Taking Better Pictures

written by Peter Melaragno

A good result with a camera (whether with a still or a video camera) requires that you make an effort to find a camera that has as much manual control as possible, and that you understand how to use it. POINT-AND-SHOOT has it place – perhaps even for a professional photographer – but understanding MANUAL CONTROL is essential to consistent quality pictures.

For this reason, then, we will first deal with the OPERATION OF THE CAMERA and how better knowledge of your camera will help your photos. Other things – like FRAMING, COMPOSITION, EFFECTS, and WIDE & TELEPHOTO LENSES – we will talk about later.

Let me say from the start, however, that my essential point of departure here will be that:

Operation Of The Camera

So, assuming you have a camera with manual options – there are FIVE fundamental in-camera ways to affect the photo you are about to take. These are ISO (or FILM SPEED), IRIS OPENING, SHUTTER SPEED, WHITE BALANCE and FOCUS.

White Balance

Of course, you don’t have to keep all of these on manual control all the time. Of these Four Controls, you can happily leave WHITE BALANCE on AUTOMATIC. WHITE BALANCE determines the color of light the camera is expecting to receive. For instance, if you are indoors with the lights on, and the camera’s WHITE BALANCE is set to expect outdoor sunlight, the resulting picture will have a bluish tint. Because most of us do not consider it a matter of choice to take a photo with the wrong color balance, you can leave COLOR BALANCE on AUTO.


Let’s talk about the ISO (and what I parenthetically called the FILM SPEED because there are still folks out and about using a FILM camera). Whether using a DIGITAL or a FILM camera, however, one needs to decide as to how SENSITIVE to light you want the camera to be. With FILM you buy rolls of film at differing speeds each, but you have to stick to a specific speed once you put that roll in the camera (until you get to the end and insert a roll of a different speed).

With a DIGITAL camera, we are exposing not a strip of FILM but rather a LIGHT SENSITIVE CHIP. The advantage of DIGITAL is that you can change the SPEED of that chip from SHOT TO SHOT by using either a button on the camera or with the screen menu system.

In DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY, this SPEED is called the ISO. But be aware what you are essentially doing when increasing the ISO. You are increasing what professional VIDEOGRAPHERS refer to as GAIN.

The important thing about the ISO is that “GAIN EQUALS GRAIN”. Remember in FILM PHOTOGRAPHY, when we took pictures with a FAST film in LOW LIGHT situations? The result was a noticeable amount of GRAIN. This was because FAST FILM is made with larger GRAINS of silver halide in the film emulsion. After processing, the silver grains form the photographic image. The LARGE granules react more quickly to light (hence we say FAST FILM), thus they also give the photo a granular look.

In DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY there are no silver halide granules. Nonetheless, the higher the ISO you use, the more grain-like the appearance of the image will be. For this reason I like to remind that “GAIN EQUALS GRAIN”. Effectively then, you should ALWAYS try to shoot with as LOW an ISO as possible. In the event that you actually want a GRAINY image … you can always do it in PHOTOSHOP.

ISO numbers from 100 to 800 are usually no problem, but moving into the 1600 and 3200 range will definitely deteriorate the image. So the most important advantage of maintaining MANUAL CAMERA CONTROL is that you can use other methods to shoot in a low-light situation rather than allowing the camera to automatically jack up your ISO to a grainy 3200. I will discuss these alternatives as we proceed.

Obviously, however, there will be many moments – especially in fast-moving situations – when your best option will be to shoot with a high ISO, or, perhaps, to just slip the camera into AUTO.

continue with Taking Better Pictures Part II

Did you know?

The development of realistic technique is credited to Zeuxis and Parrhasius, who according to ancient Greek legend, are said to have once competed in a bravura display of their talents, history’s earliest descriptions of trompe l’oeil painting