Despite all the technology in the modern digital camera, the basics of photography have remained largely unchanged. Your camera still has:
- an aperture – the little hole on the lens that lets in a variable amount of light
- a shutter that determines the time of the exposure
- a capture and storage device – the microchip
You still point and shoot in the usual way, but there’s no need to buy a film or to wait for it to be processed – you just download the images on to a computer, send direct to a printer or email them instantly to friends.
The digital age has set photographers free from the limitations of film, printing, and other expenses, but the art of taking of good pictures hasn’t changed that much in the past 100 years.
Now you can shoot until your battery runs out, or your memory stick is full. So carry spare batteries and spare sticks. Keep shooting! Take lots of photos!
Nine tips for shooting great digital photos
- Get to know your camera
- How to hold your camera
- What ISO setting should you use
- Getting the exposure right
- Auto-exposure or manual exposure
- Auto-focus and focus lock
- When is manual focus better than auto-focus?
- Shutter speed
- And finally
1. Get to know your camera
Discover how your camera works. Read the manual. Explore the different parts of the camera. Switch it on, turn it off and then read on.
2. How to hold your camera
When taking pictures, keep your camera still while the shutter is depressed to avoid blurring the image. Even the smallest movement is enough to spoil your picture. The only real way to eliminate this is with a tripod. It can be tempting to shoot one handed, but using two hands will increase your stability.
- Use your right hand to grip the right hand side of the camera
- Place your forefinger lightly above the shutter release
- Curl your other three fingers around the front of the camera
- Your right thumb grips on to the back of the camera. Most cameras have some sort of grip
This will enable you to squeeze the shutter, rather than jab at it.
The positioning of your left hand will depend upon your camera but in general it should support its weight. Place your hand either underneath the camera or under a lens if you have a DSLR.
If you’re using the view finder to line up your shot, the camera will be close into your body,giving you more stability.
You can steady the camera further by leaning against a solid object, such as a wall or a tree, or by sitting or kneeling down.
3. What ISO setting should you use?
The International Standard Organisation (ISO) setting controls your camera’s sensitivity to light. The most common settings are 100, 200, 400 and 800, but some cameras range from 64 to 1600. Most people tend to keep their digital cameras in automatic mode and the camera selects the appropriate setting for the conditions you’re shooting in.
When you decide to override your camera and choose a specific ISO, you’ll find it affects the aperture and shutter speed you need for a well exposed shot.
The lower the number, the less sensitive your camera is to light. You use a slower shutter speed and have a cleaner image. ISO 100 is about normal for everyday use and will give you good crisp pictures.
However, if you decide to raise your setting, you’ll discover you can shoot at faster shutter speeds and with smaller apertures. But this produces more grainy-looking photos because the faster shutter speed gives a reduced exposure.
Higher settings are generally used in darker situations, for instance an indoor event when you want to capture some action in lower light.
- For sunny conditions, use an ISO of 100 or 200 for a cleaner image.
- For an overcast sky or evening time, use an ISO range between 400 and 800.
- If you’re taking a photo of a still object, always use a lower ISO setting. It allows for a longer shutter speed. If you’re shooting a moving object, then a higher setting which minimises blur is better.
4. Getting the exposure right – aperture
A wider aperture reduces the depth of field, so that only objects at the focal point are in sharp focus. This is superb for isolating a person from a busy background, but not so clever for landscape photos, where everything should be in focus.
Aperture is measured in ‘f-stops’. You’ll often see them referred to as f/number – for instance from f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6,f/8,f/22 (narrower aperture and broader range of focus). Moving from one f-stop to the next doubles or halves the size of the opening in your lens – and so the amount of light let through.
Cheap cameras have a fixed aperture, so exposure is affected only by the level of light.
More upmarket cameras offer programmed exposure modes, such as:
- Landscape – narrower aperture, greater depth of field, longer exposure
- Portrait – wider aperture, reduced depth of field, shorter exposure
- Sport – shortest exposure to freeze motion
5. Auto-exposure or manual exposure
Even with a fully automatic camera, you can modify the exposure in the same way as you would lock the auto-focus (see point 6 below). Most cameras read the light in the middle bottom half of the picture. That’s usually where the land mass is to be found rather than the excessively bright sky.
Similar to auto-focus, there are four steps to the process which also locks the focus at the same time:
- Look through the viewfinder and point your camera at the object you want correctly exposed.
- Press the shutter button down halfway to lock the exposure, and hold it there.
- While the exposure is locked, move the camera around to compose your shot within the viewfinder.
- Once you have the composition right, press the shutter button down all the way to take the picture. Many landscape photos turn out too dark because the exposure is overly influenced by a bright sky. Try lowering the camera so the light meter exposes more for the foreground area.
6. Auto-focus and focus lock
Almost all modern point-and-shoot digital cameras have some sort of auto-focus system which enables you to take excellent pictures with little effort. Most cameras focus on the central point in the viewfinder frame. Your subject – a person or something interesting in the foreground – will come out clear and sharply defined, providing it is located at that point.
However, every so often, the best results will need more careful thought and you may have to ‘tell’ your camera where to focus. For instance, what happens if you deliberately place your main subject off-centre and the picture background is positioned on the midpoint?
Your camera will still automatically fix its focus centrally on the background, but not your subject. You point and shoot. The background is clearly defined, while the most important part of the scene is out of focus. Accidental focusing on the background is one of the main causes of unclear pictures. But there’s a simple remedy.
There are four steps to the process which also locks the exposure (see point 5 above) at the same time:
- Look through the viewfinder and aim its focus point on your main subject. In other words, you centre your subject.
- Press the shutter button down halfway to lock the focus, and hold it there.
- While the focus is locked, move the camera around to compose your shot within the viewfinder.
- Once you have the composition right, press the shutter button down all the way to take the picture.
7. When is manual focus better than auto-focus?
There’s no golden rule here. Either manual or auto-focusing can give you first-rate results in most settings. Even so there are a few occasions when you might find it easier to switch to manual focusing. For instance, when you:
- take a close-up shot of a person, manual focusing will enable you to keep their eyes in perfect focus.
- shoot through glass or wire mesh fencing, your camera can easily get confused on where to focus.
- shoot fast moving subjects, such as a racing car, birds in flight, aircraft, or running animals, you stand a better chance of getting a clear subject with manual focus.
8. Shutter speed
Shutter speed is the length of time the shutter remains open when taking a photograph. In other words the time that your image sensor ‘sees’ the scene you’re attempting to capture. Along with the aperture of the lens (called the f-number), it determines the amount of light that reaches the sensor.
Shutter speed is measured in seconds – or in most cases fractions of seconds. The bigger the denominator the faster the speed. So 1/1000 is much faster than 1/30. In most cases you’ll probably be using shutter speeds of 1/60th of a second or faster. This is because anything slower than this is very difficult to use without getting camera shake. If you’re using a slow shutter speed (anything slower than 1/60) use a tripod or some type of image stabilisation.
9. And finally
If you’re completely baffled by a modern digital camera or have a reputation as a bungling photographer, if all your pictures are blurred, too dark, too light or just badly framed, then get someone else to take the pictures. There’s no shame.
You may ask a friend with a camera to step in or, still better, find someone from the local camera club, or email me for more advice.
A good picture is worth a thousand words. A bad picture is worse than no picture at all.
You may also find my article on news values of interest.