Friday, August 28, 2009

10 Rules for Point and Shoot Cameras

Point and shoot cameras are great. Personally, we have the Canon SD880 and try to carry it as often as possible.  (The SD880 has been discontinued, so if I had to get a new camera I would consider Canon's SD940, SD980, or the SD970 depending on your price range and desired zoom.)   It's great to be able to capture unexpected "kodak moments" or a quick video of our girls doing something incredibly cute. It's also nice to be able to carry a camera in a pocket without really noticing it. However, for this convenience we must sacrifice some in the areas of picture quality and functional flexibility. In order to use a P&S effectively it is helpful to know its limitations and avoid situations where it is weakest. So here are a few pointers to help you get the best out of you P&S.
  1. Take your camera with you.  You won't get any good pictures with a camera you don't have with you.  P&S cameras are great because they are easy to bring along, so bring it.
  2. Take lots of pictures.  The more pictures you take, the more likely you'll capture some that you love.  Don't be afraid to delete pictures you don't like - it will help you feel the freedom to take tons of pictures.
  3. Go Outside. P&S cameras get weaker as conditions get darker, so when you have the choice, take pictures outside. You do not want to be in direct sunlight, but in the shade, on the porch or cloudy days all work well.
  4. Don't depend on your flash for good shots.  I talked about how to get the most out of your flash here, but really try to avoid needing the flash as much as possible. It's not powerful enough to do a great job and it's not diffused enough to provide even lighting. You can avoid using the flash by obeying rule #3.
  5. Use the Focus Lock.
  6. Use the Exposure Compensation function.
  7. Use the White Balance setting.
  8. Zoom out as it gets darker.  Your camera can capture more light when it's zoomed out.  It's complicated, so you'll have to trust me (or learn about variable aperture lenses.)
  9. Don't use the digital zoom.  Some cameras, like mine, allow you to turn of the digital zoom in the menus.  The digital zoom just blows up your pixels which means you aren't getting the best out of your camera.  If you really want to "zoom" this way, you can do it later on the computer, so just get the best image you can while shooting.
  10. Don't drop your camera.  They don't work very well after being dropped.  We know.  Twice.
Having said all that, remember that it is possible to get great shots out of a P&S.  Here are some of my favorites that we've captured.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Point and Shoot: White Balance

White Balance is a function on digital cameras that allows you to influence the color balance of your images. The point is to make colors in your picture look like they do in real life. It's called white balance because it can help make your whites look white, but it really affects the hue of all the colors.
The reason White Balance is important is that different light sources (incandescent light bulbs, fluorescent light bulbs, the sun . . .) produce different colors of light. Our eyes are used to these differences and our brains make adjustments so we can still tell something is white when it has orange light on it. The problem is that when we take a picture under one kind of light and then look at it outside of its context, the colors will look wrong.
If you've never adjusted the white balance (WB) on your camera, it is probably set to auto (which may be indicated by AWB.) Many times, your camera will do a fine job guessing at what kind of light is illuminating your scene, but sometimes it needs help. If you notice that the colors in your picture are "off" you can help your camera by telling it what kind of light there is. Press the function (or similar) button on the back of your camera and navigate to the option that has a "WB" or "AWB." Then you can change it to match the light that is available--just remember you will need to change it again when the light changes, or put it back to auto when you are done.
Here are examples of what WB can do. Notice how the colors are different in each image. FYI, the cloudy setting produced the most accurate colors . . . and it was cloudy when I took the picture.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Point and Shoot: Exposure Compensation

To learn about exposure, read this first.

Typically point and shoot cameras do a good job of properly exposing images, but sometimes our pictures are just too dark or too light. Thankfully, there is a simple way to adjust how bright or dark our pictures are as we take them (which is much better than trying to adjust them later on the computer.)
Not every camera is the same (and there are hundreds of different point and shoot models out there,) but every one I've owned or used has an exposure compensation function. The exposure compensation allows you to increase or decrease the exposure making your picture either lighter or darker. Typically you access this option by pressing a "function" button (or something similar) on the back of the camera. Then navigate to a symbol that looks something like +/-0. Once you have highlighted the +/-0 you can usually adjust it to +.3 , +.7 , +1 . . . or -.3 , .-7 , -1 . . . If you take a picture that is too dark, you want to add to the exposure, so adjust this function to +.3 and try again. If it's still too dark, try +.7 and so on. On the other hand, if your picture is too bright, use the numbers with a minus. Here's how it works . . .
This picture is taken at the default settings (+/-0) and is too dark:
I adjusted the exposure compensation to +1 and took this one:
This is a simple was to improve your pictures under challenging lighting conditions.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Point and Shoot: Optimizing Flash

As we all know, the flash on a point and shoot camera is not its strongest feature. Portraits taken at night or indoors aren't going to win any awards since they rely on the flash. But when the flash is your only option, here's a trick to help it look better.
When using your flash zoom in as far as you can then back up to compose your picture. This gives the light from your flash more space to spread out before it hits your subject. Then the light is more even and diffused. Check out the difference:

Monday, August 24, 2009

Point and Shoot: Focus Lock

One of the worst things about point and shoot cameras is pushing the button and then having to wait two or three seconds before the camera takes a picture. You wait for just the right moment when your child opens his present and then snap. But instead of capturing the look of surprise you get the awkwardly contorted returning-to-normal face like this:
This is an unfortunate fact of life which can't be totally avoided, but there is something you can do to minimize the problem.

Part of what causes point and shoot cameras to be slow when taking a picture is focusing. When you push the button, the camera first focuses on your subject before capturing the image. However, if you push the button half way down, the camera will go ahead and focus on your subject. Then when you are ready, you can push the button down the rest of the way (don't let up in between.)
Keep in mind that your camera will be focused at a specific distance. So you don't want to change the distance between your camera and subject once you have the button half way down or you will end up with blurry pictures.

Point and Shoot Week

So far all of our camera-control posts on Photomom101 have been for moms with SLR cameras. But let's face it, lots of moms have point and shoot cameras and they don't want to mess with an SLR (and lots of SLR owners have point and shoot cameras too.) So this week we're going to present a crash course for point and shoot users. Hope you enjoy.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Picture of the Week

  • Shutter Speed: 1/400
  • Aperture: f10
  • ISO: 200
  • White Balance: Sunny
  • Focal Length: 55mm

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Looking Down on Your Kids

Recently I wrote this post about photographing your children on their level by squatting down. In general, I think moms should make a habit of employing that technique. However, there aren't any "rules" of composition that can't be broken. Often, doing something unusual can produce a compelling and interesting image.

One of my favorite techniques when photographing my own kids is shooting down from directly above them. It emphasizes how small they are and highlights their helplessness. One key, though is to make sure you get their attention - seeing their eyes is often what makes the image work. Check out these examples and try it for yourself.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Exposure Trinity - The 3 Components of Exposure

This post has been moved here.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Using Filters to Protect Lenses

As a mom first and a photographer second, protecting your camera can't always be your top priority. Because of this, many moms end up with fingerprints, scratches, or worse on the front of their lenses. Thankfully, there is an inexpensive, effective way to protect your precious glass. Keeping a clear UV filter on all your lenses at all times provides an extra layer of protection from scratches and dings.

Almost every lens has threads on the front for screwing in filters; and there are lots of different types of filters for different purposes. "Clear" or "UV" filters will not have any visible effect on your images and can be kept on your lens permanently, so they are perfect lens-protectors. Your lens cap can fit right onto the filter when you aren't shooting.
Filters like this can be purchased quite inexpensively. You can get  this one, for about $5 to fit the Nikon 18-55mm and Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6 VRlenses I recommend. If you end up scratching the filter, you can replace it for under $10 instead of replacing your lens for a couple hundred dollars.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What is ISO?

The ISO setting on your camera controls the sensitivity of your digital sensor. Increasing the ISO (changing it to a higher number) makes your sensor more sensitive to light and lowering the ISO makes the sensor less sensitive. This has an important effect on exposure because changing your ISO changes the amount of light your sensor needs to produce a correctly exposed image.

In the real world, here's what this means: when you set your ISO higher you can take pictures in darker settings (all else being equal.) However, increasing your ISO also has a negative effect on the quality and clarity of your images. (Later we will discuss this relationship between ISO and digital noise.)

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Picture of the Week

  • Shutter Speed: 1/1000
  • Aperture: f1.4
  • ISO: 200
  • White Balance: Sunny
  • Focal Length: 50mm

Friday, August 7, 2009

Buying Advice: Telephoto Lenses

If the 55mm of your kit-zoom lens doesn't get you close enough to the action, here are three (Nikon) telephoto lenses to consider. If you haven't read our post on buying equipment, you may want to check it out here.
  1. Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6 VR At just over $200, this is a great lens for moms at a great price. It's light and small. It has VR and is a great companion for the 18-55 lens that comes with the D40 (and other cameras.) As far as picture quality goes, you won't be disappointed. Don't confuse it with the older version that lacks VR.
  2. Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR This lens is a fantastic do-it-all lens. It covers the full range of your kit lens and the lens listed above in one lens, so you probably wouldn't take it off your camera very often. It has VR and it isn't huge, though it's bigger than the 55-200. The major drawback is its price: over $700 (currently.) The picture quality is surprisingly good considering it's range (usually lenses that zoom this far don't do it this well.) P.S. Nikon just announced an update of this lens with a few minor changes - it's not available yet, though.
  3. Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR This lens give you a little bit more reach in a bigger package (1.7 inches longer than the 55-200.) It also has VR. It's great, but also more expensive than the 55-200 at $540. Again, don't confuse it with the older version that lacks VR.
Here's what the difference in the zoom ranges looks like:
The official Photomom101 recommendation would be door number one, the Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6 VR. Here's why:
  • It's a great lens at a great price
  • It's small and light weight
  • It doesn't overlap with a lens you already have
  • Getting from 200mm to 300mm is not worth $300
P.S. If you decide to purchase one of these lenses, please use the links provided to buy them through Amazon.  Using the links here helps support this site, so thanks.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Buying Camera Equipment

When it comes to camera equipment, most purchases are big investments so, naturally, we all want to get it right. Unfortunately, if you really enjoy photography and are continually learning about it, you may not ever have a blank wish-list. So as you try to rationalize your lens choices, here are two principles to keep in mind:
  1. Stick to a budget
  2. Prioritize your needs
Stick to a Budget
Everybody's budget is different so obviously I can't provide any numbers here, but I think it is very helpful to figure out how much you can (or are willing to) spend on your equipment. Having a budget not only helps you limit yourself, but it also allows you to feel okay about buying something. If you are like my wife, anything in triple digits is painful to purchase. However, if you budget $100 a year (for example) and wait two years, you don't have to feel bad about spending $200 on a lens. Of course, if you are more of a free-spender, a budget might help keep you out of trouble. I'm not a financial guru, so I won't belabor this point, but I encourage you to figure out a budget if you plan to continue to add to and upgrade your equipment.
Prioritize Your Needs
The easiest way I can think of to prioritize your needs is to ask yourself, "Where do I hit the limits of my current equipment most frequently?" If you have a D40 and the 18-55mm kit lens consider these possibilities:
  • Do you zoom all the way out to 18mm (a lot) and wish you could go farther?
  • Do you zoom all the way in to 55mm (a lot) and wish you could go farther?
  • Do you feel limited by your aperture and wish you could have blurrier backgrounds?
  • Do you take a lot of pictures inside and feel like there is never enough light?
Determining which of these issues is most important to you right now, could help you know where to start. In each case, there are multiple options to meet your needs, so this is just the beginning of the decision making process.
Other Considerations
Here are some additional issues you need to consider as you plan for your next purchase and others down the road.
  • As you buy lenses it helps to think past your next purchase so you can plan to have a kit that works together. For example, it may be a waste of money to buy a lens that overlaps in its range with one you plan to buy later.
  • As you choose lenses, you need to rank the importance of quality, flexibility and price. The best lenses are usually the most expensive, but not everybody needs the absolute best lenses. The lenses with the greatest zoom range typically sacrifice some picture quality and are often more expensive than two lenses that cover the same range.
  • Do you want to buy "third party" lenses (or other accessories)? Other companies make lenses for Nikon and Canon cameras and they are usually cheaper than their "first party" counterparts. In my experience, though, the real deal has been consistently and noticeably better.
Coming up, I'm going to give advice and recommendations on specific lenses, so if you are in the market, start by considering the issues I've listed here.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Composition: Stoop to Their Level

Have you ever seen a row of professional photographers kneeling down on a sideline? They sure are lazy. Or maybe they know what they are doing. What about somebody you've paid to photograph your kids - did he or she kneel down?
Lots of times we can improve our photographs by getting on the same level as our subject. This is particularly true when photographing kids. While I have seen lots of pros getting their knees dirty, I don't see moms do it very often. But if you kneel, squat or sit, I think you'll like the results.
Getting on your kids' level makes your photographs seem much more personal. It makes the viewer feel like part of the scene instead of like an outside observer. Check out the difference it makes in these pictures:

Monday, August 3, 2009

What is Vibration Reduction?

Nikon's Vibration Reduction system (or Image Stabilization from Canon) helps us take sharper pictures at slower shutter speeds. It's too complicated to understand or explain how it works, so just think of it as magic (see the magic here.) It's a part of lenses that are labeled with VR (Nikon) or IS (Canon) that makes photographing easier.
To understand what it does, you must first understand the problem of camera-shake. VR compensates for camera-shake allowing us to take pictures at slower shutter speeds than we would be able to unassisted. Look at what it does:
Both of these images are shown at 100% magnification, so you are seeing them pixel for pixel. Both come from much larger photographs that were each shot at 200mm with Nikon's 55-200 VR lens at a shutter speed of 1/30. The one on the left has VR turned off and the one on the right has it turned on. You can see the affects of my shaky hands on the left and the affect of VR on the right.
What does this mean?
If you remember that your options for choosing a shutter speed can be limited by camera-shake, then the benefit of VR is probably obvious. Using VR allows us to use shutter speeds that are slower without paying the price of having blurry pictures. Using the equation I gave in this post, we would expect to need a shutter speed of 1/300 to produce a sharp image at 200mm. But at 1/30 I got a decently sharp image. That's a big advantage.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Picture of the Week

  • Shutter Speed: 1/60
  • Aperture: f4
  • ISO: 1000
  • White Balance: Cloudy
  • Focal Length: 85mm