My camera and me: one of us sucks, but which?
October 21, 2009 6:15 PM   Subscribe

Photography-satisficing-filter: I would like to take family snapshots approximately as nice as this. Can it be done with my higher-end point-and-shoot (currently taking shots like this)? And if not, what's the minimum I'd need to spend on equipment to get there?

For all my other very modest photography needs (sunsets, flowers, vacations, the usual), my two-year-old Olympus SP-550 UZ does me just fine. But I would really like to be able to take slightly better medium-to-close-range shots of people. What I especially like about her shot vs. mine:

1. Sharpness/clarity/crispness. No matter what the lighting's like, I feel as though my Olympus consistently produces pictures that are slightly "soft" or foggy. My messing around with the shutter priority mode has succeeded only in replacing blurriness with graininess.

2. Lack of distortion. Somehow, anyone I've photographed close up with my current camera ends up looking vaguely fishbowly and unlike themselves-- what's up with that?

3. Shallow depth of field. This is less critical, since I know it's hard to get in a point-and-click. Still, it'd be nice.

I know there's a school of thought that says you should just learn to work the camera you have-- and my Olympus has tons of complicated modes, including aperture priority, shutter priority, full-manual, and Scene, so it's entirely possible that I'm just not using it to best effect. (I also have Photoshop, so I'm fine with learning to fake stuff in post-production). On the other hand, I don't want to spend a ton of time trying to optimize my technique with this camera if in the end it's simply incapable of producing the shots I'd like.

So... do I need to buy a DSLR? If not, what should I work on, technique-wise? And if so, what's the (approximate) minimum I'd need to spend for something that would suit this particular, very specific purpose?
posted by Bardolph to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (27 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Don't forget the post-processing. I love her photography, but Dooce lays it on thick with the contrast.

After looking at your sample image, I'd suggest that you check out Digital Photography School. DPS has tons of tips about the basics of photography: lighting, composition, the rule of thirds, etc.

I'd take a look at those things before deciding the camera is the root of your problems.
posted by runningwithscissors at 6:27 PM on October 21, 2009

"Vaguely fishbowly" is probably the result of shooting with too wide of a focal length. It looks like the shot you have was probably taken at the widest end. Back up as far as you can and zoom to get the composition you want. Here's a study on a bobblehead to give some exposition on what happens as the focal length increases - the difference between 17mm and 55m is startling (there's a lens change between 55mm and 70mm, so comparisons there are a little less valid). The labelled focal lengths here don't factor in the 1.6x crop factor on that camera, so adjust accordingly.
posted by 0xFCAF at 6:30 PM on October 21, 2009

To save anyone else the trouble, here are the specifications of the Olympus camera . For the shallow depth of field, what you would need is a large sensor and a large aperture. Maybe you could give some consideration to the Panasonic LX3 or the Canon S90, which will both yield better results than your Olympus (although not by orders of magnitude). I agree with runningwithscissors that learning how to use your current camera will be a more cost- and time-effective way to improve your pictures.
posted by spaghettification at 6:30 PM on October 21, 2009

There are 2 schools of photography right now. People who like fine detail and harsh light and like to see every hair on the head. Nikon cameras are supposed to be for these people. Now, the others like a more soft focus and are not so interested in seeing every hair. These people buy Canons and get an off camera flash or somehow diffuse the light from their flash or use natural light. I'm trying to suggest (to answer #1) you may want to buy a Nikon.

2. I think you need to buy a dslr with a long lense. It's ok to shoot kids with a point and shoot but anyone over 10 will look distorted if you get too close. A long lense will fix that.

3. you need a long lense dslr for that

You should be able to get everything you need for $800 especially if you buy used, IMO.
posted by cda at 6:38 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Looking at the camera data on that shot, you can see that it was taken with a $2,700.00 canon 5d markII camera with a $1,500.00 ef35mm f1.4usm lens. She also does what looks to extensive post processing in photoshop. Much of the quality bullet points that you lay out are accomplished by the quality equipment she uses.

You are not going to achieve that with your camera. A rebel dslr will get part way there - I agree you should do pretty well in the $800.00 range.
posted by extrabox at 6:43 PM on October 21, 2009

I'm going to go against the grain here and say you should buy a Digital SLR. The amount of control you have over your pictures allows you to learn a lot more than reading will... when using a point and shoot, I've always felt more that I'm fighting the camera than taking a picture. My mentality is somewhat unpopular, given that P&S cameras produce satisfactory snapshots and it implies some spending is necessary to really "get into" photography.

The Canon T1i will set you back about US$800. If that's too spendy, one generation back, the XSi, is about US$600. Either way, I recommend you also buy the 50mm f/1.8 lens for about $80.

It's expensive, but you will learn a lot about photography just figuring out the GUI.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:44 PM on October 21, 2009

People who like fine detail and harsh light and like to see every hair on the head. Nikon cameras are supposed to be for these people. Now, the others like a more soft focus and are not so interested in seeing every hair.

I've never heard this. (Am I the only one?)

The first photo is a combination of diffused light (probably from a flash, maybe an external flash bounced off a ceiling or wall or maybe just a window) and sharpening/clarity (or unsharpen mask tool) and contrast in Photoshop.

A DSLR would help but you can try to get a shallow depth of field with the portrait preset and zooming in a little more. Google levels and/or curves for contrast adjustments and unsharpen mask for clarity. Or, if your version of Photoshop has Camera Raw, you can set your preferences (File handling) to open the files in Camera Raw, where you have a lot of easy photography sliders (contrast, clarity, etc.).
posted by starman at 6:51 PM on October 21, 2009

You can start to get what you want from the camera you have.

Restricting commentary to the main differences between Heather Armstrong's (tut-tut, dude, did you just hotlink an unattributed image?) photo and yours, I'd say:

Lighting. Your shot is backlit by a window and has no fill lighting. Hers has some very yummy clear, multi-source light that isn't leaving shadows on her subject. (It also looks pretty high-contrastified in Photoshop, maybe too much for my taste.)

Selective focus/depth of field. If your camera has full manual control, you can do this, too. Your photo has everything in focus, which sounds good but doesn't pay off for the viewer. Try using aperture priority and setting a low number/large aperture (your manual says 2.8 is your bottom end) for the narrowest depth of field. This is what you want for portraiture.

Backdrop. Heather's picture has a clear subject: two children. Nothing in the background is distracting or interfering. Your example photo is cluttered and has poor composition.

To avoid the fishbowl distortion problem, I would recommend backing up a bit. With your camera's zoomability, you have room to step back and compose a frame-filling portrait shot without getting up in anybody's grill.

You can get good results with the setup you have. However, if you are looking for an excuse to buy a dSLR, your conscience says "stimulate the economy!"
posted by Sallyfur at 6:52 PM on October 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

Nthing DSLR - it's all about the glass baby - you want lots! And the sensor. But you need some nice fixed focal length lenses to get that kind of quality.
Also nthing around $800 - although I shoot a Pentax K10D which was around $600 (probably less now) and you can buy up all the old school (film SLR) lenses for cheaper then all the fancy electronic stuff. Good to get your foot in the door with more than one quality fixed lens as well as a zoom if you want. And working manual will teach you quickly what does what.
posted by smartypantz at 6:54 PM on October 21, 2009

Here's a link on to an effect Heather likes to use:

That Lovely Glow Effect

A DSLR is not going to magically make you a genius of photo composition, but, for the same photographer, you'll get much better shots from a DSLR and a decent lens than a Point and Shoot.
posted by backwards guitar at 6:54 PM on October 21, 2009

Also - you could help yourself out with your existing camera by using a tripod in order to get your AP setting working indoors without motion blur.
Also tripods help with composition as it makes you slow down and LOOK at what you are framing. I agree that you should check out some tutorials on the design/compostion etc of photos - rule of thirds is your best friend!
posted by smartypantz at 6:58 PM on October 21, 2009

Some photo tips that will elevate your shots to be more like what you'd like.

1. Eschew the flash.

2. Shoot in the morning of the afternoon - middle of day light is too harsh (overcast days excepted obviously.

3. Aim for contrast, try to keep your backgrounds dark coloured or darkly lit (or vice versa). White on cream etc will never look great.

4. Always shoot so the light is falling on the object you want to feature. Light sources should always be behind you, never in front (unless you're doing some kinda hot, silhouette action).

5. Get a wide angle lens or shooting capability, don't be afraid to use macro when necessary, or other modes. Experiment with moving back and zooming to the proximity you want.
posted by smoke at 7:02 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

You could probably get that kind of contrast in photoshop.
posted by delmoi at 7:13 PM on October 21, 2009

From searching craigslist, $400 would get you a used Nikon D40 and kit lens, a fine way to start out with DSLRs.
posted by SNACKeR at 7:24 PM on October 21, 2009

Oh, and I was going to mention, the Dooce photograph has definitely gone through photoshop. You're not even supposed to have pictures come out of the camera looking like that. The highlights are blown way out and the darks don't even show up.

here is a quick contrast adjustment of your picture (It's not quite the same because you have a medium darkness object against a bright background, rather then a bright object against a dark background)

I disagree with the people who say you should run out and buy a dSLR. It won't magically make your pictures look good. I looked around on flickr for photos with the same camera that you have and they don't look that great. I have a Canon G9 and love it. The current version is the G11, though. Your camera is pretty old and looking at some pictures on flickr that use it, the pictures aren't that great.

If you really want to see exactly what kind of images the cameras will produce, then I definitely recommend going to DPReview checking out the sample pictures, which are all take with the same scene so you can compare things exactly. DSLRs will obviously produce better images, but you can probably do a lot better with a new "prosumer" model like the G11. BTW, DPReview rated your camera as Above Average (not good) in 2007:

You have to be careful when reviewing cameras that you take a realistic view of how the typical buyer will actually use it, and what they can realistically expect it to do. I say this because the SP-550UZ gave us one of the most time-consuming, frustrating lab tests we've ever done. Why? Because it doesn't like focusing on charts, its custom white balance has a somewhat laid-back approach to accuracy and the mild distortion and curvature of field make shooting anything square and flat difficult. It also doesn't show a full 100% preview on screen (which again, makes shooting charts a nightmare).

Of course for 99.9% of 'normal' users none of this is going to make the slightest bit of difference; they won't be shooting test charts or constantly re-shooting because the custom white balance is 10% out or the framing a few pixels too wide.
And so to the final conclusion. Whether the SP-550UZ is a camera you will love or hate depends a lot on what you intend to use it for. If you're likely to spend a lot of time at the long end of the zoom (or in low light) it's hard to recommend, because it's here where the performance and image quality niggles are at their worst. For more general snapping - and if you don't intend to produce large prints or get down to a pixel level on-screen - it's unlikely to disappoint, especially for typical unchallenging 'walk around' photography. Just don't expect to be able to shoot fast-moving kids or produce poster prints that look like they came from an SLR. And don't expect to get the best results in program mode and with all the settings on default; this is a camera that demands you know at least a little about exposure and so on before it delivers the goods.

The SP-550UZ is, then, a camera that tries a little to hard to be a true jack of all trades, and ends up being master of none; a perfect example of the whole being lesser than the sum of its parts. And yet the funny thing is, that after all that, I actually quite liked it. I guess - in a perverse way - it's sometimes nice to use a camera that forces you out of the lazy 'point and shoot' mentality and reminds you that photographers, not cameras, take pictures.
So I think you could get a better prosumer type camera. I really like my G9. If you do decide to get a DSLR, be sure to read the DPreview reviews first.

I do think you need to work on your composition as well.
posted by delmoi at 7:45 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Some info about what Dooce shoots with on her FAQ:
What kind of camera do you use? What lenses do you prefer?
A Canon 5D. We primarily shoot with a Canon EF 24-70mm L USM 2.8 and a Canon EF 50mm 1.4.
I would say you will really be pushing it to replicate the look of a 50mm 1.4 lens attached to a high-end consumer SLR with your Olympus prosumer model.

But that doesn't mean you can't get some of the way there with the tips everyone has given you above, especially re composition and Photoshop.

As well as adjusting the contrast, and maybe cropping to tighten up on your subject/s, a super quick way to see if adding that soft, fuzzy glow makes the kind of difference you're looking for, would be to go somewhere like Picnik and apply their Orton effect. Or Picassa's Glow effect. Then, if you like what you see, have a look around for Photoshop actions.
posted by t0astie at 10:32 PM on October 21, 2009

It looks like those photos you linked to are slightly over exposed, well lit or lit with a hot shoe flash, and heavily post-processed.

Your picture is back lit so it is hard to compare, however I don't think that camera model is all that great.

1. Sharpness/clarity/crispness.

Sharpness can be greatly improved in post processing, however you need a nice low noise image in order to end up with a sharp and noise free image when you are finished. You need at least a very good high end compact camera to do this.

2. Lack of distortion.

Barrel distortion is the distortion that creates the fish bowl effect, it happens at wide focal lengths and in poorly designed lenses. You may be able to reduce barrel distortion by backing up and using a longer focal length. Distortion is often a problem in compact cameras. This is more of a problem in compacts with a large zoom range. In order to achieve such a large zoom range image quality is often sacrificed. Compacts with short zoom ranges have the potential to be better. Some of the better compacts actually correct for distortion in camera so that the image recorded on the card has no distortion. Distortion is SLRs depends on the lens that is used, some lens have no distortion, some lenses have alot, you have to look at specific lens reviews to seem how much distortion is present. SLRs do not correct for distortion in camera because it varies with each lens. Therefore SLRs do not always have better distortion.

3. Shallow depth of field.

You are correct, shallow depth of field is difficult to achieve in a small sensor compact camera. A compact with a very wide aperture can achieve some background blur but no the same as a SLR.

The only compact I would recommend is the Panasomic LX3. It can achieve the shots you are looking for. The maximum focal length is only 60mm, that may be too short for you. However, it does correct for distortion in camera. It has a hotshoe in case you decide you need a better flash. It also has a very wide aperture. Other than that I would recommend a entry level SLR.

You might want to check this blog, he has a style that seems similar to what you are looking for and he often offers advice, he has done some work with the LX3.
posted by Procloeon at 10:34 PM on October 21, 2009

I added a DSLR to my camera collection because I was fed up with the deep focus, poor low-light performance , and shutter lag of my point & shoot. In your case though, I think you are being thwarted more by your photography and post-production skills than the limitations of your gear.

It looks like you can put your camera in aperture priority mode, which will allow you to choose the largest aperture (which is designated by the smallest number), this will help limit your depth of field. Unfortunately, it probably won't help that much given the other optical properties of your camera. Also, with a lot of zoom cameras, the largest aperture is only available at the shortest end of the zoom range which is a problem, because shorter focal lengths have deeper depth of field, and more distortion. Your best chance is to orchestrate your shots so your subjects have a plain background.

The distortion problem can be avoided by zooming out more and backing up. You don't have to zoom all the way in, your camera has a crazy zoom range you probably only have to be 1/10th of the way in to it to get rid of obvious distortion, though doubling that might be even better.

I looked on Flickr for photos taken with your camera too and didn't see anything conclusive. There were 4 HDR (read "highly postprocessed") shots and a photo of a snow sculpture.

Stick with this camera for a while. Try using different settings, and be more conscious and deliberate about composition, backgrounds & lighting and experiment with post processing in photoshop, or even picasa. If you still aren't happy with your shots, you'll can still buy a new camera.
posted by Good Brain at 10:35 PM on October 21, 2009

You'd be hard pressed to replicate what a professional photographer can do with top of the line equipment (which both the camera and especially the lens are).

That said, what you're taking photos of is always more important than what you take them with.
posted by flippant at 10:39 PM on October 21, 2009

There is almost nothing about the shot you like that requires a camera better than the one you want. The difference is how the subject is lit.

No camera is going to make midday sunshine look like dusk. The shadows are different. Direct sun is a single point of light. Late day of light, or shade is about diffuse light from many points.

I work on the photodesk at a newspaper. I've never heard any of the photographers ask another what camera a picture was shot with. I'll occasionally hear someone ask which lens was used. Much more often I'll hear questions about light. (Where the strobes were placed, what sort of umbrella/softbox used, the arrangements of lights and windows in the room a photo was taken.) Most often the questions the photographers ask one another how that one moment was arrived at. What was the subject like? How did you get them to relax/open up/ etc? What did you talk about?

No one asked Richard Avedon what camera he used, or the lighting to get his famous portrait of the Duke and Dutchess of Windsor. That picture is famous for how Avedon elicited the emotion from his subject. (And whether it was ethical for him to lie to get it.)

Take a second look at Avedon's photo. The subjects' eyes reflect some of the lights used in the shoot. (This is called a catchlight.) Your eye and brain are exquisitely tuned to read this sort of information. In each eye, we can see the main light. It's a big catchlight, probably circular, and placed above the subjects. Probably some sort of umbrella, but not a huge one - we can see the lines in his forehead, and around his mouth. A huge softbox would have made the light so diffuse these features wouldn't have been as emphasized. But they're essential to the success of the shot. We can see a second catchlight indicating a smaller light to the photographer's right.

Learn to start reading light and your pictures will get better. The camera is a passive observer of the scene. It's just a recording device. You use it to create.

The shot you like appears to be lit in a studio setting. The light is really diffuse and there's a catchlight in the baby's eye, likely a reflector. This can be duplicated at home to an extent. Stand with your back towards a window that doesn't have the sun shining through it. Get your subject close to you. (But not too close. A really close subject is where that fishy effect is coming from.) Take lots of pictures. I can just about guarantee that this frame wasn't the first one taken. The first probably had the little girl smiling at the camera. This is candid, and it's much better.

On preview, I'd think you could do with a camera upgrade if you want to get into photography more. Bump up to a Canon G11 point and shoot, or find a used DSLR. The advantages of the slr are that point and shoots are notoriously slow focusing. Not good for shooting kids.

Forget what has been said above about the competing camera brands. Everything made in the last couple of years is quite good. You won't be limited by any camera. I will say that most people shoot Nikon or Canon. Stick with one of them. In terms of image quality, the two have been leap frogging one another for the past decade, and people's allegiances can largely be explained by what was ahead when they bought their first dslr. They have both made colossal advances in that time. Recent offerings from both are excellent. Either way, buy a 50mm lens. They aren't expensive.
posted by thenormshow at 10:56 PM on October 21, 2009 [4 favorites]

Sorry second post, but here is what dpreview had to say about your camera. Emphasis added.

Conclusion - Cons

* Images lack biting crispness, some loss of fine detail to noise reduction
* Some corner softness at long end of zoom
*Distortion throughout the zoom range
* Focus slow at long end of zoom and in low light
* Occasional focus errors (where the camera says it's in focus and it isn't)
* Full resolution burst mode unimpressive
* Purple fringing and chromatic aberration (fairly mild, but visible)
* Slow file writing (xD-Picture Card)
* Poor artificial light Auto White Balance and slightly unreliable Custom White Balance
* Screen blooming and slow reaction to brightness changes in live preview
* Movie mode restrictions (can't use sound with IS or zoom turned on)
* Mild overexposure of bright scenes leading to highlight clipping (can be fixed with AE-C)
* Supplied raw converter produces unimpressive results
* HIgher ISO settings noisy and soft (due to noise reduction)
* Almost pointless low-resolution ISO 3200 and ISO 5000 settings
* Disappointing macro performance

I recommend reading the whole conclusion of the the review to get the whole picture.
posted by Procloeon at 11:31 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

this may or may not help you, but today i really enjoyed this interview about making good photos happen from not so good cameras.
posted by bellbellbell at 1:16 AM on October 22, 2009

Thanks so much for the tips, everyone! It does look like the distortion and lack of sharpness may be partly an issue with the camera, so when I find myself with a bit of extra cash I'll definitely look into the equipment suggestions eveyone's mentioned here.

In the meantime, I'll also try to work on composition/lighting using some of the resources people have linked (in my own defense, I do normally try to shoot in soft indirect natural light, not backlit, etc. etc., but the linked shot was the only portrait-like one I could find quickly that didn't actually have any of my family in it. Here is an equally crappy non-backlit shot from my camera, albeit one in artificial room light).

And maybe I'll try aperture priority mode for a bit-- seems like shutter priority is getting me nowhere. Thank you all!
posted by Bardolph at 4:07 AM on October 22, 2009

A decent P&S with a photographer that knows all the rules and tricks can take photos just as well as with a high end DSLR. Your P&S should offer RAW mode which when brought into a newer version of Photoshop can get rid of all the bad aberrations which make a picture look bad. Chromatic aberrations can be easily removed and sharpness can be improved. Of course most of this is being extremely familiar with the tools of Photoshop.

The portrait you link to could be done by knowing the rules of composition and using a softbox flash synced by slave. Using flash will give you a sharper picture than available light and a softbox will give a beautiful soft light which you will never get with on-camera flash. Knowing these two things can improve your photography. Even with an expensive DSLR, you need to know how to compose and how to use light to take effective portraits.
posted by JJ86 at 6:25 AM on October 22, 2009

BTW, your latest shot has one major problem. That linked with your statement about wanting to "try aperture priority mode for a bit" shows a misunderstanding of basic photography. This should be cleared up. No one camera mode will improve your photography. It depends on the situation and the available light. The shot you linked to didn't have enough light and it required you to use a shutter speed that was too slow. As a result you have motion blur.

Image sharpness in hand-held shots requires a faster shutter speed. It actually depends on a combination of focal length and shutter speed. A rule of thumb is to set the shutter speed at the inverse of your focal length. If you are zooming to 100mm then use a minimum shutter speed of 1/100 second. Obviously if the light is too low where you cannot get 1/100 then your hand-held shot will usually have motion blur. There are books that deal with all the intricacies of image sharpness and is something every photographer should know.
posted by JJ86 at 6:38 AM on October 22, 2009

You will definitely be able to take photos of "that quality" with your camera. That photo is highly contrasted and slightly saturated, which should be easy to achieve with a simple image editing program. Here is your original photo edited in GIMP (free program). If that is the look you're after, it's fairly easy to get. Your current camera offers a range of 28 to 504mm, which goes from mildly wide-angled to very close-up. If you don't want that fishbowl look, stay around 40 to 70 mm when photographing portraits. Your camera also offers a f/2.8 - 4.5 range--this is FINE if you are photographing in a lot of light. You could easily get a photo that looks almost exactly like your originally referenced photo with what you have and a little bit of composition practice.

However, if you WANT a DSLR, go for it.
posted by vas deference at 11:50 AM on October 22, 2009

Just realized I posted the wrong photo. Here's the right one.
posted by vas deference at 10:21 AM on November 5, 2009

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