Foundations of Digital Photography: Beyond the Basics

Englewood Camera

Steve Gandy -


Photography Basics ...


It is not everything but it is important. You can choose the size of the photograph. Typical sizes might be 1600x1200 pixels (2 megapixels - good for quick snapshots), 2800x2100 pixels (6 megapixels - can be enlarged up to 8x10 or more for prints), and 3700x2750 or much more ( 10 megapixels and more needed for big prints and fine art). For viewing on screen, the smallest size is fine. For snapshots the smaller sizes are fine. If you are capturing something artistic or very detailed choose the biggest size available. I only set my camera on a smaller than maximum size if a client requires it. You can always down size but enlargements cause quality problems.


Note: Drag these images to the desktop and open locally to see the true size differences.





There are different levels of file compression.This is how the camera takes the information you capture and saves it for viewing. It saves space on the memory card if you choose a low setting. The lowest quality setting is fine for viewing on screen but not for printing. All jpeg settings involve a process that is "lossy". That means that the camera is throwing away huge amounts of information before you even get to see it. You cannot get it back. Leaving the camera set at the highest quality setting is the best recommendation unless there is a good reason for changing it. And it is important to remember that editing a jpeg on the computer and re-saving loses even more data as shown in the examples. Capturing images in RAW or TIF format requires more time and expertise once you have them on the computer however. But a RAW image workflow is recommended for any serious photographer.

Low Quality - High JPG Compression

High Quality - Low JPG Compression


Comparison showing JPG compression and full quality image of a tulip.

Note: You may need to download and open these with an image editor to see the difference.



White Balance ...

You can make adjustments for the lighting conditions. Most cameras have white balance settings for shooting under fluorescent bulbs vs. incandescent vs. outdoor sunny skies. This is like having an infinite number of film types available.


incandescent (tungsten): fluorescent:
sunny: shade:

??????????????????? If incandescent lights are yellow, why is the picture above blue?


incandescent: fluorescent:
sunny: shade:


You can make adjustments for the lighting conditions. Most cameras have white balance settings for shooting under fluorescent bulbs vs. incandescent vs. outdoor sunny skies. This is like having an infinite number of film types available.



ISO - (film speed, sensor light sensitivity):

The ISO setting is seductive the higher the number the more sensitive your sensor becomes so you can take photos in darker conditions. However, there is a trade-off... generally higher ISO settings increase the "noise" in the image. Noise is dots of light and color in the image that degrade the look especially in the shadow areas. If it is too extreme it can ruin the image. The newest cameras have extrodinary performance at high ISO settings. Do test shots with your camera to know where you draw the line on noise.

ISO 100
ISO 3200





Exposure and Adjustments:

The correct exposure of a photograph is important. It is also subjective. If you a dark moody, or bright sunny exposure you can tell the camera to do it. Often, we want an exposure that shows reality. There are 3 big factors/controls that help define exposure:

The 3 are related. If it is a bright sunny day. The ISO is set at 400. The camera will probably choose an exposure of 1/500 shutter speed and f16.

This web page has a great explanation of exposure:

Camera Simulator for exposure controls:

There may be controls on the camera for plus or minus exposure adjustments.

There may be controls on the camera for metering on the center (spot metering) vs. the whole area (matrix or evaluative metering).

Exposure adjustments...This shows a normal exposure in the middle. Minus one stop on the left and plus one stop on the right.


Metering for Extremes...Also, trusting the built in meter in extreme conditions will result in a poorly exposed photo. It seems counterintuitive but you need to let more light onto the sensor when the subject is bright and less when it is dark. This is because the meter is dumb and tries to expose a medium gray as its default.

This shows normal metering on the left. And plus one, then plus two to compensate for the "medium gray" problem.

Camera Meter info: See this page for an example of how the meter sees the world as gray.



Lighting ...

It is all about the light. Welcome to a research project that could last a lifetime!


General tips:


Soft and hard light examples


Back Light and Fill Flash



Focus ...

Keep your subject in focus! It defines the image.

Some cameras have continuous focus for moving subjects.

The Aperture setting (f-stop) can affect the depth of field (how much of the photo appears in focus). Small f-stop numbers, mean large openings, mean

Low contrast can confuse the auto-focus feature. Learn how to compensate with manual focus or other techniques.

There may be controls for setting and holding focus on the camera then recomposing the shot. Your manual has the details.

Focus on the closest eye for portraits. If the eyes are not sharp, the portrait will be sub-par.


Depth of Field

f / 1.4 shallow depth-of-field
f/ 16 wide depth-of-field





Composition ...

All rules are made to be broken.

Light is really the subject... think about quality, direction, and shadows too.

KISS, can your subject be described in a simple sentence?

Watch out for distracting backgrounds. Watch out for "tunnel vision."

Camera angle can make a big difference. Take photos of children from their eye level.

Move closer, fill the frame

Rule of Thirds can help you aim your camera.

Let something in the environment frame the shot.

Leave space for "movement."

Contrast or contrasting colors. Convert to b & w a highly contrasted image?

Patterns and Lines can add depth and lead the eye.





Background Interference...

good backgrounddistraction in background



far awayfrom above

on levelon level with good angle

Rule of Thirds...

rule of 3rds used

Rule of 3rds not used


Frame Your Subject



Camera Settings and advice for different types of shots...

There are some smart settings that are basic but will help you take shots in some challenging situations. Some cameras have settings for situations like action, night, close ups etc. but it is instructive to know what the camera is doing for those. After all it is not magic, it is all exposure, shutter speed, aperture, ISO settings and common sense. What is below are recommendations that rely on assumptions about the shot and are certainly not to be taken as gospel. They are not prescriptions to follow exactly but rather tips to try.

Before reading the recommendations, think about what you know about your camera's settings and which ones might make sense.


ACTION - Think fast shutter speed, 1/500 second or faster to stop the action. The faster the action the faster the shutter speed you will need. You may need to increase the ISO to enable a short shutter speed like this.

LANDSCAPE - Traditional landscapes use a wide angle lens (less than 50mm), a smallish aperture and a tripod. These will help with depth of field and sharpness.

PORTRAITS - A large aperture will blur the background. The traditional lens is 100mm. Use a tripod if possible. Manual focus on the closest eye. A slight downward angle will emphasize the eyes but a slight upward angle can make the chin and neck look too prominent. Light coming from a big source like a window is much nicer than hard direct light on faces.

BACKLIT SUBJECTS - Use a fill flash to lighten the shadows. Use spot or center weighted metering on the subject.

INDOOR LIGHTS - Check your white balance. Indoor lights are often very warm. Use the incandescent or tungsten setting to compensate. Use a high ISO or flash.

PEOPLE OUTDOORS - Get closer. Get out of the direct midday sun. Use fill flash to lighten shadows on faces.

PEOPLE INDOORS - Get closer. Use flash on the slow sync setting to avoid black backgrounds. Get the light off the camera.

NIGHT - Use a high ISO but know your camera's limits when it comes to noise at those settings. Use a tripod. Use a slow exposure to blur the moving lights.




How to get better:

Observe - Imitate - Evaluate

Learn to Critique photography in a way that is helpful

Self Assignments


Good photographers do these things:




Some photography related links:

Photography Glossary - from Nikon

10 Common Mistakes

B and H Photo Web Store - reputable store in NY and on the web

Digital Photography Review - great source of hardware reviews and specs

Kodak Gallery -printer and web host for sharing

Nikon -

Canon -

Outdoor Photographer Magazine - great magazine for nature shooters

Popular Photography Magazine - great magazine for shooters of all kinds

Photo Works - printer and web host for sharing
Adorama - reputable store in NY and on the web, shopping here helps pay my bills, thanks!
Shutterfly - printer and web host for sharing

Snapfish - printer and web host for sharing

Digital Photography Best Practices and Workflow - great place to get the answers to questions like, "What should I do about ...?" compiled by industry leaders. Endorsed by ASMP.

Steve's Digicam (this isn't me) great source of hardware reviews and specs

Adobe Photoshop Elements - software that is a step up from iPhoto and Picasa and a step down from Photoshop the full version, affordable

Acorn - software that is a step up from iPhoto and Picasa and a step down from Photoshop the full version, affordable

Pixelmator - software that is a step up from iPhoto and Picasa and a step down from Photoshop the full version, affordable

MPIX - printer, high end but affordable

Picasa - free entry level software from Google

iPhoto - free entry level software from Apple

Steve’s page - this is me

Complete Digital Photography

Photoshop Online - Adobe's online version of Photoshop, it is pretty good for the basics. Shares galleries also.

Flickr - web host, sharing site, the most popular one

SmugMug - web host, sharing site, this one has really nice looking galleries but requires a fee

Photo Bucket - web host, sharing site

JAlbum - software for creating photo galleries that you would host yourself on your own web site

Best Practices for Digital Photography - ASMP site for the best ways to do things in digital photography

How To’s from Pop Photo - Popular Photography Magazine How To's

Nikonians - Organization of Nikon shooters, lots of help, forums, how to's, buy and sell



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