Getting the Most from Budget Cameras – PT 1
Part 2 of this post can be found here
This is part one of a two part article. I’ll publish the second part at around noon US ET on Saturday 18th December
An expensive camera and an in depth knowledge of photography is not required to take good photographs. This post is an attempt to illustrate that point and to provide a little insight into how a relatively cheap piece of equipment can give perfectly acceptable results – by acceptable I mean that are good enough to be published on major websites and in high circulation mainstream publications.
All of the photographs in this piece were shot with a Canon Powershot A3100 IS camera that retails for about $150. The photography industry has decreed that ‘serious’ point and shoot or compact cameras start at the $250 price point but they like making lots of money so they would. The camera itself is considered to be pretty basic without many ‘features’ that contributors to techie and geeky websites consider so essential. Generally the reviews of it are mixed erring slightly towards the positive. The point that I am really pushing here is that this is in no way an exceptional camera and none of the things that I am going to describe are specific to this camera.
It does possess one thing that is now pretty standard and that I would make an absolute priority if I were replacing it and that is image stabilization. I cannot stress enough what a difference that makes – basically it lets you work in much lower light without a tripod and that is often the difference between photographs getting shot or not. All of the photographs here were shot hand held, i.e. no tripod or other support was used.
The format I’ll use here is to post some shots taken with the camera described and write a bit about the thought processes and techniques involved. I will go as light on the technical stuff as I can as the whole point of compact cameras is ease of use.
All cameras differ slightly so you may have to adapt some of these instructions but I have tried to stick to suggestions that should be fairly universal across models and makes. If you can’t get your camera to do something I’ve suggested here just let me know in the comments or by email and I’ll try my best to answer. The whole point about this article is that it addresses basic stuff that a compact can do. I’m not even going to go into stuff like face recognition or shooting video for example.
If you have a Canon assume that the mode I’m using is ‘P’ this will give more than enough flexibility for what we need here. I would guess that the same applies in the case of other makes. P for program is a standard designation but different manufacturers tend to interpret it al little differently. Again any problems, either comment or email and I’ll try my best.
This is the view out of my office/studio door and this is one of a series of shots of work in progress resurfacing the parking lot. The steam behind the guy is being kicked up as part of the asphalting process. I was inside with my door open when I took this photo and the action was around 30 yards away so the camera was at full zoom.
Tip with zooms on compact cameras – use the optical zoom to your hearts content but if you can, avoid extending it into the digital range as there is a definite drop off in quality. The optical zoom on my Canon goes to 4 x its starting point which is around 35mm which is about the same as point and shoot cameras were in the days when they didn’t have a zoom. These numbers are pretty standard.
Obviously this image is black and whit. Now, most compacts will shoot in black and white and most photographers will tell you to always shoot in color as the conversion can be done later and you will always have a color version should you need. it. My take is that if the photographs are important i.e. your spawn’s graduation or the daytrip to the Grand Canyon then shoot in color – don’t even think about it. If, however, you are just taking some shots around town or working on a still life then it is worth shooting in black and white sometimes. This is a very fast way to get a good appreciation for the importance of tone and this will feed back into your photography very quickly. Nothing beats seeing the scene in front of you and the black and white version of the same on the viewscreen – trust me on this if nothing else!
Sometimes unusual angles work and ,it has to said, they often don’t. This was taken during daylight but I turned the spots on. To get the faucet in focus I aimed the camera roughly where I thought it should be (I couldn’t see the viewscreen) and knew that if I heard a beep the autofocus had locked onto something. I took about 3 shots before I came up with this one which had the relationship between the faucet head and the spots exactly as I wanted it.
The vertigo inducing angles are not everyones cup of tea but I really like them, whether in still images or in movies – especially Film Noir.
Flower photography is hard. The thing that makes it hard is that there are so many photographs of flowers in existence so to stand out, a flower photograph has to be pretty good. I find it harder to photograph things that people think of as beautiful in themselves as the pressure is on not to screw up. This is not the case when photographing an object that is thought to be boring as expectations will be low and easily matched or surpassed.
In the case of the above image two things were critical, light and distance from the flower.
The sky was cloudy and this was critical. Direct sunlight does two bad things with this type of shot, It cases hard shadows which in this case would have really made the structure of the flower hard to determine and it would have bleached out the colors so the interplay between the green and the red wouldn’t have been so apparent.
Just about all compact cameras come with a macro setting. All this does is allow you to get closer to the object and therefore cause the object to fill more of the sensor. This photograph was shot with the camera positioned about 2 inches from the flower. This obviously has the effect of making the object look big but it also blurs the background forcing the attention to the subject of the photograph.
This was what is known in the trade as a grabshot. I was photographing a shop window and turned and saw this view and took a couple of pics. Now the thing is that the view itself didn’t look much like this.
The trick here is to make sure that the camera exposes for the sky and not the transformers or whatever they are. Don’t worry about the technical implications of this just line up the shot, half press the shutter and if makes the foreground objects appear silhouetted and the sky much darker and more dramatic and more reddy orangey on the viewscreen than it really is this will be the result. Make sure that the object blocks any direct sunlight.
If on the other hand you have a gray fairly boring sky sky and lots of detail in the transformers and poles when half pressing the shutter let it go, aim the camera towards the sky, half press the shutter and then re-aim the camera and press the shutter fully.
This is not nearly as tricky as it sounds and becomes instinctive after a while. It is a very fast way of changing exposure on the fly in any situation.
Food photography is another case where the macro setting is really useful. This plate of humus is only around 4 inches in diameter and the texture was created using a fork. The olives are not the product of some GMO experiment but are infact normal size. The thing with food photography is to make it look appealing to the eye- this is not the same as making it look anything like it does in real life – think of all those awful Red Lobster commercials where everything is super saturated in both color and fat.
The most important thing is light and please do not use the on camera compact flash. Food cannot look good, ever, with that! Either use ambient daylight or lamps .This was shot in a room with one south facing and one west facing window on a sunny day but the sun was not shining directly through either window.
Quick tips for food photography with a compact camera - overexpose by about 2/3 of a stop. On most compacts this means adjusting the little plus minus scale up two notches and have one source of lighting behind the food, in other words put the plate in front of a window, ideally about 2 or 3 feet in front of it. Taking the photograph from a couple of inches away will cause the background to blur out. This arrangement does require another light source though otherwise the result will be a silhouette. The ideal source is another window on one of the ajoining walls but a daylight balanced desk lamp can work well.
In part two I’ll be looking at some more photographs, the limitations of compacts and providing a summary.
Update: Part two of this post can be found here
Until next time…