Camera 101: In English

Here’s a few questions…

  • Are you a confused newbie looking for a new camera?
  • Are you in need of suggestions of what to look for when buying a new camera?
  • Do you want to learn more about what all these terms mean without feeling overwhelmed?
  • Have you ever listened to two photographers talk to each other and felt like they were speaking a different language?

If you answer “yes” to one or more of those, you’re probably in the correct section of my site!  In this section I’ll *attempt* to make your life easier and sum up in a page what I looked at for a week before buying my Nikon D40.

Camera Terms!

Yeah, there are a ton of them… I’m going to make the most important ones as easy to understand as I can.

  • Aperture (F stop): How much light your lens can let in.

Aperture will always look like this when you’re looking at lenses:  f/# The lower the # is, the “faster” the lens is.  “Faster” lenses are more *open* meaning they let more light in and can result in less blurry pictures due to less exposure time (faster shutter speed).  An example of a “very fast” lens would be f/1.4.  f/2 is considered fast.  f/2.8 is the fastest constant aperture you’ll see in zoom lenses.  Primes can get lower.

  • Depth of Field: How much in front of and behind your subject is in focus.

Depth of field can be calculated but a newbie like me doesn’t worry about an exact calculation.  Basically just remember, “faster” lenses have less depth of field.  They tend to keep the subject in focus and blur the background which is a very desirable effect in portraits.  Longer lenses also have less depth of field.  The background will be out of focus more in a shot taken with a 200mm lens versus a 50mm one.

  • Exposure Time (Shutter Speed): How long your shutter is open to take in light.

This one is fairly easy.  When it’s bright daylight, your shutter won’t need to be open nearly as long to let enough light in for a nice picture.  When you’re taking a picture in the dark, you’ll need it to be open longer to let enough light in to properly expose the image.  Faster times like 1/100 s or faster are desirable for clear and sharp pictures.

  • Focal Length: The length of your lens.

Higher = more zoom.  Lenses in the 50mm range are considered to be “normal” whereas they’re fairly proportionate to what you’d see with your eyes.  Lenses such as an 18mm lens would be considered “wide” as they can capture a lot more in a single shot.  Lenses such as a 200mm lens would be considered a “telephoto” lens as it is more suitable for an object that is far away.

  • ISO: How sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light.

Most modern day DSLRs will go as low as ISO 100 or 200, and as high as ISO 3200 or 6400 (the newest ones go even higher but anything over 6400 is generally not necessary).  Point and shoots go lower generally (ISO 60-80) to make up for their smaller sensors (and slower max shutter speed) and allow the camera to still produce clear images.  Low ISO reduces sensitivity to light so it’s more suitable for situations where it is already bright, such as a sunny outdoor day.  High ISO is suitable for indoor situations or poor lighting.

  • White Balance (WB): How your camera treats the light.

Light from an incandescent bulb is different from a CFL, which is different from a daylight CFL, which is different from a cloudy day, which is different from direct sunlight.  Sometimes “auto” WB fails to detect the lighting so you need to play around with it to see what gives the most natural look depending on where you are.

What affects what?

As you can imagine, all of these terms are intertwined so here’s a way to associate them with each other…


  1. Affects shutter speed.  When open (such as f/1.4), shutter speeds get faster.  When closed (such as f/8) shutter speeds slow down.
  2. Affects depth of field.  When open (such as f/1.4), depth of field gets shallower.  When closed (such as f/8) depth of field gets deeper.

Depth of field…

  1. Affects how much of your image is in focus.  Shallow DoF will put your subject in focus and blur the foreground and background.  This is a desired effect for portraits in a lot of cases.  Deep DoF will put more things in focus.  This is usually desired in landscapes and nature.

Exposure time…

  1. Affects image clarity in hand held shots.  When the shutter speed is faster, it’s more likely that you will get a clear image when not using a tripod.

Focal Length…

  1. *CAN* affects shutter speed.  Cheaper zoom lenses generally operate on a higher f/# when zoomed to the longest length.  Expensive telephoto primes are usually set at f/2.8 or f/4.
  2. Affects image clarity in hand held shots.  Long lenses are more affected by camera shake (which leads to blur).  Short lenses often remain clear and blur free even in slower shutter speed situations.
  3. Affects depth of field.  Longer lenses have a shallower DoF.  Shorter lenses have a deeper DoF.


  1. Affects shutter speed.  Higher ISO is more sensitive to light which allows faster shutter speeds.
  2. Affects image quality.  Higher ISO leads to noisier photos.  Most modern DSLRs have built in noise reduction for high ISO shots so this isn’t much of an issue unless you are shooting higher than ISO 1600.  High ISO is generally bad on point and shoot cameras.

White Balance…

  1. Affects the look of the final image.  If you’re shooting RAW you can correct the white balance before converting but if you’re shooting in jpeg mode you have to get this right or else your final image may look completely wrong.

Camera Features and what to look for!

Canon vs. Nikon (Also applies to other brands)

I’m going to make this short and sweet.  It doesn’t matter.  Both take great pics.  Both are reliable and proven companies.  I’d happily shoot either.  At the time I was in the market, the Nikon D40 was hands down the best deal for getting into the world of digital SLRs so it was what I went with.  The end! ^-^

What DOES matter with Canon and Nikon though, is if you have friends that are photographers.  If you have five friends that shoot Canon and only one that shoots Nikon… then unless that one Nikon shooter is your significant other or very best friend, you’re much better off going with a Canon.  That way you can learn the system easier and get suggestions from them as well as borrow / try out their lenses.  In my case, the person I was living with at the time was a Canon shooter… but I didn’t have any plans on spending any significant amount of time with them, so I went to the next best point….

Value for Your Money

Short Version (to avoid more reading): Find the camera that has the exact features you want and get it.  Don’t buy more than you need, any DSLR system can take lovely photos.

At the time of writing this, I’d say the best value for the buck is the Nikon D3100.  It’s a great camera at a decent price point, plus you get all of the extra stuff they’re putting on to DSLRs like movie shooting and all that crap (some people like it, but I want my camera just for taking stills in general so meh).  If you really just want a camera you can find a D3000 for cheaper, but according to reviews you get worse high ISO performance and a grainier LCD.  If you can deal with that though, D3000 has the same 11 point AF system which is nice for composing!

In the Canon world, their entry level is the EOS Rebel XS which in theory should be about the same quality as the D3000 (though I don’t know much about Canon).  Canon’s entry level camera has an 8 point AF system which is a bit less, but my D40 has only 3 AF points so 8 seems like enough to me!

Auto Focus Points

What are auto focus (AF) points?  Generally they’re spots on your sensor that your camera can “lock on” to and focus on a subject within that point.

Short Version (to avoid more reading): More AF points = Better chance your camera will find the object you want to focus on and less need to recompose images after focusing.

I’ll be honest here, it’s not essential.  My D40 has a 3 point AF system.  The only thing it really limits is my focus-to-shot time as I often have to recompose the shot after focusing.

That being said, the more AF points your system has the faster you’ll be able to get the shot off in general, especially as a newbie.  AF points are basically points where your camera’s sensor can focus on a subject.  In most cameras you’ll be able to select an AF mode that will automatically find what to focus on and do so on it’s own.

You can also set it to manually use one of the AF points so you can pick what region of an image you want the focus to be on.  I usually do this on my D40 since I’m limited to three AF points.  I generally select the one that will be nearest to what I want to focus on then focus on that and recompose the image before taking the shot.

— More To Come —


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