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How to Get Picture Perfect Pictures
Better Photos From Any Device
My dad chased fire trucks, I chase trains. He used to take my mother's Kodak Instamatic and a handful of flash cubes with him just in case. While I use a Canon T2i and a T3i, a bag full of lenses, and something a little higher tech than a flash cube, sometimes the results can be the same: a hastily composed, poorly lit snapshot. With today's technology, most of us are carrying a camera of sort around all the time. Be it a smart phone, tablet, or a simple point and shoot, we have the capability to take "snapshots" whenever and wherever we need. Of course, that doesn't mean we are always taking the best pictures. You don't need to settle for what your camera produces. Follow a few simple steps and you can get great shots out of your snapshots.
Shoot In The RAW
No, not naked, RAW. RAW is a digital format that is proprietary to specific camera manufacturers. RAW data from a Canon, for example, contains information specific to the Canon camera. RAW data on a Nikon will have information specific to that Nikon. Not all cameras support RAW format image capture. Not all image editing software supports the import and conversion of RAW files, and you can't print directly from a RAW file. Some conversion must take place before you can print or share your RAW images. That conversion is typically to a JPEG file, though the converted file format is limited only by the options available in your editing software. The advantage to using RAW is that it is, well, raw. That is, you get all the data your camera captured as it was captured. A camera set to capture JPEG images takes the RAW data captured by the image sensor and converts it to JPEG when it saves the image to the storage card in the camera. Since JPEG files are compressed, the camera makes a decision about what data to discard and what data to keep when saving the file. Most of the time the discarded information comes from the shadows and highlights in the RAW data. Once this information is gone, it's gone. If you shoot RAW, your files sizes will be much larger, and you will have all of the data captured by the sensor. This means you can make fine adjustments to the image and produce a better JPEG when the file is saved and converted. If your camera will not capture RAW files, set your image size to the largest or highest quality setting allowed by the camera. This will give you the most data available when you go to edit your pictures.
There are a lot of technical considerations that go in to a professional photographer's image, things that one doesn't necessarily think of when taking that quick picture of little Billy hitting his first home run, or Susie riding her bike without training wheels for the first time. Perhaps the most important think we can do to ensure a good (or even great) shot is to compose the scene. I'll admit, it is not always possible to compose a great picture at a t-ball game when you are using the iPhone in your back pocket, but with a little preparation and some practice, you can get a basic scene down that you can crop and edit later.
If you think there's a chance that you may snap a shot with the trusty smart phone, take a moment to survey your surroundings. Is the light good? Can I see or get to my potential subjects without obstructions? Is there the potential for unwanted extras in the background? Make adjustments to your camera settings based on the answers. Turn the flash on or off. Set the camera to macro mode for close up shots with a blurred background. When you go to take your photo, make sure your focus is on your subject. If you have done your set-up, and you have sharp focus on your subject, you'll have the beginnings of a well-composed shot that you can crop and adjust in your editing software.
Do you point & shoot or compose your shots?
Light the Way
We can't always carry around a studio full of lights, diffusers, reflectors and strobes every time we leave the house with smart phone or camera in hand. (Though one of these days I'm going to plant a pair of umbrella style reflectors on either side of home plate at my daughter's t-ball game.) When I am out shooting, the most I carry for extra light is a hot-shoe flash, and I rarely use it. The majority of the time, I work with what I have available for light, and use the flash only if I have to. That doesn't mean you should not use the flash on your phone or camera.
When you arrive at the location of your shoot, take a couple of test shots with your smart phone camera. A smart phone or tablet camera isn't going to give you all the lighting data or metering information that you can get off a DSLR, but you can get a feel for your lighting situation by the response time from your camera when you take the test shot, and the look of the resulting image. If the camera has difficulty focusing, seems to take a while to take the picture, or the resulting shot is dark or fuzzy, you likely need more light. Make adjustments, when possible, to the white balance and metering mode. I can go from spot to center-weighted average to matrix metering on my phone's camera. Spot metering measures the light at a given spot, usually centered on the area of focus. Matrixed or evaluative metering looks at ambient light and center-weighted average measures the light at the center of the scene and averages that information out for the rest of the scene. Each method has a different effect on automatic exposure decisions made by the camera. When possible, set your camera to matrixed or evaluative metering for well-balanced exposure. Also, set your camera or phone's flash to auto. This allows the camera to fire the flash when needed, based on metering and exposure settings, and keeps the flash from firing when it is not necessary.
Look Before You Share
Perhaps the most important thing we can do to improve our photos is take advantage of the tools our photo software provides to tweak our images. Think back for a moment to the days of film. After you had snapped up all the available frames on your film, you took it to be developed or, if you were so equipped, you did the developing yourself. At a photo lab, a technician (or a machine) would develop your film and make minor adjustments to the exposure and color in order to produce acceptable results. For the photographer with a personal dark room, pictures could be tweaked with a variety of developing techniques that would produce the desired effect: a perfect picture. Seldom were the pictures we picked up at the local Fotomat an exact print of what the camera captured.
Even the simplest of image processing software offers the ability to adjust our images. Tools such as Windows Live Photo Gallery and iPhoto give the ability to adjust brightness and contrast, color, reduce noise, and sharpen our images. More complex tools such as Corel Paint Shop Pro X5 and Adobe Photoshop CS provide a multitude of editing options. Your device may also provide adjustable settings to enhance your shots before you take them. I have a Samsung Galaxy SIII running the Android operating system. The camera function on the phone allows me to set ISO, white balance, metering, contrast and a few other features common to the most advanced DSLR camera.
Before you make adjustments to your images, make a copy to work so you can preserve the original. I suggest doing your crop first before any adjustments. This allows you to work with your desired area instead of the entire picture. There's nothing wrong with using "auto adjust" features in your image editing software, though you should explore the adjustment capabilities and play around a bit. Remember, photography is an art form, and the end result is a product of how you want the picture to look. Most of the time, adjustments to brightness, contrast, and color will produce remarkably better images than what the camera captured.
No Ansel Here
Thanks to digital technology and two cameras, I can literally shoot thousands of images in a short period of time. You are no longer limited to a roll of 12, 24 or 36 frames. (It was so cool when they came out with 36-shot film.) Try to avoid the temptation to shoot a hundred pictures and hope for one good shot. You'll save yourself time and frustration, and produce better images in the end, if you do a little preparation and embrace post-processing. With a little setup before shooting and a little adjusting after, you can produce high quality pictures, even with your phone.