Help-Key: How to Take Non-Sucky Digital Photos

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Digital cameras are a great invention. The ability to save precious moments without the cost associated with developing chemical film means that more of those moments are saved, and then in turn shared with others. They’ve also revolutionized the home-made pornography business, but that’s a different Help-Key for a different day.

This guide is for those of us who are casual photographers. If you’re a pro, please don’t email me and tell me about insane RAW formats and negative power-couplings. That’s not what this is. This is for the majority of us who take our cameras for granted, as we’re used to the hassle-free days of Kodak point-and-shoots. For very simple digital cameras, the type that come in blister packs for less than $40 new, that’s fine: There’s nothing that can be done to enhance the crap-ass quality of the photographs, so you’re on your own. But chances are if you’re reading this blog, you spent more on your camera than you’d spend on a pair of sunglasses. Chances are, too, that that more-complex camera has settings that can be tweaked to make things look better. And here’s how to do it.

If your camera does indeed have a menu button, find the thing, and press it. You’ll be amazed at the amount of textual graffiti that lights up your LCD. This isn’t garbage, these settings are there for a reason. Take a look at what all you can do and get yourself familiar with the menu system. Figure out how to scroll and move from field to field. Find out what button is the “select” key. If you have to, read the fine manual that came with the camera. Someone wrote it to help you take better photos.

Your camera may well have presets. If it does, use them. My Casio Exilim EX-Z60 has about 13 different presets AKA Scene Modes, and they do the job quite well. If not, you can set up your camera to take the best photos for any given situation with a few minor changes.

You should start by riding that white balance. Different lighting makes the color white appear as different shades. By making your whites white, you help the other colors better approximate their true hues. Many cameras have white balance settings specifically for outdoor photography, indoor, or even florescent lighting conditions. A good shot can become a great shot with the right white balance. Experiment and see what we’re talking about.

Cameras that have adjustable white balance tend to have adjustable ISO levels, as well. Use them. The ISO numbers range from low to high. You should experiment here, too, to figure out what settings look best on your camera. In general, the lower the number, the less action you want happening in your shot. For a posed portrait, a low number is ideal: You’ll get the entire image with great detail. For an action shot, you’ll want a higher ISO. You’ll lose some detail, but won’t get as much motion blur.

Now that we’ve got the basics down, let’s talk technique. If you can hack it, use a tripod. There are some on the market now that you can fit in your pocket, and stabilization of this type goes a long way to making a perfect picture. If you’re going handheld, make sure the camera’s as steady as you can make it. Also, use vertical or horizontal objects in the field of view to make sure your photo’s straight. This will save you time later.

You can ruin all this fine work if your flash is too intense. Most cameras have a built-in flash, and people use the idea that too much light is better than not enough light. This is foolish. A good thing to check for is the “soft flash” that some cameras have. This reduced-intensity flash should provide enough illumination for most candid shots, but won’t wash everything out as badly as the standard flash. If you’re camera doesn’t have this feature, or it’s still too much, consider diffusing the light. The flash is a bright white shot, and is fairly angular in it’s attack. A diffuser allows you to filter and re-direct the light, making for more dramtic and natural looking shots. Below is a photo taken with my Casio point-and-shoot. Some people spend lots of money on fancy equipment to get this effect. I put a piece of masking tape over my flash. It works wonders, I suggest you try it.

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A tape-diffused photograph.

Though your camera might have resolutions between VGA and 10-megapixel, you’ll want to max it out. By using the highest available resolution, you’re getting far more detail than you would at lower resolution. And before you say “duh,” let me point out that there are those who shoot at the lower rez to save memory on their camera. These people should instead buy larger media cards or transfer their data more often. Cards in the 2GB range can be had for less than $30 in most places, depending on the type of media being used. If you’re serious about your photos looking good, go get one.

All of this technical mumbo jumbo is pointless if you can’t frame the photo. This part is all about personal preference and not within the scope of this article, save to say that if you learn how to compose your photograph instead of just clicking the shutter. There are guides out there for you, try Google.

There are other ways to improve your photos, but they vary from camera to camera. For basic improvement, however, you can step-by-step through this guide and give it a shot yourself. Experiment often; what looks good for one camera might not on another. That being said, doing nothing won’t improve anything, and I’m tired of seeing crappy digicam shots on the Internet.

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