GreyMatter, Personal

Picture Perfect!

There are countless websites and articles out there on how to take better photographs.  Some of them delve deep into technical specifications, while others focus on the Art of Composition.  While I do not have the time or the inclination to add a great deal to what is already published on the subject, I do believe there exists a significant gap – How does one get better at photography? This post will attempt to answer that.

Both, amateur photographers and snapshooters, often find themselves at the confusing end of a number of basic questions : How do I get better at photography?  Is it my camera or is it me?  Wouldn’t I need an expensive camera to take better photographs?  How many megapixels do I really need?  etc. etc. etc.

Here is my take on these questions, based on hundreds of manhours of reading and practical experience of 10-odd years…

* How technical do I need to get?

Most people starting out in photography assume one or the other extreme – I don’t really need to know any of this stuff  OR  I need to master all the buttons on the menu.  The reality is that the camera is just a tool to capture light.  What’s more important is the “art” that only exists in your imagination… in how you perceive what you see.

That said, it will help if you know a bit about the following concepts, irrespective of the make or model of your camera of choice :

  1. Aperture – The size of the opening that lets in light
  2. Shutter Speed – The amount of time the aperture is open, to let in light
  3. Exposure Compensation – Telling the camera’s light meter to over/under expose as per need (also known as EV +/-)
  4. White Balance – Telling the camera what really is “white”: Tungsten bulb, Sunlight, Flourescent lamp or some other?
  5. ISO Sensitivity – Sensitivity of the film (or CCD, in case of digital) to register light

I should mention that the first three of these points are equally important for any serious photography, irrespective of the technology or format.  However, WB and ISO are critically important to the digital photography world as the electronic CCD imposes some limitations to the medium that did not need as much intervention when it came to film.

Once you’ve mastered these basics, you will be able to perform the “adjustments” and tweaks you need to improve your results.  But remember, these are technicalities.  As much as possible, leave the details of setting the right exposure, etc. to the camera so that you are free to focus on the Art.

* Megapixel is a Myth

Megapixel matters if you intent to print the photograph in large size formats.  It also helps if you are not so good at composition, and often find yourself “cropping” extensively merely to get the shot you really wanted!  (More megapixels will mean even the cropped-up image will have enough information for a decent print)  Otherwise, it does not really matter.

About 3 megapixels is all you’ll need for great A4 snaps.  6 MPs will be more than enough for an 8×12 print.  I have printed 8×10 sizes from a good 1.3 MP Canon!  Just google “megapixel myth”, if you don’t believe this.

* Does a more expensive camera mean better pictures?

Think about it – Does buying a Ferrari make you a better driver?  Or owning a Steinway make you a better pianist?  Then why would the same not hold true when it comes to photography?!

The fact of the matter is that a more expensive camera offers a richer feature-set… one that will let you work in a wide variety of complex (light) conditions.  To illustrate the point, a camera that offers a burst mode of 2.5 frames per second will let you take 2.5 shots in a second when you’re trying to capture that elusive dolphin-leaping-through-the-ring at OceanWorld, but you have to know how and when to use that feature!  Similarly, an AutoISO in your digital SLR will automatically adjust the ISO setting upto the required level so that you don’t waste time fumbling for this setting when you’re trying to shoot your 3-year-old in his “Kodak” moment.  More expensive cameras are nice-to-have, not a necessity.

At the end of the day, when all is said and done, it comes down to your imagination – your unique perspective.

As one great photographer said, photography is nothing but “Painting with Light!” You are the artist, here.  “Light” is merely the medium.