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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Five Tips for Better Photography - Part 2

"His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision. He was indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man." - Thomas Jefferson on George Washington

In part one of my blog on this subject I wrote about preserving your digital files and he archival properties of various photographic media. In this part I will talk about the five tips, that if followed will dramatically increase the quality and viewability of your digital photos.

Photography has never been easier. Modern point-and-shoot cameras give amateurs access to many of the same techniques that professionals use to produce high-quality pictures.

And these cameras are growing more capable every year. High-capacity memory cards let you store hundreds of pictures. Zoom lenses offer versatility. Even 3-D cameras are starting to become available. Today, a relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot can give you all the tools you need to take top-notch photos. What's more, digital-editing programs offer you a virtual darkroom on your computer.

Technology has made many aspects of photography automatic. Cameras focus for you, set the color balance and determine the exposure. Some adjust for your shaky hand or identify and focus on the faces of people in your picture.

But remember that photography is about more than equipment. It's not your equipment that takes good pictures, any more than it's your pots and pans that cook a great meal. You, the photographer, are what makes a good picture — or a bad one. How you use your camera's features is more important than the technology itself, and your eye is the most valuable tool you have.

We're going to be focusing on digital photography here for a simple reason: Taking pictures with film has become a thing of the past for most amateur photographers. But remember that many of the same techniques apply whether you're shooting digital or film.

Tip No. 5: Adjust the Light

Think about it: What is a photograph? It's a record of light, nothing more or less. Many amateur photographers take light for granted. In fact, judging and adjusting the light is the key to taking good pictures. When you take a photograph you paint with light rather than a brush.

Diffuse light is better for picture taking than direct sunlight, which creates shadows and glare that can ruin a photo. Photographers love to shoot in early morning or evening when the sun is low. A cloudy day is better than a sunny one. If you have to shoot at midday, move your subject into the shade.

A flash can help if you use it properly. The pop-up flash on your camera is most valuable as a fill flash. Use it to light your foreground subject when the background is already bright. It will eliminate shadows and give the subject the correct exposure. Be careful when using a flash in low light: It bleaches colors and washes out your subject. And keep in mind that the light from most built-in flashes reaches less than 15 feet (nearly 5 meters) [source: Kodak].

You can shoot indoors without a flash. Just move your subject near a window. A bright, north-facing room is ideal. Use a piece of white poster board to reflect light onto the subject and improve your picture.

Flash can also make you subject look harsh and exaggerate any imperfections in the skin. It can also cause a condition called “Red Eye”. A very nasty thing that makes your subjects eyes look like something out of a horror movie. Even that silly feature on most point and shoot cameras called red eye reduction does a lousy job. The best way to reduce or eliminate red eye is to bounce your flash of the ceiling (use a white ceiling as a colored ceiling will alter the color of the light to the color of the ceiling) or use a diffuser over he flash. Even a layer of tissue paper will work.

Tip No. 4: Master the Focus Lock

One of the most disappointing things about photography is a photo that is out of focus. You really can’t tell if the image is in sharp focus by viewing on that little LCD screen on the back of the camera, but you sure can when you blow it up to 100% on your PC screen. Have you ever made a photos where the tree in he background was sharp and clear but you subject was out of focus?

The autofocus feature that comes with most cameras makes picture taking easy. But it can ruin your photos as well as improve them. The problem is that the camera usually focuses on an area in the center of the scene you're framing. If your subject happens to be off to one side, oops.

Learn how your autofocus works. On many cameras, you can adjust the setting, moving the focus area off dead center. Then experiment with focus lock. Point the camera at your main subject and depress the shutter release halfway. Hold it there. Move the camera until you have the composition you want. Push the button the rest of the way. Your subject will remain in focus and will be properly exposed. If you become adept at this technique, you will avoid those pictures in which the background is sharp but your main subject is fuzzy.

Focus lock also speeds picture taking. After you press the shutter to take a picture, there's a slight delay while the camera adjusts the focus. Holding the button halfway down leaves you ready to take the picture instantly, which can be important with action shots. Make sure that you determine how far away the subject will be when you take the picture and lock the focus on that distance.

Tip No. 3: Learn to Use a Tripod

No doubt the no. 1 cause of photos that are not sharp is camera movement. Even the act of pushing the button to take the photo will cause camera movement. While not too noticeable when using the wide angle setting of your lens it sure is when using the telephoto setting.

Watch people when they take a photo and see how they hold the camera. Most will use both hand clamped to each side of the camera with their arms partially extended while they look at the digital screen or through the view finder of a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex Camera). Some wise guys will use one hand and hold the camera out in front of their face. Both are wrong and will probably yield photos that are not as sharp as they could be.

Watch a professional. He or she grasp he camera with his right hand (left for you lefties) Their other hand is placed under the lens (not over it) so they can adjust the zoom ratio and the arm is bent so that the elbow is pushing on the chest. This method provides maximum support for the camera and can greatly reduce camera shake. This method doesn’t work will with the light weight point and shoot cameras.

A tripod is one of the most valuable pieces of equipment for amateur photographers and, because they mean carrying around an extra piece of equipment, one of the most neglected.

Start using a tripod and you're almost guaranteed to take better photos. There are many lightweight and inexpensive models to choose from, including tabletop varieties and ones that are little more than a clamp with a camera attachment [source: Calumet].

One reason that tripods are useful is that digital cameras are generally quite light in weight. That's handy, but it also makes them harder to hold absolutely steady when you press the shutter. And while some digital cameras can compensate for hand shake, a tripod lets you take the clearest pictures possible.

Tripods are great for shooting in low light. They let you take much longer exposures. This gives you crisper pictures and means you can increase your depth of field, the area that's in focus, by narrowing the camera's aperture. Taking pictures in low light without a flash can give you dramatic results.

A tripod also comes in handy when shooting with a telephoto lens, or when your zoom lens is on its maximum telephoto setting. A telephoto lens magnifies the image, but it also exaggerates any camera movement [source: Roberts].

Another big advantage of a tripod is that it forces you to slow down and look at the composition of your picture. You can set up the picture then adjust the lighting, change the focus or rearrange your subject. A tripod even enables you to get into the shot yourself, eliminating the "missing photographer" syndrome. Simply set the self-timer and move in front of the camera. Japanese tourists do this all the time.

Here's a rule of thumb to help you decide if you need a tripod: Compare the shutter speed to the reciprocal of the focal length, or zoom, of your lens. When you are shooting with a 50 mm lens, use a tripod if the shutter speed is slower than 1/50 of a second. If your lens is a 500 mm telephoto, you need a tripod for anything slower than 1/500 second.

Tip No. 2: Learn the Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a technique that was developed long before photography was invented and is still used today in other visual arts, like painting. Look at the painting of the great masters and you will never see a horizon line or the primary point of interest in the center of the picture.

It's a basic skill for improving the composition of your pictures. And a thoughtful composition is the main difference between amateur snapshots and professional-quality photographs.

Imagine a grid of four lines, two horizontal and two vertical, that divides the picture plane into thirds [source: Stephenson]. You end up with nine equal sections. Try to place your main subject at one of the four spots where the lines intersect. That means not in the middle and a bit higher or lower than center.

When shooting a landscape, put the horizon at one of the horizontal lines. Use the upper one if you want to emphasize the foreground. Place the horizon at the lower line to make the background more prominent. Align buildings or other straight objects with one of the vertical lines. Click here to see some examples of the rule of thirds.

You need to be aware of the rule of thirds, not obsess over it. Sometimes breaking the rule will give you a great picture, too [source: Rowse]. But knowing the principle lets you analyze pictures and see how they could be improved.

Get Close. “If your photographs are not good enough, you are not close enough" [source: Varp]. This quote by renowned photographer Robert Capa (one of my photojournalist heroes) emphasizes another key composition element: Your main subject should fill most of the area of your picture. Photos that focus on details are often better than those that include a variety of elements.

Tip No. 1: Read Your User's Manual

How many of you have read your camera manual? If you have read it how much do you remember? Most people never read the manual beyond the Quick Start section. Your digital camera is packed full of features and its manual is packed full of words to help you understand and use those features to your advantage.

Many camera manuals are small in size with even smaller print. They can be hard to read. Many cameras come with a CD that contains some junky editing software and a PDF version of the manual. If you do not have a PDF version of your camera’s manual check the manufacture’s Web site to see if they have one available for downloading. I know Nikon does.

Do as I do and copy the PDF version to your PC so you can access the manual quickly, search for topics and enlarge the size of the type on your screen. I will even print out sections to take in the field with me when I am trying something feature I have not used before. Also, if you lose the manual you have the file on your PC. I usually take my notebook PC with me on my trips so I have the manual and I can back up my photos to an external hard drive. If you don’t take your notebook PC on trips with you at least pack he manual in your camera bag or suitcase. You won’t regret it — they don’t weigh much.

Reading the user's manual or guide may not seem like much of a technique. Most of us would rather run out and shoot pictures rather than wade through 150 pages of instructions (my Nikon D700 manual has 472 pages). But reading about and understanding the features of your camera can make you a far better photographer — believe me.

To begin with, it will familiarize you with all those buttons, dials and menus. Most cameras today have a host of useful functions. You'll probably never use all of them, but many can be valuable for improving your picture taking:

Learning about aperture priority can help you to control the depth of field, bringing a large range into focus or blurring the background when you want to.
  • Changing the ISO setting can make your camera more sensitive to light, and it can also reduce picture quality.
  • Adjusting the white balance will yield better pictures when you're shooting in artificial or colored light.
  • Exposure bracketing means taking three pictures: one at the correct exposure, one underexposed and one overexposed. This technique is helpful in difficult lighting situations.
Remember that just reading the manual is not enough. You need to experiment with each of the features and see how they affect the pictures you take. But don't try to master the whole thing at once; read up on one feature and use it before moving on.

If you want to print or enlarge a picture, your manual will tell you how to maximize the quality by shooting at high resolution. Some photographers save their pictures in RAW mode, which records the most information from each shot and gives the photographer the most options for manipulating the image on a computer [source: Howell].

For more information about shooting in camera Raw read my blog post by clicking here

For more tips and tricks for taking better digital photos please click here.

I hope you will find these tip useful in making better digital photos.

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