Understanding your camera, our best reads for learning what’s happening inside that light box: Digital Photography Review Leave a comment

Start your journey into learning the ins and outs of cameras by taking a deep dive into some of our best technical explainers.

We’re about a week into 2024, and if you made any proclamations to refresh or improve your photo skills, we’re here to help you with those photo/video resolutions.

Whether you’re learning how to use a camera for the first time, or you’re an old hat seeking to brush up, or even if you’re a person who loves to troll other people’s work but never share your own (you know who you are), we have a little something for everyone.

Over the years, we’ve chronicled the rise of digital photography and written our fair share of technical breakdowns, tutorials and how-tos. In honor of a new year, we thought it might be a good time to corral up our best reads for learning, and here they are, everything to help you get the most of your cameras.

These articles are focused on what’s going on under the hood. If you understand where noise is coming from, how the different types of shutter work and what ISO does (and doesn’t) mean, everything else should be less of a mystery.

Understanding shutter settings

As you’re setting up your camera, you may see settings for mechanical and electronic shutters. With the shift to mirrorless, many cameras today will let you choose which type of shutter to use. A few cameras may limit you to only e-shutter. One type of shutter isn’t better than the other, they each have their strengths and weaknesses, which means knowing which one to use in each situation will be crucial to give you the best shooting results.

Electronic shutter, rolling shutter and flash: what you need to know

What about global shutter?

Understanding camera ISO

At its most basic, a camera is a box that captures light controlled by an aperture and a shutter speed setting. But there’s a third option that affects the final image: ISO. With the former two, these are things that are easier to grasp since you can more easily see them: aperture blades in a lens going from wide to narrow as you increase the f-stop or images having more or less motion blur as you change shutter settings.

With ISO, we often understand it’s related to the sensor’s sensitivity to light, a definition we carry over from the film days, but it’s not quite that simple. It turns out ISO is a slippery thing. It’s not necessarily amplification or gain. Understanding what it is (and isn’t), can help you understand what your camera’s doing, and when you might want to overrule it.

Start off with a primer: What is ISO?

Where ISO gets complex

Understanding noise

Related to ISO, you’ll often hear folks talk about high ISO noise, but this can lead to a misunderstanding of where that noise is coming from. In most photography, it’s the shutter speed and aperture settings that dictate most of the noise in your image, because the speckled ‘grain’ you’re seeing in your photos is caused by the way light itself behaves.

Read our primer to learn how to understand and mitigate noise in your photography.

Shedding light on the sources of noise

Understanding dynamic range

Dynamic range is one of those things that is hard to explain but easy to spot. Seeing a picture of trees, we can point and say that DR is the brightness that your camera can capture, from the brightest (where the information ‘clips’) to the darkest usable tone. But looking at what’s happening to the ‘signal’ of light as it enters the camera, hits the sensor, and runs through the processor, it starts to paint a more nuanced picture.

DR can be a good indicator of how flexible the Raw files coming out of your camera are, but it doesn’t tell you much more than that.

DR is also something photographers seem to love to argue about, but it’s best to brush up so you’re armed and ready for the next flame war. We take a quick look at why DR numbers are only a small part of the story in a three-part series.

DR part 1: More than a number

DR part 2: How number can mislead

DR part 3: Why you need DR

Understanding bit depth

Raw bit depth is often discussed as a measurement of how many colors a camera is capable of capturing. This isn’t really true. Raw bit depth plays more of a role in how much dynamic range a file can maintain, not the number of colors you get to capture. As a result more, if your camera can’t capture more than 12 stops of DR, shooting in 14-bit Raw won’t capture more detail, it’ll just capture more noise.

Get the low down on bit depth

Understanding ‘equivalence’ and exposure

Photography is all about light, and understanding how much light you’re capturing can help you understand why your images are noisy and what you might do about that.

The standard exposure model intentionally disguises the role played by film size or sensor format, so that you can use the ‘same’ settings on whatever camera you’re using. Taking a whole-image perspective can help you understand why different formats offer different ranges of capability and where those ranges overlap.

It’s most useful when deciding which format you want to adopt, but it can also help you understand the many circumstances in which one format can match another; if you don’t tie your hands by trying to use the same settings.

Breaking down equivalence and light

Understanding color

After you’ve taken your photos or videos, you may want to dive into color correction or color grading. To get the most out of your image editing, you’ll ideally want to have a properly calibrated monitor. It stands to reason, if your monitor is too blue, then you’ll end up editing all your photos too blue.

Read our Intro to Color Calibration series by starting with “Color measurement basics and how colorimeters work.” Then, once you have the basics down, move on to part two of the series, “How monitor calibration actually works.”

Read “Intro to color, part 1″Read “Intro to color, part 2”

Understanding HDR

As HDR displays start to become more prominent in computers and TVs, we are finally getting the benefits of ‘true’ HDR photography as it was meant to be seen, as a more naturalistic wide range of brightness rather than the high-contrast candy-colored processing we’ve come to think of when someone says HDR.

Support for HDR editing was added to Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom last year, so it’s a good time to brush up on how it works and why it matters for our future displays.

Getting started with HDR editing

HDR displays explained

Understanding Raw video

Most photographers have a good sense for the additional flexibility that Raw stills offer over trying to edit JPEGs. So it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that Raw video will offer the same benefits. This isn’t necessarily the case.

Software doesn’t necessarily support all the common formats, and that support can be patchy and partial. There are also some well-established workflows for shooting 10-bit Log footage that offer much higher levels of flexibility than 8-bit JPEGs, meaning there’s less of a gain to be had for capturing the larger Raw files. There are benefits to be had, but you have to work for them. Here’s why Raw video may not be the gamechanger you might expect:

Why Raw video isn’t the gamechanger you might expect

BONUS: A trip through sensor history

It’s fun to look at old tech and see how far the sensors at the heart of our cameras have come. If you’re curious about what came before the camera you’re currently using, look back at the history of camera sensors with us. It’s a fun start to a journey into ongoing learning, just be careful about g.a.s.

Tech timeline: Milestones in sensors

BONUS: What is a Bayer filter and what does it mean?

Underpinning most of our cameras through the history of digital photography has been the Bayer Color Filter Array. A system developed by Kodak’s Bryce Bayer over 40 years ago, it’s a design that captures color information by capturing red, green and blue information through an interspersed mosaic-style array. It’s a genuinely brilliant piece of design and highly effective. These filters are far from perfect (we get into the limits in the article below) but they’ve earned their place in digital photography history and are still used today by some cameras.

How Bayer’s baby changed the world

BONUS: Understanding the DPReview studio test scene

If you find yourself wanting to learn more about cameras, you can take a look at one way we evaluate cameras. Take a look behind at our studio scene tool. There’s a lot of stuff on this scene and none of it arrived by accident. Every inch tells a different story about camera performance and aids us in comparing multiple cameras across the years. Are you curious how an older version of your camera performed compared to your current one? Want to see how it stacks up to the competition? You can do this and more with our tool, but only if you learn how to read it.

An introduction to our studio test scene

A DPReview history of the test scene

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