Photography 101 – A Primer on the TLAs and Terms

Welcome to the world of photography, it is a dazzling world, but mostly because of all of the letters, numbers, and symbols there to keep you dazzled and, to be honest, probably a little puzzled. In this, the first of a series of posts I’m going to write on photography basics, I’m going to try to explain some of the terms, and acronyms, you’re going to see and hear as you jump into photography, regardless of the camera you’ve armed yourself with.

The Camera

SLR – Single Lens Reflex camera. Throw a small “d” in front of that to make it digital. Yes, I know, bucking the “i” trend, but the digital camera was first. At any rate, an SLR is generally defined to be a camera that has interchangeable lenses, a mirror (the reflex in the camera), and usually an optical viewfinder. As you might guess, if there’s a need to specify the quantity of lenses, there are twin lens cameras, from the dusty past, but that’s where they remain.

P&S – Point and Shoot. Basically, these are your typical digi-cams. The camera does not have interchangeable parts, it’s basic idea is you point and then press the button and the camera does much of the work. Various P&S camera offer varying degrees of manual control, but by and large they don’t offer what the SLR offers in this realm.

EVIL – Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lens. Now, this is not an official acronym, but you will see it a lot out there. An EVIL camera is v ery close to being an SLR, but as a result of the electronic viewfinder, it does not need to have a mirror. You’ll often see them referred to as mirrorless as well.

There are more, but these are the consumer oriented options out there. I’ll venture into the pros and cons of these options in a later posting, but suffice to say that terms like “better” are really situational when it comes to these options.

The Sensor

The sensor in modern cameras replaces the film we traditionally used, so it really is the true heart of the system. The sensor comes in a variety of sizes and some of them carry some letters to indicate what size they are. For many P&S cameras, the sensor sizes are quite small and generally only the dimensions are given.

APS-C - You may also see APS-H, but in any event, the APS stands for “Advanced Photo System” and the following letter designates the type which, generally, means the size. In fact, the letter designations map to the classic film sizes, roughly, of the APS system from Kodak. So for you old film types that know these sizes, it’s basically the same.

MFT – Micro Four Thirds. This is a small sensor, often found in EVIL cameras, with an aspect ratio of 4:3. Traditional 35mm film is a 3:2 aspect ratio.

FF - Full frame. This means that the sensor is the same size as traditional 35mm film. Cameras with this sensor format are usually quite expensive and primarily aimed at the professional market.

MF – Medium format. Any sensor size larger than 35mm. There are a lot of variations in size, but they all share a mighty big price tag! Anyways, these big beasts are often found in professional studios or in the hands of professional landscape photographers.

File Formats and Their Parts

Raw – Okay, this isn’t really an acronym, it’s just a big bucket for all of the various camera formats for capturing the actual raw data from the sensor, unprocessed. Pentax, for example, offers a couple of formats for raw and other camera makers usually have their own proprietary formats as well.

JPEG – Joint Photographic Experts Group. Basically, a standardized, compressible (data is lost on compression, hence the term “lossy” you may see) image format. This is, far and away, the most common format to view images. Even if you shoot in raw, you’ll very likely convert the end result to JPEG at some point if you intend to share it with family or post online.

DNG – Digital Negative. This is an Adobe promoted standard for raw image storage that isn’t camera specific. Most cameras don’t save to this format, Pentax is a rare exception, but many will convert to it in post-processing using various software tools.

EXIF – EXchangeable Image File is a standard for embedding informational data in photographic images. For example, your camera will record the shutter speed, the aperture, the ISO setting, etc. in the image amongst other things. More importantly, it will record the date/time of the image, so turn off the function that puts that value into your visible shot!

The Lenses

Some cameras support different lenses, some have the lens integrated into the camera. Regardless of that, they share some common terms:

Zoom – These are lenses that have a range for their focal length. For example, a common lens for new SLR buyers is an 18-50mm zoom lens. Most P&S cameras have an integrated zoom lens, but be careful when looking at the marketing noise on the box because they often give the zoom range as a multiplier rather than as a range. For example, a P&S camera may be listed with a 10x optical zoom, but that can me 10-100mm or 50-500mm, that multiplier is just the ratio between the widest and longest focal length on the lens and tells you almost nothing.

Prime – These are lenses with a fixed focal length. For example, a 50mm prime lens was once very commonly sold as a standard lens for an SLR as the focal length approximated the same field of view as human eyes. At any rate, why buy a prime lens? After all, isn’t a zoom more flexible? Well, the biggest reason is usually quality and “speed” of the lens. Prime lenses, by virtue of being fixed, have simpler optics in them which reduces light loss and abberations. Bear in mind that the material (which is not really glass anymore) does not transmit 100% of the light, so the more glass in the lens, the less light you get. Also, because they’re simpler, they often have wider apertures which allow them to perform better in low light. Now, there are professional grade zoom lenses that approach prime lenses in quality, but you will pay serious money for them.

Stabilization – Many camera/lens makers offer stabilization on the lens. Not all do, Pentax has stabilization in the camera body, but Nikon and Canon have it in the lens. As a general rule, stabilization can give you the ability to push down the shutter speed in low light or give you extra support for very long telephoto. As a general rule of thumb, if your shutter speed is slower than 1/f, where f is the focal length of the lens, you should use a tripod, but you can extend that by up to 4 times with stabilization. So, which is better: on lens or in body? Neither, both have their advantages. For on the lens it means that your image is stabilized in the viewfinder, a real plus when shooting wildlife with a long lens, but you pay for it with each lens purchased. For in the body, it means that every lens you own is stabilized, including old manual lenses, but you don’t see it in an optical viewfinder.

Jeep and the Photography Nut

By Jeep, I mean the real thing: the Wrangler. This isn’t to disparage other Jeep models out there, but when people think about what a Jeep is, they usually think of the Wrangler. In any event, if you look at my photos with any regularity, you’d be well aware that nature photography is a big thing for me and the more nature the better and this is where the Jeep comes in.

A few years ago, we wanted to do some Crown Land camping in Northern Ontario, specifically the Nippissing Crown Game Preserve. For Canadians, this is perfectly legal, no permits required, you can camp for 21 days in any spot before you have to move on (prevents squatters rights from kicking in I suppose). So, back then, we loaded up my Dodge Dakota with all of our camping gear and headed out. Well, I’m here to tell you that a rear wheel drive pickup truck and the incredibly unmaintained roads of Nippissing do not go together well at all. In fact, I got royally stuck and had to be pulled out by a tow truck from North Bay. A rather expensive lesson.

This year we went back to Nippissing, but this time I’m driving a Jeep. Ah, sweet revenge as I conquered the trails and not-trails of the game preserve. This is, in a sense, the point of the post. With the Jeep, I was able to get deep into areas that I never could before and, in Nippissing, we were clearly in places that hadn’t seen much in the way of humanity for quite a few years. I didn’t take a lot of pictures there, I was behind the wheel, but knowing that I can get in there opens up options as, after all, we definitely saw some wildlife including a black bear, some moose, and others.

Now, I’m not going to suggest that you must have a Jeep if you’re going to try and conquer an area like this, but a 4×4 is a necessity. I did see some ATV trails closer to the main road areas, but as I got further in, the roads and trails basically disappeared and you had to look to see the remnants of what was once there from the logging days. The paths through the trees got very narrow, so I do think there were areas that other 4×4 would have turned back, but at any rate, it’s better to be able to drive in than to try and slug all my camping gear, plus camera gear, 15km into the bush. You could try, but I don’t advise it!

So, knowing that I can handle the Jeep in tougher conditions, my vistas for photography have opened up. It’s gonna be fun.

For the curious, I’ve modified my Jeep with the following:

  • Warn m8000 winch
  • Rugged Ridge XHD winch mount bumper
  • Rugged Ridge quick release mirrors
  • Bestop two-piece soft doors
  • Dirty Dog rollbar netting
  • Bestop instatrunk

I have a few more mods I’d like to do with it, maybe next year, but other than small gadgets and things, that’s the running set on the vehicle. I generally prefer driving with the top down and the doors off, it’s a lot of fun.

Opinionated Photography