More Then Megapixels, Part 1

With vacation, graduation and wedding season coming up, I thought it would be a good time to offer some tips to make the most out of your digital camera.  Over the next few posts, we will take a look at some features you may be overlooking on your camera, but that may make your life easier if you are trying to get that perfect shot.

Shooting Made Simple – using auto modes, scenes and figuring out white balance

When digital photography was new, the key feature every manufacturer wanted to improve with new models was the megapixel count.  Now that cameras have evolved to the point where the megapixel counts are over 15 (enough to print a crisp poster size print), the focus has shifted to improving other features that can make that detailed picture better looking or just easier to take.

When you use the automatic modes of a camera (auto and auto no flash), the software on the camera does the thinking for you in terms of what settings to apply.  These settings are the aperture, shutter speed, white balance, ISO, focus and whether to use the flash.  Many of these can also be set manually, which we will discuss next month.  For now, it helps to know that those settings control light balance and the preset scene modes are an easy way to set up the camera quickly and just start shooting.

The scene modes are activated by turning the dial on the top of the camera.  If the camera has a limited number of scenes, they are usually all on the dial.  Cameras with lots of scene modes will have SCN or Scene on the dial and then you use the menu on the LCD screen to select the scene you want to use.  It is a good idea to try out the various presets to see how they work before you really need them.  For example, most people are surprised that the fireworks mode keeps the shutter open for several seconds and that indicates you need to use a tripod (and a remote if you have one), which is good to know before you head out to the local 4th of July show.

Below is an example of a picture taken using the food scene mode.  In this mode, the camera is set at a lower aperture (see next month's column) and with a white balance to emphasize brighter colors.  But the user only has pick the scene mode and start taking pictures, the camera does all the work.

You may also find a scene that works well in a situation it was not intended for, such as using sports mode to chase grandchildren around the living room.  Most of the scene options are self-explanatory, but if you are not sure about them, try searching the internet for scene modes and your camera’s model number or visit  this site listing the basic scenes on most cameras.

Another underused feature on digital cameras is the white balance setting.  Most people leave it on automatic, which works well for most snapshots but adjusting it can bring out a whole different look.  White balance is basically the color temperature in the picture, so using the correct setting will make white items balanced (appear white) instead of having a color cost, such as having a yellow tint if the overall picture has a lot of warm tones.  Like the scene modes, the options for white balance are not hard to figure out since they have common names, such as sunny, cloudy, florescent, or candlelight.  Essentially, you tell the camera the type of light source you are shooting with so it can make the appropriate adjustments.  Leaving the camera on automatic white balance leaves this selection to chance since the camera will use a set of calculations to guess at the source.  If you are interested in a more in-depth discussion of white balance, visit the Cambridge in Colour website for a more technical article on how it works.

An example of the difference between two preset white balance settings is below.  The picture on the left is an accurate representation of the paint colors and was shot using the cloudy setting, while the right side was shot using the sunny setting.  Bright sunlight actually washes out color and cloudy days show colors more accurately, so the corresponding white balance settings will reflect this and, in the example below, the sunny setting deepened the color to compensate for the typical washout effect seen with sunlight.

Next month we will explore the exposure triangle and how to work with the manual modes on your camera.

- Laura N.


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