Read the manual
A growing number of staff at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) are using digital still photography as an effective tool to communicate their research and education activities. Pictures tell a story, but before you pick up the camera and start snapping away, your first step should be to read the camera manual. It explains correct exposure, focus and other technical information. Since every camera is different, understanding how a particular camera you are using works could save you headaches later. In addition to the camera manual, this brief guide offers help in understanding the fundamentals of good camera technique.
Image Quality: Resolving Resolution
Resolution affects the amount of discernable fine detail in an image. A low-resolution image looks coarse. High-resolution image looks smooth. It is like comparing burlap to silk.
Cameras are described in megapixels. This is the amount of digital information that a camera can display. More megapixels will yield finer details and give you larger and better quality photographic printouts.
Using Flash Outdoors
One of the great hidden features on digital cameras is the fill flash or flash on mode. By taking control of the flash so it goes on when you want it to, not when the camera deems it appropriate, you've just taken an important step toward capturing great outdoor portraits.
In flash on mode, the camera exposes for the background first, then adds just enough flash to illuminate your portrait subject. The result is a professional looking picture where everything in the composition looks good. Wedding photographers have been using this technique for years.
After you get the hang of using the flash outdoors, try a couple of variations on this theme by positioning the subject so the sun illuminates the hair from the side or the back, often referred to as rim lighting. Another good technique is to put the model in the shade under a tree, then use the flash to illuminate the subject. This keeps the model comfortable and cool with no squinty eyes from the harsh sun, and this often results in a more relaxed looking portrait.
Remember, though, that most built-in camera flashes only have a range of 10 feet, so make sure you don't stand too far away when using fill flash outdoors.
Remember as a kid discovering the whole new world beneath your feet while playing on the grass? When you got very close to the ground, you could see an entire community of creatures that you never knew existed.
These days, you might not want to lie on your belly in the backyard, but if you activate the close up mode on your digital camera and begin to explore your world in finer detail, you'll be rewarded with fresh new images unlike anything you've ever shot before.
Even the simplest object takes on new fascination in macro mode. And the best part is that it's so easy to do with digital cameras.
Just look for the close up or macro mode icon, which is usually a flower symbol, turn it on, and get as close to an object as your camera will allow. Once you've found something to your liking, hold the shutter button down halfway to allow the camera to focus. When the confirmation light gives you the go ahead, press the shutter down the rest of the way to record the image.
Keep in mind that you have very shallow depth of field when using the close up mode, so focus on the part of the subject that's most important to you, and let the rest of the image go soft.
If you're using a digital SLR with interchangeable lenses, you will have to look on the lens barrel for an indication that the lens is capable of shooting close-up or macro images. If you have the option, also set the lens to the longest (telephoto) focal length while shooting close-ups--this will give you the ability to shoot from farther away and minimize the distorting effects of wideangle focal lengths.
Keeping things On the Level
For some mysterious reason, most human beings have a hard time holding the camera level when using the LCD monitors on their digicams. The result can be cockeyed sunsets, lopsided landscapes, and tilted towers.
Part of the problem is that your camera's optics introduce distortion when rendering broad panoramas on tiny, two-inch screens. Those trees may be standing straight when you look at them with the naked eye, but they seem to be bowing inward on your camera's monitor. No wonder photographers become disoriented when lining up their shots!
What can you do? Well, there's no silver bullet to solve all of your horizon line problems, but you can make improvements by keeping a few things in mind.
First of all, be aware that it's important to capture your images as level as possible. If you're having difficulty framing the scene to your liking, then take your best shot at a straight picture, reposition the camera slightly, take another picture, and then maybe one more with another adjustment. Chances are very good that one of the images will "feel right" when you review them on the computer. Simply discard the others once you find the perfectly aligned image.
If you practice level framing of your shots, over time the process will become more natural, and your percentage of level horizon lines will increase dramatically.
The Alphabet Soup of File Types
What is the difference between JPG & TIF? How does compression affect image quality and file size? The two most common image formats (JPEG and TIFF) are fast being joined by their big cousin, RAW.
TIFF or TIF
TIF is a good format for preserving image detail when taking photographs and editing. It is widely supported by image editing software. TIF is typically a non-compressed file format that means the files can be very large in file size. It can also use something called LZW lossless compression that can reduce the size of the image file without loss of detail information. Regrettably, not all digital cameras support this uncompressed format. TIF can be found on most higher-end digital cameras (i.e. Nikon Coolpix 4500 and 5700).
JPEG or JPG (pronounced "Jay-Peg")
JPEG is the king of compression. It is the most common format saved in digital cameras and is the most common format for viewing images on the Web. JPEG images are small for fast delivery over the Web and email. JPEG trades compression for image quality, however. As a result, you should avoid saving JPGs over and over because the images get compressed over each other and lose significant amounts of image detail and information every time it is saved.
It is a bit like making a videotape copy from a copy. Every generation is of lower quality. If you will be editing an image, don't save your master or archive as JPEG. If you need to edit an image, save the intermediate image as TIFF. If you want a master copy, keep it in TIFF and you can always save a JPEG file later for email or for placing on a web page.
Raw files are unprocessed images and are usually very large. These images should be opened in PhotoShop CS, but be sure to always make a copy. If you ever work with a graphic designer on a magazine article or a book project, they will often prefer to have RAW images.
More Resources on the Web
PC Magazine’s Digital Camera Supercenter
Digital Camera Reviews with imaging tips, glossary and links
Kodak’s Digital Learning Center
Digital photography On-line short courses
IrfanView, free image and thumbnail graphic software (~1Mb)
Serif PhotoPlus 5.5, free digital photo retouching tool
Ken Rockwell photography
Photo District News (pdn)