GADGET SHOW LIVE TALKS: How to take better photos and get the most from your digital camera

You don’t have to have an expensive camera to take fantastic pictures. I’m not going to say that it doesn’t help but the fact is that a lot people haven’t fully explored the one they’ve already got whether it’s a compact camera, a cameraphone or indeed a digital SLR. So, this is a guide for those people with a fledgling interest in photography of how to take better photos and get the most out of your camera.

Before we get into the all the switches, modes and buttons, it’s important to have an understanding of what it is the camera does when you take a photo. Once you’ve got an idea about how they work, then you can start manipulating them to get the kinds of shots you see in your mind’s eye before they come out totally different on your camera’s LCD.

Simple Basics


At its most simple, a camera is a box with a hole at the front which you use to control the amount of light coming in. The pattern of light is then recorded at the back of the box either on light sensitive film or, these days, on an image sensor which is the part you’ll hear measured in megapixels. The more the sensor is exposed to light, the brighter the image will be.


You can make the hole at the front bigger and you can make it smaller and you can also decide how long the hole is open for. So, the idea is that you’ve got two ways that you can control the amount of light coming into the box.


The size of the hole is called the aperture and in cameras that’s denoted by the letter f followed by a number usually somewhere between 2 and 22. The higher the number the smaller the hole. So, if your camera’s set to an f-stop of 22, then the aperture’s very small and you’ve hardly got any light coming in. If it’s at 2 then it’s masssive and you’ve got light from the outside world pouring in – very useful if you’re shooting in low light.

Shutter Speed

Now, obviously you don’t want the aperture open all the time as you wouldn’t be able to ever stop light coming into the camera. So there’s a shutter in front of it which moves out of they way when you press the shutter release button – the main shooting button on the camera. We can choose how long the shutter is out of the way for. It’s usually measured in fractions of a second and, of course, the longer you set it for, the more light comes in and the more exposed the image becomes That’s the shutter speed.

Now, the other tricky thing about shutter speed is that the longer the shutter is open for, the more movement plays a factor and if the subject of your photo is not standing still then your photo will come out blurred. So, long shutter speeds are fine to use in dark conditions but only if the subject of your photo is static.


Once you’d controlled how the light comes into the camera, the only other difference you could make with old film cameras was to choose how sensitive to light your film was going to be. It was called the speed of the film because it was about how quickly the film reacted light. Typically you used to go and buy your Kodak film with a speed of somewhere between 100 and 400 and it was quoted in ASA.

These days, of course, not many people use film but the image sensor works in much the same way and you can set it to whatever light sensitivity you like. The only difference is that it’s now quoted in ISO just to confuse you but the scale is essentially the same.

A low ISO means that the film isn’t particularly sensitive to light, so it’s good for bright sunny days. If it’s pretty dark where you’re taking photos you’d want your camera set to a high ISO so that it’ll be very sensitive to the small amount of light available and so still be able to take a decent picture.

So, having a camera with a good ISO range, 100-6400 for example, is important so that you can take good pictures at low light levels and that’s important so that you can follow the first tip of beginners photography:


Don’t get me wrong here. The flash is a fantastic invention. It’s a brilliant way of providing light when there isn’t enough naturally to take a photo. The only trouble is that it’s very hard to use well.

It’s a whacking great, blue, artificial light source that creates a whole shadow and perspective that isn’t there and, nine times out of ten, you’ll end up with a photo that doesn’t look much like the scene you’re trying to capture.


Worse still, and probably the greatest flash crime of all, is when people use the flash to take photos of objects far away. All the happens is that the flash goes off and reflects all the light back off objects in the foreground leaving the background virtually black. The classic example is a sun set. You’ve got low light conditions, so your camera will flash which will bring the trees in the foreground up lovely and bright and make the all the beautiful colours in the distance look like night.

Most cameras will try to pop up the flash at the first sniff of low light because it’s the manufacturers job to make sure that your camera will offer a properly exposed image whether it’s the one you’re trying to take or not. Compact cameras are paricularly bad for this and it’s often a good idea to turn the flash off except for when it’s really just too dark to get anything at all.


Manufacturers have realised in the last few years that sometimes you’ll need to tell the camera what it is that you’re trying to take a picture of so that it can make sure it doesn’t accidentally ruin your shots with the flash and instead it can adjust the aperture and shutter settings to something more suitable.

So, now you’ll see 10 or 20 scene modes on your camera with little pictures next to them for just about any occasion you could want to take a snap. There’s ones for night scenes, candlight, snow scenes, sports scenes, baby mode, sunsets and all sorts of others. Each one represents a different selection of shutter speed, aperture, ISO and focus settings which will be most appropirate for capturing your shot. Most of them are really well designed, so do use them because they will give you better pictures.

Thankfully cameras are getting even better at working out what it is you’re trying to take pictures of and a lot of them these days have an intelligent scene mode, or intelligent auto it might be called, which will guess what you’re doing. So, if you’re not sure what the scene is, just set it to intelligent auto and it’ll do the work for you. It won’t always get it right but some makes are better than others at doing it.



One mode you’ll find very useful is macro mode. Macro photography is all about taking images in extreme close up. You won’t find it on most DSLRs because you’ll need special macro lenses but all good compacts will have a macro mode, some of which will allow you to take images at distances of just 1cm and it’s defintely worth using if you are trying to capture very fine detail.


All compacts and most DSLRs will come with some sort of lens that allows you to zoom in and out of your subject. Bear in mind that digital zoom is not the same as optical zoom. Optical zoom is true zoom and maintains quality at all times whereas digital zoom will bring the image closer to you but will pixelate the image at the same time.

When zooming right up close on a subject, it’s very hard to keep the camera still. In bright light it’s not so much of a problem because you can still use fast shutter speeds to prevent blur, but in low light with a slower speed, it’s almost impossible to get a sharp shot.

There’s two major ways to avoid it. One is to use a tripod but that’s a pain to carry around and even more annoying to set up. So, the next best thing is to switch on your camera’s image stabiliser funtion. If it’s DSLR it might have one in the shape of vibration reduction, if it’s a compact it’ll probably have two with another called something along the lines of image stabilisation. Switch them on and you’ll get a steadier picture. If you really want to pull out all the stops, you could try putting the camera in sports mode too which will force it to shoot at the fastest shutter speeds it can.


At the other end of the scale, it’s worth noting that when you shoot in wide angle, it will, of course, distort everything in the foreground. Now that’s fun and interesing for an album cover but if you’re taking snaps of your other half it will probably make them look very ugly and they will probably throw the camera at your head when you show them the photo of their face that looks like its reflected in the back of a spoon. A lens set at 50mm zoom is where you want to be at for portraits.


Out of the box, most cameras will automatically focus on whatever is in the middle of the frame. A lot of the time that’s ok but often you’ll want the subject of your shot to be off-centre, in which case, there’s few bits and pieces you can do.

One good trick is to put your subject in the middle of the frame, half press the shutter release so that your camera auto-focuses and then, keeping that button half pressed, you can move the frame to where you want it and push down the rest of the button to take the shot without it refocusing.

The trouble is that a lot of cameras won’t let you do that. Cameraphones are particularly bad for this. But help is at hand in all sorts of different ways. Scene modes are useful here again. You can tell the camera that you’re taking a landscape shot and it will make sure it’s focused in the distance no matter what you put in the foreground. Better still are modes such as face detection which will automatically identify any faces in frame an focus in on them wherever they are.

On DSLRs there are lots of different focus settings to play with. You can chose the size and sector of the frame that you’d like to use for the focal reference or quite a good one is to use the AF lock button that most have. It works on the same principle as holding the shutter release button half way down only this time, it’s a button all to itself which you’ve got to keep your thumb on.


Lastly, if you still can’t get the focus as you want it, you can always just switch to manual mode which you’ll usually find as a switch on the side of the lens.


Sometimes you’ll find that your the colours in your photographs don’t look as they should and usually that’s because the white balance is off. White balance is done automatically most of the time but sometimes you’ll need to tell your camera what white actually looks like so that it can accurately reproduce all the other colours. You’re essentially giving it a point a reference to work from.

You’ll often see the effects of bad white balancing when you take photos under strip lighting, which is a lot bluer than natural light, or bulb light which is a lot more yellow. Most cameras will have a number of different presets for white balance with pictures next to the them for bulbs, shadows, cloudy weather and all sorts of other light conditions. Pick the right one and you’ll notice all the colours start to look a hell of a lot better.


Higher end cameras allow you to manually set the white balance by focusing the lens on a uniform white surface – usually a wall or a piece of paper. It’ll give a more accurate representation of your particular light conditions than a preset value and you’ll get better shots. Worth using if you have the time.


Sometimes you can set your camera to the right mode, you can have what you think are the perfect aperture and shutter speed settings but still you’re not getting the photo you want.

Most of the time, it’ll be because the camera is taking its light reading from the wrong place. If you look at the pictures below of my untidy desk and monitor, I’ve metered the light on screen in the one on the left and you can’t see anything else but if, like on the right, you meter on a darker part of the frame then it’ll make sure that all those parts are bright enough at the expense of the screen which comes across unusually bright.

You can do that before you take the shot by using the AE-Lock button on a DSLR much as the same we did with the AF-lock but a simpler way you can do it is with exposure control which the +/- button you’ll find on all cameras

It’s basically a brightness setting. It won’t change the brightness of certain objects in your photos relative to others but it will lighten or darken the whole image so that you can at least see what it is you’re trying to capture.


This function is generally only available on DSLRs but this is where exposure control really comes into its own. If you’re not quite sure how over or underexposed you want your image to be, some cameras will let you take a bunch of photos of the same image in rapid fire and with a different exposure setting each time.

You can set how many shots you want to take and at what brightness intervals you want to choose. You end up going through a lot of shots but you’re guaranteed to capture the mood you’re after and, since it’s digital photography, you can just delete all the ones you don’t like; which brings me onto my next tip…


It sounds obvious but memory cards are cheap as chips these days. You can pick up 4GB SDs for a fiver on Amazon which can store hundreds of hi-res images.

You’re not going to run out of space, you’re not wasting any resources and you can always delete anything you don’t like later. Just let rip, paricularly when you’re happy with how you’ve set your camera up for your environment, and when you’ve found a subject you’re interested in.

Work it from all angles, from differing distances and sometimes don’t even look. I’ve taken some excellent photos shooting from the hip. It’s fun, you can catch people of guard and you’ll be surprised how interesting the shots look. It works particularly well with good DSLRs because they’re much better at taking instant shots and much better at coping with with any bizarre focusing issues and light conditions you might be randomly throwing at it.


Before the invention of Photoshop and other picture editing software, if photography wasn’t all about exposure, it was about framing. Getting a shot framed right is probably the most artistic part of photography but if you’re not naturally good at it, don’t worry you will get better. You can always crop your shots anyway.

One of the joys of photography is discovering your own style and it’s not really the place of a tech blog to start telling you all about the finer points of art but there are a couple of basic ideas that are worth bearing in mind.


The first is to make sure you’ve got a some foreground in your shots as well as background. You’ll often see very dull landscape shots that never really capture the beauty of a scene. Landscapes are some of the hardest pictures to take well but if you add some foreground like a dead tree or some cattle and suddenly your picture has life and context. Photos with an excellent composition will lead the eye through from foreground to background.

leading eye.jpg

Probably my favourite framing tip is the rule of thirds which simply put says not to place your subject directly in the middle of the frame. It’s not very interesting and it’s not particularly imaginative.

Instead, place the subject one third of the way over from either the top, bottom, left or right of the frame and you instantly have something that looks better. When a shot is uneven, it adds an imbalance and a conflict to the eye and that creates drama in your photography. Most cameras come with a grid overlay to help you find the thirds of the frame but you’ll probably find you can do it just as well by eye.

There’s plenty of other bits and bobs you can pick up on framing and composition if your read around or through your own trials, but these are a good place to start. My only other advice would be to try to think away from the obvious shot. Experiment at being too close or at an angle see what you come up with instead.


Mess around with the colour settings on your camera. Some compacts and all DSLRs come with colour control presets which are defintely worth exploring and the two I would heartily recommend are Vivid colour mode and Black & White. The Vivid mode is fantastic if you’re on holiday somewhere bright and exotic. It makes all the colours look beautiful and gives you some really stunning shots. If I shoot in colour, I usually have the setting to Vivid.


My personal favourite at the moment is probably black and white photography for a number of reasons. One is that it’s very forgiving. It makes every shot look like an instant classic from a photo of a mountainside to a quick snap of some bloke on the train. It brings out textured sufaces beautifully which might ordinarily be missed in colour.

B&W 1.jpg

The other great area for black an white is in portraits. It flattens most skin tones, removes most blemishes and you’ll generally find that even the most camera shy will be quite happy with how you capture them in black and white.


DSLRs will let you set your own colour modes by adjusting the contrast, colour and brightness and save them for later use. Well worth doing if you own a DSLR and, for my money, well worth buying one for.


I’m not going to suggest you go out and biy a set of lights but I would tell to keep an eye on from where it is your shot’s illuninated. Side lighthing is nice and dramatic, front lighting is great if you want to capture a bright, blue sky and although backlighting is trickier to get the hang of in terms of getting the exposure levels right, it’s well worth experimenting with.


You’ll probably end up with a lot of badly exposed and blurred shots 90% of the time but you can get some fantastic results with longer exposures. It works particularly well if only one element of your composition is moving while the others stay still. The classic examples are photos of waterfalls where the water blurs and it can looks like sugar or mist for magical, if slightly cheesy, effects but probably the most fun is night scenes such as the blur of car lights around a city scene at night.


You’ll generally need to use tripods for these shots and with the night exposures you’ll need to use bulb or B mode on your camera which allows you to hold down the shutter release for as long as you want. In general, if you’re shooting handheld, you probably don’t want to go any lower than 1/60th of a second to be guaranteed sharp shots.


There’s all sorts of other tips and tricks of photography but that’s certainly enough to work with as far as a beginners guide goes. If you’ve got to grips with all of that lot and you still want more, it’s probably time to start forking out for some more equipment, and perhaps a good place to start would be working out how to actually use the flash.