Great photos from low-end cameras

Do you need a great camera to take great pictures?

My main shooting rig is a Canon 1Ds mark III digital camera, and indeed, with this terrific (albeit quite expensive) camera I have taken a number of well-regarded photographs, some of which have even sold for multiple hundreds of dollars. However, one of my very best sellers shown here is a photograph taken with a $300 digicam. 

In this article, I cover a few ways to improve photos taken with a small camera.

There is some basis to the claim that higher quality equipment does yield better photos. However, the main influence of photographic quality is the eye of the photographer itself. The skill of seeing, combined with adequate knowlege and experience with the tool at hand, is the main determinent of the end product. 

Again, it is not so much the type of camera you use, but rather your skill as a photographer combined with your knowledge of the equipment that really makes the difference. Some years ago, the New York Times put 1MP camera phones in the hands of its staff of prizewinning photographers. The results were spectacular.

I can share a few best practices for getting the most out of a small camera.

Manage ISO and exposure carefully: To manage noise effectively you have to be constantly conscious of available light. Most smaller cameras have terrible low-noise performance due to their small sensor size, so upping your ISO to avoid camera shake can have negative effects. In short, I prefer to err on the side of lower ISO, and rely on bracketing.

Bracket, bracket, bracket: Put your camera in continuous shooting mode so that you simply have to squeeze the trigger and the camera will take one shot right after another. Say you are facing a terrific night-scene, metered at 1/4th of second at ISO 400. My experience is that if you take about 10 pictures, even at very slow shutter speeds, you are nearly guarantied to have at least one or two usable shots. If there is any risk of camera shake, I bracket as a matter of course.

Watch your use of on-camera flash: Many people shoot with the flash off unless its at night. In fact, on-camera fill flash is great idea during the day when shooting people — it evens out shadows on faces and helps separate subjects from backgrounds. At night, be very selective about using flash since it almost always destroyes details in the background of the photograph.

Watch your depth of field: Depth of field is the amount of the scene that is in focus at one time. Higher quality cameras allow you to narrow depth of field considerably, yielding what is often called “selective” focus. This generates a look that many consider to be very “photographic”, creating an slightly abstract style that many viewers will subconsciously identify. However, smaller cameras lack this capability because of the comparative size of their lens and camera sensor. You can get around this by getting very close to your subject — the closer the camera to the subject, the narrower the depth of field, all other things being equal. In the photo above, the is tremendous depth of field.

Always have it with you: That makes the difference, doesn’t it? I try to never go anywhere new or interesting without a camera on me.

Creatively embrace your camera’s photographic limitations: For every “negative” quality found in a low end digital camera (noise, vingetting, poor color rendition, etc), you can also find an artistic statement to be made. The key to doing this is to KNOW YOUR CAMERA — you must be able to previsualize the “treatment” your camera will lend to the scene given the settings you have made. Hopefully this a topic I can expand over time on this blog.

Perform post-exposure lens correction: Sometimes simply correcting barrel distortion can really enhance the look of a photograph, especially if the subject is architectural or contains straight lines. I’ve come to believe the eye subconciously associates  barrel distortion with caught-in-the-moment arbitrary-ness (is that a word?) Where as corrected photographs can carry a more documentarian, authoritative feel.

Post-process: Use photoshop to add selective focus. Convert photographs to black and white. Reduce noise. Stitch panoramas. There is a lot you can do with a little creativity to get around the limitations of a small digicam.

Obviously, there is much more I can write about all of these topics. Over time I hope to expand these ideas on this web site.

Please let me know what items you find the most helpful!

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