The invisible camera

Photography expert Tom Langford gives his advice on how to turn an average shot into the perfect photograph.

Teemu-Liimatatinen 311 (photo credit: Tom Langford)
Teemu-Liimatatinen 311
(photo credit: Tom Langford)
Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
When I started out as a professional photographer in London I used to hire equipment for each job. Like many aspiring pros I had more talent than money and it took me a few years to build up my professional kit.
When I first hired a Mamiya RZ, the largest, heaviest and most beautiful roll-film camera, I had never used one before. The man at the hire desk showed me how to use it – it took him all of two minutes before I thoroughly understood all of its features. Many years later, when I bought my first dSLR, it took me hours of study before I felt sure that I could handle any problems it might spring on me during a shoot.
The camera is the least important component in the process called taking a Good Picture. It is important to have a good, practical understanding of how to use it so that it does not get in the way of shooting, but ideally it should be invisible, just a tool that you use without thinking about it. With modern digital cameras this takes some knowledge and lots of practice.
Essentials tips for compact cameras
Just like a TV remote control, a digital camera has lots of buttons and innumerable features, most of which you will never use. Here are a few essentials that it’s sensible to understand. Refer to your manual for precise instructions if necessary.
Formatting the Memory Card: Your camera has a sophisticated miniature computer that records images to the memory card. Cards have to be “formatted” to accept data and this is done during manufacture. Occasionally pre-formatted cards can be unreliable – one of my students lost 600 pictures from one of his.
Formatting the card in your own camera is the best way to keep it in a digitally healthy condition. It only takes a few seconds and is best done when you first use the card, or when you have downloaded all the images off your card, because formatting wipes the card clean. Professionals always format cards themselves and so should you.
File Size and Type: If you are a keen amateur then I suggest setting the largest picture size (the most pixels) and fine quality Jpegs. The memory card will fill up sooner, but when you have taken a Good Picture you have the satisfaction of knowing it is recorded at the best quality. You might have an option to record Raw files too, but this is useful mainly to professionals.
Switching Off the Flash: On-camera flash is excellent for low-light snaps but ruins ambient, atmospheric lighting and creative photography. Can you switch it off quickly without fiddling about and loosing the shot? Practice makes perfect.
Auto Mode, P mode: Keep your camera set to one of these two modes for general photography and snaps. Use Auto, but if this does not allow you to switch off the flash use P (Program) which gives you more control over the flash.
Balanced Fill-flash: Some cameras have the very useful ability to fire a reduced amount of flash and this can soften harsh shadows as well as  brighten under-lit faces. Can you access this feature easily and adjust it if necessary?
Face Recognition: I never use this, but if you do it can be annoying if there are no faces in the shot and the camera focuses incorrectly. Practice how to switch it off quickly.
Focusing Tricks: Auto-focus chooses the area it thinks you want in focus, but for creative shots you will often need to choose a different area. The quickest and simplest way to do this is to move the camera so that your subject is central and the camera focuses on it. Then gently press the shutter button to lock the focus, recompose the picture, and press fully to take the shot.
If this doesn’t work, simply focus on anything that is a similar distance away to your subject, gently press the shutter button to lock the focus, recompose the picture, and press fully to take the shot. I used this trick for the shot below: I quickly focused on something about the same distance away as the top of the stairs, recomposed and shot. This took about one second – much faster than anything else I could have done.
These two tricks use the Focus Lock feature which is also useful for taking shots of moving children. See below.
Av and Tv modes: On compact cameras I wouldn’t bother using either of these. The Av mode (Aperture priority) is useless since compacts often have only three apertures to choose from. The Tv mode (Shutter speed priority) could be useful if setting the fastest speed possible for shots of children running about. However, Sports mode is probably easier to use if you are taking lots of action shots.
Focus Lock: For taking the occasional shot of moving children, Focus Lock is much more effective than Sports or TV modes.
Focus on an area the children will be running through before they get there. Keep gentle pressure on the shutter button to lock the focus, and press harder to take the shot just before they appear on the screen. This eliminates the slight lag between pressing the shutter button and taking the shot.
Compact cameras can’t focus on movement easily and although they are often bought for family snaps are the worst choice for capturing action shots of children. Their focusing and shutter responses are way too slow. Digital SLRs use a totally different focusing technology that is virtually instant and can track movement too, but are bulkier and heavier than the handy compact.
The invisible camera
I hope you find these few tips useful – they might help you to concentrate on taking a Good Picture and forget about how many complex features you have at your fingertips if only you had the time to find them!
I used my beloved Mamiya RZ roll-film camera for many years and never had to think about how to use it. It was truly an invisible camera that didn’t get in the way of taking a good shot. Digital cameras are certainly convenient but they require lots of practice before you can forget about them and concentrate on what’s important.
Send me your picture
If you are aspiring to develop your photography skills, send me a picture and I will publish one at the end of my next article with some constructive feedback. Send one picture only, at a reduced size to [email protected].
Don’t know how to send a photo by email at a reduced size? See my Brief Guide to Picasa here:
Tom teaches photography courses for beginners and advanced. Details of his courses and field trips at: