Secrets of taking good pictures: Cameras

Cameras don't take photos, people do. Understanding the technical workings of your camera is only half the work.

girl running on beach (photo credit: Tom Langford)
girl running on beach
(photo credit: Tom Langford)
The worst place to look for advice on how to take good pictures is your camera manual. Digital cameras are packed with such a bewildering array of features that it’s difficult to know which are the most useful and important ones.
For snaps and most general photography you can leave your camera set to Auto. It will choose a sensible combination of aperture, shutter speed and ISO to give you a well-exposed picture most of the time. Auto can be used for most of the good pictures that you will ever take, except in certain circumstances.
Shots in low light
In darker conditions the flash will fire automatically. This is fine for snaps but destroys the natural look of the scene and can’t be recommended for creative shots. Many cameras allow you to switch off the flash, even in Auto mode. With some cameras you may have to switch to P (Program Mode) before you can switch off the flash.
Here’s a picture I took with my cellphone camera using the flash:
With flashWith flash
And here is a shot taken immediately afterward with the flash turned off:
With the flash switched off you will have to support the camera to avoid blurred pictures, so press the camera against any convenient solid surface. If no support is available then stand upright but with your knees slightly bent – this makes your body more stable and less likely to sway. Just before you take the picture, use the old pro trick of briefly holding your breath to avoid any chest movement.
If you must use flash, try the Night Portrait mode. The flash will fire to illuminate the person, but the shutter will stay open longer to allow greater detail to be recorded in the background.
You can also experiment with the Night Scene mode. This switches off the flash and allows the shutter to stay open longer so you can capture detail in darker areas at night giving you a natural-looking shot. You will need to carefully steady the camera.
I was taking a tour of some underground caves recently and the guide advised everyone to use Night mode. Most people didn't know what Night Mode was or how to find it and took snaps of brightly lit stalactites against very black backgrounds.
It’s ironic that all this fiddling around with settings is supposed to make your digital life easier. With the simplest of film cameras I could have done all of this and much more simply just by twisting the aperture or shutter rings. Manufacturers dare not make their cameras too simple because punters won’t buy them. It’s easier to sell a camera full of clever looking features with a fat manual rather than a one that is simpler but requires some elementary photography knowledge to use.
Quality and quantity
If you are an enthusiast I advise setting the largest image size and the finest quality. When you take a really good shot it’s a great pity if it hasn’t been recorded at the highest resolution and quality. Choose the highest number of pixels or MB (MegaBytes) and the finest quality of Jpeg compression. You will store less pictures on your memory card, but these are so cheap that you can buy bigger cards if necessary.
Formatting the memory card
Professionals always format their new memory cards before using them. You’ll find Format in the camera settings menu. It only takes a few seconds and matches up the card with your camera’s computer allowing digital files to be recorded properly. Cards that have not been formatted in your camera can occasionally lose or corrupt pictures without warning.
Formatting erases all of the pictures on the card, so save them to your computer first. Format the card occasionally to keep it healthy.
Face Detection
Face detection is useful but there you need to be able to switch it off quickly when you are taking creative shots. I often need to focus on an exact spot and Face Detection won’t let me do this. I advise practicing how to switch it on and off quickly without looking at your camera.
Exposure Compensation (EV, +/-)
Use Exposure Compensation to make a picture brighter or darker. It’s very useful for making shots look more creative. Use the EV feature to make the screen preview look brighter or darker and then take the picture.
Here’s a simple snap shot at the camera’s normal exposure:
Spider plantSpider plant
And here it is again after increasing the exposure by +2:
Sharp Shooting
Professionals rarely shoot just one frame of any important shot. They will take at few shots, one after the other, and choose the sharpest one afterward. This is also a good way to capture the best expressions if you are taking a portrait.
Focus lock
If you half-press the shutter button the camera will focus, and if you maintain the pressure the focus will be locked even if you move the camera. This is one of the most useful and essential techniques to acquire. It will transform your ability to take shots in many situations and is essential if you aspire to use the camera creatively. Here are a few ways to use it:
You may want to take a shot with the subject at the side of the picture but the camera will not focus in this area. So first point the camera directly at the subject, lock the focus by half-pressing, recompose to place the subject to the side, then shoot.
Taking candid shots of children is often impossible if you simply point the camera at them – they stick out their tongues or turn away. Try turning your back to them and focus on a anything that is about the same distance away. Lock the focus and keep it locked as you turn back to the children. The camera is now pre-focussed and you are ready to raise the camera to take a quick, candid shot when the opportunity arises.
Compact cameras are not good at focusing on moving subjects: If a child is running towards you and you want to take a shot, focus at a spot on the ground in front of them, lock the focus and raise the camera to take the shot as they pass through that spot. Here’s a shot I took with my cellphone camera that would have been quite impossible without using focus lock:
Using focus lock also eliminates focus lag, the time it takes for the camera to focus. Particularly with compact cameras focus lag will cause you to miss many action shots. By pre-focussing you have a better chance to capture the action.
Using your head
Cameras don’t take good pictures; they merely record images of whatever they are pointed at. Experienced photographers know that good shots are taken with their heads. You don’t need to know much about a camera before you can use it effectively, but there is a great deal to understand about what a good picture actually is, and it will take lots of experience to put that understanding into practice.
Constructive Feedback  If you are aspiring to develop your photography skills, send me a picture and I may use in one in my articles with some constructive feedback.  Send one picture only, at a small size to suitable for emails to [email protected].
If you don’t know how to send a photo by email at a small size please look at my Brief Guide to Picasa:

Tom Langford is an Event and Commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. He teaches photography courses for beginners and improvers. Details of his courses and field trips at: