant or a parked car. Whichever object is closest to the camera that we want to be in focus, we approximate that distance and then double that number. Our focus would be at that distance.
Let’s look at this sample image. If we assume the dog and the rocks around him are approximately 15 feet away, then the focus point should be double that distance, which is about 30 feet away. Voila!
The best part about this method is that it doesn’t matter which camera or aperture setting or lens focal length is being used; it works for all landscapes. Now this isn’t to say that camera settings are not still critical. They are! For landscape photography we use smaller apertures like f/11. If we did set the aperture to f/4 and use the double the distance method and focus 20 feet away, it will still give us the most sharpness in the scene, but it is probably not going to give us the image we would want.
It is important to also know the limits of the lens being used. Lenses are not their sharpest at either end of their range. For example a lens that will shoot at apertures from f/1.8 up to f/22 will not be at its sharpest at either extreme. And understand focal lengths. When trying to capture landscapes, an 85 mm or 200 mm are not the best lens choices, one will want a wider angle lens and even more so if using it on a crop sensor camera body. See my blog about lens focal lengths here.
To be completely honest, even if you learn all the background information and understand the concepts, no technique for hyperfocal distance will be perfect even with adjustments in the field. Chasing “perfect” sharpness is like chasing the end of the rainbow.
If you are glutton for punishment, and just can’t get enough about hyperfocal distance, then check out our next blog post about other hyperfocal distance calculation methods and trouble-shooting hyperfocal distance while on the go. Additionally we will discuss ways to work around the limitations of lens focus depths by using focus stacking and bracketing to make composite images.
If this is enough information for you, then let me leave you with one final thought, remember that for almost all images you compose and shoot, that “good enough” is better not taking the shot at all.
Forums and Facebook groups are full of someday want-to-be professional photographers and an extremely common question they ask as beginners is “How do I get that blurry background in my photographs?” The blurry background, or bokeh, is an effect accomplished by knowing how to create a shallow depth of field. It is a compositional tool used in many genres of photography such as portraits, flowers/nature, and products. A quick word of caution, overuse of any one compositional tool can create a portfolio that is, well… boring. So don’t rely only on “blur” to create memorable images. Check out our blog post on Composition Basics here.
While bokeh creates a pretty effect for many images, some genres require crisper focus throughout and blur is not desirable. Landscape, night photography, and some types of street photography are examples where a wider depth of field is common. To accomplish this wider depth of field, hyperfocal distance is often used. (You can read about Hyperfocal distance in next month's blog, but it is recommended you first have a solid understanding of basic depth of field and factors that affect it as discussed in this post).
What is Depth of Field?
Simply put, depth of field is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in an image that are in acceptably sharp focus. In some photographs, everything seems to be in focus throughout and in some photographs the foreground or background, or both, may have blur. This is achieved by manipulating the factors that affect depth of field.
Depth of field is calculated using the lens’ focal length, distance to the subject, the acceptable “circle of confusion” size, and the aperture setting of the lens. Thus by changing one or more of these factors, different depths of field can be created. Let’s investigate the effects of each factor on the depth of field, starting with shallow depth of field.
How does one get shallow depth of field?
Shallow depth of field, also called a small or narrow depth of field, means that only a part of the image is in focus. Most often this is accomplished by using a wide aperture (small f/stop number) on the lens and shooting in aperture priority or manual mode. If a lens has the ability to shoot at f/2 at its most open setting, the resulting depth of field will be small or narrow. If that same lens was set at f/22 and its position and the subject/background positions are not changed, the result will be a much deeper or wider depth of field.
In these images above, the only factor that was changed was the aperture, or f/stop. Notice in the first image shot at f/32 there is more of the image, from front to back, in focus. The main flower and the flowers behind it are more defined and the bars on the iron door can be seen. In the second image, the aperture setting was changed to f/5 so much less of the image is in focus. There is more blur behind the main flower in this image and the bars on the iron door are completely out of focus, so much so, they almost disappear into the background. This is one advantage of a blurry background; to get rid of distractions behind the subject.
Shallower depth of field can also be accomplished with longer focal length lenses or by changing relative positions of the camera, the subject, and the background. A photo taken in close range will have a much smaller depth of field. Moving the camera closer to the subject and moving the subject farther from the background will increase blur in the background and make the depth of field narrower. For example, a portrait photographer will want to put some distance between the person/subject and the background to get the desired blur effect. A flower photographer might use a longer focal length lens to get a smaller depth of field and blur behind the bloom.
The images below demonstrate this effect. In the first image, I was much farther away from the flower arrangement which produces a wider depth of field. Some of the background, like the door behind the flower arrangement, were already somewhat blurred, but most of the flowers in the arrangement are in focus. In the second image, I have moved closer. There is a narrower depth of field. At this very close range, the background is fully blurred.
A camera can only get precise focus at one exact distance from the lens. Everything in front of or behind that distance will be blurred. The blur “spot” will be shaped like the aperture of the lens, thus almost a circle. If these spots, or circles, are small enough they are almost indistinguishable from a point of light and they appear to still be in focus. When this happens we have acceptable sharpness or acceptable “circle of confusion.” The “circle of confusion” size is related to a camera’s sensor size, and is a complicated concept that could be a whole article in and of itself. Any blur one can see in a final photograph is simply the blur spot as it registered on the camera sensor, only enlarged (on your screen or in print). How big this blur can get without being noticeable, is the acceptable "circle of confusion" size.
The take-away here, is that even the most crisp looking landscape image one has ever seen actually has areas that are out of focus or blurred, it’s just the blur is so minimal one’s eyes can’t tell unless the image is magnified or the viewer gets closer. The mechanisms of the camera and the way light bends as it enters the lens makes it impossible to have an image that is totally in focus from edge to edge at every given distance.
How depth of field and the “circle of confusion” changes from a crop camera to a full frame isn’t something most photographers will need to know. If one plans to make super-sized prints or enlargements, then it might be beneficial to know the sensor size and "circle of confusion" calculation in relation to the anticipated print size. More important for most photographers to understand are the effects of a specific camera body and lens combination on depth of field. Most photographers would not change camera bodies to achieve the depth of field they want when they can change position, lenses, or settings instead.
A full frame camera sensor will create a shallower depth of field when adjustments are made to keep the same field of view (remember a 50mm lens on a crop camera will only “see” the field of view of approximately an 80mm on a full frame – see our blog article on focal lengths here for clarification). Otherwise, this formula shows that depth of field is unaffected by sensor size if aperture, focal length, and distances are kept constant.
How do you get wider depth of field?
Wide or deep depth of field results in a much larger area (front to back) of the image being in focus. Basically by doing the opposite of any of the above, one can accomplish a wider depth of field. Using a shorter focal length (for example switching from an 85mm to a 50mm) or setting a larger aperture (from f/5.6 to f/11) will increase the size of the depth of field and make it deeper. The next set of images show the results of changing the focal length.
I remained stationary, but used the zoom on my lens to change the focal length from 18mm to 400mm (these images were also cropped to fit together). The shorter focal length in the first image creates a wider depth of field. The iron door is clear and the door knob appears mostly focused. In the middle image, the depth of field is narrowing. By the time I zoomed all the way in for the last image, the depth of field has become much more narrow and the only part that is really in focus is the solitary flower.
Changing the distance between camera and subject will also change the depth of field. If the subject is placed closer to the camera the depth of field is smaller. When you want to blur the background the subject should be closer to the camera, but keep some space between the subject and the background. If the subject is placed closer to the background, and the camera is moved farther away, the depth of field will be wider. In the example above, if I had remained in position after the third image and had moved the flower arrangement farther away from me (moving the subject farther from the camera), then the depth of field would have gotten wider again.
How is shallow depth of field used as a compositional tool?
In portrait photography, shallow depth of field creates that soft bokeh or blurry background behind the person (and sometimes in front of the person as well). The blur can give a photo a moody look or be used to create a dreamy, mysterious, or romantic “feel.” Additionally, the blur is sometimes used for an abstract effect.
The selective blur creates dimension and reduces distractions from the background. Since our eyes are drawn to and gravitate towards areas in focus, creating a composition where only some of the image is in focus allows the viewer to be guided to the subject. In portrait photography it is considered an important standard practice that the most crisp focus point be on the eyes.
Blur in the foreground can also remove distractions that are in front of the subject, like fencing around a cage, allowing the focus to be on what is beyond. In this image below, the wire fencing on the bird enclosure "disappears" and I am able to shoot "though it" even though my lens was several feet on the other side and the lens glass far too large to put between the wires.
Shallow depth of field is most often used in the genres of portrait, nature, travel, and to some extent street photography. With street photography, too much blur will take the subject out of context and the story behind the image can be lost.
How is wide depth of field used as a compositional tool?
Wide depth of field is desirable for landscape photography especially. This is where understanding hyperfocal distance becomes important.
Hyperfocal distance, in a nutshell, is the point in the foreground that is the closest point the camera can focus while still having acceptably sharp image quality throughout the rest of the image to “infinity” (which is the background or horizon in most images) In other words, it is the point of focus that will yield the greatest depth of field.
The hyperfocal distance point does not create an equal amount of focus in front of and behind the focus point. Typically, 1/3rd of the range of focus will be in front of the point and 2/3rds will be behind that point.
For a detailed look at hyperfocal distance and how to make calculations in the field, check out our hyperfocal distance blog next month.
There are hyperfocal distance charts and apps (like DoF Table, Digital DoF, and PhotoPills) that can provide a good starting point for reference, but they are not always accurate and they are one-size-fits-all, not taking into account the actual scene. Some lenses also include markings on the side of the lens barrel that give you these calculations, but the easiest method is using the approximation method of “double the distance.”
How do I use “double the distance?”
A very simplistic way to achieve equal sharpness in the foreground and background is to use a method called “double the distance.” Find the closest object or element in your composition and determine (approximately – exact accuracy is not necessary) how far away it is from the camera sensor (not the end of the lens). Then double that distance and focus at that point. For example, in the image below, if the closest rock that needs to be in focus is 10 feet away, then make the focus point 20 feet away (where the water ripples are). Use a small aperture (large f/number). Use live view if available on the camera and use it zoomed in. This method does require some practice at estimating distances, but can be quite effective and efficient once one gets the hang of it.
Keep in mind that depth of field increases with smaller apertures, so if the closest object is not in focus at a certain aperture, then one may have to adjust the aperture. For example, if the camera is set up using a 35mm lens and the closest object that needs to be in focus is 8 feet away (focus point 16 feet away) and f/8 is not working, increase the f/stop to f/11 or f/16 to bring the focus closer (increased depth of field). Other adjustments may then be required to shutter speed and ISO, so an understanding of the exposure triangle is also essential to achieving the desired outcome.
Image by strikers on Pixabay.
What is the take-away?
In summary, manipulating the depth of field is a compositional tool used by photographers in many genres. It is typically accomplished by changing the aperture of the lens, the lens focal length, or the positioning of the subject and background along with the positioning of the camera.
A shallow depth of field creates a nice blur effect in front of and behind the subject which results in a softer or more abstract feel, whereas, a wide depth of field has crisper focus throughout the image from front to back.
Knowing the calculations or keeping a focus distance chart is not necessary. An understanding of the exposure triangle, and the effects of focal length and aperture settings on your specific camera are essential. Practicing with your camera and lens in different settings is the best way to see the effects on depth of field in practice.
For improved landscape photography, narrow the aperture and use the “double the distance” method to get a wider depth of field. For portraits and flower blossom, put space between the subject and background and use a wider aperture or a longer focal length, or shoot in close range of the subject.
With an understanding of these basics, one will be ready to move on to a more detailed look at hyperfocal distance, or some practice with other compositional tools.
Composition is essentially an art form. It is the way you frame or arrange an image and it is critical to the outcome – whether that image is just good or great! A set of rules for good composition exists, yet it is still at best subjective, and great photographic images break these rules all the time. The best advice is to know the rules, so then you are aware when you are breaking a rule and can decide if that will, in fact, make your image better. Aside from the “rules” there are a couple of general photography guidelines that will also help you. Let’s start with those…
First, know how to properly hold your camera by using the grip with one hand and support under the camera with the other hand. You can have perfect composition and still have blur if you don’t hold your camera correctly. Even better, use a tripod. Many people believe that using a tripod will “mess up” their freedom and limit their creativity. I find the opposite to be true. Using a tripod forces you to slow down and think about positioning (which is critical to several of the composition rules). Where should the tripod go? Closer? Should I lower the height? Should I raise it? Should I rotate the entire set up to shoot from a different side? Should I rotate the camera from landscape to portrait? The worst thing you can do is always shoot in the same mode from the same distances using the same orientation! If your camera has a zoom lens or interchangeable lens system then slowing down also forces you to think about those options. In my experience, I am more apt to play with camera settings when I am on a tripod as well.
“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” -- Ansel Adams
Second, learn to see what the camera actually sees. Look through the viewfinder (preferable to LCD screen in my opinion). Don’t just look for the subject. Look at everything else. Look for distractions you don’t want to see in the photo like wires, cars, poles, or really bright light sources that could create flares or exposure issues. Good composition emphasizes the subject. If other aspects of the photo compete for attention, then that is not good. Also, remember, that when you look out at the world, your eyes are much more powerful and capable of more impressive color ranges and light ranges than even the most expensive camera sensors. You will not always be able to capture what you see in your camera – and that is okay! Know when to capture the memory instead.
Third, understand the basics of lighting and your camera modes (including the “exposure triangle”). Automatic shooting modes will have a difficult time capturing your “vision” so you will need to know how to use Manual mode, or other modes based on shutter speed and aperture. Read a few articles or tutorials about the best times of day for lighting your specific subject and try to practice during those times (for example, many portrait photographers use the hours just before sunset, known as the golden hour). As a general rule, avoid harsh sunlight which can create large shadows and washed out colors.
Okay, so with those three basics plus your passion for photography, you are ready to learn composition. The elements of composition will not all be present at all time in every shooting scenario, even in controlled studio environments. Use what you have available for each image.
Pay Attention to Form, Patterns, and Textures
What you are photographing has 3 dimensions, yet we are putting it into a 2 dimensional product. Move around your subject so that the form shows clearly. Side light (early morning or later afternoon and evening) provides shadows that help show form. Look for patterns – the row of slats in a picket fence for example. Then look for breaks in the pattern. Patterns appear in many man-made objects and places, but they exist in nature as well. Examine textures of what you are photographing. The material that something is made of will have a texture, whether that be rough or smooth. Nature has textures too, like the bark of a tree. Using forms, patterns, and textures will give your images depth, which is a good thing!
Look for Balance (Symmetry vs. Asymmetry)
A good photographic composition has balance.The image does not feel “weighted” to one side. Portrait photographers balance their photos when they arrange groups of people. Symmetry creates balance because the photograph will have basically the same or very similar scenes on both halves of the image. Asymmetric photos will still have a balance, but the scenes will be of different subjects.The balance is created by the size of objects, their distance, and their color.Darker objects in the front of an image are “heavier” than lighter colored objects in the background. Examine your image, before you snap it, through the viewfinder and check for good balance.
Visually Check for Lines, Curves, and Frames
This is where the most famous photography rule comes into play – The Rule of Thirds. The rule of thirds means to imagine lines dividing the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Then placing important aspects of your subject on those lines and their intersections. However, the Rule of Thirds lines are not the only lines to think about. In landscape photography the horizon is also an important line!
Lines are not always straight. Sometimes they are curved. Think about those beautiful scenic photos with the curving roads through the mountains. The most famous curved line that occurs in nature is the Fibonacci sequence. Some post production editing programs offer overlays of different types of lines and patterns so you can find one that works for your images.
Lines of any type, whether straight or curved lead our eyes. These types of lines are also known as “leading lines.” They force our eyes to move around the image. The curved (or straight) path through the forest leads our eyes through the forest.
When lines converge or surround a subject, they also create what is known as frames. Frames can be man-made, like windows or doorways, or natural like a stone arch or tree trunks. Use the lines and curves in your image to emphasize the subject. If the lines and curves are all over the place, try a different position. Make sure tree trunks are not “growing” out of people’s heads!
Find Opportunities to Use Contrast, Color, and Shapes
Visual contrast can really increase the excitement in your images. Visual contrast can be based in light versus dark (using color or black and white). Look for areas in the image that are light versus those areas that are in shadow. Try experimenting with silhouettes, or a portrait of a person standing at a window. Consider the same for color, or tonal contrast. Are there areas of light color that are in contrast with areas of darker colors? Contrast can also be used with shapes. Clouds, the sun, and the moon, are often photographed as shapes in contrast to their surroundings. Rock formations are also popular shapes that have contrast with their surroundings. Size can also provide visual contrast in an image. Small objects next to larger objects really show scale and can inspire awe!
Check Your Viewpoint
One of the most overlooked ways to improve composition is to simply change your viewpoint. Get down lower! Go up higher! Rotate around for a different angle! Actually getting down on the ground to shoot a small subject or to shoot up at larger objects can provide fascinating new perspectives. This is sometimes called “worm’s eye view.” Getting above and shooting down can do the same! So go higher. This is sometimes called “bird’s eye view.” Drone photography is a very popular new form of changing your viewpoint.
Consider the Space (Negative vs. Filled and Foreground vs. Background)
Look through that viewfinder again. Locate your main subject and then check the background. What is behind it? Is it distracting? Are there telephone wires? Bright colors that compete for attention? Then do the same for the foreground. What is immediately in front of your subject? Does it attract our eyes away from the subject?
Think of the background, foreground, and your subject (mid-ground) in a way similar to the rule of thirds. Only this time instead of using the concept as lines for focusing attention, think of the areas as the three dimensional spaces that they are.
The foreground is the distance from the camera to the subject and the background is the distance from the subject to the vanishing point or horizon. These are not necessarily equal thirds. We want to use these spaces to show the viewer the dimensionality of our image. Photographic prints basically compress the image into 2D so we need our subject to appear 3D. Therefore, the foreground and background should not be completely empty. Something needs to be there, even if the background is indistinguishable because it is blurred out (see Depth of Field next). Whatever we use in the background and foreground should not be distracting, as already discussed above.
Use Appropriate Depth of Field
Depth of Field is a tricky concept because you will have to understand your lens focal lengths and aperture settings. You may need to do some additional reading on these concepts. (See my blog post about Focal Lengths). You will hear photographers talk about shallow or narrow depth of field and deep or greater depth of field. Depth of field is, in a nutshell, how much of your image is in focus.In a landscape scene you would need everything, from front to back, all in focus. This means you want deep or greater depth of field.You will need higher aperture settings to accomplish this. For a portrait, or picture of a single flower, you would want your subject in focus, but everything else to be blurred or softly focused which is shallow depth of field.Lower aperture settings are used to accomplish this.
Depth of field is an important compositional tool because you determine what the viewer will look at by deciding what areas will be in focus.The brain naturally tends to ignore areas that are out of focus and instead attends to the areas that are in focus.Decide which level of depth you need before you shoot and then experiment with different aperture settings.Try using aperture priority mode on your camera and photograph the same person or subject at f/5.6 (or lower if you lens allows), f/11, and f/22 (or its highest setting) and see how the focus range changes.
One final tip… Study the Masters
Most of the compositional elements in photography were developed in the art world of painters. These experts have given us hundreds of years of examples of compositional techniques that make people want to stare a paintings for hours and wait in long lines to see them. They use the same techniques of leading lines, repetition of patterns, symmetry and balance, curves, and contrasts to make their works feel three dimensional and compelling.
Fortunately, composition techniques can be learned! Great composition takes observation, patience, and practice, but most importantly, can be accomplished no matter what level of photographer you are or which equipment you use. That’s the fantastic part of photography, anyone can get a prize winning photo!
Want more Composition Basics? Consider our Text Message Class -- $5 for one month of lessons and hands-on activities.
What is focal length?
The focal length of a lens is measured in millimeters. A common misunderstanding is the belief that this lens measurement is the length of the lens from end to end or its overall dimensions. The focal length measurement actually begins at the optical center. A camera lens is made of many pieces of glass and combinations of elements, so as light enters the lens, it converges into “focus” at a point somewhere inside the lens among these elements. This point is the optical center. From the optical center this focused image is then sent to the camera sensor. Therefore to get the focal length, we take the measurement from the focal center to the camera sensor while the camera is focused at infinity (generally means that you are focused on something in the far away distance). Now when you are shopping for a lens and are comparing two different 50mm lenses, you will understand why one of them might be physically longer than the other.
This number or how it is calculated isn’t something you need to memorize or remember and knowing it isn’t going to make you a better photographer. What is important is to understand what focal length affects – which is your angle of view (how wide of a view or how much of your scene will be captured in an image) and magnification (how large subjects will appear). A shorter focal length, like 18mm, will capture a larger width or wider angle of view and subjects in the frame will appear smaller than they do viewing them with our eyes. Longer focal lengths, like 100mm, or even longer, like 400mm, have much more narrow angles of view. You will capture a much smaller width, but your subject will appear larger.
Angle of view is determined solely by the optics of the lens. It does not change if you place that lens on a different camera. On the other hand, field of view (which is often used interchangeably with angle of view even though they are not the same thing), is determined by the lens and the sensor of the camera. What type of camera you have – crop sensor or full-frame – will affect how much of a scene (field of view) ends up in your final image. A crop sensor camera will capture less of the subject or a smaller field of view.
So how does a crop factor work?
Let’s say I wanted to take a landscape photo with a full-frame Canon camera and a 50mm lens. It would look something like this:
If I took that same 50mm lens and put it on a crop sensor Canon camera, the resulting image would look more like this:
The sensor size is “cropped.” Since the senor is smaller, it is like trimming off a large border all around the image. Another way to think of it would be similar to using the cropping tool in a photo editing program where the image is cut, not shrunk. The crop factor is different for cameras from each manufacturer. A Canon EF-S camera has a crop factor of 1.6, while the Nikon DX models are a factor of 1.5.
Going back to my example, both images were taken with a 50mm lens. To figure out how much “loss” of field of view we would get on the Canon crop sensor, we would multiply the 50mm x 1.6 to get 80mm. Therefore, the amount of image we get on the crop sensor camera with the 50mm is equivalent to 80mm if it had been on the full-frame we started with instead.
Here is the same landscape again. This image was taken with the full-frame camera using a zoom lens set to 80mm. Notice how the field of view is basically the same as the 50mm on the crop sensor camera pictured above (and repeated here so you can see them side by side):
We can also work this equation in reverse. Let’s say I want to get the wider field of view of the full-frame camera, as we did with the 50mm, but by using my crop sensor camera instead. I would take 50mm and divide by 1.6 which would result in approximately 31mm. Therefore, if I put a 30mm on my crop sensor camera, it should “see” almost the same thing as the full-frame with the 50mm. You can witness this effect in the images below:
Should you learn how to do all these calculations?
No, there are apps and online charts that have these calculations already completed for you! Like this one: https://mmcalc.com/ which is also available as both iOS and Android apps.
So what is the take-away then for a beginning photographer?
First, know that if you have a crop sensor camera that you will not be able to get the same field of view as a full-frame unless you go down to smaller focal lengths (in effect, zooming out). Second, understand that the focal length, as it gets larger, has the inverse effect on your field of view which gets smaller and smaller and brings the subject closer (in effect, zooming in). Third, know the basic classifications of lens focal lengths and their main uses so that you will have a basic idea of what lenses to use for different shooting situations (and make adjustments as necessary if you are shooting with a crop sensor camera).
Lenses basically fall into five types of focal lengths; super wide-angle, wide-angle, standard, telephoto (zoom), and super telephoto. In each of the descriptions below I am speaking in terms of using a full-frame camera.
Ultra wide-angle lenses have a 24mm or less focal length which allows them to capture a very wide scene. They can be useful for home interiors (real estate photography). Below 24mm, and especially super-wide fish eye lenses, images can become distorted and present an exaggerated perspective that can be artistic and fun to play around with.
Photo by sippakorn yamkasikorn on Unsplash
Wide angle lenses have a focal length range from 24mm up to 35mm. These lenses are also good for confined spaces, such as home interiors, or capturing the whole table of guests at a family holiday or celebration. In addition, these lenses are good for large group photos, cityscapes, landscapes, and architectural photography. These lenses have large depth of field so both far away and near objects can have tack sharp focus and there will be visible distance between your subject and the background when taking portraits.
Photo by Khiem Tran on Pixabay
Standard lenses have a focal length range of between 35mm to 70mm. These lenses “see” the world in much the same range and way our own eyes see it. There is little distortion of the subject so they make flattering portrait lenses. The shallower depth of field allows the photographer to separate the subject from the background as well. These lens are excellent, not only for portraits, but for nature, “on the street” shots, and low light conditions (or when you do not want to use a flash or only want natural light). The 50mm lens is in the standard lens range, and is such a popular lens choice, that it has earned the nickname – The Nifty Fifty.
Photo by Alexei Chizhov on Pixabay
Telephoto lenses are focal lengths of 70mm up to 300mm. These lenses are very popular for wildlife/nature photographers because it allows shooting from a distance without encroaching on the subject (which might be skittish). These lenses bring the subject closer. A lens that is 70-135 is considered a short telephoto and one that is 135-300 is a medium telephoto. Telephoto lenses have a shallower depth of field so crisp focus on the subject is a must. In additional to wildlife, these lenses are also used for any activity or subject where distance is required or unavoidable, such as shooting from the sidelines during a sporting event.
Super telephoto lenses are much like telephoto lenses, except their focal lengths go beyond 300mm. They provide a telescope type magnification which brings the subject and the background closer. Objects behind your subject will look much closer than in a similarly framed shot using a smaller focal length lens.
These lenses are very heavy and can’t be used for handheld shooting. A sturdy tripod is needed to support these lenses. Some even include additional support brackets built into the lens. Any type of photography where you don’t want to fight through a crowd for a position or you are limited on how close you can get benefits from this type of lens: birding, wildlife, sports, astrophotography, moon photography (or any other small distant objects), air and boat shows, car races, and more.
Photo by smarko on Pixabay
Macro lenses are not a type of focal length. They are specialty lenses that come in various focal lengths. They are used for photography of small objects, flowers, products, and insects in amazing detail. Macro lenses create 1:1 or life size reproductions on the camera sensor. (If you have an interest in Macro photography, check out my Macro Photography class)
Your camera may have come with a “kit” lens. An 18-55mm is a common wide angle zoom lens. This lens give the photographer the whole range of lens focal lengths from 18mm – 55mm. An 18-135mm lens would give a photographer the range of focal lengths from wide angle all the way up through short telephoto.
Zoom lenses like these can be great lenses because you don’t have to change your lenses as often and they cover a wide variety of photographic situations. Prime lenses on the other hand have one fixed focal length, like a 50mm. Here is a series of images from a local garden showing the range you can achieve with a zoom lens. In this particular instance, the lens used was the Tamron 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD for Canon APS-C cameras.
What is the advantage of a zoom vs. a prime lens?
The main advantage, as demonstrated in the photos above, is versatility. With one zoom lens in your bag you reduce the weight of your gear and you can shoot everything from wide scenery shots to close ups, people, or details without changing lenses. Additionally, when shooting sports or other fast action, you can re-frame your subject without having to move closer or farther away. Finally, less lens changes means you save time and protect the camera sensor from dust and moisture exposure!
One disadvantage of a zoom lens is that they often have narrower maximum apertures than prime lenses and/or variable apertures which means less and less light makes its way to your image sensor as you zoom in. A prime lens can open up wider and let in more light, as well as achieve a shallower depth of field. Another disadvantage of a zoom lens is their size and weight. Zooms are usually larger and heavier than a prime; however, if one zoom can replace three or four primes in your bag you will still come out ahead with the zoom. Lastly, zooms are usually not as pristine when it comes to image quality, but that should not stop you from purchasing a zoom if it fits your needs.
So, now that you know a bit about focal length and which lenses are best for different photographic scenarios, you can buy gear that will serve your needs best!
If you’d like some suggestions for some “can’t go wrong with one of these” lenses, check out my recommended lenses chart or the shortened list below. These are affiliate links, so if you make a purchase, we make a small commission at no cost to you (full disclosures). Also be sure to check out my blog post Understanding Lens Abbreviations for help deciphering all those letters and numbers on the lens barrel. It will help you buy lenses with confidence!
Copy and paste these descriptions into an online seller site. I would recommend KEH for used and B&H Video for new - see my Buy Camera Gear page for links to these sellers and IMPORTANT advice before buying any gear. Some sellers are not authorized resellers, so buyer beware!
Prime, Nifty 50:
Canon EF 50mm f/1.4
Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8G^
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM
Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di LD Macro
Mega Telephoto Zoom:
Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR^ (available from used sellers like KEH - see my Buy Camera Gear page)
^Check compatibility for Nikon lenses here.
You are standing in the electronics department looking at the end of the camera lens you want to buy and it looks like alphabet soup or maybe a secret code…
EF, DX, AF-P, ED, IS, VR, USM
What do all those letters and numbers mean?
Over the years camera manufacturers have changed lens mounts and some newer models will not be compatible with older lenses and vice-versa. Nikon also makes some camera bodies that have built in focusing motors and some that do not. This article will cover general abbreviations and is not a guide to which lenses will actually work with your camera. Be sure to refer to each manufacturer's site for compatibility information before you purchase.
A short rule of thumb, except for the letters that indicate it is a crop sensor lens, generally speaking the more letters you see the better quality the lens. I am going to go through a few of the more common abbreviations and explain what they mean. After reading this, you will have a better understanding of those scrambled letters so you can buy camera glass with confidence!
Lens manufacturers build their DSLR and mirrorless camera lenses for basically two categories: crop sensor or full-frame. Full-frame lenses are considered more professional, have a better build quality, and are therefore more expensive. To make things confusing, each lens manufacturer uses a different set of letter codes to signify the “line” of lenses (pro vs. consumer) and the quality of the lens. In this article, I am only going to discuss the two most popular brands, Canon and Nikon. If you want a more complete list of abbreviations for Canon, Nikon, and third-party manufacturers like Tamron, Sigma, and Tokina, use the chart I created (link and download at the bottom of the article). Also at the bottom is a list of some recommended lenses in more common sizes. These are affiliate links, so I do make a small commission if you purchase a lens.
EF – lenses for EOS full-frame cameras
EF-S – lenses for crop sensor cameras (APS-C sensors); you can use EF lenses on a crop sensor camera, but you cannot use EF-S lenses on a full-frame camera body; EF-S lenses are less expensive and lighter in weight
L – “Luxury” lenses are the cream of the crop and have a red band of color around the barrel; usually a more rugged design and/or weather sealed
CN-E – specialty cinematography lenses; black and red like the “L” but manual focus only
EF-M – lenses for the M series mirrorless camera system; EF and EF-S lenses can also be used on EF-M camera mounts with an adapter; EF-M cannot be used on the larger full-frame mirrorless RF mount
RF – lenses for the full-frame mirrorless camera bodies; EF lenses can be used with an adapter
FX – lenses for full-frame cameras
DX – lenses for crop sensor camera bodies; DX lenses are less expensive and lighter in weight
Z – lenses specifically for the Z6 and Z7 camera systems; FX and DX lenses can be used with an adapter
S-line – lenses for mirrorless cameras; “S” means “Superior”; not to be confused with the older S mount lenses from the 1950s and 60s
Gold ring – if the lens has a gold ring around the barrel, that signifies a higher quality lens
For those who are considering buying lenses for their crop sensor camera, but eventually want to upgrade to a full-frame body, I would recommend saving up for the more expensive FX (Nikon) or EF (Canon) lenses. You can use them on your crop sensor camera body for now (with a crop factor) and later when you upgrade to your full-frame DSLR or mirrorless you can continue to use them at their maximum potential. This can save you from having to re-purchase lenses since the cheaper lenses (DX, EF-S) do not have the same quality as full-frame, and for Canon users cannot be used on the full-frame bodies. This is true of third party lenses made for Canon and Nikon as well.
Moving on to focal length, all lenses use the same methodology. Focal length is measured in millimeters (mm). This number is the distance between the camera’s sensor and the lens’ convergence point. The focal length tells us how much of our subject or scene will be captured (angle of view) and the magnification. Short focal lengths have wider angles of view and do not have much magnification, whereas, longer focal lengths have smaller angle of view and a higher level of magnification. Some lenses will have just one number, such as 50mm. This is a fixed focal length which is called a “prime” lens. Prime lenses provide higher image quality and are more compact and lightweight. Additionally, they often have better apertures for low-light.
When you see a range of numbers, such as 18-55mm, it means the focal length is variable, or has a “zoom.” A zoom lens allows you to switch between subjects and different shooting scenarios without changing lenses as often. For a more in-depth look at focal lengths and the differences between wide angle, standard, macro, and telephoto lenses, read my blog post “FocusEd on Focal Lengths.”
The next set of letters and numbers is typically the aperture or aperture range indicated by the letter “f” and then some numbers, such as f/2.8. This means the maximum aperture setting is 2.8, the iris is more open, and lets in more light. An aperture of f/22 would mean the iris is less open and would let in less light. Aperture numbers are harder to remember, they don't go in nice even increments of whole numbers like ISO 100, 200, etc. The reason these numbers appear to not follow a pattern is that they are ratios related to the focal length and the diameter of a circle. When we close down an iris we are making the circle that allows light in smaller and smaller. Think of it this way, it is similar to the iris of your eye. If you were in a dark room and there was only one small light bulb, your iris would open to its widest to let in more light. But if that same dark room had 22 light bulbs burning, your iris would become more narrow to let in less light. You can also think of f-stops as fractions. One fourth (1/4) is smaller than one half (1/2); therefore, f/4 is a smaller, narrower aperture than f/2. The full f-stops from wide to narrow are 1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, and 22 (some lenses have f/stops more narrow than f/22, but also typically suffer in image quality).
KoeppiK / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
If the camera lens you are considering for purchase is a prime lens, there will be just one f/. That is the maximum (widest) aperture the lens is capable of using. Lower numbers are better because they allow shallower depth of field and you can get those soft, blurry backgrounds behind your subject in your portraits. If a camera is a zoom, it usually has a range such as f/4-5.6 which means that at the smaller focal length you have f/4 and at the longest focal length you have f/5.6. The more you zoom, the narrower the aperture becomes. Whenever possible, choose a lens that has a low f/ and keeps that throughout the zoom instead of a range, such as a 24-70mm f/2.8. A few things to keep in mind, sometimes the f/ is not included and you will see 1:4-5.6 or 1:4-1:5.6 instead. Additionally, most lenses will shoot at their sharpest when at a medium aperture. So if your lens has a maximum aperture of f/2, your photographs will most likely have fewer aberrations and maximum sharpness at f/4 or even f/5.6.
Some lenses might also have Roman numerals I, II, III to indicated the generation of the lens. A lens with III is newer and probably has some upgrades compared to the same lens generation II. However, be aware that Tamron, and others, may also use similar markings for other purposes. Tamron lenses marked Di-II indicate a crop sensor lens and Di-III lenses are specifically for mirrorless.
Lenses may have markings for magnification such as 1:1. True macro is considered 1:1 where the lens allows the photographer to focus up close and get a life-sized reproduction on the image sensor. A lens with a 1:2 magnification will reproduce the subject at ½ life-size on the image sensor. Macro lenses will often say “macro” on the lens, but be cautious. The label “macro” is sometimes used on lenses that do not really produce a 1:1 ratio, so be sure to check the specifications of the lens if that is something you want.
Even with all of those letters and numbers explained, there may still be a mind boggling amount of remaining letters to decipher. Here are a few of the more common ones for Canon and Nikon. Again if you want a more complete list, use the chart I have created (at the bottom of the article).
IS – Image Stabilization; good for slower shutter speeds because internal mechanisms (gyros) help stabilize camera movement
USM – UltraSonic Motor; faster focus, but quiet
Micro USM - cheaper version of USM for kit and budget lenses and it is not as quiet
STM – Stepper Motor; fast focus, and the most quiet
SC or SCC – Spectra (or Super Spectra) Coating; coating on the lens to decrease reflections and flaring
SWC – SubWavelength Coating; coating to minimize ghosting and flaring; newer version of SC/SCC
DO – Diffractive Optics; lens will have a green ring on the barrel; fewer glass elements so the lens is lighter and smaller with improved optics
AF – Auto Focus; allows focusing from the camera; you may also see AF- followed by D, I, P, or S, which stand for Distance, Integrated Motor, Stepper Motor, and Silent Wave Motor respectively and are all improvements over AF alone (check compatibility carefully some consumer level camera bodies require AF-S lenses for full functionality)
SWM – Silent Wave Motor; very quiet, high speed auto focus
NIC or C (or SIC) – Nikon (or Super) Integrated Coating; to minimize ghosting and flaring
ED – Extra-low Dispersion Glass; used in high-end lenses to reduce aberrations
HRI – High Refractive Index; only used on the very best lenses to reduce aberrations
N – Nano Crystal Coating; labelled in gold; reduces flaring and ghosting
FL – Fluorite – superior lens glass and lighter weight
G – no conventional mechanical aperture ring; aperture set by the camera body
IF – Internal Focusing; focusing is accomplished with internal mechanisms
E – Electronic Aperture; aperture is controlled by electronic signals; not to be confused with the old 1970s E-mount (check compatibility carefully most older bodies and film cameras cannot use E lenses)
Micro – Macro
VR – Vibration Reduction; image stabilization to reduce camera shake
Okay, so let’s put your knowledge to the test by following along. You are considering the following lens:
Nikon AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8G
This lens will have Auto Focus with a Silent Wave Motor (AF-S). It is for a crop sensor camera (DX). It is a prime lens with a focal length of 35mm. The maximum opening of the aperture, or iris, is 1.8 so you can get some shallow depth of field with blurry backgrounds (f/1.8). You have no manual aperture ring (G) which makes this lens compatible with cameras that allow setting the aperture from the camera body.
Let’s try another one. You have two lenses to choose from:
Nikon AF-P DX 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G ED VR
Nikon AF-P 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E ED VR
The main differences are the first one is for a crop sensor camera (DX), has an aperture that lets in less light when zoomed (f/6.3), and no mechanical aperture ring (G). The second lens will be the better quality lens for a full-frame camera with a better f/ range and electronic aperture. The first lens costs approximately $400, while the second one costs approximately $550. (Note that some camera bodies are not compatible with AF-P and E type lenses).
Let’s try one final example and this one should be easy. You have two lenses to choose from:
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM
Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM
The one with the “L” for Luxury is the better lens. It has the f/1.4 aperture and the added image stabilization (IS). However, the prices might give you sticker shock - $350 vs. $1500. Whenever possible, it would be my recommendation to save up for better lenses, but sometimes the price is so much higher that the difference in quality might not be the most important determining factor. In this case the small difference in aperture would probably only be a factor for the most discerning of professionals and if you use a tripod and shutter release the added image stabilization may not add any benefits to your photography.
Buying a lens can be confusing, but by doing your research, checking the specs, and knowing a few key abbreviations, you’ll be able to buy camera glass with confidence!
Lens Abbreviations and Lens Recommendation Charts:
Feel free to print or download the lens abbreviation guide (PDF files below).
Below I have also included a link to some recommended lenses. You can always find more recommendations on our Buy Camera Gear page.
Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links. Please read the full version of my disclosures for more information. If you make a purchase through one of these links, we make a small commission (at no cost to you).