MS.C 392x72

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Beginner Questions
by Chuck McKern

With over 12 years of retail and professional experience Chuck thought he'd heard it all - until he took this job.

Send us your questions for either the Beginner or Advanced columns by clicking HERE.  Please include as much detail about the technique, camera, lens, or film as you can so Chuck can answer your questions.

I'm just learning photography and have an old Canon FTB. It has an needle and circle that you line up for the correct exposure. What I don't understand is how you determine the correct aperture and shutter speed, do you decide the aperture and let the meter decide the shutter. I'm quite confused. I hope you understand my question. 

Thank you for your time,
Al Redorb

The match needle allows you to know whether or not the exposure combination set at a particular time is correct or not. You would need to decide on the correct shutter or aperture for the shot you are taking depending on the effect you want in your image. 

For example: if you are shooting a portrait, you may want to use an aperture of f/5.6.  This will allow you to focus on your subject while blurring the background.  Next you adjust your shutter speed until you have a correct setting as indicated by the match needle. Just keep in mind that you have to make sure that you can still hand hold at that shutter speed.  

A simple rule to tell if you can handhold for a given shutter speed is 1/(lens length).  This is usually the slowest safe shutter speed to safely handhold.  

In other words if you're using a 50mm lens then 1/50th of a second is the slowest shutter speed that it's safe to handhold.  It would be 1/300th of a second for a 300mm lens.  With practice and a steady hand however many photographers find that they can comfortably shoot with the shutter set one or two stops slower than this rule of thumb.  Since it's different for everyone, experience will tell you where your comfort zone is.

I need some books that teach beginning photography that are good. Any suggestions
Mike Melycher

There are many good books on photography. Two books that I recommend for teaching basics of photography are "Understanding Exposure" (Amphoto; ISBN: 0817437126) and "Learning to See Creatively" (Amphoto; ISBN: 0817441778) by Bryan F. Peterson. Composition and exposure are two of the most important factors in taking good photographs. These books cover both of these topics without going overboard.

Another excellent book that we reviewed in our first issue is "The Kodak Guide to 35mm Photography" (Eastman Kodak; ISBN: 087985801X).  You can read that review by clicking here

1. What are the ways to get sharper photographs?

2. Give me the main tips for getting sharper photos for close-up picture?

Probal Sarkar

There are several methods of getting sharper photographs. One of the best ways to achieve sharper images is to use the middle apertures of your lens. All lenses are at their sharpest in the middle apertures. Also, sharpness is sometimes lost due to slight camera movement while hand holding. To help get around this problem, use a monopod or tripod to stabilize the camera. If you are using longer shutter speeds, you should use a tripod and a cable release. 

When shooting close-ups, depth of field is a big concern as the area of the subject that is in focus can be a very narrow plane.  If you're having difficulty getting your subject in focus, try focusing slightly ahead of and slightly behind the subject.  With practice close focusing becomes much easier.

I still consider myself a beginner. I've only gone as far as using a 35mm camera for friends and family shots, some outdoor element shots for years. Should I continue to use a 35mm, until I've become more knowledgeable about the world of photography? If so, please suggest a 35mm purchase I can make?

Thank you!
R. Lee Chambers

It just so happens we have an article about this topic this month!  Now for the details of your question.

Whether or not to stay with 35mm is tough question. The quality of current 35mm films today allow for results that could only be achieved with larger format cameras a few years ago. Larger format cameras usually are much heavier than 35mm and the cost of film and development is higher. 

For most people, 35mm is plenty of camera. To get the most of the more expensive larger formats, a good knowledge of photography is required. If you don't feel that comfortable with the techniques and fundamentals of photography, I'd hold off on the big guns and stick to 35mm for now.

As far as which 35mm is the one to buy - that's not an easy question to answer. For starters, the best camera for one person, may not be the best camera for another. Many things need to be taken into consideration when buying a camera, much of which involves your personal comfort level. You need to handle each camera you're considering. If the camera doesn't feel comfortable in your hand, don't buy it. Make sure you look at the location of controls and dials.

Also the weight of the camera needs to considered. Especially if you will be hand holding the majority of your shots or carrying your equipment for long periods of time. If you already have some understanding of photography, I would start looking at the mid-level cameras or higher. You can very quickly grow out of the introductory level cameras if you already have some photographic knowledge or if you have a strong desire to learn and experiment. 

There are many great cameras out there today. Stick to manufacturers that you know and trust and a camera that feels comfortable to you. If you already have a system that you are looking to upgrade or replace, look to see if any of your equipment is compatible with current cameras. 

If nothing is compatible, you will be in for a major investment to get to where you're at now. If some of the equipment is compatible, then consider that manufacturer (but don't limit yourself). This way you may be able to salvage some of the equipment you don't use regularly, and upgrade it at a later time, so as not to have as much of an immediate investment.

I am trying to learn more about photography. I would like to take Portrait type pictures of my children. I am looking at a 85mm 1.8 lense for this. My question is: What type of lense and film is typically used at retail stores to take portrait shots? I would like to take my own shots of the children at home.

I know they have all their professional bounce umbrellas, lights, backdrops etc.. But how can I best do this at home with my camera.


Taking portraits of family and friends can be very rewarding personally. The correct equipment makes this much easier. The 85mm and 100/105mm focal lengths are very popular lenses for shooting portraits with 35mm cameras. Most studios use medium format cameras with similar focal lengths for their portraits. This does not mean you can not get studio quality with your 35mm camera.

Using the mentioned focal lengths and good portrait type films such as Kodak Portra series or Agfa Portrait 160, will get you in the ball-park. Be sure to shoot with a somewhat wide aperture to drop your background out of focus. A sharp background will distract from your subject. With these lenses try shooting at f/5.6 or f/4.

As far as the lighting goes, use flash cords to take your flash off of your camera and shoot from an angle. There are also low power slave flashes (sometimes called booster flashes) that you can use as a fill to create a nice lighting pattern. Try using your main flash at a 45 degree angle and a booster from the camera angle.

If your main flash seems to be too harsh, you can get diffusers to attach to your flash. These will help to soften the light. And when you are shooting outdoor portraits, don't be afraid to use your flash outside. It will give you a much better result that the harshness of sunlight.

I am a way novice photographer. I am interested in photographing of animals. I was recently in Arizona and photographed a lot of flowers. Both require different composition. That is the crux of the problem. Determining composition seems to be a real problem for me. Any suggestions. I use a Nikon N90S with several lenses, 70 - 300 and a Tamron 90 close up.

Composition is something that a lot of people have difficulty with. Several things can be done to help with this problem. The first thing is to fill the viewfinder as much as possible with the subject. Keep in mind you need to leave some room around the sides to allow for printing/framing. 

Follow the rule of thirds. Don't always keep your point of interest in the center of the frame. Raise or lower the horizons, move your subject to the right or left of center. Look for line patterns. You would want the line pattern to guide your eye to the subject or point of interest. 

If your subject is moving, give the subject some room in the frame to move into. If you have a good close up of an animal or person, have them looking into the frame. If their face is right against the edge of the picture, it will feel a little awkward. There is also a very good book on learning composition that may be good reading for you. It is called "Learning to See Creatively" by Bryan F. Peterson (paperback June 1988, Amphoto; ISBN: 0817441778). 

Also check out Jim's article on this subject in this month's issue.

I have a problem with the one third rule. What does it mean - no one has ever explained it to me.

Thank you very much for the information that you have provided to this point. Has been very instructional


The one third rule or "rule of thirds" is pretty simple. You mentally divide the viewfinder into thirds, like a tic-tac-toe board, both vertically and horizontally. At each of the four points where the lines meet, is the desired location for your dominant subject. 

Avoid splitting the frame with a strong horizontal element (like the horizon). You would also want to avoid dividing the frame in half with a strong vertical element.  This rule of thumb will generally give your images stronger composition.  

Once you're comfortable with the rule of thirds and are familiar with the effect it has on your images experiment with breaking it!  

Like any rule of thumb that applies to most images, there will be those exceptions that look even stronger when you break the rules.

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1/(lens length) is the slowest safe shutter speed to handhold















Use a monopod or tripod to stabilize the camera




















Composition is something that a lot of people have difficulty with...


























Don't always keep your point of interest in the center of the frame




MS.C 392x72

text and photography copyright 2001 Vivid Light Publishing