Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Composition: Cut Off the Subject

Sometimes it's fun to do something different.  Here's a technique you can experiment with (but you probably don't want to over do it):  Try cutting your subject in half with the edge of your frame.  Doing so gives your image a bit of mystery (or mischievousness depending on the facial expression.)  It may not be for everybody - and it certainly isn't for every shot - but it's a fun trick to play with from time to time.  Here are some examples:

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Practical Tip: Format Your Memory Card

As digital camera users, we live with possibility that our memory card may become corrupted or unreadable causing us to lose all of our precious images.  I don't think this is something to obsess over, but there are a couple of things you can do to protect your card and keep it performing well.

  • Do not delete images on your memory card from your computer.  Many computer programs ask you if you want to delete the images from your card after they are downloaded.  Say no.  Use your camera, not your computer to delete images.
  • Use your camera to format your memory card every time you download your images.  Once you've copied all your images from you memory card to your computer (and backed them up, hopefully) then use your camera to "format" the memory card.  This will delete all your images (even protected or locked images) and rebuild the file structure on the card.  This gives your card a clean start every time.  You'll have to look through your camera's menu system to find the format function. D40 users: Menu > Setup Menu (wrench) > format memory card.
I follow these two steps every time I transfer pictures from a memory card to my computer and I've never had any trouble with corrupted or unreadable cards.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Picture of the Week

  • Shutter Speed: 1/750
  • Aperture: f2
  • ISO: 200
  • White Balance: Cloudy
  • Focal Length: 50mm
  • Exposure Comp: +.3

Friday, September 25, 2009

What is White Balance

I covered this topic for point and shoot cameras and the theory is not any different on DSLRs.  But I want to cover it again in case anybody skipped it thinking it was specific instruction for P&S cameras.

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.  In auto mode, your camera will do a fine job guessing at what kind of light is illuminating your scene most of the time, 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.

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.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Info Display on a D40

If you are using a Nikon D40, this should be helpful.  When you press the info button (see two options below) your D40 displays a bunch of information on the LCD screen on the back of the camera.  If you've been following our blog for a while, much of that information may now be relevant to you in a way that it wasn't before.  So when using this information screen here are two things you should know:
  • You can change the way the information is displayed between what Nikon calls "Classic," "Graphic," or "Wallpaper."  I would probably call them "useful," "confusing," and "ridiculous," but that's just my opinion and you are free to form your own.  I use the "Classic" view because it is the plainest and makes the most sense to me.  When I press the info button I can see all the settings that I'm regularly interested in.  If you want to see what the different display modes look like press the menu button, go to the "SETUP MENU" (the wrench), and select "Info Display Format."  Then you have two choices which lead to the three selections listed above.  The two choices apply to different shooting modes, but I can't imagine why you would want your information to be displayed differently in different modes.  So I suggest figuring out which display option you like the best and setting it in both places.
  • While you have the information screen displayed, you can press the info button on the back (don't ask me why it doesn't work with the info button on the top,) and have direct access to adjusting many of the settings that are displayed on the screen.  Use the directional pad to pick an option and press OK to make changes.  Interestingly, when you enter this adjustment mode, the display assumes the "Classic" view no matter what you have set.  This is a great way to access relevant setting quickly.  You can change the following settings:

Monday, September 21, 2009

How to Control the Flash

When using an on-camera-flash, we rarely achieve even exposure.  Typically one part of the picture is way too bright, or most of the picture is way too dark.  This is because that little flash doesn't light up the whole scene evenly, but instead gives us a spotlight effect like this:

I love this picture, but not because of it's photographic excellence.

One of the important components that contributes to using your on-camera-flash effectively is understanding how to control its power.  If you know how to do this, you can essentially turn your flash up and down to better balance its brightness with other light sources in your picture.

So here's how on the Nikon D40.  (If you are in green-auto mode, forget about it.  You can't control anything.  Switch to P to control your flash . . . but remember, your flash isn't going to pop up unless you push the button.)  Assuming you have popped up your flash you need to hold down the flash release button and the exposure compensation button while winding the command dial.  I've indicated these controls in order in the following images.

As you wind, you will see a number changing in the view finder and a corresponding number changing on the LCD screen.  As with exposure compensation, you will see a 0 change to things like +.3 , +.7 , +1 . . . or -.3 , .-7 , -1 . . . The negative numbers decrease the flash output and the positive numbers increase it.  Remember to change it back when you are done.

So what's the use?  First we must consider when our on-camera-flash is useful in the first place.  It's always there as a last resort as in the picture above, but its real usefulness comes when a small portion of your image needs more light to even out the exposure.  Here's an example:

Elizabeth's face is too dark for the rest of the picture because she is in the shade and the background is in the sun.  I can't very easily darken the background, but I can use the flash to brighten her face.  So I popped up the flash and got this:

Not exactly what I want, so I employed the technique I just described and dialed the flash power down to -1.  I got this:

And this at -2:

The best option would probably be between these two (maybe -1.3 or -1.7,) but hopefully you get the point.  This example shows both a good example of when your flash is useful and also how to use it effectively.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Picture of the Week

  • Shutter Speed: 1/350
  • Aperture: f9.5
  • ISO: 200
  • White Balance: Sunny
  • Focal Length: 14mm

Storing Digital Images

Recently a reader asked for some advice on how to store and organize the digital pictures we take.  With thousands and thousands of pictures, you might expect me to be an expert, but unfortunately I don't have a perfect system.  And even if I did, it probably wouldn't be the perfect system for everyone.  However, I will offer up a few things to think about as you try to figure out a strategy that works for you.  This is by no means a comprehensive list of everything that is important, just a few random lessons from my experience.

  • Back Up Your Images  No matter what your organizational strategy, you need to back up your images.  Hard drives fail.  If you wait long enough it will happen (and sometimes it happens pretty quickly.)  I've had two different hard drives fail so I speak from experience.  You can use a back up drive or copy your images to CDs or DVDs.  Remember, though, that if a disc goes bad, you won't know it until you need it.  If a backup drive that you update regularly fails you'll know and you can probably replace it before it's too late.  Also consider what you would lose in a fire or robbery.  Do you have your pictures backed up in a different location?
  • Organize Regularly  I typically dump all our pictures into one location and organize them every couple of weeks.  When I get a month or two behind and have to face a mountain of over a thousand pictures, I greatly regret my procrastination.
  • Use Sub-Folders  I've seen some people keep all their pictures in one folder.  Not only is it hard to find anything, it takes a long time for the folder to open and display thumbnails.  Instead group pictures into categories that make sense for you and then name the folders something that will indicate what is in them.  Personally I like to use dates and events.  Then when I want to see a picture form Christmas in 2005, I know where to look (a folder called "05-12-25 Christmas" inside a folder called "2005".)  Or if I'm thinking of a picture, but don't know what Christmas it's from, I go straight to the folders from December.
  • Create a Favorites Folder with Aliases  This is something that has really helped me to enjoy, remember and organize my pictures.  I have one folder with all my pictures in it.  Inside this master folder are sub-folders named by year.  Then I have folders in each year's folder that are more specific as I mentioned above.  So how will I remember what's in all these folders?  And will I be enjoying all the pictures buried deep in these folders?  (Answers: I won't and no.)  So what I do is this: As I go through my pictures when I first put them on the computer I select one (or maybe a few) of my absolute favorites from a specific "photo shoot" or event - maybe one favorite for every 20 pictures.  Then I create an "alias"of these favorites and put them in my "favorites" folder. (An alias is basically a file that is linked to an original file somewhere else on your computer.  So I'm not creating a copy of my picture, which would take up more hard drive space, just an alias.)  Now I have a folder (which takes up almost no hard drive space) of my favorite pictures that are also samples of other pictures that would be from the same event.  This is helpful for two reasons. 1. I can look in this folder to remember what I have pictures of and I can find pictures similar to these by right-clicking and choosing "show original."  2. I can use this folder as my screen saver and then I can enjoy and be reminded of all my favorite pictures.
So anyway, this won't solve all your storage and organization problems, but maybe some of these ideas will help you get closer to a system that works for you.  Good luck.  If you have any helpful ideas, share them with all of us in the comments.

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009

    Expanding the Menu

    If you tried to follow along with our Auto-ISO post last week and had some trouble, this might help.

    The Nikon D40 has an option in one part of the menu that lets you choose how much you see in another part.  If you are never going to use all the options in the menu this could be a good thing, but if you are trying to set the ISO to auto you will have a problem.

    To see all your options in the Custom Settings Menu, follow these steps:
    1. Press "Menu" on the back of the camera
    2. Navigate to the "Setup Menu" (the wrench) 
    3. Select "CSM/Setup menu" and change it to "full."
    This will expand the options you can see in the CSM menu.  And now you will be able to see "10 ISO auto."

    Monday, September 14, 2009

    What's Wrong With This Picture?

    Application time!  Let's see how to use what we've been learning to get better pictures.

    I took this picture in Program mode with normal settings.  I think it's cute, but there is a problem.  When zoomed in, you can see this:

    See those discolored flat patches?  One below her left eye and one on the nose.  We don't want those "blown out" pixels - particularly in an important part of the picture like the subject's face.  They are a result of over-exposure.  To fix this, I used the exposure compensation function.  I simply dialed the exposure compensation to -.3 and tried again.  I got this:

    Not quite the same smile unfortunately, but better exposure.  Compare the two close-ups so you will be able to recognize when to use exposure compensation too.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009

    Picture of the Week

    We went apple picking last weekend.  What a treat.

    • Shutter Speed: 1/60
    • Aperture: f5.6
    • ISO: 320
    • White Balance: Cloudy
    • Focal Length: 55mm

    Friday, September 11, 2009

    Auto ISO

    ISO is an extremely valuable tool in digital photography.  It's great to be able to adjust the sensitivity of your sensor as the lighting conditions change without having to change an entire roll of film.  But as convenient as it is (especially compared to film,) it would be great if it could be something we never had to think about. That's where the auto ISO setting comes in.

    This subject is a little complicated.  To fully appreciate what auto ISO does, you have to understand the advantages and disadvantages of changing ISO as well as the affect shutter speed has on your images.  If this is beyond you right now, keep reading and just use the settings I recommend.  Even if you don't understand it all yet, it will help you get better pictures consistently.  For background, read What is ISO and ISO and Digital Noise as well as How to Choose a Shutter Speed Part One and Two.

    Recent Nikon cameras (I don't know for sure about Canon) have an "auto" setting for ISO that allows you to set a range for your ISO and then never think about it again.  That's too strong.  With auto ISO you hardly ever have to think about your ISO setting.  When turned on, auto ISO works by starting at whatever ISO you have set and gradually bumping it up if there isn't enough light in the scene you are photographing.  Additionally, you can set a maximum so that your camera won't take your ISO higher than you are comfortable.

    Here is how to set it on a Nikon D40:

    1. Push the "MENU" button on the back, navigate to the "Custom Settings Menu" (the pencil), then select "10 ISO auto."  Select "On" and push "OK."
    2. Then select "10 ISO auto" again.  This time select "Max. sensitivity" and choose the highest ISO that doesn't produce enough noise to bother you.  (Read ISO and Digital Noise if you need help deciding.  I would choose 800 on the D40.)
    3. Then select "10 ISO auto" again.  This time select "Min. shutter speed" and choose the minimum shutter speed that would produce sharp images with your lens.  (Read How to Choose a Shutter Speed Part One and Two if you need help deciding.  I would choose 1/30s or 1/60s depending on the lens.  Choose 1/60s if you have a VR telephoto lens and don't want to ever change your ISO again.)
    4. Push the "MENU" button on the back, navigate to the "Shooting Menu" (the camera), then select "ISO sensitivity."  Choose the lowest number there is (200 on the D40, 100 on some other cameras.)  Ignore the "Auto" in this menu - it's not the same thing.
    Here's what will happen: your camera will shoot at it's "base ISO" (which you set in step 4) most of the time.  When it's too dark and your shutter speed starts to slow down, it won't go slower than whatever you set in step 3.  Instead, your camera will increase your ISO, but it won't go past the maximum you set in step 2.  This is great because it allows the camera to make the decision you would make without you having to do anything.  You have enough freedom to limit the camera's choices, but you also get to take advantage of your camera's intelligence.

    If you can't see "10 ISO auto," read Expanding the Menu.

    Wednesday, September 9, 2009

    How to Focus Your Camera Part Two

    The last thing people want to have to do when taking pictures is fiddle with the settings in between each shot.  Therefore, when it comes to focusing, I recommend setting your camera to the options that will be most useful most of the time.  (Read Part One to find out what I think those options are.)

    Unfortunately, even the best settings won't work all the time.  If you set your focusing system the way I recommend, there is (at least) one situation that will turn out badly: when your subject is moving quickly toward or away from your camera.  When your camera focuses, it focuses at a certain distance.  If the distance between your camera and your subject changes between the time you focus and the time you take the picture, your subject will be out of focus.

    Let me explain this with an example.  In the picture above, my daughter was swinging and so the distance between her and the camera was constantly changing.  With my normal settings I was getting pictures out of focus because as I would push the button, the focus would lock when it got half way down and then the image would be captured when the button was depressed all the way.  She was swinging quickly enough that there was enough time between focusing and capturing the image for the distance to change.

    So here is the solution:
    When your subject is moving toward or away from your camera (more quickly than walking), set your "Focus Mode" to "Continuous-servo AF" (AF-C).  To do this push the "MENU" button on the back, navigate to the "Custom Settings Menu" (the pencil), then select "02 Focus mode," and highlight "Continuous-servo AF."  In this mode, your camera will continue focusing right up until you take the picture no matter how long you hold the button half-way down.

    Tuesday, September 8, 2009

    How to Focus Your Camera Part One

    I talked yesterday about focusing on your subject's eyes when photographing people, so today I want to make sure everyone knows how to dictate where your camera/lens focuses.  (I'll be describing how the Nikon D40 works, but what I say will apply to all current Nikon cameras using the same terms and options.  Other camera brands will undoubtedly have the same features, but possibly with different names.)

    Camera Set Up
    The first step is making sure your camera is set up correctly to allow you to control the focus.  Here are the steps needed to accomplish this on the D40:

    1. Your camera will make all the focusing decisions in AUTO mode, so first put your camera in program mode by winding the dial on top to "P".
    2. Change the "AF-area mode" to "Single area." Do this by pushing the "MENU" button on the back, navigate to the "Custom Settings Menu" (the pencil), then select "03 AF-area mode," and make sure "Single area" is highlighted.
    3. Start with the "Focus mode" in "Single-servo AF."  Follow the steps above, but select "02 Focus Mode," and choose "Single-servo AF."
    Once you have set your camera to these settings, it will focus on one of the three sets of brackets that you see when you peer through the view finder.  As you look through the view finder, you can select which set of brackets is active using the directional pad that encircles the OK button on the back of your camera.  When you push the directional pad, one of the brackets will momentarily light up in red to indicate you have selected that one.
    Controlling the Focus
    When composing your picture, line up the selected brackets with what you want in focus.  If you want to be able to change the composition (which might take your object of focus out of the brackets,) but still stay focused on the same point, just push your shutter release button half way down and hold it there - this will lock the focus.  Then recompose and push the shutter release the rest of the way down to capture the image.
    This may sound complicated, but you will get the hang of it quickly.  Once you understand this, you will probably leave your camera set this way 90% of the time (we'll talk soon about the other 10%), so don't worry about remembering all the menu options.  Just set it and be done with it.  If you have any trouble, or if your camera doesn't have the same menu options contact me or leave a comment.

    Read How to Focus Your Camera Part Two next

    Monday, September 7, 2009

    Practical Tip: Focus Point

    When you are taking pictures of your kids (or any people for that matter,) always focus on the eyes.  Whatever the psychological reason, eyes are important and when they are sharp in a picture, they really draw you in.  This is especially true when you have a shallow depth of field.  Look at the difference:

    This one is focused on the eyes

    And this one is focused around the tip of the nose.
    In both pictures, our eyes are drawn to what is in focus.  The first picture is much more interesting and much more flattering because the eyes are in focus.  Here is another one where the eyes aren't the point of focus.

    And here are some with the eyes in focus.

    And if you have to choose, the closer eye is usually a better choice.

    Saturday, September 5, 2009

    Picture of the Week

    • Shutter Speed: 1/60
    • Aperture: f4
    • ISO: 2000
    • White Balance: Cloudy
    • Focal Length: 50mm

    Thursday, September 3, 2009

    How to Use a DSLR

    Photomom101 is made up of a bunch of short lessons on specific topics.  If you haven't been around since the beginning, it may be confusing to figure out where to start.  Many of the lessons build on instruction and information in previous posts.  So if you are new to Photomom101 (or just want an organized refresher course) here is a list of posts explaining how to control your DSLR in an order that will make sense.

    Note that this list will be regularly updated as more relevant posts are added.

    Exposure (Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO)
    Exposure - Advanced Topics
    Photomoms, I know there are holes in this "course."  Tell me what you think is missing so I can address things that are relevant to you.  Let me know in the comments.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009

    Recommended Products

    The Basic Mom Kit

    The Nikon D40 is the perfect camera for moms.  It's a few years old, but still perfectly suited for what moms need.  It's six megapixels which is plenty; it's small and light weight; it can do everything in automatic mode, but allows you to take control if you know how.  It comes with a battery, battery charger, strap and the lens listed next.  You can get it at Amazon or B&H.

    The Nikon 18-55mm Lens comes with just about every entry level Nikon DSLR (so don't add it your cart separately.)  It's a great lens to start with and will do most of what you need.  It's good quality even though it's made with cheap plastic.  If you need to replace one (or you never got one) click these links to get it at Amazon or B&H.

    The Nikon 55-200mm Lens is a great companion to the D40 and 18-55mm kit lens.  Together, these two lenses get you from 18mm to 200mm.  Most moms will be completely satisfied with this range.  This lens has VR, it's sharp, it's small and light.  Click these links to get it at Amazon or B&H.

    Nikon SB-400 Flash.  This flash is the perfect companion for the D40.  It's much smaller than the alternatives (and less expensive) and still does what you need.  It even rotates so you can bounce it of the ceiling.  Click these links to get it at Amazon or B&H.

    You should get a clear UV filter to protect each lens you get.  (Get one per lens.)  This one will fit both of the above lenses.  Or get it here at B&H.

    You will also need a memory card to put in your camera.  The 4GB size is a good balance between capacity and price.  You can also check out the 1GB, 2GB or 8GB.

    Upgrading the Camera

    The Nikon D3000 is newer than the D40 and its possible replacement (though the D40 is still available for now.)  For an extra $150 or so you get a bigger screen on the back (3" instead of 2.5") more megapixels, and some other bells and whistles.  The D40 is fine, but if you want the latest and greatest, get the D3000 at Amazon or B&H.

    Lens Choices

    The Nikon 35mm f/1.8 DX Lens would be the first lens I would add to the basic mom kit.  It has a larger maximum aperture and will let you produce images with blurry backgrounds that so many people love.  Click on these links to get it at Amazon or B&H.

    The Nikon 18-200mm VR DX Lens is a good choice if you want one lens to cover everything.  It's more expensive, though.  Click on these links to get it at Amazon or B&H.

    If you want to go longer than 200mm, get the Nikon 70-300mm VR Lens.  Click on these links to get it at Amazon or B&H.  Get it in a kit with the D40 and 18-55mm lens here.

    If you want to go wider than 18mm, get the Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 DX Lens.  It'll cost you, but it will be wide.  Click on these links to get it at Amazon or B&H.

    These are books I have read and think are helpful.

    Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson

    Learning to See Creatively by Bryan Peterson