Saturday 7 November 2015

Camera Settings Tips for Better Photos

Beyond Auto - Camera Settings Tips for Better Photos

Many of us buy expensive camera equipment and smartphones only to use the P or Auto function to take photos. Yes, I am sure you got great photos most of the time. But what about those occasions where the whites were not quite white, the blacks not black enough, and the colours seemed a little off? With some simple change of settings, you can take control back from the camera to get that photo you want.

My sister owns a good compact camera. She enjoys taking photos but doesn't know why I could get the camera to do that extra bit to make the photos a little nicer. This guide is based on some notes I wrote for her and it is applicable to smartphones, compacts and even DSLRs. I have been using SLRs in the manual mode for many years. These are some of the settings which I would check on before tripping the shutter button and it has worked out rather well for me. I will also attempt to explain the concept as simply as possible. If you wish to learn more about the individual topics, I am sure you can find lots of info out there on the Internet.

1. Use the gridlines

Have you ever taken lots of photos at the beach or in a beautiful city and then realised when you got home the horizon was slanted, ships were on a slope, or the buildings were slanted when you wanted them to be straight? You can correct that in most photo editing software but isn't it better not to have to do that in the first place? The secret here is to use the gridlines! This can be easily switched on in most DSLRs and smartphones to display in your viewing screen and it doesn't distract from your photo-taking.

Camera gridlines display
Use gridlines as guidelines to straighten the buildings in your photos.

2. Auto white balance (AWB)

Have you ever had photos where the skin tones didn't look quite right? Or maybe it was an indoor shot and the whole image had an orange or bluish tinge to it? This has something to do with the colour temperature of visible light. To correct it, we need to adjust the white balance in the camera. Why? This is because different sources of light have different colour temperatures and we do not notice them because our eyes automatically compensate for it.

If you want to read up more about this, please google "white balance" and "colour temperature".

The camera can select the correct white balance most of the time. However, when you find the image tinted with a colour which is not quite what you want, try changing the white balance setting.

White balance example
A daylight image with white balance set to Tungsten.
The most common options are:

AWB - auto white balance - the camera decides
Daylight - outdoors and sunny skies
Cloudy - outdoors and cloudy or in the shade
Tungsten - light with heated filament
Fluorescent - usually tube-shaped electronic lights

If changing the camera white balance still does not give you what you want, you will have to tweak it in photo-editing software.

3. Depth of field (DOF)

When your camera is focused at a single point, there is an area that stretches in front of and behind the focus point which appears to be sharp. This area is known as the depth of field or DOF. Photographers like to talk about shallow DOF or deep DOF.

A very good example of a shallow depth of field is a portrait. The area in front of or behind the person or face is usually thrown out of focus because we want to emphasise on the subject. We prefer deep depth of field for landscapes because we want everything from the foreground to the horizon to be sharp.

For smartphones, compact cameras and entry-level DSLRs, look for the Portrait or Landscape icons, usually represented by an image of a face or mountain respectively. The Portrait setting gives a shallow DOF while the Landscape setting provides you with a deep DOF.

For camera owners with more options, select Aperture Priority and adjust the aperture (f-stop number). Aperture adjustment could be a ring on your lens, or you may have to turn some dials. The smaller the f-stop number, the shallower the DOF and vice versa. The camera will decide on an appropriate shutter speed. If the "camera shake" icon appears, make sure you put your camera on a tripod.

I can't tell you exactly which f-stop number to use because the amount of zoom, distance from the subject affects the DOF too. Just play around with different f-stop numbers and see what works best for your equipment.

4. Exposure compensation (+/-)

When a smartphone camera frames an image, it automatically calculates how much exposure is required. The same goes for our compacts and DSLRs when we half-press the shutter button. Our cameras are very smart, but not smart enough to know whether we are shooting, for eg. a white piece of paper or a dark piece of cloth. Since it always tries to give us a balanced exposure, it will expose the image as a mid-tone grey. And that is the reason why our whites appear greyish, and blacks appear dark greyish.

This is where exposure compensation comes in. To make the image brighter, you need to increase exposure (+). To make it darker, you decrease exposure (-). Since most new digital cameras give live feedback, you can stop increasing or decreasing the exposure once you get what you want.

White balance card and mid-tone grey.

White balance cards like the one above are useful for DSLR photographers who are trying to understand more about exposure. If you can make the mid-tone grey in your image match what is on the real card, the rest of the exposure will fall into place. This means exposing for the grey card and the exposure meter should be at the +/- 0 mark.

The supplier of the above WhiBal card has a few excellent videos on white balance and how to use the card.

5. Fill Flash

If you leave the camera on Auto and take the following photo, this is most likely what you would get:

Without fill flash.
The background is very bright and the foreground trees appear almost like silhouettes. Like I mentioned earlier, the camera will expose the image as a mid-tone grey. It does not know that there is not enough light from the front to light up the subject given the current exposure.

You can either:
  1. increase exposure to show details in the trees OR
  2. use fill flash
If you choose option 1, the foreground trees will be properly exposed. However, the background will be totally blown out, unless that is the kind of effect you are looking for.

Option 2 is the preferred choice because the background will remain the same, and that little pop of flash will supplement the front light and fill in the shadows.

With fill flash.
Fill flash is also very useful when taking photos of people where you don't want their facial features casting shadows on their faces, for eg. under the nose, eyes and chin, or if the subject is wearing a hat. 

This feature can be turned on by forcing the flash to be ON in most smartphones and compacts. Some cameras would require you to pop the flash up manually.

Experiment and don't be afraid to turn the flash on even in broad daylight!

6. Minimise camera shake

If you want sharper photos, use one hand to hold the camera steady and use the other to press the shutter button. Using one hand to take photos looks very cool, but most of us do not have very steady hands and that will inevitably introduce a little camera shake to our photos, especially when light conditions are not good. If you can put your camera on a tripod or some kind of support, that would be even better!

If you are not convinced, enlarge your photos in a photo-editing software and compare them. You will most often find that those taken with one hand is a little blurry, no matter how steady you think your hands are.

Well, I think that is all for now. Happy shooting!

Sunday 27 September 2015

HK Nature Walk - Mai Po Nature Reserve

There is a very important piece of wetland that lies in the north-western corner of Hong Kong - the Mai Po and Inner Deep Bay Ramsar Site. The Ramsar Convention's mission is "the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world". Not every wetland qualifies to be a Ramsar site because a number of ecological criterion must be met. Hong Kong was invited to the Convention in 1979.

In 1995, the Hong Kong Government designated the Inner Deep Bay area as a Ramsar site, which means it has an international obligation to protect its valuable wetlands. This 2,700-hectare site is home to a diversity of habitats supporting a wide range of species, and it is a haven for migratory birds to rest and feed. Hong Kong lies at the mid-point of the East-Asian Australasian Flyway and as many as 20,000 to 30,000 shorebirds regularly use the site's inter-tidal mudflats, feeding on the fish, shrimps and crabs among the mangroves.

Mai Po Nature Reserve is a 380-hectare area in Deep Bay. It has been managed by WWF-Hong Kong (World Wildlife Fund, not World Wrestling Federation!) since 1983, where staff and volunteers carry out habitat and infrastructure management, research and monitoring, community, wetland training, education and visitor marketing works.

Access to Mai Po is restricted and you must apply for a permit. To make things easier, WWF-HK organises guided tours for visitors with different interest levels.

Last November, I finally made my first visit to Mai Po after talking about it for several years. It was a much bigger place than Hong Kong Wetland Park and had more birds.

Traditional shrimp ponds called gei wai. Not only do they support lots of aquatic and marine life, they are also a food source for other wildlife such as waterbirds, mammals and reptiles.

The tall buildings in the distance were in Shenzhen. Yes, we were that close.

Getting briefed by a WWF-HK volunteer.

Water lily pond.

Lots of waterfowl spend their winter months here.

The highlight for me was the Mangrove Forest and the Floating Boardwalk. This was in the Frontier Closed Area (FCA) where yet another permit was required.

The boardwalk floated because it was not anchored firmly to the ground. It was constructed on top of planks which were secured on top of pairs of plastic drums. During low tide, the drums sat on the mud and the boardwalk was stable and easy to walk on. However, during high tide, the drums floated and the boardwalk became a little bouncy. This was an interesting design because it meant the boardwalk would always remain above the highest tide levels.

The forest was another surprise for me. I have never seen such a thick mangrove forest where the trees seemed to go on forever. It was definitely quite different from the mangrove forests we have back home.

The famous Floating Boardwalk which lead to a hide facing Deep Bay. The mangrove was within a fenced up area and we entered it under the watchful eyes of a couple of policemen. The distance to the hide was about 1.8km.

Sparring Fiddler Crabs. Did you notice one has a large LEFT claw while the other has a large RIGHT claw?

At the end of the boardwalk was a floating hide and there was this huge expanse of mudflat in front. There were many small little bumps on the mudflat which I realised later were lots and lots of crabs and mudskippers. I finally understood why so many thousands of birds stop by Mai Po to feed because there was so much food for them there. This place will definitely be on my to-visit list when I visit Hong Kong again.

The mudflat at Deep Bay facing Shenzhen. There must be millions of crabs and mudskippers and other creatures feeding there during low tide. There were also birds feeding out there.

How to get there

From MTR stations Sheung Shui or Yuen Long, you can take a green taxi to the entrance of the nature reserve. The ride is about 15 to 20 minutes and costs not more than HKD80.

If you prefer to take the public or mini bus, which is definitely cheaper, you have to alight outside Mai Po Village and walk about 20-30 minutes to the reserve entrance. For what buses to take, please refer to the Getting There instructions at the WWF-HK Mai Po web site.


Access to Mai Po is restricted and there are daily quotas. Please apply early for your permits to avoid disappointment.

For overseas visitors, you can become a member of WWF-HK and apply for a one-year permit. Or you may apply for a single visit permit if you satisfy certain criteria. Please check the latest fees and instructions for permits on the website.

There are guided tours organised by WWF-HK too. Please check the website for the latest information.


This is a great place to visit if you are a hard-core nature lover. Spring and autumn are good for watching migratory shorebirds. Winter is a good time to look for waterbirds. Binoculars is a must, having a telescope is even better. Be prepared to do a lot of walking because some of the hides are located at least 2km away from the entrance. If you want to photograph birds, bring the longest telephoto lens you own but make sure you can walk long distances with your heavy equipment.

Mai Po is not for everyone. If walking long distances to get to a hide, or waiting patiently for a particular bird to appear is not your cup of tea, I suggest you visit Hong Kong Wetland Park instead. HKWP is easily accessible by public transport and the visitor centre has loads of educational information about wetlands.

Sunday 30 August 2015

HK Nature Walk - Hong Kong Wetland Park

The Hong Kong Wetland Park has become one of my must-go places whenever I visit Hong Kong. It is a great place to chill out, enjoy the greenery, observe animal behaviour and to practise my nature photography skills.

The Visitor Centre has a wonderful gallery which explains the importance of wetlands and why we should conserve them. There are also themed exhibits which are changed regularly so there is always something new to learn.

Outdoors, there are boardwalks that lead to different habitats and bird hides where you can sit quietly to observe or photograph the waterbirds. One of my favourites is the Mangrove Boardwalk which brings you close to the mud level where you can see lots of mudskippers going about their daily business during low tide.

Main entrance.

The park is located right next to a housing estate at
Tin Shui Wai, New Territories.

The 2 star attractions - Pui Pui, a saltwater crocodile caught at the
Shan Pui River, and Pei Pei, a Black-faced Spoonbill. Hong Kong is an
important wintering place for the endangered Black-faced Spoonbills.

Mangrove forest exhibit at the Visitor Centre.

A flock of Black-faced Spoonbills resting at one of the ponds inside the park.

An educational exhibit about mudskippers and crabs
at the Wetlands Discovery Centre.

Job's Tears. An important source of food and folk medicine in Asia
and grows in wetlands.

One of the several boardwalks at the park.

A bird hide (far right) for birdwatchers.

Photographers and birdwatchers come early to grab good seats.

View from the Fishpond Hide. The city in the distance is Shenzhen.

How to get there

Depending on where you stay, there are several ways to get to the park. I would normally take the MTR West Rail to Tin Shui Wai Station, and board the light rail LRT705 to Tin Shau Station or Wetland Park Station. I prefer to alight at Tin Shau Station because there is a tunnel which brings you right up to the main entrance. For other transportation methods, please check the Hong Kong Wetland Park site.


There is an admission fee and please take note that the park is closed on Tuesdays except on public holidays. Opening hours are from 10am to 5pm.

Tip: If you wish to see mudskippers at the Mangrove Boardwalk, visit during the low tide hours. If you wish to see waterbirds or migratory shorebirds, it is best to visit when the tide is going up. You can easily google for web sites which give you the tide tables.

Wear comfortable clothing and bring lots of drinking water. If you are there for an entire day, there is a cafe at the Visitor Centre which serves good and affordable food.

Enjoy your trip and take lots of nice photos!

Tuesday 23 June 2015

HK Nature Walk - Sai Kung High Island Reservoir Hike

For many years, I associated Hong Kong with only shopping and good food. After a short visit in 1991, I passed over Hong Kong in favour of other Asian holiday destinations because it was too 'similar' to Singapore and there was probably 'not much to see'.

I take my words back. My sister moved to Hong Kong in 2013. My first visit in November 2013 after so many years changed my mind about the place. It was still good for shopping and eating, and there were lots of walking and hiking trails too, not to mention a large nature reserve excellent for birdwatching.

When I arrived at the airport, a Hong Kong Tourism Board booklet which says "Your Guide to Hiking and Cycling in Hong Kong" caught my eye. Hiking in Hong Kong? I was surprised. The book had trails of different difficulty levels all over the island and on the mainland. Since I wasn't one for shopping, I was thrilled.

My sister and friends arranged for a weekend day hike to the East Dam of the High Island Reservoir at the Sai Kung Volcanic Rock Region, part of the Hong Kong Global Geopark of China. The plan was to hike to the East Dam, have lunch, and then hike back.

Take bus #94 from Saikung Town to the start of the trail
near the reservoir. 

The walk started UPHILL...

Starting point. This is part of the MacLehose Trail.
This trail is the oldest and longest, running 100km east-west
through the New Territories.

Cow dung - quite a common sight along the way.

High Island Reservoir. Our destination, East Dam,
was located between the leftmost 2 peaks.

This reservoir was built in the 70s. It was the biggest in the city. 

Finally at the East Dam!

The volcanic rock in this region was hundreds of
millions of years old. 

Long Ke Wan. We went over the hill after the East Dam
and found a lovely and quiet beach.

The entire walk was supposed to take about 5 hours. But we took too much time taking photographs along the way and took about 4 hours to arrive at the East Dam! It would be nightfall if we were to hike out again and we were too tired.

Tip: Call for the green taxis of New Territories. Make sure you take note of the telephone numbers of the Green Taxi companies when you are in Saikung Town. They can drive all the way to the East Dam to pick you up, or send you there.

Some of my friends had seafood at Saikung Town to reward themselves after the long walk. The rest of us went back to town for a feast. Walk more to eat more!

Look out for more articles on outdoor Hong Kong!

Sunday 29 March 2015

Life cycle of the Oleander Hawkmoth (Daphnis nerii)

My aunt has several Desert Rose (Adenium obesum) plants in her garden. When I realised there were Oleander Hawkmoth (Daphnis nerii) caterpillars feeding on them, I decided to observe and keep a photographic record of the different stages of their lives and their activities.

Having them in an easily accessible place not too far from home was very convenient for me. I visited the plants every few days to take snapshots, hoping to eventually capture the winged adult emerging from the pupal case.

The photos in this post were not of the same individual. They were taken over a few months. As a newbie to butterflies and hawkmoths at that time, it did not cross my mind that birds and other animals would prey on the subjects I was photographing. Some of the caterpillars died when they were a few days old, other bigger ones just disappeared. But I was very happy to have witnessed a few of them turn into adults.

Day 1. Eggs were laid mostly singly on the underside of
leaves and flowers of the host plant.

Day 4~5. The very young caterpillars ate the flowers too!
At least 50% of them do not make it past this stage.

Day 5~6. Most hawkmoth caterpillars have a horn at the
rear end. It was still thin and long at this stage.

Day 11. As it grew, the eyespots near the head became
more prominent.

Day 15~16. Notice how the thin and long tail had become a
bulbous stump. The folds of skin on the body allowed for
growth. At this stage, it was about 7 to 8cm long.

Caterpillars have tiny hooks at the base of the so-called false
legs. They help the caterpillar in walking and climbing.

Caterpillar poop. Every single piece has the same structure,
regardless of size.

Day 17~19. It had grown to about 10cm and was very round
and fat. It was an eating machine, consuming about 1 leaf
every 25 minutes!

Day 20. When ready to pupate, it looked for a safe hiding
place among the leaf debris at the base of the plant. The body
started to shrink. Unlike butterflies, moths would spin silk
around themselves before transforming into a pupa.

Day 23. Pupation was complete. The pupa would wriggle
violently if touched.

Day 32. The pupal case had darkened, especially the wing
case. The patterns of the wings can be seen.

Day 33. The adult emerged from the pupal case.

It immediately climbed up the plant. It was out of the case
and up the plant in less than 2 minutes. The wings were
small and wet and it was not ready to fly yet.

It took about 45 minutes for the wings to be fully pumped
with fluids. It stayed like this for another 4 hours before I
decided to call it a day. It was gone the next morning.

Milky liquid left in the pupal case.

HintTo witness this amazing metamorphosis,

1. you must be willing to sacrifice the looks of your plants. The caterpillars eat a lot and can make your plants go bald by the time they turn into pupae. However, you will be well rewarded with softer new leaves very quickly.

2. it is advisable to throw a mesh or something similar over your plants to prevent the caterpillars from becoming bird food. In my case, I secure the base too to prevent nocturnal predators from climbing up the plant because I have had pupae disappear too!


Thanks to a reader of this post, Klaus Schoenwiese, I got to know of a North American species which looks very similar to this moth. At first glance, you would have thought that they were the same.

Pandora Spinx moth in NY. Photo taken by Klaus Schoenwiese.

This one does not have the dark banding and spot on the edge of the wings nearest to the head. Thank you, Klaus!