Digital Photography Tips
Taking creative control of your digital photos

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Digital photography tips for taking creative control over your photos

  • Image magnification
  • Depth of Field
  • Shutter speed
  • Exposure

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Focal lengths, aperture and f-stops summarized

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Angle of view, magnification and crop factors

Depth of field explained

What equipment do I need for my style of photography?

Digital photography tips for Taking creative control of your photos

If you want to produce photos that do not attempt to mimic the scene exactly as would be remembered by an eye witness, then you will want to exercise some creative control over the way the camera records the image.

This can fall into the following categories (or any combination of them)

  • Image magnification
  • Depth of Field
  • Shutter speed
  • Exposure

I will briefly outline each along with some examples of the focal length and exposure setting necessary to record them.

digital photography tips - Image magnification

If you want to see distant objects up close (without physically moving closer to them) or make tiny objects appear larger (e.g. flowers or insects) then you will need longer focal lengths that give narrow angles of view.

When magnifying a distant object so it appears closer (think of a telescope) this is often referred to as optical zoom.

As the angle of view for a specific focal length varies with sensor size, many camera manufacturers – particularly when marketing compact cameras with smaller sensors, prefer to quote optical zoom rather than range of focal lengths to describe the degree of magnification. This is for three reasons

  1. A quoted optical zoom number universally describes the magnification factor independently of sensor size, thus making comparisons between the performance between cameras of differing sensor size easier.
  2. Magnification expressed as optical zoom is more intuitively understood than quoting a range of focal lengths.
  3. In marketing terms quoting, for example 5X optical zoom , sounds more impressive than focal lengths of for example 3mm to 15mm.

Read Angle of view, magnification and crop factors for a more detailed explanation.

digital photography tips - Macro photography

photo by Andre Zehetbauer

Sometimes you may wish to magnify smaller images to make them larger (think of a microscope). This is often called “macro” photography. To do this requires focusing at closer distances than normal – lenses with a “macro” setting make an adjustment within the lens to facilitate this.

In True MACRO photography, the object being photographed will be reproduced at actual size on the image sensor – for example if an insect measures 10mm in real life, then it will take up a real 10mm space on the image sensor. This would be known as a macro lens with 1:1 magnification. These lenses are specially designed to enable the close up focusing necessary and have internal lens elements specially designed to do this without distortion of the image – consequently these lenses tend to be expensive and best suited to work on cameras with larger (more expensive) image sensors.

digital photography tips - Depth of field

To explain this fully requires a separate article, but in summary, depth of field can be thought of as the proportion of the image from near objects to far objects that appear acceptably sharp in front or behind the focus point of the image when viewing the image in its final display format. (E.g. print or screen size and resolution.)

Shallow depth of field is when only parts of the image very close to the focal point of the image are acceptably sharp . This effect is often used creatively to visually separate the main subject from other elements in the image that are nearer or farther that may be distracting. For example in portrait photography “softening” the background brings attention to the subject. Another example might be taking photos of an animal behind a mesh cage . By using a shallow depth of field and focusing on the animal (provided it is some distance from the cage) the mesh will be thrown so far out of focus as to appear practically invisible in the final image.

The larger the image sensor and larger the aperture the shallower the depth of field.

With the small sensors found on compact cameras it is not possible to recreate softening of the background to anything like the same extent as with a DSLR with a larger sensor.

The effect is most pronounced at longer focal lengths and when there is greater distance between the subject and the background. So if you don’t have a DSLR with a decent sized sensor, use the camera you do have at the longest end of the focal length (i.e. highest optical zoom) and be as close as you can to your subject with them standing as far as possible from the background.

digital photography tips
digital photography tips

Deep depth of field is when practically all of the image is nicely sharp and in focus, irrespective of whether close or far from the point of focus. This is often the case in landscape photography when a small aperture (high f-number) combined with a wide angle of view to give the sense of scale that is felt when witnessing the scene first hand. As smaller image sensors create shallower depths of field, this is one area where even modestly priced compact cameras can give excellent results.

Consider also using a deeper depth of field when taking portraits of groups of people. This will ensure there is more chance of everyone being in focus, even if they are slightly different distances from the focal plane.

Finally, remember that when using small apertures, shutter speeds may need to be slower to allow sufficient light through to adequately expose the image. This can result in a loss of sharpness due to blurring as a result of camera shake. Overcome this either by using a tripod (or other static support such as a wall or table) and release the shutter via a remote control or the self timer. Modern image stabilisation systems built into either the lens or the camera body itself can also help prevent this.

As a rule of thumb,you can avoid camera shake by using shutter speeds faster than 1/focal length (equivalent to 35mm format).

If your objects within your scene are moving, to avoid motion blur at slow shutter speeds you may need to raise the ISO sensitivity to enable sufficient exposure at a fast enough shutter speed to “freeze” the motion of your subjects.

digital photography tips - Shutter speed

Normally exposure is set with shutter speed adjusted to ensure the image isn’t blurred due to camera shake or subject motion.

Sometimes however using a slow shutter speed to deliberately cause blur can be used to create desirable creative effects.

For example when shooting running water, such as streams and waterfalls with a slow shutter speed, the water can take on a mystical creamy appearance. Horses at full gallop can be shown with the legs blurred, emphasizing their speed and motion and with panning shots of racing cars, the background can be blurred whilst the car remains sharp, again emphasizing speed.

digital photography tips - Exposure

photo by Chantal Beam

Sometimes a deliberate over or underexposure of parts of the scene recorded can give a better creative effect than a more balanced exposure. For example in a close up portrait of someone lit by a single candle, underexposure will better recreate the scene with just the brightest regions of the face recorded. Conversely when taking portraits in bright sunshine often better results can be obtained (contrary to the old rule about always shooting with the sun over your shoulder) by having the subject face away from the sun (so their face is in shade therefore avoiding ugly shadows caused by the intense light or wrinkles due to squinting. The exposure should then be set just for their face – even though this will result in the background of the image being “blown out” (overexposed).

digital photography tips to take creative control - Summary

With a greater understanding of the basics of photography and how the photographic equipment functions, coupled with a clear idea of the nature of the desired end result, you will be better equipped to choose the right equipment to meet your needs and able to use it to achieve high quality, creative photos of which you can be proud.

Useful links from "Digital photography tips"

go to JARGON BUSTER digital photography terms explained

Digital photography exposure explained

Focal lengths, aperture and f-stops summarized

Shedding the light on f-numbers

Angle of view, magnification and crops factors

Depth of field explained

What equipment do I need for my style of photography?

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