Monday, December 31, 2012

A Digital SLR Camera For Christmas!!

A Digital SLR For Christmas!!

Your very first DSLR! (Digital Single Lens Reflex) This is a big step up from a “Point-and-Shoot” or an iPhone camera. Whether the camera is for taking pictures of the kids, landscapes, or food, learning how to use a DSLR can be intimidating. All of the buttons and settings come together to make either an artistic photograph, or a complete mess. But relax, with a few simple pointers, you'll be taking pictures like a pro in no time.

Get out and shoot

The good news is that most DSLR's have very similar controls and settings, so it doesn't take long to get the basics down so you can get out and start shooting. It doesn't matter if your camera is made by Nikon, Canon, Fuji, or whatever. Read the Quick Start booklet that came with your camera. Put in the battery, and the memory card and let's take some pictures!

Attach the Kit Lens

Your camera probably came with a “Kit Lens”, which is usually a standard zoom lens 18-55mm. To attach the lens, most cameras have a small dot that lines up with a similar dot on the lens. Put the dots together and turn the lens until it clicks into place. Don't force it! Don't forget to take the lens cap off! When you look through the camera's eyepiece you can see through the lens. If you rotate the lens barrel, it makes the picture zoom in or out.

Stay in AUTO Mode

Most cameras will have a dial on the top or back of the camera to set the mode. I always recommend beginners to put the camera on AUTO and keep it there. This let's the camera's brain computer figure out the settings for a proper exposure. What about all those other buttons and settings? For now, “forget about it...” Too often, beginners obsess about learning all the manual settings for aperture, shutter speed and ISO (pronounced “Eye-Ess-Oh”) and they get frustrated. Instead of getting frustrated, get out and take a few thousand pictures.

Picture Format (RAW or JPEG)

The only setting I would give some thought to and check would be the picture format, or sometimes referred to as picture quality (although quality doesn't have much to do with it). As a beginner, you'll want to shoot pictures in JPEG (pronounced “jay-peg”). Raw format gives you more flexibility in editing (or correcting) the pictures on your computer, but that comes later.

Memory Card

If your camera didn't come with a memory card, you'll need one. The most common types of memory cards are the SDHC. They come in all different capacities. An 8GB memory card can hold over a thousand JPEG images. The cards also have speed ratings. Get a good brand, with a high speed transfer rate. You've got a good camera, don't buy the cheapest memory card!


Once you have your battery, and memory card in the camera, settings on AUTO, and shooting JPEG, it's time to take this baby on a test drive. Look through the viewfinder. When you press the shutter button half way, it will adjust the focus. When you press it all the way, you'll hear the shutter click, and the image will appear on the LCD screen of the computer. If you're indoors, and the light is dim, your camera may activate the on-camera flash. Not all camera models have a built-in flash, but most of the entry level DSLR's do. It will use the flash when it thinks it needs it. Take pictures of the dog, the cat, your family, the Christmas tree, your garden, the mailman, and everything else. I challenge you to try and drain the battery or fill up your memory card with pictures.


When you have finished shooting, it's time to download the images to your computer. Check your user manual, but generally, you can do this two ways: connect a USB cable from your camera to the computer, or remove the memory card from the camera and put it in a card reader or SD slot on your computer. (A lot of newer computers have card readers built into them) Your PC or Mac can read the JPEG format, and you can view your work. As you become more advanced, you'll want to be able to edit and correct some of the photographs. You'll need a software program like Adobe Lightroom or Google's Picasa to edit.

Gear Lust

One of the worst traps to fall into once you enter the world of DSLR's is “gear lust”. This is where you convince yourself that you'll be able to take better pictures if you have a better camera or better lens. I don't know how many times, I've had someone contact me and tell me that the reason their images are blurry is because they don't have the right kind of lens. While it is true that some equipment is better than others in low light, or fast moving sports action, the problem is usually six inches behind the camera. If this is a hobby that you are going to get into, take baby steps. Use your entry level camera and kit lens for a year before you start adding or upgrading equipment. During that year, learn everything you can about your camera. Learn about exposure. Learn about light. If you think you can't produce quality photographs with a kit lens, check out some of the Flickr groups that only post images from a kit lens.

Useful Gear

There are a few items that are extremely useful to beginners. There will come a time when you'll need a flash unit, sometimes called a “Speedlight”. These flashes are more powerful than the on-camera flash and can be used very creatively. Although there are many brands that probably work with your camera, your first flash should be the same brand as your camera. This is important because the flash needs to “talk” to your camera. Many times, with off brand flash equipment, you have to set up the flash power settings manually. When I put my Nikon Flash on my Nikon camera, it always gives me a perfect exposure flash because the flash gets all of its settings from the camera.

The next item that you'll need is a tripod. A tripod is essential for things like shooting at night. Tripods come in a variety of styles and brands. As a beginner, I always recommend just a cheap basic one. You'll be amazed at how much sharper the image is when you use a tripod.
When the time comes that you'll want to add a lens to your system, the one I always recommend is the 50mm prime. A prime lens is one that does not zoom in or out. It stays at a constant focal length. A 50mm (sometimes called the “nifty fifty”) is a beautiful portrait lens, and great for walking around the city doing street photography. The best part about the 50mm is that you can usually pick one up for less than $200. They are great in low light, and fast to focus.


Some people seem to learn by reading books, others prefer to watch videos. There are literally millions of books and videos available to the novice photographer. Just the selection of material can be overwhelming.


The “Digital Photography” series of books by Scott Kelby are some of the best. Kelby's style of writing makes it easy to understand, and he throws in a lot of humor too.
Eventually, you'll want to take the camera off the “AUTO” mode, and learn about aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. When that time comes, the best book for learning about manual settings is “Understanding Exposure” by Bryan Peterson. I've had this book for over two years, and I keep going back to it as a reference. It's well written, and under $20, it's a bargain.
I admit that I'm not a big fan of the “Dummies” series of books, but a lot of people love them. “Digital SLR Cameras and Photography for Dummies” by David Busch looks interesting, and again for less than $20 at Amazon.


One of the biggest ways that the internet has changed our life, is with streaming video on the net. The amount of video tutorials available online is mind boggling. Do a YouTube search on the phrase “Photography Tutorial” and I got 285,000 results. Even though the videos are free, you'll question whether some are worth that. Here's a video that I found some time ago, and it explains the basics of exposure in a way that's easy to understand. Here's another one by the same kid, that explains metering and exposure stops.
If you're looking for quality video instruction, I'd recommend (No, I'm not on Scott Kelby's payroll, he just does good work!) For a low subscription fee, you can watch all the videos you want. The one's I've seen are all good. You'll get video instruction by some of the top photographers in the country. From basics to advanced techniques.


Congratulations on your new camera, and the world of DSLR's. It's a money pit that is second only to golf and Harley Davidson motorcycles. The best way to get over the intimidation of the camera is to get out and take pictures. Then take a few thousand more. Don't buy any more gear until you wear out the basic kit. You don't need more gear to take better pictures. Photography is an art. Art cannot be achieved in a few days. You'll need to study. You'll need to learn. What are you doing reading this on your computer? Grab your camera and go shoot!

Richard Spears is a photographer and free lance writer in San Antonio Texas. photographs courtesy of Kelly Janetsky. No part of this article may be re-printed without consent of the author.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

An Engineer's Perspective On Santa Claus

*NOTE* I'm not the author of this, however I'm just geeky enough that I did check the math.  Okay,... well most of it.
  1. There are approximately two billion children (persons under 18) in the world. However, since Santa does not visit children of Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or Buddhist religions, this reduces the workload for Christmas night to 15% of the total, or 378 million (according to the Population Reference Bureau). At an average (census) rate of 3.5 children per house hold, that comes to 108 million homes, presuming that there is at least one good child in each.
  2. Santa has about 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 967.7 visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household with a good child, Santa has around 1/1000th of a second to park the sleigh, hop out, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left for him, get back up the chimney, jump into the sleigh and get on to the next house. Assuming that each of these 108 million stops is evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false, but will accept for the purposes of our calculations), we are now talking about 0.78 miles per household; a total trip of 75.5 million miles, not counting bathroom stops or breaks. This means Santa's sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second --- 3,000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man-made vehicle, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second, and a conventional reindeer can run (at best) 15 miles per hour.
  3. The payload of the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium sized Lego set (two pounds), the sleigh is carrying over 500 thousand tons, not counting Santa himself. On land, a conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that the "flying" reindeer could pull ten times the normal amount, the job can't be done with eight or even nine of them--- Santa would need 360,000 of them. This increases the payload, not counting the weight of the sleigh, another 54,000 tons, or roughly seven times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth (the ship, not the monarch).
  4. 600,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance --- this would heat up the reindeer in the same fashion as a spacecraft re-entering the earth's atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer would absorb 14.3 quintillion joules of energy per second each. In short, they would burst into flames almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them and creating deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team would be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second, or right about the time Santa reached the fifth house on his trip. Not that it matters, however, since Santa, as a result of accellerating from a dead stop to 650 m.p.s. in .001 seconds, would be subjected to centrifugal forces of 17,500 g's. A 250 pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of the sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force, instantly crushing his bones and organs and reducing him to a quivering blob of pink goo. Therefore, if Santa did exist, he's dead now.