3) Using your camera

All cameras have basically the same features. They are generally referred to in a couple of different ways depending on the type of camera you have. Sometimes these settings are hidden by mountains, portraits, flowers, etc., so I've (non-exhaustively) included them as well. In short, here is what they do:
  • Exposure - changes the brightness of the image
  • Aperture (Av, portrait, mountain) - changes the amount of image that is in focus
  • Shutter Speed (Tv, little running man, waterfall) - changes how fast the image is sampled
  • Automatic Settings (P, auto) - sets the aperture, shutter, and possibly exposure automatically
  • Image Noise (ISO) - analogous to film speed, controls the graininess of an image
  • White Balancing (WB, sunny, shade, fluorescent) - controls the temperature of the light

How to hold a camera

One common problem that beginners in digital photography have is with camera 'shake.'  Hold your hand in front of you as still as possible, and take a look.  Those small vibrations are natural and different people have different amounts of steadiness. Now imagine if you camera is moving around as it's trying to take an image.  These vibrations cause the light to hit different parts of the sensor and make an image blurry.  Although, aside from shooting with a tripod, there is no way to completely remove camera shake, you can do a lot to mitigate it.

If you've ever shot at a target with a rifle, you'll know the drill.  Many of the concepts are exactly the same for both.  Find a stable body position, hold the camera with both hands, keep your arms close to your body, and control your breathing.  It's not guaranteed, but by improving your photography, you can probably improve your marksmanship as well.

Find a stable body position.  If your entire body is moving, you're starting from a bad spot.  If you're standing, stand with a bit of separation between your legs to provide stability.  I often try to find a tree, wall, or bench to lean on.  It's even better if you can put your elbow(s) on something solid.  I shoot almost exclusively without a tripods, so you'll often times see me trying to wedge myself into some corner for a stable shot.  Don't worry about looking silly.  The camera is pointing the other direction!

Hold the camera with both hands.  Your right hand is intended for camera controls, like the shutter button.  So, why do you even need to involve your left?  A second hand greatly aids stability.  Your left hand's function is to hold the camera's weight.  This is easier to do with a SLR because there is more body to it, but you can use your left with a compact camera as well.  With your left hand taking the camera weight, your right hand doesn't need to work as hard when pressing the shutter button, thereby creating less shake.  Make sure to remain as still as possible until after you've released the shutter.

Keep your arms close to your body
.  The farther the camera is from you, the more shake you'll have.  Try to keep your elbows in tight with your body.  With a SLR, you'll have the viewfinder up to your eye, so this is fairly natural.  With a compact, you may end up looking at a screen, but try to keep it as close to your body as possible.  Holding a camera with one hand, at arms length, is a good way to end up with bad photos.

Control your breathing.  This does not mean hold your breath for a minute.  It just means take a small breath and hold it for the 1 s you need to take the photo.  Then exhale.  If you find yourself holding your breath too long, you'll start shaking more as your body is running out of oxygen.

These rules hold whether you are holding the camera in a horizontal or a vertical (as shown above).  When you switch from horizontal to vertical, simply rotate the camera and keep your hands where they started.  Some cameras have the ability to add an extra battery and a special grip for taking vertical images.  This can help you avoid some strange contortions.  


The exposure settings deal with how light or dark an image is.  The camera is just a machine and it doesn't really understand what you're trying to take a photo of.  It could be that you're trying to take a picture of a grizzly bear at dusk or of a person walking in the desert at noon.  These are two extremely different cases in regards to how long the exposure should be for.  When I first was learning about exposure a Swiss guy explained it to me fairly succinctly.  In general, your camera isn't anticipating either of the previous cases. A "picture of a cow standing in a green field" is probably a better representation of what the camera is expecting. 

The exposure setting changes how the aperture and shutter work together to expose the image.  If too little light gets to the sensor, the image is called underexposed.  If too much does, it is overexposed.  You're aiming for something right in the middle as shown below.

 underexposed   overexposed

Luckily, most cameras give you the ability to change the anticipated brightness of the image.  On most cameras, you'll have a small bar ranging from about -3 to 3.  0 is the standard setting, and you can adjust it from there.  I find that my camera tends to overexpose images a bit, so I usually set the camera to about a third of a stop (the integer values are sometimes referred to as stops) down.  This gives me a bit more detail in the bright areas during post processing.  When I'm shooting, if I move into a new area, say from outdoors to indoors, I'll take a quick photo as a matter of course to see what the exposure is.  Then I can adjust it to correctly expose the image before being confronted with something that I'd seriously like to photograph.

One word of caution, if you change your exposure, make sure to change it back fairly shortly thereafter.  Otherwise you won't be very happy when you go from indoors to outdoors and find all your photos incorrectly exposed.

Av (Aperture Priority)

In aperture priority mode, you set the lens aperture and then the rest of the camera settings are automatically set to generate a correctly exposed image.  With compact cameras, this mode is sometimes approximated by portrait mode and mountain mode.  Portrait mode means that the camera attempts to keep the aperture as large as possible (low f-stop value) to get a very short depth-of-field to strongly separate the subject from a blurred background.  Mountain mode has a very small aperture (high f-stop value) which enables more of the scene to be in focus. 

This is a very common mode to shoot in with a SLR camera.  The ability to draw your subject out of the background of the scene through defocusing is a very powerful tool.  Yes, this can be approximated in Photoshop, but it's not quite the same. 

One small thing to keep in mind is that lenses tend to be softer when the aperture is wide open.  So, unless you have an incredibly good lens, either stop it down a bit (go from say F2.8 to F3.5), or be prepared for some loss of sharpness in your image.

Tv (Shutter Priority)

Shutter priority mode is primarily useful for controlling how your camera handles motion.  Point-and-shoot cameras often expose this feature through the running man mode and/or the waterfall mode. 

In general, your shutter speed should be roughly 1/(focal length at 35mm).  So, if you have a 70mm lens, then you should probably have at least less than 1/70th of a second shutter speed.  In other modes like Av or P (Program), this is handled for you. 

Some situations require more attention to the shutter speed.  I recently spent an afternoon photographing dogs catching frisbees.  Dogs move fairly quickly and the standard 1/f wasn't quite cutting it because the shutter speeds were around 1/100th of a second.  The dogs were moving so fast that the images were blurry.  So, I upped it to around 1/400th of a second (kind of like selecting running man mode).  Crisp pictures of dogs running.  If you look at the image, you can even see the raindrops being stopped in mid air.  If you're photographing sports or children, I'd suggest having a shutter speed less than 1/200th of a second (better 1/400th).  Same goes if you're on a boat.

You can manually set slow shutter speeds to get motion into the image as well.  This image was taken with the camera sitting on a ledge at the Kyoto train station.  I wanted to capture motion of the people as they go about their business.  So, I set the shutter speed to around a second and voilà.  Waterfalls (or any bodies of water for that matter) are particularly easy to photograph in this way.  If you set a long exposure and have either your camera on a tripod or resting on a rock, you'll end up with a nice foamy, frothy waterfall.

For slow shutter speeds, those below 1/f, you'll need to find a stable location for your camera.  One way to do this is to always carry a tripod.  Some people do, but I find it cumbersome.  I do carry a miniature tripod, around 150 mm long, in my bag because it isn't cumbersome.  If you find yourself without a tripod, any solid structure will do.  I often use windowsills, rocks, trees, cars, et cetera.  The key feature is that it is roughly pointing where you want and stable.  It's ok if you don't have the exact image framing you want when using a makeshift tripod.  You can always re-crop it later.

Another interesting strategy is to shoot a moving target with a slow shutter speed.  The goal is to keep the moving target at the same location in the frame for the duration of the shutter.  What happens then is that the subject appears sharp and the rest of the background is blurred.  To best do this, you need to start tracking the object in a continuously autofocusing mode (AI SERVO is good for this).  As you get ready to press the shutter you have to remember to keep moving the camera at the same pace as before so that even when you can't see the object it should still be at the same location in the frame.  It takes a bit of practice, but you'll get the hang of it.

With longer shutter speeds, you'll need to take a few photos before any turn out.  If I'm doing experimental stuff, I'm quite happy if I can get one in ten to come out.  With a long shutter speed and no tripod, you might not even get that, but it's still worth trying.  The results can be very rewarding.

P (Program) and Auto

Sometimes you don't want to have to concern yourself with the aperture or the shutter.  In these cases, cameras have Program and/or Automatic modes.  First off, don't feel bad about using them.  Some people think that if they have a SLR camera, they should do everything manually.  For me, the manual modes are for when the automatic really just isn't doing what I want.  In these cases, full manual is a life saver.  If I'm just walking around in a city, I generally can't be bothered to manually set everything up, when the camera can do it for me just fine.  Also, shooting manually has a bit more risk if you suddenly have to take a picture and your settings are for a different scene.

There is a subtle difference between Program and Auto on cameras that have both.  Automatic is generally just that.  You have very limited influence on the image aside from the image size and quality.  You often cannot even turn off the flash.  In program mode, you have slightly more control where you can enable/disable the flash, choose white balancing, and select between RAW and JPEG.  If I'm holding a camera with both Program and Automatic modes, I never use automatic. 


ISO is analogous to film speed or sensitivity.  As shown below, the higher the value the more speckle noise on the image.  The images below are from DP Review, and show the effect of changing the ISO setting.  As the noise is increased, it causes the image to look increasingly blurry.  Depending on how you have your camera set, it automatically adjusts the ISO to the minimum value possible for the given shutter speed and aperture. 

If it causes noisy images, why would one ever use a high ISO value?  Some situations have much less light such as shooting indoors or at night.  There is often a limit to how long you can set your shutter due to people moving in the scene or how stable you can hold the camera.  In these cases, the options are either put the camera away or raise the ISO.  I would generally rather have a noisy shot, than none at all!  Just remember to change the ISO back for the next day, or you'll end up very frustrated that you shot at ISO 3200 in broad daylight.

 Canon SD1100 ISO 80
 Canon SD1100 ISO 400 Canon SD1100 ISO 800 Canon SD1100 ISO 1600
 Canon 5D2 ISO 50
Canon 5D2 ISO 400
Canon 5D2 ISO 1600
Canon 5D2 ISO 3200

As you can see above, not all ISOs are created equal.  Even at ISO 3200, the SLR (5D2) has less noise than the compact (SD1100) camera, and this is from the same manufacturer!  The reason behind this is in part due to sensor size.

The SD1100 has a 8 million pixels on a 1/2.7" sensor, whereas the 5D2 has 21 million pixels on a full-frame sensor.  Comparing the sizes, it's clear that not nearly as much light is available on the compact camera's pixels as that of the full-frame sensor.  This reduction of light means the camera has less signal to work with, and thus a lower signal-to-noise ratio. In general, all compact cameras will have much higher noise than SLRs.  This is most noticeable in low-light situations because in broad daylight, there is plenty of light to go around.

White balancing

Light has different frequencies depending on what the source is.  This is sometimes referred to as the temperature of the light and analogously it has the distinction between cold (bluish) and hot (redish).  Your eye naturally accounts for this and adjust to keep white things white in various lighting configurations.  It's a bit harder for the camera to do that automatically, but it tries.  This is where your white balancing settings come in.  Most cameras have an automatic setting, as well as the ability to select different presets.  Below, you can see the same photo with the different white balance settings.

Here is where I find one of the major benefits of shooting RAW.  Remember how the camera loses information when saving to JPEG?  When you white balance an image in the camera and save it as a JPEG, it is very difficult to make major white balance changes after the fact.  When shooting RAW, you have 100% of the information, so you can correctly white balance it on your computer at home.  For this reason, I rarely even pay attention to the white balance setting on my camera, and generally leave it set to full automatic.  If you shoot JPEG, you need to be a bit more wary.

When white balancing on your computer, try to make the image look natural.  There is a white balance option in programs like Picasa, iPhoto, Aperture, and Lightroom.  Use it.  Taking the time to correctly white balance your photos can make an enormous difference.  I find that many cameras produce images of people that are a bit too cold (blue).  If you readjust the white balance to warm them up, the people look more natural.


Take home from this section

  • Reduce camera shake by holding your camera properly.
  • Lenses tend to be softest at their lowest f-stop, so consider increasing the f-stop if images are not sharp.
  • Shutter speed should be roughly 1/(focal length at 35mm).
  • Shutter speeds longer than 1/20th of a second are very hard hand held.
  • Makeshift tripods can be found anywhere there is something solid.
  • If you increase your ISO, don't forget to set it back.
  • White balance your photos.
Next Section: Composition