It doesn't matter how expensive, advanced or 'intelligent' digital cameras become, they're still going to turn out the occasional dud.
Lots of indoor and low-light shots are ruined by flash when the available light would have made a much better picture. Landscape shots often suffer from 'blown' (overexposed) skies because the camera's concentrated too much on the foreground.
It's not really the hardware's fault. Cameras can't think for themselves. The secret of getting the most out of a digital camera is to understand its limitations and when you're going to have to step in and take charge. The camera's doing its best, but it doesn't know what you know.
While there's no way that we can give specific advice for every shooting situation you're likely to encounter, every unusual lighting setup that might interfere with the shot or every possible mix of speed and quality to impress friends, family, or even employers, most photographic problems stem from the same handful of issues. You need to be aware of these before clicking the shutter.
Photoshop and similar programs can work wonders, but not miracles. A well-exposed photograph will not only look much better right now, it'll give you much more scope to add your own flourishes later, from simple touch-up work like sharpening, to snappy special effects.
You don't need a hyper-expensive camera for this, most of the tips are just as valid for a portable point-and-shoot as they are for a solid budget digital SLR like the Nikon d60 or a full professional rig with all the best glass. Let's get started with a simple, if seemingly counter-intuitive tip, that will instantly improve your shots.
Turn off the flash
Built-in flashguns must have seemed like a good idea at the time. When it was too dark to take pictures, you needed some other way of lighting the scene, and the on-camera flash was born, producing harsh, short-range lighting. But then the makers thought they'd get clever.
They made cameras that fired the flash automatically if the built-in light metre decided it was too dark to do without. And that's how it's been ever since, despite the fact that this is often the worst possible solution.
This is why party shots look as if they are illuminated by a miner's helmet. It's why cameras are (largely) banned in stately homes, galleries and museums, and it's why sooner or later you're going to suffer the crushing embarrassment of being ejected from a concert or theatre because you forgot to turn your camera's flash off.
And it's all so unnecessary. Today's cameras have maximum ISOs of 1600 or higher, which means, in broad terms, that it's possible to shoot in the dimmest ambient indoor lighting without flash, and you'll preserve the ambience much more effectively as a result. True, higher ISOs mean lower quality, but that's nothing compared to the ghastly lighting of the on-camera flash.
It is possible to use flash diffusers, or 'bounce' the flash off nearby surfaces to produce a softer effect, but built-in flashguns don't have the power for this. It needs professional flash units and professional lighting experience, too, in most cases.
One common trick with dedicated flashguns that anyone can do is to bounce the light off the ceiling instead of aiming it straight at the target. This greatly improves the quality of the image, but can lead to some unusual shadows.
In other words, turn off your camera's flash and use the available light instead. The flash has its uses, but it should not be used as the main source of illumination.
Pre-focus your shot
Shutter lag is that seemingly interminable delay between the moment you stab at the shutter release and the moment the camera actually gets round to taking the picture. It's not even the same every time. It's why so many of your photos aren't the perfect image you staged.
The cause is simple. For every single shot you take, the camera's autofocus system will check the focus, even if you're taking an identical shot to the last one. The delay may be long, it may be short. Some cameras quickly spot the subject hasn't moved and confirm focus much faster. Some insist on doing a complete scan of the entire focus range just in case.
Focusing is usually faster at wider zoom settings and slower when you zoom in, but not always. SLRs generally focus faster than compacts and it's also easier to see them 'snapping' into focus because they have a high-quality optical viewfinder. Some compacts, meanwhile, are much faster than others. Sony's Cyber-shot models, for example, respond almost instantly to 'grab' shots in a way that no other maker seems able to match.
Pay no attention, by the way, to manufacturers' quoted 'shutter response' times. These are typically of the order of a ten thousand billionth of a second or some such amount. The point is that this figure does not include the autofocus time. It's about as much use as a car manufacturer telling you how quickly you can push the accelerator to the floor.
Exact timing is crucial to so many photographs. You need the shutter to fire at the exact instant you want it to. And for this you need to use the two-stage shutter release technique. Most digital photographers pick this up pretty quickly anyway, but it's worth repeating.
First, line up the shot and halfpress the shutter release. This 'locks' the autofocus. In other words, you're getting the autofocus delay out of the way before it matters. Second, keep the shutter button half-pressed until the moment is perfect. Now press the button – the shutter will fire instantly.
There are two main causes of blurred shots: camera shake and faulty focus.
Camera shake happens when the camera moves during the exposure. In theory, there's always going to be some camera movement with handheld shots, but if the camera's shutter speed is high enough, it won't show.
So how do you know if your shutter speed is high enough? The technical answer is that if the shutter speed is slower than the reciprocal of the focal length, camera shake is likely. So if you're using a focal length equivalent to 30mm, say, shutter speeds slower than 1/30sec won't be effective. Or, if you're using a 500mm equivalent lens, you need a shutter speed of 1/500sec.
These are, however, misleadingly precise measurements of something that can vary an awful lot. A general answer is that if you're zoomed out for a wideangle shot, you will probably be fine with a shutter speed of 1/30sec. If you're using a 3x zoom at full stretch, 1/90sec is starting to get marginal, and with a 10x zoom at maximum range, 1/500sec is probably as low as you should go.
Today's cameras try to protect you from yourself by automatically adjusting the lens aperture and ISO to keep shutter speeds 'safe'. If that's not possible, many will show a little 'shake' icon on the LCD to warn you (or fi re the fl ash... arrrgh!). But when you start adjusting the camera settings manually, the camera can't protect you any more and you do have to be aware of the risks of too slow a shutter speed.
You can also get blurred shots because the camera has focused on the wrong thing. Multi-point focus systems are a good idea in principle because it means the camera can focus on subjects which aren't in the centre of the frame. But how do you know what the camera's going to focus on? And is it what you want? Multi-point AF systems typically give focus priority to whatever is nearest the camera, but that's no good if it just happens to be some irrelevant foreground detail.
The simplest autofocus configuration is a single, central AF spot. This is an option on most cameras. Now you just centre the object you want to focus on in the frame, half-press the shutter button to lock the focus and then reframe the shot how you want it. Focusing needn't be as complicated as multipoint AF systems make it.
The metering systems on digital cameras are highly sophisticated, but they can still get it wrong. Examples include 'blown' (overexposed) skies in landscape shots, white bridal gowns that come out a muddy grey, and black steam locomotives that also come out a muddy grey.
'Blown' skies are common with digital cameras for two reasons. First, digital sensors can't cope with bright highlights as well as film and overexposure produces a complete white-out containing no recoverable image data at all.
Second, modern metering systems are much better at measuring and allowing for the darker areas in the scene. So while you seldom get blocked-in shadows any more, you often lose the highlights. For the average snapper, that's probably the best all-round compromise, but bright skies are usually the first casualties.
You can usually spot this kind of overexposure on the LCD as soon as the image is displayed, and there are two easy ways to prevent it. The first is to tilt the camera slightly upwards to include more of the sky, half-press the shutter release to lock the exposure, then reframe and shoot.
The second is to use the camera's exposure value (EV) compensation control. Here, the camera still adjusts the exposure automatically, but you're manually applying a correction. If you get an overexposed sky, try applying a negative compensation of about 0.7 EV and shooting again.
You'll need the EV compensation controller again when you're shooting intrinsically light or dark subjects. The camera doesn't know it's pointing at a white wedding dress; it just sees a lot of light and reduces the exposure accordingly. Similarly, it won't recognise a steam locomotive as being black - it'll just see there's not much light and increase the exposure.
If you want white objects to look white, you have to manually increase the exposure – a correction of +1EV is a good starting point. This forces the camera to give more exposure, which makes your subject look brighter, which is exactly what it should be.
For intrinsically dark subjects like our steam locomotive, start with a value of -0.7 EV and see how it looks. You're making the camera reduce the exposure, and it's easier to get detail from shadows than highlights.
'Wrong' colours aren't supposed to happen with digital cameras. Auto white balance systems are supposed to analyse the colour of the light and correct it automatically. There are rare examples of cameras where this actually happens, but usually the camera's efforts at correcting the colours of different light sources are pretty half-hearted.
There are two classic examples of this. The first is when you shoot a portrait in the shade on a sunny day. In these conditions, your subject is being lit only by blue sky, hence the light has a distinctly 'blue' look which gives complexions an unhealthy pallor. To fix this, switch to the camera's 'cloudy' or 'shade' preset. This will warm up the colours and make your shot look more natural.
Similarly, indoor tungsten lighting results in a 'yellow' look. To fix this, manually select the camera's 'tungsten' or 'incandescent' preset.
If the colour of the light is an integral part of the picture – for instance the red of a sunset, or yellow of a candle – you don't want the camera to start 'fixing' the very thing you're trying to capture.
Instead of using auto white balance, trying leaving the white balance on the 'daylight' setting. The camera will now record colours exactly as they are without correction. And on those occasions where you don't want this, just switch to the appropriate preset. This is of most important when shooting JPEGs.
The point is that however sophisticated digital cameras become, they remain incapable of understanding what the subject is and what you might want it to look like. The trick is to understand what your camera's doing, realise when it's likely to get it wrong and then know what to do about it.
First published in PC Plus, Issue 276
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