Make better pictures, no matter the camera

Make better pictures, no matter the cameraLast time I wrote a post about the evils of camera flash. I tried to demonstrate how it makes photos worse: lifeless, flat, sometimes even creepy. When making photos for a blog one has to do one’s best to produce good photos. Flash almost never improves a picture.

But the problem is that cameras “see” less light than we do, and in circumstances where we can even read in the light we have, we get a picture that is pitch black. In demonstrating the perils of using flash, the question remained: what to do then when there isn’t much light available?

To  demonstrate that even with the simplest camera this simple trick can help you get better pictures I will use a super-basic pocket camera.

Make better pictures, no matter the camera

I used these pictures last week to show you how using a flash affects the pictures we take. The flash produces harsh shadows, obliterates details, and drowns ambient light. The picture on the right however, has that warm, soft light that makes anything look better. Where good light should be like a fine mist, flash is a pressure hose.

But then, of course, I took both pictures with my DSLR, and it would be unfair not to take into account people shooting with simpler cameras. So I decided to make the photos for this post with my little pocket point and shoot. It’s as basic a camera as you could find. I also decided to take the picture without moving my subjects, to illustrate what you can do when you cannot move yours (if you are photographing a room, for example), or there is no chance you’ll get better light elsewhere.

Make better pictures, no matter the camera

  1. The first thing you ought to do is turn the flash off. Each camera is different, so you will have to find how to do it in yours.
  2. Find out if you can install a tripod shoe onto your camera. See that little hole at the bottom of mine, that’s where the tripod shoe screws in. Even very simple cameras and some cellphones can be used with tripods.
  3. Use a tripod. I own very cheap ones, and expensive ones, the cheap ones are fine for a light pocket camera. You can get a tripod on Amazonstarting at about $10. If you cannot buy a tripod, a flat, even surface will do. The camera needs to stand on its own though. You will also need to turn on the shutter delay on your camera. That way you can press the shutter and the camera will shoot a little later, by not touching the camera when the picture is taken you will minimize shakiness.
  4. My point and shoot gives me no control whatsoever over aperture, shutter speed or ISO sensitivity. If your camera is similarly simple, then choose the scene mode for portrait, it will give you the best result under these circumstances.

Make better pictures, no matter the camera

  1. This picture was taken handheld, no flash. As you can see the picture is dark and blurry. The camera compensates for the lack of light by taking longer to take the picture. Since we cannot hold the camera as steadily as needed, the camera also records the movement of our hands, resulting in a blurry picture.
  2. This is where most people decide to use flash, the camera, having produced sufficient light with the flash, doesn’t take as long to take the picture, the blurriness is gone, instead we are left with the ugly results of using the flash.
  3. This one was taken using a tripod, shutter delay (the picture was taken 3 seconds after I pressed the button) and on portrait mode. The picture is not blurry, and it is not terribly dark, but it is still not a great result.
  4. Here is where post-processing software shines. Using the free software Pixlr (check out this post) I adjusted levels, and sharpened picture  no. 3. This is the best result a pocket camera can produce with this little light. Not bad, eh? Specially compared with the alternative.

Make better pictures, no matter the camera

And this is the picture re-composed.

I have to admit that it is not a great picture, but remember that is a extreme  case in which I decided not to use extra light, or move the subject, or in any way alter the light. It was a “take it as you found it” picture, and we have to admit that it is still a lot better than the same picture if it had been shot with flash. It is plenty usable for a blog or etsy shop.

Next time I’ll tell you how to improve on this, and tricks to get even better light without having to buy strobes, softboxes, umbrellas and such.

Aunt Clara
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{ 10 comments… add one }

  • Jo December 5, 2010, 4:03 AM

    Great tutorial.. thanks for the tips. I should really have another go with the jolly old camera manual. It's just so bloody confusing, like trying to read verbal soup.Jo xx

  • Aunt_Clara December 4, 2010, 9:23 PM

    Hi Angie, in short the answer is "yes".

    Now the long explanation: I shoot RAW, so I have to post-process all my photos by necessity. RAW is useless before post-processing.As for touch-ups, no, my daughter has flawless skin, and it photographs beautifully. The only times I have touched up her face is because a booger is peeking out of her nose (it happens more often than one would believe). When I shoot people, if I can, I use very shallow Depth of Field, and focus on the eyes, that way the eyes come out very sharp, the skin blurred enough to look soft.I post process my photos on Lightroom, not Photoshop. I use PS to add text, borders, merge photos, etc. If I need to sharpen part of the face (usually the eyes) I apply a mask so the rest of the face don't get sharpened. It's all standard procedure, but a good lens means that you won't need sharpening that often.In this one I did that (sharpen the eyes, leave the rest alone).Please ask anything you wish. I'd love to help.

  • Alisi's Mummy December 4, 2010, 11:50 PM

    Thanks Clara! I'd figured out that no flash is the way to go, but have been struggling to get clear photos without it. A tripod and timer – never thought of it!

  • Angie December 4, 2010, 4:51 AM

    Hi Clara,Thank you so much for your photography tutorials; I find them so helpful, and I like that you write them out step-by-step with photos. You are very kind to do this for us!I do have a photography editing question…do you also edit the photos you take of your little ones? I'm thinking their skin is impeccable simply because they're still babes, but do you soften/touch-up portraits as well? Do you use a different software for that, or do you still use Pixlr? Someday if you have the time, do you think you might be able to post some tips on editing faces? I am always so amazed at the photos where the eyes are razor sharp and piercing, and the rest of the face is soft and smooth and "perfect".Thank you so much for all your help! I was just showing my husband this post, telling him how awesome it is that you share these tips with us out of the kindness of your heart. :) I almost feel guilty asking you for more!Blessings,Angie

  • Vanessa December 3, 2010, 5:23 AM

    Good advice. The flash ruins everything, doesn't it?

  • Anji* December 2, 2010, 11:16 PM

    Some really helpful advice Clara.. I really need to dig out my tripods – I actually own 2 different size tripods but they've been packed away for years! I also need to take another look at the settings on my camera, which although a compact is fairly high-spec. Thank you :)

  • The Mama Monster December 2, 2010, 5:56 PM

    Great info!!! I am always leary of not using my flash with my DSLR because then they come out blurry… Awesome! Thank you! ~The Mama Monster

  • Once Upon A Tea Time December 2, 2010, 4:35 PM

    I have been reading your blog for a few months now and I find these posts on Good Photography 101 really useful! Thank you for sharing. I stopped using flash a long time ago. Looking forward to your next post on this!

  • Miss Val's Creations December 2, 2010, 4:08 PM

    Informative post! It is always tricky getting good photos without the proper light! The flash has never been my friend. Daylight is my favorite!

  • Anonymous December 2, 2010, 3:31 PM

    Clear as water! Pretty impressive picture for a pocket camera, and very useful information.~ Sunny ~