The New York Times’s technology columnist, David Pogue, shares:
1. Half-pressing the shutter button (to prefocus) eliminates shutter lag.
Everyone hates shutter lag. That’s the half-second delay between the time you press the shutter button and the time the photo is actually snapped–during which your child, pet, or action photo slips away. (Pocket cams have shutter lag; S.L.R. cameras don’t.)
Shutter lag is the time it takes the camera to calculate focus and exposure. Thing is, you can make it calculate that stuff ahead of time. Aim the camera, anticipating where the subject will be, and half-press the shutter button. When you hear the beep, you’ve locked in the exposure and focus. Keep the button half-pressed; now you’re ready. When the subject appears, push the rest of the way down. Presto: no shutter lag!
2. For the blurred-background effect, back up and zoom in.
In technical terms, what you’re looking at is a limited depth of field. That’s a geek-shutterbug term meaning, “which part of the scene, front-to-back, is in focus.” Subject yes; background, no.
That beautiful, professional effect is easy to get if you have an S.L.R.; it practically happens automatically. (Dial up a wide aperture–a low f-stop number–to accentuate the effect.)
On a pocket cam, choose Portrait mode. Move your subjects away from the background–the farther, the better. Finally, use the back-up-and-zoom-in trick. That is, stand away from your subjects–the farther, the better–and then use the camera’s zoom to “bring you” back up close. Thanks to a quirk of optics, zooming in helps create a shallow depth of field.
You may look like a weirdo, backing way up like that. But it really works.
3. Force the flash outdoors.
It might not occur to you to use the flash when you’re taking pictures of people on a bright, sunny day. It certainly wouldn’t occur to the camera.
Problem is, the camera “reads” the scene and concludes that there’s tons of sunlight. But it’s not smart enough to recognize that the face you’re photographing is in shadow. You wind up with a dark, silhouetted face.
The solution is to force the ﬂash on–a very common photographer’s trick. The flash can provide just the right amount of fill light to brighten your subject’s face–without affecting the exposure of the background.
It eliminates the silhouette effect. Better yet, it provides very flattering front light. It softens smile lines and wrinkles, and it puts a nice twinkle in the subject’s eyes. (It also means that you can ignore the old “rule” about taking photos on a sunny day–the one that tells the photographer to “Stand with the sun behind you.”)
4. Exploit the magic hour.
Hate to break it to you, but serious photographers don’t get a lot of sleep. Show me an award-winning, breathtaking landscape–a pond shimmering in the woods, golden clouds surrounding a mountain peak–and I’ll show you someone who got up at 4:40 am to be ready with a tripod as the sun rose.
That hour after sunrise, and the hour before sunset, is known as the magic hour. The lower angle of the sun and the slightly denser atmosphere create rich, saturated tones, plus what photographers call sweet light. It’s an amazing, golden glow that makes everybody look beautiful, every building look enchanted, and every landscape look breathtaking.
It’s a far cry from the midday sun, which creates much harsher shadows and much more severe highlights. Landscape shooting is more difficult when the sun is high overhead on a bright, cloudless day.
5. Use a lampshade socket as a tripod.
Another chronic problem with pocket cams is getting blur when you don’t want it–which is just about any time you’re indoors without the flash. Yeah, yeah, we know: “Use a tripod.” But come on: for the average person on vacation or at school events, buying, hauling around, and setting up a tripod is a preposterous burden.
Often, there’s a wall, parked car, bureau, tree, pillar, door frame, or some other big, stationary object you can use instead, to prop up either the camera or your arms.
But here’s my favorite trick: It turns out that the threads at the top of just about any lamp–the place where the lampshade screws on–are precisely the same diameter as a tripod mount! In a pinch, you can whip off the lampshade, screw on the camera, and presto: You’ve got a rock-steady indoor tripod.
People might think you’re a genius, a nutcase, or a genius nutcase, but never mind. It works.
Adding to Davids tricks is Lifehacker, chipping in some tips they’ve collected over the years:
- Exhale and pull elbows in for steady shots: Especially if you’re not rocking a vibration-control lens on a DSLR rig, this body-steadying practice can make all the difference for no-flash shots.
- Use the Unsharp Mask/Smart Sharpen for crisper shots: Photojojo explains how to use Photoshop (and similar photo editing tools) to get finer contrast on digital camera pics. Our commenters wisely point out, however, that the Smart Sharpen tool in Photoshop CS1 and later is the way to go.
- Deal with shooting in direct light: Because you, and your subjects, can’t always get up at the hour just after dawn, Digital Photography School explains how to work with, and around, a hard sun.
- Get behind something to shoot more candidly: As commenter Rick pointed out (taken from Digital Photography School’s tips), it’s hard to walk around with a lens pointed and not be noticed. For more candid shots, try shooting over someone’s shoulder, or shooting through or around something that you don’t mind being in the actual photograph for a voyeuristic effect—tree branches, window frames, and the like.
- Get a cheap, DIY lens hood or flash filter: A lens hood—like the kind you can print yourself—prevents glare, flare, and other light tricks beaming in from just around your lens edges. Similarly, a piece of white coffee filter can work wonders for diffusing your flash, giving bar shots and other low-light situations a much mellower light.