Five hints for digital photos

Photography is photography, up to a point. But there are some things about digital that are mostly specific to it.

Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.
Gordon Haff
4 min read

I've been taking digital photographs seriously for a few years now--since I first purchased a Canon Powershot G5 (since upgraded). Along the way, I've run into a few things that really make a difference to my photography in one way or another. None are rocket science; a couple are just about breaking out of film-centric ways of thinking. But they're practices that make my photographs better or my life easier. (Of course, lots of other factors matter but many of these are common whether you shoot on film or a sensor.)

"Film" is free. This is not a call to abandon planning and composition in favor of firing away willy-nilly. Other than with certain types of action photography, I find it only marginally beneficial to shoot vastly more versions of a shot than I would have if I were shooting film. Rather, here are some of the useful practices that I've only slowly adopted:

  • Shoot identifying shots of signs. This will make it easier to organize things later and the sign may contain useful information as well.
  • Experiment with unusual types of shots or subjects. (The quick feedback is handy too.)
  • Document things. I'm a bit sorry that I didn't take more pictures of home construction projects and the like over the years.
  • Don't forget the video. Even if it's in the vein of a snapshot, sometimes the video capability that's in many cameras is the best way to record something.

Set you camera's clock and note the time. The time stamps that the camera places in digital photos make it much easier to organize photos and keep them organized. The data is even more useful if you remember to set the camera's clock. (I use local time although some will argue for setting the camera to either your home time or Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and leaving it there.) For travel photos, taking a few basic notes about where you were and when makes the stored time even more useful. Automatic geotagging using GPS (i.e. location information stored directly into photos) is coming but it's not here today.

The histogram is your friend. The instant feedback of digital photography is unquestionably a win. However, evaluating subtleties of lighting on a small LCD in bright sunlight is somewhere between difficult and impossible. However, many cameras can also be set to display a histogram--basically a graph that displays the brightness levels in the scene from darkest to brightest. This Luminous Landscape article goes into more detail, but basically you typically want to keep the photo's tones within the range of the histogram. Otherwise, it means that a range of lighter tones are all being captured as pure white or that a range of darker tones are all being captured as black.

Underexpose. Continuing on the above thought, as a general rule, "burning out" highlights (having light tones go white) is a bigger aesthetic problem than losing some shadow detail. Many cameras also indicate that highlights are being "clipped" by showing a blinking indication in the white areas of the LCD display. For this reason, it often makes sense to shoot digital photos slightly darker than the camera's nominal light meter setting would indicate. I typically set my camera to underexpose by about 1/3 of an f-stop by default. (Many photographers follow a similar practice when shooting color slide film, for similar reasons.)

Use the ISO control. One lever that we have at our disposal with digital photography that we don't with film (unless you swap out the type of film in the camera) is ISO. The ISO setting essentially trades off higher sensitivity (which allows shooting at a higher shutter speed or a smaller f-stop) against higher noise. (In the case of film, the trade-off is against larger grain and reduced shadow detail--which have analogs to noise although the specifics are different.)

Today, this lever is of limited utility with compact cameras because their small sensors get noisy quite quickly as you increase ISO above a typical base level of about 100--though it may still be a reasonable trade-off versus not taking a photo at all. (See here for an ISO 1600 shot with a Canon Powershot G9.) However, with larger sensor digital SLRs, quality can remain quite high even at higher ISOs and, in general, sensor sensitivity will improve over time--even if manufacturers do tend to prioritize megapixels over noise more than many photographers would like.

Finally, having the right tools and workflows to ingest, process, manage, and backup your digital photos on a PC make an enormous difference. In my case, Adobe Lightroom has utterly transformed how I work with my photos. But that's for another post.