Getting It Right in the Camera

I propose to you that getting photographs right in your camera is a game of imagination. My plan is to introduce you to that game and identify many of the possibilities available to you. In this article you will find:

  • An approach for capturing the photographs you want, the way you want them, in your camera
  • A checklist for remembering the important points
  • A roadmap for creating more memorable photographs
  • Some creative concepts for you to explore at your leisure

When I took up photography I didn’t know what I didn’t know and the technical jargon went over my head. I remember that experience and the well-meant advice to get it right in the camera. I recently had occasion to think through what this advice meant to me now, and thought others could benefit from my research and observations; so this is for you if:

  • You want to get the best quality image so you can be more productive in post-processing and make a good photograph even better.
  • You want to spend less time in post-processing trying to make up for what you did not remember to do with the camera’s exposure settings and composition when you took the shot.
  • You are an enthusiast. You may have experience with film or DSLR photography, are invested in high end equipment and rely on the camera’s auto or programmed settings to capture JPEG images and the question is—now what?
  • You are a novice looking for a roadmap.

Whatever your knowledge, skill or experience it is important to start out with an appreciation that learning about photography should be fun, so treat it like a game. Consider the kind of photographs you want to take, what else you need to learn for your kind of photography, and where and how you want to start this learning process.

We all have gaps in our knowledge and Figure 1 below provides a framework for you to determine in which areas you want to work to fill the gaps in yours. Initially it will take you a few minutes to read this article, however, as with everything the more you practice thinking this through, the more intuitive it becomes.

in camera photography

Figure 1 — Getting it Right in the Camera

Getting photographs right in the camera is a combination of creativity, art, and technique. However, it is just as important that you are comfortable with, and understand, the settings on your camera. As you examine the subject and the conditions at the scene, consider what you want your photograph to look like, what story you want it to tell, what emotion you want it to evoke, and how you want to take the photograph.

1. The Subject

The process starts with consciously and actively looking, and seeing what is going on all around you. Imagine the possibilities and visualize how you would like to take the photograph.

You see something that interests or inspires you, or arouses some emotion within you and demands you take a photograph of it. You may have gone to great lengths to get into the right position at the right location at the right time, and you may only be there once in a lifetime so you want to get it right. At the same time you have some ideas about what you want to do with your photograph which may include how you want capture it, how you want to treat it in post-processing, where and how you want to show it. These considerations will inform how you approach taking photographs.

2. The Scene or the Setting

The following is dependent on the conditions in which you are taking the photograph, and is divided into two interdependent and inseparable parts: light and composition.

Light is the critical component of composition and light is what the camera’s sensor captures when you take a photograph. Armed with the knowledge of where light comes from and how it impacts photography, you can learn how to use it creatively and incorporate it as a component of composition.

Light Characteristics. There are many light sources and each has a different characteristic (or color temperature), which affects photographs. The camera’s White Balance setting determines how the color temperature of light is captured. If you are not already familiar with this, the automatic white balance setting does a great job getting it right. If you are shooting RAW, White Balance is easily adjusted in post-processing.

  • Natural light. Natural light such as sunlight has many characteristics depending on time of day, location, and weather conditions. It can be warm, such as around the golden hours at sunrise and sunset. It can be direct and provide hard edged shadows, such as at midday. You may be in the shade or shooting into the shade. Alternatively there may be no direct sunlight; it may be diffused and softer such as when there is an overcast sky, haze, or even fog. Each of these conditions provides different shooting opportunities.
  • Artificial light. The many sources of indoor and outdoor artificial light include incandescent, tungsten, halogen, and sodium vapor—which add a range of warm orange-yellow tints to photographs—to fluorescent and LED which tend to add cooler blue tints. At night you may even have combinations of different sources creating a “light soup.”

Light Conditions. You are likely to encounter many different lighting conditions which you need to take into account as you compose your photographs:

  • The source of the light may include outdoors using natural light, indoors relying on artificial light, or shooting at night and using available or ambient light.
  • The quality, intensity or brightness of the light will influence your choice of shutter speed and possibly ISO settings.
  • The direction from which the light is coming will determine whether your subject is front lit, side lit, back lit or in the shade.
  • The angle of the light which may be low such as at sunrise or sunset, high such as at midday, or level with you such as light coming through a window.
  • Light is impacted by the weather. How cooperative is the weather, what impact is it having on the light, and are you taking advantage of the weather conditions.

This leads to the inevitable consideration of what it means to have good light or a good exposure. A good or “normal” exposure is one which has captured a well distributed range of light and color, and is not overexposed or underexposed, as shown in the histograms in Figure 2.

comparing histogram exposures

Figure 2 — Examples of Histograms

Composition. How you build a picture, what a picture consists of, how shapes are related to each other, how spaces are filled, how the whole thing must have a kind of unity.” Paul Strand, (See Note 1).

Composition starts with understanding the subject of your photograph, the story you want it to tell or the emotion you want it to evoke. There are a lot of things to think about but the good news is you can incorporate these ideas gradually, and see remarkable improvements in your photographs right away.

Assuming you have strong content, an interesting subject, and a vision of what you want to accomplish with the photograph, there are some things to consider.

Framing. Framing refers to arranging the elements you see through the camera’s viewfinder before you take the photograph. How your photograph is organized, how the space is used, how the elements are to be linked, and how pleasing this is to you includes thinking about:

  • Rules, including what are probably the best known Rule of Thirds, and the lesser known Fibonacci spiral, found in many photographs of nature
  • Vertical or horizontal orientation to make the most of the subject and the scene
  • Placement of subjects, and choice of focal points within the frame to clearly identify the subject or subjects and lead the viewer’s eye
  • Use of space within the frame to tell the story
  • Visual weight of subjects, use of relative size and balance of placement between your subjects, and the interaction between foreground and background to create interest and guide the viewer’s eye
  • Filling the frame to exclude unnecessary or distracting subjects
  • A shooting strategy to overshoot the frame. Include more of the scene on each of the four sides of the frame to avoid cutting off any details on the edges you may later wish you had captured. Photographs are very easily cropped later; missed details cannot be added.

Design Basics and Focal Elements. There are many considerations which determine where the viewer’s eyes go first, and in which direction the eyes travel as they look at a photograph.

The following list will help you start thinking about how design considerations might be applied in your compositions; and remember, this is fun, so experiment.

  • Color, color combinations, color tones, and the relationships between them. Colors may be complementary or contrasting. Colors that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel, (see Note 2), such as red–green, blue–yellow, or blue–orange complement each other well. Bright, intense colors attract the eye. Warm, muted and subtle colors create calm, peaceful emotions. These relationships have a huge impact on a photograph because people associate different colors with emotions, perceptions, and states of mind, and it is helpful to understand these relationships.
  • Lines (horizontal, vertical, diagonal, parallel, converging) have different associations and create different emotions or reactions.
  • Circles and curves create impressions of smooth, flowing action and lead the viewer’s eye around the frame.
  • Triangles and pyramids, consisting of three converging points, are very common in photographs and may be used to emphasis proportions or shapes, and provide a visually dramatic effect.
  • Rectangles are associated with static precision.
  • Texture and patterns rely on repetition of a mass of similar subjects and provide the viewer’s eye with a sense of direction and flow, harmony and rhythm.
  • Shadows contribute to mood and atmosphere; silhouettes can be dramatic.
  • Contrasts come in many forms, too many to mention but include concepts such as light/dark or shadow, hard/soft, rough/smooth, large/small, near/far, and young/old.
  • Capturing or freezing motion, or blurring motion, in a scene can create very different views of a subject and can be thought of as a form of abstract photography.
  • Reflections come from many sources and may also be thought of as a form of abstract photography, and can create stunning results.
  • Photographing from different angles, such as above or below a subject, can create a unique point of view.
  • Person or group of people (and animals). People and animals attract the eye, tell a story, create emotions, create a sense of stillness or movement, provide a sense of place, perspective and scale, and guide the viewer’s eyes within the frame. How you include people depends on whether there are one or many, whether they are the subject, a prop in the scene, or making the scene possible. Including people and animals in photographs is such an important subject that some very special considerations apply. In addition to those listed above, the most familiar of these special considerations include proximity of the person to the edges of the frame, positioning within the frame relative to the direction the person or group of people are looking or moving, the position of the person relative to the subject, and appropriate capture and cropping of the person.

As you look at the photographs below, you will see examples of these Light, Composition, Framing and Design Basics ideas. Each photograph was taken using manual aperture, shutter speed, and ISO exposure settings. Exposure and other metadata may be seen by looking at the details for each photograph in “Getting it Right” on my Flickr stream, (see Note 3).

sand dunes at sunrise

Lines, curves, shadows at sunrise. (1/1000 second, f/8, ISO 200)

how to get it right in the camera

Motion, blur, curves at night (15 seconds, f./8, ISO 200)

church dome

Indoor, looking directly up into dome, circles, curves, color, contrast (1/4 second, f/8, ISO 200)

how to visualize your photos

Triangles, pyramid, reflection, black & white (15 seconds, f/16, ISO 200)

how to plan your photos

Fibonacci Spiral from overhead, fill frame (15 seconds, f/22, ISO 200)

previsualizing your photos

Bright light, overhead midday sun, shadows, shallow depth of field (1/640 second, f/8, ISO 320)

getting photos right in camera

Late afternoon light, person making the scene, shadow, contrast, color (1/500 second, f/8, ISO 200)

temple photo

Color, contrast, texture, shapes (1/30 second, f/8, ISO 200)

3. The Shooting Strategy

Camera settings can be used to impact the appearance of photographs. Of the many menu selection items on your camera, the Exposure, Bracketing and White Balance settings deserve special attention. The added advantage of using the following techniques is that you have options to consider later, especially in post-processing.

Exposure. Three camera settings, Aperture (f/stop), Shutter Speed and ISO will determine your exposure, and there are many creative choices you can make with these settings. An exposure is best evaluated by using the camera’s histogram, (see examples of histograms in Figure 2), which is the result of the interaction between these three settings.

  • Aperture as a creative choice, (See Note 4). Aperture defines the size of the lens opening through which light travels to reach the camera’s sensor. It is measured using a scale of f/stops. At one end of the scale the setting f/2.8 creates a large, wide opening which lets in the most light. This setting is used to create the blurred background often seen in flower or portrait photography. At the other end of the scale, selection of a small aperture such as f/22 lets in less light and is used when sharpness in the foreground and background is called for, such as in landscape photography.
  • Shutter Speed as a creative choice. Shutter speed defines the time the camera’s sensor is exposed to light. A very fast shutter speed such as 1/500 or 1/1000 of a second freezes action. Fast shutter speeds are used when there is motion, and you want to freeze that motion, such as at sporting events or with animal or bird photography. At the other end of the scale, slow shutter speeds such as 1 second or up to 30 seconds are used to blur action. Slow shutter speeds are used when you want to create a smooth, creamy effect with moving water, or to capture car light trails at night.
  • ISO controls the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor to light and is used in low light situations such as experienced with indoor or night photography, or under a canopy of trees in a forest.

Each of these is a separate setting on your camera and in any particular situation you will be adjusting Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO to get the right exposure and capture the desired creative effect you envision.

Bracketing. Similarly, there are many creative choices you can make with bracketing. You might do this because you believe there are many ways the subject could be captured, or you may have some thoughts about how you want to use these different images in post-processing and you are giving yourself creative options to consider later.

  • Bracketing shutter speed may be used to hedge your bets on the correct exposure – getting a good histogram – for a particular photograph. Alternatively, you can also use this technique to capture a greater tonal range of a subject, or a scene, if you plan to use a tool such as HDR, (High Dynamic Range) processing.
  • Bracketing aperture for a particular shot. This would involve changing the aperture through a range of say, f/2.8, f/8 and f/22 to provide a number of depth of field options from which to choose.
  • Bracketing focal length. With your camera mounted on a tripod you could take photographs near both ends and the center point of the focal length of a telephoto lens. For example, using a 28 – 390mm lens you could take photographs at 28mm, 200mm and 390mm. Alternatively, with a prime lens you simply move your camera to achieve the same outcome.

Next Steps

I have introduced you to the Imagination Game and identified some of the possibilities available to you. I have provided an approach for how to visualize photographing a subject, how to think about composing the elements of the Scene/Setting, and a Shooting Strategy. This is a lot of material and each topic deserves special attention, but don’t try to drink from the fire hose. Turn it into a game of discovery and have fun with it.

Consider which area is important to you and set aside a little time each day to learn something new, to fill in the gaps, to get the creative juices flowing, and have fun as you practice what you have learned until it becomes second nature. Start by rating your level of knowledge or skill for each of these topics. Identify the first topic on which you want to focus and give yourself an approach, a plan, and a timeline. For instance, if you are comfortable with exposure but not comfortable with composition, then engage in activities to improve your knowledge of composition. Depending on your learning style, you can do this by reading books, participating in the many free webinars available online, looking at what various online photography publishing websites have to offer, attending a workshop or community college, considering the works of the masters and photography professionals whose works you admire, and most importantly, experiment and practice until you feel good about it.

By using this approach you will quickly see improvements and impress your friends which will encourage you to keep learning in a fun and productive way.

Post-Processing

This does not mean that post-processing is no longer necessary. What is does mean is that you more successfully set yourself up to take the best quality images you possibly can, and then create a memorable photograph that really pleases you. Whether you want to tease out details, or create a piece of fine art, consider knowledge of post-processing and the choices it makes available to you as part of the game.

Notes:

  1. Reference from “The Photographer’s Eye – Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos” by Michael Freeman.
  2. Click here to see Adobe Color, an interactive color wheel
  3. Metadata is descriptive, technical and administrative information recorded by digital cameras which is embedded with each digital file and includes Aperture (f/stop), Shutter Speed, ISO, focal length of lens, as well as Exif (Exchangeable image file format) metadata.
  4. Below is a typical representation of the relative size of the lens openings, or aperture. Aperture is measured on a scale using f/stops. Changing this setting by one f/stop doubles or halves the size of the opening which doubles or halves the light reaching the sensor. This in turn influences the depth of field.

aperture chart

5. Depth of field is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene, the area that stretches in front of and behind the point of focus, that appear to be in sharp focus in a photograph.

About the Author:
Mike Watson has an extensive and varied background in consulting and the software industry. He’s most likely to be found these days behind a camera, processing his photographs in Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop or thinking about his next article. He is a workshop Facilitator and author of a number of articles about photography.

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11 responses to “Getting It Right in the Camera”

  1. Michael says:

    Excellent narrative and I particularly enjoyed your illustrative photographs. The graphs of the histograms were a bit misleading and didn’t seem to match a normalized exposure of the associated photos. For instance the broad bell-shaped curve isn’t really overexposed – here’s useful reference to better understand histograms and associated lighting problems:

    http://thedigitalstory.com/2006/01/learning-the-histogr.html

  2. Michael says:

    Here is another useful example on how to interpret histograms:

    http://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-read-and-use-histograms/

  3. Mike Watson says:

    Thank you Michael – you are right, there is an error and I have asked PictureCorrect to switch the normal and overexposed histograms to correctly align them with the images.

  4. Mike Watson says:

    Thank you Michael – this is a very good in-depth explanation of a histogram. My hope is people will see material in my article and search for the detailed explanations and examples, such as this, to fill in the gaps in their knowledge – so leads like this are very useful.

  5. Gail Berreman says:

    Well done, Mike. Had never heard of the Fibonacci spiral before. Googled it and found it very interesting. Your article is very interesting and am sure it will many. Glad you fixed the histograms.

    • Mike Watson says:

      Thank you Gail – that is what I was hoping for – people see something new, something they want to learn about, search for it, spend a few minutes on it and learn something fun and new. I too think the Fibonacci spiral is very cool.

  6. Ralph says:

    I must admit that I was a proponent of the virtues of “Straight out of camera,” only because my post-processing skills were lacking. Once I devoted the time and commitment to learning post-processing, it became readily apparent that Getting it Right in the Camera and SOOC are different. Your article reinforces that notion even further. Well done!

    My only nit – more of a pet peeve, really – is the idea that ISO changes the sensor’s sensitivity to light. It does not! Actually, nothing changes a sensor’s sensitivity to light. Sensor’s have one, and only one, sensitivity to light. ISO indicates a degree of signal amplification that happens only AFTER exposure has taken place.

  7. Rhonda Kangalee says:

    This was a very comprehensive and extremely helpful article, thank you for sharing.

  8. Mike Watson says:

    Thank you for your comments Ralph

  9. Mike Watson says:

    I’m pleased you found it helpful Rhonda – thank you.

  10. Rick says:

    Back in the days of film we used compose our shots with the expressed purpose of printing what we called “full frame” prints. This was the entire 35mm or 645 image area cropped and printed just outside the image area. This produced a black border around the image that was the actual image edge as registered by the camera. This would also allow for printing the cog holes and the film manufacturer and film type. This is easily done now in Photoshop but back then it took a deliberate and conscious effort “in camera” to produce that effect going into the shoot… and the answer to your next question is… yes, I am old LOL..

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