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Many people start taking pictures with a new camera and think, "why are my
pictures so bad?" The first reaction is that there's something wrong with
the camera. (Of course!) Well, not so fast. There could be many reasons why
pictures look bad, and yes, perhaps something's wrong with the camera.
But, let's try to rule everything else out first. If you're really
new to photography, you may first want to look at Introduction to Photography Technique. But,
since you're here, you might as well stay and read.
There are three main technical elements to having a picture come out
well: the proper exposure, the media capturing the light (film or digital
camera), and the way the photo is printed. You may have taken a picture
well, but if you don't use good film, or if it was printed poorly,
then you may still end up with a bad photo. If you have good equipment
and the technical printing is good, but you're still not satisfied, this
could be due two other reasons. On one hand, your expectations may be
way too high. Photos you see in books are often edited in such a way
that make them look far better than they would if the photographer had
merely snapped a picture and instantly printed it. Top photos rarely
look that good right out of the camera, which we'll discuss shortly.
On the other extreme, if you don't like your photos, perhaps it's simply
that you don't take pictures well. But, let's not assume that just yet;
it could be anything at this point, so let's go over all of the reasons.
I know how you feel. You just want your photos to come out like those
you see in a book, or on some professional photographer's website. The
two main reasons for people's dissatisfaction with their pictures are
creative and technical. On the creative side, there are issues such
as composition (choosing how to frame the picture well), or even on
what to shoot in the first place. But most people who complain about
their photos usually do so because they feel there is a technical problem.
Is it the camera's fault? Or, the lab that printed the pictures?
Or<gasp>could it be the photographer's fault?
The thing to realize is that most professional photos you see in books
or postcards don't just pop out of the camera like that. More often
than not, post-processing is done to an image after it was shot. This
isn't necessarily cheatingit's simply how professional photography is
done. The reason is that data gathered by a camera is not necessarily
the best form to reproduce it in print form, so to make a photo look
really good, one has to know those minute idiosyncrasies of both sides
of the process ahead of time. For example, some films or digital cameras
gather data in darker areas better than lighter areas, which may call for
slight exposure compensation when the picture is being shot. Similarly,
when the picture is printed, it helps to know what kind of paper and
printing process is used, so that the image can be optmized with those
materials in mind. If a picture that was shot with only one side of
the equasion, it might look pretty bad. Thus, knowing your equipment
and how you are going to make prints counts for a lot.
But, let's face it, most people don't know that stuff, nor do they want
to. They just want to take good pictures with fairly automated cameras,
and get good results. In order to do that, more and more automated cameras
and printing devices are produced that meet the "typical" needs of most
consumers, so that most pictures come out pretty well. But, at the higher
end, a lot of those processes end up "watering down" the features found
in professional level processing that makes really good pictures shine.
Hence, the double-edged sword of using automated consumer-level products.
No problem with thatyou just need to understand that you're not going
to take those really great pictures you see in books and postcards, unless
you're really lucky.
The Camera's Fault?
Ok, let's say you're realistic in your expectations, and you're still
complaining that your prints don't look good. So, let's get to the
question that's really on your mind. It's an automated, fairly expensive
digital camera and you're still getting some bad picturesit must be the
camera's fault, right? It's easy to blame the camera when your photos
are over- or under-exposed, washed out, unsharp (out of focus), or too
bright from an overly zealous flash. All of these are common complaints
from people who feel they're doing a simple task: pointing the camera at
what they want and clicking the shutter. If it were the camera's fault,
few people would ever take good pictures for this simple reason: almost
all cameras do the same sort of thing. They measure light and capture it
on film (or a digital sensor). This isn't rocket science. If something
is wrong with the camera, no pictures would ever come out well, so if
you're complaining about only a portion of your pictures, chances are
the camera's fine.
The Point-n-Shoot Technique
Despite the name point-n-shoot, the act of indiscriminantly "pointing
and shooting" does not always produce good photos. When pictures look bad,
it's often because people think that what they see will simply come out
that way in a photo. If it were only that easy. Aside from composition
problems, this technique often produces technical errors, such as
something throwing off the focus or the light (meter) measurements.
There may be a very bright object off to the side, or the middle may
be very dark, or it could be that the range of light (from bright to
dark) exceeds what the film or digital sensor can reproduce. Other
times, the issue is of a different technical nature; the person they
are photographing is out of focus, while some object in the background
is perfectly sharp. This is especially problematic when photographing
two people standing together, or if you put your subject on the side of
The correct procedure for addressing all these problems is to understand
the way cameras take pictures. They all go through three distinct
steps: 1) focus on the subject, 2) measure the light, 3) take the picture.
While professionals know to do these steps separately with their SLR
cameras, the typical "point-and-shoot" camera appears to do do all
them at once to make the process simpler for the average consumer.
In fact, you know that annoying delay between the time you press the button
and when the picture actually snaps? That's the camera doing the first
two steps before it can perform the third. While it is clearly a simple
process that will produce many good photos, you will still get a lot of
bad pictures (probably those you're complaining about) because this simple
process is a little too simple for many scenarios, which we'll address.
The good news is that correct procedure is almost as simple. Almost all
point-n-shoot cameras have a little green light that illuminates when
you press the shutter button half way. Yes, the shutter button has a
"half-way" point that most people don't know about. When you do this,
the camera focuses on whatever is in the middle of the frame. This is
also where it measures the light for proper exposure. Regardless of how
you want to frame the picture in the end, it's important that you focus
and meter directly on the subject before actually taking the photo.
(If there are two people, focus on just one of them.) When you've
focused on that point, the green light will go on. Now hold that focus
point (by keeping your finger pressing lightly on the shutter button,
thereby keeping the little green light lit), then re-frame the photo
as you want it before completing the button press. This will improve 90%
of your bad pictures. Even better, that long time lag goes away. Once you
have the green-light and are ready to shoot, the instant you press the
shutter button the remaining half-way, the picture will shoot. You'll find
you're not just getting technically better pictures, but you're getting
better compositions as well. (Catching the kid just before plunging into
the pool, for example.)
The other aspect to using this shooting technique is that you're also
assuring that the camera is measuring the proper light for the photo
you want (composition), not necessarily the one that happens to be in
view at the time you press the button. Therefore, this technique will
eliminate most over- or under-exposure problems, especially for those
situations where the subject and the background have very strong light
Speaking of ranges of light, this brings up another important point:
People expect that what they see through the camera is exactly what
they're going to get in print. (Worse, they expect this from other
photographers!) While this may be the case for simple, outdoor daylight
pictures at times, there are other scenes that are more difficult for
one simple reason: your eye can see more light at one time than the
camera can. Put another way, let's rate the darkest light you can
see as "1", and the brightest light you could see as "16". Well,
cameras can only see 5 to 7 of those segments in a single picture. That
is, it can capture the entire range of light, just not at the same time.
This is called, dynamic range. Digital camera sensors (as well as different
film types) all vary in their dynamic range, but a general rule of thumb is
that less expensive digital cameras have a smaller dynamic range.
This makes for another data point in determining what is wrong with those
pictures that you don't like.
The first thing people think of when they think of photography lighting
is the flash. But, people often expect too much from what it can do.
They don't use it when they should (like in a very bright sunny day),
but they expect light to be perfect when shooting at night, which is
often the wrong assumption. So, let's review a few things about flashes:
Flashes only light up about 10 feet in front of the camera.
Shooting at a dinner table or in a big room, the light from the flash
will "fall off" as the distance increases. Don't expect much from taking
a photo down a long table, or any sitaution where you want to balance
the background and the foreground.
Flashes do nothing for night landscape photography.
Don't try taking pictures of your friends in front of the Golden Gate
Bridge at night and expect a balanced exposure. The flash will burst the
people fine, but the bridge will hardly be visible at all. At night,
a proper exposure of the bridge is about 15-30 seconds. Your snapshot
at 1/60 of a second won't even touch it.
Don't shoot in front of glass display cases, or through windows.
The flash is only going to bounce off the glass and give you a huge
white light in the photo. Chances are you'll see absolutely nothing
on the other side. Once you know this, it's hilarious to watch people
by the hundreds go to the observations decks of really high buildings,
and take a photo of the gorgeous skyline through a window, flashes
bursting, and knowing that none of those photos will come out. Again,
it requires about 15-30 second exposures to get photos like that to
come out, and the flash has nothing to do with it.
People often complain that the flash washes out people's faces,
or that the photo seems overexposed. The problem is that people expect
to use a flash as the main light source, which is not a good idea in
the first place. (It's unnatural looking and comes from an unnatural
direction; so it's always going to look bad.) But, camera manufacturers
know that people expect this anyway, so they boost up the power on the
flash. The problem, however, is that it's often too bright for the
Many (but not all) point-n-shoot cameras have a way to reduce the flash
output when taking pictures. The reason for this is to give a more
accurate balance between the foreground (subject) and the background.
Oddly enough, the best time to use a flash is during the day, to reduce
the harsh shadows that you often see under eyes, under hat visors, or
in the shade under umbrellas. Use the flash during the day to make more
balanced photos. Even at night, a reduced flash power will give better
For a more comprehensive discussion on photographing people and the
use of a flash, see Photographing Native Peoples in Foreign Countries.
Most film companies actively promote 200 speed film to consumers, although
you can buy films that range from 100 to 800 speed at most places that
sell film. The higher the number, the "faster" the film, which is means
that a picture can be taken with very fast shutter speeds. This allows you
to take pictures in lower light, or not worry about hand-shake or people's
movements blurring your photos.
Sadly, the side effect of higher speed films like this is that they
tend to appear washed out, grainy, unsharp (although not necessarily
out of focus), and very muted/unrealistic colors. The main advantage
to to these films is taking pictures in lower light, but that's it.
Why focus on that? Because most consumers complain about blurry pictures,
and faster films solve this problem easily. Never mind that it often makes
for less attractive picturesthe greasy wheel gets the grease.
(In other words, "only fix the problems consumers complain about.")
So, avoid faster-speed films, and try to use films rated ISO 100 (or, 100
ASA) or less. (Yes, you may get a few blurry pictures now and then, but
in the end, you'll get a higher percentage of pictures that look good.)
Another problem that could result in bad photos might be the photo
lab that's making the prints. Often, people go to one-hour labs in the
local drug store or in malls. Whatever the case, the hitch is that while
film can be processed in an hour, the only way to get good prints
is for the lab technician to actually print them well. This requires
looking at each one individually and making appropriate color corrections.
(Remember, not every photo is the same, so they cannot be printed in an
assembly line process and expect them all to turn out perfectly.
This requires time and the willingness (on the lab's part) to throw away
the bad prints and redo them with color or brightness corrections.
While many photo labs are perfectly reasonable at making prints from
negatives for the consumer, it is not unusual to find labs that skimp
on the process (unintentionally, of course) because (let's be honest),
consumer film processing is a time and materials business. The less
time and fewer materials you spend, the more cost-effective it is to
have the business in the first place. Yes, photo labs will usually
reprint photos you're not happy with, but it doesn't necessarily mean
you're going to get a good result for certain complicated photos (such
as night shots, or oddly lit sunset pictures with broad dynamic range).
To make matters worse, even if they did examine individual photos,
it requires good judgment to determine a bad print from a good one.
It is less likely that one-hour photo lab personnel can do this,
even if they had the time or inclination to. Often, the way they
print the entire roll is by printing the first one or two photos to
see what the general color balance is from there, and then run the rest
roll the same way.
Surprisingly, many professional photo labs often have the same problem,
mostly because professionals don't use print film; they shoot slide film.
Accordingly, pro photo lab technicians often don't deal with making prints.
"So," you're thinking, "it can't be that hard to make good prints.
Someone must be able to do this well."
A good option is to look for pro labs that make prints for wedding or
portrait photographers, because they use print (negative) film, and the
lab must make good prints for them as part of their normal business
function. Be forewarned, however: these photo labs are going to charge
a lot more than your average drug store and probably take a few days
longer. yet, if you're shooting really well with a good camera (and lenses),
the difference may just be worth it.
Some people think if they send their film to Kodak or Fuji, they'll get
the best prints because they are the film companies themselves. Of all
people, one might think, they should know how to make good prints.
Unfortunately, this rarely turns out to be the case. The only time you
should send your film elsewhere for printing is if you have exhausted
all options for local labs, and you got a very good recommmendation for
an outside lab. Then it becomes a matter of doing research on the
internet (which you're already doing if you're reading this). Try
going to photo newsgroups or discussion forums, such as http://www.photo.net.
On the positive side, I don't want to imply that all photo labs or their
technicians are inadequate. Remember, I'm only addressing one possible
explanation (of many) that can account for why your bad prints look bad:
It's the person who operates the machine. The contrary may also be true,
that the operator at a one-hour photo lab is stellar. I once knew a
photographer that worked at a drug store's photo lab, and she made
the best prints from negative film I'd ever had made for me, even from
pro labs. (Too bad she doesn't work there anymore.) If you're really
out of ideas, then get really shmoozy with the lab's technician, go out
to lunch, talk shop, and see if you can get that extra special service
that should be, frankly, what they all should do.
(Be careful, you might get to know a real scary guy, like the one Robin
Williams played in the movie, One Hour Photo.)
Making Your Own Prints
There are alternatives, albeit potentially costly and/or time-consuming,
but well worth the effort if you have a little technical expertise.
Consider buying a scanner and scanning your film and printing them
digitally. Scanners aren't that expensive, and the technical skills in
making good prints aren't that difficult, but it does require not having
a fear of computers, and you must have a willingness to go through the
short, but very steep learning curve. The result is that you can shoot any
kind of film, scan your images, and either print them on photo-quality
home inkjet printers, or you can give the digital images to any photo
lab that can print digital files. That's right any photo lab will do
just fine, so long as they have the equipment (and it's likely they do
nowadays if you live in a reasonably modern part of the country).
With the proliferation of digital cameras these days, most labs can make
prints from digital images, and they'll come out exactly the same every
time. Whether any given print turns out "good" depends on the nature of
the digital file. For consumer-brand digital cameras, there is usually
only two things to consider: the resolution setting for the pictures you
shot, and the color balance on the digital sensor. For a discussion on
this, see What Camera Should I Buy? (Part 2) and Editing, sorting, scanning and archiving slides for a photography business. If you get your digital images
from a digital camera, skip this section. If you're scanning your own
images, quality will depend on the quality of your scanner and your
digital editing skills. This approach requires three things:
A Film Scanner
- You have a good scanner (or have the lab do it for
you, provided they have a good scanner)
- Your monitor is calibrated correctly so that the colors you see on
the screen will approximate properly to the final print
- Your image editing software and skills are up to par.
These may seem like a lot of barriers, I admit. That's why I don't
recommend it for those wary of computers. If you feel you're reasonably
proficient with computer software, then none of these issues should be a
As for the expense, a good scanner should run about $1000, and the software
ranges from free to $700 or so (if you choose Photoshop,
and the printer (about $150 or less for those that give really nice
results), but the benefits are worthwhile. That is, a bad print is wasted
money, whereas a good print is a good investment. Over time, you'll get
more "good prints" that you like that it'll feel worthwhile. What's more,
you can put them online, email them to friends, and do lots of other
things with them, like do digital art, digital composites, greeting cards,
invitations, and the list goes on and on.
I am avoiding making specific recommendations for products because there
are many good options to choose from, and it's the process of learning
about them which will make you good at using them later. You could use
what I use, but that may be overkill for many people. For a discussion
on what I have and how I use it, see Photography Equipment.
Since I whet your appetite with a discussion of using digital images,
why not discuss digital cameras? After all, you can avoid film and
processing, and just go right to print. Yes, that's true, and you
generally get much better, more consistent consumer-level prints from
digital cameras than you do from consumer-brand film. However, the subject
is too broad to discuss here. (See What Camera Should I Buy? (Part 2).)
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