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Amatuer Photography Tips

A Little Bit About Photography

Everyone has a digital camera nowadays, or at least something better than those crappy 110's with puke pink casings. Unfortunately, not everyone has even basic training in how to use their cameras, or how to frame a picture. And so we see a rise in those horrible blurred, out-of-focus, head-cut-off photos. Usually with a thumb obscuring half the picture.

The most important thing you can do, the very *first* thing you should do after taking your shiny new camera out of the box is... READ THE MANUAL! Don't just fool around with all the pretty buttons, find out first thing what they all do, and how to combine all those functions for the effects you want. Then fill out the warranty card and send it in. You probably spent better than $250 on your new toy, and if you don't get a warranty, you'll drop it ten minutes after the return policy expires. It's the law.

The next thing you should do: buy a tripod. They aren't very expensive, and will come in handy over and over again. If you can, get a tripod that will mount regular cameras as well as your little digital niftiness.

The button that is most-used is the zoom button, usually with poor results. You must have a tripod or some other device to keep your camera steady to take a decent photo at long range. Think of it like a telescope... once you have the planet in view, you can't even *breathe* funny on the thing or you'll loose your view.

Even with a tripod, long range photos are pretty iffy with a digital camera. Get as close to your subject as you can for a clear picture.

Zooming is a little better with regular cameras, and much better with a tripod, but if you're off to take pictures of dangerous animals or baseball games you need a telephoto lens. This gives you greater play in both distance and focus, but you'll still need a tripod for those perfect shots. It may not be as easy as the point-and-click of a digital camera, but regular cameras are still the best for clarity and choice of focus.

Manual focusing has this point in it's favor... with point-and-click, you can't always choose what the subject of your photo is. The computer will always try to bring everything into focus, or, failing that, brings the closest object into focus. When you're doing it for yourself, you can choose which object in field is the true subject, and ignore everything else. Manual focusing takes a lot of practice to be quick and any good at it, but you never loose the trick of it once you learn. Practice!

Incidentally, this is how I found out I needed glasses. I always focused with my right eye, and a few years ago I noticed that my photos were blurred just a little. After fooling around with it awhile, I tried focusing with my left, and those pictures were crystal clear. So now I have glasses and fewer headaches.

Which reminds me... you really can't focus while wearing glasses. It's amazing to me how many people try anyway, regardless of the absurd photos this produces. Contacts work wonderfully, but since I can't wear contacts, I make do with my left eye. If you're having trouble getting a clear shot and can't figure out why, try switching eyes, or get an eye exam.

You'll use different methods to take different kinds of pictures. I'll break them down by type:

Portrait Photography
This page includes basic portrait setup, lighting, children's portraiture, posing, and framing.

Candid and Informal Photography
This page talks about working with available light and how to achieve those "informal" pictures.

Animal Photography
How to take quality pictures of animals.

Still Life Photography
Taking pictures of everything else.

Happy accidents do occur, and it's entirely possible to get fantastic shots just by whipping out the camera and clicking away. For the lucky, happy accidents can happen in one out of every twenty or so shots... but the average person is much more likely to get a decent photograph by keeping the basics in mind. It really isn't as difficult as it seems. Practice, and in no time you won't even have to think about the nit picking details to get beautiful pictures.

A Few Notes

Regular cameras have a few other things to worry about, such as the type of film they use. The speed the film is rated for will affect what they can use it for... the lower the number, like 100 asa, the faster it will absorb the light, and the faster the shutter can snap a picture.

A regular camera user should always remember to adjust the shutter setting every time they change the type of film in their camera. If you have 800 film, set the shutter speed to 800. If you change it to 200, change the shutter setting.

400 speed film requires a lot of exposure time. It can take almost a half a second to open and shut the shutter, and so you need either rock steady hands or a tripod. Take pictures with this type of film when it is slightly overcast, indoors, or your subject isn't moving at all. If the day is too dark, you won't get enough light no matter how slowly the film is exposing, but if you have too much light, 400 film can develop overexposed, and in extreme cases all you'll have is a wash of white. If your subject moves even a little, it will probably blur. Breathing can blur at this speed. Remember, the higher the film asa, the grainier the picture gets.

200 speed is the average, and can handle overcast conditions, indoor lighting, and bright sunshine, as well as some motion in your subject. Breathing won't affect the picture, but blinking or shifting will, obviously. 200 doesn't require a tripod the way 400 does, but shaky hands can cause problems. The shutter speed for 200 is about a half a second to a fouth of a second, so you can track a moving object and get a clear shot of that subject, as long as you stay perfectly with the movement. This is fairly risky though, so keep 200 still if you can.

100 speed is great fun. If you really really wanted that picture of a wolf running through the woods, this is the stuff to do it with. It still takes about a fourth to an eighth of a second to open and shut the shutter, so you'll have to track your subject, but it isn't as risky as the 200. Since the 100 has such a short exposure, you need very bright lighting to prevent dark, murky photos. 100 is excellent on-the-go film, since you don't absolutely need a tripod for a clear picture, and it is ideal for those animal pictures in bright conditions.

These three film speeds are the most common, although you'll see film ranging from 50 up to 3600. Lower asa films yeild the most crisp pictures, and the higher you go, the lower the film quality gets. If you want to enlarge your pictures, take the time to carefully get a clear shot with 50 or 100 asa film. If you want nighttime shots like a cityscape or full moon, try 800 asa or higher. You deperately need a tripod for 800 and above, don't even try to take a slow shot barehanded. In most cases, though, you'll be better off with 100, 200, and 400.

Black and white photography on a regular camera is a bigger deal than with a digital camera. With the little niftiness, you just flip a switch, but a regular camera has to purchase special film.

Before you decide which type of b&w film to buy, figure out what you want it for. Portraits, or still life? If you're working with people, you'll want 200 asa or lower b&w, because the possibility of movement is too great to risk slower speeds... and with still life you want the highest quality possible, which you'll only get with 100 or 50. Choose carefully! Not only is the film itself expensive, it takes two weeks to get your pictures back and it can cost anywhere from $22 for a roll of 26 to $30 for a roll of 32 pictures. You don't want to waste a single shot.

This is one of the reasons that traditional b&w photography is dying... only professionals and those with plenty of hobby money can afford it. It's so much easier to either use a digital camera, or scan in a regular color photo and edit it with Photoshop. With all the cost and hard work involved, who would want to use it? But traditional b&w shots have a clarity and crispness that nothing else can give you. After you've put in plenty of practice with cheaper color shots, give a roll of black and white a try.

Another thing to consider is the type of lens you use. The lens your camera comes with is the basic, non-spectacular type of thing you'd use for backyard picnics... generally not what you'd get great things out of. It's called a fixed focus lens. When you buy your tripod, try to find a telephoto zoom lens with manual focus. This is the most commonly used type of lens, and good ones can be found for around $99. There are dozens of other types of lenses, like the wide angle lens or the macro lens... but unless you think you'll be taking a lot of panoramic pictures (wide angle lens) you should stick with the basics.

Walking into a well stocked camera store can be confusing, and those clerks work on commission - be careful. You only need three basic things... a tripod, which should only cost you around $30 (no matter what the clerk says, you don't need a gyromount anything), a telephoto zoom lens with manual focus (starts around $99 for good quality - don't buy too cheaply here, but try not to spend more than $150), and a polarizing lens filter, which varies in price from $15 to $30. Those buffing cloths are nice, and the bulb-blower thingies with the little brush are even handier, but you don't really need them.

So that's it for the basics! Have fun with your new toy!