Saturday, June 23, 2012


Today I want to talk to all the people who have digital cameras but never bothered to read the manual. Or tried to read it but it was too complicated. For all my friends who 'just put it on automatic'.

I know the internet is full of guides to help out beginners who want to get more out of their pictures, but I always think it must be too long/boring/complicated for most people - fact is, most people I know (that aren't serious photographers) never did read any of that stuff, and quite a few times ask me basic questions about photography, most of the time about how to work their camera. This includes SLR owners (not just point-and-shoot moms).

So here is the most basic things you should know to get the best shots off your camera.

D.U.M.B.F.S.A - Didn't Understand the Manual, But Felt Silly to Ask.

Note: if you are using a cell phone camera most of these settings will be less dramatic or nonexistent at all. If you really want good pictures a small point-and-shoot will go a long way for that. Some of this is relevant, especially if you have a good cell-phone camera and camera app.

Important settings

  • White balance
  • File size/quality
  • Contrast, saturation 
 These are really the most basic settings you need to use to get better pictures. If you have a new camera these should be the things to play with as they have the most dramatic effect on the pictures.

White balance: this controls the color of the photos, primarily the balance between orange and blue (color temperature) and to a lesser degree the tone (pink vs. green).
Example: I am taking pictures indoors under tungsten light (light bulb). I choose the light bulb WB setting (often called incandescent - has a little light bulb sign) so all my pictures suddenly don't look so orange. The light bulb setting makes everything blue. Try it in daylight - it really colors everything blue (don't forget to reset WB after use).

Now Auto WB is pretty good most of the time. BUT: sometimes you want to make things purposefully cooler/warmer.
Example: I am photographing a sunset. The Auto WB tries to cancel the warm tones. I switch to WB shade, cloudy or sunset (if I have any of these) and get a warm, orange-red sunset. Much better.

Try changing around the different settings to get warmer or cooler images, this often gives impressive results already.

Color temperature (White Balance) at 8900

Note: the white balance was created for balancing (canceling) the color of the light - tungsten cancels tungsten lights (by making it bluer), fluorescent cancels fluorescent lights (by making things pink to counter the greenishness), and so on. So try changing WB according to the situation,  or try to use it for creative purposes to get more interesting colors.

Particularly try cloudy WB to make landscapes warmer. Daylight indoors to make the image orange, or fluorescent if you are under fluorescent light and the Auto doesn't work well enough.

 Contrast/Saturation: The saturation is the one that makes the colors stronger, so you want high saturation for landscape and wildlife photos. Less so for people (it makes them orange usually). Contrast makes the shadow areas darker and the bright areas lighter. This also works well for dramatic images (like landscapes) and less so for portraits, unless you want to increase the person's wrinkles and skin defects. For smoother skins use less contrast.
When shooting black & white use high contrast to give a dramatic look.

Sharpness: Also useful to have for the more dramatic photos, but you should probably reduce this when doing portraits (to get softer skin textures).

Brightness also appears around this area. Leave it as it is.

High contrast and saturation

Image Size/Quality: The image size, in my opinion, should always be at maximum. If you bought a new camera with lots of megapixels you might as well use them, plus you probably have several GB of memery card to go through. If you ever want to crop the little bird in the middle of the frame you'll be happy you took the large version.

If you don't want to fill your hard drive with large image files go for the second largest. Same for quality. I prefer the highest quality but I'll admit the picture folders tend to fill up pretty quickly this way. Set the second best quality and size if this bothers you.

Just don't come back from your photo-trip with 640 x 480 sized images that will fill only a quarter of your computer screen back home.


  • Auto vs. P,S,A,M
  • Other trick modes
  • EV (+/-) vs. ISO  

The big dial on top of your camera has several modes, the most useful for beginners is the Auto. What if I want to use some of the advanced options my camera has?

The P mode still lets the camera decide the exposure (shutter speed and aperture) but lets you change the special settings like those mentioned above (white balance contrast and saturation as examples). If you want to have control over more advanced settings but not worry too much about shutter and aperture this is the mode for you. In most pocket cameras this will be the most freedom you will have (often these models don't have A, S, or M). Most of the things I have mentioned so far can't be changed in Auto, so first thing to do is to get used to shooting in P instead.

The A mode allows you to control the aperture size (the smaller the number the wider the aperture). The shutter speed will be determined automatically by the camera to get proper exposure.

The S mode allows you control over the shutter speed, where the number is given by parts of a second (i.e 1/200 of a second, 1/320 of a second) up to long exposures of whole seconds (1" or 5" and so on). This time the aperture is set automatically.

The M mode is full manual and allows you to set both aperture size and shutter speed. This is full control and you can easily set the wrong exposure. This is good, since you can just look at the screen and see if it is too dark or too bright.

Now, I don't want to get into the full explanation of aperture and shutter speed here, but a few examples of why you should know how to control these:
If your pictures are smeared the camera probably chose too slow a shutter speed, and you can put it in M to try and change the exposure. You may want to have motion blur. This (or the S mode) will allow you to choose the right shutter speed.

Slow shutter speed (in this case with tripod) gives some motion blur of a passing car

If you want the background to be sharp as well as the foreground you should put the camera in A and choose a small aperture (small aperture = large depth of field). The camera will decide the shutter speed for a good exposure.

Most beginners should stick to the P mode for functionality, without worrying about exposure. If you do want to worry about exposure, try M and look at the screen as you go along. This is the best way to learn exposure settings in practice. 

Other trick modes include sports, night, portrait and the like. They are usually pretty good but remember that you can get most of the features by choosing the settings yourself.

EV is exposure value, and allows you to tell the camera to take pictures that are brighter or darker than what it thinks is appropriate (assuming you are not in M where the camera doesn't decide anything on its own). This isn't about adding/reducing brightness to a given exposure, it only tells the camera to set longer shutter speed or larger aperture (depending on the mode you are in). For example, if you are shooting against a sunset and the camera tries to make the dark skies into normal brightness for an image, you can ask for a lower exposure to make the image darker.
If a person on a bright background is too dark in the picture you can ask the camera for a brighter exposure. This will obviously make the background, which was bright to begin with, even brighter and probably blown out.

Also, when in anything but M mode, try pressing the shutter release half way down when pointed at the subject, then moving the camera, while holding the shutter release to recompose the image. This tells the camera to measure light at one point but lets you take the picture at a different angle (instant EV compensation).

Using exposure control (EV) to reduce the overall brightness - people become silhouettes

ISO is when you want the camera to capture more light, but can't open shutter any more, and can't afford longer exposure (because of camera shake). This actually increases the sensitivity of the sensor, and allows you to shoot at lower light, but at the cost of more noise in the picture. A good example of when not to use Auto ISO is when you take night shots and they are all extremely noisy. Even if you have tripod (or just a table or rock or whatever) your camera still thinks it needs high ISO and the pictures are grainy. Take it out of Auto ISO to 100 or 200 (whatever is lowest) and shoot a long exposure. The reason many pocket cameras and most phones do very well in daylight and extremely poorly in low light is because of auto ISO that adds a ton of noise to the images.

Just to make it clear, changing EV (for example +1 EV) makes the camera try and make the picture brighter (or darker), by changing shutter, aperture or ISO. Changing ISO increases the sensor sensitivity but adds noise as you go higher.

Increasing ISO is pretty much like using photoshop to brighten up a dark image, if you didn't have enough light for a proper exposure then some noise will be unavoidable.

Taken at ISO 3200 (and without any noise reduction afterwards). See full size to see how noisy it gets.

The Other Buttons

  • Flash on/off
  • Macro function
  • Timer
Flash on/off and other trick modes for the flash are often available on the little lightning icon button. Sometimes the mode dial on the top of the camera will have a no-flash auto mode to do the exact same as auto just without flash.
This one is pretty important because a lot of times you don't want flash. In dark rooms where you are not trying to get noticed (like museums) or when taking night time landscape images (the mountain is too far away for the flash). There's nothing sadder than a tourist trying to flash through the window on a bus at night. The camera doesn't know the flash is useless in these situations. Turn it off, you will also get better exposure by the camera's computer.

Always on: Sometimes you will want a flash to add light even though the scene is pretty well lit. Use the 'always on' option for the flash.

Right hand side: correct exposure for the outside. Left hand side: the indoor is lit with flash.
Note: some models will not have an 'always on' or 'always off' switch. Just put it in P mode (or any of the advanced modes) and physically leave the flash open or closed - this tells the camera if you want it or not.

Slow flash means it allows the camera to have a long exposure along with the flash, getting some light from the background in (so your subject doesn't look like she's in outer space) but can get some blurriness in the picture.

Red eye reduction: more annoying than useful.

Rear sync: if you have it, use it with slow flash (it makes the flash come at the end of the long exposure so people stay in place for the whole exposure, ending with the flash).
If you dig deep into your menus you might also find flash output power (usually change from normal to high or to low). This can also be useful in certain situations, just try it if the normal flash power doesn't look good. 

Macro (little flower icon):  on most pocket cameras you have this option, that allows you to take pictures of small stuff from really up-close. Not much to know, put it in macro, put the camera as close as you can still focus and take the picture. Don't forget to turn off the macro mode when you're done.

Timer: useful mostly to take group pictures with you in them, but generally when you have a tripod this is good because you can take pictures without shaking the camera when you press the shutter release button (for this they sometimes have a 2 second delay mode in addition to 10 sec mode). 

To summarize:

When you are going out on the next trip, hike, vacation or whatever, take a few minutes to see what the menus on your camera have to offer. Most functions are self-explanatory. Try turning the dial to P to see all the options (most options don't even appear in Auto).  You don't need to read the manual, you don't need to read long reviews on every function your camera has. Just try stuff, look at the screen and decide what suits you better. A digital camera is an awesome toy, with lots of features, and it is too bad most people don't even know they have them.

No comments:

Post a Comment