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!