“It’s not like I saw it,” I heard a woman recently exclaim
to her companion at the tidal basin in Washington DC. She was looking at the
screen on her small digital camera, having just taken a snapshot of the cherry
blossoms highlighting the Jefferson Memorial. I didn’t see her image, but can
imagine that the view was very cropped – due to the limitation of her camera’ s
built-in lens. Also, the morning sun was already bright – likely causing the
beautiful trees to become silhouettes. She was clearly disappointed.
This caused me to think about a very simple rule that not
only applies to photography, but just about everything in life: know your
tools, and their limitations – and how to best use them. I have seen some
amazing images captured on cell phones, and know that there are skilled
photographers who prefer to use this device for their work. I have also seen
some very mediocre (poorly exposed and framed) shots taken with expensive
cameras that have plenty of potential.
It’s important to read the manual when we get a new anything
– especially a camera, which we have purchased in order to record the important
and meaningful events of our lives. Yes, it’s tedious – but it’s very
Most cameras – even cell phones, give us options. We can
choose to leave our camera on automatic mode – where the camera makes all the
decisions for us – but sometimes this is not our best choice. The automatic
feature exposes the entire scene as gray – so, if there are extremes of white
and black we are very likely to end up with an over or underexposed image. This
means that detail will be lost in the dark and/or light areas of the
Luckily, we can review our shots instantly, and make
adjustments if our camera allows us to – and most do.
As well as exposure, cameras will choose the white balance
for us on automatic mode – the color temperature of an image, if you will.
Light has a range – from blue to red, although our eyes adjust to it so that we
usually don’t see the difference. Digital cameras on automatic mode add a color
filter to bring the color close to what our eyes see. Mostly, they do a good
job with this selection, but if Auntie Ann looks too blue (even if she does
claim a “Blue Blood” heritage) this is where you might choose to make a manual
adjustment. Tungsten light creates an orange cast, which can sometimes be just
too warm, causing our subjects to look jaundiced.
Most cameras, and even cell phones, give us “white balance”
choices: auto, sunny, cloudy, florescent, incandescent, and often more.
Another choice usually available is scene selection – such
as macro (like flowers and insects), sunset, portrait, sports, sunny, cloudy,
shade, and, often even some “creative” choices that create art effects.
Although still automatic, with these modes we are giving our camera a little
more help in selection of focus, exposure, white balance, and shutter speed
(how long the shutter stays open). Manual mode gives us the most control, and
creative options, if available.
If our camera has interchangeable lenses – a digital, single
lens reflex camera (DSLR), our choices increase immensely. Lenses are available
as “fixed”, meaning one focal length – where we have to “zoom with our feet”,
or zoom lenses which enable us to stand in one place and get a range of focal
lengths such as 18-270 mm. Zoom lenses enable us to photograph the clock in the
steeple or the wide scene with the clock tower in it. Even pocket cameras have variable lens length options.
Understanding the limitations and possibilities of our tools
can help make our photography experience a satisfying one, and give us images
that we can enjoy and show off with pride.
|Samples of Different Kinds of Exposures
and Different Kinds of White Balance
||Under exposed with detail lost in the black
||Over exposed with detail lost in the white areas
|White Balance Set to Sunny
||White Balance Set to Shade
||White Balance Set to Tungsten
(All images were taken inside on a sunny day.)