DigitalCameraReview.com
Tips for better photos
by CalebSchmerge -  2/5/2008

With the new year underway, you've probably noticed some new kinds of content, in addition to our expert camera reviews and news coverage, showing up around DigitalCameraReview.com. Today we're launching the first official piece in our "DCR Workshop" series of informative feature articles about getting the most from your camera and growing your skills as a photographer. Each month, we'll tackle a different picture-taking tool, technique, or tip, covering everything from basic skills to using advanced editing software. Look for a new DCR Workshop installment at the beginning of each month, and as always, enjoy! - Ed.

I know that most of you reading this aren't aspiring to be professional photographers; you just want to snap some nice family photos. Even if you are just the basic "snapshot" only person, there is a difference between taking a snapshot and capturing a great, lasting memory.

The best photos don't happen by accident. If you are looking to get more than just snapshots of your family and friends, a few basic concepts can go a long way towards transforming your pictures into memories. The following tips are easy to do things that can help make sure you're ready to capture the moment, regardless of your camera.


Tip #1: Zoom Out

With modern digital cameras, many ruined or less-than-good photos are taken in low light situations. And "low light" doesn't mean it's completely dark in a room. Low light for a camera is much different than low light for humans. Generally, consider anytime you are indoors (in a room that isn't excellently lit) or outdoors near sunrise or sunset to be low light. That should cover the applicable times. So, what should you do to improve your photos? Get closer.

Exposure can get a bit confusing, but the basic idea here is rather simple. As you zoom out with your camera, the aperture (which controls how much light the camera lets in) is able to open wider, maximizing available light. This means that more light is entering the lens, and you are able to get a faster shutter speed, leading to nicer pictures (whether that is due to a lower ISO, less or no flash, or a higher shutter speed to prevent blurry images).

DCR Workshop
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Zooming in on a subject under ambient indoor lighting results in a dark image due to a more restricted aperture at the long end of the zoom range.

The basic formula for better pictures from a digital camera when considering exposure is to keep ISO as low as you can while keeping the shutter speed as high as you can (generally, though there are exceptions). When you open the aperture and let more light in, the shutter speeds go up and the ISO goes down. This means less graininess, less blur (from camera shake), and potentially less flash (which can create harshly lit photos). So, unless you have no choice, or a good reason not to, zoom out to help get the aperture open.

DCR Workshop
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For a better, brighter shot, move closer and zoom out.

Now, I know you bought a camera with a zoom lens for a reason, and I am not saying not to zoom in. Rather, I am saying that if you are taking a family picture, or something posed, zoom out and step closer. (Obviously, if you are taking a picture of a wild animal, this might not apply. Be sure to use common sense here!)


Tip #2: Pre-Focus

The biggest complaint that I hear with compact digital cameras, especially, is that they take too long to take a picture. This isn't really fair, though. If you use the camera to its full potential, it often doesn't take long at all. While they may not be as fast as more expensive digital SLRs, most modern point-and-shoot cameras are pretty quick if you pre-focus. "Pre-focus," you say. "What is that?"

It's simple: pre-focus is focusing the camera before you are ready to take the picture. The cool part is that it's really easy to do. Just press down lightly on your shutter button (the button to take the picture) and hold it in this position until you're ready to take the picture. This will tell the camera to lock focus, so that when you complete the button press, the camera can just take the picture, instead of focusing, then taking the picture.

On most point and shoot cameras the actual shutter lag is under a second. However, many people think that it is much longer, because when they depress the shutter button the camera doesn't take the picture immediately. This is because its first has to focus. Try it out on your camera: chances are, if you haven't been pre-focusing you will rather enjoy this little speed boost it seems to give your camera. I'm going to bet that, with pre-focusing, your pictures of action shots will be sharper, and you'll be able to capture that perfect moment more easily.

Pre-focusing has its limits though. If you lock focus on something that is moving toward or away from you, the focus will likely be off. Pre-focusing works best in cases where the subject is either relatively stationary or moving in a path perpendicular to you (say a child running past you). For more information on the technical issues involved, take a look at the section on pre-focusing in our recent article on action shooting.


Tip #3: Be Prepared

Most people that I watch take pictures get their camera out, turn it on, snap one shot, and put it away. What good is that? Not to demean, but say you are at a family gathering, and the youngsters are playing. If something adorable happens, how are you going to take your picture with your camera put away?

The most common reason that people do this is to save on camera battery life. Understandable as that might be, there are ways around it. Many cameras have an optical viewfinder that you can use in addition to or in place of the LCD, which means that you can turn that battery-eating screen off (see your documentation for more advice) and save a significant amount of power. This means that you can keep your camera out and ready to take a picture at any moment.

DCR Workshop
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DCR Workshop
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The key to getting good candids, especially of children, is having your camera "at the ready" at all times.

Admittedly, some of the best photos I have taken have been quick-grab-the-camera types, of both animals and children. Have your camera ready, or you will never get some of the best, precious photos out there.


Tip #4: Go Beyond Automatic

The automatic nature of most point-and-shoot digital cameras is (or can be) very convenient. The ability to turn your camera on, press a button, and have an instant memory is wonderful. Unfortunately, if you want the best memories, sometimes a little more work is required. Most cameras today have a "mode dial" or a menu where you can select what mode to put the camera in. For most shots, automatic is fine. However, if you want better photos in different situations, it's worth a small investment of time to learn which modes work best for different situations.

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DCR Workshop
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The first image is taken in auto mode. Notice how much the shot's brightness and sharpness improves when shooting in landscape mode instead.

For instance, a sports or action mode can be helpful with small children that run around a lot, while a macro mode is great for flowers, and landscape mode for landscapes. Just by selecting these modes the camera can adjust many things to make your photos easier to take, and help make them turn out better. Get out your manual (yes, you do finally have to open it!) and spend a few minutes reading and learning. If you have questions, feel free to ask!


Tip #5: Practice Makes Perfect

The final piece of advice, which you have probably heard applied in many areas, is practice makes perfect. I'm not kidding: if you're serious about getting better shots, or you're unhappy with the pictures you're currently taking, get your camera out and practice. I know you don't have hours a day to spend with the camera, but a few minutes here or there working on one aspect of your photos can make a world of difference.

The best way to start here is to look at some of your pictures, and see if there is something that you're consistently unhappy with in your photos. Maybe things are never centered right, or there is always a weird shadow: it could be anything. Once you identify a problem to work on, play with your camera for a while and see if you can fix it. If you have a problem and don't know what's causing it, ask! (This is, after all, what forums on sites like this one are for.)

Practice taking pictures of something mundane (a coffee cup will work fine) if that's what it takes to learn to be steady and properly frame your picture. Just use the camera, get used to it, and be ready for when you need to use it. If you spent 30 minutes a week getting better at some aspect of your pictures, you would see better results the first time you used the camera, and after several weeks, you would be amazed at what your camera could do. Again, I know you are busy and aren't an aspiring photographer, but a little practice with the camera goes a long way.

My personal example of this involved taking pictures of hawks this summer. I got lots of practice in tracking them as they flew away from me. Then this fall I came across a bald eagle. I had never seen one before in the wild, and was quite excited. Of course, it flew off as soon as I got my camera out. However, due to all the practice with the hawks, I was able to snap quite a few pictures with the eagle perfectly framed.

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With focused practice, I was able to learn to track birds in flight more smoothly, going consistently from this...

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...to this.


Conclusions: Bringing it all together

It doesn't take a professional photographer or a pro-grade camera to produce a masterpiece. Digital cameras have made taking great pictures easier than ever, and with a little practice and some basic skills, anyone can take pictures to be proud of. Just keep in mind that you may have to work a little to get the best possible shots. Those great looking candids won't happen if your camera is in its bag. Have a child sports star? It's tough to show them off if they aren't in the picture because you weren't pre-focusing. Most important here is that with photography there are no second chances. You don't have to be very serious photographer to spend a little time developing technique in order to capture those memories when the opportunity arises.