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David Pogue's "Top Ten Tips of All Time" for Digital Photography

By Mary Rotman
January 16, 2009

If you're ready to jump into digital photography or would like to increase the skills you already have, David Pogue's Digital Photography: The Missing Manual is just what you need. In this brand new book, bestselling author David Pogue provides a no-nonsense guide to the entire process, including how to buy and use a digital camera, get the same photographic effects as the pros, manage the results on your Mac or PC, edit photos, and share the results with your adoring fans.

In one of the appendixes, David lists his top ten tips of all time for digital photography, and over the next few days, I'll share these with you. If you can think of any other tips to add, leave a comment and I'll pick one person to send a book to at the end of next week. In the meantime, I'll leave you with the first five tips.

1. Take a lot of shots.
Once you've bought the camera, digital photography is free. You can shoot as many pictures as you want, and you'll never pay a nickel for film or developing.

So if you ask any professional the secret to great photographic results, one of the first things you'll hear is, "Shoot a lot." Yes, yes, it's true--you'll wind up deleting most of them. But shooting a lot increases the odds that, somewhere in that massive pile of pictures, there are some true gems.

In particular:
-- Portraits. Shoot the same thing a few times in a row. The smile or the eyes might change slightly between shots--and one of them might be the winner you'd have missed. (That's especially true of group shots. The more people in the shot, the greater the odds that someone's eyes are closed.) Change the angle and keep shooting. Take a step to the right, or zoom out, or ask your subject to shift head positions. And keep shooting.

-- Scenic shots. The sun is always moving in the sky; the light is constantly shifting. Shoot a lot. Change angle, change camera settings, change zoom power.

-- Action. Sports and action shots have some of the lowest keepers-to-junk ratio of any type of photography. Shoot 100, keep 2. When people see an amazing picture, they never stop to think about all the photos that didn't make the cut--how many attempts were slightly off. But rest assured: There were probably a lot of them.

2. Half press the button to eliminate shutter lag.
True story: I was lying next to a hotel pool once, watching the kids, when the guy on the next chaise suddenly swore out loud. He was peering at his little camera, really steamed. "This is the stupidest @$#(*&@!! camera," he said. "I've just tried three times to take a picture of my son going off the diving board, but the delay is so bad, I miss it every time."

Yep, he was a victim of shutter lag, the maddening time it takes for compact cameras to focus and calculate exposure after you've squeezed the shutter button but before the shot is captured.

"And even the half-pressing trick doesn't work, eh?" I said.

He looked at me as though I had just spoken Aramaic. "The what?"

Yes, that's right: There are still people on earth who don't know about the half-pressing trick.

Which is this: You can eliminate the shutter lag by half pressing the shutter button before the action begins. The camera prefocuses, precalculates, and locks in those settings as long as you continue to half press. Then, when the kid finally leaves the diving board, you press the rest of the way down to capture the shot. No lag.

3. Get close.
Not one amateur in 20 thinks about this one when composing a shot: Get close. Fill the frame. In most photos, a subject that bursts the borders of the photo has greater impact than a subject surrounded by a lot of background.

Of course, you can always crop away the background later, on the computer. That works, too. But it's better to get up close the first time. Or, if you're worried about losing that sense of place, do the smart thing: Take two shots. One that's zoomed in close, one that's got some background.

4. Don't buy into the megapixel myth.
More megapixels do not give you better pictures. Period. Megapixels measure the maximum size of each photo. For example, a 10-megapixel camera captures pictures made up of 10 million tiny dots. Trouble is, camera companies hawk megapixel ratings as though they are a measure of photo quality.

In fact, the number of megapixels is a measure of size, not quality. There are terrible 14-megapixel photos, just as there are spectacular 3-megapixel shots. Meanwhile, more megapixels means you have to buy a bigger memory card to hold them. And you have to do a lot more waiting: between shots, during the transfer to your computer, and opening and editing.

Photos intended for display on the screen--the Web, email, slideshows--don't need many pixels at all. Even a 2-megapixel photo is probably too big to fit your computer screen without zooming out. High megapixel counts are primarily related to printing, which requires much higher dot density.

5. To get the blurred-background effect, back up and zoom in.
If you have a digital SLR--one of the big, black, removable-lens cameras--then your portraits automatically have that delicious soft-focus-background look.

But compact cameras tend to keep everything in focus, near and far. You can boost your odds of getting that blurry background, however, by using these three steps:

-- Choose the Portrait mode on your camera. If your camera has an aperture-priority mode (most pocket cameras don't), you can create the effect even more efficiently by choosing a large aperture, like f2. But most pocket cameras don't have aperture-priority mode.

-- Move the subject away from the background. If the background--like a wall or a forest--is too close, it's hard to get it blurry.

-- Move farther away, and then zoom back in. It sounds nutty, but it really works. Zooming in magnifies the blur effect, so if you back away from the subject and then use the zoom to reframe the shot, you'll increase your chances.

Find the remaining five tips from David Pogue here.

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