Several months ago I wrote a post on reflectors and diffusers and explained how cheaply one can be made. For example, my diffuser cost maybe $2.00 and was constructed from a junk store screen and cheap plastic.
A Note on Content
Although I have not organized the blog posts in any particular order, I have tried to start with basic information and build from there, so those wanting to learn more about photography and visiting the site for the first time may want to start with the oldest posts first.
If you have questions or comments about the blog, please feel free to leave a comment or to email me directly. I hope the photos and other information presented here help you appreciate the art of children's photography, and inspire you to take great photographs of your own.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Several months ago I wrote a post on reflectors and diffusers and explained how cheaply one can be made. For example, my diffuser cost maybe $2.00 and was constructed from a junk store screen and cheap plastic.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
What is it about sepia prints? Lately, I've found myself more and more drawn to them for portrait work: more so than traditional black and whites.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Monday, November 30, 2009
So, here are my four, delightful children, going through the ritual of posing for the annual holiday greeting card photo. Card worthy, eh?
Monday, November 16, 2009
Monday, October 5, 2009
Do you like this picture? I do, but there’s one problem: it’s a lie. A little white lie, but a lie nonetheless. See the red leaves at bottom right? I put them there. Moved them only about five feet, but I still moved them, thereby “creating” a photograph more than “capturing” one.
It reminds me of a photograph taken by a famous Utah photographer that I saw not long ago in the Salt Lake City International Airport: a classic landscape photo, taken on American Fork Creek, a stream that I know and love having spent most of my formative years playing in and around it. The picture shows the dark, sinuous lines of the creek in the background with the branch of a maple tree, covered in brilliant, bright red leaves, arching out over the river. So, what’s the problem? Well, maples don’t grow that close to Utah’s streams, which experience a high, scouring runoff in the spring. As a result, I’m quite sure that the photographer (who shall remain nameless) ripped that entire branch off a nearby maple, and then “posed” it by the side of the river. For shame!
Same goes for portrait photographs. One extreme (we’ll call it “uber-manipulation”) is exemplified by many commercial photographs of women, as illustrated by the brilliant short film by the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty available at the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYhCn0jf46U. If you haven’t watched it, you should. Unfortunately, thanks to Photoshop, most portrait photography today is rife with that kind of manipulation.
At the other extreme are the minor touch-ups that, in this digital age, follow each and every portrait session. I suppose many people think portrait photography is cool and glamorous. Well, I spend hours—literally hours—after each session, wiping stuff off faces. It may not be as gross as doing it by hand, but I’m still wiping off boogers, dandruff, jam, cookie crumbs, bruises, scratches, spider veins, moles, acne … you name it. I’m just doing it digitally. Ah, the glamorous life of the portrait photographer! Boogers at 2:00 a.m.
Here’s the question: does manipulation matter? I think it does, though I also think that image manipulation falls on a scale from extreme to slight, and that some kind of fair balance lies in the middle.
So, where does that line between “manipulation” and “minor correction and/or enhancement” lie? I don’t know, though I’d offer at least a few factors to consider in making that judgment call:
(1) Does it distract? Far too many image enhancements—particularly in portrait photography—are done awkwardly, leaving a result that detracts from, rather than enhances, the subject. Two areas particularly ripe for abuse? Eyes and skin. Gotta love those children’s portraits with the funked out eyes. I like the pose, but why did you make my son/daughter look like a demon child from the underworld? With skin, the trouble is overworking it until it looks like plastic. Plastic looks good on a Barbie (perhaps), but on my five year old? I think not.
(2) Does it damage? With nature photography, I have real problems with anything that destroys the subject the photographer wants to capture, like the “natural light” photographer out of Moab who, a few years ago, left permanent burn marks on Delicate Arch. This is a tougher factor to apply in portraiture, though I think it covers stuff like making women impossibly thin/perfect.
(3) Does it distort? Again, “distortion” may be in the eye of the beholder, but I think in portraiture, we want to capture our “best selves.” So, I see removing that bit of acne as okay, but the minute my self-portrait starts to look more like Tom Cruise, well, maybe I’ve crossed that line, tempting though it may be … (On the other hand, I do have muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger, so that’s legit!)
That all probably raises more questions than answers, but it’s something to think about.
(By the way, I took this photograph on the same trip, with no manipulation whatsoever, so there may be something to be said for “keeping it real.”)
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
If my last post encouraged budding photographers to learn to "control and manipulate" light, this one encourages them to "follow" it. What I mean is that, sometimes, light needs no control or manipulation, and a good photographer will recognize that moment and take advantage of it.
Consider the two photographs of baby Christian here. The "eyes" have it, no? If these photographs succeed at all they do so on account of the light reflected in those big baby eyes, and I did nothing to modify, manipulate, or enhance that light in any way. To the contrary, I didn't plan on taking a photograph until I noticed how sunlight reflected off a vinyl fence and through the windows was throwing huge highlights into Christian's eyes. A few shutter clicks later and there you have it: like taking candy from a baby ... hah!
Saturday, August 22, 2009
I'm sure you've seen those white circles professional photographers like to use when shooting outdoors. Well, those little (and not so little) white circles come in two principal types: (1) diffusers, which scatter the harsh rays of the sun, covering the subject in a softer, more diffuse light; and (2) reflectors, typically employed in shady locations or with a backlit subject and used to reflect additional light onto the subject. Fair enough, and one can read about those tools endlessly on various photo blogs and "how to" sites and buy them and try them out and "look professional," but here's the point I want to make: the world is full of reflectors and diffusers, most of them free (or cheap) and readily available.
Best diffuser: clouds.
Best reflector: water.
But that's only the beginning! ANYTHING that reflects can be a reflector, and ANYTHING that diffuses (scatters light) can be a diffuser. Consider for a moment your hand: does it reflect light? You better believe it does. Try holding it close to something small (say, a flower) and notice what happens to the light on the flower. Does that mean one's hands are make for a good portrait reflector? Not at all (far too small), but for that flower close-up? Maybe so.
White objects of any kind make wonderful reflectors: white walls, white cars, white drapes, white snow--anything--but so does literally anything bright or smooth: stone walls, the sides of building, parked cars, you name it. So, keep an eye out for those natural reflectors, and be sure to position yourself and your subject to take advantage of them.
Same goes for diffusers. Can't afford an expensive professional diffuser? Well, I made a diffuser for about $2.50 with an old screen from the local junk store (Deseret Industries). I bought the screen for $1.00 (maybe 3 feet x 5 feet) punched out the screen, and attached a double layer of clear polyethylene pastic in its place. Voila! A diffuser that works every bit as good as an expensive circle thingy. (I've seen similar low-tech diffusers used in professional fashion shoots.) I use another to cover windows: it's a cheap set of sheer white drapes I bought at Walmart for next-to-nothing. (I also bought a few stick on velcro buttons so I can easily attach it to any odd curtain rod.) What difference does it make to the final image that I used a cheap set of Walmart drapes instead of a professional diffuser? None. Nada. No difference at all.
But even if you don't have on hand a cheap set of Walmart drapes, realize that the light is there for the taking: it's a tool you can use if you pay attention and understand what's going on.
So, go forth and conquer. Lights, camera, action!
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Paying closer attention to color is a great way to add extra "oomph!" to your photos. So, at the risk of evoking bad memories from junior high art class, I wanted to talk briefly about color and how to use it as a creative tool.
At the top, you'll see the familiar color wheel. (Not quite sure why this version chose to add the funky shape in the middle, though, if I had to guess, it looks like it's designed to serve as a reminder that the primary colors are red, yellow, and blue, and they combine to form the secondary colors of orange, green, and purple.) Considering the various colors in relation to one another, you'll find the "complementary" colors at opposite points on the wheel: for example, red and green, purple and yellow, orange and blue. Nature produces bold complements in spades: think red holly berries and green holly leaves, a field of dandelions and violets, california poppies against a blue, blue sky, or, as in the second photo, a bright red blanket flower against a background of green grass. That picture pops because the colors complement each other.
Now, here's a wrinkle: which colors are "complements" depends on the color wheel you use. So, for example, on an RGB color wheel--the color wheel used in ink jet printing, computer screens, and Photoshop--the complement of blue is yellow, green is magenta, and red is cyan. Fun stuff, eh?
But here's the point: regardless of the source of the color wheel or exact location of Color A and Color B on whatever wheel one chooses to use, complementary colors work: in painting, in advertising, and, yes, in photography.
To illustrate, take look at the final photo. Here the complements are subtle and soft: a slate blue dress (and blue eyes) with a faint yellow wall/drape in the background, and yet that bit of complementary color gives the photo a balanced and refined feel, at least to my mind.
So, give color some thought. Often there isn't much a photographer can do about color, particularly if one is photographing children outside and on-the-fly. But even if you lack the ability, as in a studio setting, to pick the perfect background, often a little foresight can help make color work for you. So, for example, consider putting the little girl in the pretty pink dress in an orchard in early spring, where the fresh green of the orchard grass will act as a perfect complement. Little boy blue? Maybe stand him in front of a row of sunflowers. Get the idea? Think. Color. Create.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
I've discovered a certain tension in portrait photography between control and spontaneity. At the one extreme, a studio gives one ultimate control over every aspect of the photograph (except, of course, your subject); at the other extreme is the casual snapshot, which offers variation in everything: lighting, movement, backgrounds, colors, etc. etc. Little control available there: just point the camera and fire away. Success is equal parts instinct, equipment, and dumb luck.
As I suspect is clear from my various blog posts and photographs, my personal taste leans more to casual and informal settings, even as I sometimes find myself wishing for more control.
I guess what I'm saying is this: I love taking snapshots, grabbing those "moments" posed or casually posed ("psst! hey Mary!!"), the infinite variety of expressions and emotions that play across a child's face.
I suppose that desire is captured in this quote by Henri Cartier-Bresson: "Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again."
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Thursday, July 23, 2009
At long last, the promised post on “f-stops,” but first: a quick multiple-choice quiz to see whether another technical post like this one is really necessary.
(a) a term used to describe a situation when one is tempted to say a very bad word but doesn’t;
(b) a traffic maneuver typical of Utah drivers in which the driver does not bring the vehicle to a complete stop at a stop sign, but rather slows down a little and then rolls right on through (as in “that f-dude executed a perfect f-stop.”);
(c) the ratio of the focal length of a lens or lens system to the effective diameter of its aperture;
(d) a measure of the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow.
The answer, of course, is “d,” and, if you selected any other answer, you’d better read on lest you disgrace yourself as a photographer … ;0)
Let’s make this easy: it really doesn’t matter what f-stop means from a technical standpoint. Really. Ratios be danged. We do need to understand, however, what f-stop values mean for a particular photograph.
And what do those values mean as a practical matter?
- The lower the f-stop value, the wider the aperture.
- The higher the f-stop value, the more narrow the aperture.
- A wide aperture = a narrow depth-of-field.
- A narrow aperture = a wide depth-of-field.
- A wide aperture allows faster shutter speeds.
- A narrow aperture requires slower (longer) shutter speeds.
- The lower the maximum f-stop value, the better the lens.
Let’s unpack each of those in turn. Recall from the “’M’ is for Manual’” post that f-stop measures the size of the aperture (or hole) through which light passes to expose a photograph. For some mathematical ratio yukitty-yuk reason we needn’t concern ourselves with, the smaller the f-stop value, the wider the aperture. So, for example, f2.8 means shooting “wide open” (that’s a big aperture, relatively speaking) while f32 is really “stopped down,” in other words, a really, really small hole.
Why do we care? For two reasons: first, the size of the aperture determines the depth of field. Narrow aperture = wide depth of field, and vice versa. Second, the size of the aperture also affects the shutter speeds we can get away with.
With that in mind, consider two photography “challenges” and how to address them using what we now know about f-stops and shutter speeds.
Situation #1: Late evening—the sun’s just gone down—and the kids are playing in the yard. You want to photograph them without using a nasty flash.
We know the light is low here, so we have to do everything possible (short of using that nasty flash) to get as much light as possible. So, first, look for a place in the yard with more light: where, for example, the glow from the sun still reflects from the sky into the yard and onto your subject. Second, set the film speed high (say, 800) or on automatic. Lastly, set the f-stop low to get a wide aperture and more light into the camera. What does that mean for depth-of-field? Well, it’s going to be shallow, but this is portrait photography so that’s a good thing: generally we only care if the subject remains in focus. What does it mean for shutter speed? Well, the wider we can get that aperture, the faster shutter speeds we can use to freeze motion.
Here’s where we start to see why lenses with a lower maximum f-stop value perform better (and, not coincidentally, often cost more). A cheap zoom lens, for example, may, depending on focal length, have a maximum aperture of 5.6, which isn’t all that wide. In low light, that means that the photographer has to use a slower shutter speed to compensate for the smaller aperture, and slower shutter speeds mean movement—blur—because the camera shutter is open longer and that records everything from the moving kid to your shaky hands. Result? Bad, blurry photo (or, you have to use flash, which is almost as bad).
Compare that photographer to my sister-in-law, Jenny, who took my advice and spent $80 to buy a 50mm fixed lens with a maximum aperture of f1.8--the lens used to take the low light, hand-held shot of my niece at the top of this post. That lens will take infinitely better pictures in that late evening or other low-light situations than a lens with a maximum aperture of f5.6 because it can capture a lot more light through that wider aperture and, as a result, allows her to get away with much faster shutter speeds.
Situation #2 – Early morning, Zion’s National Park, and you want to photograph the blooming cactus and the Great White Throne at the same time.
Here again: a low light situation, and one where we need a wide depth-of-field, as wide as we can get it so that both the cactus and the Great White Throne remain in focus. So, you stop down the camera by setting the lens at or close to its smallest possible aperture: say, f32. That creates an incredible depth of field, so everything’s cool, right? Not quite. With that itty bitty hole, how long do you think we have to leave open the shutter to get enough light to expose a photograph properly. A loooong time. And if we do so, what happens with movement: yep, records it. And what does that mean? Blur. So, now you know why any self respecting landscape photographer will have that camera mounted on a big, heavy tripod: to hold it still.
Check out this landscape by Scottish photographer Simon Butterworth: http://photo.net/photodb/photo?photo_id=8371957. Lovely, isn’t it? Under the “details” tab, you’ll see the following shorthand: Canon 1DS MKIII 16-35mm 16s f16, which, translated, means the photograph was taken with a Canon 1-DS Mark III camera, a 16-35mm lens (wide angle—remember?), with a shutter speed of 16 seconds, and an aperture setting of 16 (the “f” in “f16” is shorthand for f-stop).
Beyond knowing the settings the photographer used, it’s useful to think about why he chose those settings. He has a photo with water, a stone, a mountain, and the moon—all in one frame—so he needs a wide depth of field to keep everything in focus front to back: hence, he chose an f-stop of 16 (pretty small). What did that mean for his exposure time given the little amount of available light? A very looooong exposure time of, count ‘em, 16 seconds. (To put that in perspective, 99.9% of photographs are taken in exposures measured in hundredths of a second.) Could he have set his f-stop to 32 instead for an even greater depth of field? Sure, but that would’ve meant an even slower shutter speed, with greater risk of movement (even wind creates problems at long exposures) and more “noise” generated by his camera’s built in sensor. (He could get away with 16—as opposed to 32—here because he doesn’t have anything immediately in front of him that needs to remain in focus.)
See how a photographer has to make conscious decisions about f-stop settings and how the available light and desired final image affect those decisions?
That, my friends, is why we need to understand f-stops. Leave it up to the camera, and the camera will make compromises to get a proper exposure—compromises you may not like.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Friday, June 26, 2009
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Let’s see if I can do any better here. “Focal length” pretty much means what you see when you look through a camera’s viewfinder using a particular lens. See, that’s not so bad, is it? Different lenses give the photographer a different view and that difference is explained by the lens’ focal length. Most lenses these days are “zoom” lenses, meaning that you can adjust the focal length. The other kind of lens has a fixed focal length (i.e., one that can’t be adjusted) and those lenses are sometimes called “prime” lenses.
The view you see can generally be classed as (1) “normal”—in other words, it gives a perspective similar to what the human eye would see—(2) “wide angle,” or wider than the human eye would see; or (3) “telephoto,” a magnified perspective that means the lens captures a narrower field of view than the human eye would capture at that distance. I’m afraid those terms get a little loosey goosey, though, and you’ll often find disagreement as to whether a particular field of view is normal, wide angle, or telephoto. Generally speaking, however, I think anything wider than 35 mm is “wide angle,” anything between 35-70mm is “normal,” and anything narrower than 70mm is “telephoto.”
So, how do you know what category your lens falls into? Well, if you take out any camera—even a point and shoot camera—you’ll see a bunch of numbers written on the lens. For present purposes, all we need to worry about is the numbers that end with “mm,” for millimeters. Don’t ask me why they measure focal length in millimeters. I really don’t care, and neither should you. What’s important for you, the photographer, are the numbers that precede the “mm.”
So, for example, I’m looking at a squat, fat lens attached to my camera and it says, “CANON ZOOM LENS EF 20-35mm.” What interests me is the “20-35mm” part. That tells me this is a wide angle lens.
But here’s the kicker: you really don’t need to look at the numbers to know it’s wide angle. All you have to do is attach the lens and look through the view finder. I do, and what do I see? Lots of stuff. That’s what wide angle lenses do: they show lots of stuff. And that’s why landscape photographers love them, because a wide angle lens captures a field of view wide enough to capture the sky, the clouds, the mountain peak, and the little cluster of wildflowers at your feet. Voila!
At the other extreme are the telephoto lenses. These lenses, usually measured in big “mm’s” like 200, 300, 400, or even 500—magnify stuff like mini telescopes. They also narrow the field of view, isolating subjects against, frequently, a blurred background. (The background blurs because the lens captures such a narrow slice of the background relative to the subject in the foreground.) That’s why telephoto lenses are the tool of choice for wildlife, sports, and fashion photographers. They need to capture images at a distance, and they want to eliminate elements that distract from their subject, be it a wood duck, a wide receiver, or a hot babe in a string bikini.
So, what does all this mean for the portrait photographer? Principally, two things: first, the choice of focal length determines the kind of portraits you’ll capture. Many portraits are taken with telephoto lenses of one kind or another. Why? Because telephoto lenses crop out a lot of stuff: narrowing the field of view and focusing the composition on a single subject. With a telephoto lens, the subject—a face, a foot, a family—typically fills the frame, as in the following:
But that doesn’t mean you can’t take a perfectly good portrait with a wide angle lens, only that a wide angle lens will necessarily include a lot of the subject’s surroundings. So, I want a portrait of a kid with a skateboard in front of a graffiti-covered wall. What do I use? Well, probably a wide angle lens because I want to capture the kid and his surroundings. Here's a recent example, not involving skateboards:
The second important point about focal length for the portrait photographer is this: it’s hard to engineer a good lens at the wide angle or telephoto extremes, so, as a general rule, the wider the angle or the greater the telephoto, the more expensive the lens. It’s also harder to engineer a quality zoom lens—since the elements have to change shape to accommodate the different focal lengths—so higher quality zoom lenses cost a lot of cold, hard cash.
To illustrate, consider a few lenses from the Canon line. B&H Photo sells the 100mm macro (a superb lens, by the way), for $490. An optically inferior 400mm, on the other hand, will set you back $1190; and the 500mm, $6000. The huge, white, zoom lenses you see at professional sporting events? Try upwards of $10,000.
In case all this only serves to muddy the waters, here are a few summary take home messages:
(1) Nearly every DSLR (non-point-and-shoot) camera sold these days comes with a zoom lens attached. Zoom lenses are convenient because they allow the photographer to change focal length (and thereby perspective) without moving closer or farther from the subject. But remember the point about technology: it’s hard to do right, and doing it right costs a lot of money. So, that 70-300mm zoom that came with your camera likely is … for lack of a better word … crap. Don’t get me wrong: a crappy lens may be perfect for taking family snapshots for the scrapbook, but if you’re serious about making quality images, it ain’t happenin’ with that kit lens.
(2) Use a wide angle lens to add context or scale to an image; use a telephoto lens to isolate the subject and compress the perspective.
(3) Use a telephoto lens if you want or need to stand far away from a subject, like a grizzly bear or toddler deprived of her usual nap and afternoon snack.
Saturday, May 30, 2009
Building on the “M is for Manual” post from a week or so ago, we can now talk sensibly about lenses.
If you own a digital SLR camera (like a Canon Rebel or a Nikon D80), chances are it came from the manufacturer as part of a kit, with a “free” neck strap, a few other doodads, and some kind of zoom lens attached to the front. And here’s the bad news: chances are that that kit lens is an el-cheapo of dubious quality. Let’s put it this way, if the enormous lens you see a professional sports photographer lugging around is a Ferrari, the kit lens on your new SLR is almost certainly a Yugo or a Ford Pinto.
Camera manufacturers know a couple of things: (1) first, even a savvy consumer will likely ignore the quality of the lens and focus his or her attention on the camera itself, in the process becoming enamored with fairly meaningless metrics like the number of megapixels (“Geez, Lorna, with a bazillion megapixels, we could outshoot Ansel Adams!”); (2) second, they can sell a kit at a premium because the camera is “ready to go,” and make a nice profit by including the cheapest possible lens.
Experienced photographers, on the other hand, know a dark secret: the camera is only one part, and often a modest part, of the total investment necessary to take good pictures. The real money—the real investment—is often in the lenses.
This was particularly true in the days of film cameras, where the quality of the lens and the quality of the film determined the quality of the final image, and the camera had little or nothing to do with it.
In the digital age, the image sensors built into cameras play a much more important role. Nevertheless, the lens—not the camera—remains the single most important factor in determining the quality of the final image. Put a crappy lens on a great camera, and you’re going to get a crappy image. Put a great lens on a crappy camera, and you may be surprised at just how good the resulting image looks.
So, what do you need to know about lenses? Not much really, but you do need to understand the two most important features of any lens: FOCAL LENGTH and MAXIMUM APERTURE. Future posts will address each of these in turn and hopefully point you towards (a) what lens will give you the “look” you want, and (b) what lenses offer the best quality and value.
(“Lensbaby” is actually a company that manufactures selective focus lenses that make for some sweet effects. See http://lensbaby.com/. I don’t own one, but they look like fun.)
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Monday, May 18, 2009
Thursday, May 14, 2009
I know, I know: it’s so easy to put everything on automatic and let the camera do the work, and the “M” setting means funkiness and general confusion, but learning to use the “M” will pay rich rewards—I promise—and it’s really not all that hard. In fact, there is probably no single thing you could do to improve your photography more than to learn to use the manual setting if you don’t already know how to do so. Understand this, and suddenly a whole world of possibilities opens up. So, it’s worth a little time and effort to figure out.
With that, let’s take a bold leap into the technical side of photography. Some people love it. I am not one of those people, and you don’t have to be either. For me, it’s a necessary evil, but—alas—necessary nonetheless. You don’t need to grasp the physics, but you do need to understand the basics.
Here’s the deal: in both film and digital photography, basically three things determine how a photograph is exposed—in other words, how much light is recorded by the film or image sensor: (1) the film speed (or ISO setting), (2) the shutter speed, and (3) the aperture.
For purposes of understanding the “M” on your camera, let’s leave No. 1 (film speed) for another day, understanding that most digital cameras set the film speed automatically, but one can set that manually as well, and it affects how much light the camera can/will record and the quality of the final image.
When you turn the dial to “M,” a few things will appear at the bottom or one one side of the view finder or LCD screen: first, something that looks like a ruler that typically has an arrow in the middle and then regular increments to the right or left of that arrow (or above or below), with numbers usually indicating 1 and 2 (on the positive side) and -1 and -2 (on the negative side). Somewhere next to that little ruler you'll see another arrow that tells you how what you see in the viewfinder will be exposed based on the current settings for aperture and shutter speed. If it points right in the middle of the ruler, then, according to the camera's built in light meter--the image is properly exposed. If the arrow points at the positive number 1, then we say the picture is "one stop" over exposed. If it points at the negative 1, it's one stop underexposed, etc.
When first learning to use the manual setting, it's best to tinker with aperture and shutter speed values until you get the little arrow right in the middle of the ruler. Later, you may choose to deliberately over- or under-expose and image, but for starters, just put the arrow in the middle, and everything will be okay. I promise.
Now, none of this will make much sense unless you pull out your camera and look for yourself. So, turn your camera on, turn the dial to “M,” and take a peek. You’ll see all this fun and exciting stuff right there: the little ruler, the little arrow, the positive and negative numbers, and also two values that show aperture and shutter speed, respectively. (You may need to consult your camera manual at this point to figure out which is which, and to distinguish aperture (which may be identified as "f-stop") and shutter speed settings from other settings that may appear in the view finder.)
Whew! Without worrying about the actual numbers for the moment, let’s think about what these two things do: one—the shutter speed—determines how long the shutter is open and the other—the aperture (which is just a fancy word for “opening”) determines the size of the hole through which light enters the camera. If you think about it, both of these affect how much light gets into the camera to expose either the film or the image sensor. A big hole (aperture) = lots of light. A little hole = little light. A slow shutter speed means the shutter is open longer and more light gets in, while a fast shutter speed means he shutter is open for just a split second and less light gets in.
To illustrate, let’s go back to the idea of a pinhole camera—that oatmeal box with the film taped to the inside and a little hole on the opposite side of the box. Because the film is sensitive to light, the oatmeal box must be completely sealed off, completely dark inside. Once the film is in place, the hole must be covered by a piece of cardboard or some similar cover so that no light gets in until the photographer is ready to expose the film. The photographer points the oatmeal box at a subject, and then removes the cover to expose the film for some amount of time: a second, or maybe two or three. The longer the cover is removed, the more light gets in to expose the film, and the less time, the less light gets in. Follow me so far? That’s shutter speed, basically the amount of time that the shutter remains open, even if that “shutter” is just a piece of cardboard.
The size of the hole also affects the amount of light that gets in. A pencil-sized hole will let in a lot of light, even if the cover is removed only briefly. While a pin-sized hole will let in a lot less light, even if the cover remains off for some time. That’s aperture—the size of the hole.
Let’s say that the film our photographer is using requires a certain amount of light to be exposed properly at high noon on a sunny day. Too much light, and the film will turn white when it gets developed (over-exposed); too little, and the film will remain black (under-exposed). The photographer can get to that right amount of light with either (a) a small aperture and a slow shutter speed, or (b) a large aperture and a fast shutter speed. The amount of light reaching the film is exactly the same, but—and here’s the reason any of this matters—shutter speed and the size of the aperture affect the final image in ways having nothing to do with the amount of light they let in.
And that’s why “M” matters. Because, under one set of circumstances, we may want, say, a fast shutter speed, and, in that case, we will likely have to compensate with a large aperture to get the right exposure. Under another set of circumstances, we may want a small aperture, and, in that case, we will likely have to compensate with a slow shutter speed—again, to get the right exposure under that particular set of circumstances.
Why might one want a fast shutter speed? We’ll discuss that in more detail later, but the short answer is that a fast shutter speed freezes action—a desired effect when, say, photographing a kid at a soccer game. A slow shutter speed, on the other hand, captures movement, as in those lovely, silky white waterfalls you see in landscape photos or in the following photo I took the othe other night using--you guessed it--the manual setting.