Taking Great Pictures in 20 Words or Less

Posted on May 19, 2011


Alright, some of these topics are pretty esoteric. So I’m going to lay out here in 20 words or less how to take the best possible pictures with your digital camera, in nearly all conditions. This is so short I originally sent it as a text. I’ll save all the pontification for why later, for those who make it that far. Okay, here goes.

What to Do

Almost any camera made today will have an Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) mode.  If your cameras has this, set it. That’s it.

I’m not sure if that’s Canon lingo or not but your camera should have this feature. What this does is let you set multiple exposures for a single shot. Usually from 2 shots “under-exposed” to 2 shots “over-exposed” in whatever steps ( stops/zone). My camera will take 5 shots, some take 3.

Refining The Technique

If you are buying a camera get one that has this (even my SLRs have this, it was a great way to waste film for photojournalism assignments where you had to get the shot). If your camera doesn’t you can do it manually, but it misses the point. Also, get a honking big memory card (you are taking 3-5x as many images, 6-10x if you also shoot RAW/JPEG combined).

You will want to play around with how much you go over and how much under, as suits your purpose and personal style.

  • Check and play with “Exposure Compensation” if your camera has it. This will help you get more of the camera’s metering of each shot.
  • If you are never going to use PhotoShop or post-process your images, you will probably want to use full stops (most cameras will let you go to 1/3 stop, but I can’t even see that in the darkroom), and definitely keep one stop under exposed and one over. This is because while we over-expose negatives for shadow detail, underexposing positives usually saturates the color a little more. (An old Kodachrome slide trick, excuse me, I just teared up a bit.) So those photos will look great just as they are.
  • If you are going to post process the shot. First, shoot RAW/JPEG combined if you have this option. Anyway, that’s what the digital gods tell me – that you want to actually manipulate the RAW files and not the compressed JPEG files. For the post-processed images, you may want all of your shots to be over exposed (say, as metered, +1, +2).  This is because while these shots will look “washed-out” until you process them, they will have more information (shadow and highlight detail) that you can manipulate later.

Why This Works

This is what digital photographers call “pushing the histogram to the right.” That means we are capturing as much data as possible before we lose it.

Eventually, if you keep overexposing, the peak of the histogram will go off the graph and you will “blow out” your highlights. (In B&W film shooting, we have to control this in development, which is where you get “expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights” maxim.) So, most good digital photographers will shoot, check the histogram, adjust, and retake. But why do all of that if you can learn to set up the camera to work automatically for you most of the time? If you take three shots and one is blown, you keep the others.

By the way, I’m not advocating not learning to read a shot and reset the camera for optimum use, if you get to that point. I’m advocating getting to that point and keeping your camera set up all the time to “catch the shot.” In fact, you really should look at the histograms if you have time. Most cameras now will even show you where the image blew out. Just a little shine off of your model’s pearly whites might actually be acceptable, if everything else is spot on.

High Definition Range (HDR) actually uses these exposures to layer images in Photoshop, using the lesser exposed images for shadow detail and the more exposed for highlights. Usually this is done on a tripod, but I’ve seen examples of it using AEB hand-held, if the shutter speed is fast enough. (As a guideline I would guess all three exposures plus latency would have to happen in less than 1/30th of a second, but I leave this as an exercise to the reader.)