Digital Camera Recommendations for Smoggy China
November 22, 2009 4:17 PM   Subscribe

Digital Camera Recommendations for Smoggy China

I know there are a lot of digital camera questions out there . . . but I did a search and didn't find anything pertaining to this. Please forgive me if this question has been asked recently.

So, last time I went to China all of my pictures turned out brown and grainy. At first I thought my camera was crap -- and then I realized that the smog was probably the main culprit. I was using a Canon PowerShot A520, which has 4 megapixels. I'm going to be going back to China next summer and I'm interested in getting a camera that will take better pictures in the smog. Are such cameras available for under $200? I really don't know anything about digital cameras -- other than how to erase photos of myself wherein I have more than one chin -- so please talk to me like I'm a 5 year old :)

I don't really have any other preferences -- though I guess I'd rather have a camera with a charger than one that takes batteries. I don't plan to do anything fancy with this camera -- I'll just be taking your typical boring tourist photos. But it would be great if they came out bright and pretty!

Thanks so much!
posted by imalaowai to Technology (13 answers total)
I'm not sure there is a cure for smog. Last time I was in Shanghai, I had a Fujiflim compact and a Nikon dSLR and the photos came out fairly similar save for the usual differences resulting from lens quality.
posted by roomwithaview at 4:19 PM on November 22, 2009

Could you post a few examples of the brown and grainy photos?
posted by odinsdream at 4:25 PM on November 22, 2009

Seconding that this probably isn't a camera issue, it's a scene and atmospheric conditions issue. A better or different camera won't really help, unless the "grainy" nature of your pictures is due to noise at high ISO settings, in which case shooting at lower ISO or getting a better camera might actually help. But the pictures turning out brown, that's nothing another camera will fix.

What will help is getting closer to your subject. The visual effect of smog increases the more of it there is between you and the subject you're photographing, so the closer you get, the less effect the smog will have. You may just have to limit yourself to taking pictures of things you can get close to, and save those far-away shots for days when the air is better (if there are any such days).

If the smog is really bad, it could affect the lighting of even things you're standing close to. In that case, maybe using the flash will help. Some people are surprised that a flash is useful outdoors during the day, but at short ranges it's actually brighter than sunlight. You might get better colours, at least, that way.

Sometimes, you can fix things up a little bit in Photoshop or other post-processing tools. You might be able to improve the contrast and shift the colours a little to reduce the smog effect. My experiences with this haven't been very good though--if the air's bad enough that you need to post-process, the final result probably isn't ever going to look very good.

You could also take the "if you can't fix it, feature it" approach. Does the smog ever make for an interesting scene? At sunrise or sunset, otherwise undesirable atmospheric conditions can look neat. Or perhaps there are opportunities to take some interesting photos that aren't happy and bright--a depressing picture can still be a good one.
posted by FishBike at 4:38 PM on November 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Smog is suspended fine particles which scatter light. A higher quality camera will only take a higher-fidelity image of the same scattered light as a lower quality camera.

That said, "brown and grainy" doesn't sound like smog to me. Grainy like ugly film grain (like a coarse newspaper photo), or grainy like discrete spots? The former could well be noise from your A520's small sensor in which case you would benefit from a better camera. The latter could be junk on your sensor or lens (though I wouldn't expect this to be a problem with a point-and-shoot).

Examples of "brown and grainy" would help tremendously.
posted by mindsound at 5:48 PM on November 22, 2009

Well, I think a higher quality camera might help. I've noticed that the color you see isn't matched at all by my camera. Even if a scene is very brown overall, your eyes will probably still be able to pick out the rest of the color.

A high quality dSLR will probably be your best bet. It's kind of annoying, since a bright, sunny day will look good even on a cheap digital camera.

On the other hand, searching on flickr for "beijing smog" is not very reassuring.

this picture was taken with a cannon S80. You can also play around with your pictures in photoshop like this one.

If you don't want to get a dSLR my recomendation would be to read through the reviews on The reviews are fantastic, very in-depth.
posted by delmoi at 6:06 PM on November 22, 2009

Ok, I put two photos on Flickr that I think exemplify the problem:

I think the problem isn't just that the photos look grainy, but that there is also a general softening -- almost blurring/fuzzing -- of the images. The colors are also really muted.

Maybe a different camera wouldn't make that much of a difference. Should I turn the wheely thing to a different setting? Usually I just have it set to "auto". Should I turn it to the mountain? The dude with a star near his head? And also there's a bunch of letters that probably mean stuff!

Thanks so much for your help everybody! It would mean so much to me to finally get some great pictures in China.
posted by imalaowai at 7:08 PM on November 22, 2009

Smog is suspended fine particles which scatter light.

Would a polarizing filter help at all?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:13 PM on November 22, 2009

I'd just like to say that I took pictures in Shanghai/other parts of China two summers ago and my pictures were no more or less grainy than the pictures I take at home (in the US) are. I use a point and click sony cyber-shot with 7.2 megapixels.
posted by lucy.jakobs at 8:18 PM on November 22, 2009

Hm, my camera is only 4 megapixels. Could that be the problem?
posted by imalaowai at 8:20 PM on November 22, 2009

Read the manual that came with your camera. You'll learn more about what you're supposed to be doing and get more out of it.

Amateur-vacation-photo-speaking, those don't look as awful as you described them.
posted by girlmightlive at 7:21 AM on November 23, 2009

Thanks for posting those example pictures. The problems aren't what I expected from your initial description. These aren't such long-range pictures that the smog is making distant objects fade out. Instead, the smog is affecting the lighting conditions, a lot like a slightly overcast day.

Here's my take on them, for what they're worth coming from an enthusiastic but definitely non-expert amateur:

I think the trouble with the first picture is that there just wasn't enough light:
If you look at flickr's "more properties" page, it says the exposure was 1/8th of a second, which is quite a long exposure. It needs to be that long to let in enough light when the shooting conditions are dark, but it's hard to hold the camera perfectly still for 1/8th of a second. If it moves at all while the picture is being taken, you get a blurry image.

You can also see on the "more properties" page that the camera has used a higher ISO speed (ISO 141) for this picture. This is like turning up the brightness of the whole picture, and it did that so that the exposure wouldn't have to be even longer. But this results in noise (or "grain") in the darker areas of the picture.

You could probably get a better picture in these conditions if you put the camera on a tripod and take control over the ISO setting yourself (setting it to 50, I think, is as low as your camera will go), so that the automatic mode doesn't increase it. Better cameras can have less noise at higher ISO settings, and so can handle darker conditions better. But much better cameras in this regard typically cost quite a lot. A cheap tripod might be a good thing to try.
The second picture is much better to start with. Exposure time 1/60th of a second and ISO 50, indicating there was plenty of light. My thoughts on this one really apply to both pictures:
Because of the lighting conditions, there's a lack of contrast in this picture that makes it look kind of washed out. There are image editing programs, including free ones like IrfanView, that can be used to boost the contrast in the image. I tried that on this picture and it helps a lot.

Similarly, boosting the colour saturation also helps and can be done with the same programs. There are a lot of different adjustments you can make using this type of software, and it's worth spending some time just playing around with these adjustments to understand what each one does. After doing this for a while, you get a feel for what will benefit a given picture the most.

You won't get this picture to look like it was taken on a clear, sunny day, but it can definitely be made more pleasing to look at using this type of software. If you don't have anything like this, and you have a Windows computer, maybe give IrfanView a try--it's surprisingly good for a free program.

Pictures taken with a better camera will sometimes give you more room to make radical changes before things start looking really grainy or weird, but it looks to me like your camera is already good enough for the lighting conditions in this second picture.
posted by FishBike at 4:21 PM on November 23, 2009

Looking at your pictures, IMO they would definitely be sharper, with smoother colors, and more detailed, with a better camera. Specifically, a better sensor. I'll second delmoi: hit up DPReview and browse recent reviews... you really can't go wrong by looking for something that is affordable to you and reviewed as Highly Recommended or even just Recommended. The DPReview reviews will have information about what type of batteries the cameras take.

FishBike's advice about editing for increased contrast and saturation is great if you want to try to make your pictures "prettier" and "less smoggy". On the other hand, you might find it interesting to take pictures that emphasize the smog!

ZenMasterThis: nope. Smog scattering randomizes polarization, making the filter ineffective. Smog + polarizer = dim smog.
posted by mindsound at 8:30 PM on November 23, 2009

Ehh... Iso 141 should be just fine. My D50 doesn't go lower than ISO 200. 1/8 of a second is quite slow. I would push the ISO higher (400?).
Also, run the picture through some photo clean up software. Even picasa, do an auto contrast. (Auto Levels in photoshop or auto contrast). It will clean it up dramatically. (I just ran your 0572 through picasa auto-contrast, and it made it 100% better).

I went to china a few years earlier, and only had a 2MP Canon PowerShot. The pictures were fantastic (though brown and hazy). Take a look at some sort of image editing program (I love Picasa, it's free, others may hate it) and do a little bit of work. I think you will be very pleasantly surprised! (no affiliation - I just like it)
posted by defcom1 at 8:35 PM on November 23, 2009

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