Help using a digital camera
July 31, 2012 4:18 PM   Subscribe

Help me determine which settings I should use on a digital camera to photograph buildings.

The camera is a Canon PowerShot SX130 IS (full specs in link). 12 megapixel, max resolution 4000 x 3000, max aperture F3.4 - F5.6

I am going to buy a DSLR later this year and take a class on how to use it. Right now I am trying to figure out if I can improve the photos I have been taking with the PowerShot. I have been using the "AUTO" option which automatically determines the best setting for the camera given the conditions where you are shooting.

I am shooting buildings during the day and evening. Shooting at night seems to be something I am going to have to wait for until I have the DSLR.

Here is a link to the best photo I think I have taken. I was using a tripod and had plenty of distance to shoot from.

How much better could this photo have been if I had used the manual controls?

Here is a photo I had hoped would come out better. I was not using a tripod and I had to hold the camera just above my head to fit the whole building in the shot. The street is narrow so I was limited as to how far back I could stand when shooting. I know I need to do a better job cropping/centering when editing.

Again, if I had been using the manual controls, adjusting the aperture value, shutter speed, et cetera, would the photo have been better?

The whole photostream is here.

I have been reading the instruction manual and playing with the settings all afternoon and am increasingly frustrated. If someone could recommend which settings I should use, it would be most appreciated.
posted by mlis to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I never got much variation with the manual controls on my P&S cameras. They all seemed a wash. The exception was I could get some DOF with macro shots but that's about it.

The DSLR will give you nice DOF control, better low light performance, and RAW shooting but I'm not sure that would make any difference in these two samples. The first one I would probably "enhance" (a subjective term) by cropping out the dumpster and parked vehicles. A DSLR wouldn't do anything for that.

This one could be improved with manual controls as it is blowing out the sky. I had this problem all the time with my P&S cameras. On my DSLR I usually shoot at -1 AE compensation then brighten up anything I feel like fixin' on the computer.
posted by chairface at 4:49 PM on July 31, 2012

To my eye, the one that you hoped would come out better is closer to properly-exposed than the one you think is best, at least if the building is what you're trying to photograph. The blue sky in the first one is very nice, but the building itself is quite underexposed. So I guess I'd ask, what is your goal? Is it to make a pretty picture, or a documentation of the building? Both are equally valid, but they involve different approaches.
posted by primethyme at 4:53 PM on July 31, 2012

I hope to capture the building and all the details on it, the angles, the brickwork, so yeah, to document the building. It is good to know the first one is underexposed. How should I have shot that one?
posted by mlis at 4:57 PM on July 31, 2012

P&S usually have an exposure lock feature. Figure out how to use that. If you felt the building was under exposed in the first sample, you would first exposure lock on a dark area. This usually just means getting the sky out of the frame as the daylight sky is bright. Then frame as normal and shoot. In the second example, where the sky is blown out, you could do the opposite and exposure lock on the sky. The building would then be under exposed.

If you are just shooting immobile objects like buildings and using a tripod you can experiment with exposure fusing, a more tasteful approach than HDR to handling this sort of exposure problem.
posted by chairface at 5:23 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I suspect that we're looking at these pictures on different monitors with different gamma curves. I'm seeing your first photo as well exposed. Maybe you could have opened it up half a stop and gotten some better detail in the shadows of the ironwork, but you've got a bright blue sky in front of a building in shadow and you got the blue of the sky and the detail in the brickwork and the grill of the air conditioner.

That second one is an argument for subtle uses of HDR techniques. I think it's blown-out overexposed, you can't tell if that's clouds over a blue sky, or dreary overcast. I'd close down a stop and see if you still got shadow detail, use the raw file and see if there's detail that can be extracted from the sky with some good image processing techniques, or get out the tripod, take a couple of shots at different exposures, and use something like Photomatix to merge the images and display the detail in all the regions. Just be gentle with that technique, HDR has a bad name because a lot of people crank up the "make the colors look really saturated" knob, and suddenly your picture looks like a Thomas Kinkade painting without the tasteful restraint.

I think beyond just a few tweaks to exposure, you should get comfortable by starting with learning how to use autobracketing in your "P" mode. Let the camera automatically shoot half a stop, or a full stop, under and over. Then, for this sort of shot, use aperture priority to control the amount of depth of field you want (for buildings like this, F8 or F11 unless you want things further away to be out of focus).

Once you learn those tools I don't think a DSLR is going to help you a lot unless you want more sharper pixels (not something we're going to see in the 1700 x 2048 version), or unless you spring for a tilt-shift lens (which is awesome for architectural shots like this, but, with enough pixels, can also kind of be applied as a post-process image warp, depending on what you need your output resolution to be).
posted by straw at 5:30 PM on July 31, 2012

thank you chairface, I do have an exposure lock so I will experiment with that and also look into exposure fusing.
posted by mlis at 5:31 PM on July 31, 2012

Buildings don't lend themselves much to exposure tweaking since they're really big and they don't move - meaning you can't take advantage of a faster shutter to freeze motion or a shallower depth of field to isolate your subject. A better camera will give you better exposures on auto mode simply because it has a higher-end sensor though, so you will find that a very worthwhile investment.

The fact that your subjects don't move means that to make your photography better, you need to be a slave to the light. Visit a building at several different times of day, and you'll notice wildly different moods. Pay attention to whether the sun is behind you, behind the building, or raking across its surface. I love early morning shots for architecture, because everything looks crisp and even and a little romantic, but you might find a different time of day better suits you.

The other major step up will come from paying close attention to framing. Try unfocusing a shot while you're setting it up to see the composition - are there too many disparate bits and pieces? Is there an interesting interplay between foreground and background?

And as a bonus, get into Photoshop or Gimp and correct the skew so that your head-on shots have straight verticals. You'll be amazed at how this elevates an image.
posted by ella wren at 10:09 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

A lot of my work involves shooting interiors and exteriors of (mostly) commercial buildings.

In looking at your pictures, I'm not particularly bothered by the minor exposure variations as much as I am by the horizons that aren't level, and of course the converging vertial distortion created by the need to tilt the camera upward to capture the entire elevations.

These kinds of problems can be fixed in Adobe PhotoShop, and I assume other apps as well. I got rid of my perspective control lenses about five years ago when the software capabilities reduced the need for specialized glass.

The only other thing I would tell you is that I will typically go to the ends of the earth to avoid shooting a building elevation that is backlit. If you were using an automatic setting on this one, I am frankly impressed by the fact that your current camera did as well as it did, exposure-wise. Of course, it does suffer from lens flare and blooming highlights. Avoiding those problems in a shot like this would have pretty much required shooting it when the sun was hitting the front of the building, or on a more overcast day, regardless of the camera/lens combination you used.

If you have options as to when you photograph specific buildings, you might look into The Photographers Ephemeris, which is invaluable to determine when the light will be right for a specific address. I have no connection with the company other than being a very satisfied customer.
posted by imjustsaying at 3:42 AM on August 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Light and framing are your main challenges with what you are doing. You need to pick when the light will be best, and you need to most pleasingly frame your images.

As for what you can do with the camera itself, here's a minor but hopefully helpful note: you need to be aware of diffraction.

You know aperture, right? How the higher the aperture number is, the smaller the aperture is? Well, on any camera, when your aperture becomes too narrow, then you'll actually start losing sharpness, due to diffraction. The smaller your camera's sensor, the sooner diffraction sets in.

What does this mean for you? This means that you should keep your particular point and shoot camera as open as possible, which I believe on your camera is f8. When your aperture is narrower than that, you are actually losing some sharpness. Besides, due to the small sensor on your camera, there will be little to no DOF advantage to using an aperture smaller than f8 anyhow.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:00 AM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

The most important manual controls you'll want to explore are timing/lighting, and positioning. And the best part is you already have access to these with your P&S.

The lighting in both of those pictures is flat. Even in your favorite, the contrast between light and shadow is minimal. If you'd chosen to shoot at dusk or dawn, when the color of light is deeper and angle of light casts more interesting shadows you'd get more vibrant color and texture across the face of these buildings. Or maybe there's a large white building across the street reflects the sun onto the firehouse at a particular hour which would provide some interesting lighting.

People have touched on positioning. In both photos, the buildings fill the frame and are a little tilted. The tilt is somewhat distracting. I'd step away from the building, and catch it at an angle. Maybe include some of the surroundings.
posted by Mercaptan at 9:43 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just to keep myself busy, I used Hugin to hyper straighten the image here (tutorial). If you plan to shoot buildings, Hugin is well worth mastering not only for perspective correction but also because it does excellent exposure fusing.
posted by chairface at 1:32 PM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

chairface, thank you so much! That tutorial is very helpful and I really appreciate you taking the time to work on the image -- your flickr page is private, though.
posted by mlis at 2:09 PM on August 2, 2012

« Older Scanning slides - 4000, 2000 or 1200 DPI?   |   How do I survive a year or two in a small town... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.