Oak Canyon


“Oak spoke first, as became the noblest of all. He stood throbbing his leaves in the twilight, to which Time had mixed down day and night; stretching out his great muscular branches; yawning, as if it were, like a noble giant of the earth who cracks his limbs in the morning when he wakes.”

Oak Canyon


“‘Ah,’ said the oak, ‘It’s good to be alive. Look at my biceps, will you? Do you see how the other trees are afraid of Gravity, afraid that he will break their branches off? They point them up in the air, or down at the ground, so as to give the old earth-giant his least purchase upon them. Now I am ready to challenge Gravity, and I can stretch my branches straight out in a line parallel to the earth. He may swing on them for all I care, but, bless you, they won’t break. Do you know how long I live? A thousand years is my expectation. Three hundred years to grow, three hundred years to live, and three hundred years to die.”

T.H. White, The Sword in the Stone

Oak Canyon

The Last Enchantment

To say that I was unenthusiastic when I started reading the third book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy would not be an understatement. It is also true to state that I was largely unenthusiastic when I finished reading the book, too, proven by the fact that it’s taken me about two weeks to get around to writing this post about it.Julia Margaret Cameron's Viven and Merlin
Let me start by saying that there are definitely some things I like about The Last Enchantment – the writing is clear and engaging, for starters, and I continue to appreciate the deftness with which Stewart weaves legendary source material into a historical setting. She tackles all the major plot points that typically follow Arthur’s ascension to the throne: themassacre of the babies in a misguided and failed attempt to remove Mordred as a threat; the twelve major battles Arthur wins, including Badon; the two Guineveres; the kidnapping of the Queen by Melwas; the love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot/Bedwyr; the four sons of Morgause who are Arthur’s greatest knights (Gawain, etc.); Morgan le Fay’s attempt to steal Excalibur; and finally the “entrapment” of Merlin by the sorceress Nimue/Niniane.

That’s a lot of plot to try and fit in one novel, but most of it doesn’t directly involve Merlin – which is, ultimately, the biggest problem with the book. Imagine, if you would, if the first Star Wars movie had been focused on Obi-Wan Kenobi instead of Luke Skywalker, and you can begin to understand how the approach of telling a classic Hero’s Journey tale from the Mentor’s point of view just doesn’t work. We are just too far removed from the main characters to really be touched by the drama of it.

A stronger character arc for Merlin himself could have compensated for this, but the book fails to achieve that. When the story focuses on his personal trials and tribulations (instead of him guiding Arthur through his) there doesn’t seem to be any significant challenge or growth to his character – his period of madness in the forest, for example, doesn’t seem to highlight any personal defects, or cause him to change his course of action in the future. It’s just something that happens to him. His relationship with Niniane is only really compelling at the beginning, when she’s disguised as boy and the (knowledgeable) reader gets excited about what could have been a really interesting twist to the tale. But Stewart takes the conventional route (if having a 50+-year-old man fall passionately in love with an 18-year-old girl is conventional), and then pulls all the teeth out of Merlin’s betrayal and entombment by telling us that it never really happened. Yes, Niniane traps him in the crystal cave, but it’s only because she thought he was dead, and he gets out later, so everything is okay. Consequences: none.

I do have to say that one of the things I liked the most about the books was the relationship between Merlin and Arthur. When they are alone together, you can really feel strength of the relationship between them, and for me that’s key to engaging with a story. When the characters care about one another, I care about the characters. Unfortunately, there are too few of these scenes, and Merlin’s relationships with other characters don’t carry the same weight, coming off as flat and perfunctory instead.

Julia Margaret Cameron's Vivien and Merlin

Fortunately, the book ends with Merlin and Arthur together, so the book ends on a high note. Not only are we left with a warm feeling from observing the deep friendship between these two men, but Merlin tells the king, “I’ll be here when you come back” – which resonates with the whole “once and future king” legend in just the right way. And that’s the whole point in reading Arthurian fiction anyway, right?

Definitive, Unofficial Ranking of Arthurian Novels (that I’ve read):

  1. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart (1970, Book One of the Merlin Trilogy)
  2. The Last Enchantment, by Mary Stewart (1979, Book Two of the Merlin Trilogy)
  3. The Hollow Hills, by Mary Stewart (1973, Book Two of the Merlin Trilogy)

Photos by Julia Margaret Cameron, courtesy the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The Hollow Hills

The Hollow Hills cover artWhen I wrote up my review of The Crystal Cave, I said I had read the first two books in this Arthurian series by Mary Stewart years ago, but I think I may have been wrong. None of what I read in this second volume felt at all familiar to me (except in the general Arthurian sense), so I’m not sure I ever read it after all. Of course, it’s only been a short time since I finished it and it’s and is already fading from memory, so who knows?

The only  distinct impression I have after reading The Hollow Hills is that I really didn’t like Merlin at all. Since he’s the first person narrator it makes it difficult to enjoy the book as a whole. His self-righteous assurance that everything is going to happen exactly as it’s supposed to not only leeches any tension from the narrative, but it makes him rather unsympathetic as a character. He has no doubts, no conflict between his own desires and what his God wants him to do, nothing that makes him feel like a person instead of a divine tool. He never even expresses the least bit of discomfort at the near-legendary status he’s already achieved in his life. Confidence is sexy, sure, but he just comes across as an entitled prick, naturally deserving of the accolades and honors that come his way, even though (he freely admits) he really didn’t have anything to do with it, since he was just a tool for his God.

the-hollow-hills-2I actually cheered when Morgause seduced the young Arthur, right under Merlin’s nose, because it’s the only thing that happened that threw him for a loop. Poor Morgause. We’re not supposed to like her, I know, but I couldn’t help feeling empathetic towards her. She’s one of only two women in the book given a voice.* We first meet her at age 14, when she asks Merlin to teach her magic. His response is pretty much to pat her on the head and say, “Pretty young girls like you don’t need to learn magic, go make us some tea.” is it any wonder she goes “bad”? She wanted power and influence in her world, and since legitimate channels were refused her, she had to take some less savory routes to achieve it. It’s hard to get excited by a world view that automatically assumes that women who want power must be evil.

the-hollow-hills-1As a side note, this is the first literary version of the legend where I’ve seen Morgause and/or Morgan depicted as Uther’s children, instead of related to Ygraine (sisters or daughters). I had wondered where the two recent TV series came up with that idea!

Aside from not liking the main character, and the book’s lack of positive female characters, I didn’t actually hate it – I’m just not that enthusiastic about it. The writing is good enough, though the story is weaker than in the first book, largely because of the aforementioned lack of tension. It covers Arthur’s birth through his ascension to the throne. Arthur’s youth and education is not nearly as entertaining as it is in The Sword and the Stone (book or movie), unfortunately, but Arthur is likable enough. It does some interesting things with the historical and legendary sources, weaving in the tale of Macsen Wledig, and suggesting thatthe-hollow-hills-3 the “fay folk” are actually the non-Romanized early Brits who hide in the hills and mountains (but not necessarily without magic). The actual discovery of the sword Caliburn (Excalibur) feels a bit contrived, as Merlin has to do a lot of maneuvering to set up events that will generate both the sword in the stone legend as well as the Lady of the Lake** origin story, while still preserving a historical sensibility for the event instead of something that is purely mythical or magical. I still like the blend of history and legend – I just wish the historical viewpoint was not so narrow-minded when it comes to women.

All in all, I’d say this was worth a read for someone interested in the literary Arthur, but it’s not something I can see myself coming back to read again in the future, and it wouldn’t win a space on my bookshelves. It’s just not that compelling.

the-hollow-hills-5Definitive, Unofficial Ranking of Arthurian Novels (that I’ve read):

  1. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart (1970, Book One of the Merlin Trilogy)
  2. The Hollow Hills, by Mary Stewart (1973, Book Two of the Merlin Trilogy)

* The other is Merlin’s old nurse, and all she really does is praise him.
** Of course there is not actually a lady involved, because we couldn’t have that any powerful females in the story. There’s a grim bit where Merlin is cleaning up an old chapel, and as he is restoring many of the pagan icons that the previous caretaker had removed, he mentions that he’s glad a bloody, curved knife has been disposed of permanently, because nobody ever wants to invite the goddess’s presence into things.

The Crystal Cave

Crystal Wizard

I have just finished reading The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart. I haven’t read this particular iteration of the Arthurian saga for a long while – since my early teens I suspect, and I have to confess that I’m pretty sure I never read more than the first two books of the 4-book series.* Which is kind of crazy if you know me, and my long-lived adoration of all things Arthurian. The essay that got me into college was all about Merlin, for goodness sake, in answer to the “one person you’d like to meet” question. I don’t know why I never finished the Stewart books, or revisited them before now. All I can say is that I’m very glad I’ve picked them up again, as I have really enjoyed the first book and am looking forward to the rest.

For all my love of the Arthurian legend, it has been a long time since I’ve read any Arthurian books, and I can’t say precisely what prompted me to pick this up now, other then the general presence of Arthuriana in the air. It was a year ago that Parke Godwin** died, and Mary Stewart herself died just last month. And there’s been much discussion this past week about the author of what is probably the most influential work of Arthurian literature since The Sword in the Stone.*** And topping it all off, I’ve been watching the BBC series Merlin with my daughters.****

Let me tell you, it is really, really good to be back in Camelot. This story, along with Star Wars and the Chronicles of Narnia, lies at the foundation of all I love about stories, and my passion for mythic narrative in particular. Stewart’s books, with the careful balance of history and fantasy, and firm grounding in legendary material (it uses Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century History of the British Kings as it’s primary source) is probably the perfect choice to reacquaint myself. It feels a bit like a homecoming.

In fact, I am feeling inspired to read a lot of Arthuriana right now, and have decided to produce a entirely definitive and entirely unofficial ranking of the best literary Arthurian novels, right here on this blog. (It’s not doing much otherwise, so why not?) As I progress, I’ll write a little about what I like and don’t like about each book, and how it compares to the legendary material, and I’m going to rank them in terms of personal preference. Here’s how the ranking stands right now:

Definitive, Unofficial Ranking of Arthurian Novels (that I’ve read):
#1: The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart (1970, Book One of the Merlin Trilogy)

(Okay, it’s gonna take some time to fill in the rest. I’m going off fresh readings, not what I remember from reading years ago.)

Crystal Wizard

Specifically, what I like most about The Crystal Cave is that it closely follows the narrative source while giving it a firm historical grounding. (How accurate that history is may be up for debate, but it feels realistic enough for the average reader.) I really dislike versions that disregard the bones of the legend and instead construct their own narratives that just happen to use the characters and/or setting, but this book captures all the important events (so far): Merlin’s unknown father, his prophecy about the the red dragon and the white dragon, the erection of Stonehenge, and the deception that results in the conception of Arthur at Tintagel. Stewart interprets all these through a historical lens, but she doesn’t change them.

Stewart also injects in a significant mythic element, showing us a Merlin who is driven by the hand of the God (not specifically Christian), for purposes that aren’t always clear to him. Many of his feats that are attributed to magic are really the product of knowledge, engineering, and good luck, but his visions and prophecies are true, and he must often pay the consequences for acting on them. There is a definite sense of powers beyond the mortal realm at work.

What I don’t like is the lack of women of substantial character. There are four women of note in the book: Niniane, Merlin’s mother; Rowena, the Saxon wife of King Voritgern; Keri, a romantic interest for Merlin; and Ygraine, Arthur’s mother-to-be. Of these, Rowena doesn’t have a line of dialog, and Keri is only there to demonstrate that, for Merlin, girls are off-limits (the price for his powers, essentially). Niniane’s function seems to be primarily to keep Merlin’s father a secret – she doesn’t seem to have much influence on his character and once his reputation is secure she conveniently dies. Ygraine, of course, only comes in at the end, and while she is a reasonably interesting character, she never escapes from her role as Vessel of Prophecy. Her actions and choices have all been pre-determined. Of course, this is a big challenge for any Arthurian work – how do you create agency for characters whose fates are already established?

Overall, the book has good, solid writing, with first-person narration (by Merlin) that makes it very engaging. I like the character as presented, and even though I knew what was going to happen, I kept turning pages because I want to see how it affects him. That, really, is the essential point of any good story, isn’t it? Not what happens, but how it affects the people it happens to.

So, does anyone have recommendations for future Arthurian reads? What’s your favorite version of the legend?

* Wow, turns out there are 5 books – the last one came out in 1995.

** It’s been a long time since I’ve read them, but I remember thinking that his Arthurian books (Firelord, Beloved Exile, The Last Rainbow) were the best literary adaptions I’d read.

*** The Mists of Avalon, natch. I will leave you to google the current controversy if you’re not familiar with it already.

**** For all the liberties they take with the legendary material, it’s probably my favorite screen adaption to date.

Such a Winter’s Day

Where To?


Wildlife on the trail:

One rabbit.

Three squirrels. Maybe four.

A hawk, overhead.

Crows, ditto.

A myriad of songbirds.

The Narrow Road



Dogs, with their people.

The maintenance team.

A pack of young men who don’t seem like they’re up to any trouble, but are followed out by the park ranger.

A pack of young women, with J-pop (or K-pop maybe) playing loudly on an iPod. One of them wears a shirt that says, “MAD AS A HATER”. I can’t decide if it’s a misprint or a pun.

A couple with their arms wrapped so tightly around each other that I don’t know how they keep walking. She’s telling him about hobbit holes. (My favorite!)

A family of four. The mom is delighted with the lack of spiderwebs on the trail. “Now I”m telling you, this is the time for me to go hiking!”

Another family of four. A girl verging on 12 years, sweat beading her brow, wishes me a good afternoon. I say, “Is it after noon already?” She replies, “I have no idea!” (It’s not.)

A line of boys on mountain bikes. The road is wide enough for all of us.

The road is wide enough for all of us.

Such a Winter's Day

Capturing Light: An Overview of the Exposure Triangle in Easy Terms


Photography is, by definition, the art of drawing with light. So it’s not surprising that a great part of learning how to to take good photos is learning how to control light. In this section of my contemplative photography lesson plan, I’m going to discuss the three ways your camera helps you to do that. I am not going to talk about flash and external lighting setups, because frankly I have no practical experience with either, except for knowing that the built-in flash on your camera is really only good for giving your daughters glowing red eyes.

If you are shooting with a camera phone or a low-end point-and-shoot that doesn’t offer you much beyond auto shooting, I don’t know if this will be much help to you. I’ve taken some great shots with my iPhone 4, but I don’t know if there’s anyway to control exposure. (I may have to look into it though.)

Learning about exposure typically involves a lot of technical language about things like F-stops, which is the kind of thing used to separate experts from the rest of us. Now, when you look at those experts’ photos, you can see that their expertise pays off, but for the new or casual photographer it can be intimidating.

I am not an expert – I just like to take a nice picture once in a while – so I’m going to explain these things to you in the terms I understand them best. If you want to learn more, I encourage you to go out and find other resources who can provide more technical and expert guidance.

There are three basic tools on your camera that let you control light. They are:

  • Shutter speed
  • Aperture
  • ISO

Shutter speed and aperture control how much light enters through the camera’s lens. The ISO setting determines the sensitivity of the sensor, or how much light is actually recorded. (In film photography, ISO is equivalent to film speed, e.g. 100, 200, 400 etc.)

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is pretty self-explanatory. It determines how long the shutter stays open, or how long it actually takes to snap the picture, and is measured in tenths (or even hundredths) of a second. Most of the time, you want to have a fast shutter, because the longer the shutter stays open, the greater the chance you’ll end up with a blurry photo. Your subject moves, your hand wobbles – it doesn’t take a great deal of motion to throw your focus out of whack. That’s why experienced photographers know to use a tripod when they are working with conditions that might require a long shutter speed (we’ll discuss some of those situations in a moment).

If you’re shooting in Auto mode, your camera will automatically select a longer shutter speed in low-light settings. You can tell, because the click sound you hear when you push the shutter button actually takes longer. If you’re out shooting in the woods, and all your gorgeous tree photos are slightly blurry, then it’s probably because the shutter is taking longer to open and close. The two solutions to this problem are: 1) use a tripod; 2) adjust your aperture.

Shutter speed example

Same aperture, different shutter speeds. On the left 1/8 second, on the right 1/25 second. Not only is the first overexposed, you can see how fuzzy the details are.


Aperture refers to how wide the shutter actually opens – okay, not actually the shutter, but the hole inside the lens where light enters the camera. The wider the opening, the more light enters the camera at once. It’s measured as “f-stops”, which I’m not even going to try to define for you. It’s enough to say that your camera will have a range of numbers you can choose – mine goes from f/3.5 to f/20. But here’s the tricky part: the wider your aperture, the lower the number. So, an aperture of f/6 is open further than an aperture of f/10. That’s important, so I’m going to say it again:

The wider your aperture, the lower the f/number.

Okay – so what’s the point in being able to raise (close) or lower (open) your aperture? As I already said, it can help compensate in low-light settings, so your shutter speed doesn’t get too long. Or conversely, in strong light, raising your aperture can keep your photos from getting over-exposed or washed out. But there are consequences, and those consequences have mostly to do with what photographers call the Depth of Field.

Depth of Field refers to how much of what you are pointing the camera at will be in focus. With a wide aperture (low f-stop), only the subject you’re focused on will be sharp, while the background will be blurred. With a narrow aperture, everything in the camera’s line of sight will be sharp and clear. This has to do with the angle of light and how it enters the camera and, well, Physics. Don’t make me go there.

Aperture set at 5.6, 9.0 and 22 respectively. See how more of the background detail is in focus the higher the f-number goes? That's depth of field.

Aperture set at 5.6, 9.0 and 22 respectively. See how more of the background detail is in focus the higher the f-number goes? That’s depth of field.

To summarize (because it can be a little confusing at first):

Small f/number Wide aperture Shallow depth of field Good for:

  • close ups
  • portraits
  • macro
  • florals
  • bugs
Large f/number Narrow aperture Wide depth of field Good for:

  • landscapes
  • seascapes
  • sunrises/sunsets/clouds
  • sports
  • photojournalism

The Magic Dance of Shutter Speed and Aperture

When you understand the interconnected relationship between aperture and shutter speed, you have taken the first major step towards shooting with real artistry. In the most general terms, it’s about balancing the light that enters your camera’s lens. Raise one value, lower the other, to avoid under- or over-exposing your photograph. Then you can start making adjustments that will really allow your photos stand out from standard auto-set snapshots.

Aperture, in particular, is an easy way to control the final image, creating hazy backgrounds, blurred foliage, or the sparkling bokeh effect of blurred lights that is particularly popular. With a very wide aperture, you can focus tightly on your subject, while background objects fade into swirl of color and shadow.


I shoot almost entirely in aperature-priority mode, which means that I control the depth of field while my camera calculates the appropriate shutter speed for me based on its built in light meter.


You can also choose to shoot in shutter-priority mode, to control the time the shutter stays open. This is useful if you’re, for example, shooting animals or sports and you want to have a fast shutter speed to avoid blurring when the subject moves. Or you can lengthen the shutter speed to to create dreamy effects with moving water, or when you want to capture a shallow depth of field in low-light circumstances. (Just be sure to use a tripod.)


If you like a little math, then you can try shooting in full manual mode, which lets you set both the aperture and the shutter speed yourself – you’ll need to learn more about f-stops, and how much you’ll need to adjust shutter speed for such-and-such a aperture, and vice versa. Personally, that’s more than I want to tackle most of the time – contemplative -anything- does not involve math! I’m happy to let my camera handle the hard part.

That ISO Thing

You’ve doubtless noticed that though I mentioned ISO as the third part of the exposure triangle, I haven’t talked about it much yet.

That’s because, at least as far as I understand and use it, it’s kind of a last-ditch tool for me when it comes to exposure. If I want this shutter speed and that aperture, and my exposure is still too dark, then I raise the ISO to try and compensate. If there a better way to use ISO for artistic purpose, then I’m not familiar with it.

So, there you have the not-so-secret tools you can use to make sure your photos are properly exposed and also artistically interesting. Please feel free to ask questions and point out places where I can improve my descriptions – as I said, I’m no expert, just someone who has learned to muddle my way through the morass of expertise.

Next up in my Contemplative Photography Lesson Plan will be a couple posts about photo composition, so stay tuned!


What You Need to Know About Your Camera

Land of Medicind Buddha Retreat Center

I’ll admit, I’m starting with the topic “Know Your Camera” in my Contemplative Photography Lesson Plan because it’s the easiest. Teaching you about your camera isn’t something I can do it a blog post, or even on location during a workshop, unless you happen to be using an Olympus 410-R just like mine. There are just too many differences between cameras (configuration and software) to be able to teach these things to a whole group of people with different cameras all at once. So really, this lesson is about you teaching yourself, which makes it real easy on me.

But this is also first because the more comfortable you are with the technical aspects of your camera, the less you are going to have to worry about when you’re in the field. When you’re intimately familiar with all the buttons, menus and controls available, then you won’t have to stop and fuss with things before you take a shot. Or rather, you can spend more time thinking about why you want to make an adjustment, rather than just how to do it.

Below, I’m going to present a few of the essential functions you really should know how to use. Keep in mind that not every one of these functions will be available on every type of camera. Phone cameras have less functionality than most point-and-shoot models; point-and-shoot models have fewer features than most DSLRs; and film cameras — well, film cameras are in a class all by themselves. Don’t ask me to go there – I haven’t used a film camera since we retired our Kokak Advantix over a decade ago.

What it comes down to, though, is that features on all types of cameras vary wildly depending on the price point and age. The only way to really get to know what YOUR camera does is to actually read the manual. Read it straight through, once. Even if you don’t understand everything you’re reading. If you’re new to photography, you may not have a clue about things like ISO and White Balance, but at least you’ll have a vague awareness whether or not you can make manual adjustments to those settings if you wanted. When you’re ready to learn about those aspects of photography, you can return to the manual (and to supporting books, magazines and web articles) for a deeper understanding of how they work.

Keep this in mind: you don’t have to learn everything all at once. Pick a feature which you want to learn, and practice with it a while until it becomes familiar to use without having to think about it. Then you can move on to something else. There is a lot to learn in photography, and if you try to learn it all at once it you’ll quickly feel overwhelmed and anxious, which is exactly the wrong sort of mood you want when practicing contemplative photography.

So here we go: a generalized list of what I think are the most important features to know how to use on your camera. This list is aimed primarily at point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras, though I may throw in a phone camera tip where appropriate.


A digital camera can have a dizzying array of buttons and dials for you to interact with. Some of them are pretty intuitive, like a trash can for deleting photos, while others may leave you scratching your head. Your manual probably has a diagram mapping out what each of these does, but it can be overwhelming to take in all at once, especially if you’re not familiar with what everything means.

My recommendation is to not try and learn all the buttons at once. Learn the essentials at the outset, then learn additional buttons as you are learning about the functions they control.

The essentials are:

  • Power – Duh.
  • Shutter button – This is the button that actually takes the picture. But find out if your camera is equipped with a two-stage function. This lets you push the button down halfway so the camera can make adjustments like focus and metering; when it beeps, you push the button the rest of the way to take the picture. Low-priced cameras may be missing this feature.
  • Zoom – On point and shoot camera’s the zoom control is usually a little lever up on the top, but not always. For DSLRs, you zoom in by manipulating the lens directly. On an iPhone, you zoom by pinching the screen, and then adjusting the slider (I don’t know about other smart phone cameras).
  • Play – Switches into View mode, so you can review the photos you’ve already taken.
  • Menu – This allows you access to the various settings and controls.
  • Scroll wheel – Not really a wheel, this is usually four separate buttons you use to navigate through menu options. In View mode, they typically allow you to scroll through photos (right and left) and zoom in and out (up and down). It usually has an “OK” button in the middle for making selections.

Screen View

The LCD screen on a digital camera is one of its most prominent features, and also one of it’s most useful. Not only does it allow you to immediately view the pictures you just took, but it also displays a lot of technical information about each shot, and provides access to the advanced controls and settings. It also uses a lot of battery power, so learning how to turn it off and on should be one of the first things you learn. Other things to look for:

  • How many different screen views does the camera offer, and how can you switch between them?
  • What information is available on the different screens?
  • What buttons do you push to access the menus, and how do you navigate through them?
  • How do you switch between “shoot” and “view” modes?
  • How can you zoom in on photos while viewing them, for a close look at details?


When the battery goes dead, you’re done taking photos for the day, so knowing how to manage battery is an essential skill!

  • Where is the battery compartment, and does it use rechargeable or disposable batteries? Can you plug the camera in directly to charge it, or does the battery need to be removed?
  • How can you monitor the battery level?
  • Will your camera turn itself off if you forget to? After how long?
  • How long can you go before the batteries need to be recharged or replaced?
  • The answer to that last question may not be found in the manual, but it’s something you’ll learn over time and use.

Memory, Picture Size & File Format

In digital photography, picture size corresponds directly to how many pictures you can take – the smaller the photo, the smaller the file size, and the more photos you can fit on a memory card. I’m not going to get into the topic of image sizes right here, but just keep in mind that smaller isn’t always better. If you’re photo file size is too small, you won’t be able to get decent prints. If you go with larger photos, you won’t be able to save as many on your card. So you’ll have to decide what you’re going to use photos for before you start shooting.

  • What kind of memory card does it use? How do you put in and remove the card?
  • How many pictures can be stored in the “onboard” memory, if there’s no memory card in place?
  • Where does the camera display how much memory is left or how many more pictures you can take? How does your camera alert you if the memory is full?
  • What is the default photo size for your camera?
  • How many different sizes are available, and how do you switch between them?
  • What file format choices are available? (JPEG is the most common, but RAW is also popular.)


When talking about a digital camera, “mode” generally refers to how much control you have over the shot. It’s usually a knob at the top of the camera, near the shutter button and on/off switch, but it might be a button on the back of the camera, too. Besides AUTO, most cameras offer: PROGRAM, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, and a variety of pre-set modes such as “Sunset” and “Sports”. Review the options available.

It’s totally okay to shoot in AUTO, but switching to PROGRAM is a great way to start learning how to play with settings. In AUTO, the camera takes care of everything. In PROGRAM the camera still takes care of everything – except for those things that you deliberately change for creative effect. So if you want to experiment with, for example, a slower shutter speed, you can do that without having to worry about making corresponding adjustments to ISO, aperture, etc. PROGRAM does that for you. Then, when you’re ready, you can step up and take more control with the manual control modes.

Flash Control

I hardly ever shoot with flash, so I don’t have a lot of advice to offer about when to use it or not.* But being able to turn it on and off at need is crucial. Some cameras offer more complex control of the flash, too, so learn what you can and can’t change.

  • How do you turn the automatic flash off and on?
  • If there a flash delay?
  • Is there a red-eye prevention mode?
  • Can you reduce the flash level so the light is not as strong?

Auto Focus On/Off

If you’re shooting with a DSLR, you have the option of manually focusing your lens in order to create a particular effect. Personally, I always shoot with auto-focus because I’m lazy and can’t be bothered and, also, I think my eyes are just not that sharp. But in case you are more enthusiastic than I – or for situations when auto-focus just isn’t cooperating – you need how to turn the feature off and on.

Focal Point

If you are using auto focus, then you need to know what point your camera is using as a focal point. By default, it’s the center of the image, but with many cameras you can change that to enhance various compositions. Choices include setting it to the left or right of center, and also up or down. Fancier cameras have a “continual focus” feature that automatically compensate for moving subjects. The focal point usually shows up as a flashing, bracketed dot in the viewfinder or on the LCD screen when you push the shutter button down halfway. Find out if and how you can change it.


Focal point shifted to left of center.

 Camera phone tip: To select the focal point when shooting with your iPhone, just tap the spot on the screen while you are framing your shot. Otherwise it will select the most prominent feature in the frame to focus on. (I don’t know if other smart phone cameras work this way or not. Check the manual for your model!)

ISO Settings

Remember when you used to buy film, and you had to decide whether you should buy 100, 200 or 400 film? That number referred to how sensitive the film was – the higher the number, the more sensitive the film. ISO works the same way, indicating how much light the sensor inside your camera will absorb while the shutter is open. When light is low, you generally want a higher ISO so that the shutter doesn’t have to stay open as long in order to take a picture.

ISO detail

Click to see this full-sized. Look in the dark area around the eye to see the noise.

Most cameras will adjust ISO automatically according to the ambient light, but you can adjust it manually as well, with typical values of 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1600. Newer, more expensive cameras can go even higher. The trade off with a high ISO is increased “noise” in your photos – that is, grainy flecks across the image (though more and more cameras are conquering this problem).

To test your camera’s noise at high ISO settings, set up to take an series of interior shots. Leave all the other settings the same, but change the ISO between each shot. Compare them on the computer to see how much noise is added.

Aperture and Shutter Speed

These two controls are probably the two most powerful tools you can have to control your photo’s artistry – and I’m not going tell you about them. At least, not in this post. My next post will be about the Exposure Trio, and we’ll get into how to use each of these effectively. For now simply familiarize yourself with the controls (if they’re available).

  • What buttons or dials control each setting?
  • Where are the current settings displayed?

White Balance

“Old fashioned” photographers** used light meters to gauge the light and adjust their cameras to compensate for different types of light – midday versus dusk, cloudy versus sunny, incandescent versus florescent, etc. Modern digital cameras have built-in light meters, and when you’re shooting in auto mode they will compensate as necessary.

Effects of white balance

White balance is really one of the most important adjustments you can make for good looking photos, because the color and tone the light can really affect the final picture. If you’ve ever had to put on makeup under a fluorescent light then you know exactly what I mean. Colors are just different when the light is different. You can experiment with with white balance the same way you do with ISO, but you won’t even have to upload the photos to compare. You’ll be able to see the differences right on the view screen.

  • How do you set white balance?
  • How many settings (including auto) are available and which situations is each best for?

Existential Familiarity

Aside from knowing what everything on your camera does, there is a kind of camera intimacy that only comes from actually using your camera a lot. Even if you never change a single setting, you’ll become more knowledge about how your camera works the more you take photos and look at the results. With experience, you learn how your lens sees, and you learn to maximize your camera’s unique vision to the best effect. I know it sounds a little woo-woo, but but it’s true – your relationship with your camera is like a partnership that improves the more you become familiar with it.

* Because I mostly shoot outdoors in daylight.

** And really, professionals still do.