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How to Use Your Digital Camera

© 2001 Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, January/February 2002, pp. 19-22, reprint information

Kodak, the company that took cameras out of the hands of professionals and put them into the hands of everyday consumers, is in financial trouble. Why? Because people -- everyday people -- are turning to digital cameras, leaving film-based cameras gathering dust in the closet. As the largest producer of film-based cameras, and photographic film, Kodak finds itself losing great gobs of money.

But a digital camera won't save you any money if you don't know how to use it. So here are some pointers on how to use your camera, and take advantage of your Mac, too.

You need a computer

While some cameras will allow you to view your pictures on a TV, in practice a digital camera is pretty useless without a computer. The best computer to have, of course, is a Macintosh with a USB port, which pretty much covers everything Apple has introduced since the iMac. It also helps if the camera you purchased comes with Macintosh-compatible software. Mac OS X 10.1, by the way, comes with software capable of downloading pictures directly from some cameras; you may not need to load a thing.

Learn the basics

Yes, you need to read the manual. Some of the cameras don't even come with a printed manual; you'll have to read an Acrobat file from the CD-ROM that came with the camera. Concentrate on finding all the controls and learning how to use them. Make sure you know how to load batteries, plug it into your computer, and turn it on and off. Take particular note of buttons you don't want to push. (I recently watched someone wonder aloud what one button did, so they pushed it -- and watched their rechargeable battery fall into the Pacific Ocean.)

Generally speaking, the better the camera, the harder it is to operate the camera. Inexpensive digital cameras rarely support more than "point and shoot:" you point it, you push the button, it takes a picture. The camera will try to auto-focus the image and adjust the exposure according to available light. More expensive digital cameras allow you to manually adjust focus, focal length, lighting, and countless other settings to help you turn a good picture into a really bad picture -- if you don't read the manual.

Take the camera with you

It may seem obvious but apparently it isn't: you can't take a picture if you don't have a camera. So if you buy a digital camera -- take it with you. Take it to work. Take it on trips. Take it when you go for a walk. Take it to relatives and friends.

Don't reserve your digital camera for "special occasions." I've used my digital camera to photograph car wreaks (the guilty parties were unhappy, the innocent were overjoyed, the insurance companies were bemused), interesting clouds, odd flowers, patterns in fallen leaves, funny signs and bumper stickers, and countless other things I wouldn't have "wasted" on film. Aside from batteries and electricity, digital cameras cost almost nothing after purchase.

So take pictures. Lots of pictures.

You need a big closet

Once you start using your digital camera, you'll realize that digital pictures take up lots of room on your computer. If you take thousands of pictures, you'll either need to start buying gigantic hard drives (fortunately they are cheap) or you'll look into removable storage.

Jaz and Zip cartridges are too expensive, and also proprietary: in five years, will you be able to read the cartridges? Will anyone else? DVD-ROM holds the promise of vast capacity, but there is no standard format for DVD-ROM so, once again, who will be able to read it?

CD-ROMs are the best way to go. Blank CD-ROMs are so inexpensive as to be almost free, and can be read by virtually every computer made. Many current model Macs come with CD-RW drives for "burning" CD-ROMs, and external FireWire drives are available if you don't have a machine with an internal CD-RW drive. If you have neither a CD-RW drive nor a FireWire port on your Mac, consider buying a new Mac. Not only can you get it with a CD-RW drive, but it will come with a faster hard drive, faster processor, and probably more memory than whatever you are currently using, and probably cost far less.

CD-ROMs are also handy for sharing photos: create a custom CD-ROM for your mother showing where you went on your vacation, or for your niece with pictures of her wedding. As long as they have a computer of their own, they can take your pictures and print them out, make them into posters, create Web sites, and do many other things that they couldn't do if you just sent snapshots.

High-resolution is the only resolution

Most digital cameras offer multiple resolutions. You can shoot the most pictures at the lowest resolution, and the fewest pictures at the highest resolution. Ignore this -- shoot everything at the highest resolution.

You'll probably need to buy a larger memory card; most digital cameras come with a memory card just large enough to make the camera work. So if the camera came with an 8 MB card, and each high-resolution picture consumes 1 megabyte of space, you'll only get 7 or 8 pictures before "filling" the camera. If you go out and buy a 128 MB card, on the other hand, you'll be able to shoot at least 120 pictures before running out of storage.

Why shoot at the highest resolution? Because it offers the most flexibility. If you are shooting pictures for the Web, you don't need high-resolution photos, but you do want good photos. With a high-resolution photo, you can crop out just a small section of an image and still have something that looks good on the Web. Even if the high-resolution image was shot for the Web, the fact that it is high-resolution means it can be easily re-used for a print, poster, magazine, brochure or some other use. Low-resolution images, in contrast, are good for little more than viewing on your computer screen.

Clipper Odyssey, Harriman Fjord

Why is resolution so important? This image, of the M/V Clipper Odyssey in Harriman Fjord, Alaska, was shot with a Nikon CoolPix 990 digital camera at its highest resolution. This gives a 2048 x 1536 pixel image, which at 72 dpi is 28.5 by 21.3 inches. In short, it is huge. But if you increase the pixel density to 288 dpi, for printing on an inkjet or laser printer, the image shrinks to 512 by 384 pixels, or 7 x 5 inches. Overlayed on top of the image is a 1600 by 1200 pixel image, the size you would get at maximum resolution with a Canon PowerShot S300 Digital Elph. In the upper left corner is a 640 x 480 pixel image, the size you would get with Apple's QuickTake II camera or with the camera provided by Earthlink during some of its promotions. At 288 dpi, the 640 x 480 pixel image is just 2.2 by 1.67 inches, adequate for little more than a thumbnail image. Having a higher resolution also helps in editing: along the bottom edge of the photo, you can just barely see the top of someone's baseball cap. With a high-resolution image, you can crop out the bottom edge and still have a nice picture. (Note: click on the photo for a full-size image. Photo by Lawrence I. Charters)

Work on composition

Professional photographers can take professional pictures with cheap cameras, and amateurs can take amateur snapshots with professional cameras. The difference is usually in composition.

Have you heard the old joke about how to carve an elephant? You first get a big block of stone, and then you carve away everything that doesn't look like an elephant. Similarly, good composition is the foundation of a good photograph: there should be nothing in the frame of the picture that you didn't plan.

Digital cameras, because of their "free" film, offer the perfect excuse for experimenting with composition. Instead of taking one picture of your dog, take twenty or fifty. Pay particular attention to the background: do you really want that tree to look like it is growing out of Uncle Walt's ear? Should Herb's new red car really be in front of the partially spilled trashcan? Does the White House look more "Presidential" with no people around it, or with a security guard in the foreground, checking ID cards? Try both, and see.

Many digital cameras have zoom lenses, and most people think a zoom lens is for "zooming in" and making things look "bigger." Not at all -- a zoom lens is for cropping a photo. Use the zoom controls to capture a wider view of a subject, or to crop out things you don't want. If you want something larger or smaller, forget the zoom controls; move closer or farther away.

Don't use "digital zoom!" Ever. The digital zoom controls blow an image up, but at the cost of resolution. If you want an image blown up, you can do that in Photoshop, or possibly with the editing software that came with your camera. "Digital zoom" makes almost any picture worse.

Experiment with exposure

Digital cameras usually work best in sunlight, just like film cameras. When you move indoors, or into dim light, things get much trickier -- just like film cameras. So experiment.

If you can shoot your subject from different angles, with different lighting, do so. If your camera allows you to turn off the flash, try it. If your camera allows "fill flash," try that, too. Sometimes a perfectly exposed picture is made even better with fill flash. Sometimes turning off the flash and leaving the subject somewhat underexposed adds drama. Every once in a while, you'll take the same picture three different ways, with three different exposure options, and get three radically different pictures -- and all of them will look good. But you've got to experiment.

If at all possible, bracket your shots, with one shot slightly underexposed, one slightly overexposed, and one "just right." Some digital cameras will do this automatically, but even then you need to practice. If you are expecting the camera to shoot one frame and it shoots three, there is an excellent chance the last two will look like they were taken by a very surprised photographer.

Special features

Many digital cameras have some interesting in-camera special features. Some will allow you to take short QuickTime clips, some will allow you to record sound annotations, and some will allow you to experiment with special effects, such as shooting black and white or sepia-tone images. Ignore the special features until you learn the basics.

Keep in mind that some of these tricks, such as black and white or sepia-toned images, can be done without the camera. Just load up a normal color image in Photoshop and, in a few minutes, you can have perfect black and white or sepia-toned photos. In other words, if you can do it easily in Photoshop, you might be better off concentrating on taking a good color photo, and worrying about special effects later on at your leisure.

On the other hand, you should try out other special effects. For example, if you pan your camera to track a car moving at high speed, the car will be in sharp focus but the background will be blurred, making an interesting picture. Or you can do the opposite: focus on a particular stationary object -- a child flying a kite, a freshly-painted fire hydrant -- and allow a speeding car to enter the frame. You'll then have a sharply focused center of attention with the added benefit of motion.

Silhouettes are another nice special effect. Try taking a photo with your subject in shadow, eclipsing a brightly-exposed object in the background. The reverse -- a brightly exposed subject against a dark background -- can be just as interesting. Getting a good silhouette with film is expensive: you shoot a lot of frames with little or no reward. With a digital camera, however, the only cost is your time and patience, and your patience will be rewarded.


If you shoot a dozen rolls of film and take it to One Hour Photo, you're pretty much stuck with the result. If the image is under or over exposed, too bad. If you shot something indoors and the tungsten lighting made everyone and everything too yellow, too bad. But with a digital camera and Photoshop (or the photo editing software that came with your camera), you can make adjustments.

The most common adjustment is correcting exposure. The image captured by the camera is just a wee bit too dark or too light, but both problems are easily corrected in Photoshop with the Levels tool (under Image>Adjust).

Photoshop's Variations tool (also under Image>Adjust) makes short work of correcting images that are too yellow, too red, too green, or too blue. You can use the same tool, on the other hand, to emphasize a color. A perfectly exposed photo of a couple at dinner can take on a romantic, dreamy look if you emphasize the yellow.

Another common problem: earthquakes. Most people tend to tilt the camera slightly to the right or left, and when you look at their pictures, everything looks as if it is about to fall over in a major earthquake. Photoshop allows you to not only rotate pictures, but you can rotate pictures an arbitrary number of degrees. The Washington Monument really does look more impressive if it doesn't look like the Tower of Pisa.

You can also use Photoshop to get rid of things you don't want. That great photo of the Grand Canyon would look much better without the kid on the right edge of the photo, picking his nose. So crop him out. That great photo of your brother you took last week? Share it with him -- after you remove last week's girlfriend.

Practice, practice, practice

If you shoot lots of pictures, some of them will be great. This is also the principle behind the machine gun: fire enough bullets and you're bound to hit something.

I've looked at the photos -- all the photos -- taken by professional photographers on a shoot. Most of them range from bad to OK. But professional photographers understand the theory behind machine guns, and quite literally shoot more photos than "normal" people. They try more angles, more types of lighting, and they move around more. Most of their photos, as noted, are unexceptional. But every now and then they hit something, and get a great photo.

Shoot lots of photos. The bullets are free with a digital camera.