When first starting out in photography, the switch to full manual mode can be more than intimidating! That is where learning to use Program mode can help you learn more about your camera’s functions and how to control them. Program mode is a great first step to getting off Auto and gaining some of the freedom that the more advanced capabilities of your camera have to offer. So go ahead and find the P for Program mode on your mode dial.
What can Program mode do for you?
In Program mode the camera will still make the majority of the decisions for proper exposure for you. The camera will still choose the shutter speed and aperture based on the light available. This means you will still get correct exposure, but at the same time it unlocks some other features that give you more control. You can then learn about those functions without having to worry about shutter speed, aperture, and proper exposure.
The functions you will be able to learn about and control are ISO (sometimes this mode is called ISO Priority for this reason), white balance, flash, and exposure compensation. Program mode is a great first step away from fully Automatic mode.
What is ISO and why control it?
ISO is the level of sensitivity to light as it hits your sensor. An ISO of 100 is not very sensitive and would be used when there is already plenty of light, such as a bright sunny day. As you move up through the ISO range, to 200, 400, 800 and higher the sensor becomes more and more sensitive to light. To achieve this the sensor is powered with more electrical charge. That electrical charge can lead to noise or digital “grain” in your images.
When you use Auto mode in low light the camera almost always tends to raise the ISO instead of changing the shutter speed or the aperture. When you use Program mode you have manual control over the ISO. You can set and use a low ISO to reduce noise in your images. If the image is underexposed, you can use Exposure Compensation (another “unlocked” feature) to balance the exposure.
What is Exposure Compensation and why control it?
Exposure Compensation is a function that allows you to override the camera to adjust the exposure lighter or darker. On most cameras you can set the exposure compensation up to +3 or -3 stops and use 1/3 stop increments in between to really nail the correct exposure.
Your camera is smart, but not always smart enough. Tricking lighting situations can “fool” the camera sensor into making an image too dark or too bright. In Auto mode you cannot correct this. In Program mode, you can dial in a positive or negative exposure compensation, respectively, to fix this.
Additionally, you can use Exposure Compensation in situations where you have to turn off the flash (another “unlocked” feature in Program mode). Without a flash an image may be underexposed. Using positive Exposure Compensation can adjust the exposure and correct it.
What is the flash and why control it?
For most users, the flash is a pop-up feature on the top of the camera. Some cameras do not have built-in flashes, but instead have a “shoe” where a separate flash can be attached.
In Auto mode, the camera decides if a flash is needed. It often “pops” up when you really don’t want to use it. In some situations, flashes are prohibited such as art museums. Flashes can result in washed out foregrounds and strange shadows in some situations. Flashes can wash out skin tones and create “red-eye” (when the flash light reflects of the back of the eye the subject in the photo has red glowing eyes).
Program mode will allow you to override the decision of the camera. You decide whether to use the flash or not. When paired with Exposure Compensation and the ability to set your ISO, you should be able to get the image’s overall exposure correct.
What is White Balance and why control it?
Different light sources cast different colors and this can affect your images. For example, indoor lights in a school gym can cast a yellow color. Shade can cast a blue color. White Balance is the camera’s adjustments to balance this lighting to a white light (think bright daylight) where colors are more accurate.
In Auto mode, the White Balance is selected automatically by the camera. AWB (Auto White Balance) works accurately much of the time, but once again, certain lighting situations can “fool” the camera. In Program mode you can set your own White Balance.
One way to do this is to select the type of lighting you are shooting in. For example, if I am shooting in the shade, I set the White Balance to Shade (I am telling the camera what type of lights I have in my scene). The camera then knows to balance the blue by adding some warmer tones to my image. The other way to set White Balance is by using Custom White Balance. To do this you would need a white balance card set and follow the steps in your camera manual. Custom White Balance is the best way to get consistent color across a series of images, for example a series of food images for a restaurant menu. By setting the White Balance you are giving the camera the more information about the lighting and it can use this to improve your images.
What is the takeaway?
Program mode is a great first step to getting off Auto mode. You can learn several important camera functions in this mode. If you master Program mode, then move on to Aperture Priority mode and Shutter Priority modes. Once you have those three aspects of exposure mastered individually, it will be much easier to put all three together when you finally switch over to full Manual mode.
If you’d like to try some free hands on lessons using ISO, Aperture Priority, Shutter/Time Priority, we have them on our website http://www.focusedcamera.net along with lots of free cheat sheets and tutorials.
If you’d like to take a class or workshop to “Get Your Camera Off Auto” we offer in-person and remote learning opportunities. Check out our class offerings and get in touch today!
If you are a beginner at photography, there is no rush to jump into Manual Mode. However, if you want to take on the challenge, you will need to understand exposure first. Exposure is a bit complicated, but it is a critical aspect of great photography that can be mastered if you learn the three elements (ISO, aperture, shutter speed) and how these settings are related to one another.
Let me start by saying, understanding exposure and using it to create beautiful images are two totally different things. Just like understanding the concept of time travel and actually time traveling would be two different things! Simply understanding the concept won’t improve your photography unless you practice, practice, practice!
In my beginner groups I am often asked questions similar to “What are the best manual settings for my kid’s soccer game?” My students will request basic settings for different scenarios and the answer “it depends” doesn’t exactly build confidence in my teaching skills. What this demonstrates is a beginner’s limited understanding what manual mode does, what exposure is, and that when using manual mode you can use countless combinations of settings to get the exact same exposure. By the end of this article, you will understand why "it depends" is the correct answer!
First of all, what is exposure?
The term comes from film photography. When light strikes film it starts a reaction and the amount of time the film is “exposed” to the light affects the final image. With digital cameras, exposure is the amount of light reaching your camera’s sensor.
If you overexpose, it means the film or sensor received too much light and your results are much brighter than they should be. Images that are overexposed may have bright white or “blown out” areas. Details in these areas are lost.
When you underexpose, it means the film or sensor did not receive enough light and your final image will be too dark. There will be areas that are completely shadowed and no details can be seen in those areas.
Both overexposure and underexposure can be fixed (somewhat) with editing software. Underexposed images can usually be corrected more easily than overexposed images. Either way, the editing process can result in a loss of quality. It is much better if you can get the exposure correct in the camera by using the proper settings to control exposure.
How do we control exposure?
This is where the “exposure triangle” comes in. There are three settings that interact and work together, often visualized on a triangle diagram connecting the three terms. The settings are aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
These three settings are responsible for how much light hits your sensor and therefore control exposure.
Think of the trio as a three-way see-saw. When you change one, you will have to adjust one or both of the other two to keep your exposure correct, or balanced.
We will get into this in more detail further on and I have some tools to help you, but first we need to learn a little about each element of the triangle.
What is Aperture?
The aperture is the opening inside the camera lens. The aperture setting is how big the opening is. The wider open it is, the more light gets in to the sensor. The more closed it is, the less light gets in to the sensor. Take the lens cap off your camera and look into the lens (from the front of the camera). You should be able to see this opening and some curved looking pieces that are spaced around it. These are the aperture blades. They are what move inside the lens to make the opening wider or more closed. The aperture blades work in a similar way to the human eye. Our pupils will become smaller when the light is bright to keep our vision from becoming “overexposed.” The pupil will become more open (larger) when the lights are dim or dark to try to let more light in so we can see into those shadows and areas that are “underexposed.”
The aperture scale is probably the most difficult part of understanding exposure because the numbers include decimals and the scale numbers are not intuitive. These numbers are often shown with the letter f, such as f/5. The f/ stands for f-stop (for now that is all you need to know).
The basic aperture scale is 1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, and 32.
The reason it is confusing is because smaller numbers, like f/1 are wider apertures and larger numbers like f/16 are narrow apertures. It is counter to how most people think about number scales. We usually think of larger numbers being related to larger things. Once you understand that this scale is the reverse of what we normally “think” then you will be on your way! You do not need to memorize the scale numbers.
In addition to letting in light, aperture also affects the depth of field. Depth of field is how much of your scene is in crisp or sharp focus. Wider apertures create a shallow depth of field. Narrow apertures create a larger depth of field.
More of a scene is in focus with an aperture of f/22 than at f/4. Narrow apertures (big f/#s) are great for landscape photos.
Less of a scene is in focus with an aperture of f/2. Wider apertures (small f/#s) create beautiful blurred backgrounds behind people or flowers. This blur is called bokeh. If the aperture is too wide you can “miss focus” more easily because the depth of field may be so shallow that the front part of a subject is in focus but the back part of it is not.
As an instructor, I usually recommend my students begin with Aperture Priority mode. If you are interested in a lesson on this mode and more about depth of field, check out our free lesson here and our article here. Learning Aperture Priority mode is a great first step to getting into full Manual Mode.
What is Shutter Speed?
The shutter is inside the camera body. If you have a DSLR it is behind the mirror. If you have a mirrorless, you can see it right in front of your sensor. I don’t recommend poking around inside the camera body to find these as you could damage something or introduce dust inside.
The shutter is a like a curtain. When the curtain is closed, no light is hitting the sensor (or film). When the curtain is open, it is letting light in. The shutter speed is how long we leave the curtain open. We can open the shutter (curtain) for fractions of a second, or we can leave it open for minutes.
In low light scenarios we want to allow more light to hit the sensor, so we can leave the shutter open longer to accomplish this. If your shutter is too fast (not enough time to let light in), the image will be underexposed. When it is very bright outside using a fast shutter speed will make the shutter open and close quickly so we don’t overexpose the image.
The basic shutter speed scale is 1/8000th, 1/4000th, 1/2000th, 1/1000th, 1/500th, 1/250th, 1/125th, 1/60th, 1/30th, 1/15th, 1/8th, 1/4th, 1/2, 1 second, 2 seconds, etc.
In addition to controlling light, shutter speed also affects motion or blur. A fast shutter speed will freeze motion, such as a hummingbird in flight. A slow shutter speed will allow your images to have motion blur like the soft blurry waters of a waterfall.
When using slower shutter speeds you may need a tripod and a shutter remote/release to avoid camera shake. If the shutter is slow and you move, your entire image will have camera shake blur. I recommend a shutter speed of 1/250 or faster for handheld and a good general rule is to use a shutter speed that is at least as fast as the length of the lens. For example, if using a 200mm lens use a shutter speed of 1/200 or faster.
When I give lessons, I usually recommend my students work in Shutter (Time) Priority mode right after they have mastered Aperture Priority. These two modes are great stepping stones to getting to full Manual Mode. If you are interested in a free lesson on this mode, check out our free lesson here and if you want to try some long shutter speed images (known as long exposure images) check out our article here on Fireworks photography (also good for light painting with sparklers or flashlights).
What is ISO?
ISO is the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. In the days of film, this sensitivity was related to the amount of silver grains embedded in the film. With digital cameras it is electronic sensitivity. As we “turn up” the electronic sensitivity we increase the amount of light or brightness of an image. We explain this term in depth in our article here.
The basic ISO scale is 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, 12800, 25600, and on.
On most cameras the lowest ISO is ISO 100. The sensitivity or brightness is low. We would use this setting when we already have bright light such as outdoors on a sunny day. When we move indoor and away from windows, or into a heavily shaded forest, we need to increase the sensitivity or brightness, so we turn the ISO up.
The ISO scale doubles with each doubling of light: 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, etc. Unfortunately, higher ISO settings add digital noise or “grain” to your images. Editing programs can help remove some of that grain.
How do we put the three together?
Exposure is determined by these three elements. Proper exposure requires a correct combination of these three which you can accomplish many different ways. Once you have proper exposure, if you change one element, then you must adjust at least one other element or both to keep proper exposure. Think back to the see-saw when you were a kid. If you change the one side you have to change the other to keep balance. Exposure is a little more tricky because we are balancing three things.
Look at the photo below. The camera was set to Auto so the camera chose my settings for me.
The camera selected ISO 400, Shutter 1/80th, and Aperture f/5.6. The camera will always try to select settings somewhere in the “middle.” This is where Auto mode fails. It doesn’t know what you want and the “middle” settings may not be a fast enough shutter to capture the action or a small enough aperture to get the huge depth of field you want for a landscape photo.
We can take the Auto settings and make adjustments in Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual Mode to keep proper exposure AND get the image we want.
In the example above, if there was wind and I wanted to stop the motion of the plant swaying in the breeze, I would need a faster shutter. If I increase the shutter speed, I am opening and closing the “curtain” faster so less light gets in. If I don’t change anything else, my settings would be ISO 400, Shutter 1/250th, and Aperture f/5.6 and my image will end up underexposed like the one below.
By selecting a faster shutter speed, I reduced the amount of light, but I didn't increase the light with any other settings yet. To keep the exposure triangle balanced I will have to adjust one or both of the other elements – ISO and aperture – to make up for the lost light from the faster shutter.
In an underexposed image I need to balance the exposure by increasing the light using my other two settings. I can increase ISO to make it brighter. Or I could open the aperture wider to let more light through the lens. In the image below, I changed the ISO and the exposure is now balanced again.
The final settings were ISO 1600, Shutter 1/250th, and Aperture f/5.6.
How do you know how much to move to keep the balance?
On each of the scales, one movement left or right is equal to halving or doubling of light. The increments along the scales are called "stops." So if you move one element one stop, you must balance another element with one stop. If you move one element two stops, you must balance by moving one element two stops, or by moving both of the other elements but only by one stop each.
We have designed a hands-on tool you can use to practice making exposure adjustments (see our Etsy page), but you can always make your own or use photography apps designed for this purpose. I personally learn better with a physical tool and I use these with my students.
Here’s an example of how it works:
Let's say proper exposure is achieved at ISO 400, Shutter 1/500th, and Aperture f/4. We get this reading by checking the settings the camera chooses when in Auto mode. In the picture below I have moved the sliders to these settings on the scales.
If I want a larger depth of field because I am taking a landscape photo I will need to change the aperture. I will make the aperture smaller (larger f/#) and this will reduce the light entering the camera.
I change the aperture to f/11. I have moved three stops along the scale from f/4, to f/5.6, to/f8, to f/11. This will decrease my light because the aperture is getting smaller and smaller. In the image below I have moved the aperture slider 3 stops to the right side.
Since this is a landscape and I don’t need to stop motion, I can balance the exposure by changing the shutter speed. If I leave the shutter (curtain) open longer I let in more light. How much longer? Three stops!
In the image below I change my shutter from 1/500th, to 1/250th, to 1/125th, to 1/60th on the slider for shutter speed. Three stops to the left. This balances our exposure settings.
But uh-oh! I forgot my tripod! I cannot hold the camera still enough at 1/60th so I am getting too much camera shake.
I can move the shutter speed to 1/125th to be faster (one stop to the right), but then I must change either the aperture or I must adjust the ISO by one stop to the left. I am trying to get more light to balance that faster shutter speed. Since I already have the aperture where I want it for my depth of field and the shutter speed is now set to handle camera shake, I would have to make the change to the ISO (the only element of the three I have remaining). I would increase the ISO by one stop from 400 to 800. I make these changes to my sliders by moving shutter speed slider one to the right and ISO slider one to the left to equal it out.
My new settings are now:
ISO 800, Shutter Speed 1/125th, and Aperture f/11 and I still have proper exposure! Now I can enter these settings into manual mode and my image will have the correct light and it is also adjusted for what I needed to accomplish.
As you can see I could have used a lot of different combinations to make this exposure work.
ISO 1600, Shutter Speed 1/250th, and Aperture f/11 would also balance our exposure.
Which Mode to Use?
It depends! Even professionals don't use full Manual Mode all the time. In some types of photography taking the time to fiddle with all these settings means missing the shot. For example with war/conflict, street, auto racing, or wildlife photography the action can happen quickly.
I always recommend starting in Auto Mode. Pay attention to the settings the camera selects. This will start to train you to see how these settings are related. You can get really good at this and even start to predict what settings the camera will use. Then you will be ready to learn semi-automatic modes (aperture priority and shutter priority).
Aperture priority is best when the depth of field is the most important element of the image.
Shutter priority is best when the action or motion is the most important element of the image.
At this link you can find lessons for both Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority Modes.
Use full Manual Mode after you have had lots of practice and in scenarios where you have time to adjust all of the settings without any pressure.
Learn where the exposure compensation buttons are for your camera (check the user guide, if you don’t have one get it here). With the exposure compensation feature you can override the camera’s settings to quickly make the image darker or brighter. Some cameras also offer exposure bracketing. The camera will take a series of shots typically using three or five different exposure levels.
If all else fails, you can correct the majority of issues in editing (except camera shake – that one can’t be fixed in post!).
Understanding the exposure triangle as a concept is much different than putting it into practice. The best tip that will 100% improve your photography more than anything else is daily practice. You will have to experiment with different settings and shooting modes and over time you will gain more and more control over your camera. Your images will improve and your brainpower won’t be spent on settings. You will able to put your mind to work more creatively and work on composition and exploring your artistic vision.
Now you know that what mode and what settings you use will "depend" on what you want to accomplish. You can balance the exposure using the three elements of the exposure triangle with many different combinations all "depending" on the light, the subject, and the scene.
If you are interested in some basic starting settings, our Basic Camera Settings Cheat Sheets might help. These cards provide basic lens focal lengths, suggested shooting modes and tips for 6 common photography scenarios. To learn more see our sales page. You can also purchase an Exposure Triangle tool like the one used above.
Learn more & download free photography lessons and cheat sheets at http://www.focusedcamera.net
Want your own private Photography Coach? Learn 1-on-1 with us! Prices start as low as $5 per month! For more information click here!
When you are just starting out in photography, it’s easy to pick up bad habits – and not even know they are bad habits. Kicking those habits can help you become a better photographer over time. Like most bad habits, they are easy to fall into, and take practice and conscious effort to get out off. Here are the 9 bad habits that you need to break, starting today…
1. Being Stationary.
The best way to bad photography is to root your feet like a tree! You need to move around.
If you have a zoom lens, this habit is one that is especially easy to pick up. The temptation is to “fix” the shot by zooming in or zooming out instead of moving around to get the best shot. In all cases, taking all of your images for one position or angle is going to limit your creativity and your ability to improve.
You will have to move around and change perspectives. Move the camera from landscape to portrait and tilt up and down. Move your feet closer, farther, or around to the side. You will get much more interesting shots this way!
Over time you will start to think about the end goal when composing a shot. You will start to learn which focal lengths, angles, and distances will work the best and plan for those, rather than planting yourself in one spot and relying on the zoom to adjust the image.
2. Relying on Editing to “Fix” It
It is so much easier to get the image right in the camera (but it takes practice). When taking your shots, don’t fall into the habit of thinking all those little things can be fixed in post. Move the subject to get shadows off the face, correct the settings to get the best exposure, analyze the foreground and background for trash and items you would otherwise have to “erase” later. Taking the time to move your angle so that ugly beam isn’t behind a person’s head, or a piece of trash is out of the frame, or taming the flyaway hairs on your model, will save you later in editing. You can “fix” all of those things in post, but understand that it is a trade-off and what you are giving up is improving your photographic eye.
So get as much correct in camera as you can! Relying too much on image correction will hold you back as a photographer. Additionally, wouldn’t you rather spend just a few seconds moving a piece of trash and have the time to take more photos instead of spending that time in editing?
3. Being Crooked
We don’t mean crooked as in thieving and dishonest, we mean crooked as in not level or not straight! In all your images, compose carefully. Don’t fall into the habit of rushing to get the shot. If there are vertical or horizontal lines, take the time to straighten up. The grid overlay in your viewfinder can help you with both horizontal lines (the actual horizon, tops of buildings, window ledges) and vertical lines (telephone poles or the edge of a building). Some cameras include a built in level so even when you can’t see the horizon you can still get your shot squared up.
Depending on the lens, most notably wide angles, you may find some subjects with long lines will show curvature. This may be a function of the lens and its optics or the angle of the shot creating an optical effect (intentional or not). In those cases, you may want the curve for its creative effect or you may have to use editing software to compensate and fix the curvature. The point is that images with a “tilt” because of careless mistakes can and should be avoided by composing the shot and making it level. Even a slight tilt will make an image feel “off” or distracting because our brain automatically expects the world to be level.
Tripods often feature levels to help you get your image straight on all axis points. If you don’t have a tripod try using the flat edge of something to hold your camera level, such as a wall or door frame or a railing.
If all else fails, most “tilts” and curvatures can be corrected in editing software. Here’s a quick video tutorial where we teach you how to fix a crooked horizon in Photoshop.
4. Lacking Situational Awareness
A terrible bad habit that can cause you to lose or break a camera, or worse to hurt yourself, is not having situational awareness. It is a bad habit to walk around with the camera up to your face! The lens and viewfinder do not accurately show you the depth of where you are and where an obstacle is so unless you like tripping, or falling, or dropping your camera, always take the camera down from your face to change locations or positions. Even using the LCD can be distracting enough that you could find yourself in a pitfall or stumbling over tree roots if you walk around while looking at it.
In addition, depending on your shooting location, it is a good idea to assess your surroundings every so often, especially if you are out in the wilderness. Keeping an eye out for snakes, bears, ants creeping up your shoes, and other potentially dangerous creatures is a good idea! When you are on the sidelines of a sporting match, it is equally advisable to keep a lookout for balls or players that might come crashing into your space. There have been many sports photographers injured when the play gets too close to where they were standing, not to mention damaged gear.
The solutions are simple. Keep your camera away from your face when moving, occasionally check your surroundings, and if you are in a scenario that might be more precarious, bring an additional person with you at act as a “spotter.” I used to assign photographers to sporting events and they were always assigned in pairs – one to hold the gear and keep watch, and the other to do the shooting.
5. Fumbling With the Buttons
This is a very difficult habit to break. I have taught photography and worked with cameras for years, but even I am guilty of this one. When changing your settings, try to learn to do it without having to take your eyes off the scene. This doesn’t mean you have to keep your eye up to the camera all the time (see #4 above). This means memorizing where the buttons are and how they work so you can switch them quickly and without losing focus on your subject. I have my buttons memorized and how they work, but I still want to look at my screen when I make changes! It’s a bad habit because every time I do this I take my eyes off the subject or scene which may be rapidly changing – an animal moving through the woods, the sun setting, or children playing. There is the potential of missing something important. It slows you down.
By memorizing the buttons you don’t have to take any of your mental capacity away from the subject. You can stay focused mentally on your composition and focused on the subject or scene. Memorizing the buttons takes practice. You will need to sit with your camera and practice changing them over and over. You can carve out some time to practice your settings during commercial breaks while you are watching TV. Don’t wait until a big moment is upon you and then realize you are going to miss some incredible shots because you are fumbling with the buttons between each image captured!
6. Incorrect Grip and Lack of Stability
Nothing will ruin a photograph more than blur or lack of focus, and it is the one thing that cannot really be fixed in editing. While software programs have gotten better and better and there are functions that will sharpen a photo, they are still limited in what they can do.
Blur and lack of focus are often caused by the bad habit of holding the camera incorrectly or not having the camera stable. When you hold the camera incorrectly, the lens can tip downward or wobble up and down while you are taking your shot. The proper camera hold is to grip the camera body with the right hand and support the camera underneath with the left. Tuck your elbows in and stabilize your body by keeping one foot in front of the other. Even better, use a tripod! Tripods stabilize your shots and if you use the camera’s timer you can reduce camera shake from the shutter press as well.
Most people don’t realize how much their body moves or wobbles while they are taking a photo. In some cases, your body movement from the time the camera focuses until the time the camera takes the photo can move enough to change the focus point, especially with wide open apertures. If you consistently have a lack of overall focus, it may be from body movements and using a tripod can solve the problem. Holding your breath while you take the shot also helps when shooting handheld. Faster shutter speeds can be beneficial. Your shutter speed, as a general rule, should be as fast, or faster, than your focal length. So for example, if you are using a 200mm lens, you should use a shutter speed that is faster than 1/200th of a second. In most cases, you should not shoot handheld at speeds lower than 1/90th of a second.
7. Hiding Behind the Camera
This bad habit is common among portrait photographers. Don’t give your models directions while your face is up to the camera (refer back to #4). It is very difficult to build rapport with a person when they can’t see your eyes or hear your words. Clear communication and seeing your face will help them feel more comfortable.
If you have this habit, you will need to work consciously at breaking it. Move the camera away and make eye contact while giving instructions for posing. If you need the ability to shoot rapidly and don’t want to move the camera away then learn how to shoot with both eyes open. I know it sounds really difficult, but did you know that is one of the reasons why the viewfinder is offset? It is so you can put your right eye to the viewfinder and still see around the camera with your left. Keeping both eyes open allows you to see the subject and they can still make eye contact (and it gives you more situational awareness too). It is easiest to learn this technique using 35-50mm focal lengths since those are closest to what the human eye sees. At those focal lengths what you see in the viewfinder with the right eye and what you see in the world with your left will be mostly similar. It takes practice but it can be done!
“Chimping” is photographer slang. It means to take a photo and then look at the LCD after every image (and vocalizing your satisfaction or dissatisfaction with each image). I think this bad habit is particularly difficult for beginners because as you are learning you have to look at your images to see what mistakes you made or what you need to fix (missed focus, incorrect exposure). So don’t be afraid to check your photos on the camera, it is how you will learn, but over time try to rely on that LCD less and less. Check it after every five images, or before you change locations and review several shots at once.
Here’s why checking after every capture is a bad habit – it causes you to totally disconnect your focus from the subject or scene in order to focus on the LCD. During that time you might miss a great image! Of course, it takes practice and confidence to break the “chimping” habit, but as your confidence grows you should need to check or review your images less often, kind of like taking the training wheels off your bicycle.
9. Not Learning Your Camera’s Other Functions
Learning how to set ISO, shutter speed, and aperture is only half the battle. There are autofocus types, metering modes, settings for exposure bracketing, and so much more. One of the worst habits for beginners is not reading the camera manual. I know, I know, that camera manual is boring with tiny type and lots of confusing symbols and small diagrams; however, that camera manual is a treasure trove of information!
Spend 10 minutes a day going through a section and trying all the functions and buttons and settings in that section. Don’t skip any sections, even ones you don’t think you ever use. Then go through the manual again, yes again. This time focus on the functions you think you will use the most. Try them all and take some notes. You may not remember them all (and you wouldn’t be expected to), but you will at least be aware of all the capabilities your camera has and in most cases it is amazing what they can do! Check out our previous blog post on “If Your Camera Could Talk.” It covers settings and functions that can take your photography to a whole new level. You can also enroll in professional coaching lessons here.
To Sum Up
Bad habits are so easy to fall into and it will take dedicated, conscious effort to break them. It will take work and practice to form good photography habits, but once you do they will pay you back tenfold. You will see your technique improve and with it your photos.
FTC Disclaimer: **This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking through my links
Do you have GAS? GAS is the acronym for Gear Acquisition Syndrome. It is the trap many photographers fall into, feeling the need to constantly upgrade or purchase more lenses and equipment. New equipment is always a lot of fun and often sparks some creativity at the outset, but it can get expensive and there is no reason to “break the bank.” Here’s how to save some of your hard earned money.
Rent Cameras & Lenses
There are many online rental centers for camera equipment and they feature a huge variety to choose from. You can rent for a day or for months. It does cost money to rent, but it lets you get to know the equipment and test it out. This way you can discover whether the lens or camera meets your expectations before you pay the full amount to buy it. Many local camera shops have rental centers or you can go with a national rental center, like Aperturent or BorrowLenses.
You can also rent directly from some of the manufacturers. When a new camera model comes out, manufacturers like Canon and Nikon, will sometimes offer 3-day trial rentals of the camera. They often call these “test drives” instead of rentals. If you decide to buy, the cost of the rental is deducted from the cost of the product.
Renting is also a great option when you have a photo shoot where you need a piece of equipment you might not ever use again. If you would rarely use a piece of gear, renting can be more cost effective than buying.
Borrow From a Friend
If you have friends that are photographers (either as hobbyists or as professionals), you might be able to test out a camera or lens they already bought before you buy it also. Join photography hobby groups and professional organizations, or photography sharing groups online or on social media, like Facebook. Once you get to know other group members or attend some events, they might agree to let you use a lens for a few days, or at least while you are at the event to test it out.
You may find the equipment doesn’t impress you as much as you thought it would, or that it’s not that much better than the lens or camera you already own. Either way, you can discover whether that piece of gear is the right fit for you.
Buying used gear can save you hundreds, if not thousands, over time. However, used gear comes with its drawbacks. It is used, so unless you know the seller there is a risk that the equipment will have undisclosed flaws, or worse, arrive broken when sent by shipment. There are no warranties with used gear from private sellers. Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and eBay all have used camera gear sales. We only buy used if we can personally examine and test the equipment face-to-face, but this also has inherent safety risks.
Our recommendation, when buying used, is to buy from a reputable used retailer, like KEH in Atlanta. Their equipment is inspected and rated for its level of wear and tear. You get a clear description of what you are purchasing and they offer a warranty. You can have more confidence in your purchase this way. Using this link will access their site where you can save up to 40% off regular priced used photography equipment. Other sites also offer used equipment for sale, so if you can’t find what you need at KEH, check around.
You can also purchase used gear in thrift shops where you can examine the item before you lay out the cash. Additionally, yard sales and estate sales are great places to pick up used lenses, camera bags, accessories, or even cameras. With the many adapters available in today's market you can also get inexpensive vintage lenses to add to your gear without breaking the bank.
Sell Older Gear
Perhaps you have a lens you rarely use, or you upgraded lenses and still have the old gear. Take an inventory of your gear and see if you are truly using it. There is a chance you will find gear that you have stopped using. If you have gear that is otherwise just collecting dust, consider selling it.
Most camera gear loses value over time, but really good quality lenses can keep their value a longer time. However, don’t wait too long. The longer those lenses or old cameras sit around the more money value you may lose.
You can sell your gear to resellers like KEH. They provide an easy look up tool where you can select the items you have to sell and get a preliminary estimate of your earnings without having to ship the equipment to them right off the bat.
Additionally, you can sell used gear on Craigslist, eBay, and other online sites, as well as on Facebook groups or other social media sites dedicated to photography. Personally, I prefer selling to a reputable company, versus meeting up with individuals that I don’t know or shipping items to people who have bought online.
If you are lucky, you can sell enough old gear to buy that new lens you’ve had your eye on.
Through various online photography groups you may find folks that would be willing to trade gear, either temporarily or permanently. For example, Facebook has multiple buy/sell/trade groups for photography equipment. Joining a local photography group that has monthly meet-ups is another place to possibly find a willing trading partner.
You can also trade in your gear for new gear with online sellers. Again, KEH is a reputable site where you can get a bonus towards your “new to you” purchase (10% if you buy immediately, or 5% if you opt for a KEH gift card). You can arrange your trade by phone or video chat.
Buy Third Party or Off-Brand Lenses
While Sony, Canon, and Nikon have lots of fantastic lenses, they are often expensive. Buying a third party or off-brand lens can provide significant savings.
One of my favorite lenses is the Tamron 18-400mm because of its great price and the large zoom range means I can carry one lens instead of two or three. Tamron, Sigma, and Tokina all make lenses for lower price points than the name brands and many of them are top quality lenses. Some Sigma lenses actually perform better than their name brand equivalents. A website like DXOMark that conducts testing of lenses is a great place to compare lenses to see which will have the better quality. You may find a non-name brand lens that could save you some dollars.
You can also buy non-name brand filters, tripods, batteries, accessories, and memory cards. Personally, we would not suggest third party batteries or memory cards although there are many available. Some cameras won’t function properly with non-name brand batteries and memory cards. And even more importantly, off-brand cards are more likely to corrupt, have failures, or create errors. Check your camera manual for recommended cards and stick to cards that match your camera (like Sony, Fuji, or Nikon cards) or other name brands like Lexar, PNY, or SanDisk.
Watch for Sales & Rebates
There are several times a year when you can expect sales. Typically, camera gear discounts are at their greatest at the end of summer, and after Christmas. However, you can find pre-summer and holiday deals, and sometimes there are discounts at other times of year. If you have social media, like Twitter or Facebook, follow the manufacturers that you usually purchase gear from and you will see their posts when they have sales items or rebates.
Some selling sites also feature alerts, so when certain products go on sale or a rebate is offered you will be notified, or they have pages dedicated to their current sale items (like this one). Rebates can sometimes save you a few hundred dollars. In addition, you can sign up for newsletters and marketing materials from sellers and manufacturers to make sure you don’t miss out.
Buy the Older Model
Over the course of a year, there are several conferences and events during which camera gear manufacturers will announce their new products. As soon as those models start to appear, or a little bit before, the older models they replace will start going on sale. One such conference is CP+ which is usually in late winter or early spring (Feb/Mar).
You don’t need the brand new, most shiny model. None of the improvements in the new model make your current camera or an older model obsolete. Any model of DSLR from the last 5-6 years is perfectly capable of excellent photography in the right hands (a new camera will not help if you don’t know the basics like composition and lighting). Therefore, if you need a new camera, last year’s model will be more than adequate and save you a bunch of money, too.
Don’t Overbuy & Upgrade Slowly
There are so many beginner photographers who suffer from GAS. They have their base camera and kit lens and feel the need to start purchasing other lenses.
Having a plethora of lenses can be a lot of fun and so can all those cool accessories, but they aren’t needed to get great photographs. You do not need all of that gear to get started and to learn photography. It is detrimental to your photography learning to think you need a specific camera body or lens to get a great shot. Think of it this way, if you had your hands on the most expensive camera ever made will your shots be any better if you don’t understand lighting or exposure? If you gave Ansel Adams a $100 point-and-shoot would he still take amazing images? 99% of good photography is the photographer, not the gear.
Having limited gear actually enhances your creativity. It will force you to move around, focus on composition and lighting, and help you learn. Don’t even think about buying new glass or a new camera body until you have stretched the capabilities of your current gear as far as it can go.
If you feel the need to buy an additional lens, start with a “nifty fifty” 50mm prime lens. After you truly get to know the pieces of equipment you have and have mastered those lenses, then consider adding more. The same rule applies to camera bodies. If you upgrade slowly over time you will save money. And as you upgrade, consider all of the previous ways to save we’ve already mentioned. Additionally, we would recommend adding a tripod for steady shooting, a flash for lighting, and upgrading lenses before we would recommend upgrading camera bodies.
Don’t Buy Bundles
When you buy a camera, purchase a camera body and a quality lens separately, or a camera lens combo (although the kit lenses are usually lower quality lenses they are definitely adequate for starting out). Do not buy the kits or bundles that come with a bazillion accessories like cleaning cloths, filter sets, and a cheap plastic tripod. They will claim that you are getting a great deal and loads of savings versus buying all of those items separately, but the selection of equipment in those kits is terrible, cheap quality. Most of them are also things you don’t need, but they “fill” the package to make it look like a good deal. Buy these pieces of equipment as you need them instead, and choose good quality items that you will only need to buy once.
When the time is right, there is nothing wrong with buying a fancy new camera body or a shiny new lens. New gear is always a lot of fun and can spark your creativity. But it isn’t the magic that will make you a great photographer. YOU make the photos. Spending money left and right without understanding the basics will only lead to disappointment because your images won’t get any better despite the potential debt you created.
So have a healthy relationship with your gear buying impulses and don’t let them guide your photographic journey.
Need More Help?
Need a handy reminder card to stop your impulse buying? Print the handout below.
Or when it is time to buy, do you need help figuring out what kind of camera to buy, which accessories are right for you, or what lens might be best for your photography needs? Sign up for one of our Try Before You Buy Classes or a month of coaching advice!
Click here for more lessons, cheat sheets, and helpful videos.
Think small. Really, really small. That’s macro photography in a nutshell.
Cute ladybug close ups, details of the human eye, fine hairs on a bee, and pollen grains in a flower are all visible with macro photography. That is the allure of macro photography, you get to see this semi-invisible world that’s in right front of us every day.
“Macro” photography is creating an image of a subject that is life sized or greater in magnification; it’s not just photos of small things. A “life size” image means that if your camera sensor is 1 inch and you have a 1 inch subject, that the subject or part of the subject would completely fill the frame. There are some technical aspects to sensor sizes and magnification, but we don’t need to go into those details.
What you need to know is macro photography can capture incredible details and that you can achieve this with your smartphone or DSLR using very inexpensive accessories. And bonus, you don’t even have to leave your house or yard to get amazing images!
The goal of this article will be to give you some pro tips for shooting macro, as well as a list of budget friendly accessories for both DSLR/mirrorless cameras and smartphones (iPhone and Android).
Let’s start with the “gear.”
You need your DSLR or mirrorless camera or a smartphone. Then you need one (or more) of the following types of accessories:
When purchasing any of these accessories, be sure to check carefully that they are the right size and fit for your device. If you need help, reach out to us! Or take a Macro class with us where you get to try some of this equipment first hand.
For smartphones, each of three items listed above basically do the same thing. They attach or clip on or slide over your phone’s camera and magnify the image – kind of like looking through a magnifying glass.
For about $15 you can get a small clip on lens or a band. For a bit more, you can get a lens case or set of clip on lenses that includes other types of lenses as well, such as wide angle or even telephoto. There are even some pricey options like the Moment lens and case which will set you back about $150. There are so many options, I cannot possible discuss them all, but look at reviews and sample images from buyers and compare the magnification you will get with each lens (4x, 10x, 15x) as well as how close you have to get for the lens to work (usually a few centimeters to a few inches). Make sure you get a case or clip that is compatible with your phone model. In the case of macro “bands” they are universal and just stretch over the phone including in most situations the case, too. Clip on lenses may require you to take your camera out of the case and macro lens cases require you to swap phone cases completely.
The products below are some of the smartphone accessories used for many of the images in this post.
With a DSLR or mirrorless cameras, there are options that are simply magnifiers, like those for phones. These include macro close-up filters (diopters) which screw onto the end of the lens the way a UV or ND filter would. They come in magnifications of +1, +2, +4, +10, and can be stacked, for example a +10 and a +2 together. Another options is a clip-on or add-on “lens” such as the Raynox DCR-250. The advantage of a clip-on is that you can use it on different lenses of different sizes, whereas the filters have to be bought for each different lens size. We did a review of the Raynox DCR-250 on our YouTube channel if you want to learn more about that option. Filter sets cost around $20 and the Raynox is under $75 (a bit pricey, but still far less than the cost of a dedicated macro lens).
The disadvantage of any type of magnifying accessories, whether for smartphone or camera, is distortion. Because the glass on these items is curved, you can end up with a center area that is in focus, but everything else on all the edges is blurry. The higher the magnification, the more curved the glass will be, the more distortion you may experience. This is where reading the reviews and looking at the specs of the product will be important.
In the case of extension tubes, you can purchase sets with a variety of lengths which can be used alone or in combination. Some of the less expensive extension tubes cost around $15, but these will not give you autofocus controls. More expensive versions will give you autofocus functionality. Personally, I find myself using manual focus so much when shooting macro that I would not bother to invest in the more expensive versions. (We’ll cover that manual focus stuff more in a moment).
Reversing rings allow you to put your existing lenses onto the camera backwards which then gives you magnification; however, it opens the end of your lens to dust and moisture. It is effective and works well, but it’s not my favorite option to use with expensive lenses. You can get reversing rings for under $15.
So that covers the inexpensive gear. In the photos throughout this post I will indicate which type of accessory was used for each shot.
Now let’s cover subject matter.
It can be anything really. That’s part of the fun of macro, even your boring old carpet fibers look interesting under magnification. Your yard is probably overflowing with possible subjects. Flowers and insects are common subjects in this genre. Whenever you go out looking for bugs, it is important for you to slow down and stop moving. It is only when you are still that you begin to see all the tiny life in a small section of grass or leaves of a flowering plant. If bugs make you feel “buggy” then you can find things like feathers, shells/coral, water droplets, rocks, flowers, leaves, bark, mushrooms and fungi. Inside your house on a rainy day, fabric textures, foods (like strawberries), even eyes and skin can make great macro shots.
When you get in really close, your images begin to look like abstracts. You may not be able to tell what the “whole” object is because you are focused in on tiny details. This abstract look appeals to many photographers. Another reason your images may look abstract is because of the shallow depth of field that occurs in macro photography.
So how do we shoot effectively with macro’s shallow depth of field?
Macro photography has an extremely narrow plane of focus or what photographers call a shallow depth of field. This means that a bee’s eyes may be in focus while the rest of it is not. The depth of field may be as slim as a millimeter. The larger the magnification, the smaller the area of focus. While this makes focus a challenge, it also means you get a nice blurry background. Making sure your subject is in focus is the hardest part of macro photography. You may have to focus on only a small part of the subject. For example, one petal or the center of a flower may be in focus, but the rest is blurry. This can give images a surprisingly ethereal and abstract feel (which I personally love).
Keeping your movement to a minimum while taking the photo is crucial. Any movement at all, even breathing, will quickly send your subject out of focus and result in blur. A windy day is your nemesis. You need to have good proper handhold. A tripod might help, but often with macro you are down in the grass with the tiny things where tripods become a hindrance. Instead you can use a bean bag to rest the camera on, or use a 5 section monopod in its most closed position. It is easier to steady your shots with a smartphone since they weigh less and don’t have heavy lenses attached.
Since camera shake is an issue which causes lack of sharpness, using a remote or timer with your phone or DSLR can benefit your macro shots. It can also allow you to back away from skittish subjects after you get your tripod or beanbag and camera/phone set up. Camera shutter remotes are available for both phones and DSLRs. Some apps for smartphones include timers as well.
In my experience the best way to get good focus on a subject is to set the DSLR or mirrorless to manual focus (with smartphones this step is not necessary). Then I move myself away from the subject until it blurs, then I hold my breath and slowly move forward again until just the part I want in focus becomes crisp and that’s when I snap the shot. It may take 10, 30, or even 300 tries to get it right.
If your camera or smartphone has a “burst” mode (takes photos in rapid succession), this can be used to increase your chances of landing the focus. As you move in toward the subject press and hold your burst mode. Older cameras or phones may not have this feature, in which case, just take lots of photos! Burst mode can also be helpful if the subject is moving, like a bug or a flower in a slight breeze. Don’t be disappointed if you have a lot of “misses.”
Some photographers compensate for the narrow depth of field by “focus stacking” Focus stacking is like having a macro photography “super power.” To create a focus stack, multiple images are taken at different focus points along the subject then merged (or stitched) in an editing program. The resulting image is then focused throughout. It sounds more complicated than it really is. We have a YouTube video that demonstrates the process if you are interested. Some newer cameras even have this feature built into the camera. Focus stacking can be done with traditional DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, or with a smartphone.
To do focus stacking most effectively you would use a focus slider or rail. However, focus rails are usually used in the studio in controlled conditions and not lugged out on site or into the field. I have seen examples where photographers have done a focus stack handheld (no slider or rail) or with the help of focus stacking features built into their DSLRs. Using a burst shooting mode can make a handheld focus stack easier to accomplish.
It is very difficult to do a focus stack in the field because insects move, wind makes flowers move, etc. Unfortunately, that is why some photographers “recruit” insects to be their models and then they refrigerate them to slow them down before taking photos in studio setting. I personally, do not do this and I don't recommend it.
Stationary items can also be used for a focus stack, like this sleeping snail (below) who came to no harm. As described before, move away until the subject is just out of focus, then start moving slowly toward the subject and use burst shooting take a long sequence of images until the focus has moved beyond the subject.
The benefits of manual mode and manual focus.
If you have a smartphone that is newer, you probably have a pro mode that allows manual controls as an option. If your phone is an older model you may need to download an app like Moment or Halide to get more manual control. On your DSLR or mirrorless there are settings for the mode (usually a dial on top) and for lens focusing (autofocus and manual focus -- typically a switch on or near the lens or in the menu). You can consult your manufacturer’s manual if you aren’t sure how to make these adjustments.
Manual mode always allows you as the photographer more control over your images. Whether you are using a smartphone or camera, use your controls to set a fast shutter speed for macro photography. This will help eliminate motion blur from hands shaking, breathing, wind, or if the subject is moving. Set it at 1/250 or faster for smartphone and 1/500 or faster for DSLR/mirrorless (cameras with lenses attached are heavier and more prone to camera shake, especially at the magnification levels and shallow depth of field in macro photography).
Faster shutter means you may need to make adjustments to aperture (wider for more light) or ISO (higher for more light sensitivity) to get enough light for proper exposure. Manual control lets you decide which one you want to adjust, or allows you to adjust a little bit of both. The newest models of smartphones have excellent low light technology and shooting at fast shutter speeds is usually not an issue. You may find you don't need to make any adjustments at all other than the shutter speed.
Autofocus is not the preferred method for macro, but if that is what you are comfortable with, then be sure to set your DSLR or mirrorless camera’s Autofocus Mode to Single Shot and select a single autofocus point. Keep your subject under that point. If your smartphone or app allows you to select a focus point, select one point and then keep your subject under that point.
I usually find myself using manual focus when shooting macro on my DSLR. Some of my accessories do not allow for autofocus communication and most of the time the autofocus does too much "hunting" for focus or won't focus on the right part anyway. Among macro photographers, manual focus is very normal. When I use my smartphone, the camera usually focuses just fine with the macro attachments as long as I get the proper distance between my phone and the subject. As mentioned before, I take many, many shots so that at least one of them will have the focus nailed where I wanted it.
Use your camera’s focus aids. For example, on your DSLR or mirrorless camera, use your LCD screen and zoom in (or use picture in picture if available) to check your focus. Some cameras and phone apps will allow you to turn on Focus Peaking. This feature turns on colored lines or highlights that outline the areas with the sharpest focus. It can help you get crisp focus and also help you see what depth of field you are working with.
Small working distance is a challenge.
When taking macro photos you often have a small working distance. Working distance is the distance between the front edges of lens (whether camera or smartphone lens) to your subject. This can be a small distance of only centimeters. What this means is that you have to bring your camera and lens, or phone, very close to the subject. Sometimes this distance is so close it is almost touching the subject.
It is important to understand what the working distance measurement will be for any lens or magnification accessory you purchase. You can get this information in the specification section of the item’s description. Before you buy, determine what types of subjects you might want to photograph to help you decide what working distance you need and buy a lens or accessory that fits those parameters. For example, when taking macro photos of flowers you can use a lens with 3 cm working distance, but for photos of bees or dragonflies you need to be farther away or you will scare them off.
Lighting is a challenge.
Achieving proper lighting can be difficult in any type of photography, but macro has its own unique set of challenges. When your macro lens or attachment requires you to get close to the subject, you may find the camera, smartphone, or lens is so close that it is actually blocking the light. Or you may find on bright sunny days that direct sunlight creates terrible blown out highlights and harsh shadows. How do you find the right balance?
Let’s go back to shutter speed for a moment. You will need a fast shutter speed so you have to get your light from somewhere else. With a DSLR or mirrorless, you can open up the aperture, but since depth of field is already so shallow you may not get anything but a sliver of focus if you go wide open. You can raise the ISO, but that can add digital noise or “grain” to your images. When you are on a smartphone, the manual controls are limited and aperture is usually not an option, so your only choice would be to increase ISO. None of these are great solutions because they all require some compromise in the final image.
The better solution is to shoot macro outdoors on bright sunny days and fully block your subject with your body or your other hand. This way you get the best of both worlds. You have plenty of light but no harsh highlights and shadows.
Another great option is accessory lighting or small reflectors. There are many different options and styles available that are also budget friendly. If you think you will be crawling around under bushes and in darker areas you might want to consider a headlamp. You can buy one of these at a hardware store and use it with a smartphone or DSLR.
There are special lights that clip onto your phone or attach to the end of your DSLR or mirrorless camera lens. These lights can be continuous or flash and are commonly called macro ring flashes. These are not the same as the selfie ring lights used for video conference calls or vlogging, but they do have some similarities. As an example see our video on the Neewer 550D Ring Flash for macro (this cannot be used with the Raynox DCR-250 unless you hand hold it off camera).
There are also LED lights like the Ulanzi VL49 which can be used with smartphones or DSLR/mirrorless cameras. With a DSLR or mirrorless you can attach it to the camera’s hot shoe, hand hold it, or set it up where you need light. With smartphones you hand hold the light or place it where you need light (or if you have a small “rig” for your phone you can connect it to that). Of course, you don’t have to buy any special lights, you can just use a flashlight.
Whatever lighting product you buy make sure that it won’t get in the way of what you are shooting and that it is maneuverable so you can get light where you need it. Another simple option is to get some very small reflector panels. These are used to bounce light into areas that are dark or shadowed, or to even out light.
Demonstrating scale is a challenge.
No one can truly appreciate how “close” you are to a subject if they cannot even tell what the subject is.
When composing your image or cropping your image try to make sure at least one distinguishable or familiar element is clearly visible for context and reference. For example, on a bumble bee, a close up of the fuzzy abdomen with no other reference won’t look as impressive as a close up of part of the bee’s eye or wing. Some objects lose their form completely when shown close up. In these cases a series of images taking the viewer “in” to the subject can help both identify the subject and appreciate the tiny scale.
In the image below of a tiny flower, no one would know it was only 2-3mm in size based on the final image. For this reason, photographers sometimes include water droplets or insects of “known” size like ladybugs. You can easily add water droplets to your images using a spray bottle or medicine dropper. In some cases, the image is abstract enough that the scale or knowing the subject doesn’t really matter. The same can be true when the close up is obviously a magnification even when we don’t know exactly what it is.
Camera Apps that allow you to shoot in RAW.
For all types of photography, I recommend you shoot in RAW (or even better RAW + JPEG). RAW files allow greater ability to control or fix white balance/color temperature, color saturation, exposure, and more. There are camera apps for your smartphone that will allow you to take your photos and/or edit in RAW. Lightroom, Darkroom, VSCO, and Snapseed are a few examples.
On your DSLR or mirrorless, you have to change the file type in your settings. If you have the option of RAW + JPEG you can select that as well, then you get both file types.
To Zoom or Not to Zoom?
Don’t use the zoom on your smartphone for macro. Zooming will degrade your image quality in this case. Get close to the subject. With a DSLR or mirrorless, depending on which accessory you are using, you can use a zoom lens. Just be aware with long lenses, the zoom may affect your working distance and you may find that once your accessory is in place that your focus point is literally touching the lens. If that happens, decrease the zoom. For example if your 18-200mm won’t focus at 200mm because the lens is touching the subject, then back off to 100mm and try again.
Editing your macro photos.
There are lots of editing programs that will allow you to make edits for free. These programs are available for smartphones as apps, as well as software applications for your PC or Mac. Some apps we recommend are Lightroom Mobile, Snapseed, and Pixlr. Not all apps allow RAW editing so check carefully for which features are in the free versions (and check out our videos on Best Editing Apps and Best Graphic Design Apps).
All of the editing suggestions made here may not be possible in all programs or apps, or the feature may be known by slightly different names. Make sure the app you are using is “non-destructive” meaning the changes are made to a copy, thereby keeping your original file intact. That way you can always revert back to where you started.
When editing your macro photos, first correct your white balance/color temperature. This will remove any overall color cast in your photo. Many macro photos can be improved by warming up the color temperature.
Check the exposure of the image (use the histogram if available). Make sure your details are not lost in highlights or in the shadows. If they are, make adjustments until those details begin to reappear. In the adjustments sections of your software or app, considering “painting” more light on the subject if needed. If you choose to use a vignette, be subtle with it.
Most editing programs allow you to adjust hue, saturation, luminance, or vibrance. Luminance will bring up the intensity of the pixels (similar to the “lux” slider at the top of the editing screen on Instagram) and this can benefit your macro photos. Avoid strong colors and oversaturation of colors and don’t use filters or presets. These typically do not improve macro images.
When you use sharpening, don’t overdo it. Use the masking effect to make sure you are only sharping the edges of your subject and not globally sharpening everything. Sliding sharpening to 100% is never the right thing to do.
You can, of course, make other adjustments as you feel are necessary, just use moderation.
Finally, crop your image to emphasize the subject. You are already close, so there is no need to overdo this aspect of editing either. You can use the crop feature to get rid of any distractions or to place your subject off center for dramatic effect (along a rule of thirds line) or leave it centered to create symmetry.
Hopefully these tips will convince you to try macro and help improve your images. Macro doesn't have to be expensive. You can get started for less than $20 using your phone! Of course, once you begin macro you are likely to fall in love with it. If that happens, you may want to invest in a dedicated macro lens for a DSLR or mirrorless camera. These will provide better image quality overall, but they can be quite expensive too.
In the meantime, go explore the tiny world around you and when you share your images on social media, please be sure to tag us (Twitter @focusedcamera and Insta @_focusedcamera and #photofun). We'd love to see what you create!
If your camera could actually talk to you and give you advice on how to improve your photography game, these are the 12 things it would tell you.
1. Focus Modes are not created equal and they are not scary.
DSLR camera manufacturers may have different names for their autofocus modes, but in general they all offer 3 main focus modes: Manual, One Shot/Single AF, and Continuous AF.
As a basic rule, full manual focus is best saved for professionals or after you have some experience, one shot is for stationary subjects, and continuous is for when either the camera, photographer, or subject are moving. Let’s look at each briefly.
Manual focus allows the photographer to use a focusing ring on the lens to focus the image. The camera has no control over focus at all. It is easy to “miss” your focus in this mode, especially with subjects that are moving.
Single or One-shot AF is useful for many types of photography where the subject is static or motionless. Portrait, product, landscape, and macro are a few examples. It is not a recommended choice for action, wildlife, or sports photography. In one-shot mode, the camera focuses when the shutter release is half-pressed. After focus is locked, it will stay locked as long as the buttons stays half-pressed. It will not adjust if you, the camera, or the subject moves. If you need to refocus, you must release the button and half-press it again.
This autofocus mode can be used to “recompose” the image. Center your subject, press the shutter release halfway to focus, and then while the button is still half-pressed reposition the camera to get the composition you want. Then fully press the button the rest of the way (do not lift off the button before taking the shot as this will cause the camera to refocus again). You must keep the distance to the subject the same, but this way you can position your subject on the left or right, top or bottom of the frame.
Continuous AF (known as AF-C on Nikon and AI Servo AF on Canon) is the best choice for subjects that move (or if you or the camera moves). The camera continuously checks and adjusts focus as long as the shutter release button is half-pressed. When used with continuous shooting mode (burst mode), you can take a series of images with the focus automatically adjusted in between shots. This is a great mode for kids, pets, sports, and wildlife, or anytime a subject may be moving towards or away from the camera. The camera continuously checks focus and anticipates the direction the subject will move, but it is not fool-proof. It is also not a good mode to use if you need to focus and recompose your subject, because as you move the camera it will automatically refocus.
Some cameras have a combination mode. On Canon cameras, this is called AI Focus. AI Focus is considered a multi-purpose mode where the camera switches between single and continuous as needed. If the subject is static, the camera will select one shot. If the subject moves, the camera will select continuous. This seems like a “one-size-fits-all” or “set-it-and-forget-it” mode that would be the solution to all focus needs, but it is not. While it is convenient, you are leaving the decision to the camera and the camera does not always interpret the situation properly. There can be delays as the camera switches modes and this can cause you to miss shots. It also does not work well when you try to recompose your shot. In most situations, you should select one shot or continuous depending on your subject and not rely on the multi-purpose option.
If you want a handy guide to keep in your bag, print out the cheat sheet below.
2. Please don’t fill me with cheap memory cards.
Investing in quality memory cards is important! You spend all the time and effort to pick a good camera, please fill it with good memory cards. You wouldn’t buy a Lamborghini and then fill it with cheap gas would you?
Your camera manual is the first place you should look before buying a memory card. It will provide you with the type of card (CF, SD, etc.), and a list of suggested/compatible memory cards and their card classification. Once you check compatibility, there are several other factors to consider.
The next factor to keep in mind is capacity. More capacity isn’t always better. If you have a small point and shoot with small file sizes, you would probably never need a memory card that holds 8,000 images. You would be paying for capacity you never use (like buying a 8 bedroom home and only using one of them). Consider your shooting style and file sizes to pick a card with the capacity you will use. For example, if you plan a trip to Italy, you might want a different smaller capacity card for each day so you can keep your images and locations organized. However, if you do video or large file sizes you might need one larger capacity card so you don’t have to split your work session onto two different cards.
Next, consider the writing speed. This affects how quickly the card can store the images as you shoot. And higher read speeds will speed up file transfers and workflow efficiency once you get back to your computer. Look for write speeds of at least 30-60MB/s and for video over 60MB/s is even better.
Look for a card that can withstand repeated use. Check for the number of duty cycles (10,000 or more). This represents the lifespan of the card in terms of the number of insertions and removals (with reading and writing of files). Try to find a card with ECC (Error Correction Code) which can help detect and fix transfer errors, as well as “wear-level management” which writes data evenly across the card potentially preventing sections of the card from corruption from excessive wear.
Lastly, depending on your photography genre, you might also need to look for a card that has increased durability, such as water resistance, can last in extreme temperatures, or survive drops and crushing.
Excellent resource from B&H Video:
3. Don’t blame me for things that aren’t my fault.
Sharpness in your images has little or nothing to do with the camera or camera sensor so don’t blame the camera. Lack of sharpness is either because of the photographer (camera shake, missing focus) or because of the lens. Every lens has a “sweet spot” and all lenses are not equally sharp at all focal lengths and distances.
Lack of sharpness may be related to the lens, but even more likely, it is the fault of the photographer or not understanding the difference between sharpness and depth of field (focus). Knowing how aperture and depth of field work are critical to getting good focus and crisp images. We’ve covered these concepts in other blog posts in the past:
4. We like to feel secure (just like you).
Your camera likes to be adequately secured. Nothing will “end” a camera’s life faster than a 5 or 6 foot drop out of your hands or off of an unstable tripod.
When using a tripod, make sure you purchase a sturdy tripod that is built to hold the weight of your camera and lens. After you invest all that money into camera and glass, don’t skimp out on investing in the tripod, getting one that will last and is constructed out of strong materials. There is such a thing as “catastrophic tripod collapse” and it is just as bad as it sounds.
If you are a tall person, be sure to buy a tripod that will get to your height using the legs only, without the need of the center column. Using the center column extended is usually a bad idea. It makes the tripod more unstable and more prone to tipping over.
Learn the proper hand grip for holding a camera. Two handed grip is always more secure! One hand on the camera body and one hand supporting the camera/lens from underneath. If you have a mirrorless camera, there are “grips” sold as accessories for some models to make them easier to hold.
Get a neck strap, wrist strap, or sling strap. These clip to your camera so that even if you lose your hand grip the strap can save the camera from dropping.
Lastly, never walk around with the camera up to your face/eyes. This is a sure way to trip and drop your equipment.
We can help you pick the right gear for your needs. We even have “Try Before You Buy Classes” where you can test different equipment and leave with a customized list of recommended gear for your photography genre and style! And in an upcoming blog post we will share some tripod buying tips.
5. You don’t need to ditch me for a new model
Camera manufacturers make lots of money every time they get you to buy a whole new camera. The honest truth is you don’t need to buy a new model, get an upgraded model, switch to mirrorless, or even have a DSLR camera to get great images. Any camera type (even crop sensor and low megapixels) or model (even a phone!) is capable of quality results when in the right hands. Think about it this way, if you gave Ansel Adams a point-and-shoot camera or your phone, he’d probably still create fantastic images. Give a beginner the most expensive camera on the market and their images won’t be that good. You are better off to work on upgrading your knowledge base and invest in better lenses.
Some often overlooked aspects of photography that will improve your photography game are composition, lighting, and exposure (not just the exposure triangle). Take time to analyze images you like and learn all you can about how they created it. Join photography learning and sharing groups where you can get constructive criticism and ask questions. Get some old fashioned books on these subjects. The underlying concepts behind good lighting and proper exposure don’t change, so these books can be used editions that you can pick up inexpensively from resellers.
If you’d like to read up on some Composition Basics, see our previous blog post or consider taking a Composition Basics Text message class (1 month for $5).
The other way to improve your photography is to buy better glass. “Faster glass” with wide maximum apertures, crisp prime lenses, and fixed aperture zoom lenses for full frame cameras are good places to start. However, it is easy to fall into “GAS”—known as Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Afflicted photographers find themselves unable to resist the temptation of buying more and more photography gear (ex. lenses). Save up and buy one good lens for each prime focal length or zoom range that serves well for your photography style and that is it. Once you have a great lens that covers the 24-70mm range, a 35mm prime, and a 50mm prime, you really don’t need a 35-70mm zoom because you already have it all covered with what you already own.
This link will take you to see some great examples of images posted on 500px that were taken with point and shoot cameras: https://iso.500px.com/15-awesome-photos-captured-on-point-shoot-cameras/
6. Know my size. Am I full frame or crop?
Camera sensors come in different sizes. Larger sensors are usually in larger camera bodies and smaller sensors are usually in smaller, more lightweight and compact camera bodies. But that is not the only difference. The sensor size and camera type can affect what lenses you can use and they will definitely affect how that lens performs.
Some full-frame cameras are not compatible with crop sensor lenses which are constructed for optimal performance on smaller crop sensor camera bodies. Trying to use them on a full-frame could cause damage to your camera. See your manufacturer’s camera manual to see which types of lenses you can use.
On the other hand, you can use full-frame lenses on crop sensor camera bodies, but the image will be cropped to the smaller size of that sensor. The “crop sensor effect” refers to how the resulting image appears as if it was taken using a longer focal length lens. For example, a 50mm full-frame lens on a full-frame camera will give you a greater angle of view than using that same lens on a crop sensor camera. On the crop sensor camera the angle of view is more similar to an 80mm lens. If you full-frame camera does have a setting that allows you to use the crop sensor lenses safely, then it will still have this cropped view since the lens was design to cover a smaller sensor size. Our blog article “FocusEd on Focal Lengths” goes into this in a bit more detail and the cheat sheets below can help you see the concept visually.
7. My Self-Timer isn’t just for “selfies.”
The self-timer camera function allows you to set the shutter to release after you have stepped away from the camera. Depending on the manufacturer and model, this is most commonly a two second timer or a 10 second timer, but there could be other options. Most often, the timer is used so that you can get a picture with you in it. You set the 10 second timer then jump into the frame before the shutter releases.
However, there are other great uses for this timer, the main one is that it can be used to reduce camera shake. With your camera set up on a tripod, set the timer for the 2 second delay. This way your actual finger press up and down on the shutter are not vibrating the camera as the image is taken because the image is taken a few seconds after the shaking is done. This is especially helpful for longer exposures and will ensure your images are as crisp as possible.
For instructions on how to use low key lighting and your camera's timer to make images like the one below, sign up for our mailing list.
8. Know the different File Formats I offer
Most cameras allow you to choose whether your images are saved in RAW (NEF, CR2, etc) or JPEG, as well as the size of the JPEG files – small, medium, or large. These choices affect your final images, how you can edit them, and the size of enlargements you can create while still maintaining a quality image.
RAW files should never be left RAW. They need to be edited in a program like Photoshop or Lightroom, otherwise they may look a bit dull.Then they can be saved in a format like PNG, or JPEG, to be shared on social media.
Shooting in RAW has many advantages in post processing. A RAW file contains all of the data from in the camera which allows you to recover shadow and highlight details, choose white balance, apply LUTs and profiles, choose your own level of sharpening and noise reduction, and more. RAW files are like negatives and allow you to make edits that are non-destructive, meaning you can revert back to the original at any time. They are “lossless” files and don’t have compression issues. JPEGs are simple, ready to go files. You have less editing ability and you should never edit a JPEG, save, then reopen and edit more and save again. Each time a JPEG goes through this process it loses detail to compression which leaves artifacts in your image (simply opening and closing without making changes or saving does not create loss). Shooting in RAW+JPEG gives you the best of both worlds (but it does use more memory so consider that when buying memory cards). You end up with a “ready to go” JPEG file that you can post and saves time, but you also get the “digital negative” of the RAW file that you can edit when you do have time later on.
Some people will tell you that editing is cheating. Basic editing like correcting white balance, improving the color (by bringing down highlights or changing vibrance), sharpening, or applying noise reduction is not cheating. JPEGs are RAW files where the camera has made all of those post processing decisions and applied them for you. RAW files allow you to make those decisions and apply those changes yourself. Post processing can be time consuming, so if the image looks great in JPEG then save time and just go with it!
9. Use my AE/AF Lock feature!
AE/AF lock is a commonly overlooked button. Auto Exposure (AE) lock will freeze the exposure and Auto Focus (AF) lock will lock the focus. These can both be helpful for recomposing a shot for difficult lighting or when a focus point does not exist where you want focus to be.
Have you ever tried to take a photo where the camera can’t decide whether to choose the lighting of the sky or the lighting of the person or landscape for the exposure? Half press your shutter while focusing on the area you want to base your exposure from. Hold the AE lock button and keep holding the half pressed shutter. Reposition the camera and fully press the shutter. The exposure will stay locked where you set it.
AF lock works similarly, except for focus. Have a shot where you want something in the foreground in focus and the camera keeps switching to the background or it won’t focus because there is no focus point on that spot? AF lock is the solution. Lock your focus, then recompose your shot.
Not all cameras have an AF lock button. If you are using one-shot/single focus the half-press of the shutter button functions as an AF lock. A separate AF lock button is only helpful if you are using a continuous/servo, or combination/hybrid mode. (See #1 – Focus Modes above).
These buttons are located in different places on different models and brands and may have slightly different names (or in the case of Canon AE-L is an asterisk * symbol). In some cases you may have to assign which function you want the button to use. Consult your camera manual for guidance and see the photo below for some examples of these buttons.
Your camera may also have an AF-ON button. This can be used for “back button” focus which allows you to set the camera focus button in this position instead of on the shutter release. The shutter release will no longer control focus. Focus will only activate using the AF-ON button. You won't know whether you will love or hate back button focus until you test it out, but many pro photographers use this feature.
10. I can save you so much time in editing, if you just spend a little time getting to know me.
Metering Modes, Histograms, White Balance, and Exposure Compensation all sound complicated (or terrifying), but a few times using these with your camera manual in hand and your images will be so much better in the camera that when it is time to edit there is much less to do!
Metering modes are how your camera chooses proper exposure. Your camera’s built in light meter then uses this mode/setting to indicate whether you are under or over exposed.
Common modes for metering are Zone, Partial, Averaging (or Matrix), Center, or Spot. Spot metering does exactly like it sounds. It takes a light reading from one small spot of the frame. The is most useful when there is one important area you want to make sure is properly exposed, like the face of a person. Matrix/Averaging tries to balance exposure by averaging the brightest/lightest and darkest parts in the frame. Landscapes are one example of where this metering mode can be very useful.
Perhaps in a future blog post we will go into metering modes in more detail, but for now, your camera manual is your best resource.
Once you understand basic metering, know that sometimes the camera exposure is not what you want – you want darker or lighter. This is where exposure compensation comes in. You can adjust more positive (lighter) or negative (darker) exposure. Not all cameras have this function. Those that do, most often allow you to make adjustments of 3 stops of light (positive or negative). How the camera creates this compensation will depend on what mode you are in. For example, if you are in Aperture priority, the camera will adjust ISO or shutter speed, but not the aperture. In shutter priority mode, it will adjust ISO or aperture, but not the shutter speed. A few practice sessions with your camera manual and you will have this function in your arsenal of tools to use in complicated lighting situations. The exposure compensation button is usually a square symbol with a plus and negative inside. You will need to consult your camera manual for the location of this feature and how to operate it.
Now, you have exposed your image, it’s time to review it. Learn how to read the histogram. The histogram is that scary looking graph that sometimes pops up after you take a photo (you may have to go into settings to be able to view this on your LCD after each shot). This graph represents all of the pixels in your image based on each shade of gray (the camera basically looks at all colors as grays – that’s why there is that 18% grey card in white balance card sets – but this is a whole topic all its own). A good exposure still has details in the darkest and lightest areas and on a graph this might look like a bell shaped curve, or even multiple spikes along the graph center, but not at the extreme left and right . If you see a graph where a lot of pixels are all the way over on the left (black) or all the way over on the right (whites), then “clipping” has occurred. This means the details of the image in the dark and light areas will be lost and most likely cannot be recovered in editing either. A “blown out” white sky is a common example of this. A few basic histograms are show below.
11. I need you to pick Focus Points/Autofocus Area Modes or I will have to pick for you (and I am not really very good at this).
One final, overlooked area in your settings are Focus Points and the Autofocus Area Modes. Again, these sound scary, but they aren’t and once you know how to use them they will help you achieve crisp focus! These are not the same as setting Auto focus (Servo/Continuous, One-shot) or Manual focus from our first section above, and this is not the same thing as selecting a Metering Mode. Metering modes as discussed above are related to light and exposure.
Your camera allows you to specifically pick which parts of the image you want to have in focus by using Focus Points. Focus points are the spots that cover your frame of view and blink or light up when you half press the shutter button. (If you have never seen this “blink” you may have it turned off in your camera settings). Unless you make a selection, all off these points are active by default. Having all of these points active or “on” might seem like a great idea, but it does not mean the camera is focused in all of those places. They are active, but when you go to take a photo the camera will select one of them, usually whatever it locks focus on first, whether that is your intended subject or not. Often it is the wrong point or wrong part of the subject and that is where choosing your point or Autofocus Area becomes important.
There are three common modes for selecting an Autofocus Area among most camera models and brands.
Single Point AF Area means you are selecting one single focus point. If you want a “set it and forget it” setting, then you’d be best off to choose this one and select the center point. The center point is most accurate and as long as you always put your subject smack in the middle then it should work 90% of the time (as long as you ½ press and make sure your camera locks focus before you take the shot). With Single Point AF the camera will focus on the subject under the selected focus point only. You can select which point this will be. This mode is best for stationary subjects like portraits, landscapes, macro, studio work like product photography, and architecture.
Dynamic or Expansion AF Area expands your point selection. The camera will focus based on information from surrounding points if the subject wobbles or moves slightly from the selected focus point. Many newer cameras allow you to choose how large of an “expansion area” you want. A smaller area (9 points) would be useful for predictable movement, like runners on a track. A larger area (21 or 51 points) is more useful for erratic and unpredictable or very quick movements, such as soccer players or birds in flight. Therefore, the Dynamic Mode is great for wildlife and sports photography. Of course, you will still need to pan or “track” your subject by moving the camera along with your subject to keep it inside the selected focus area.
Automatic AF Area is just like it sounds. This mode lets the camera make the decision about which point to use and what area to focus on. Unfortunately, the camera can focus on the wrong area. It decides what area is most important and it may give priority to a bicycle rider behind your child on the swing. This mode is best for beginners or when you need quick focus on something that is easy and close to you.
Your camera may also have a Group AF Area or even Eye AF, and new modes are being developed and added all the time. Some additional details about these are in the cheat sheet pictured below.
12. Shoot more than you need, because unlike film, digital is basically free.
Digital photography gives you a freedom that traditional film photographers never had. They didn’t know for certain how their images would turn out until they were in their darkroom waiting for their composition to appear. Nowadays, you can review your images, but even then, those little LCDs will lie like politicians, and when you get home you come to realize that you missed your mark. So consider all the previous tips in this blog and use some of those settings to lower the risk of this happening to you.
Shooting more than you need doesn’t mean 18 straight shots of the same thing without making any changes. It means take lots of photos with some adjustments in between each one. Shoot in burst/continuous mode or change the exposure with exposure compensation. Try a different metering mode, adjust your angle, or use a different auto focusing mode, AF point, or focus area mode. Shoot in RAW for more post processing/editing options (or even better RAW + JPEG)! If you are ever unsure about your results, shoot more than you need. It costs very little and whatever that cost is will be worth it when you only have one opportunity to catch the moment.
What is ISO? What does ISO mean when it comes to photography?
First of all, let’s get the pronunciation part out of the way. You will hear people pronounce ISO as “eye-so” or “eye-ess-oh.” The correct pronunciation is “eye-so.” Some may argue that ISO stands for International Standards Organization and therefore as an acronym it must be “eye-ess-oh.” This is incorrect. The actual corporation is the International Organization for Standardization and the founders gave themselves the short name ISO from the Greek “isos” which means “equal.” Since ISO is short for “isos” it would obviously be pronounced like a word and not as an acronym. You don’t pronounce all the letters of a word unless you are spelling it. Therefore ISO is pronounced “eye-so.”
Now why is the photography term ISO (which is part of the exposure triangle) related to this corporation anyway?
The International Organization for Standardization sets standards for all sorts of manufactured products, including film and photography products. Their purpose is to make sure everyone around the world uses the same measurements and regulations and thus whatever product you get in one nation is “equal” to what you would get in another nation on the other side of the world. For example, the steps on ladders and stairs in factories are standardized. Imagine what would happen if every staircase used different distances between steps. Lots of accidents! We take for granted that printer paper size is always 8 ½ x 11 (in the US) or that a 3-hole puncher will punch 3 holes in the same places. These “standards” are the work of ISO.
Many decades ago, there was a need to standardize film speeds. Enter ISO. They created a system to numerically measure film’s sensitivity to light. There were also a competing standards known as ASA and DIN which were combined into ISO standards in 1974. So since the 1970s no matter where you bought film and no matter what brand, you were assured that it would work in your camera the exact same way. Boxes of film were sold in 4 common speeds (and some faster and slower speeds that were not as popular). These speeds were 100 (slow), 200 (slow), 400 (fast), and 800 (high speed).
Now don’t be confused by the word speed – this rating system has nothing to do with shutter speed! So what is film speed then?
The film speed indicated how sensitive the film was to light. The slower the film, the less sensitive it was to light. You would use a slow film speed when you already had good lighting, like a bright sunny day. You didn’t need the film to be sensitive to light because you had plenty of it. The faster the film, the more sensitive it was to light. You would need a faster film when you had darker or low light conditions (or for fast moving subjects). You wanted the film to react more intensely and more quickly to the limited light you had.
How do the “speeds” of film work? How did they get the film to react to light differently on those different speeds of film?
Film was created with millions of light-sensitive silver halide crystals called “grains” on the surface. A film that was slower/less sensitive had less “grains” on it. A film that was faster/more sensitive had more “grains” on it. A faster film picked up more light, but it was also more visible in the final image. Once the film was developed, images that were shot using 800 speed film appeared grainy compared to 100 speed film. The grain in a developed film image is from the crystals of silver on the film.
How do the “speeds” of film relate to digital photography?
Today’s DSLR cameras use a sensor instead of film with silver halide crystals. Digital cameras convert the light that enters the camera and hits the sensor into a digital signal. The digital (or electronic) signal is then converted or processed into a visual image. On a digital camera, increasing the ISO setting “turns up” the signal. As the signal is amplified, the increased electrical charge makes the sensor more sensitive to light, but as a consequence digital noise is created. Digital noise has a noticeable “grain” to it that is similar to what is seen in higher speed films. The digital noise may be luminance noise which affects the brightness of pixels (but not the color) or it may be chroma noise which is highly undesirable. Chroma noise consists of colored grain or specks. While both of these can be mitigated to some extent in post editing programs like Photoshop or Lightroom, at a certain point the image quality becomes significantly degraded. The threshold of where this degradation takes place will vary depending on the camera’s processor, sensor size, and megapixel count. Additionally, noise reduction processing is now built in to some digital cameras.
How does the size of your camera sensor and the amount of pixels affect how much digital noise you see?
On a point-and-shoot camera the sensor is very small. It is larger on a compact camera and largest on a full frame camera. When you pack a bunch of pixels into a smaller sensor area you will produce more grain. As you increase the ISO on a point-and-shoot camera you will get noise at a lower ISO than you would with a compact camera. And as you increase ISO on a compact camera you will get noise at a lower ISO than you would with a full frame camera. The larger sensor of a full frame camera allows for lots of pixels and larger pixel size. These larger pixels are more capable of gathering light so the reduced electrical charge required in low light does not create as much digital noise.
So what does all of this mean for your photography?
ISO is one of the three aspects of the Exposure Triangle. Knowing what you now know, that higher ISO creates grain in your images, you will want to try to keep the ISO as low as possible. This means you may have to balance the aperture and shutter speed (the other parts of the exposure triangle) to get proper exposure.
Just like in film, ISO 100 is only good when you already have lots of light. If you don’t have lots of light you will have to open up the aperture (small f/#) or increase shutter speed, or both. Depending on your subject, this is not always possible and adjusting ISO may be the only solution.
Here are a few scenarios. You want to keep ISO low, but it isn’t very sunny. You can use a longer shutter speed as long as your subject is stationary like a landscape or a flower. But if you subject is moving, like at a sporting event, you may have to adjust the aperture, or increase the ISO. You can open up the aperture to f/5.6 or maybe even f/4, but if you widen it to f/2 you may end up with a depth of field that is too shallow to get your entire subject in focus. The Exposure Triangle is a balancing act, like a 3-way see-saw, and sometimes increasing ISO will be the only way to get the image. (See our website for a free Exposure Triangle "Sliders" Cheat Sheet)
Doubling your ISO from 100 to 200, for example, doubles the amount of light sensitivity. Therefore you only need half as much light from your other settings, so you could change the aperture from f/4 to f/5.6 to get greater depth of field, or you could change to a faster shutter speed from 1/125 to 1/250th. Sports photographers will consistently use higher ISO settings than landscape photographers. Photographers that photograph in low light situations will consistently use higher ISO settings than photographers that always take photos of flowers on sunny days.
What is the takeaway?
Lower ISO is always better for your image quality. Increasing ISO will add noise to your images (how much noise will depend on the ISO level and the camera specs). Just remember, when faced with a choice of getting the shot versus only using low ISO, always get the shot even if you have to turn the ISO way up!
If you’d like a hands-on lesson with some practice using ISO settings check out the Free Lessons section of our website. There you will find lessons on aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and more.
All this talk about film bringing on some nostalgia? Want to try some old fashioned film photography?
Pull out that old vintage film camera or purchase one online! You can easily find vintage film cameras to purchase online from many sellers like Tommy's Camera Shop on Etsy, used sellers like KEH (affiliate link), or on Ebay. Film is available at B&H Video and Adorama. You need fast film for overcast days, fast moving subjects, or low light. For fast speed films, try Ilford HP5 Plus 400 or Kodak Portra 400. For very low light, try Kodak T-Max P3200. You can use low speed film for situations with lots of light, such as very bright days. Try Ilford Pan F50 or Ilford FP4 Plus 125. You can use these handheld, but a tripod can help reduce camera shake. Good luck!
In discussion groups and photography groups you see questions about lenses from shoppers and the number one thing they want to know is if a lens is “sharp.” What many beginning photographers don’t understand is that lenses are not sharp at every aperture value and at every possible distance (especially with zoom lenses). Therefore the responses one gets on these forums will likely be very subjective and based upon that photographer’s experience and how they use that lens. If a person reports a lens is "not sharp" they may not be giving you accurate information. Every lens has a “sweet spot” and sharpness is often confused with depth of field. This article will help clear up that confusion and help you figure out what your lens' "sweet spot" is and how to find it.
First, some background information, no lens is ever perfectly sharp. Lenses are designed for maximum performance based on what manufacturers believe the main function of that lens will be. For example, if you purchase a zoom 70-200mm lens, the manufacturer might assume that the main use of that lens will be at the 200mm end of the range and they will maximize its performance for that focal length. A lens that is a macro lens will be maximized for close up shooting distances. Never purchase a lens and expect perfect sharpness at every distance, aperture, and zoom level. Know what you will be using the lens for and buy a lens designed for maximum performance for that purpose.
Another common point of confusion for beginning photographers is understanding the difference between sharpness and focus (or depth of field). Sharpness is related to resolution and depth of field is related to how much of the image is in focus from foreground to background. When you are first learning photography you will probably hear the advice that if you want more of your image in focus to use a narrow aperture (larger f/# like f/11 or even f/16). While generally this is true, greater depth of field (or focus) does not always mean more overall sharpness.
A quick side note: Using smaller apertures will increase depth of field, but the depth does not increase equally in front of and behind the subject. Instead when you stop down your lens, the increase in the depth of field behind your subject will be almost twice as much as in front. In other words if the overall depth of field increases to 20 total feet, about 1/3 (~7 ft) of this will be in front of the subject and the remaining 2/3rds (~13 ft) behind the subject. (If you need a refresher or introduction to depth of field and hyperfocal distance check out our previous blog posts).
I took three photos of a flowering tree using f/4, f/5.6, and f/22. The photo at f/4 has the most narrow depth of field and the photo taken at f/22 has the widest depth of field, while the f/5.6 (not shown) would be somewhere in between. While there is more in focus (greater depth of field) in the photo taken at f/22, it is probably not as sharp compared to the in-focus parts of the same picture taken at f/5.6.
We can examine the sharpness by "pixel peeping" and looking at only the areas that were in the zone of focus. We should find that the image is sharper at f/5.6 and less sharp at f/4 and f/22. The image taken at f/5.6 will appear “sharper” even though more of the area of the scene (depth of field) is in focus at f/22.
Now let's actually take a look at those images below. The series of shots was taken from the same location and only the aperture was changed. These are parts of the same photos shown above that demonstrated depth of field taken at f/4 and f/22 (plus the additional shot at f/5.6). Note that the original images were already cropped and then I further cropped in on just one flower that was inside the depth of field (in the area of focus). At this "pixel peeping" level we can compare the sharpness. Remember that when not cropped to show detail, each of these photos "looked" sharp and in focus in this area of the image. The focus and focus point were not changed in between shots so any differences you see are not because of a focusing issue. We can see that none of the images are perfectly sharp, but the one in the middle is the best. The issue/difference between these images occurs because of the internal workings of the lens. All those glass elements have to align and at different apertures the quality differs.
Lenses are “softer” at both extremes of aperture – wide open and mostly closed. The details in an image won’t be as crisp or “sharp” when shooting at the maximum apertures like f/1.4 (or in the case above with my lens at f/4), or at minimum apertures like f/22. Both extremes are equally deficient when it comes to sharpness. As a general rule the maximum sharpness, or “sweet spot” of a lens is 2 to 3 stops from the maximum aperture of that lens. So for example, if the maximum aperture of a lens is f/2, then the “sweet spot” would be between f/4 and f/5.6.
The lens used for the photos above has a maximum aperture of f/4. Therefore the "sweet spot" should be between f/5.6 and f/8. The image at f/5.6 gave good results, but with further testing, I believe this lens would probably be sharpest around f/6.7 or f/7.1 which is about one and 1/2 stops above the maximum.
Once you know the range of where the “sweet spot” should be, it is easy to conduct a test to find it with more precision. To conduct the test you will need to use Aperture Priority Mode. In Aperture Priority mode we can set and test the aperture and the camera will set the ISO and shutter speed.
If you are unsure of how to switch to Aperture Priority and how to change the aperture settings in that mode, you may need to consult your camera manual (we have most manufacturers’ links here). If your camera allows you to use one-half or one-third stops, make sure that is selected in your settings.
To perform a test to find the “sweet” spot of your lens, first find the maximum aperture of the lens and add one half or one full stop to that number to use as your starting point. If your lens has a maximum aperture of f/3.5 (most kit lenses), then start at f/4.8 or f/5. If your lens has a maximum aperture of f/2, then start at f/2.4 or f/2.8.
Go outside in good sunlight. Use a tripod or something to stabilize the camera and to keep it in position between shots. You will need to take photos of something that is about 10 feet away (like my sample images of the flowering tree) and make sure your focus point is on that object. You will not recompose or refocus in between shots (after getting your focus point you can change over to manual focus to make sure your focus point stays set).
Start by taking a photo with the aperture at your starting point (from above). Then turn the aperture dial 2 or 3 clicks narrower (bigger f/#) and take another photo. Then turn the dial a few more clicks and take another photo. Take test shots from your starting point up to about f/11.
By taking a test shot every 2-3 clicks you will be sampling a range of f/stops that include some half and third stops. The “sweet spot” may not be at a full stop like f/5.6. If your camera only has full f/stops, then take sample test shots at each full stop.
Now it is time to "pixel peep." Upload your photos and zoom in on each one. Examine the area of the photo that contains the object you focused on (that was about 10 feet away) and examine that same area in every photo. You should be able to tell which aperture gave you the sharpest image.
You can then repeat the test using the range of apertures in 1/2 and third stops around that aperture to further narrow it down. In my test above f/5.6 was the sharpest, but to really narrow it down I would test again starting at f/4.8 using every increment up to about f/7.1 (I already had an image at f/8 that was not as sharp so I know I can stop before that point).
Once you know the "sweet spot" make a note of that aperture for that lens. Repeat for different lenses. Each one will have a different “sweet spot” but typically the maximum sharpness will be about 2 stops above the maximum aperture, somewhere in the range of f/4 – f/10.
If your lens is a zoom lens the sharpness and “sweet spot” may not be identical throughout the zoom. For example, I have a Tamron 18-400mm and the maximum sharpness at 18mm may not be the same aperture setting when shooting at 400mm.
We could not ever hope to detail all the possible parameters for every lens in the marketplace in a short article like this, but we can offer a little general advice. If you are ever out and about and need a sharp image and you are not sure what the “sweet spot” of a particular lens is, then use Aperture Priority Mode and take a series of photos from f/4 through f/11 and you will have all your bases covered!
Another often overlooked way to help improve image quality and sharpness is to use a tripod and a shutter remote. These reduce camera shake.
So in summary, shooting with a wide open apertures may result in reduced sharpness in your images. Additionally the narrow depth of field can be difficult to work with. At very low apertures this depth can be less than an inch and can cause one part of a face, like the eyes, to be in focus and the nose out of focus.
When examining your images to trouble shoot a “non-sharp” image, consider both the depth of field (focus) and sharpness (resolution) as separate factors even though both are related to aperture. Decide if the lack of “sharpness” you see is due to missing your focus point while using a very narrow depth of field, or if it is an overall resolution issue due shooting at the extremes of the lens’ aperture range.
Knowing that your lens has a “sweet spot” and how to find it can help improve your images overall, but much about photography comes down to compromise. Just because your lens has a “sweet spot” doesn’t mean you should always use that aperture. When out in the field you may have to decide which is more important; maximum resolution (sharpness) or depth of field. It may be that you want the wider depth of field for a landscape shot and to get that you may have to sacrifice some level of sharpness. Also, remember, that to see the difference in sharpness you may have to “pixel peep.” The actual difference in sharpness between two images in normal print sizes may not even be that noticeable to the naked eye (even though they are there). “Pixel peeping” can become a dangerous obsession. Don’t let the search for optimal sharpness interfere with your creativity and the fun and joy that photography can provide.
Are mirrorless cameras the way of the future? Are DSLRs going the way of the Dodo bird? Which is better?
The question of which is better, like so many other questions in photography, does not have a “right” answer and is subject to much debate. Similar to the debates of Canon vs. Nikon or film vs digital… there are merits on both sides.
Those that are pro-mirrorless will focus on the simple mechanics, fast and quiet shutter speeds, and slim lightweight design. DSLR fans will claim, the larger camera body is more functional to grip and that optical viewfinders are better than their electronic counterparts.
One thing I have learned over the years is that much of photography is about compromise. We compromise depth of field for lower ISO, or we sacrifice the crisp images of multiple prime lenses to be able to carry just one lightweight zoom in our camera bag. The choice between DSLR and mirrorless is no different.
Camera manufacturers are well aware of the pros and cons of both traditional SLR/DSLR and mirrorless cameras and are working to make adjustments to their new cameras so the gap between the two technologies is constantly narrowing. For example, Canon’s R5 mirrorless offers one of the best autofocus systems, which traditionally was a DSLR advantage.
This blog post will discuss some of the pros and cons of each camera type. First let’s start off with defining the difference mechanically.
An SLR or DSLR uses a system that includes a mirror and a penta mirror (or pentaprism) which allows the photographer to see what is coming through the lens. The mirror reflects the view through the lens up and into the prism which then projects the image into the viewfinder. The mirror flips up and the shutter unit opens and closes when you take an image so the film (SLR) or sensor (DSLR) can be exposed.
A mirrorless camera does not have a mirror and penta mirror. Instead the light that is hitting the sensor is sent to an electronic viewfinder as a digital rendering of the image. The “live view” exposes the sensor when you take an image and there is no mirror in the way (so only the shutter must open and close).
The way the sensors work in both systems is the same, so the actual image quality between a DSLR and a mirrorless is theoretically identical (assuming the two cameras are using the same sensor type/size).
The type of viewfinder is thus the first area where we see pros and cons to each system.
DSLRs use an optical viewfinder to preview an image. This combined with the mirror and penta mirror give an exact view of what the camera will capture in the scene when the photo is snapped. Most DSLRs today also feature an LCD or Live View to preview images.
Mirrorless cameras use an electronic viewfinder or EVF to preview images. The EVF creates an electronic rendering of the scene.
Many photographers prefer the “real” view of the optical viewfinder versus the electronic or digital rendition. The rendering from an EVF is not as accurate as an optical viewfinder because the rendered image depends on the quality of the viewfinder panel. For example, the EVF may present an image with more or less contrast than the actual captured image. In the past, the resolution of EVFs was much lower, but the latest iterations of EVFs are much improved and almost match the quality of optical viewfinders.
EVFs may also lag, especially in low lighting situations. Following a fast-moving subject is much easier with a high-speed DSLR with optical viewfinder than with a mirrorless EVF. This may be especially important to wildlife, action, or sports photographers.
An advantage of an EVF is that you can view the image with changes to color settings and white balance, or exposure, instantly which you cannot do with an optical viewfinder (but you can snap a photo and view it or use Live Mode on the LCD). If you are learning manual mode this “what you see is what you get” feature of a mirrorless may be an advantage.
The technology of EVFs is continuously improving, but for now DSLR cameras have a slight winning advantage when it comes to viewfinders.
DSLR and mirrorless camera types can shoot at fast shutter speeds to capture many images in rapid succession. With the exception of high-end DSLRs, mirrorless cameras have an advantage in speed. There is no mirror that needs to flip out of the way so the simple mechanics of mirrorless cameras allows them to shoot at higher shutter speeds.
Unfortunately, the optical viewfinder creates a “blackout effect” when shooting continuous bursts of images. This makes it harder to track moving subjects. With an optical viewfinder you can continuously track your subject during a burst of images. Some mirrorless camera manufacturers have been working on this issue and higher end models, like the Sony a9, claim to have solved it.
The first mirrorless cameras did not include full-frame sensors, therefore at that time DSLRs were superior in image quality. Now manufactures use the same sensors (APS-C and full-frame) in both their mirrorless models and their DSLRs, so based solely on technology neither system has an advantage when it comes to image quality.
The selling point for mirrorless is that you can get that same image quality in an overall smaller size camera. However, just as bigger is not always better, smaller is not always better either.
Size & Weight
Because a mirrorless camera does not have a mirror and a pentamirror, the construction includes less parts and therefore they are lighter in weight and less bulky than DSLR cameras. However, the bulkier DSLR often feels better in the grip of one’s hands and has ergonomic advantages.
By making a mirrorless camera so compact, the controls must fit onto smaller rectangular shapes. Larger hands may not be comfortable with the smaller size controls. The touchscreens are also often smaller in size. The compact size of mirrorless includes a smaller battery which affects battery life (we will cover this aspect later).
The DSLR’s larger size makes the controls easier to read and see and makes changing camera settings easier (especially for those who are used to the DSLR shape and design).
One big disadvantage to mirrorless is that while the camera may be smaller, the lenses are not. Balancing a large lens on a small camera body – especially one with the very compact rangefinder-style shape – is awkward and uncomfortable over longer periods of time. Manufacturers can keep making camera bodies smaller, but lens size is determined by the sensor size. This means that to make lenses that match the quality and performance of DSLR lenses, the mirrorless lenses will end up almost identical in size (and weight). You can buy additional grips to make it easier to hold a mirrorless camera, but that defeats the “mirrorless is smaller” advantage.
So in this aspect, the advantage lies wherever your personal preferences lie. If you prefer lightweight, or are upgrading from using your phone for photography, then maybe the smaller mirrorless is the way to go. If you prefer a sturdier heft and grip, or use larger and heavier lenses, then a traditional DSLR should be in your camera bag.
In the past, the winner for autofocus speed was the DSLR. For now, higher end DSLRs still have an advantage, but newer mirrorless cameras have made great strides in this area and are quickly diminishing this difference.
Mirrorless cameras mainly use contrast-detect AF. While this type of AF is precise and accurate, it is also slow and inefficient. The camera focuses through a trial-and-error to-and-fro process that is time consuming (comparatively speaking) versus the DSLRs phase-detection AF method.
Phase-detection AF compares two versions of the scene from two angles and quickly decides which way to focus and how far. This happens very quickly.
But just as quickly as that camera can focus, mirrorless camera manufacturers recognized and tackled this issue to try and find a solution. Now some mirrorless cameras use a hybrid AF with phase-detection built into the camera sensor and contrast-detect AF for precision. This makes the AF accurate and fast. This on-sensor phase-detection is now also being added to traditional DSLRs as well.
If you need the fastest autofocus speeds (wildlife, race cars, sports) and your budget allows you to buy the very highest-end cameras, then you should get a DSLR, otherwise, this category is a tie.
Since DSLR cameras have been around so long, there is a plethora of lenses available for them. Including the third party manufacturer lenses available, the selection is comprehensive. By comparison, the selection of lenses for newer mirrorless cameras is small.
Of course, the availability of lenses is growing as these cameras gain popularity. In the micro four thirds mirrorless, such as those from Olympus, there is more lens selection. Additionally, third party manufacturers are also making lenses for mirrorless cameras now and there are several new adapters on the market that allow photographers to use DSLR lenses, as well as legacy lenses, on their mirrorless camera bodies.
At this point, the DSLR cameras probably still have the advantage for lens selection, but not for long.
DSLRs and mirrorless cameras a both shoot video. Mirrorless cameras, because of their design, are intrinsically better for the constant “live view” mode for video recording.
Mirrorless typically have better and more accurate focusing for video. This is because very few DSLRs have on-sensor phase detection points (as previously discussed). Currently, both mirrorless and DSLR can film in HD, but if you want to shoot in 4K, or even 8K, you will more likely find it in a mirrorless camera.
Professional filmmakers will probably elect to purchase cinema cameras instead of mirrorless or DSLR cameras, but for bloggers or vloggers a mirrorless camera is a clear winner. Additionally, the R&D into video is focused mainly in the mirrorless market, so the technology will only improve from where we are today. Many of the newest lenses for mirrorless also include silent autofocus motors, a technology designed for filming. These quiet technologies can be an advantage for wildlife photographers.
If you are mainly a photographer (other than perhaps wildlife), who only needs video on occasion, then a DSLR may still be the way to go.
Stealth & Quiet
You can never get rid of sound completely because when you take a photo the shutter curtains will open and close regardless of whether you are using a DSLR or mirrorless. The mirrorless camera will be quieter because it does not have mirror. On a DSLR, when the mirror moves out of the way and then returns to its starting position it makes two “clapping” noises in quick succession. If you shoot where quiet is key, such as around skittish wildlife or in public libraries, then you will appreciate that mirrorless technology eliminates some of the sound. Some DSLRs dampen the sound, and some offer silent live view modes, but if you want to be assured that your photo taking will be as quiet as possible, then mirrorless is the way to go. (Side note: some mirrorless cameras have a mirror “clapping” sound effect that you can turn off in your settings.)
Mirrorless cameras drain your battery faster because they require the electronic viewfinder (EVF) or LCD to take photos. Therefore a DSLR battery can easily last twice as long or for twice as many shots. The smaller design of mirrorless cameras also means smaller batteries. This creates an even further limit on their capacity. If you don’t mind carrying an extra battery or two, this might not be a deal breaker.
There is no debate when it comes to battery life. DSLRs win hands down.
Cost / Investment
Mirrorless probably is the way of the future, but that is still a long way off. Mirrorless cameras are still catching up and while they can compete with DSLRs on almost every level, a DSLR is still the cheapest way to get into serious photography.
Finding a mirrorless APS-C with a viewfinder for same price as a new beginner DSLR like a Canon Rebel or Nikon D3XXX series is almost impossible. Unless you are willing to compromise and buy a used mirrorless that is more than 5 years old, a DSLR is the best option when you need something budget friendly.
The Final Tally
As with all debates in photography, sometimes there are no real winners and it comes down to personal preference and your shooting style. Which is “better” will really be determined by where you are willing to make compromises, not because one technology is actually intrinsically better than the other, but because each has its own distinct advantages and disadvantages. There may be one or two aspects to a camera system that are crucial to your photography that make the difference in your decision.
So When Should You Choose a DSLR?
So When Should You Choose a Mirrorless?
Hopefully this article has clarified the differences between DSLR and mirrorless and will help you decide which camera system is right for you.
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Are you interested in product photography as a business you can start at home? Do you need to promote your own products, such as jewelry, on a website like Etsy? Maybe you are looking for photography ideas just for fun? If you answered “yes” to any of the above, then you need to keep reading! We’re going to explain the simplest product photography setups that are also budget friendly using items you probably already have around the house. So let’s get started!
First of all, once you have your products gathered, you will need backgrounds. The size and type of background you choose will depend on the size of the items. Smaller items can be places on colored wrapping paper, scrapbook papers, tissue paper, even brown paper bags work with some products. Contact paper and wallpaper can be used for medium sized objects. Some papers have patterns that look like marble and wood; however, solid colors may be a better choice for a few reasons. First, patterned papers may be copyrighted and if you plan to sell an image or promote another company’s products you would need to secure copyright permission to use it. Secondly, some patterned papers may compete for attention with the product. Tin foil, slightly crumpled and then flattened, makes a nice bokeh (background blur) and in larger pieces can be used for large objects and even for portraits.
Larger objects may require a large poster board, a roll of backdrop paper, or you can use fabric. Fabrics come in many different textures, colors and patterns including reflective and wood-looks! If you don’t have fabric or you don’t want to make a purchase, you can also use fabrics from blankets, sheets, and items of clothing. Fabric can also be draped around objects and under objects.
My favorite “hack” for product photography backgrounds is to use a computer laptop screen or tablet screen with images on them. I download an image that is free to use for commercial and business purposes from a website like Pixabay or Pexels and use it full-size on the screen behind the object. Websites like these have thousands of images you can choose from and there is no worry about copyright! You can quickly switch out images until you find a background that you really like.
The only drawback to using the computer screen is that you have to be careful about glare and bright reflections. We’re going to explain how to take care of those issues in the section on lighting, but first we need to finish with the setup.
Depending on the item and how you choose to set up the background, your background might also be under your item. For example, if you are using fabric you might drape it under and behind the object, or shoot at an angle where you don’t capture the foreground or the background. When using paper or a backdrop roll, many photographers set the paper up in a “sweep.” This means that the paper is vertical behind the object, but then at the base it is curved out and under the object horizontally so there are no seams.
In addition to paper and fabric, there are other items you can place under products such as old pieces of tile or waste sections of countertops. For example, when installers cut out the section of the countertop for a sink hole, that piece is often waste. Tile, such as crisp white subway tiles make nice backgrounds for food photography. Natural stone tiles complement products like perfumes and essential oils or soaps and make nice contrasts with cut gems and pearls for jewelry photography.
An old photo frame can be repurposed as a platform to put object on. Placing colored paper or fabric under the glass or Plexiglas allows the color to show but you also get a nice reflective property. This is especially effective with white and a white background.
My favorite item to use as a platform is an old tablet. The glossy black makes a nice reflection, especially for tech type items or jewelry. As an example, we took a simple charging block and used the laptop screen as a background. With practice you will start to get a feel for what types of backgrounds and platforms will complement the products you are taking photos of.
Many product photography setups also make use of additional props. While having the object by itself might look very nice, sometimes other items are needed to balance the image or improve the overall feel of the composition. The props can be simple and many items can be found around the house. Rocks and tree bark can make nice textures. Wildflowers, leaves, grasses are all good too. Small and medium size boxes can be used as props or for height so you can stagger the height of items.
In the ring images previously seen above, we used a piece of tree bark from the woods near our house. We set the wood on a small black box to give it height and a computer screen was used as the background.
Leaves, acorns, seed pods, pine cones, and other natural items like shells are also good choices. Once you start to gather items, you can keep them in a little shoe box and have them available to reuse. For food photography, some props might include powered spices, wooden spoons, nice china cups or plates, herbs, and sugar cubes. There is definitely an art to the arrangement of items and you will learn what looks good and what doesn’t through trial and error, as well as practice. Looking at examples of similar items online can also spark your creativity and provide ideas for arrangements and props.
Now let’s talk about lighting and light reflections.
If you have a window area where you can set up a table, like a card table, then you can use free natural light! If you are using a computer screen or tablet as part of your set up you will need to adjust the direction of your setup as well as the angle of the computer screen so that you are not getting reflections from the camera’s point of view.
If you don’t’ have a window area, or even with a window, you might still need additional lighting. It is always surprising to me how much light is actually needed for most photos! The exception would be if you want to try “low key” lighting. For low key lighting you actually need a room that is dark! (Visit our website at https://focusedcamera.weebly.com/free-mini-tutorials-videos--extras.html and sign up for our email list and you can get an instant free download for low key lighting at home).
Additional lighting does not have to be expensive. It can be very inexpensive lights from hardware stores, such as the clamp style lights used as work lights out in the garage. A two pack of clamp lights is under $20 and they even have built in reflectors on them! You can also get bright LED lighting – a pack of two – for under $30.
Professional photographers might be aghast at the suggestion and tell you that you need professional lighting. Professional lights can cost hundreds of dollars and while they do have benefits, such as allowing you to adjust the color temperature or intensity of the lights, there are workarounds to save you the expense. When you take photos make sure that you shoot in RAW, that way you can adjust the color temperature in Lightroom or other editing software. If the lights are too intense, move them farther away! You don’t need flashes or lights that are timed with your shutter release (unless you are doing water splash photography). For the majority of product photography you can use continuous lighting, like that light you might already have out in your garage.
Now that you have all your lighting taken care of, let’s go back to glare and reflections for a moment. If you are getting overhead glare turn off overhead lights. Rotate your table and your entire set up so you are getting as much light as you can, but keeping the direct reflections off your product (and/or computer screen) from the camera’s point of view. Make sure if you use the computer laptop screen that you test different angles to get the least glare. Using some creative movement you usually can find a sweet spot where you don’t have hot spots and reflections.
However, that still might not be enough. Sometimes you will need a way to diffuse light. There are several “hack” solutions for this. If you have a large area, like a whole window area, a white fabric shower curtain (I got one at the $1 store) can diffuse light. This also works well for portraits.
You can diffuse the light on your flash or your extra LED lights by making a softbox or using tissue paper. There are plenty of DIY instructions online for making flash and light diffusers and softboxes. Be careful that you never put paper or fabric over the hot style lights like incandescent and halogen – that would be a fire hazard!
You can also make your own “light box” using a big plastic bin like the one I use in my setup. It’s not perfectly clear, so it diffuses the light. Bins like these are available at the hardware store and you might even be able to get one at the $1 store. There are also lots of DIY tutorials online for making light boxes for product photography using a large cardboard box and white tissue paper and white poster board as the backdrop.
Now you are ready to take some photos! Obviously, you need a camera. The camera you use does not have to be expensive or even a DSLR. The charging block image above was taken with an older generation Android phone. Current smartphones are even better. Some of the other images shown as examples throughout were taken using a very old Rebel camera. You do not have to invest in an expensive camera to get started taking product photos. Whatever camera you have on hand is the best camera to use!
You can shoot handheld if you are steady. If you have enough light shutter speeds should be fast enough, but if you are going to invest, I would spend the money for a great tripod, and get one that can also allow you to do some flat lay work. I love my Manfrotto tripod and the 90 degree shooting tilt has come in handy for more than just product photos.
Now a few final tricks, or “hacks” for some cool effects! If you want to suspend something, then clear fishing line can be used to make items look like they are levitating. You will need Photoshop or a similar program to edit out the fishing line in post. It can also be a good idea to also secure the item at the base so that it is not swaying around.
When you have an object that just won’t stay put, some console tape or gaffer’s tape and help keep items in place and when removed they do not leave a residue. A loop of console tape held the ring in place in the images I included above. If any of the tape shows you might have to edit it out later.
If you want some cool colored lighting, try a colored gel or tissue paper over your camera’s built in flash or over top of your lighting (again do not put paper over hot bulbs). Some inexpensive LED puck lights can also create interesting effects when placed under or behind objects. Some smartphones and apps (Flashlight app on iOS and Color Flashlight on Android) also allow you to change the color of your phone screen and use it as a light. These colored lights can also be used for creative effects.
So there you have it, a complete set up for product photography using items you probably already have around the house! Even if you have to buy some garage lights, some colored papers or fabric, and make a diffuser for your window or a light box for your products, you can have an awesome setup for under $50.
It’s the most inexpensive, simplest set up for your product photography!
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