How To Get The Most Out Of Your Crappy Point-And-Shoot

A friend of mine, as one of her New Year's Resolutions, said that she wants to take better photos, so I thought that I would make a post about how to get the most out of your crappy digital point and shoot.  Now, I am no digital guru by any stretch of the imagination, so this is not comprehensive, but I have been shooting digital for a while and have learned a few tricks about how to make due with what you have.  And here we go: 1.  If your camera has an Auto ISO setting, disable it.  The ISO settings tell your camera how sensitive to light to make it.  So the higher the number, the more sensitive to light it is.  But the catch is, the algorithms that make it more sensitive to light also make it more susceptible to noise.  So a good rule of thumb is to disable the Auto ISO and keep it on the lowest numbers possible.  (The lowest on my camera is 50, and I usually keep it on there or 100) Most cameras will compensate for it in the shutter and aperture settings, so you don't have to worry about it.  Noise is a pain, and there is really nothing you can really do to get rid of it that leaves your photo looking nice.

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2.  Turn the flash off.  Unless you need it, turn the flash off.  In a lot of cases, I see shots with people way too close to the subject, and the flash blows out the shot (meaning the flash is so bright that you can't see any detail) or they are so far away that it's ineffective.  And natural light looks good.  So turn off the flash.  Just check the LCD and see what the shutter speed is at.  (Most decent cameras will display this along with the aperture, which is usually 2.8, 4.5, 5.6, 8, etc) If it is at 1/24 to 1/60 or higher, you are money.  Anything slower, like 1/8 (by the way, these are fractions of a second, for anyone really starting from scratch) you will want to rest the camera on something, because otherwise you are going to get shaking and blurring in the shot from holding the camera.

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3.  Play around with time.  If your camera has a manual setting, play around with it.  One of my favorite things is to play with the shutter speed and the flash.  (I know that I said turn off the flash, but lets pretend I didn't for a moment, ok? Ok.)  Turn the flash on and set the shutter speed to something like 1/8 or a whole second, and while you are pressing the shutter release, shake the camera around.  What happens is that the flash exposes the dark areas, and then you get streaks from the bright spots.  It's pretty cool.  Try it.  Or just play with long exposures.  If you have a tripod, sweet.  If not, don't worry, just set up on a ledge or a table or chair, something that will hold your camera.  One thing that I like to do when I am doing the long exposures is set my camera to a two second delay, so that I am sure not to shake the camera while it is exposing itself.  What you get is the things that are moving streak and the things that are still are in focus, like this:

4.  iPhoto is nice and all...  So you took your pictures and now you have your camera plugged into your computer.  If you have a Mac (like me) iPhoto is probably going to be the program that pops up to load your photos.  Great! Do it.  iPhoto is great for keeping your photos organized.  And thats about it (in what I am sure your are discovering to be my very humble opinion).    I would never edit or mess around with my photos in iPhoto and here is why:  firstly, the controls are way too automated and heavy handed, and secondly, and more importantly, iPhoto edits the original file.  Now, the controls thing would not be that big of a deal, and could be overlooked, but I have had it where iPhoto has edited the original file, and really, we can't have that.  Those files are like negatives, and I wouldn't want those messed with.  I don't think that that is supposed to be the case, because there is a "Modified" directory that iPhoto is supposed to save the files to, but that isn't always the case, and I don't want to take that chance.

So, for my money, keep the originals organized in iPhoto, and then drag what you want to work on into Photoshop.  Sure, it's more complicated, but you have more control and you don't edit the original, so who cares if you play around or screw up?

5.  Flickr and Color Profiles.  Ok, so here's the deal:  color profiles are little files in your pictures that make sure that the colors that you see are the same colors that other people see on other computers.  Now, Flickr is great, don't get me wrong, but the problem is, is that they don't keep the color profiles of the images that you upload.  I don't know why this is, and there has been a lot of discussion about it on their boards, but the fact remains that they don't keep them.  And this is a big problem that not a lot of people have noticed.  That is why when you upload pictures they look desaturated, flat and generally kinda gross.  If you have a Pro account, they keep the color profiles in the file that people download when they click the "Download the Original Size" link, but that really doesn't help when you are displaying the resized ones to the rest of the world. Anyways, maybe you don't care.  But if you are like me, and really anal about your shots looking good, there is a bit of a workaround.  This is not a perfect workaround, but it's the better than nothing If you are working with Photoshop, you can convert your photo to a different color profile before you work with it that will (kind of) match what it will (sort of) look like without one.  Personally, I have found the ColorMatch RGB profile to be the closest, but a lot people have found success with the sRGB profile.  I don't know, play around for yourself and see.  On the Mac go Image>Mode>Convert to Profile... before you start working and select which profile you want to work with under Destination Profile. (Generally speaking, you just want to stick to the four RGB profiles: Adobe RGB, Apple RGB, ColorMatch RGB and sRGB.  Don't worry about the other ones)

Update: I was wrong about this last part, and have since found a better workflow. 6.  Why in the hell is it called unsharp mask?  One of the little tricks with digital photography is sharpening.  (And one of the things that I wish we had when I was doing film photography) Almost every digital shot can use a bit of sharpening, no matter how focused it is.  It's just part of the game.  There is a technical reason for it, but we won't get into that.  Just trust me.

Now, before I get into the sharpening, I just want to say that with all the editing parts coming up, do all of it before resizing.  It's easier to work with larger images because you have more information and you also get better results because you have more information.  So don't take your picture that you resized to 500px and expect to get great results.  It's not gonna happen. Anyways,  to sharpen, open your photo in Photoshop at Actual Pixel size (This is for CS.  For CS2 there is Smart Sharpen, which is supposed to be really good, but I don't have CS2, so who knows.  So let's do this the old fashioned way) and go to Filter>Sharpen>Unsharp Mask.  Yeah, Unsharp Mask.  No, I don't know why they call it that either.  When the window pops up, you are going to have three options.  Right off the bat, for the sake of keeping things simple, you can ignore the last one, Threshold.  Now, there are a lot of theories about specific ratios between the Amount percentage and the Radius, along with countless books and college courses.  I don't know all that, I just eyeball it.  There is also no real hard and fast rule about the radius and percentage as far as I have seen, except that the bigger the file, the bigger the radius you will need, and the more megapixels you have, the bigger the file.  So, if you are shooting at 8mp, you are going to be using 2.5-3 pixels, 5mp (like me) you will be using 1.5 - 1.8, 3mp 1.3-1.5 pixels and so on, keeping  it around 70-100%.

This also depends on your camera, and how sharp or how soft it shoots.  If your camera shoots soft, then maybe you will need to go up to 150% or maybe your camera  shoots really sharp and you only need to be at 50% with a 1.1 pixel radius.  Once again, play around with it, and see what works for you.  Just watch out for over sharpening, where you get archiving, or noise starts to appear where you didn't see it before.  Also watch edges, and make sure they don't start getting weird.  You will see what I mean.  What I like to do is sharpen just until I can tell that it's sharpened, and then drop it a couple of percentage points.  You want crisp lines, but not too much; it's got to be subtle.  Toggling the Preview button helps with this.  And for the love of all things holy, don't use any of the other sharpening filters.

7. Levels  This is where things start to get a bit complicated so here is the quick answer: Images>Adjustments>Auto Levels.

Now for the long answer: Levels are the way to control the tonal range in an image.  See the Histogram in the upper right hand corner?  Thats the image's tonal range and what levels control.  Ideally, what you would want is a nice spread from left (black) to right (white).  But sometimes images don't have that, and that's where this comes in.  For me, Auto Levels works about half of the time.  Other times, I just have to get in there and do it myself.

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If you open Image>Adjustments>Levels... it will open a box with a histogram like this one.  Like I said earlier, you are looking for an even spread over the whole range.  Under the histogram are three triangles: these are your (from left to right) black point, grey point and white point.  Now, the histogram raises and lowers with the number of pixels at that tonal point.  See where this one is flat on the right?  Well, what I would want to do is slide the white triangle over to where the histogram first starts.  If you have one that has that on the left, you would do it for that side too.  Slide the middle one around a bit too and see how that looks.  What you want to get is nice white white and nice black blacks.  If you have places in your image that are an absolute black, and thats what you want to be the blackest black, click the far left dropper and click on that in the image and it will set that as your black point instead of using the slider.  Same goes for white and the far right dropper.  If things get really out of whack, just hit cancel and start over.  And again, there is no real right or wrong with this, but just watch out for blowing out parts of the image where you start to loose detail.  Just play around and see what looks right.  This is the kind of thing that is best learned by doing, like cooking. Bonus Round:  If you get comfortable with levels, you can start playing around with Image>Adjustments>Curves which is basically a more advanced control of the same thing.  (There are 14 instead of the 3 in Levels) You can set the white, black and grey points with the droppers, like with Levels, or do custom curves, which also give you control over contrast in a more controlled way.

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As you start playing with Levels and Curves you will see how this is a really complicated step, but also a really important one to the overall quality of your image because what you can end up with are some really cool colors in your shots like this one:

This is all that I can think of without getting too complicated (because this was supposed to be a crash course of sorts). Hope that this helps and feel free to comment with any questions.