My initial forays into photography were via phone cameras.
Back then, some 16 or 17 years ago, I knew nothing about cameras really, other than you needed to press the button to capture the picture.
From some phone manual or other I found early on that holding the shutter button part way down locked the auto focus on the central square in the screen.
You could then use that feature, and recompose with the button half pressed, if your subject wasn’t in the middle of the composition.
This was one of the most important lessons I learned, but not the single most important.
That came a few years later, or at least the understanding behind it did.
I’m talking about controlling the depth of field – how much of the overall image is sharply in focus, how much is out of focus, and to what degree.
With those early camera phones I’d made pictures where I’d stumbled across a look I liked. A subject in the foreground in focus, and the background rapidly dropping off into a blur.
In other words, photographs with a shallow depth of field.
But I didn’t know how I’d created them, or why they looked like that.
I could repeat what I thought led to these kinds of images, but the phone cameras with their auto exposure were very hit and miss in achieving this.
It wasn’t until a few years on, with my first “proper” camera, a Nikon Coolpix P300, that I figured out how to control the depth of field in a consistent way.
Even then it started by chance.
At first I just used the camera on Program mode, the one that most closely emulated how I’d got used to using the Auto Exposure camera phones previously.
The crucial difference was firstly that the Coolpix had a far superior lens, well, superior everything, and secondly, it showed you a few very informative numbers on screen during, and more importantly after, each shot.
So I worked out that the images I liked best, with a shallow depth of field, were the ones where the F number was lowest.
In time I experimented further by using the camera in Aperture Priority mode, and set the aperture to the minimum I could each time, to force the most shallow depth of field I could.
What I didn’t understand until much later still was how zoom lenses – well at least those on nearly all compact digital cameras – didn’t have a continuous maximum aperture throughout the zoom range.
I couldn’t comprehend why, if I had the lens zoomed right out to its widest (24mm equivalent, with the Coolpix), then set the aperture to its maximum f/1.8, when I zoomed in again, that maximum aperture figure rose.
How frustrating – I just wanted to shoot at f/1.8 all the time!
What I learned of course is that most zooms have a maximum aperture that decreases as the focal length increases.
In other words, the more you zoom in, the smaller your maximum available aperture.
But nonetheless, I knew that using the P300 at its widest zoom – 24mm – and its largest aperture – f/1.8 – then focusing on something close, I would get the blurry dreamy backgrounds I wanted.
Later still, with SLRs, then DSLRs, I found this control and potential magnified further.
Plus I had the benefit of wider apertures at longer focal lengths – for example any number of 50/1.7 or 50/1.8 lenses – instead of the f/1.8 of the Coolpix being limited to 24mm, and all the inherent distortion such a wide lens incurs.
But the fundamentals of controlling depth of field had been learned there by trial and error with the trust old Coolpix P300, shooting at 24mm and f/1.8.
And that remains the single most important and influential lesson I’ve learned since I’ve been a photographer.
How about you? What’s been the most important photography lesson you’ve learned?
As always, please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).
Thanks for looking.
Share this post with someone you think will enjoy it using the buttons below.
See what I’m up to About Now.