Following up on the previous two posts, I wanted to quickly provide more info on some common camera settings that can go a long way towards better photos. I’ll stay away from too many details since there’s a lot already on the web, but these simple tips should be easy enough to keep in mind when out and about. By the way, you might want to read up on the previous two posts about selecting a camera and what to focus on for better vacation photos.
Regardless of the camera my friends have, here are the typical things I hear:
- The camera doesn’t take photos fast enough! The dog/kid/alien visitor have already gotten away before I can take a picture!
- Everything’s blurry/dark/blah!
- The flash photos just suck!
Half-press to be ready
For the first point, most point-and-shoots will take longer to get focused and ready to actually take a photo. Big SLRs are faster at this, but it still may not be fast enough if you’re not prepared. Regardless of the camera you’ve got, there’s a trick to lessen the impact. Basically, you want to half-press your shutter button. This will force the camera to get focused and get its settings all sorted out. You’ll hear the camera doing its thing and it may even beep once it’s ready. Once done make sure you keep the button half-pressed and then WAIT. Wait for the perfect moment. If you want your kid looking at the camera, wait for the camera to do its thing, then call your child and as soon as they look, press the shutter the whole way. There will still likely be a small lag, but it’s a LOT less than if you go from unprepared camera to full click.
Like I mentioned in the last post, this requires you to be in the moment. Getting a fun, interesting photo typically means more than just quickly turning on your camera and yelling, “Wait! Let me take a picture! Hold On! Hold On! Okay smile!” Hang out with your kid, your dog, your little green friend. If you’re mentally prepared, you’ll know when to get your camera prepared with the half-pressed shutter, and you’ll end up with a higher rate of cool photos.
This is covered in much more detail all over the web and in books, but to recap…the basic variables in a photograph are:
- The shutter speed – how long the camera actually exposes the photo (typically measured in fractions of a second like 1/60th)
- The aperture – the amount of light the camera lets in while exposing (a smaller f-stop number actually means more light is being let into the camera so f/2.8 means more like than f/4…I won’t get into the ratios, because it can be confusing)
- The ISO – how sensitive the camera is while exposing (based on the film world, typically noted as 200, 400, 800, 1600, etc; the higher the number, the more sensitive)
Rather than explain how to set each one, I’m going to propose something which may surprise you: Use your camera’s creative modes like Portrait, Landscape, Sports, etc. As weird as it sounds, I think it’s actually a great way to learn. As I mentioned two posts ago, camera companies spend a lot of time and effort making their cameras “smart” and so I think it’s a good idea to take them up on the help they’ve built into the camera. Don’t ALWAYS rely on it, but it’s a great starting point. So here’s what you should do if you want to learn what each of the basic settings does:
- Take a photo in Portrait mode
- Take the same photo in Landscape mode, Party mode, Sports, mode, etc
- Compare the photos and compare the settings – you’ll notice something like this:
- Portrait mode has a small f-stop number; there might be flash, there might not be
- Landscape mode has a high f-stop number; there’s no flash
- Sports mode has a quick shutter setting; there’s no flash
- Party/Night mode has a long shutter setting and probably a small f-stop number; there’s flash
Basically, I’m asking you to see the patterns and keep them in mind for when you feel confident enough to move away from the creative modes
- When taking photos of kids running & playing or (non sleeping) dogs, try settings similar to Sports mode – fast shutter speed (like 1/100 or less) This will help stop the action.
- When taking kids or pets not running around like crazy (like maybe sleeping or relaxing), try settings similar to Portrait mode – small aperture number (like f/3.5 or less if your camera allows it) This will let you take advantage of all the light in the room resulting in a more natural photo without having to use flash.
- When taking photos of an indoor party, try something like Party/Night mode – slow shutter speed (like 1/50) with flash on. If your flash can be turned to the ceiling, then do it! This will light up the background without overexposing your friends faces.
I haven’t mentioned ISO above because I see it as a secondary adjustment that can get things just right, but only if you need it. Generally, keep your ISO at 400…it’s a good place to start with anything. If you follow the above guidelines but all your photos are too dark, then try raising your ISO (640, 800, etc). If the photos are too bright, then lower the ISO (200, 100, etc). Keep in mind that the higher your ISO, the grainier your photos will be. This may or may not matter to you, but it’s worth a try.
Now, your specific camera may not be able to do all these settings, but all of the cameras I mentioned two posts ago can do it. Yeah, an SLR gives you a lot more flexibility with this stuff, but you don’t NEED an SLR. I know I’m pounding your head with this over and over, but the most important thing is to actually spend time taking your photos! The tips above are great starting points, but they’re not much use if you only pick up your camera the moment something interesting happens – by the time you turn on your camera, recall which settings you want to use, and finally press your shutter, the moment has already passed!
So grab your camera today, tomorrow, this weekend, whenever you have time…and have fun!
[UPDATE: On Twitter, Ben Cardy (@benbacardi) asked why I recommend ISO 400 as a good starting point. Fact is, the lower the ISO, the less grain you'll get, but with the SLR I use (Canon 5D Mark II), I find 400 to be most useful and provides a good balance so I don't have to keep flipping the ISO settings when taking photos around the house & around town. However, your starting point may well be lower. Ben has a Canon 350D (Canon Rebel XT) and finds ISO 200 to be the best balance between grain and usefulness. So give the setting a whirl and find what works best for you.]