Photo Basics: Simple Rules for Taking Better Photos

Whether you take photos to create marketing materials, to track inventory or to post on your Web site, following the basic principles of photography and commanding a basic understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the camera will improve the quality of your photos. This article is divided into two parts. Today we’ll focus on the camera’s use, and tomorrow in Part 2 we’ll provide basic pointers on composition:

Learn How Your Camera Works
Most compact digitals are usually easy to figure out, with the occasional exception. Their owner’s manuals can be informative, and sometimes include useful tips. The better ones are actually fun to read as you discover and understand the camera.

Read your camera manual and try everything in the manual with the camera. At worse you’ll wear out the batteries and have to recharge them. Digital cameras are ideal to learn how to take better photos. They waste no film, and you can see the results immediately. Learning how to use a digital camera is half the fun of owning one.

The practical application of the knowledge gained from reading the manual is critical. Here are some items to watch out for when experimenting and learning how to use your camera.

Resolution and Compression
A digital camera yields its best images at the highest resolution and least compression. This does not mean that every photo has to be shot in an uncompressed format, but only that an uncompressed format — or one that applies the lowest compression — will produce the highest quality images.

In use however, the uncompressed formats take too long to store each image for an everyday use, since without compression an image at high resolution can have a very large file size. This is why all cameras offer a JPEG format with a minimum compression. Images take less time to store, and in most cases the resulting image is nearly indistinguishable from the uncompressed one.

Regrettably, most cameras are supplied with memory cards that lack the capacity to store more than just a handful of low-compression JPEG photos. To ensure the best image quality is available, purchasing a larger-capacity card should be a top priority.

Basic Functions: Flash Modes and the Effectiveness of the Flash
The vast majority of digital cameras use an “Auto” setting for their built-in flash. If the camera’s meter determines that the ambient light is insufficient for a clear, sharp image, the camera fires the flash. Yet that may not always be the best thing. Here are a few examples where knowing the flash range — the maximum distance the flash’s light will reach and effectively illuminate a subject — will help you decide whether to use the flash:

In a very large room: Without a subject placed within the range of the flash, steady the camera and turn off the flash. However, if the subject is closer than 10-to 3 feet from the camera, then the flash will probably be effective. Another option is to use the Slow-Synch flash mode if the camera has it, and steady the camera. The Slow-Synch mode will capture the foreground with the flash, and the background by allowing a longer exposure time.

Outdoors:Here again, unless the subject is well within the range of the flash, turn it off. The use of the flash forces the camera to use a specific shutter speed (1/30 or 1/60 generally) and that speed is unlikely to be suitable for the scene.

Fireworks: The built-in flash of a camera is hardly likely to help capture a fireworks display. Letting the camera flash will prevent it from using a low shutter speed.

Portraits: Good portraits are very difficult to obtain reliably when using a flash built directly into a camera. Even with systems such as red-eye reduction, the light from the flash is usually too directional and unflattering. Instead, try using daylight, or ambient incandescent lighting. Adjust the camera’s white balance to the dominant light source, and steady the camera before taking the shot. Alternatively, use the fill-in mode to light your subject while retaining a feel for the background.

Photos taken from inside a car or through a window: Unless the window is open, the flash will reflect back at the camera. Turning it off is better.

Program Modes
Whether the camera provides a straightforward Program mode or other modes such as Aperture and Shutter priority modes, learn to use them and apply them appropriately.

A standard Program mode usually provides better control over the camera than does an Auto mode. Many cameras allow the use of exposure compensation and white balance settings in the Program mode, but preclude their use when the camera is in Auto mode.

Aperture priority: This allows control over the depth of field — the zone of relative sharpness that the camera captures at a given aperture. You’ll find that the wider the aperture (small f-numbers such as f1.8, f2.8), the shallower the depth of field and that the smaller the aperture (high f-numbers such as f8, f11), the longer the depth of field. Use aperture priority to blur a distracting background, or to ensure that a scene is sharp from foreground to background.

Shutter priority: This function provides control over the speed at which the shutter operates. Fast action requires high shutter speeds to freeze the movement.

Special Controls
Most cameras provide additional controls and functions. Most important among these are:

Exposure compensation: This serves to correct, or bias the camera’s metering. It sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. The camera’s metering system isn’t infallible, and the manufacturer know this, which is why they provide a means by which the exposure decided by the camera can be adjusted in specific situations. For example, extremely white and reflective subjects can cause the camera to underexpose. Therefore, a positive compensation can help correct the error.

White balance: This is designed to provide a fine control over the way the camera “perceives” white and therefore determines all other colors. Although most cameras are ideally suited to daylight, some types of light throw the white balance off and in turn shift the other colors in the image. One of the best examples of this is fluorescent lighting, often found in many business environments. Adjusting the white balance for an unusual light source is generally preferable to simply leaving the camera to its default “Auto” setting.

Metering: In the vast majority of situations, the standard default metering of the camera will work just fine. However, once in a while, it will not be suitable for the subject. Many cameras provide at least one other metering system while some provide more. A Spot meter function bases the exposure (aperture and shutter speed) on a tiny area of the frame.

With a few camera models, the spot meter can be set to follow the focus point, a handy feature. Center-weighted metering takes into account two zones in the frame, a circular zone in the middle — larger than what the spot meter uses — and the rest of the frame. Usually, the two readings are combined in such a way that the central point receives greater importance than the periphery.

Optical zoom and digital zoom: If your camera provides a digital zoom only or both an optical one and a digital zoom, study their differences. The optical zoom does not change the image size or the resolution. The number of pixels used to describe the image remains constant. Therein lies the difference with the digital zoom.

A digital zoom works by capturing only the central portion of the entire image received by the camera’s sensor. It uses a software algorithm – or interpolation — to increase the size of the image. The interpolation of the original image data can cause the photo to become quite blurred, as the algorithm “invented” pixels to increase the image size.

Be sure to check out Part 2 of this article.

Adapted from

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Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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