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January 10, 2012 5:01 PM   Subscribe

Are there some exercises I can do that will give me a better sense of the limits of my camera?

I occasionally have to take photos as part of my job, and I often feel frustrated with my current camera. But I think the problem is more my fault than its --- the image I see in real life and the composition I see in my head, or even on the viewfinder, don't match the shots I end up getting. My camera's a pretty crappy point and shoot, and while I may end up buying a better one down the road, what I really need is a set of practice shots I can take so I can get a feel for what it, or any camera, can and can't do. So what should I be shooting? And what setting should I be fiddling with while I do? I basically don't know dick about photography.
posted by Diablevert to Technology (11 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Buy Understanding Exposure. It's available as an eBook. That and your camera's manual will help you understand how much you can do and what you're looking for that you're not getting.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 5:21 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Do you have aperture priority and shutter priority? EV/exposure compensation?

I don't know that these are "exercises" but they will show you how your camera works-

1. put an object about 3 feet in front of you. set aperture priority. set the lowest number aperture value you can (this will be the most wide open). take a picture. bump up the aperture value by 1 value. take THE SAME picture. compare the two. bump it up again, take the same picture again. Compare. this should teach you about depth of field (smaller aperture number gives you more shallow depth of field).

also this should show you which apertures are somewhat reasonable in a given light. if you're in bright daylight, likely the widest open aperture is going to give you a very washed out picture.

2. go someplace with a lot of movement - like a street with busy traffic. set shutter priority. go through all the shutter speed options the same way you did the apertures. notice how much blur ends up in your pictures. (Note that if you have a camera with image stabilization this might not work quite how it would without it - if you see no difference, turn off the stabilization)

3. now set the exposure compensation & walk through taking the same picture with all the values from like -2 to -1 to 0 to +1 to +2. See the difference?

Also, learn how to use your white balance control, telling it that you are shooting in sunlight vs incandescent light vs shade and so forth. Incorrect white balance is the biggest problem I see in most people's point-and-shoot camera pictures indoors.

Finally... just take pictures. I have a degree in photography, and I am terrible at composition right now because I don't have time to get out there and practice and my photography brain parts atrophy. It's 99% practice.
posted by lyra4 at 5:26 PM on January 10, 2012 [12 favorites]

"... the image I see in real life and the composition I see in my head, or even on the viewfinder, don't match the shots I end up getting."

Step 1 would be to figure out how the shots don't match the composition you see in your head. Maybe keep a notebook, so with every shot you write down what you have in your head. Later you compare the image (on a large screen, not the camera's display) with your notes.

The most important tips I got from my first photo teacher: "look at the edges (and corners) of the frame" and "try to look at the image in the viewfinder; try not to look through the camera at your subject".

The camera itself is not that important.
posted by phliar at 5:27 PM on January 10, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, guys, good answers so far. It occurs to me that perhaps I wasn't super clear .... What I'm wondering is, should I try taking practice shots of like, a brightly coloured thing in front of a white wall or high contrast shadows or bright colours together or something in order to get a feel for how the thing works? Because in my job I often have limited control over lighting conditions and do forth, and it's be handy to know "man, he looks super washed out in this shot, maybe if I tweak thus-and-such it would look a little better" etc.
posted by Diablevert at 5:47 PM on January 10, 2012

Lyra4's suggestions are good. I might add that utilizing a photo program that easily lets you look at the image data/info makes it easier for you to do the comparison afterwards.

Philar's advice is good as well... a great example is a shot I took the other day, my whole focus when I took the shot, and as I edited afterwards was on a concept in the center of the frame... as I worked with it, I finally realized that in the very lower corner, my Husky had wandered into the picture... It changed the whole intent, but in the end made it a better picture... pay attention to the WHOLE thing.
posted by HuronBob at 5:49 PM on January 10, 2012

The exercises that lyra4 describes will help you deal with the bad lighting, etc. that you find on the job. You might also do some experimenting with bad situations, like you've mentioned: high contrast, someone who's lit from behind, fluorescent lighting... The exercises from lyra4 will show you the effects of your camera's settings, and the bad situations will help you apply them to make your shots better.

For what it's worth, I recently upgraded from a decent point-and-shoot to a much better digital SLR and did some comparison shots. The SLR far surpasses my point-and-shoot in handling high-contrast lighting, dim light, and shallow depth of field.

Even if you plan to upgrade eventually, learn to squeeze everything you can out of the camera you have now. Your understanding of aperture, etc. will make it much easier for you to adapt to a more sophisticated camera later.
posted by ceiba at 6:04 PM on January 10, 2012

Best answer: The exposure compensation, aperture and shutter speed tips from lyra4 above are great.
A couple things really helped me understand camera limitations, particularly in low light conditions. Some of this will probably be obvious.

Go somewhere dark with some ambient light - maybe a street scene at night with a streetlight or something like that.

1) Set everything on full auto and take some pictures - this should trigger the flash. Experiment with the flash - see how effective it is at lighting scenes at different distances.
2) Force flash off, take a handheld picture.
3) With flash still off, brace the camera against something and take a picture to stabilize it.
4) With flash still off, set the self-timer (the one you use for group photos), set the camera down on something (this is the poor-man's-tripod technique) and take a photo that way.

Also, take a variety of pictures in poor lighting, cycling through all the different ISO options. Take note of how this affects the shutter speed (higher ISO = shorter exposure and hopefully less motion blur), and also max out the ISO and look at how grainy pictures become.

See how clear you can get a shot in low lighting with low ISO and a long exposure on a tripod/stable surface, and also try taking handheld shots, reducing your exposure time with a higher ISO. In general, try to develop a feel for how to get the shot you want given the lighting you have, and know what is/isn't possible with your equipment.
posted by hot soup at 6:07 PM on January 10, 2012

It was a little hard to understand just what was not working for you, but from your 'washed out' comment you may be having problems with the basic problem of point and shoot cameras being set to a lowest common denominator to ensure some basic recognizable image is captured. It's a fine line when increasing saturation or contrast to where the image becomes very very wrong. It sounds like you want to move towards a stronger image, a basic point and shoot may not work for you, may need to look for a DSLR or one of the newer 3/4's style that gives control.

Working with photoshop or picasa may help to bump up the image.

Lighting is hard, look at some professional setups for portrait or fashion, there's a reason for each of those eight expensive flashes. (well eight is extreme)

Er, sorry exercise, I'd suggest taking pictures of some fairly static shots, kitchen, living room, a very patient friend. Print, large if possible. Take the photo back to the environment and take the picture again with different lights, time of day, settings. rinse repeat
posted by sammyo at 6:08 PM on January 10, 2012

If colors seem off, check your white balance. Change it to a few different settings while taking the same image and see which one seems the most true to life. (you'll have to do this every time you change colors, lighting, backgrounds etc).

If you think it looks washed out it's probably because of your flash or because you're shooting in a harsh light. Not much you're going to do about if you can't move around/change the lighting. w/out off camera flash anyway.

Read books about lighting. Chasing the Light is a good one for using available light.
posted by no bueno at 6:20 PM on January 10, 2012

You could try playing around with this Online Camera Simulator to get a feel for what aperture, shutter speed and exposure do in a very controlled situation.

An example to try - set it to "shutter priority" and then move the "shutter" slider to the middle. See how the pinwheel is blurry? Now try moving it all the way to the left - that's the fastest shutter speed, and you'll see how it lets you freeze the action of the pinwheel.

(It's a great demo, but unfortunately if you have a point-and-shoot you won't get much of a chance to put your awesome new knowledge to use. Since a point-and-shoot by definition makes all the decisions for you, you can't really do much testing with it. You'll have to get an SLR, or at least something that lets you control aperture and shutter speed for that.)
posted by ella wren at 7:14 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lyra4's suggestions are good. I might add that utilizing a photo program that easily lets you look at the image data/info makes it easier for you to do the comparison afterwards.

That's an excellent point, and doing things like this has helped me get better. Look at the histograms of the different color channels, for example, and you might see that something is clipping. Then you know that whatever you did for that photo let in too much light.

The basics of photography are this: you have a scene that you can't control, and a sensor that you can't control. (Whether the sensor is film or digital.) The scene puts out what it puts out, and the sensor can only see what it can see. Your goal, then, is to use what you can control to get as much of the scene onto the sensor. Too much light, let less in.

Think of it like cropping, but in a different dimension. When the sensor "sees" something that is dimmer than it is capable of seeing, it just gives you black. And anything brighter is just white. So you want to make sure that the useful information is in between those hard limits.

With a point and shoot, instead of having direct control over the shutter and aperture, you usually have "modes" to pick from. If you read the book that came with the camera, it ought to have explanations for what the camera is doing for each mode. Once you know that, you can have better control over your images. Like for example, "snow" mode is meant to get a lot of detail out of very white images. So if you are taking a picture of a white kitten on a white rug indoors, try taking a couple of shots with the camera in "snow" mode as well as the "indoor" mode and see if one gives better results than another.

Another thing that has helped my sub-amateur photography skills is reading the wikipedia articles on cameras and optics. Seeing pictures of what the light is doing in the camera really helped solidify the concepts for me. Example.

(Short answer: turn off the flash, use a tripod and set the camera on auto. That will fix a lot of shortcomings.)
posted by gjc at 8:15 AM on January 11, 2012

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