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This part of the series deals with using your E-mount camera if you have a weak background in photography.

Sony has followed Minolta’s system of defining models based on a number system. This gives the Nex-3 (entry-level), Nex-5 (amateur), Nex-7 (advanced-amateur) and scope for a Nex-9 which would correspond to a ‘professional’ camera. Minolta did the same with the first digit of each model number matching to a market-segment. The 3 meant entry-level, and the feature set improved as you went up this 3/5/7/9 scale. Rather than using the same alpha-lenses (Minolta AF or Sony alpha) for the camera, the NEX series uses the e-mount. These lenses tend to be smaller than their alpha-cousins.

The differences at the moment is that the 7 has a 24MP sensor, a proper flash hotshoe for an external flash, and improved user interface. The 3 and 5 lack a proper hotshoe* and the user interface is more cumbersome. All cameras take videos and none have in-body stabilisation. This is part of the cost of making the cameras small. Some E-mount lenses do have stabilisation in the actual lens.

So, if you’ve got a Sony Nex-camera, what sort of setups might suit a beginner? The first thing to do is install the latest firmware. This is the age of digital photography. Cameras often qualify for upgrades that add new functions or improve performance. These upgrade are free and should be taken advantage of.

Firmware & other support: Sony Asia Support

A lot of people are largely interested in cameras to take pictures of friends, family and kittens. (There is a popular theory that the internet was invented by cats precisely to circulate large volumes of cat and kitten photos). So the following basic settings might appeal.

(1) Using Scene Mode

Under menu, go the the “Shoot Mode”, find SCN (scene selection) and pick portrait. This will try to shoot in a wider aperture (small f-stop) and at a decent shutter speed. This means the image will have good detail. Under the menu item, pick quality as fine and image size as large. Under the menu term “Camera” select DMF. Under menu item “Setup” set the Peaking Level to high and the Peaking Color to whatever takes your fancy (mine is red).

What the DMF allows you to do, is to fine tune the focus manually after the camera achieves a focus lock. The peaking colour will show you what areas of the image are in focus. So if you want to make an adjustment you can.

The basic problem with portrait mode is that it won’t be any good for landscapes. For landscapes (or macro) you want a small aperture (large f-stop). The second problem is the camera’s shutter speed can drop very low in poor light. This means that you may end up with more motion blur. It’s pretty hard getting a detailed shot at 1/30 second or less. Obviously changing the scene modes are one way to solve the aperture problem. But if you want a high shutter speed to ensure neither the movement of the camera or the subject ruins the shot, try something more advanced.

(2) Using shutter priority

Under “Shoot Mode” find the ‘S’ option. Then use the scroll wheel to pick a shutter speed of say 1/100 or 1/125 second. Then go the "Brightness/Color" and find the ISO to ISOAuto. What this means is that rather than letting the shutter speed drop to levels only appropriate for stationary subjects, the camera will adjust the exposure by boosting the ISO rating instead.

Once you’re used to adjusting the shutter speed you should be to make adjustments based on experience. For action shots- especially in good light, shooting at 1/500 second will often ‘freeze’ the action. For posed shots you may want to wind it down to 1/60 second.

What is ISO about?

ISO is a measure of sensitivity to light. It’s based on traditional film. A fast film (ISO-400) would have larger grains than a slower film (ISO-100). These larger grains means the film would react faster to the light. An ISO-200 film would thus need half the exposure (shutter speed) of ISO-100 film (all other settings identical), and an ISO-400 would need quarter the exposure (shutter speed). Digital sensors achieve this a different way. As the pixel-size is fixed, the ISO-adjustment is done by amplification algorithms. So if you shoot at ISO800 instead of the base of ISO200, the camera will open the shutter for ¼ as long, then amplify the signal by 4 times. This means you have less of the original signal, and the amplification will increase ‘bad’ information as well. So it’s not a clean process. It can’t recover detail that was never recorded.

Now there’s basically two things that will affect your exposure badly. The first is if your white balance is wrong. The second is that your ISO-setting is too high or low. You don’t want to keep going through menus to change these settings as this makes for an awkward interface. If you’re shooting in portrait or landscape mode however, you may not have a choice. If you are shooting in either S, A, M or P mode, you can customise the camera to make access to these functions easier.

So you should use the custom-buttons (in the setup menu) to make it easy to change. For example, I have my Soft key B Setting assigned to White Balance. I have my soft key C setting assigned to ISO (then autofocus area and metering mode, which you can ignore for now).

The white-balance determines the temperature of the light in the scene. If you’ve ever taken a picture in a room in the evening lit by light-bulbs, you may have noticed it has an orange or red tone to it. This is because the camera is often expecting the light-temperature to be around daylight (maybe 5200 kelvin) whereas the room is really about 2500 kelvin. If you set the white-balance correctly, the warm cast disappears.

You can leave the camera on AWB (auto-white balance) but this can be fooled, especially where there are several light sources or lighting is extreme. So just using the custom button will open up a menu that lets you dial in the lighting conditions that best match your scene. If you shoot in jpeg, this is pretty important. It is less important when you shoot in Raw because this easily fixed later. You can also use a custom white-balance against a white-object- this process is explained in my youtube video.

The second thing that can go wrong is the ISO setting. Now while a low ISO is a good thing, it comes at a cost. It means the shutter has to be open longer and this means the image is more at risk from camera shake (photographer can’t hold the camera steady) or motion blur (the subject moves). While the ISOauto may be good in most cases, it might still opt for (say) more amplification tna you want. So you may want to be able to adjust these manually. Often ISO-400 will work in good light and ISo-800 indoors. If your image lacks detail, colour or has more digital noise, you might want to dial the ISO down down. I find that I’m often able to shot up to ISO 800 without too much compromise on the image quality.

So given that fine-tuning the white-balance or the ISO are likely to be something you do often, having them available to change easily without having to work through menus is very useful.

The last function you might want to make accessible via the custom-buttons is another feature called DRO. This stands for dynamic range-optimisation. If you use DRO this makes subtle changes to the exposure in different parts of the image. It’s a way of recording a bit more detail in very dark and very bright zones. This is less important for someone who uses this camera to shoot raw, but for a jpeg photographer it can help. Of course, it can also make scenes worse by inflating the amount of digital noise in dark zones, so the ability to turn it on or off or use it at differing strengths is handy.

In the next part, I discuss the fun you can have with manual focus.
* The cameras do have a hot-shoe that you can mount the small flash that comes with the system. You can also get a proprietary flash from Sony (the HVL-F20S) for these NEX-3 and NEX-5.