Camera Basics

All cameras from the simplest to the highest of high tech share some basic features.

Lens. The lens is made up of layers of glass which are each shaped to focus incoming light onto a surface used to expose the image.

Light sensitive medium. In digital cameras this is a sensor - which comes in a variety of types but all basically change light into an electrical signal. In film cameras, the exposure takes place on, you guessed it, film.

A variably sized hole call the aperture. Located in the lens, the aperture control is a series of blades which changes the amount of light passing through lens. The aperture's basic unit of measurement for how much light is getting through is the "ƒ Stop." A whole Stop change in aperture lets in either half as much light or twice as much light. On your lens (or in the view finder, or maybe on an LCD menu on your camera) you typically see numbers like ƒ1.8, ƒ2.8, ƒ4, ƒ5.6, ƒ8, ƒ11, ƒ16, and ƒ22. These are whole Stops which, as previously explained, lets in twice as much or half as much light compared to the Stop beside it.

(It should be noted, f1.8 is actually 1/3 of a stop more than f2 which is the actual full stop difference from f2.8 - however more lenes go to f1.8 than f2 as the maximum aperture.)

Learn more about aperture with this video.

A shutter which limits how much time light is allowed to enter your light-tight box. The measurement for the shutter is the "shutter speed," also known as Stops, which is measured in fractions of a second like 1/30th, 1/60th, 1/125th, 1/250th, 1/500th and so on. You can see a little easier how each might vary the exposure by either half as much light, or twice as much. Exposure times can also vary from 1/8000th of a second to several seconds. Some systems can use up to hours of exposure

When hand holding the camera, its important to make sure the shot is not blurry from camera shake. You should have the shutter set to the "same number" as you lens length. For example, if using a 50mm lens, you want a shutter speed of at least 1/60th of a second. If you're using a 135mm lens, 1/125th is okay, but 1/250th would be better. I've found with digital, because most have a multiplier effect (the sensor is smaller than 35mm film, and effectively make the lens 50 per cent longer) you need to set the shutter accordingly. If using a 50mm lens on a digital SLR, I set the shutter to the half stop of 1/90th or faster.

If you don't have enough light for the exposure I recommend a sturdy tripod. If you have a questionable speed, you can try bracing yourself against a post, tree, or other stationary object. I never stop from taking the shot even when I'm doubtful, you never know - you might get a great shot anyways.

Learn more about the shutter with this video.

Light Sensitivity also known as ISO – The actual written standard for ‘measurement of sensitivity to light’ is ISO 5800:2001 (in case you wanted to know.)

One of the ways to think about light sensitivity is that if – in bright daylight with the sun behind you – you set your aperture to f16 you can set both your ISO and shutter speed to ‘about’ 100 (actually 1/100th of a second for the shutter.) And if you set the camera to ISO 400 you can use 1/400 of a second. With old film cameras you had to go to the nearest similar shutter speed – 1/125 and 1/500 in this example. These settings will give you a very close to proper exposure.

Low ISO gives you the best quality in terms of noise or graininess, and that high ISO gives you more latitude for higher shutter speeds. It’s a compromise. With experience and practice you get to know which way and how much you can push either of those settings.

A light tight box. Holding the lens, shutter and exposure medium, the body of the camera keeps light out. On most cameras, the body also holds electronics to control the aperture and shutter.

The meter will help you determine the exposure you need. This is not something you can use on all cameras - particularly very old SLR's and most point-and-shoot style cameras. The meter may be part of the camera's system, but not have any visible meter for the photographer to use. However, most serious cameras do have a display for the meter so you can determine your exposure.

The most important part of the camera is the six inches BEHIND the viewfinder (assuming you use the viewfinder, if you normally look at the LCD on the back of your digital camera that would change to about 18 inches.)

A note about Stops. On modern cameras, there are numbers for additional fractions of a Stop, which can be either 1/2 Stops or 1/3rd Stops. This makes learning your stops a little more complicated but the principal still works.

Almost everything else on modern cameras is a way to control the focus of the lens, the aperture or the shutter speed. On digital cameras there is one last control which is to set the colour temperature. This will be explained later in another lesson.

If you're using a modern digital SLR, or a film SLR with a lot of automation on it, I highly recommend you read your camera's manual closely to find out how to do basic control of: setting the camera to manual exposure, setting the lens aperture, and setting the shutter speed. These three areas are important for getting the most out of these lessons.

If you are using a pocket camera or point-and-shoot style camera, you can set these features on some but not all cameras of this type. If not, you can skip the exposure control lessons and just do the composition lessons.

For some advice on buying your first advanced camera - see this post.



47 thoughts on “Camera Basics”

  1. Take your photgraphy even further after exploring the classes here - sign up for the Photography Masterclass Click Here!
  2. This is awesome, Thanks a lot for putting this on the Internet. So far this has been a great learning for dummies like me.

  3. I’ve been looking to start photography just as a hobby but local classes are too expensive and I have to experience. I’ve purused this site and will start the lessons soon. Thanks for putting this on the internet. You are very generous.

  4. I’ve perused this site and it looks like it’s just what I need. I want to take up photography as a hobby. Local classes are too expensive for me and I have no experience to start with. Thanks for putting these lessons on the internet. You are very generous.

  5. Dear Sir,
    Thank you very much for your free lesson. Your explanation is very clear, and you are a great teacher. I appreciate it very much. It happens that I always want to learn to be able to make good photo. My father was a good photographer, but when he was still around I was not interested as I thought it would be very hard. My 2 brothers and a nephew tried to encourage me to take a course, but since in the last 10 years I have been very ill, I am not able to go places. So what you have done is great for me. I do not have to leave my bed to learn. And your explanations about photography is very clear and makes it look so easy. Once again thank you for the bottom of my heart. I live in Jakarta, Indonesia and also a diver, if you should be in the neighbourhood of where I live give drop an email, and drop by to see me. I am also a diver, that is the only thing I can do, as when in the water, all the pain that I have disappear, doctors do not understand they thought it is because of the mind things but I think it is because in the water I feel no weight at all. My country has alot of beuatiful diving locations and I think the best place to dive.
    Once again thank you very much. Hope one day I can meet you in person to thank you in person.

    Very best regards,
    Mira Hassan

  6. i just wanted to say thanks for giving us the education to better us without the stress of making payments or paying for education

  7. The video on shutter seems to be missing. Is there any way to obtain that video or get it reposted?

    Thank you so much!

  8. it seems really interesting!!!!but my only concern is that i’m a new beginner and want to develop my photography skill to the highest level.Can u please suggest me which is camera is best for me to buy as i’m just a beginner!

  9. Dear Neil,

    I’m a beginner and do not have any knowledge on the professional level cameras apart from that they are called SLR/DSLR. Can you please give any suggestions on buying a camera.
    Help in this matter would be highly appreciated.

    Kind Regards


  10. I have a Sanyo VPC-E2100 . I have read and re-release the manual, as,well as sit down and play with the camera trying to figure,it out. IT seems to only have two options for f-stop.. They are 3.1 and 8.9… Am i missing something?! Please help!

  11. THANK YOU very much for your great gift, i have seen a lot of sites and institutes but they are asking for to much, i really appreciate your generosity.

    With your easy approach, photography seems more and more interesting and fun

    thanks again, i owe you a big one when ever you feel like visiting (Dubai or Egypt) just inform me, you are more than welcome.


  12. I’ve found this site few days ago, I made firs lessons, but when I tried again it didn’t go and i panicked. Now I’m happy that I can finish the tutorial.
    Great job & Thanks !

  13. I have always taken pictures and seem to have a keen eye for what will look good in a photo. People rant and rave about my pictures and appear to love them. However, I have not owned anything but point and shoot cameras up until this past Christmas when my Dad bought me my first lens camera ever! I love it. I feel so professional. It’s a Canon Rebel EOS T3i. The lens it comes with is an 18-55mm (f/3.5-5.6). Dad also bought me a second lens that is a 55-250mm lens (f/4-5.6). As far as right now, I don’t know too much about what all that means. After reading the first part of your lessons though, I know more than I did before. I will continue to read the rest of your lessons and then I plan to take a photography course this coming summer. The only thing I will have to do after reading your lessons and before I start the course is to learn how to use my camera and how to connect the things you share in your lessons to my particular camera. The buttons are overwhelming. Unfortunately, people have all different types of cameras so to find someone who will teach me about the different buttons and settings for mine is not likely. Anyway, I can’t thank you enough for your lessons. You are a kind person. Take care. 🙂

  14. My first DSLR should be arriving in the mail any day now. Just wanted to thank you for this informative, well laid out and layman friendly website. I’ve learned more about cameras just reading your Camera Basics section than I have in decades of pointing and shooting.
    Thanks again,

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you were able to get some good knowledge and that’s great that you’re moving up into a more advanced camera. Of course you’ll find the pictures may not actually be as “good” as they were with a point and shoot at first because you have to make more creative decisions with a dSLR – but once you learn more about that process you’ll find your photography advances nicely.

  15. Thanks for instructions that I can breakdown and learn the basics of photography. All my adult life I have been interested in photography but have never committed myself to learning it. I guess its now or never. Thanks again for helping and sharing your knowledge.

  16. I think what you are doing by offering free info for budding photographers is a great thing. Not to diminish what you are doing in any way but I see in one instance where you are miss informing your students, ISO is not an acronym but derived from the Greek word Isos. This is straight from the official site
    “Because ‘International Organization for Standardization’ would have different acronyms in different languages (IOS in English, OIN in French for Organisation internationale de normalisation), our founders decided to give it the short form ISO. ISO is derived from the Greek isos, meaning equal. Whatever the country, whatever the language, we are always ISO.”

    1. Thank you for the clarification (and I’ll update the page to reflect what they are saying.) It should be noted that 30 ish years ago when became aware of the them in relation to photography there was no mention of the Greek word and ISO was supposed to have been an acronym, not a ‘word.’ But I guess things change.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by Comment SPAM Wiper.