Some Basic Principles of Photography

At a Glance: Focusing on the basic fundamentals of light, chemistry, and mechanics which make analog and digital photography possible

What is a Photograph? What is a Camera?

Photography is the act of capturing an impression of light or the lack thereof on surfaces and landscapes. The meaning of photo is “light” and the meaning of graphy is “writing, literally “light-writing.” In its most rudimentary form, the act of taking a photograph is recording the light waves on a light sensitive plane through a relatively small, round opening in a completely dark chamber. This model is scalable to any size and can be complex or incredibly simple. A room can be a camera obscura, or a painted and taped up shoebox with no lens, just a pinhole (you don’t know anguish until your pinhole camera is stolen from the high school darkroom when you still hadn’t managed to make a decent enough exposure from it), or a beautiful metal analog camera lovingly handmade in the 1970s, or a complex array of lens elements and electronics and sensors which make up today’s digital cameras. These are all cameras.

pexels-photo-247807A view camera, which is simple in construction yet yields incredibly high resolution images from 4×5 sheet film.

Photography Basics

You may wonder, if it’s so simple, how then are photographs made? Whatever your type of camera, you have a chamber which allows the light sensitive plane to be protected in complete darkness, and an opening which is currently closed. When the opening opens, an exposure is made, and a photograph results. More light from the scene means a brighter photograph, and less light means a darker photograph. Photos can be both too bright or too dark, so using a light meter to get an idea of the “correct” exposure for the scene is very helpful, as some planes used for photography handle more or less exposure in different ways.

A mindful photographer bears in mind three aspects that control the light communicated from their subject/scene to their intended plane of capture:

  • Aperture
    • The aperture is the round, relatively small opening in the completely dark chamber. More specifically, the numeric value or f-stop assigned to the aperture describe its size, which among other things determines how much light passes through at a time. Small numbers (f/1.4) correspond to large openings and large values correspond to small openings (f/64)
  • Shutter Speed
    • Shutter speed is the amount of time the aperture is open for, usually a fraction of a second. For example, one fifteenth of a second is expressed as 1/15. One one-thousandth is written as 1/1000. This is a fast shutter speed. Exposures can also be very long, 8s or 8 seconds, or even thirty minutes!
  • ASA/ISO/Film Speed/Plane Sensitivity
    • Whether you’re using a film or digital camera, there is a fixed value which describes how sensitive the film or digital sensor is to light, and this is referred to by any number of the terms above.

Key Differences Between Film and Digital

Here’s the way I see it, and you don’t have to believe me. I present my case as a user of both formats and believer that they are different, necessary, and crucial to the amazing ecosystem of tools we have as modern photographers. The difference between film photography and digital photography in theory and practice, maybe not so different at first. A camera is still a camera and a photography is still a photograph. Exposure and color still remain critical, but can be adjusted later on so long as they were captured in a way that passes certain criteria. But in process and materials, which matter a whole lot to artists, which by definition are people who make images to express things, there is a whole world of difference.

pexels-photo-133070Color negative film, which is usually an amber-brown color once processed

Very basically, film is (usually) a transparent support coated with a light sensitive chemistry. When an exposure is made on the film, light brightness and the concept we call color affect areas of the film differently. The film must be kept in complete darkness before and after the exposure, until it is treated with a chemical process to reveal the latent image. In most photographic process, this produces a negative which is printed or scanned by passing light back through to create a final image. The areas that become white on a print (sky and clouds, for example), have more silver on the negative (more silver halide was activated), allowing less light to pass through the negative to the paper. The areas that would be dark on the print have less silver on the negative to allow more light to pass through to the paper. Each stage and aspect of this process are malleable, specifically so if one has proper knowledge of the physics at play. With proper storage and protection, most photographic processes available now yield a negative that will last forever, which can be reprinted or scanned again and again.

In digital photography, this capture process is relegated to a digital sensor which eliminates the need for chemistry and consumable materials completely. This should be noted as in some ways it provides an advantage to the historically finickey process of film photography, prone to damage by improper exposure, temperature, moisture, and dust and scratches. The digital sensor collects the light information of color and brightness as tiny points called pixels, millions of tiny, indistinguishable pixels forming a high-resolution image. The pixel information is stored as long strings of numerical data on memory cards and hard drives. The archivability of digital photographs is a nuanced topic indeed: while digital files are impervious to the elements in some ways, they are only as permanent on the media on which they are stored in their digital form.

cofBehind the scenes in the development of PONF Camera

PONF Camera: Experience As Our Guide

The point is, while you don’t need anything fancy to make a photograph, here we are living in the cartoon space digital Postmodern age. In the relatively short history of photography, the tools and processes available to us as image makers have been advanced, developed, and refined continually to the point where they are nearly limitless. At this point in time, we have access to almost everything that came before and optical precision beyond Louis Daguerre’s WILDEST dreams is now completely ubiquitous, even on the personal level via smartphones. At PONF, we seek to make the epitome of cameras, to provide the very best experience possible to our fellow photographers. We’re combining analog and digital into one seamless, complete workflow, on one camera with interchangeable backs that we hope you’ll learn to use inside and out, as an extension of your vision.

Stay tuned for a big announcement regarding the PONF Camera on February 15th! Until then, you can follow us on Instagram or Facebook, and be sure to sign up for our newsletter.

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