December 26, 2009

New Camera? Now What?

Montana Winter 2008
Did you get a new digital camera for Christmas? If so, you might be wondering where to start. Here are a couple suggestions to get you taking pictures in no time!

The first thing you need is power for the camera. It may come with some alkaline AA batteries in the box. If so, open the battery compartment (usually on the bottom of the camera) and insert them in the correct orientation.

If your camera came with a rechargeable battery, you need to charge the battery first before putting it in the camera. There's probably an included battery charger for you to plug into the wall. This will take a couple hours and then you'll be ready to go.

Note that alkaline batteries don't let you take many photos before they run out. You might want to experiment with the new lithium AA batteries made for hand-held devices of all kinds, or try some rechargeable AA batteries called Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH). The rechargeables will be "dead" when you buy them so plan on some charging time before use.

While you're waiting for the battery to charge, locate the memory card. A memory card saves your photos as you take them. Your camera may have come with a small capacity card (16MB or 32MB). Or Santa may have included a higher capacity card (2GB or 4GB) for you.

In either case, insert the memory card in the camera. In a compact camera, the slot  is often in the same compartment as the batteries. In an SLR camera, the memory card slot may be behind a door on the side. In both cases, the card only fits in the slot in one direction. If the card doesn't go in smoothly, try turning it over.

CAUTION: If you already have pictures on your memory card, skip this next step! Otherwise, you will erase all your photos!

Once the memory card is in the camera, it's a good idea to format the card. This prepares it to work optimally with your camera (though it will work without this step). Get out the instruction book that came with the camera and look up Format in the index. Follow the directions listed there.

Instruction Manual

The batteries may still be charging, so while you wait, take the time to read through the manual's introduction to using your camera. This section, sometimes called "Getting Started" or "Basic Operation", includes directions on loading batteries and memory cards and attaching the camera strap. Then it explains basic picture taking and picture reviewing techniques as well as how to delete any photo you don't like.

Note: Some camera manufacturers supply only a very small, incomplete printed manual. The complete manual is on the CD that is also in the camera box. If you take the CD to any copy shop, they can print and bind it for you. I highly recommend you do this.

By now the batteries should be charged, so you can install them in the camera. Find the power switch and turn on the camera. Set the camera to automatic picture taking, usually a red camera or green square icon or even the word AUTO. Following the guidelines given in the manual, frame a photo using either the screen on the back or the viewfinder. Try moving closer or zooming in on your subject to eliminate unnecessary information. Focus by pressing the shutter button halfway. Then take the photo by pressing the shutter button all the way.

Automatic Picture Taking Icon

The photo you just made should instantly appear on the back of the camera. If it doesn't stay visible long enough for you to check the results, you can call up the picture manually. Press the playback or Review button. The playback button looks like a right-pointing triangle inside a rectangle, much like the play button on your DVD player.

Playback Icon

If the picture isn't framed exactly the way you wanted or the exposure doesn't seem right, adjust your camera angle and try again. Check the results of the second photo and see if you like it better. This instant feedback on whether or not you got the shot is a great teaching tool. Make use of it!

If you take a bad picture by accident (maybe you photographed your toes and the carpet), you can delete it. First, press the Playback button and use the arrow keys to display the photo you want to erase.

Then look for a trash can or Delete button on the back of the camera. When you press it, the camera asks you if you're sure you want to erase the photo. You need to press the OK or Delete button again to confirm this action.

Delete Icon

IMPORTANT: When you send a photo to the trashcan on your camera, it is not the same as the trashcan on your computer or under the kitchen sink. You can retrieve something from your computer or kitchen trash if you haven't emptied it yet. But the trash can on your camera is more like the landfill. If you put a picture in the landfill, it's going to be pretty hard to get it back again! So be sure you really don't want the photo before you hit the delete button.

That's it! You've just taken your first photos with your new camera. Repeat the shooting, reviewing and erasing steps as much as you want! Enjoy your new digital camera!

Montana Winter 2008

December 25, 2009

Holiday Greetings

Wherever you are in the world, may your celebrations of the return of the light be joyous! And may 2010 bring you the best of what you wish for!

Thanks for reading my blog! Stay tuned for more great articles in the coming year!

December 13, 2009

Three Best Digital Camera Accessories

Shopping time for holiday gifts is winding down. If you are still wondering what to give the photography fanatic in your family or circle of friends, consider these three very helpful camera accessories.

#1 Tripod
Whether the photographer has a compact digital camera or a full-featured digital SLR (a camera with interchangeable lenses), a tripod is the one single accessory that can improve anyone's pictures. Because the tripod holds the camera, it stays completely still during the exposure. This helps produce the sharpest possible photograph of a stationary subject. There is no motion blur that softens details from the person holding the camera. As a result, the quality of the photographs from any digital camera go up, sometimes exponentially!

Tripods for compact digital cameras
There are a variety of camera supports available, everything from professional carbon fiber models from Gitzo to traditional aluminum units from Manfrotto to innovations like the GorillaPod and The Pod beanbag. So you have lots of choices for a tripod to fit any budget. Just be sure the model you buy is sturdy enough to hold the person's camera. An SLR with a long zoom lens needs a stronger tripod than a simple compact digital camera.

Indoor Photo without Tripod

Indoor Photo with Tripod

#2 Polarizing Filter
If your photographer already owns a tripod, the next most useful accessory is a polarizing filter, or polarizer for short. This filter acts like a pair of Polaroid sunglasses for the camera, removing glare and reflections to produce richer colors in skies and foliage. There are two styles of polarizer, round and rectangular. Round filters screw onto the front of the lens. Rectangular filters can be held in front of the lens (if the camera is on a tripod) or slid into a special holder that attaches to the lens.

There are also two kinds of polarizer, linear and circular. All digital cameras require a circular polarizer to ensure that the filter lets enough light through the lens so the autoexposure and autofocus features still work.

To be sure you purchase the right size filter, you need to know the lens diameter. Most SLR lenses publish this information on the lens itself or you can look on the inside of the lens cap for the number. The lens (or filter) diameter is always given in millimeters, such as 58mm.

If your favorite photographer uses a compact digital camera instead of an SLR, the lens on the camera probably does not accept the round, screw-on filter. So the rectangular variety (such as those made by Cokin) would be best.

Before Polarizer

After Polarizer

#3 Memory Card Reader
If your photographer already has a tripod and a polarizer, then the next most useful accessory is a memory card reader. When it is time to download pictures from the camera, instead of attaching the camera directly to the computer, use the memory card reader to transfer pictures to the hard drive. The card reader attaches to the USB outlet on any computer (Mac or PC). Then you remove the memory card from the camera and insert the card in the reader. From there the transfer process works as it does from the camera. But it is often much faster and more reliable than using the camera itself.

Memory card readers come in single or multi-card formats. Single card readers have a slot for just one type of memory card, like compact flash (CF) or secure digital (SD). Multi-card readers have slots for all types of memory cards: memory sticks, xD picture cards as well as CF and SD cards. If the household has numerous cameras all using different kinds of memory cards, then the multi-card reader is a good choice. Otherwise, you can save a few dollars and buy a model dedicated to the memory card your camera uses.

You can leave the card reader permanently attached to your computer, so it's always ready when you are. Some computers even have memory card slots built in!

Multi-Slot Memory Card Reader

So make your photographer friend or family member happy and help them take better photos this holiday season by giving them one or more of these accessories. In no time at all, they will wonder how they ever got along without them!

December 6, 2009

Choosing a Digital Camera

This is a popular subject this time of year! Just yesterday someone telephoned me and asked for suggestions on buying a new digital camera. So I took the opportunity to revise my "Choosing a Digital Camera" article. You can read my answers to the following questions:
  • What kind of digital cameras are there?
  • What features should I look for in a digital camera?
  • How much control do I want over my picture taking?
  • What are some useful camera controls?
  • Where can I find more information?
The whole article is too long for a blog entry! So visit my web site to read the details. You'll need a copy of Adobe Reader (available free here) to see the file. Happy shopping!

December 2, 2009

Photographing Holiday Lights

When I was a kid, my parents used to bundle up me, my sister and my brother, stick us in the car and drive into town to look at holiday lights. The place where my dad worked always had an elaborate set-up on the front lawn, complete with sound. (But we had to roll down the windows to hear it! Brrrrrr!) If you like to photograph holiday lights, whether indoors or outside, here are some suggestions for better results.

Inside Lights
Indoor photos can be challenging because there is not much light for your camera to make a picture. Usually the camera uses the flash, which gives you a picture but not necessarily the look you wanted. If you want your photo of the decorated tree or holiday dinner table to look as it does when you turn off the room lights, your first step is to turn off the flash.

Indoor photo with flash

With the flash turned off, your camera will take extra long to make the photo. If you are holding the camera, this usually means you get a blurry image. To have a sharp picture without the flash, set your camera on a small tripod or some other sturdy surface during the exposure. Then no matter how long the camera takes to record the scene, it will be sharp.

Indoor photo without flash hand-held

In addition, sometimes when you press the shutter button to take the photo, you wiggle the camera just enough to cause a bit of blur. All cameras have a self-timer feature which creates a delay (usually 10 seconds) between the time you press the button and when the camera actually takes the photo. If you turn on this control, the delay lets the camera stop moving before it takes the image and you get a sharper picture.

Indoor photo without flash, self-timer on, camera on a chair

Outside Lights
These same suggestions apply to taking photos of outside lighting displays.
  1. Flash off.
  2. Camera on a tripod or other support.
  3. Self-timer activated.

Outdoor photo without flash, self-timer on, camera on a tripod

Batteries in the Cold
In addition, the cold weather affects your camera's battery, making it appear to go dead before very long at all. The battery is not really expired; it's just too cold to operate. The solution is to carry a spare battery inside your coat, next to your body, to keep it warm. When the first battery quits, swap it for the warm spare battery and keep shooting. Eventually the second battery will quit too, but by that time the original battery should have warmed up. Just exchange the batteries again and keep working. This can go on at least until you get too cold!

Outdoor photo without flash, self-timer on, camera on a tripod
So be adventurous this holiday season! Turn off the flash on your camera and make memorable pictures of the pretty lights whether indoors or out!

November 24, 2009

Better Holiday Flash Photos

Thanksgiving is this week and if you are like many people in America, you'll be gathering with friends and family to celebrate over lots of food and football! You'll also probably be taking pictures to commemorate the occasion. But since so much of our celebrating takes place inside and after dark, our digital cameras rely on the built-in flash to light up our photos. Frequently we're disappointed in the results. Backgrounds are dark and foregrounds (including people) are washed out.

If you have a digital SLR camera (one with interchangeable lenses), you might want to check out a new flash accessory called the Lightscoop. It was invented by photojournalist Ken Kobre because he "hates ugly flash photos"! With that in mind, he developed this handy gadget that slides into the hot shoe on top of your camera (where an expensive external flash would go) and works with your built-in pop-up flash.

After setting up your camera to work with the Lightscoop (see the instructions and videos on the web site), all you need is a room with a light-colored ceiling no more than 12 feet high or a light-colored wall no more than 4 feet away (for vertical shots). When the pop-up flash fires, the Lightscoop bounces the light off the ceiling or wall, making the light much more attractive.

Check out the Lightscoop and see if it turns your photos of family gatherings into great shots instead of trash can fodder!

(Disclaimer: I have no association with Ken Kobre or Lightscoop except that it's a great idea!)

November 11, 2009

Speed up Your Trigger Finger

If you have a compact digital camera, you might be frustrated with how slow the camera responds when you press the shutter button to take a picture. Especially if you are trying to photograph an erratically moving subject, such as a small child or pet, it seems like your subject or their expression is gone before the camera makes the photo.

There is a way to speed up the camera's response, though. Nearly all digital cameras (SLRs included) have a feature called Continuous Shooting or Burst Mode. This setting makes the camera take a series of pictures as long as you hold down the shutter button. (It's the equivalent of a motor drive or winder on a film camera.) So your camera takes several pictures instead of just one, increasing your chances that you capture the moment you want.

The symbol for continuous shooting looks like a stack of photos. The opposite of it is a single photo (rectangle) called single shot. Often the button or menu choice that controls this is the same one by which you turn on the self-timer. Check your camera manual for where this control is located on your model.

Continuous Shooting icon

Once continuous shooting is turned on, you still have to press the shutter button half-way to focus and set the exposure. But once you are past this delay, the camera is ready to take a series of pictures as soon as you press and hold the button.

Consecutive frames made with a 
compact camera in continuous shooting mode

There are a couple of things to know about continuous shooting mode. The first is that you should turn off the flash if your camera does not do so for you. If you leave the flash on, then one of two things is likely to happen. First, the flash might fire for the initial picture in the series but not for any of the others because it hasn't recharged yet. This makes your first picture properly exposed and the rest too dark because the camera figured the exposure based on the flash going off. Without it, your pictures are underexposed.

Second, if the flash does fire with every frame, your camera will take pictures much more slowly because it has to wait for the flash to be ready. This defeats the purpose of using continuous shooting in the first place. So remember to turn off the flash when you turn on continuous shooting.

If the camera wants to use the flash to make your photos, it probably means the light is pretty dim in your situation. Instead of turning on the flash, try raising the ISO or Sensitivity setting to a higher number, like ISO 400. (You might have to change the camera to Program mode in order to have access to this choice.) The higher ISO setting helps your camera "see in the dark" without the flash and keep your photos looking good.

On some cameras the burst mode setting is described as "last best" or "first best". In these cases, the camera takes a series of photos but only saves the sharpest one at the beginning of the series or the sharpest one at the end of the series. It automatically erases any others. You'll need to read the manual to find out if your camera works this way.

Finally, if you can't find your camera's continuous shooting setting, use the Action, Sports, or Kids & Pets scene choice. This setting turns on continuous shooting, turns off the flash (usually), and raises the ISO to about 400. Then all you have to remember is to hold down the shutter button for your series until the moment has passed. Much faster on the draw than trying to press the button faster!

Sports or Action scene icon

November 4, 2009

Optical vs. Digital Zoom

Rodeo Bull
Wilsall, Montana 

Almost every digital camera today comes with a zoom lens, one that lets you adjust the length to include more (wide angle) or less (telephoto) of the scene. Most of these cameras have lenses that provide a 3x or 4x increase in lens length. If your camera lens extends from 24mm to 100mm, it's providing a 4x zoom (100mm/24mm = ~ 4x). Other models sport 10x or even 12x zoom lenses.

In both these cases, the difference in how much the lens zooms is determined by how the optical pieces of glass in the lens are adjusted. So this is called "optical zoom" because it's based on the optics of the lens itself.

Many compact digital cameras also have a feature called "digital zoom." (Digital SLR cameras don't have this feature.) This produces a "super telephoto" effect, you might say. Using digital zoom makes your photo look as though the camera has an even longer telephoto zoom. But this is an illusion!

Digital zoom is actually not an effect of the lens at all. It is software in the camera which crops out the center part of the picture and enlarges it in the camera to make it appear as though you used a longer zoom. This sounds neat, you say! How do I use it?

Well, let me caution you. As good as this sounds in theory, you might not like the actual results. Below are two photos of the same scene. The first I made using the maximum optical zoom on the camera. If you enlarge this on your screen (just click on it for a bigger version), you will see that everything looks nice and crisp.

Optical zoom photo

In the second photo, I backed up much farther and used the digital zoom to frame the same thing. If you enlarge this picture on your screen, you'll notice that details are blotchy and edges are smudged. This is the result of the in-camera crop and enlarge process.

Digital zoom photo from farther away

You can almost always get a much better cropped version of your photo by doing it yourself, with photo editing software, than you can by using digital zoom. So I recommend that you test out your digital zoom and see if the quality is acceptable. If you decide it's not, then refer to your camera instruction manual for how to turn off this feature. Your photos will be sharper as a result!

October 28, 2009

The Monopod That's a Tripod


One of the tips I always repeat to beginning photographers is the importance of a sharp photo. If you're photographing a stationary subject, the best way to ensure a sharp photo (one that's free of blur due to camera movement) is to put the camera on a tripod. And if you want to try photographing night scenes or inside without using the camera flash, a tripod becomes a necessity. (Exposure times in these situations are usually too long for you to hold the camera steady and get a sharp image.)

There is an almost endless variety of tripod designs, sizes and prices. For most people with compact digital cameras, I recommend starting with a table-top or mini tripod. These are inexpensive (usually $30 or less), lightweight, and small enough to fit in a fanny pack. (Does anyone use these any more?) With these advantages you're more likely to take the tripod along with your camera and have the support when you need it. A Gorillapod, a Flexpod, or even just a plain Pod (a beanbag camera support) all fit into this category. If you want a mini tripod more traditional in appearance, check out models from Slik, Sunpak, Hakuba or Manfrotto.

GorillaPod, The Pod, Hakuba Table pod

Last weekend I discovered another camera support: the TrekPod! This model is designed to serve as a monopod, tripod and walking stick all in one. It has a telescoping main section with a padded grip. The lower section fans out to three short legs, providing more stability than a monopod (one leg) alone. And it has a cool new camera attachment system...a super-strong magnet! You attach one magnet piece to the tripod socket of your camera and this magnet snaps to the top of the TrekPod, holding your camera securely in place, even when turned sideways.

While the TrekPod offers a taller support for your camera than a mini tripod, and one that weighs less than a traditional design, it's still not going to be as sturdy as a regular, three-legged tripod. Especially if you own a digital SLR (like a Canon Rebel or Nikon D40), I recommend buying a quality full-sized tripod for your camera support. Companies such as Manfrotto, Slik, Velbon, Impact, and Giottos all make good entry-level tripods for reasonable prices (~$150).

Look for models that do not have center braces (metal pieces) between the legs, which prevent you from lowering the tripod all the way to the ground for low-level shooting. And prefer a model that has a Quick Release (QR) method of attaching your camera. This is a separate plate that you attach to the bottom of the camera and click into the top of the tripod for mounting. To remove the camera, you release a lever and the camera clicks out. Way faster and more convenient than screwing your camera on and off the tripod screw!

Most people pay too little for their first full-sized tripod and fight with it every time they try to use it. It doesn't hold their camera steady; it doesn't let them position the camera the way they want to; maybe it doesn't even stand up!! As you might expect, these people hate their tripods and avoid them like the plague! But as soon as these people spend money for a quality tripod, they can't believe how easy it is to use, how securely it holds their camera and lens, and how much sharper their pictures become. Tripods are definitely an area where being penny wise usually means you are pound foolish!

No matter which camera support you decide is right for you, I recommend purchasing and using one regularly. You'll soon notice the difference in your pictures!

October 7, 2009

The Nobel Prize & the Frankencamera

Every time you press the shutter, you are using Nobel Prize winning technology! The inventors of the CCD sensor have been awarded part of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physics. You can read the details here:

You've heard of Frankenstein? Well, now some Stanford University researchers are developing a new type of digital camera which they've nicknamed "Frankencamera". Watch the video at this link:

September 6, 2009

Choosing How Many Megapixels

Nine Pipes Wildlife Refuge, Montana
Made with a 1.9 megapixel camera
In an earlier post I described what a megapixel is and how to find out how many megapixels your digital camera can produce. The next step is setting the camera to record the number of megapixels you need for your images.

Check your camera manual index or table of contents for "Picture Size" or "Resolution" or even "Quality". These are all names for the same thing: how big is the photo your camera is going to record.

Depending on your camera, the sizes are given in different formats. Some simple cameras use stars; three stars is a larger picture than two stars. Other cameras use letters---L, M and S for Large, Medium and Small photos. Still other models give the dimensions of the picture in pixels, for example, 3072 x 2304. Others display only the largest number of pixels on the longest side of the photo, 3072 in the previous example. Finally, some cameras show the picture size in megapixels (abbreviated "MP"), such as 3mp or 6mp.

Changing the number of megapixels your camera records is, literally, changing how big your digital picture is. A photo that is 1500 pixels x 1000 pixels is half the size of an image that is 3000 pixels x 2000 pixels. The more pixels you have in your photo, the more space it takes to store on your memory card. But memory cards with lots of storage capacity are inexpensive these days. So if you can't save enough photos on your current memory card, buy another one. (It's always good to have a spare card anyway.)

Given all these options, how do you know what size of picture to choose? It's actually really simple. Use the largest size, the maximum amount of pixels, that your camera can produce. If you are using all the pixels that the camera makes, you are taking full advantage of its maximum quality. And, since you probably paid more for a camera with more pixels, you are getting your money's worth!

Also, the more pixels in your digital photo, the larger you can print it and keep all the details sharp (provided they were recorded sharply when you took the photo). And you can crop the picture (delete pixels from the edges) to better emphasize your subject and still have enough pixels left over for a print. If you need the picture to be smaller, such as for email or web pages, you can change the number of pixels after you take the photo.

Nearly all digital cameras today have more than enough pixels for excellent small, medium and large prints. If your camera has at least 6 megapixels, it can produce photos that can be printed up to 15x10 inches (before cropping). A 12 megapixel camera can make prints up to 20x15 inches (before cropping).

So set your digital camera to use all its megapixels and start clicking the shutter button!

August 30, 2009

Daisies Galore

I uploaded some macro shots of daisies to my new business Facebook page. Take a look and while you're there, consider becoming a fan.

Organizing Your Pictures on Your Computer

While browsing in the bookstore last week, I discovered a new book called Digital Photography: The Missing Manual by David Pogue. It's divided into two parts, one about using your digital camera and one about managing your pictures on  your computer. 

The part I like best about it is Pogue's approach to the whole computer section, which is often intimidating for new digital camera owners. He talks about two photo organizing and editing programs that are free and simple to use: iPhoto for Apples and Picasa for Windows. The best thing about these programs is that they are FREE! iPhoto comes installed on every new Macintosh computer and Picasa is available for download from its internet web site.

Check out this book and these programs if you need help organizing your photos on your computer. By the way, both iPhoto and Picasa help you easily email your big digital camera pictures as well.

How Many Megapixels Are Enough?

Now that you know what a megapixel is, the next question is how many do you need? The answer depends on what you're going to do with your picture.

If you're going to share your photo by email, Facebook, Flickr, or other web page, then you need very few megapixels at all.
How many of you have received a message that took two days to download? And after it arrived, all you could see was an eye?!

When you display a digital photo on a computer screen, each image pixel becomes a screen pixel. Almost no one has a monitor with a million pixels on it. So if you send even a 1 megapixel photo, your recipient won't be able to see the whole thing without scrolling (the eye mentioned above).

Original 6 megapixel picture with too many pixels for screen display

In addition, the more pixels in your photo, the bigger the size of the file. If you have too large a file, then it takes a long time to upload from your computer and a long time to download on your recipient's computer, whether as an email message or a web page (the two-day download).

So email photos need very few pixels. I recommend a maximum size of 800 pixels on the longest side to ensure you have a small image that will be completely visible on the screen and transfer quickly from your computer to theirs.

Photo reduced to 800 pixels on the long side for screen display

If you are going to print your picture, either with your own inkjet printer or from a photo lab, then you need lots more pixels! When you print a digital photo, the pixels must be small enough and close together enough so they become invisible. Otherwise, you would see squares like a mosaic instead of a photo.

I recommend you have at least 200 pixels per inch of printed photo. So if you want a 4x6 inch print, you would need a digital photo that has at least 800 pixels x 1200 pixels (4 inches x 200 pixels per inch = 800 pixels; 6 inches x 200 pixels per inch = 1200 pixels). In fact, you almost cannot have too many pixels for printing. The more pixels in your digital photo, literally the larger you can print it and keep all the details sharp.

If you've been reading carefully, you may have noticed that the recommendations for an email photo are very different from those for a printed photo. To refresh your memory:

  • Email/Web Photo --- Maximum Size 800 pixels on longest side
  • Printed Photo --- Minimum Size 200 pixels per printed inch
    (800 pixels x 1200 pixels for a 4x6 inch print)
So what do you do? I recommend that you always use all the megapixels that your digital camera can make when you are shooting. After the pictures are on your computer, then you can make a COPY of your photo and change the number of pixels to suit your purpose.

This method works best for digital images because they retain their sharpness and color better when you shrink the size of the photo instead of enlarge it. In addition, if you have more megapixels than you need, even for a printed photo, then you can crop the picture (cut away some pixels on the outer edges) and still have enough pixels left over to make a print.

August 23, 2009

Time & Light

Western Montana Fair 2009

I spent some time photographing the carnival lights at the Western Montana Fair last weekend. You can see an album of some of my shots on Facebook.

August 22, 2009

What's a Megapixel?

A while back, I sent out a survey for people to contribute their top three burning questions about digital photography. Many people asked questions related to “megapixels,” so here goes.

Most of you know what a mosaic looks like: a picture created with lots of small tiles of different colors. If you stand very close to a mosaic, all you see are the individual tiles. But if you back away, your vision causes the tiles to blend together and you can see the image.

A floor mosaic

Your digital camera contains a sensor (computer chip) with a grid of photo cells which collect the light coming in through the camera’s lens. The computer inside your camera processes this light and turns it into a grid of tiny colored squares called pixels (short for “picture elements”). So a digital image is really a grid made up of lots of little squares of color. If you greatly enlarge a digital photo on your computer screen, you can see the pixels themselves (like the tiles in a mosaic). But usually you just see the picture.

Individual pixels visible at high magnification in sunflower image

Every digital camera has a maximum number of pixels it can create, based on the grid of photo cells on the sensor. For example, a camera sensor might contain 3000 pixels across and 2000 pixels up and down. We can describe the size of the digital picture this sensor makes by saying the image is 3000 pixels x 2000 pixels. (Here “pixel” is a unit of measure like an inch or a foot.)

If we actually multiply the two numbers, we end up with the total number of pixels in the image (like the total area of a rectangle): 3000 pixels X 2000 pixels = 6,000,000 pixels. Six million pixels is the maximum number of pixels the camera can create. Another way to say the same thing is 6 megapixels. “Mega” means “million”.

(not to scale)
3000 pixels x 2000 pixels = 6,000,000 pixels
6,000,000 pixels = 6 megapixels

You can find out the maximum number of megapixels your camera creates in one of two ways. If you have a compact (point & shoot) digital camera, sometimes the number of megapixels is printed right on the camera body. The other way is to look in your camera's manual in the section usually called "Specifications". (Check the table of contents or index for the exact page.) In the Specifications section you are looking for an entry called "effective pixels". This number tells you the maximum number of megapixels the camera can create.

Compact camera displaying 7.1 megapixels

Now you can impress all your friends at your next cocktail party with what a megapixel is!

August 16, 2009

Day & Night

It's time for fairs around the country and Montana is no exception. I spent some time at the Western Montana Fair held in Missoula and made pictures both during the day and at night. You can see that the time of day makes a big difference in what the carnival looks like!

If you're photographing people during the day, be sure to turn on your flash. It brightens the shadows on a sunny day and lightens your subject if the sky is gray. At night, do the opposite. Put your camera on a tripod and turn off the flash to record the lights of booths and rides. If you can, shoot from a high vantage point for a different perspective. I was on stairs leading up to (of all things) the Photography display.

Try visiting the fair more than once. The light and weather may change and you'll become more familiar with the best angles and subjects for pictures during the day or night.

August 1, 2009

Free Photography Articles

One of my favorite sites for photography is They have a whole list of free articles about techniques to improve your pictures. Just click on the Learn Photography link at the top of the home page for a plethora (that's a lot) of choices. And if you're feeling particularly ambitious, try one of their online courses. I learned a lot about flash from taking a 4-week class from Rob Sheppard.

Another resource is the New York Institute of Photography. You can subscribe to their monthly newsletter or just visit their home page for a list of current topics. The newsletter always contains lots of helpful information pertinent to the season. This month highlights how to photograph your toddler. And there is a large archive of articles on their web site, easily accessed at the bottom of the opening page (scroll down).

So even if you live in the boonies, you can still get help learning to use your camera for better photos!

Improve Your Pictures with This Book

I teach night photography classes here in Missoula and the fall catalog will soon be in people's mailboxes. (Watch my web site for updates to classes and times in the next week.) When I'm preparing for a new round of courses, I'm always looking for better textbooks to support what I teach in the classroom. This time I've found a brand new book that I'm sure will help my students and might help you, too.

It's called The Shot Doctor: The amateur's guide to taking great digital photos by Mark Edward Soper (June 2009, Que Publishing). It has lots of practical suggestions for better images, and lots of before and after pictures showing how adjusting your digital camera's controls can improve the results. My favorite suggestion? For indoor pictures of all kinds, set the camera ISO (sensitivity) to 400. This both improves flash pictures and even allows you to make some photos without flash. Enjoy!

July 12, 2009

Shoot without Looking

A recent camera club project asked the members to photograph a subject from as many angles as possible and then select five different viewpoints to show at the next meeting. My favorites are included in this post, but the main reason I'm sharing them is that I returned to a technique I've only dabbled with in the past --- purposely not looking through the viewfinder or at the LCD screen when shooting.

The main reason was necessity. I was intent on photographing some daisies in a public flower bed and didn't want to trample on them. But the angle I was most interested in created backlighting that made the petals translucent. I wanted a low angle close to the flowers, but I couldn't lie down in the flower bed to get my result.

Instead I set my compact digital camera on macro focusing and just held the camera below the flowers, pointing the lens in the appropriate direction. I pressed the shutter button halfway, listened for a double-beep that confirmed that the camera was able to focus, then took the shot. I checked the results on the screen, then tried again, adjusting the camera position according to the results I got the shot before. My favorite is the one below.

In this particular instance, I was shooting below my usual eye level, but I could just as easily have held the camera at arm's length above the flowers (an angle I didn't try) for a different perspective.

If you like to take candid street photos, you can literally "shoot from the hip" by holding your camera at your side and taking the shot. In this situation, you might also want to turn on continuous shooting or burst mode to take a series of photos.

It's the compact digital camera's design that makes this so easy. (You can also do it with a digital SLR and a wide angle lens; it's just heavier.) My camera (a Canon Powershot A570 IS) is lightweight and easy to hold with one hand. All compact digital cameras have lots of depth of field (the amount of the scene from near to far that appears in focus), especially when the zoom is set to wide angle. This ensures that you can get a photo with nearly everything in focus, even if you aren't sure where the camera is focusing.

So the next time you think you can't get the shot because you can't get your body into position, think again. If you can put the camera in the right place, you may get the shot, or an even better one, after all!

A Professional's Process

Whether we consider ourselves beginning or experienced photographers, most of us are curious about how other photographers whose work we admire create their images. On the Luminous Landscape website, I recently read an article by Art Wolfe describing how he "fumbled" his way to the image he wanted. Take a look and discover that pros' images don't pop out of the camera fully formed on the first click of the shutter!

July 3, 2009

Night Sky Photos

Northern Lights
Missoula, Montana
November, 2004
Canon 10D

I've been making plans to photograph the fireworks again this year. All my thinking about exposures for bright things in a night sky reminded me of photographing celestial objects like the moon, a lunar eclipse or a comet, all of which I've done. Then I came across a great article, by Porter's Camera of Iowa, that contains very good tips about photographing the night sky (also called "astrophotography").

Hale-Bopp Comet
Missoula, Montana
April, 1997
Kodak Gold 400 Film
Cropped from Original

A tip of my own that doesn't get mentioned is to use the spot or partial metering mode on your camera for pictures of the moon. If you point the spot metering area at the moon, the camera will not be fooled by all the black sky surrounding it. An average or slightly brighter (no more than +1) exposure should give you good results.

Lunar Eclipse
Missoula, Montana
October, 2004
Canon 10D
Cropped from Original

And remember, a tripod is essential for these kinds of pictures because of the long exposure times involved. A remote release (cable release) or a 2-second self-timer setting is also useful since they keep you from jiggling the camera during the exposure.

Have fun in the night sky!

Northern Lights
Missoula, Montana
November, 2004
Canon 10D