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Don’t Need No DSLR: Fixing Blurry Photos with Photographer Math

“My camera is too slow.  All the photos I take indoors without a flash or outside when it’s not really bright out are blurry.  Should I get a DSLR?”

 

Do your low light photos come out looking like the photo on the left instead of the photo on the right? (both taken by me, under very similar lighting conditions, with similar cameras) If so, continue reading.

  

There are ways that you can probably solve this without buying a new camera (at least, not an expensive one), if this is your main concern.  It all hinges on your understanding of the relationship between three things:  aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.  I call it “photographer math”.  Let me explain that using an old engineer’s saying:

“You can get it fast, good, or cheap.  Pick two.

If you want it fast and good, it won’t be cheap.

If you want it cheap and good, it won’t be fast.

If you want it cheap and fast, it won’t be good.”

 

The same applies, in a way, to low light photography, only the three factors are “noise” “sharpness” and “depth of field” (DOF).  In low light conditions, especially extreme low light situations, you can only pick two, and each is tied to the three things I mentioned earlier (aperture, shutter speed, ISO).  Here’s my quick and dirty explanation:

ISO is the digital term for what used to be “film speed”, and determines how quickly your camera can “develop” the image it’s exposed to.  What ISO determines is how “light sensitive” the sensor is.  The more light sensitive (higher number), the faster the shutter can take a photo and still have the shot be bright.  However, the higher the ISO, the more “noise” (those grainy little dots) you get in your photos.

Shutter speed is how long the shutter on your camera is actually open and allowing light to create a photo on the sensor.  If it sounds like “CLICK” it’s probably set pretty fast.  If it sounds like “ka-click” or especially “ka———-click”, it’s probably set slow.  The faster your shutter speed is set, the less blur you will get in your photos.  However, the faster you set your shutter, the less light you’re allowing in, resulting in a darker image.

Aperture (also known as the F-stop) is the size of the hole that the light goes through in your lens on its way to the sensor, and it determines a few things.  For one, aperture determines the depth of field in a photo; if you want most of the frame to be in focus, you need a higher aperture (higher number, smaller hole), if you want a shallow depth of field, you need a lower one (lower number, bigger hole).  The way aperture comes into play in low light photography has to do with the fact that the lower (number) the aperture, the more light will flow through your lens.  The lower the aperture, the less time it takes to “develop” the image in the camera, resulting in a brighter image.  However, the lower you set the aperture, the less depth of field you have.

Remember that saying from earlier?  Well, the photography equation goes like this:

If you want it to be noiseless (low ISO) and sharp (fast shutter speed), it won’t have much depth of field (low aperture).

If you want it to be sharp (fast shutter speed) and have a large DOF (high aperture), it will be noisy (high ISO).

If you want it to have a large DOF (high aperture) and be noiseless (low ISO), it will be blurry (slow shutter speed).

 

If you’re really concerned about light, then you need to choose which of the three factors (noise, sharpness, DOF) is most important to you, and raise the other two using a similar equation.  If you need a large DOF, then set the ISO pretty high and the shutter as low as you’re comfortable so you can have maximum control of the aperture.  If you need a noiseless image, set the aperture as low as it will go and the shutter as low as you’re comfortable with, so that you can get the ISO as low as possible.  If you need a sharp image, set the ISO pretty high and the aperture very low, so that you can make use of a higher shutter speed.  If the main issue you’ve been having is blur, you want to set your shutter speed to relatively fast (say, 1/60th), your aperture as low as it will go, and your ISO fairly high (at least 1600).

As an example of what I mentioned above, take a look at this image.  In order to have a sharp, un-blurry image, I chose to use a high ISO and low aperture setting so that I could maintain a fast shutter speed:

Exposure: 0.003 sec (1/400)
Aperture: f/1.8
ISO: 1600

Now, in a pinch you may need to max out all three of these, but for most situations that casual photographers (or even serious amateurs) will encounter, boosting one or two of the factors will suffice.  Barring that, tripods are extremely useful if you’re going to be doing a lot of low light work.

Now: get out your manual, figure out where your camera’s settings for shutter speed/ISO/aperture are, and go take some low light photos!  If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, post a link to your photo in the comments here!

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Don’t need no DSLR: Using the Camera You Have

You say that you don’t like your camera.  You aren’t happy with the pictures it takes, so you think that you need a DSLR.

This is where I ask:  have you read your camera’s manual cover to cover?  Do you know and understand all the functions of your camera?

If you answered “no” to both of those questions, the problem isn’t your camera, per se.  The problem is, in all likelihood, that you don’t know how to use it.

The Panasonic Lumix PNS that I shot my entire thesis with.

Most point and shoot (PNS) cameras made in the last 3 years have 90% of the same functions that I use on my supposedly-fancy DSLR.  They have manual control of the shutter speed, the ISO, and the aperture.  They have “priority modes”.  They have controls for color, white balance, and even focus points.  Those things, along with a knowledge of composition rules (and how/when to break them), are what makes the difference between a snapshot and a photograph.

One of the main themes you’ll find in my “Don’t need no DSLR” series is learning how to work with what you have to achieve the look you want.  Most readers will find that their current PNS camera is capable of far more than they realize.  For those whose cameras are not quite so flexible, I will have a post on what cameras you can purchase that won’t break your wallet to buy or your back to carry.

As you read through this series, I’m hoping that you will learn what a DSLR can and cannot do for your photography, the basics of the “photographer’s math” that makes a good photo, the importance of learning processing, and much more.

But for now, if you haven’t already, go read your manual and fiddle around with your camera for awhile!

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No, you don’t need a DSLR.

At least once a week, I get a question that goes something like this:

“I want to take pictures like yours.  What camera do I need?”

“I’m thinking about buying a DSLR so I can take better pictures.  What should I buy?”

“My camera is too slow/doesn’t shoot indoors well/doesn’t take good pictures.  Should I get a DSLR?”

 

Questions like these make up, by a large margin, the bulk of the questions that I get about photography.  Not “how did you take that shot?” not “what’s something easy I can do to be a better photographer?” not even “how did you learn photography?”.  9 times out of 10, I get questions that are variations on the theme that a DSLR is what makes a good photo.

Guess what?  9 times out of 10, my answer is a variation on “learn the basic principles of photography and how to use the camera you have, first”.

I’m going to be starting a series of posts called “Don’t need no DSLR”, about what a DSLR can/cannot do for you as a photographer, what you should look at buying, what you can do with the camera you have, and why thinking that my camera makes my photos what they are is as stupid as thinking that the food from a talented chef is only as good as the stove he cooks on.

Keep your eyes peeled!

Me with a (borrowed) original Canon Rebel. It was a godsend. I shot my entire thesis with an advanced point and shoot, and my committee never had a clue.