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!