Sunday, December 04, 2005

A general, handwaving guide to digital photography - part 1

Keywords: general, hand-waving, digital

Side note: The term handwaving is used in mathematics and physics to describe arguments that are not mathematically rigorous. [wikipedia]


Author’s note

Many thanks to Metria, Lucia and Yvy for suggesting and encouraging this project, and to Yee Hou for allowing his photograph to be used here.

This guide will be published over several periods due to its rather frightening cumulative length.

Some additional attention has been given to shooting sky-dominated scenes, in the white balancing and exposure compensation sections.



Topics in Section 1:

Taking advantage of the digital format
Photo composition
LCD and viewfinder use
Coming up next



Taking advantage of the digital format

One main advantage of digital photography over film is the negligible cost of snapping photographs, so long as you have memory in your cards to store them. Added to the fact that not all photos turn out to be good photographs, it makes perfect sense to shoot the same scene several times. We’re not talking about family portrait “one more, just in case” shots, but intentionally different compositions to find the best shot and to learn from experience.

Try it with portrait rather than landscape alignment. What about putting the subject slightly off-centre in the frame? Should the horizon be perfectly level, or do I want it slanted? How much to slant the horizon? Should I focus on the foreground or the background? Can I recompose the shot to remove that coconut tree from the girl’s armpit? Put some thought into the composition before clicking the shutter release.

Shoot shoot shoot. Experiment.

After every shot, review it just so you know what is happening and learn from it immediately. Even if it’s uninspiring, do not delete it until you see them all on a computer- the camera’s LCD is not sufficiently detailed to judge which photo is better.

Look, you got that digital camera because it allows you to shoot at almost no cost, and review photos on the spot. Do not waste that investment.


Photo composition

Many photography books, tutorials and guides recommend the rule of the thirds. Divide the frame into 3 vertical portions and 3 horizontal portions. Major features should lie along these lines- the horizon one third or two thirds of the way up the frame, and the coconut tree one third or two thirds to the left of the frame.

However, I personally find that this is not a very reliable rule. It might be that this system of thirds was derived from the Golden Ratio. I fiddled with my calculator and found that the proportion is 0.61803 compared to two thirds, which is 0.6666.

Regardless of the actual derivation of the thirds, try putting the horizon (or any other major feature/boundary) at the one third or two third marks, then shifting it up and down (or left and right) a little to suit your preference. Don’t forget to shoot them all, just to be sure of the results.

Also, break the rule of the thirds as and when you like. Experiment with the horizon in the dead centre, or sliding all the way from the upper left corner through to the bottom right.


Photo composition sometimes feel very much like creative damage control. The background scenery is beautiful, but in the foreground there may be annoying road signs, diseased dogs wandering about, dumb tourists milling about mindlessly, power and telecommunications lines on poles, an unwelcomed tree… the list of potential spoilers is endless.

After choosing your intended foreground and background objects, check if there are objects that are not part of the desired photo. You may have to zoom in and out to find the best zoom to fit the frame between two offending lamp posts, or juggle the frame left and right to avoid both the rubbish bin and the edge of the billboard.

Do not dedicate all your attention to centring the subject or putting the horizon on the one-third mark. Spend some time observing the rest of the frame, which is where foreign objects will turn up and ruin your photo.


LCD and viewfinder use

Since the LCD is where you would be reviewing most of shots in preparation for the next, it is best if you know what sort of behaviour your LCD exhibits. I know of a Canon A70’s LCD that consistently gave me over-bright images, deluding me into thinking I’ve got the right exposure when in fact the photograph was too dark for my liking.

If your viewfinder is not an electronic one (with a tiny LCD in it), avoid using it for composing the photo. The LCD shows the exact image that the sensors pick up, but the viewfinder might not be perfectly matched to the main lens’ zoom. Thus, the viewfinder’s frame might be too small or too large, seriously messing up your composition. This recommendation does not apply to SLR users, whose viewfinder image is an exact duplicate of what the film/sensor will see.


Coming up next

White balance
Light metering
Exposure compensation



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