Learning to Shoot - Part Two - The Numbers theory


Here’s my ambitious attempt to blitz all the required theory for better “just shooting”. To enhance the experience, try to read it very fast… GO!

Taken by my 3 year old son, Itay.

Let’s briefly go thru the chain of events that leads to a developable film.

  1. Light hits objects and environment (what we want to capture)
  2. Some of it is reflected and hits an optical device (lens)
  3. The optical device directs this light to a capturing surface (film)

Looks like there’s a lot of science in here – makes you think “why bother? I get nice shots without learning physics, optics, camera mechanics and film chemistry”…

And still haven’t said anything about field depth, contrast, texture…
And I said nothing about graphic language, art history, composition, context…
So what am I saying here?
You don’t have to master all these sciences and arts to get nice images, but you can always expand your knowledge about them.
Dig deeper baby…

My best example to make my point is the term “improvisation” in jazz.
Jazz improvisation does NOT mean that a drunken dude from the subway station is thrown up on stage with a sax and the magic happen – it’s completely the other way round!
Those crazy improvisers learn each and every corner in the musical context until they just know what to do in every transition and every situation – only then – people like Coltrane go on stage and Improvise – and by improvise – I mean play in real time with all the academic and field training they went thru.
(At this point they can become subway drunks) Know what I’m sayin’?

If you learn a little about composition – some of it will stick in your head(s) while you’re just shooting!
And a note about “nice shots” – I want to learn making great images!
Become a worlds renown photographer and have all the sex, drugs and films my systems can handle.

So – let’s focus on the trinity: Light, lens and Film

Light (Photo in latin)
It might seem like the human race holds a lot of knowledge about light, but if you go and ask the ones who are really into investigating it (i.e. robe-wearing- physics-scientists) they’ll tell you that it is still one of the fundamental mysteries in physics…
I didn’t ask any of them – I’m afraid they’ll talk me into participate in one of those experiments…
again… (ceiling, ceiling, neon, ceiling, ceiling, neon, big needle… mommy…)

But there are some practical things we do know about this creature and here are the 3 main ones for this case:

  1. Light is projected.
  2. Light is reflected.
  3. Light is perceived.

The 3 above will be covered in more details in part 3 of the series – “The art of Exposure”.

As trivial as it might be, as deep as you go into understanding the effect of each of these elements on photography, the better “just shoot”ers you’ll be!

And here’s an example for intriguing your research:
Complex textures (often called ‘textures’) have direct relation with the angle of light hitting the textured surface.
Meaning – that shooting the same tree from the same spot at 6:00 AM, 12:00 PM and 17:30 PM will give you different levels of texture details.
The date and location are important here as well – shooting the same surface from the same direction at 6AM will end up with different detail level if you shoot it in mid August at Copenhagen or in December at Taipei!

images by paramir, noji-ichi and troch respectively.

Dig deeper baby!


Luckily enough, the fast evolution of retail cameras have lead manufacturers to simplify the whole thing; so basically, the coal-miner that wants to take a snap of his buddies before they go down can dial in a few parameters, set the focus and get it right.
Those yet-again-three parameters are:

  1. Speed (how long the shutter will remain opened)
  2. Aperture/Diaphragm (how wide open it’s gonna be)
  3. ASA/ISO (film’s sensitivity to light)

The relation between Speed and Diaphragm is also called “Exposure” and with no doubt, after oxygen and inspiration is the most important creative tool any photographer must master (including me) and it will be discussed as well, on Part 3 of the series.

Speed numbers are traditionally tagged as the fraction of a second. so that 500 means 1/500 of a second.
“B” stands for “bulb” and leaves the shutter opened as long as finga’s on the trigga.
On some cameras you might see a scale such as:
500, 250, 125, 60, 30, 2, B, 2, 4.
The numbers on the left of the “B” are fractions of a second whilst those on the right are seconds.

Diaphragm is measured in F numbers (f/1.4 f/5.6 etc…) where “f” is the focus length of the lens and the diameter of the opening.
In most standard cameras the aperture are not only marked but are the only possible positions, and named “stops” (my Zenit E allows a free move between each stop and full opening)
Each stop reduces the light exactly twice – f/4 allows twice the light then f/5.6.
Each stop has another effect on the field depth, meaning that as bigger the diaphragm is (the lower the stop is) the smaller is the focused zone around the focus center.
More on why the numbers are like that on part 3…

I mentioned part 3 three times – that means that I must start writing it.
If you reached all the way down here – it means you’re an enthusiast and I appreciate it.

Coming up next on my series: Learning to Shoot – Part 3 – “The art of Exposure”


written by kikass on 2011-02-14 in #lifestyle #lomography #how-to #learning-to-shoot #numeric-values-in-photography #analogue-lifestyle #instructions


  1. willyboy
    willyboy ·

    Reading this at 09:36 in the morning is an interesting way to start the day.

  2. hewzay
    hewzay ·

    quality article - love the analogy with the Jazz musicians...too true!

  3. panchoballard
    panchoballard ·

    I'll take all the film I can handle, a bit of sex and some nice Belgian ales thank you!

  4. pangmark
    pangmark ·

    Yes the 'trane ditty is right on the nail. Good article, still learnin' after all these years.

  5. tallgrrlrocks
    tallgrrlrocks ·

    A great read to start my day! I appreciate this piece, because I like to keep learning as well. I love the natural feel of your writing, too (finga on the trigga..haha!). Keep it coming! :)

  6. troch
    troch ·

    Great job. Love the combination of humor and information.

  7. bravopires
    bravopires ·

    excell article!

  8. paramir
    paramir ·

    well done my friend! :) I love your articles! golden information.

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