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Know Your Tools

May 5, 2012
Maureen Spagnolo

“It’s not like I saw it,” I heard a woman recently exclaimto 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 notonly 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 worthwhile.

Most cameras – even cell phones, give us options. We canchoose 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 photograph.

Luckily, we can review our shots instantly, and makeadjustments if our camera allows us to – and most do.

As well as exposure, cameras will choose the white balancefor 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 – suchas 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, singlelens 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 toolscan 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
Correctly exposedUnder exposed with detail lost in the blackareasOver exposed with detail lost in the white areas
White Balance Set to SunnyWhite Balance Set to ShadeWhite Balance Set to Tungsten

(All images were taken inside on a sunny day.)

Maureen Spagnolo is a photographer, living in Washington, DC. She writes on a variety of social issues in addition to her photography articles.

Her passion for photography began in her twenties when she fell in love with a photographer, and then took her first photography class. She used any camera she could get her hands on - until she got her first DSLR camera several years ago. Since then, she has gone gangbusters - taking photos like a junkie (!) and reading everything about photography she could find. She now owns enough (never enough!) cameras, lenses, tripods, and camera paraphernalia to warrant an add-on to her home owner's insurance.

Yet, photography is not about equipment. It's about passion, and seeing - qualities that can turn a cell phone into a tool which can compete with the most expensive camera.

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