How can I improve the quality of my digital photos without upgrading my camera?
November 8, 2006 5:24 PM   Subscribe

How can I improve the quality of my digital photos without upgrading my camera?

I have a Canon Powershot A80 that I picked up a few years ago, and for the longest time it's been pretty good to me. It's a decent camera for a beginner -- it has manual controls, etc. I have to say I've outgrown it, but I am not financial ready to upgrade right now.

The problem is that I've noticed my photos are often sub-par lately in the quality department. I'm certainly not an expert but my photos tend to be more blurry than those from comparable cameras (or even the same model). I understand that it's usually necessary to do some post-processing in Photoshop, but I seem to have to do lot to mine to get them to look even halfway decent. Pictures often come out blurry, even in good light. And I almost always have to tweak the color balance to get good hues and saturation.

I understand that as a 4 megapixel camera, it can only be so good, but I've see way better results from other folks with similar cameras. Where am I going wrong?

Although I'm hesitant to show you my flickr photos, I will do so if you need to see them to get an idea of what I'm talking about. Just promise not to laugh, mkay?
posted by GS1977 to Technology (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You might ask a friend (who takes good pictures with the same model or a similar one) to test your camera and make sure it's not your optics if you get blurry results.

If they get bad results, it's not you. Otherwise, maybe read about photo composition. (The same things hold true for digital and film cameras to a large degree).
posted by JMOZ at 5:32 PM on November 8, 2006

yeah, let's see some examples.
posted by aubilenon at 5:36 PM on November 8, 2006

The best way to improve pictures is to learn to compose shots well. Failing that, you can always move into post-production using Photoshop. Photoshop can dramatically enhance and bring out parts of images that would otherwise be lost due to poor quality or composition.
posted by Aanidaani at 5:37 PM on November 8, 2006

4 megapixels should be sufficient for good photos.

Digital exposures are slow, which makes them difficult for action indoors.

If you're taking stills, slowing the exposure rate (even more) helps a lot, but makes a tripod—or at least resting your camera on something—necessary. Also, using the camera's timer after setting up the shot prevents you from handling and jiggling the camera to take the picture. If you're using a flash for stills, don't. Slow the exposure instead.

I am not a photoshop jedi: Correcting lighting and color is pretty simple. Correcting blurry photos is difficult. If you can fix at least that problem, it should make correction a lot easier.
posted by mealy-mouthed at 5:50 PM on November 8, 2006

Photoshop can punch up the colors and contrast of your pics and improve the composition through cropping (though you really should try to compose in camera as much as possible.) But if you've got blurry pics coming out of your camera, no amount of Photoshop that will make them sharp.

On a point and shoot camera like yours, most blurry shots are from the shutter speed being too slow. Are you manually setting your exposure time? You shouldn't be getting blurry shots in good light if you're using automatic controls. Post some examples.

Also, don't sweat the specs of your camera. 4 megapixels is plenty to get excellent shots for display either on the Web or printed to 7x5 or so and any image quality improvement will be from the glass in front of the sensor (which Canon excels at) or technique.
posted by alidarbac at 5:51 PM on November 8, 2006

Is the picture quality on your camera set to maximum resolution? I have a number of friends who turn down the resolution so that they can have more photos on their memory cards, but it does nothing for the photos, especially when you try to make them larger. They just don't realise that lower resolution equals blurred photos.

IMO, 4 megapixels is more than enough for the average person, especially when they are only making standard sized prints. Sure 8 or 10 MP is nice, but do you really need all those extra pixels?
posted by cholly at 5:51 PM on November 8, 2006

What settings are you using? I have a couple of Canons and find my most consistant results come from using auto white balance, auto ISO, and the vivid color setting. Once I've taken the pictures I want with those settings, I'll change them and take some more, but it seems to work best if you let the camera decide. It might just be me, but if I overthink my pictures, there almost as bad as if I don't pay attention at all.

But, yeah, let us see your flickr stream!
posted by found dog one eye at 5:56 PM on November 8, 2006

Blurry photos come from too low of a shutter speed. Keep it above 1/60th for regular shots and faster for zoom and you will likely see an improvement. Use flash, fill flash, night portrait even if necessary to get the speed up. There is a composition thread just a dozen or so down that will make more difference than anything in quality.
posted by caddis at 6:03 PM on November 8, 2006

Megapixels have very little bearing on whether you can create a quality shot. Even professional photographers will attest; you can shoot amazing work with a low-end camera. Photography comes down to a couple of things. First, get the basics right (adequate lighting, good choices for framing/cropping, and an interesting subject). Second, take time to shoot many takes of the same subject...with time you'll find that some approaches work better for you than others. I'd like to add a third element (but this is just a matter of opinion)....learn how to take more shots without using the flash. You'll be amazed at the results you can get just by manipulating available light.
posted by runningdogofcapitalism at 6:05 PM on November 8, 2006

Along the lines of what cholly mentions, I know someone who set their camera to high quality, but at some unknown point, it reset to factory defaults - almost certainly during a battery change (many camera you can only have the batteries out for about a minute before custom settings are lost).

It doesn't sound like it's the problem, but it might be worth a check.

Perhaps the other people are making better use of things like ISO, apeture settings, avoiding zoom, etc to get higher shutter speeds in the same light conditions?
posted by -harlequin- at 6:08 PM on November 8, 2006

A tripod will make an immediate, huge improvement in your pictures. If you have a 'remote trigger' for your shutter, and you combine that with a tripod, well, you and your friends will just be amazed at how good your pictures get. I promise.
posted by extrabox at 6:11 PM on November 8, 2006

"Quality photos" are not the result of the camera, or the amount of megapixels (or lack thereof). I have (and have seen) some very nice shots at 2.1mpxl . Do some test shots, is your autofocus not working properly? Is it using an autofocus point which you aren't expecting? Is the whitebalance set correctly? Is the camera in some strange color mode?
posted by defcom1 at 6:18 PM on November 8, 2006

And what's up with that blue shit I see sprinkled in all my shots?
posted by redsparkler at 6:52 PM on November 8, 2006

A tripod will make an immediate, huge improvement in your pictures.

Amen to that. And as many have said, you're barking up the wrong tree with the megapixel problem.
posted by justgary at 6:53 PM on November 8, 2006

Check lens is clean, scratch free.
Squeeze shutter release, softly.
Hold camera with two hands.
Look for more camera support.
posted by Fins at 7:14 PM on November 8, 2006

Pocket Guide to Digital Photography by Derrick Story, from O'Reilly, is the best digital photography book I've seen. Your library might have it. It's also cheap, around $15 new.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:12 PM on November 8, 2006

Much thanks for the responses. Here is my flickr stream.

So anyway, I see what you guys are saying about the megapixel thing. I guess I mentioned that because I wanted you to understand that I understand that my camera is only capable of so much, but yeah--I agree that megapixels aren't as important as one might think.

To be clear, I'm not talking so much about the quality of my photos (in terms of composition, the rule of thirds, and other elements of good photography); I was referring to the quality of the images my camera produces. I realize that having some swank DSLR is not going to make me a good photographer and I'm all for getting the most out of what I have. That said, I also understand that I still have plenty to learn when it comes to the fundamentals.

The suggestion to use a tripod is a good one. I've heard it before several times. I do have a mini tripod that I use at home from time to time, but when I'm out walking around (where I take most of my photos), I don't often bring it with me because it's about 5 inches tall and I figure I might as well just find something to lean the camera on while snapping a picture if I need to stabilize the camera. I don't have the steadiest hands, but at the shutter speeds I use in daylight, I always thought that it shouldn't matter so much. In any case, if I have to go below 1/60 to get a decent exposure, I will brace the camera against something to help it and/or use the 2-second delay as a few of you suggested. I should invest in a decent full-size tripod, though.

As far as the settings I typically use go, I use either shutter priority, aperture priority, or "P" mode if I'm feeling lazy or just taking snapshots. I almost never use full auto, simply because I can't seem to get good shots at all that way. They often come out overexposed or undersaturated. I set the white balance to what looks best on the lcd and sometimes manually set it if I happen to have something white-ish nearby (or non white if I wanna get "artsy"). I hardly ever use the auto setting, which I've read is pretty poor. I think I should pick up a gray card or whatever and carry that with me, because I'm sometimes not happy with any of the presets. I rarely use manual focus. The auto focus mode I typically use is the one where the center of the frame gets the focus, and then I'll recompose the shot after locking that in.

Oh, and I always use the highest quality settings. I have 512mb card and a 256mb spare, so I'm usually ok on storage.

So if you look at my photos, take a peek at my EXIF info and let me know if you have any specific suggestions for better settings to use.

One thing I forget to mention in the original post is the small size of my camera's lcd. It's one thing that really irks me about it. A photo will often look pretty decent on it (the focus, the color, etc.), but when I look at it on the computer it's shit. I know the display compresses the resolution, but come on!

Again, thanks a lot for your time. I'll go check out that composition thread.
posted by GS1977 at 12:42 AM on November 9, 2006

Sounds like the autofocus might not be as good as desired. Does your camera offer a manual focus? (My point-and-shoot manual focus puts a box of super-zoomed-in area on screen so you can see at the pixel level what the sensor is seeing, and thus how focused it really is). The manual focus is not something I'd want to use a lot, but it might help you find out if the problem is autofocus. Or just use a tripod and take a bunch of test pics where you now KNOW the camera didn't move, so any focus issues are the AF.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:58 AM on November 9, 2006

One word: Tripod.
However, are you talking about blurryness in things that are moving? I noticed you have some blurry cat shots... a tripod won't help with that. If you're taking photos indoors with a point and shoot without flash, then there's not much you're going to be able to do.
Also, are you using USM to add a bit of sharpness to your photos in Photoshop? Adding more contrast in curves usually peps up an image as well.
posted by BobsterLobster at 2:24 AM on November 9, 2006

I just glanced at your flickr stream, and I'm don't see the problem. 2 Spiney, for instance, is sharp as a tack.
posted by timeistight at 2:30 AM on November 9, 2006

To take a completely different approach, Photo Acute will offer a dramatic improvement to photos with no movement in the scene you're photographing. If you have time to take four to six photos without the scene changing, Photo Acute effectively (almost) quadruples your camera's resolution.

And since your camera doesn't currently have a Photo Acute profile, you can score yourself a free copy by doing a set of calibration images for them.
posted by krisjohn at 4:40 AM on November 9, 2006

Do you frame your shots using your camera's screen? That's fine, but make sure you take the photo with your head on the viewfinder. This will afford you extra stability (i.e. less motion blurs) without the hassle of a tripod. Once I started doing this my digital photos became much crisper.

In addition, wait until you know that the camera has started, if not finished, writing to disk before you move. Yes, literally waiting that long is unnecessary, but if you ask anyone who shoots (either guns or cameras) they will tell you that such "follow-through" is necessary for good aim.
posted by Xoder at 7:24 AM on November 9, 2006

timeistight: yeah, that photo is not a good example. i was pretty happy with that one. i did have to do some sharpening in PS to get that, though. Here's a good example. See how nothing is in focus? Also, the sky and distant mountains have a bunch of noise. It certainly wasn't a bright day, but shouldn't even an overcast scene have plenty of light for the auto focus?

BobsterLobster: i'm not referring to the blurriness of moving objects (e.g. the cats); i'm talking about blur appearing in shots of inanimate objects and landscape shots where there is plenty of light.

xoder: i do usually compose in the screen first, but i've been trying to get in the habit of holding the camera up to my eye whenever possible.
posted by GS1977 at 11:36 AM on November 9, 2006

Something nobody's mentioned: How are you metering? I had a Canon A80 years ago, but I can't remember. That might be something big to look into, at least you'll have the option of choosing what it exposes for.

This page says the following about metering.
There are three metering modes. Apart from Evaluative metering, which links the metering area to one of the nine AF points, there are Spot and Centre-weighted metering. Although the camera's standard setting in most program modes would be Evaluative metering, "old school" photographers may still prefer good old Centre-weighted metering. In this mode it is much easier to influence the camera's exposure settings, because the emphasis is very much on a large area in the centre of the image. If for instance there is a lot of blank sky in the image its effect on the exposure can be easily corrected by pointing the camera downwards a little to exclude the sky when setting the exposure before recomposing the image. With Evaluative metering, although remarkably accurate in most situations, you never know exactly what the camera is evaluating, so it is much more difficult to know when you need to overrule the camera's exposure settings.
posted by Brainy at 5:27 PM on November 9, 2006

i typically use the center-weighted average setting, because like it says above, you then have more control. i still find that if the scene i'm shooting is high contrast (if there is a bright sky and then a significantly darker foreground, for example), then an area of the photo will be either unacceptably under or overexposed.

is this a limit of my camera, my metering skills, or something you have to live with in photography? it bothers me a lot.
posted by GS1977 at 12:55 AM on November 10, 2006

Do you expose for what you want and then recompose? Perhaps that's the "secret". The half-shutter press makes the camera evaluate the exposure, DOF, etc bascially applies your settings which are then used as long as you have the shutter half pressed. You can then move the camera all around and it will still retain those settings. So if you have a bright sky in your picture, frame it so that there is no sky and it will expose for everything else, press the shutter half way, and then move the camera so you can see the sky.
posted by Brainy at 6:12 AM on November 13, 2006

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