Secrets of taking good pictures: Taking control

Photography expert Tom Langford explains how to be confident using a manual camera because digital is not always better.

Camera 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Camera 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Tom Langford is an event and commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
If you are an enthusiastic photographer you will naturally want to take better pictures and understand more about your camera. Unfortunately, one glance in the camera manual may leave you awestruck with the astonishing technical complexity and photo jargon of even the most basic compact camera. You may even feel intimidated by all the sophisticated functions and assume that only by mastering them will you be able to progress as a photographer.
It’s only in the about last 13 years that useable digital cameras became available and affordable to the enthusiast. Until then (and throughout the entire history of photography) cameras were easy to use because they had very few controls: A dial to set the ISO speed of the film; a dial to selected the shutter speed; a ring around the lens to adjust the aperture. The exposure display could be easily adjusted to make the picture brighter or darker. Some film cameras had an aperture priority mode (Av), or a shutter priority mode (Tv), and most had a Manual mode too.
Your digital camera automates these basic controls, so a good way to gain confidence about using it is to start to take control and choose some basic settings yourself.
Taking control
Does your camera have a conveniently accessible Av, Tv, or P (Program) mode? Can you make pictures brighter or darker with an easy-to-use +/ - (exposure compensation) button? If so, then try to use them instead of fiddling with menus, scene modes and multi-function buttons. You'll discover that almost all photographic situations require really basic choices and the camera can be used as a simple tool. You might also find that understanding elementary photography is far more satisfying and rewarding than trying to make sense of computerized features that only duplicate what you can easily do for yourself.
For instance, suppose you take a shot at the seaside: Instead of using Beach Mode, just use the +/- button to brighten the picture up by about 1.5 units (1.5 "stops"). Instead of using Portrait Mode, just use Av and open up the aperture to it widest setting (using "F" numbers such as F3.5, F2, etc) to make the background more blurred. Instead of using Macro Mode, set the narrowest aperture (such as F16) to ensure that more of a small object in focus. And when shooting sports, use Tv set to a fast shutter speed, such as 1/250sec, or 1/500sec.
There is much to learn, but it’s hardly rocket science and it's more fun to study actual photography than it is to learn about the endless features offered by digital cameras. Thinking for yourself and taking control of your camera is a far more satisfying experience than relying on a sophisticated computer to make simple choices for you.
By all means use what digital has to offer and learn about the essential features of your camera; Instant image previews and histograms are very convenient; balanced fill flash is a godsend at events, image stabilization can be a great help, etc. But you will find may practical situations in which the digital wizardry fails and you will need to take charge to make your camera work for you. Using your camera as a tool will boost your confidence and skill to create to good pictures whatever the situation. To progress as a photographer there is no substitute for using your head!

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