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It's Back-to-School Time: Get Out That Camera!

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In part 1 of a two-part series, Sarah Bay Williams, author of The Digital Shoebox: How to Organize, Find, and Share Your Photos, shows how to grab quality photos of your kids' school activities, while they're still young enough to like smiling for the camera.
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Folks, it's "back to school" time again! I don't know why, but this season always gets me right in the gut. Your kids will be off to college before you know it, so documenting these days is well worth the effort. You thought you took a lot of photos over the summer? Get ready to fill up even more space on your hard drives.

Plenty of articles are available for users of digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, with great tips for taking better photos. This article shows you how to work with a compact camera—the type that most people carry around in a pocket or purse. You'll learn how to gain a little more control with your camera, so you can take great photos of the school play or the homecoming game. In part 2 of this series, I'll give you some guidance on organizing those photos once they're off of your camera, as well as some unique and creative ways to share your shots.

This series is based on my book The Digital Shoebox: How to Organize, Find, and Share Your Photos, where the little character shown in Figure 1 helps you to get familiar with the features of your camera, taking more photos with better results.

Figure 1 Artwork by Christian Kasperkovitz.

I have and use a variety of cameras; for example, a Leica D-Lux 3, a Samsung L210A, and an ancient Canon SD400. In this article, I offer general instructions that should apply to almost any point-and-shoot camera, but obviously camera models differ widely. For the examples, my point of reference is an A series Canon (Canon A2100 IS) or the Canon PowerShot SD990 IS. The new Canon PowerShot S90 also has a useful mode dial that I'll talk about shortly.

Grab Your Point-and-Shoot and Go Manual

If you generally use your camera in auto mode, it's time to take a spin with some manual settings. Most compact cameras have a manual or program mode with settings that control ISO (sensitivity to light), white balance, and metering, all of which can be used very effectively in manual modes. Your camera may even let you choose your f-stops (exposure compensation on some compact cameras), and shutter speeds.

First, set your camera to its manual or program setting by rotating the little dial that indicates shooting modes to M (manual) or P (program), whichever your camera offers.

Once in manual or program mode, you'll adjust your camera settings by pressing the Menu, Set, Func./Set, or Home button, which might be located near the LCD screen on the back of your camera in the center of the navigation circle, or just next to that circle. After you press the appropriate button, most cameras have a little camera, wrench, or toolbox as an icon in the menu items. This is where you'll find the adjustable camera settings. Some cameras have a menu screen showing two or more tabs on the side or top with the camera icon, a wrench, or a toolbox icon, and perhaps a display icon. You're looking for the camera icon, which usually indicates functions that have to do with how the photos will look and how the camera will take a photo, such as white balance and ISO (see Figure 2).

Eliminating Color Cast

The white balance (WB) setting helps the camera to process color under various lighting conditions, eliminating strange color casts. If your camera is set to Auto White Balance (AWB), the camera is judging on the fly whether you're using daylight, cloudy weather, indoor lamplight (tungsten), or fluorescent light. You could just leave your camera set on AWB and cross your fingers. But if you know you're going to be taking photos all day long at a soccer game in sunny weather, set your camera's WB setting to the little sun icon, as opposed to the cloud, light bulb, or bar with lines radiating out of it (which represents fluorescent lighting).

A Sensitive Camera for Delicate Lighting Situations

The ISO setting controls the camera's sensitivity to light. As you increase the ISO from 100 to 800, for example, you get more bang for your lighting buck, which really just means that your camera is working overtime to amplify its sensitivity to the light it gathers to make an image. However, on compact cameras, a higher ISO setting often creates more noise (graininess) in the image. This problem may not be apparent on the tiny LCD screen on the back of your camera, but it starts showing up as you view images at larger sizes. With compact cameras, it's usually best to keep ISO at 400 or below; at higher settings, images tend to be riddled with noise.

Get Out the Spot Metering

Use the metering mode to specify how the camera will juggle the other two light-related functions:

  • F-stop. Also called exposure value (EV). The f-stop or exposure is the diameter of the aperture (hole) that lets light into the camera.
  • Shutter speed. The period of time during which the light is allowed to enter through the aperture.

The camera will use a small hole (high f-stop/small aperture) and a quick shutter speed (for example, 1/1000 of a second) proportionally in situations of extreme bright light, such as when you're shooting photos outdoors on a sunny day. Indoors during a low-lit scene, such as when watching a play in the school theater, the camera will use a larger hole (low f-stop/large aperture) and a slow shutter speed, which can produce more blurring if there's motion in frame.

The metering mode tells the camera to determine f-stop and shutter speed relative to the frame in one of three ways:

  • Whole scene in the frame
  • Just the center of the frame
  • Center-weighted account of the whole frame

For purposes of this article, select center frame metering, most likely indicated by a rectangle with a dot in the center.

Exposing for Success

With metering mode set to the center of the frame, when you press halfway down on the button you use to take pictures, which is called the shutter button, your camera will focus and meter for whatever you have in the center of the frame. If you keep the button pressed halfway, you can reframe your shot and maintain that exposure and focus.

Some cameras let you set the correct f-stop and shutter speed on the fly in manual mode, but most cameras with the program mode don't permit that. Program mode usually allows for white balance, ISO, metering control, and exposure compensation. The shutter speed will be determined by the center frame metering. Cameras that don't let you change shutter speeds on the fly usually have a setting to allow for a long shutter, which might be considered slower than 1/10 of a second, and up to 60 seconds for some compact cameras.

Most cameras also have a slow synchro mode, which uses a flash to illuminate close subjects but keeps the shutter open slightly longer than the flash illumination to allow for exposing a dark background. For cameras that allow you to set the f-stop and shutter speed on the fly in the manual setting, you'll most likely be navigating with a dedicated button or your navigation/arrow buttons. You may have to press a function button first.

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