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 phones are not really exceptions, 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
The trouble is the camera hasn't a clue, for example, whether:
- the camera is hand held or on a tripod as you take a
shot of a great sunset - if you've got a steady base the camera
will probably ruin the shot (using sunset scene mode) by
over-boosting the ISO (film speed) and making it all grainy.
Or if it's hand held it may well leave the shutter speed too
slow, resulting in a blurred shot.
- for lots of shots do you want just the subject in focus
or foreground and background too? You
may know but the camera doesn't. In any case, cameras with
small sensors are pretty useless at those sort of shots except
maybe close up or even in macro mode.
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
I'm just a keen amateur photographer but I do have four cameras of
differing size and capability (shown here) and this guide 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 two medium sized Olympus cameras
(both great in low light) which share three lenses plus a small sensor Sony with a
lens that zooms out to 720mm and is fairly portable. All four 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 K50 SLR is excellent at ISO 6400 and
goes to ISO 51200! The Olympus PL9 and M10 II (Micro Four Thirds models, one of
which I got free to review) both go to ISO 25,600. 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
Olympus cameras are excellent.
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
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 wide 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):
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
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
(1,400,000+ 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
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
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:
covers in much more detail how to process
and publish your images after you get them onto the computer.
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, two medium and one smallish superzoom and accept that I'm going to miss
some shots because I didn't lug a bigger, better one (or an extra lens) 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
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 (two go to 24mm) but zoom out quite long
too, depending on which lens is fitted. 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 (and therefore unsuitable for leaving
on the beach as you go for a swim or under your seat when you go off to dance.
I've basically got three bargain
cameras (mostly bought as their price plummeted as a newer model was launched)
for different roles plus one I got for free to review.
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, or try having the lens really
close to the glass.
My camera buying guide
more information on choosing a camera.
Being in control
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:
- lens aperture
- shutter speed
- film speed
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
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 F2.5 35mm (53mm eqiv) and F1.8 50mm (75mm) 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 cameras (1/2.3", MFT
and APS-C) and had fun with the sliders.
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 and Olympus M10.
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 as low as ISO 800. At ISO
1600 and above some cameras have 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 Olympus cameras 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:
||Narrow depth of field but won't freeze action
||Risk of camera shake
||Tripod only - mostly in focus
||Narrow depth of field, faster shutter
||At ISO 800 graininess may be setting in, especially with smaller camera sensors
||Quite grainy on some cameras
||Grainy on many cameras but useful for low light, no flash situations
||Very grainy on some cameras but fine on my Pentax K-50 and Olympus cameras
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 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!
Taking good videos
Not something I've done all that much of (I use my cameras for occasional
video clips and have got quite good at editing and joining clips in Magix
Movie Studio 15) but here are some words of wisdom from my brother:
Think carefully about what works professionally, on TV and in
films. Above all:
- What is your story?
- Will it be interesting to the intended audience?
- Can it be made shorter without losing essentials?
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
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 doubt I've ever saved anything longer than
five minutes so it doesn't take long, although I was disappointed that
a low end GT710 graphics card I fitted didn't seem to speed up rendering.
Click on the filmstrip image to the right to see one clip, taken with
an Olympus M10 II camera.