Eric Baker

Taking good
photos

v4.0  22 November 2017  © Eric Baker
www.chericbaker.co.uk




Contents

Principles
Software
Camera
Being in control
Taking good videos

Some people mainly use their phones for photos. Some are not too bad in low light now despite their tiny sensors but they all suffer from a fatal flaw - fixed wide angle lenses. Even the latest top end Apple phone is not really an exception, with one wide and one very wide lens. You can zoom in on the screen but that's just digital zoom, ie throwing away pixels and just keeping the central ones. That quickly leads to very poor image quality.

Sure, you can get good results from a little digital camera with a few scene modes. But it's fairly hit and miss and if you want a particular effect there's often no way to force the camera to give it to you. That's because all those scene modes are incredibly crude attempts to guess what might be going on and what you actually want.

The trouble is the camera hasn't a clue, for example, whether:
This guide is all about how to get in control of your picture taking and assumes you are interested enough in photography to have a camera that allows you to take charge, with you in control of the main variables, aperture, shutter speed and film speed.
My Pentax K-50 I'm just a keen amateur photographer but I do have three cameras of differing size and capability (shown here) and this is my contribution to helping people get happier with the photos they take. Most important of all is being interested, inquisitive and being at the right place and time with a camera. That's why I have a big SLR plus a medium sized Nikon with twin lenses (both great in low light) plus a small sensor Sony with a lens that zooms out to 720mm and is fairly portable. All three offer the Aperture Priority mode I nearly always use and all are pretty good to 1600 or even 3200 ISO (that really helps in low light when you don't want to use the flash). The Pentax SLR is excellent at ISO 6400 and goes to ISO 51200! All have a popup flash so it's impossible to flash in error. I also have a reasonable camera on my Moto G4 Android phone - not much good compared with a real camera (no zoom is a killer) but sometimes the only option. For videos my Nikon 1 J5 is excellent.

Sony HX60

Nikon 1 J5

Principles

You should always be observant and try things out. With digital it doesn't matter if a lot of shots are thrown away. I've found that informal shots of people can often work better than posed set piece ones.

For portraits avoid being too close (that makes people look wider than they are). Use some zoom and take shots people like. It's no accident that people are using selfie sticks to try to make selfies look a bit less awful.

It also helps keeping the main subject off-centre. The fancy name for this is "the rule of thirds", but basically just try to avoid taking pictures with a main subject right in the centre. Cropping once the images are on the computer can help here.

Try all sorts of different lighting conditions and remember to use fill flash if your main subject is silhouetted or darker than the background. Fill flash should be used far more than it is by most people. Try to keep learning - the camera does not take pictures that look like what your eyes see, so learn to take advantage of that difference. A classic example is that spectacular looking views can look really boring in a photo but some seemingly mundane subjects can look great.

Always think of the purpose and likely fate of a shot. Is it a candidate for blowing up and putting in a frame? Or telling a story? If the latter, people shots often work well. Or it may be showing how the seasons change. Here are a few shots of mine, four from my DSLR, (and yes, the lion was very close):




Informal portrait


Venice
The great enemy of good photos is insufficient light. The better, bigger and more expensive the camera (and in particular the bigger the sensor) the better it will cope but you can give a lesser camera a real advantage with a steady base. This could be a wall, a tripod, mini tripod or hiking pole with a camera mount. Most ordinary digicams really struggle with sunsets if hand held. Newer cameras are getting much better at low light, high ISO shots.

Be careful, particularly if posting images on the internet (eg on flickr.com), that you are not going to run into problems to do with copyright: did you know that in the UK photos of sculptures are yours absolutely only if the sculpture is on permanent display? Many exhibitions of paintings are also very restrictive. Even if the ban on photos is only in the small print of the exhibition guide you could get in trouble for publishing photos you took in all innocence. Images of children and foreign military installations could also cause problems.

I take some shots that I know are never going to be worth printing, let alone framing. But they help tell a story, maybe about a holiday or social event. They're worth keeping on the computer and in my flickr collection (900,000+ views and rising fast). My very favourite shots I copy into an 'Originals' folder before doing anything to them. That way if I want to blow them up to frame them, or whatever, I've got the full image as it came from the camera.

swan

concentration

Software

Don't cut corners with software. Faststone Viewer is an example of an excellent and free piece of software for viewing, deleting, rotating and renaming images. But it's not a proper image editor.

Rather than slum it with free software (or what came with the camera, which is usually pretty useless for editing images) why not splash out on something much better, eg Photoshop Elements. That allows you to correct badly exposed images instantly, remove skin blemishes and power lines plus a host of other features. It's even quite easy to add yourself into a shot you took - I find that better than the cut off heads and frozen smiles you can get from timer shots. Eg I took the shot to the right then added myself in from another photo. But now I can control 2 of my cameras from my phone and get myself in the original image.

Going upmarket you could go for Adobe Lightroom - very fancy although it does lack some image editing functions and I don't like the way it works - you can only see the editing changes you've made in Lightroom itself unless you re-export the images. I much prefer having the final, processed image there on the hard drive, visible to any software, rather than split between an unprocessed image and changes hidden in a private Lightroom database.

At one stage I wanted to take some ultra wide angle interior shots. Rather than buy a really expensive lens I installed Microsoft's free and updated ICE (Image Composite Editor) software and it's amazingly good at stitching together overlapping photos. Here's ICE's superb pre-cropping stitch job on 11 hand held shots covering 360 degrees:
ICE 360 deg panorama

My post processing guide covers in much more detail how to process and publish your images after you get them onto the computer.

Camera

The camera itself is pretty important. There always seems to be a trade-off between size, price and image quality so I have one big, one medium and one smallish superzoom and accept that I'm going to miss some shots because I didn't lug a bigger, better one along. But on safari I loved having an SLR with a long lens. I've also got a reasonable camera on my phone (as long as the light is good and a wide angle shot is OK). As far as I can see megapixel counts are pretty much irrelevant - it seems to be sensor and lens size that mainly determines image quality. And bigger Marrakech medina cameras also tend to have far better flashes. Another vital factor is the zoom - all my cameras start at a nice wide 28mm or better but zoom out quite long too. That helps a lot with getting shots not otherwise available, eg the cart guy in Marrakech, who wasn't keen on the idea of a photo but with a 300mm zoom I was a long way away. Do read the detailed reviews before choosing. My opinion is that there's no such thing as a single camera good in all situations and the ones that try to be tend to be expensive. I've basically got three bargain cameras (mostly bought as their price plummeted as a newer model was launched) for different roles.







Me photoshopped into a pic I took



Barbados sunset



Hunte's Gardens Barbados

With a camera that doesn't allow you to be in charge (eg most small digicams) do try to learn how its different modes work. Try out portrait, landscape, sports etc modes. I tried them all on a little Ricoh, pointed at a wet garden, and was a bit shocked to find (when I checked the images in Fastone on the computer) that all of them had pretty much the same settings: 1/65 sec, F4.5, ISO 100-110 with the sole exception of sports mode, which kept to F4.5 but reset the shutter to 1/230 sec and wound the film speed up to ISO 320. That keeps things sharp at the expense of graininess. So basically I had no control over depth of field with my little camera but the Fuji then Sony that replaced it were much better.

Infinity focus is something to find out how to set - any time you take a picture though glass, eg from a plane, there is a danger the camera will ruin the shot by focussing on the glass. If there is no infinity focus lock then landscape mode may work.

My camera buying guide has much more information on choosing a camera.

swan

Being in control

lions If you have a camera with semi manual modes such as aperture priority you are in for a real treat because they let you learn to get the very best result you can in different conditions. The lion cub here is sharp yet the grasses closer and further are deliberately blurred. The mother is not quite sharp due to movement blur (SLR: 1/200" F10 ISO400 - I should have been on ISO800 despite the bright light). The three main variables you need to manipulate are:
The smaller the lens aperture is set the higher the 'F number' will be and the more of the image will be in focus; eg at F11. But the narrower the aperture the slower the shutter speed will be or else you need to boost the film speed to compensate. A lot of professional images Depth of field diagram show a deliberately restricted depth of field (what's in focus) due to a wide aperture, eg F2.8. This means that only items at around the same distance as whatever you focus on will be sharp; nearer and farther objects will be out of focus to a degree (much more so with a big lens and sensor). This is actually very much like our eyes work anyway, so such images can look superb. A wide aperture, letting in lots of light, also takes the strain off the shutter and film speeds. Because aperture and depth of field are so important I usually leave all my cameras on aperture priority (where you set the film speed and aperture manually and the shutter speed is adjusted automatically). If the shutter speed gets too low I just raise the film speed. I know when that's necessary - some stupid automatic scene mode doesn't.

The diagram shows how aperture determines depth of field - open your lens (eg F3 or so) to deliberately focus just on the main subject and close it down (eg F8 on a small camera, F16 or more on an SLR) to get foreground and background in focus too. Get in control! On my Pentax SLR I've got a second hand F2 50mm non zoom lens and have found (with a big SLR sensor) that that is more than enough to get an extremely shallow depth of field. There's an absolutely brilliant site that lets you simulate the depth of field achievable with different sensor sizes. I put in the sensor sizes for my 3 cameras (1/2.3", 1" and APS-C) and had fun with the sliders.

Camel silhouettes Generally you want a shutter speed that will avoid camera shake. The camels were lurching so much I had to set the film speed to ISO 400 and open the lens wide (F2.8) to get the necessary 1/1000 sec shutter speed. The crucial values will vary according to how steady you are, whether you have anything to lean on, the size of camera and whether it has mechanical anti-shake. This is where the sensor or lens elements are moved to compensate for camera shake that happens while the shutter is open. I find that anything slower than 1/60 sec is pushing it hand held with a small camera. A tripod is one answer and even a hiking pole with a camera mount can help a lot. And bigger cameras are easier to hold steady, especially with anti shake and a viewfinder as in my Pentax K50.

Film speed is a residual. The lower the film speed, eg ISO 100, the better the image quality. As you raise the ISO value, eg to stop the shutter speed falling too low, the image starts to lose quality and become grainy. Depending on the camera and the quality/size of its sensor this can start happening by ISO 800. At ISO 1600 and above there's often a lot of speckling, eg dark areas with speckles of green and purple on what should be a plain colour. But sometimes a high ISO is necessary to get any sort of shot in low light out of flash range. And my Pentax K50 and Nikon J5 are still very crisp at ISO 1600 or even 3200. The Pentax only goes very slightly speckly at the extreme ISO settings of 6400 and 12800 and will go all the way to ISO 51,200 in an emergency. The shot to the right was ISO6400, hand held, no flash in very dim light.

Here's a table of equivalent values, looking at a single (rather gloomy) view on a tripod with a small sensor camera:

Shutter speed
(sec)
Aperture
(low=wide)
ISO (film
speed)
Comments
1/60 F2.8 200 Narrow depth of field but won't freeze action
1/30 F4 200 Risk of camera shake
1/15 F5.6 200 Tripod only
1/8 F8 200 Tripod only - mostly in focus
1/125 F2.8 400 Narrow depth of field, faster shutter
1/60 F4 400
1/30 F5.6 400
1/15 F8 400
1/250 F2.8 800 At ISO 800 graininess may be setting in, especially with smaller camera sensors
1/125 F4 800
1/60 F5.6 800
1/30 F8 800
1/60 F8 1600 Quite grainy on some cameras
1/125 F8 3200 Grainy on many cameras but useful for low light, no flash situations
1/125 F5.6 6400 Very grainy on some cameras but fine on my Pentax K-50
Now you've waded through that heavy table of equivalents it's time to go out and take lots of shots in modes such as aperture or shutter priority.

Try varying film speed as well as aperture and shutter speed. When you unload the images look at them carefully (eg in Faststone Viewer - go full screen then push the mouse to the right to see 1/200", F8, ISO800 etc) to see what the differences are. Years of fun ahead!



WA flowers

Web on Nash sculpture

Spider orchid, WA

Kangaroo paw

Lavender

Wildebeest

Spider web















ISO6400 shot

Taking good videos

Not something I've done that much of (I use my cameras for occasional video clips and have got quite good at editing and joining clips in Sony Vegas) but here are some words of wisdom from my brother:

Think carefully about what works professionally, on TV and in films. Above all:
Use a tripod for most scenes (even if the camcorder or camera has image stabilisation). Avoid extravagant panning and zooming. Probably what works best is a succession of short scenes, well lit and each taken from a fixed position. When stitching them together avoid fancy transition effects and be ruthless at discarding less good scenes.

By all means add background music but don't let it dominate and make sure it's not breaching copyright.

I found video editing software quite alien at first but I've diligently made notes as I've worked things out and can now quite quickly trim, fade and combine clips. I use Sony Vegas Platinum but there are plenty of alternatives. I doubt I've ever saved anything longer than three minutes so it doesn't take long, although I was disappointed that a low end graphics card I fitted didn't speed up rendering. Click on the filmstrip image to the right to see one clip, taken with a pocket camera.



Video camera from wikimedia








Video clip