Monday, March 7, 2011

Big Thanks for the Overwhelming Response to My Camera Query

I tell you what, I sent out an all-points bulletin asking for help with the tremendous FAIL that I call "photography", and you guys banded together like Dr. House's brilliant diagnosticians, generously offering solutions to my problem. A BIG "Thank you!" So, which one of you is Dr. House in this scenario? Well, that would be Anna, with a nod to Angie for co-signing Anna's diagnosis. I'll share everything I learned, and perhaps those of you who replied that you can't help me because your pictures suck too, well--this is for you! I'm paying it forward.
My Biggest Problem: Poor lighting
This may sound ridiculous to photographers and photography enthusiasts, but I made absolutely no connection between a blurry photo and poor lighting. When Anna deduced that dim lighting was to blame for my crappy pictures, I decided to get to work. I turned on both living room lamps, the overhead lights in the living room and adjoining kitchen (there was a big difference when even the kitchen light was left off!) and I opened all the blinds to let as much natural light in as possible (turns out I'm a vampire who prefers to live in darkness. Also, my exterior windows are in great need of cleaning) and after doing all this, my pictures were crisp and colorful. Note: This did not exempt me from using a flash. Without a flash, I still had blurriness.
Before: using a flash and whatever natural light streamed through the house. See, not terribly "dark", but blurry nonetheless
No flash, overhead light is on, with a moderate amount of natural sunlight (curtains aren't fully open). Notice the blurry burp cloth and feet.
Same as before, but now I'm using the flash. You can't tell Rob is kicking wildly and waving the burp cloth!
Following Anna's instructions to the letter: Every available light is on, all the blinds are open, flash is on.
Adjust the Settings
I played around with the camera's settings. I had avoided doing so up until now, because I had no understanding of what these settings mean, or why I would need to adjust them, so I would have just been arbitrarily pushing buttons. And, if I was just blindly changing settings, I was afraid of messing something up and not knowing how to un-do it. I am unable to adjust the shutter speed, but there is one setting (Auto Mode) out of the eighteen shooting modes on the camera that allows me to adjust ISO. I do not know what ISO does exactly, but I know it is an important feature in DSLR cameras, as all the blogs and message boards I read when researching cameras and photography talked about aperture and ISO constantly. I eventually abandoned the idea of getting a DSLR camera of my own when I was unable to grasp even the most basic concepts that were being discussed on these message boards. Anna helped me out by not getting bogged down in the techical terms, but by explaining it to me like I'm five: "The higher the ISO, the grainier the picture". So, I still don't know what ISO is, but I now know what it means to adjust ISO, and that's good enough for me.

"Auto" Doesn't Know Best
Because I was so intimidated by this technology, I felt it best to respect the "Auto" settings. Don't think, let the camera make all the decisions. Once I decided to grow a pair and do this my way, I noticed a vast improvement in the quality of photos. Most of these settings involved the type of flash being used, and the auto focus feature.

Choose an Appropriate Setting
I was stubbornly using the "Night Landscape" shooting mode for all my indoor photos, because it did not use a flash or a flickering red-eye eliminating feature, and it gave all my pictures a warm glow. And one picture out of every forty was clear enough to be a usable photo. I don't consider this a success. Most of these shooting modes do not allow me to adjust the variables, but I now know which shooting modes do, and which shooting modes are appropriate for the pictures I'm taking. Continuous shooting does not use a flash, but Subject Tracking does. The Portrait setting, in the absence of a more fitting choice, like "Children" or "Pets", consistently takes clear pictures in a well-lit room. I select the regular flash in favor of the flash with the red-eye eliminator (Rob doesn't like it). Auto Mode, contrary to its name, allows for the most manipulation of settings and features, which I find helpful. It has just now occured to me that it is possible that some of the settings I select or adjust in Auto Mode may carry over into other shooting modes. I don't know if this is true, but it would make sense.

Consult the Manual
If your TV isn't working and you call the manufacturer for help, the first question they ask is, "Is the TV plugged in?" They're not trying to be insulting, but they need to establish that this is not the problem, before troubleshooting a bigger problem. In that spirit, I was asked if I had read my user manual by a fellow Nikon user (though she is a Nikon DSLR user, not point-and-shoot). This got me thinking. Wondering whether all this confusion could have been avoided had I taken a little more time to educate myself with the User Manual (which I was pretty sure I read from cover-to-cover when I first opened the camera two months ago), I decided to take a second look. It's actually called a "Quick Start Guide", which tells you how to take a picture, but not how to take a good picture. Included is a CD-ROM "User Manual", which I probably read briefly a couple months ago. I pop the CD into the drive and take another look. Sure enough, on page 61 out of 220 of this PDF file, under the heading "More on Shooting" and under the sub-heading "ISO Sensitivity" a subtle clue:
"Although higher ISO sensitivity is effective when shooting darker subjects, shooting without the flash, shooting with the camera zoomed in, etc., images may contain noise."
I have figured out over the course of my research that noise = blurry-ass picture

A second clue found within the user manual, under the aptly titled "Troubleshooting" header:
  • Use flash
  • Enable vibration reduction or motion detection
  • Use BSS (best shot selector)
  • Use tripod and self-timer
Conclusion: Perhaps I had the answers all along, if only I had taken time to sift through the available information? But what's the fun in that? So I should also say thank you, Laura, for helping me help myself! I will probably spend a few minutes here and there getting myself edumacated [(c)Jessica Simpson] on how to properly use the various shooting modes of my camera.
I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends
All that being said, I was often using my flash and still ending up with blurry pictures. Thanks to Anna, I finally got the message about how important lighting truly is. I think sometimes it's just better when a friend helps you solve a problem.

On to My Next Quandary
If anyone would be so kind as to offer any chestnuts of wisdom that can improve my photographic composition, I'm all ears!


  1. Yay! Glad my ramble was of use. For composition 101, I'll direct you to the ever popular Rule of Thirds. Then I'll say to break that rule sometimes because no one should stay in one box. Experiment and you'll figure out what you like. For instance, when I take close up shots of people, I really like to cut the top of the head off and just focus on the face. No, I'm not kidding. And sometimes people will say, "Oh, what a shame. You cut the top of the head off." But I don't care because I like it like that. So, familiarize yourself with the basic photography "rules" and then figure out which ones work for you. The good news is that with digital you won't be wasting a lot of film. It can take (even for really experienced photographers) a lot of shots to get a good one.

  2. Anna's comment is making me laugh, because my mom always complains when someone's head is cut off a little bit - even if it's a professional photographer who did it. She just doesn't get it I guess. I am NO expert on composition, but one of the biggest things I could suggest is to get on the same level as your subject. For Miller, this usually requires me to squat, get down on my knees, or even lay on the floor. It makes a big difference. Like Anna said, you do have to break this rule occasionally though because some other angles can be cool. Usually, I get on his level though.

  3. Oh yeah! I forgot to mention my biggest super-secret-expert-trick for good composition. Take lots of shots and at least one will probably be good :) Seriously, I click-click-click about a gazillion times and delete about a gazillions minus one.