Taking Better Photographs, Part 4

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August 30, 2008

First, you might want to check the previous “Taking Better Photographs” Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Although the information may overlap, the suggestions in the first three articles is primarily aimed at the aesthetics of producing better photographs.  Today I’ll cover some of the technical steps you can take to improve your images. By the way, most of the specific terms discussed are covered by earlier articles – I have linked to them when possible.

All of the suggestions I will make apply to both Point & Shoot and DSLR cameras.  Although some Point & Shoot cameras have minimal user settings available, most modern consumer cameras can be used with manual settings.  The problem? – Most of us would rather have a root canal than read our digital camera manual to find out how to use anything other than the automatic settings. While the automatic settings work most of the time, and are getting better with each generation, even using the camera set to automatic gets more complex with each new model. There is really no way around it – reading the manual will help understand how to make better images with your camera.

Some other useful starting points:

  1. If you shoot jpegs (the file format most cameras use) you lock in the white balance at the time you take the photograph.  Shooting RAW allow you to change white balance during your post processing, but since the white balance settings determines the color balance in a jpeg, it is extremely difficult to change after taking the picture.  Because of this, it is important to have the correct setting when shooting the picture.  If your camera is on automatic, it guesses how warm or cool the scene is as it takes the photograph. If you have an understanding of color temperature or white balance, you can often make a better choice than your camera. Scenes that often fool the in-camera white balance choice are sunrise & sunsets, shade colored by leaves, etc., flash images colored by reflections from painted walls or ceilings, and images that don’t include a “known” color (sky, skin tone, etc.)  The solution? Start experimenting with the manual settings for white balance.  If your camera allows + or – adjustments, try them.  Even the large adjustments the most basic Point & Shoot camera provide can often improve an image.  Shoot an image on automatic, then try some manual adjustments.  After reviewing the results, you will develop a better understanding of the effect of different colors of light on a scene & how to correct for them.
  2. Almost all cameras have an ISO setting.  ISO is the sensitivity setting of your camera.  For a review of ISO, check my earlier post. Like film, the higher the number, the less light you need to take the picture.  The problem – like film, the higher the number, the more noise (for film it was called grain) appears in your image.  Since there is a trade off – higher ISOs add noise, but allow shorter shutter speeds or smaller apertures, and might allow you to shoot without flash using natural light, it is worth learning how high a setting works for your camera.  Almost all cameras allow you to set ISO manually, and, unfortunately, almost all cameras let you set ISO so high that the result is unusable.  You need to learn how high a manual setting can be used under different lighting conditions.  Too high & solid areas of color, particularly the lighter colors become speckled with noise. There are many images where the noise is not noticeable, there are also many where it is a problem. You need to shoot lots of images at different ISOs, different lighting conditions, and different subjects to determine what your camera is capable of doing.
  3. On automatic or program settings, your camera determines the shutter speed & aperture settings necessary to provide the correct amount of light on the camera’s sensor.  In most cases this will produce a good quality image, however you can usually improve your image by you choosing the aperture and letting the camera determine shutter speed, or you choosing the shutter speed & letting the camera choose the aperture.  Like other manual settings, you need to understand what you want to happen in the image to make the choice.  I have earlier posts explaining the results of different shutter speeds and aperture settings. Your images will improve when you start to use these settings to isolate, blur, sharpen, and otherwise control the characteristics of your photographs.
  4. Use a program that reads EXIF data to review your images.  If you make lots of experimental images (and that is by far the best way to improve your photographs) you need to determine what settings worked better than others.  Since digital cameras record most of the settings your camera used to make the image, it is easy to check them once you get back to a computer.
  5. As mentioned in the suggestion above, taking lots of pictures is the best way to improve your work.  Back in the days of film, there was an interesting scam run by door to door film salesmen.  They made an offer to sell you 100 rolls of film over 5 years at an excellent price along with free processing.  Although you bought & paid for 100 rolls, you only received a new roll after you sent one in for processing.  The catch – according to a survey by Kodak, the average household only used 2 rolls of film per year, so at the end of 5 years most people only actually got 10 rolls of film for the price of 100!  Although RVers who travel probably take more than the average household, even they would probably lose money on that “deal.” There is no reason you can’t take thousands of pictures per year with a digital camera since the “film” is free and 4″ X 6″ prints are just pennies. Each time you plan to take a picture, take 5 or 10 extras using the non-automatic settings on your camera.  Compare the results & use them to improve the next photograph.

Enough for now.  I’ll probably have a Part 5 sometime in the future.

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  2. Jon –

    I always enjoy your posts, and this one is a good reminder of the huge plus of shooting digital vs. film. With digital, I can experiment to my heart’s content without the cost of film and processing. Now…. I just need to get better at quickly deciding which of the 5 variations on that same shot are the best, and deleting the rest from my hard drive!

  3. Thanks! If you (or anyone else) has any suggestions for topics, please let me know. after 37 articles I’m running out of ideas…

  4. Phil Willen

    Good stuff. As a long time photographer I find your posts informative as well as being a refresher on lessons learned long ago.