Budget concerns, vol. I

I pointed out in the summary part of the post that covers the basics (sensitivity, aperture, and shutter speed) that what matters the most in photography is that you know what you are doing. I also noted that most cameras can get the job done.

There is an old adage among photographers pertaining to the best camera. It is quite simple. The best camera is the one you have. It is pointless to argue that this and/or that camera could provide you better or the best results if you do not have that camera. Even if you have the best camera in the world, it does not matter if do not have it when you need it. If you need it, right now, and it is tucked away at home, it is of no use to you, there and then. If all you have is your smart phone with you to get the job done, then that is what you must use to get the job done. It is that simple.

It does not matter a whole lot whether you use a Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, or Sony camera, to mention the well-known brands. I am quite confident that you can also get the job done by using a Fuji, Panasonic, Ricoh, or Sigma camera. I would also be highly surprised if a Hasselblad or Leica camera could not get the job done, assuming that you have that kind of money to spend on cameras. Even a high-end smart phone that allows you use the phone camera in a manual mode might able to get you good results even in demanding conditions. Night time is certainly very demanding, but once you know what you are doing, it is not as demanding as it may seem at first.

To be clear, in this post I will focus on camera bodies, not on lenses. To keep things tidy, I will write about lenses in a separate post.

Bigger is better?

To be clear, photography is not cheap when you need a camera that can perform in demanding conditions. As a rule of thumb, bigger is better. Then again, bigger is also more expensive. How much more expensive?

To give you answer to that, I first need to explain what bigger means in this context. Simply put, physically large cameras tend to have physically larger sensors which generally outperform physically smaller sensors that are typically housed in physically smaller cameras. But why is bigger better?

Bigger is better because large sensors tend to have relatively high pixel pitch, measured in µm (microns or micrometers), when compared to small sensors. This is, of course, relative as you can have a large sensor with more pixels than a small sensor with fewer pixels and still have the same pixel density. The advantage of a large sensor is that the pixels can be physically large, while still providing plenty of resolution (typically indicated in megapixels). Conversely, smaller sensors need to provide enough resolution, which tends to compromise the pixel size. But why does pixel size matter?

Pixel size matters because you can fit more or fewer pixels on a sensor depending on their size. The smaller pixels increase the resolution, whereas larger pixels increase the amount of incoming light per pixel. Simply put, bigger is better because a large sensor will gather more light than a smaller sensor, assuming that the sensor is not crammed with pixels.

I think it is, however, better to explain this the other way round. Small sensors are very capable. They are, however, limited by their physical size. To fit in some industry standard number of pixels, which is currently something between 20 to 30 megapixels, means that the pixels have to be relatively small. For example, the Olympus flagship camera, the OM-D EM1X houses a fairly small sensor (17.3×13.0mm) capable of 20.40 effective megapixels, which means that its pixel pitch is 3.32 µm. In comparison, the Nikon flagship, the Nikon D6, houses a much larger ‘full frame’ sensor (35.9×23.9mm) capable of 20.80 effective megapixels, which means that its pixel pitch is 6.43 µm. It is no surprise that the Nikon flagship will provide better results than the Olympus flagship, especially in demanding conditions, because, in this case, bigger is simply better.

Bigger is not, however, better in every case. For example, the Fujifilm GFX100 has an even larger ‘medium format’ sensor (43.8×32.9mm) than the Nikon D6, but its pixel pitch is only 3.76 µm as it is capable of 102.0 effective megapixels. However, in some cases, it is preferable to have low pixel pitch. In this example the GFX100 is all about the resolution, whereas the D6 is all about light sensitivity. In other words, in this case bigger is about having more pixels, not about having high pixel pitch.

It is also worth keeping in mind that bigger sensors cost more to manufacture than smaller sensors, which means that the cameras that house large sensors are also going to be more expensive than cameras that house small sensors. A silicon wafer of a certain size can fit only a certain number of sensors. A manufacturing defect will therefore affect more large sensors than small sensors per silicon wafer due to their physical size. While the sensor size is not the only thing that affects the camera price, it does play a large role in it. For example, the Olympus OM-D EM1X costs some 2500€, the Nikon D6 costs some 7500€ and the Fujifilm GFX100 costs about 10 000€. In other words, bigger is not only (typically) better, but it is also (typically) much more expensive.

Large sensors also demand large lenses, which also tend to be expensive. I am going to explain this by comparing wide-angle lenses as they would be my first choice for doing landscape photography. They are also produced in fairly large quantities, meaning that their prices are reasonable and comparable between the brands. In comparison, telephoto lenses, especially supertelephoto lenses, tend to be more expensive as the demand for them is much lower.

A good wide-angle full frame lens costs anything between 500 to 700€, while excellent wide angle glass costs anything between 1000 to 3000€. Medium format wide-angle lenses tend to cost even more, and the selection is very limited. For example, there are two wide angle lenses for that Fujifilm camera, the cheaper option costing some 1800€ and the more expensive option costing some 2800€. The micro four thirds (MFT) Olympus wide angle lenses are much more affordable, costing a couple of hundred euro, and even the most expensive wide-angle lenses are more affordable, costing anything between 1000 to 1400€. Moreover, as the micro four thirds lens mount is shared by other manufacturers, the choice of lenses is broad (albeit some of the lens features might not work properly).

Bang for the buck

But what is the right camera for you? Well, that depends on what it is that you want to do with the camera. Even if you just need a camera for research purposes, you still need to figure what kind of research you will be conducting. If you will be using it solely on a tripod, you do not need a flagship camera, regardless of the camera sensor size. Therefore, the budget for your camera can be as low as 400 to 500€. You might even be able to find camera body and lens combo for that price.

Bigger is more expensive, or is it?

To be clear, the camera sensor size is worth keeping in mind at all times. In general, bigger is better, as already established. Then again bigger is generally more expensive, as also already established. How much more expensive?

To provide an example, you may be able to find a camera with an APS-C sized sensor (24x16mm) and a camera with a full frame (36x24mm) sensor for the same price. It would seem to make sense to opt for the full frame camera. However, you need to take more things into account than the sensor size.

Crucially, the bigger the sensor, the bigger the lenses need to be. You can, of course, use lenses designed for full frame cameras on APS-C cameras and vice versa, but when you use lenses designed for APS-C cameras on full frame cameras, you can only use them in a crop mode, utilizing only part of the potential of that bigger sensor. It makes more sense to buy an APS-C camera if you only have matching APS-C lenses. The point is that while full frame cameras are nowadays more affordable than what they used to be, you also need to be aware that the full frame lenses tend to be more expensive than APS-C lenses.

Medium format cameras that have even larger sensors than full frame cameras are much more expensive. Their lenses are also very expensive. I will not get into detail here, as this post is not about lenses, but to give you an idea of the costs, a micro four thirds or an APS-C body costs anything between 500€ to 2000€, depending on when the camera became available and the features it has. A full frame body costs anything between 1500€ to 9000€, with most bodies costing around 2000€ to 3000€ (the top end professional camera bodies cost about 6000€ and the prestige camera bodies cost anything between 7000 to 9000€). A medium format camera body is going to cost at least 5000€ (e.g., Fuji and Pentax), but there is no cap on how much these can cost.

The best value for the money is likely going to be found in the top-end APS-C camera bodies and in the affordable full frame camera bodies. You come across a great deal, a body and lens combo, in either of these segments and I would recommend opting for such deals. My tip is to go with whatever offers you the best bang for the buck. Of course, you’ll need to consider your budget and work within those limits.

Sensor technology

Sensor technology keeps getting better and better and, to be honest, it is kind of hard to keep track of the developments. My first DSLR has a charge-couple device (CCD) sensor, which, in my opinion, gives me wonderful colors, but it performs poorly in demanding conditions. You can use it at ISO 800 and still get good results, but that is about it, about all it can do, and I would rather use it at ISO 400. The more recent cameras I have house complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor (CMOS) sensors, which perform much better in demanding conditions. If you think that is confusing, you also need to take into consideration that the older generations of CMOS sensors are front-side illuminated (FSI), whereas the newer current generation CMOS sensors are back-side illuminated (BSI). The difference between FSI and BSI is in how the different components are arranged. It is not worth getting into, unless you are an engineer. The main thing is that BSI sensors provide better results than FSI sensors in demanding lighting conditions.

You can ignore all this if you are buying a new camera, but it is worth keeping in mind if you are buying a used camera. A used camera is a good option to consider as you may be able to buy a solid performer for a fraction of the price of a new camera. You do, however, need to trust the people you are dealing with. The camera warranty time may have expired, which means that you are on your own if the camera starts acting up. Anyway, you probably will not be buying a camera body housing a CCD sensor, but the existence of different CMOS technologies is worth keeping in mind if you are looking to buy a used camera body.

AA or no AA

It used to be the case that camera sensors were, by default, overlaid by an anti-aliasing (AA) filter. The purpose of this filter is to prevent distracting moiré patterns in your photos. As that may seem obscure, it is that warping pattern you can see on tightly patterned clothing and on walls in some photos. The tradeoff is that the filter makes everything just a little bit softer than they would be without the filter. Nowadays some cameras have this filter whereas others don’t have it.

Is there a noticeable difference in the image quality? Well, the thing is that it is hard to say whether it makes a much of a difference, one way or another, as there are other things that affect image sharpness as well. My most recent camera does not have it and it is, I would say, sharper than my previous cameras which do have it, but, then again, there are other factors that also affect the results. For example, a higher megapixel count helps to capture more detail, at least in good lighting conditions. Then there are differences between sensors, sensor technologies and the image processing, so I can’t really say anything conclusive about this.

Finding your way

It is worth keeping in mind that there is a shift from digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) to mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras (MILCs). I will not be comprehensive here. I will only provide you a quick summary of the differences between the two.

The main difference between the two is that DSLRs have optical viewfinders (OVFs), whereas MILCs have electronic viewfinders (EVFs). Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Firstly, the DLSR OVF gives you what you see through the lens, whereas the MILC EVF gives you an image of it. The former gives you less information about how your photos will end up looking, whereas the latter gives you a rendition of the final image. In my opinion, this is a matter of preference. I prefer the OVF, but there are plenty of people who prefer the EVF. Both (current) types allow you to view the scene also from a small screen behind the camera, making them very similar in this respect. This feature is generally known as live view. Secondly, DSLRs tend to have a better battery life than the MILCs. Optical viewfinders are highly advantageous in this regard as they do not drain your battery while you look through the viewfinder, while you compose your image. Thirdly, MILCs tend to be smaller and lighter than the DSLRs as they do not need a mirror box and a chunky pentaprism on top of the camera. Fourthly, MILCs tend to be more suitable to videography than DLSRs.

There are, of course, also cameras that only have a screen in the back. These cameras are typically fairly compact, which gives them the advantage over DSLRs and MILCs. To achieve that compactness, they also tend to have fixed lenses, which simply means that you cannot change the lens. This is a disadvantage. The Ricoh GR series is a good example of these kinds of cameras.

To be fair, it is, in my opinion, a bit pointless to compare different types of cameras in order judge which of them is the best type of camera. They all come with their advantages and disadvantages. For example, compact cameras are purposely compact, which allows them to be used in certain ways. I own a Ricoh GR because it packs punch. It is light and it gets the job done. It is also very discreet, unlike larger cameras that draw attention once you take them out of your camera bag or backpack. Is it a perfect camera? No, it is not. It cannot do what my DSLRs can do. It certainly lacks versatility.

Other things to keep in mind

A camera is more than just the sensor or the viewfinder. Build quality might not affect your photos, but it does affect the way you use the camera. Plastic is plastic, whereas metal is metal. You can feel the difference. Plastic is, of course, lighter than metal, but, in my experience, it also feels like plastic. All my DSLRs have had a steel chassis and plastic and/or magnesium alloy shell on that chassis, which is why I have never really worried about durability. Then again, I handle my cameras with care. I pay for my cameras, so I treat them well.

Build quality is, however, more than just the materials used to house the camera sensor. Weather resistance is something that makes a difference if you take photos outdoors. While I generally do not take photos in harsh weather conditions, for example in heavy rain, proper weather sealing is useful to have. If you happen to be somewhere where it is, for example, raining all the time, you might end up waiting forever for a sunny day if your camera does not have weather sealing. Otherwise invest in an umbrella and avoid windy days.

Camera ergonomics is also something that is often overlooked. There is no right or wrong to this as different camera bodies work better for different people as all hands are not the same. My advice is to feel the camera in your hands before buying it, if possible. Camera bodies are made for right-handed people, which means that the camera grip is going to be on the right-hand side. Get a good grip of the camera with your right hand. The point here is to get a feel of the camera, how well you can grasp it. While this will not affect the image quality, a good grip is a good grip. This might not be on the top of your list, I understand that, but it makes a world of difference to handle a camera that suits your hands as opposed to handling a camera that suits no one’s hands. In my experience, there are a lot of cameras that have poorly designed grips. It is, as if, they just went with whatever, instead of designing it and testing it on actual people. I also recommend testing how well your right-hand fingers can reach the various buttons and dials while gripping the camera. If your thumb and index fingers can reach them while maintaining a good grip, great. If not, not so great. This is also something that is often ignored by the manufacturers, as if none ever stopped for a moment to point how impractical the design is for the photographer.

Related to ergonomics, bigger is also not always simply better. Large cameras tend to be heavy, which means carrying them around is going to be a chore. At first it may seem that you should simply get the biggest and the best performing camera, but, in my experience, handling a big camera is dreadful. Moreover, having to carry a heavy camera and heavy lenses is also dreadful.

Stabilization might not be the most important thing in a camera body as photographers have managed to do just fine without it. Some cameras have in-body image stabilization (IBIS), which helps you when you are in a pinch, when you have to shoot handheld with low shutters speeds. The sensor basically floats in the body, moving around, which allows it to be fixed in place, while any the movement caused by your hands is countered by that float. In my experience, IBIS does work quite well, as intended, but don’t expect it to work wonders. It has its limits. You still have to stay as still as possible. In good lighting IBIS will not do anything for you, but it is still a nice feature to have. You would think that there is enough light wherever you happen to be, but that is often not the case, which means that you will need to make some compromises. You can bump up the sensor sensitivity to get a faster shutter speed, but that IBIS might be just the thing that makes that unnecessary. IBIS might also be available in the camera video mode, which is where, in my opinion, it really helps you to get good footage.

Memory card slots might seem like something that is not even worth mentioning, but if you really need to make sure that you accomplish what you set out to do, having dual memory card slots is important. Why? Well, I have only had one memory card fail on me during operation, corrupting the data. It was not the end of the world, but I did end up losing something that I could not photograph again as I was covering an event. Having two memory card slots allows you to save the photos on both cards, so that if one of them fails, corrupting the data, you still have a backup card. I would say that in research this kind of redundancy is something you should take into consideration and prioritize it over many other features.

Ignore the buzz

If there is something that you should be aware of, it is marketing. The manufacturers want you to buy their products, not the products of some other manufacturers. The differences are often minute between the manufacturers, but, of course, it is not in their best interest to tell you that. They like to throw a lot of jargon and impressive numbers at you, to make sure that you are impressed by their products. Do not be fooled by that.

The manufacturers used to emphasize the megapixels, but I would say that is no longer the case. Now they like to boast on things like the backscreen resolution, not in a way that makes any sense, indicating the resolution like we do with TV and computer screens, like 1920×1080, but in a way that makes no sense, whatsoever, indicating how many millions of dots there are on that screen. For example, 920 000 dots means that the screen resolution is meager 640×480, which is old school VGA resolution. The backscreen of my latest DSLR has just a bit over one million dots, which may seem to be impressive, being over a million, but that is still in the VGA territory. To be clear, that is fine, as most work on the photos is done on a computer screen and not on such a tiny screen.

Bottom line

I did not cover everything that is relevant to buying a camera body. Most importantly, I glossed over the selection of lenses, which vary, brand by brand, as does the price of those lenses and their compability with older camera bodies. I left that out as I believe that it warrants a separate and a more dedicated discussion. There are also many features, such as frames per second (FPS), high dynamic range (HDR), pixel shift, horizon correction, interval shooting, exposure bracketing, averaging, that I did not even mention. All of these do, of course, matter. I did not, however, go through them as they are only important to the extent that you have use for such features. In most cases you will not be using them and therefore I did not cover them.

Basics: sensitivity, aperture and shutter speed

Photography and videography both rely on light. Simply put, no light, no photos, no videos. You can try this by going to a room with no windows, nor skylights. Close the door behind you and try to take a photo or some video. Your device may use some sort of light or a flash, but that already should make you aware of the issue. In some cases there may be too much light, but in most cases the issue that you will encounter is having too little light.

It is possible to do use a camera without much knowledge it functions. However, the more demanding the situation is, the more you will benefit from knowing how a camera functions. This is especially the case in low light conditions, which is why I believe it is worth it to start from the beginning, or so to speak.

I will first explain the basics in photography, followed by explaining the same things using videography specific terms. I will not flood you with camera jargon. While it is beneficial to know just about everything that there is to know about how cameras work, you do not need a degree in physics to get the job done. There are, of course, also all kinds of exceptions, but I will gloss over such as it is unlikely that you will be concerned by them.

At this stage I won’t specify what devices you can use as that is beside the point as all cameras function the same way. What you need to know is that your camera is sensitive to light and your job is to control how much or little light enters your camera. There are three ways of controlling it: sensor light sensitivity, lens aperture, and shutter speed.

Sensitivity

Instead of film, digital cameras have sensors.These sensors have a base sensitivity, typically referred to by its ISO-value. In the film days this was known as the ASA-value. The base ISO-value is typically 100. The sensor sensitivity can be adjusted. It is typically set as 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, 12 800 and so on and so forth, so that the relevant value is doubled each time, as you can see. Think of it as amplification.

The problem with running the camera sensor on higher sensitivities is that it results in noise. The photos will have certain roughness to them. It can, of course, be remedied by applying noise reduction (NR). This can be done in the camera, using its own software, or on a computer, using the software you happen to have. Some cameras or, rather, their sensors handle noise better than others. In general, the newer cameras tend to handle noise better than the older ones, and the bigger the sensor, the better the results.

Noise used to be more of a problem, so that the best you could pull off was ISO 800 and the results were not exactly spectacular. This limited you to ISO 400, which meant that you really needed ideal lighting conditions. This is, however, no longer the case and you can now go up to ISO 6400, give or take, and, in some cases, even up to ISO 12 800, and get very good results.

Using the higher sensitivities also reduces the dynamic range (DR) of the camera sensor output. The maximum DR of a camera is typically 14-bits, but the more you increase the sensitivity, the more that DR is reduced. What does it do to your images then? Well, simply put, it reduces the shades of grey. In other words, think of going from black to white but having less distinct shades of grey in between. The reduction of DR is not ideal, but there are cases where increasing the sensitivity is your only option to get properly exposed photos. Some cameras handle this issue better than others, giving you higher DR at higher sensitivities than others.

In the world of videography sensitivity is referred to as gain. It is functionally the same. The ISO-values are just about providing you standardized values, hence the reference to ISO, short for International Organization for Standardization.

Aperture

Cameras rely on lenses. They have adjustable apertures, which control how much light enters the camera body and reaches the camera sensor. Lenses have adjustable aperture blades that form a circular shape also known as a diaphragm. Closing the aperture lets in less light. This is known as stopping down. Opening the aperture lets in more light. This is known as opening up. In photography, you work with the so called f-numbers, marked by an f, indicating the ratio between the lens focal length and the aperture, which, in turn allows you to calculate the diameter of the opening itself.

For example, a lens marketed as 50mm and f/2 has the maximum opening of 25mm. If you close the aperture, stopping it down, as they say, to f/2.8, the opening is now only 17,86mm. The f-numbers are typically indicated as 1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16 and 32. The ratio between these numbers is always 1.4, so that 1 leads to 1.4, which in turn leads to 2 and so on and so forth. Note how the ratio between f-numbers is not 2. How can this be if the ratio between sensitivity values is always 2? Well, you have to keep in mind that the area that is open is an area. If we go from f/2 to f/2.8 on a 50mm lens means that the area is reduced from approximately 491 sq mm to 250 sq mm. If we go from f/2.8 to f/4, the area is further reduced from 250 sq mm to 123 sq mm. As you can see, the ratio of the area is 2. It is actually very close to it, but do not blame me for that. I did not invent this system. It is close enough.

In practice, what you need to remember is that going from one f-number to the next f-number always either doubles or halves the light entering the camera sensor. So, you can double or halve the light coming in by opening up or stopping down once, by what they call one stop. To achieve the same, you can go double or halve the ISO-value.

In videography aperture is typically referred to as the iris. Again, all you need to know that this is functionally the same thing as the aperture. If you end up using cinema cameras and/or cinema lenses, then you will encounter lenses that allow the opening, i.e., the iris, to be controlled smoothly, without preset clicks, and measurements indicated by their t-number, indicating how much light gets through the lens to the sensor rather than giving you an approximation based on an equation. The t-number system is not inherently better than the f-number system. What it does, however, is to offer convenience. It allows the same scene to be shot with different lenses without the hassle of having to check the exposure of the footage in post processing, to match the footage, as each lens with the same t-value provides you the same exposure, regardless of the lenses you have used.

Shutter speed

Cameras also have shutters. They act as mechanical curtains that open and close in front of the camera sensor or film, exposing it to light. The longer these curtains stay open, the more light enters the sensor or the film. The shorter these curtains stay open, the less light enters the sensor or the film. By adjusting the shutter speed, you always double or halve the exposure time. For example, if your shutter speedis set at 1 second you double the incoming light by doubling the exposure time, setting the shutter speed at 2 seconds, and you halve the incoming light by halving the exposure time, setting the shutter speed at 0.5 seconds.

The sensors can also act as a shutter by activating only for a specific time. This option is known as using an electronic shutter. The function is the same as it is in a mechanical shutter. There is just no mechanical curtain exposing the sensor to light.

What you also need to know about shutter speeds is that you need fast shutter speeds to stop motion. How fast shutter speed is needed depends on how fast what you focus is moving. In general, you need something like 1/50 second to 1/100 second shutter speed. You might be able to pull off even slower shutter speeds, especially if you are just photographing static objects. If you are inexperienced, your hands will, however, most likely shake a bit, causing blurry images at slow shutter speeds. This also affects videography. Some cameras have in-body image stabilization (IBIS) and some lenses have optical image stabilization (OIS), which counter shaky hands. They do not, however, counter other types of motion blur. You still need fast shutter speeds for that purpose.

Control

As you can see, adjusting the sensitivity, the aperture or the shutter speed doubles or halves in amount of light that makes it way to the camera sensor. I explained them in stops, also known as full exposure values (EVs), to make more sense of them. Modern cameras do, however, allow you to adjust these in smaller increments, typically in half (1/2 EV) or one third (1/3 EV) stop increments. As lighting conditions vary quite considerably and in smaller increments, this allows you more options to work with in order to get the right exposure.

Neutral density filters

There is one additional common way of altering how much light reaches the camera sensor. Adding filters on the camera lens is a common way of altering photographs. I will not cover all the filters, for example polarizers. I will only focus on the so called neutral density (ND) filters as their sole function is to reduce the incoming light. On most days you do not need ND filters. There are three main uses that I can think of.

Firstly, you will need to rely on these filters if you want to take long exposure photos on sunny days. Why? Well, the camera sensor sensitivity has a floor, meaning that it cannot be less sensitive to light than that. That value is typically ISO 100, but some cameras go down to ISO 80 and ISO 50. On bright days closing the aperture, i.e., stopping down, cuts down the light only so much. This means that the only option that you are left with is adjusting the shutter speed, opting for a shorter exposure. However, in this case that is the exact opposite that you want to achieve. But why would you want to take long exposure photos on sunny days? Well, perhaps you want to take a photo of a river or a waterfall, creating a smooth, blurred effect. This is where ND filters save the day.

Secondly, cameras suffer what is known as diffraction. This is a bit too complex issue to explain and frankly unnecessary for you to know. All you need to know is that closing down the aperture beyond a certain threshold causes the light to diffract, i.e., disperse, in a way that is detrimental to the image quality. If you shoot with an open aperture, light enters the camera perpendicularly, i.e., hitting the camera sensor dead on. If you stop down, some of that light enters the camera perpendicularly, as you would want it to, but some if does not, entering it in a different angle and bouncing around. Simply put, your photo won’t be as sharp as it could be if stop down beyond a certain limit. The limit is typically at f/8 or f/11, but it is hard to say where things start to deteriorate as this depends on your camera sensor and there may also be other issues with your camera lenses that cause the image to degrade. I would say things take a turn for the worse at around f/16.

ND filters allow you to get the best out of your camera and your lens on sunny days, when you want be right at the limit, while using the lowest sensitivity setting. This is, of course, related to the first case as you probably want a longer exposure. This is, however, a slightly different issue. You might also be very close to the optimal settings, but just need to cut a stop or two get there, which is where the ND filters come in handy.

Thirdly, you will also need to rely on these filters if you want to shoot with an open aperture on a sunny day, while combining it with a specific shutter speed. When would you need such? In my experience, you rarely run into this issue in photography. This is, however, a common issue in videography, where too short exposure times are generally not desirable. For example, if you want to shoot video at 25 frames per second (FPS), you get the most pleasing outcome by setting the shutter speed to 1/50 second. Similarly, if you want to shoot video at 50 FPS, you get the most pleasing outcome by setting the shutter speed to 1/100 second. But why would you need to shoot at an open aperture? Why not simple stop down so that you can set the recommended shutter speed? This is connected to another thing that I need to cover.

The lens aperture not only allows you to control how much light enters the camera, but, unlike the sensitivity and the shutter speed settings, it controls the depth of field (DOF), which is the distance between the closest and the farthest object that appear sharp in photo or in a sequence of video. This is also unnecessary to explain in detail. All you need to know is that the more open your aperture is, the shallower the depth of field tends to be, depending on other factors, such as the lens focal length, distance to the subject, i.e., what it is that you focus on, and the more closed your aperture is, the deeper the depth of field tends to be. You’ll want a shallow depth of field to separate what you want to be in focus from what you do not want to be focus. You probably want a shallow depth of field when focusing on a person, for example in portrait photography. Conversely, you probably want a deep depth of field when focusing on the whole scene, for example in landscape photography. Telephoto lenses tend to be best suited for the former, whereas wide angle lenses tend to be best suited for the latter.

To make more sense of the benefit of using ND filters when shooting video, you may want to isolate what you focus on, typically a person, more specifically his or her face, from everything else. If you shoot video on a sunny day, you want that 1/50 or 1/100 shutter speed, but now you also want that open aperture to isolate what you focus on from everything else. You probably already operate at the lowest sensitivity setting, which means that you need set a shorter exposure time or adjust the aperture or limit the incoming light in other ways. This is also where ND filters save the day.

This is also relevant to those cases where you have an abundance of light, simply too much of it, but want to pan on what you are focusing on. For example, if you are taking photos of a football player on the move, but want to create partial motion blur, so that most of his or her body looks like it is in motion, while the face and the upper body is in focus, you will need ND filters. Simply put, you will need these filters if you want to isolate the player from the background.

Exposure

Knowing how sensitivity, aperture and shutter speed affects exposure allows you to control your camera. Most cameras digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) and mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras (MILCs) have multiple modes. You typically begin by setting the ISO-value. The auto mode does all the work for you, but it may not give you the settings you want. For example, you may wish to have deeper or shallower depth of field than what your camera provides in the auto mode. The semi-auto or priority modes make you control either aperture or the shutter speed, while calculating the other for you on the basis the ISO-value that you have set. These modes are handy if all you want is to make sure that your depth of field is this deep or shallow or that you either get or do not get any motion blur. There is less fiddling with the settings. Some cameras also allow you to control both at the same time, like in the manual mode, but calculate the ISO-value for you, either from the full range of sensitivities that the camera can pull off or from a range that the photographer finds useful for this purpose. This can also be fine tuned to prioritize lower or higher sensitivities. The manual mode makes you do all the work, setting the ISO-value, followed by controlling the exposure with the aperture and shutter speed settings. There is typically a +/- indicator which shows whether you are over- or under-exposing the photo.

Cameras also allow you to measure and suggest the correct exposure in different ways. Typically, you have settings that base the suggested correct exposure on the whole scene, what the sensor is provided, prioritizing the central part of the scene or just the very center of the scene. This won’t affect your photos, as such. It only helps you to get good results. For example, you may have a brightly lit room, but you are focusing on a very dark object. To make sure that you can see the details on that very dark object, you need to set your exposure according to that object, not on the otherwise brightly lit room. You would, of course, get to the results you want by simply changing the settings until you get the results you wanted, but you get to those results faster if you use the camera settings to your advantage.

The auto and priority modes can also be fine tuned by setting exposure compensation (EV compensation). This simply means that you set your camera to over or under-exposure by this or that much, for example by 1/3, 1/2 or 1 EV. Cameras may struggle in certain lighting conditions, resulting in over or under-exposed photos. Setting the EV compensation allows you to override the system, altering the calculations, to provide you the correct exposures.

Summary

Being able to control your camera not might not be needed in most cases, but it is certainly useful in demanding lighting conditions. Taking photos and/or video in low light conditions is particularly challenging. It would be tempting to simply rely on your camera, hoping that it can pull off whatever it is that you are trying to achieve. However, it is only likely that you will need to make a lot of compromises with the settings, especially if you are hoping to take photos handheld, which is why knowing what affects what will help you tremendously.

I did not cover any specifics, for example which cameras and lenses you might want to consider, nor which accessories you might also want to consider. There is no right or wrong way to go about it. The cameras produced by well known manufacturers are all good enough for the job, as long as you know what you are doing. Some are, of course, more suitable to demanding low light conditions than others, which is especially the case if you want do video, but I will write another post to cover these aspects.

Going nocturnal

I opted to create a new site for a new project, which may or may not get funded and may or may not get published. Nightscapes or landscapes at night started as a sideproject that I came up with while I was working on my doctoral thesis. I had grown weary of my main project and I wanted something to do something new. I knew it had to be something challenging, something that others have not done and/or are not willing to do.

To my knowledge, no one has focused on the linguistic or semiotic elements in the landscape at nighttime or, to be more specific, when it gets dark. To be clear, there are some articles, book chapters and books written on nightscapes, but none of them focus on what I am interested in, which is why I thought it would be worth investigating. There are many reasons for this the low number of existing studies.

I think the main reason for the lack of existing studies on nightscapes has to do with the difficulty involved in studies landscapes in the dark. Firstly, it is one thing to take photos or video in daylight and another thing to do that when it gets dark. It is not impossible but it is more demanding. It requires more expertise in photography and/or videography and the appropriate gear to get the job done. In my opinion, this is the hardest issue to overcome as you have to be quite invested in photography and/or videography to be able to do it in low light conditions. Secondly, working at nighttime is not for everyone. You have to be willing to work at night, which is not very appealing to people, especially if the weather conditions are far from ideal. This issue is fairly easy to overcome as you just need to be willing to do it. Thirdly, some areas are more dangerous or we think they are more dangerous after it gets dark. Daylight conditions provide a sense of security. This issue is also fairly easy to overcome. Working as a team will provide more security. Then again, the more people you need, the more they need to be willing to participate and have an actual role in the team. Something tells me that there are not many people interested in just carrying your tripod. Fourthly, doing something new, something that you are not familiar with, something that is challenging, inconvenient and possibly even dangerous in some circumstances is not exactly something that appeals to the many.

This is simply an introduction to this. I have briefly discussed these issues in an essay, three years ago, in a free-flowing manner, as I prefer, but I will expand on that in this blog. I will try to keep things neat and focus on specific topic each time. I hope to address many of the problems related to photography and videography, explaining things, step-by-step. An experienced photographer and/or videographer probably won’t benefit from it, but the less experienced individuals may benefit from such. I am not sure yet whether I will compile all that into a single post, editing it to include more and more, while also keeping it in order, so that it is easy to find what you might be interested in, or do it post by post. I will also try to cover existing studies in various fields or disciplines, to the extent they are relevant to my own project.