Boo's Digital Photography Tutorials.  No. 2

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Why don't my 300D photos look like yours?

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Questions I get asked very often:

Why don't my pictures turn out like I expect, that wasn't what I saw? I got better pictures with my point and shoot. I always use auto mode and I expect it to take good photos for me, but some of photos are awful, is my camera faulty?

So, what's the answer?

The Rebel is a complicated beast that needs taming and you will need to invest some effort, both in advance of the shoot in preparing the camera and in post-processing to get the very best from your images. But it really is worth spending that time, it will pay dividends.

I have a theory, that hasn't yet been proven to be unfounded, but neither do I have any specific proof that it's anything more than personal speculation. Having used a series of digital cameras progressing in sophistication, I feel sure that modest consumer cameras are manufactured to give pleasing results with minimal intervention for those that simply take their memory cards to their local photo shop and order a set of 6 x 4" prints. The photographs produced are sharp, saturated and vibrant.

The higher up the camera tree you rise, the greater your desire for creative control is likely to be. It is my feeling that manufacturers make this distinction and as camera sophistication increases, the camera's intervention in the images they produce diminishes.

The 300D is simply more realistic

The images out of camera from the 300D are less sharp, saturated and contrasty, but ~ and it's a big but ~ they respond incredibly well to post-processing attention, but now, you're the one in full control. If you've bothered to lay out the financial investment the 300D requires, I hope you'd consider that a merit, I certainly do. I personally want creative control, I want back the benefits of manipulation I enjoyed in the darkroom, dodging and masking under the enlarger.

It is my contention that the Rebel takes very realistic photographs, life simply isn't as saturated and sharp as the media have conditioned our brains into expecting. If you've used a consumer digital camera previously, your initial reaction is likely to be that of feeling short-changed on sharpness, saturation and contrast. You're not being, but you have perhaps been spoiled by the falsely vibrant images you've previously produced. If that is your taste and that is what you want from your images, you can either adjust the camera's parameters to increase these as images are recorded, or work on images later.

In auto mode I expect it to perform as well as my point and shoot.

I suspect, as an extension to my earlier stated theory, that Canon perhaps assumes that camera buyers at this level are more likely to want creative control and more likely to operate a camera in the creative modes. Full auto on the Rebel is not particularly well-featured and there are many scenarios where it simply will not give good results. The limitations built into the mode will have an impact on what you're able to achieve without going into a more creative mode and freeing yourself from those limits.

The scenario where this is most evident and which gives rise to the greatest number of photographers contacting me, is in low light, a lighting scenario that requires special handling beyond the capabilities of auto mode. In the Rebel, ISO is limited to a maximum of 400 in Auto and the camera selects the ISO for you. At low light, the limit of 400 ISO may ensure that the camera takes the shot with an aperture and shutter speed that won't give a good result, where popping into program mode, would allow you to select a higher ISO and this may bring the exposure within more successful parameters.

If, for example, you're taking a photo of your children, in your home and under artificial light, you need the fastest shutter speed possible in order to prevent your own camera shake and to freeze the movement of your offspring. The maximum aperture will be determined by the lens, it will have a widest possible aperture according to its physics and, if applicable, the zoom/focal length you're working at. On zoom lenses, longer focal lengths generally lead to slightly narrower apertures than wider angles/shorter focal lengths. This may be around f5.6 and in combination with the fastest 400ISO of auto mode, in a family living room under lamplight, you might find the camera presents you with a shutter speed as slow as 1/10 second etc.

Hardly surprising then, that your own movement is telegraphed into the image and your little darlings are a blur of movement also - the low light double whammy. Moving into a creative mode with more options available will increase your odds of success. If you increase the ISO to 800 or 1600, which on the Rebel gives very acceptable results, you will increase the shutter speed to one that will ensure a much more acceptable result. High ISOs can introduce additional noise, but this is much easier to fix later in software, than movement blur or camera shake. I'd risk it every single time without hesitation.

How about an illustrated example?

The focal length you're working at will also have an impact on the shutter speed you can work at, the longer it is, the faster exposure needed to eliminate camera shake. The conventional wisdom, in respect of 35mm photography, is that a shutter speed of 1/Focal Length is required to secure stillness. So, if you're working at 70mm, you'd need 1/70 second exposure to shoot with any confidence. With digital photography, some say that the sensor size, or so called 'crop factor', should also be taken into consideration. I'm personally not so sure that it should. You'd need to do your own tests to ascertain your own personal limits. I personally feel confident in working at 1/FL/3 if I adopt an appropriate stance etc. - so at 70mm, I'd be perfectly happy to take shots at 1/20, or even less. If your hands aren't so steady, you might find you need at least 1/100.

Reducing the focal length for your shot - and perhaps zoom with your feet instead - can have two benefits, firstly, you won't need such a fast shutter speed to eliminate camera shake and it may also widen the aperture the lens can work at, also giving some additional leeway in the shutter speed. The two rather extreme examples below were taken to illustrate the points made, they have no further artistic merit. They were both taken with the same lens in the same conditions - only the camera settings I chose were changed.
At 205mm, there is too much camera shake at low light. Zoom with your feet for a better result.
The first, which is clearly unsuccessful, was taken at 205mm focal length and 100ISO, hand held, with the camera in Auto mode. The focal length on that lens determined that the maximum aperture I could use was f5.6 and this gave rise to a shutter speed of 1/3 second in that light. The second, which is much improved, was taken to look similar in composition, but I reduced the focal length to 100mm and physically moved closer to the subject myself, this allowed a wider aperture on the lens of f4.5. I put the camera in Av mode, manually selected 800ISO and this allowed a shutter speed of 1/30, one I knew I personally could succeed with at that focal length.

In conclusion:

Every shot you take is a compromise in the triangle between aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Deciding how you want the scene to look requires understanding of the implications of each setting and making decisions accordingly. Understanding how scenes are metered is also vital to successful results with outdoor shots especially. The human eye, when working with the brain, is a complex piece of analytical equipment, constantly scanning the scene and making minute adjustments for exposure and white balance - so much so, that we're spoiled by what we remembered or perceived of a scene.

When you photograph that same scene, it is literally a snapshot of the entire scene and all of it is captured at the same exposure and settings - when you were looking at it, your eye would be constantly flicking from detail to detail and making minute adjustments for each section, but the camera simply can't do that - so the resulting picture you take can look wrong to you when captured in that manner - you expect and hope to see what your brain remembers of the compensated and very sophisticated view it formed of it. If you're aware of this and consciously think about how to help the camera along by understanding how it works, you'll be much happier with the results.

Understanding the theory behind how exposures are determined by the conditions the camera is presented with and the impact of settings on the results, will help overcome many of the problems I get asked about, most of which can be logically explained and are not a fault with the camera, as many people erroneously conclude when they become frustrated with poor results.

If you found it useful . . .

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