Friday, September 24, 2010

Stop the Insanity and Take Better Photos!

Today, a post not about boudoir but about how to improve your own photos.

Like all technology, cameras have steadily improved in quality while dropping in price over the years. Today's point and shoot pocket cameras can pack 12 megapixels and higher and even detect blinking eyes and smiles! Their intelligence is truly amazing but they have yet to replace the human brain. That's why no matter how intelligent cameras get, there will always be a place for professional photographers like myself. Great photography is not a trivial matter and there are a lot of factors to juggle *simultaneously* while framing a great shot.

Easy Trick to Better Photos

There is one relatively simple trick towards getting better photos a lot of the time. I often see people taking photos with their SLR cameras, a nice modern piece of equipment. The light at the time is not the brightest, and I see the little pop-up flash on the camera come out. I watch the photographer look on the back of the camera and they work hard to hide their confusion and disappointment that the photo didnt come out nearly as well as they had hoped.

The reason is they assume the camera has enough brains to do the job -- they simply put the camera on auto and it should work. But the reality is that the camera makes some assumptions about how to take the shot which may well not be what you had in mind. The assumption they make is to take a good enough shot that you are unlikely to call customer service to complain about it. But a "good enough" shot more often than not does not make for a *good*, or artistic shot -- the kind of shot you hoped to get when you decided to shell out money for a higher grade camera.

So whats the secret sauce towards getting some good shots? Its called ISO.

ISO: Insanity Stopping Option

ISO refers to how sensitive the sensor in the camera is to light. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the camera, meaning it can more easily shoot in dark light settings, one of the more common environments to shoot in. It is a variable control -- you can set the ISO on most cameras.

So should you set the ISO high and leave it there and just keep things simple? Not necessarily. The trade off is that high ISO comes with a price -- the images are more noisy... "grainy". The camera does correctly set it low for most shots because it is trying to get the "cleanest" shots it can. But it chooses this strategy to a fault, opting to using the built in flash to add light when the scene is too dark instead of increasing sensitivity.

Why Does It Matter?

Well lets take a look at an example shot taken with and without flash.

Which shot is more appealing to you? Which feels like a more natural setting. Which feels like a more professional shot? Well presumably you agree that the shot on the left fits that description. It was taken without flash. The one on the right was taken with flash.

So if you agree that the left side shot is more appealing, lets take the two apart and analyze why it seems better. This is a lesson in observation. Observation and analysis is a powerful tool in the journey towards better photos. And it is always a journey. We never "arrive" at great photography, we are always on a journey towards better photography.

Click on the photos to get a full size version to compare the finer details. The first and most obvious issue with on board flash is the egregious shadows it tends to leave in the worst places. Take a look at the shadow of the floor lamp cast onto the background behind my assistant's head. You dont see that in the non-flash shot. It makes for a jagged, ugly distraction from a pretty lady.

The second issue is that lighting from on-camera flash is coming essentially from your head -- a very unnatural type of light unless you're a miner wearing one of those lit miner's helmets. In this case, it lights up my assistant's head and arm, removing the natural shading that would ordinarily have been there. Notice how it makes her head and arm seem wider, larger. On-camera flash is some of the most unflattering light you can have. It also causes very amateur, "snapshot" looking reflections on shiny surfaces like the floor lamp stand -- notice you dont see that in the left hand shot. The reflections you see there are natural looking -- it is obvious they are coming from the lamp light itself, not from your miner-helmet light.

The ISO Penalty

Now as I mentioned before, the use of high ISO in lieu of flash does not come without penalty. Do notice that the book's cover in the left shot is no longer visible. There is no light on that side of the room, therefore in the left side shot you cannot see the cover. If the shot *you* are taking has an important feature to be included such as the cover, then that is an issue to address. Perhaps another light of some sort needs to be applied just to the book cover.

Another issue is the grain/noise I mentioned earlier. Notice in the two samples below the photos which are crops of the wall in the background, the left side shot has a much more grainy appearance than the right side shot. This grain happens *everywhere* in the shot, not just on the wall. It is less noticeable in areas with more significant texture like my assistant's face, or the pillow she is leaning on, but it is there and it can be significant in extreme cases. Nevertheless, this is a tradeoff that for a majority of cases, is worth engaging. I would rather have a natural looking, grainy shot, than a clean, amateurish looking shot.

I'm Sold -- How Do I Set the Insanity Stopping Option?

Probably the easiest way to do this is to simply go into the menu or push the ISO button if you have it on your camera, and set the ISO to a higher number. The maximum ISO is different for every camera -- some only go as high as 400, some higher than 120,000. Remember that the higher you go, the grainier and noiser the resulting shots will be, so you want to pick a maximum ISO that is right for you and the camera -- one whose noise you can tolerate. You will have to experiment with your camera to figure out what number that is.

If the camera won't let you change the ISO, look for a "Program" mode on the camera. Program is like Auto, except the camera will allow you to change certain controls like the ISO. It still controls the majority of the functions of the camera and will essentially act like "Auto", but taking some direction from you like the ISO setting.

Finally, the shutter speed will likely be slow which *can* result in blurry photos. Blurry photos of course don't do anyone any good. When taking the photo, be sure to hold the camera very steady and minimize any motion when pressing the shutter. Don't move the camera AT ALL until the shot is done. If the shot still comes out blurry, the dark lighting conditions may simply exceed the ability of the camera to deal with and you may be stuck using the flash. But at least, this is an option of last resort, not the FIRST option like the camera wants to do.

These helpful tips should help you get better quality shots more often. Happy shooting!


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