Many of my friends, some potters but most common folk, have purchased a DSLR camera within the past 10 years. Most have mentioned at some point that they wished they knew how to operate the thing so they could take pictures in something other than in full auto mode.
Before we get any further, it’s important that I mention that I’m not a professional photographer; however I do take photos as part of my profession. I don’t claim to be an expert camera guru or 6th-level wizard of image making. I’ve watched many YouTube videos, read a fair amount of articles, and have taken exactly one class on photography.
I got my start as a videographer while I was a college senior in a internship program, which turned into a 10-year job. I ran from place to place hauling behemoth cameras tethered to jetpack-sized, tape-deck recording equipment. By the mid 2000s, digital cameras were priced within reach of average consumers. In the past six years, the photography and video worlds have melded together, forcing videographers to wrap their heads around photography in greater detail.
Focal Length aka Bokeh
Now, grab your camera, a lens or two, and a pot that’s ready to be photographed for your website or Etsy page. You may have noticed when looking at a product image that while the subject is sharp, the background is out of focus. This blurring of the background is called bokeh (bo-kay or bo-kuh), the Japanese word for blur (1). This effect causes our eyes to focus on the subject at hand, creating separation between your pot and the background. How do you make this happen? Locate a set of numbers at the end of your lens. One indicates the focal length of your lens and the other the lowest aperture possible. (2). The focal length tells you how much of what you’re seeing through the viewfinder will be captured; the lower the number, the wider the angle. Not all lenses have a focal range, some have a fixed length, which is called a prime lens (eg. 85 mm 1:1.8) (3). Asking why one would choose a prime lens over a zoom lens opens a debate akin to whether a Mac vs. PC is better, so just understanding the difference between the two is a good start.
Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO
Covering all of the cameras on the market would take a far fatter magazine. Refer to the owner’s manual or check the Internet for the anatomy of your specific camera and what buttons do what.
We’re most interested in three different settings; aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. These three components comprise an ever shifting balance of exposure elements to achieve the best photos. Learn how to change these settings! Aperture: how much light is let through the lens. Shutter Speed: how quickly the shutter opens and closes to expose the sensor. ISO: Dictates how sensitive your sensor will be to light coming through the lens.
The aperture determines how much light passes through the lens to hit the sensor. The lower this number is, the wider the aperture, allowing more light in (see 2). A wider aperture means a shorter depth of field or focus area. The aperture also affects shutter speed. If you have a low F-stop (wide aperture), the shutter doesn’t need to stay open as long.
Depth of Field
To illustrate depth of field, extend your arm and focus on your thumbnail. Now bring it closer to your face, keeping your thumb in focus and you’ll notice that whatever is in the background will get increasingly blurrier. This is decreasing the depth of field (DOF).
Take your pot and place it on a table, or on a stack of books in the middle of a room. It might be preferable to have something other than a blank wall as your background. It’s important to give some distance between your subject and your background and also important to be somewhat close to your subject, to decrease the depth of field.
For the purposes of this article, use aperture priority mode (A or Av) (4). This allows you to set the aperture and allows the camera to adjust the shutter speed automagically. Lower the aperture as much as you can. This is typically done by clicking a button then adjusting one of the finger scroll wheels (5). The lowest you can go corresponds with the 1:# on the end of your lens. This means that the lens aperture is wide open.
Now, focus on your pot and fire away! You have the maximum amount of light coming in through the lens and your camera is adjusting how fast the shutter opens and how sensitive the sensor should be. If you’re shooting indoors, you’ll likely need more light to get a proper exposure, so the camera tells the shutter to stay open a little longer to let in more light, which translates to a lower shutter number. In aperture priority setting you can also adjust the ISO, raising or lowering the sensitivity to help render a proper exposure. Take a moment to look up your camera’s native ISO and then take a moment to look up what the heck that even means.
The Leap to Manual
If you’re feeling pretty good about this and want to take the next step, re-visit the shutter and ISO buttons on you camera and set it to full manual (M) (6). You now have control over aperture, shutter, and ISO. Feel the power (7, 8)! Again leaving the aperture wide open, experiment with shutter speeds and ISO to manage the exposure of your shots. Note: The higher the ISO, the grainier the image becomes. The lower the shutter speed, the higher the chance of a blurrier subject, because you’re leaving the shutter open longer and holding the camera the whole time. It’s also important to note that if you’re photographing a larger piece of work like a platter, you may find that only part of the piece is in focus. To fix this, increase your aperture number (decreasing the amount of light coming in) to get all of the subject in focus.
It’s a balancing act between the three components and the only real way of wrapping your brain around it is by getting out and practicing. Fail, succeed, repeat. Go out and shoot a billion pictures of your pots. Shoot in your basement a few feet in front of the washer and out by the woods in front of the “no dumping” sign. Experiment with your camera’s aperture, shutter, and ISO settings.
This might be the best part of shooting digital; it’s a risk-free playground. Thankfully you can delete the not-so-hots and keep only the keepers. With time and practice, the scales have tipped and I’m keeping more than I trash. Woo hoo! I keep pushing the buttons and twisting the dials and faking it the best I can. If I can fake it, so can you.
Kevin Davison is the videographer behind the camera on the Ceramic Arts Daily video series, and works on various productions around the Columbus, Ohio area.