I was walking along the dock the other day and got stopped by a couple who are about to head for the Bahamas and on down-island. First they said nice things about my photographs. After I was putty in their hands, they wanted to know if I could give them a few quick tips on how to take better photographs during their cruise. Things they could do quickly and easily with their pocket camera without spending a lot of money or reading thick tomes on photography. Here is what I came up with:
#1 Use a Lens Hood
Do you wonder why your pictures often look washed out, low contrast and boring? If you are not using a lens hood, that is probably why. Light striking the front lens element at a shallow angle will do more to wreck an otherwise good photograph than practically any other problem. And that goes double around the water.
Larger cameras have a bayonet fitting for the hood on the front of the lens. But even pocket point and shoot cameras usually have a threaded flange on the front of the lens that will take an aftermarket lens hood, although some will require some kind of adapter.
For my smaller cameras, I like the rubber collapsible lens hoods that can be had for as little as US$10.00. Although my favourites are a bit more expensive and are made by B+W.
Not only will a lens hood make your shots look better, but it will also protect the front lens element from bumps and scratches. Oh, and that reminds me of tip number four (of three):
Use a lens hood and a lens cap to protect your lens and don’t fall for that old saw about keeping a clear filter on the lens all the time. If the lens designer wanted another piece of glass there, he or she would have designed it that way! A clear filter just makes the lens more susceptible to flare, a lot more.
#2 Use a Polarizing Filter
You know those wonderful tropical shots with clear green water and deep blue skies? Ever wondered why yours don’t look that way? Simple, the photographer was using a polarizing filter…and a lens hood. You should too, particularly on sunny days and around the water.
To use a polarizer, simply rotate it as you look through the viewfinder or at the screen until you get the darkening effect you want. Note that the effect of a polarizer is greatest when the scene is side lit.
Once again, even if your camera is not fitted with a thread for a filter, there are adapters that will solve that problem for most models.
#3 Don’t Blow the Highlights
Camera sensors can see a much narrower dynamic range—the difference between bright white and black dark—than we can. In fact, less than half as much. And there are few things that ruin a nice travel photograph more than a sky that should be blue, but is blown out to white, or worse still some surreal magenta, as the sensor struggles with too much light for the exposure setting.
Unfortunately, even the most expensive cameras are prone to this when shooting on the automatic setting. Now don’t panic, I’m not suggesting you go over to full manual, just that you learn to use the exposure compensation setting on your camera to bias the exposure from the automatic setting when necessary. Look in the manual and it will tell you what knob to twiddle.
Back in the film days you used to have to understand exposure theory to use exposure compensation, a thorny subject that whole books have been devoted to, but today there is an easier way: trial and error.
Look in your manual for a setting for something like “highlight warning” and turn it on. Then take a photo of a scene with a large range from darkest to brightest and look at it on the camera’s screen. Almost certainly you will see the brightest area on the screen flashing, the dreaded blinkies. The camera is warning you that this area is burned out to white with no data. Now turn the exposure compensation so that the shutter speed gets faster and/or the aperture gets smaller (bigger number). Don’t worry too much if you don’t understand that last sentence, just go trial and error.
Try another shot. It should be a bit darker overall. Still got the blinkies? Try again. You want to get to the point where you just have no blinkies, but no further.
If your camera does not have highlight warning, all is not lost. You can use the histogram, that funny graph thingy. You may have to turn it on in the menus, or maybe press an “info” button to see it. If the graph bars are bunched up at the right side and to the top, then the highlights are almost certainly blown. In this case, keep shooting and adjusting the exposure compensation until the hills and valleys are nicely distributed across the graph.
What happens if your camera has no blinkies and no histogram, or no way to set exposure compensation? Sorry, it really is time to think about a new camera that does. If you can’t get exposure right, you will never get good photographs. Even my top of the line Canon DSL only gets the exposure perfect without help from me and exposure compensation about 70% of the time. Point and shoots are usually worse in this regard.