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Shooting from the hip

A reporter (and amateur photographer) breaks down the basics of cameras and taking decent pictures

  • One of many fun effects available in free photo editing software, "droste" can wrap your image around several spiraling geometric shapes with a few quick clicks.

    One of many fun effects available in free photo editing software, "droste" can wrap your image around several spiraling geometric shapes with a few quick clicks.

  • This poor, abandoned bike on Conway Street in Greenfield has weathered many a snowstorm, sometimes becoming buried in the banks. To come up with this image, I used three layers - one containing just the bike, the other two the background. One I left as it was, the other I used a radial motion blur on. Afterward, I blended them into one, by adjusting the opacity on each layer, to let a little background definition show through.

    This poor, abandoned bike on Conway Street in Greenfield has weathered many a snowstorm, sometimes becoming buried in the banks. To come up with this image, I used three layers - one containing just the bike, the other two the background. One I left as it was, the other I used a radial motion blur on. Afterward, I blended them into one, by adjusting the opacity on each layer, to let a little background definition show through.

  • Here, Emily Bull, now of Northampton, slips into her roller-derby alter-ego, Emma Killya, on the porch of her old Greenfield apartment.<br/>I used an on-camera "color focus" feature to highlight the reds in the scene, converting all other hues to grayscale. This, however, picked up several red Chrismas lights in the background. So, I loaded it up in Picasa, which lets you select an area of the photo to stay colored, and grayscales the rest. After a couple clicks, only the bright reds on the subject and her cigarette remained.

    Here, Emily Bull, now of Northampton, slips into her roller-derby alter-ego, Emma Killya, on the porch of her old Greenfield apartment.
    I used an on-camera "color focus" feature to highlight the reds in the scene, converting all other hues to grayscale. This, however, picked up several red Chrismas lights in the background. So, I loaded it up in Picasa, which lets you select an area of the photo to stay colored, and grayscales the rest. After a couple clicks, only the bright reds on the subject and her cigarette remained.

  • The 2012 Green River Festival was a photographer's dream, with bright, vivid colors everywhere the eye - or lens - could see, as dozens of balloons launched from the Greenfield Community College grounds throughout the weekend.

    The 2012 Green River Festival was a photographer's dream, with bright, vivid colors everywhere the eye - or lens - could see, as dozens of balloons launched from the Greenfield Community College grounds throughout the weekend.

  • This edited image was inspired by the digital art of Northfield’s Kevin Slattery, who I interviewed for a feature story. Slattery, a professional graphic designer by day, uses photographs as the source material for some of the comic-book-esque images in three self-published books.<br/>To create this image, I used two photos. In the first, I held an empty beer bottle up to the camera, to fake a first-person perspective shot. I used GIMP’s “posterize” feature to reduce the photo to four colors, then cut the background away. I then carefully selected the bottle, and made it more translucent with the program’s opacity control.<br/>I then took a picture of a friend fanning her mouth after she sampled some spicy “fire cider” at the People’s Pint. I posterized this image as well, then superimposed the cut out hand and bottle over it. My previous adjustment to the bottle’s opacity allowed the background to show through.

    This edited image was inspired by the digital art of Northfield’s Kevin Slattery, who I interviewed for a feature story. Slattery, a professional graphic designer by day, uses photographs as the source material for some of the comic-book-esque images in three self-published books.
    To create this image, I used two photos. In the first, I held an empty beer bottle up to the camera, to fake a first-person perspective shot. I used GIMP’s “posterize” feature to reduce the photo to four colors, then cut the background away. I then carefully selected the bottle, and made it more translucent with the program’s opacity control.
    I then took a picture of a friend fanning her mouth after she sampled some spicy “fire cider” at the People’s Pint. I posterized this image as well, then superimposed the cut out hand and bottle over it. My previous adjustment to the bottle’s opacity allowed the background to show through.

  • On a week-long vacation to Florida, I stopped by the Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg. The architecture outside is almost as intrigueing as the masterpieces within. To focus on the lines in the building's glass bubble exterior, I used the simple, one-click neon filter in Picassa. It had the added bonus of removing a blurry spot from a scratch on the camera's lens.

    On a week-long vacation to Florida, I stopped by the Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg. The architecture outside is almost as intrigueing as the masterpieces within. To focus on the lines in the building's glass bubble exterior, I used the simple, one-click neon filter in Picassa. It had the added bonus of removing a blurry spot from a scratch on the camera's lens.

  • For this un-edited photo, I schlepped my tripod and my little Elph 300HS camera to the May 2012 Strangecreek music festival. I set up at the side of the stage as Firewormz put on their fire dancing show. I experimented with shutter speeds; one second didn’t yield enough flaming trails, and at three seconds, the fire trails became so chaotic and bright that I couldn’t make sense of them. So, I settled on two seconds, and took dozens of pictures.

    For this un-edited photo, I schlepped my tripod and my little Elph 300HS camera to the May 2012 Strangecreek music festival. I set up at the side of the stage as Firewormz put on their fire dancing show. I experimented with shutter speeds; one second didn’t yield enough flaming trails, and at three seconds, the fire trails became so chaotic and bright that I couldn’t make sense of them. So, I settled on two seconds, and took dozens of pictures.

  • When my photo of the 2011 Green River Cleanup made The Recorder's front page and elicited compliments from the newsroom, I started to get the idea that I may be onto something.

    When my photo of the 2011 Green River Cleanup made The Recorder's front page and elicited compliments from the newsroom, I started to get the idea that I may be onto something.

  • This photo is one of the first I took with my newest camera, the SX40HS. I arrived home one night, saw the moon large and low in the sky, and got out my camera. I extended it to its full 35x zoom, propped it against the roof of my car, anchored my elbows, and shot. The resulting image was cropped and white balanced, but otherwise unaltered.

    This photo is one of the first I took with my newest camera, the SX40HS. I arrived home one night, saw the moon large and low in the sky, and got out my camera. I extended it to its full 35x zoom, propped it against the roof of my car, anchored my elbows, and shot. The resulting image was cropped and white balanced, but otherwise unaltered.

  • This image was created in Picassa, with a photo of a “noise musician” adjusting his audio samplers and processing equipment, and the program’s “neon” filter. It’s a quick one-click edit that can create some interesting effects. I don’t know what became of Joe or his music, but a 16 by 20-inch print of this picture graces my game room. I found the edited image fitting, since Joe himself made an act of taking sampled sound bits and filtering and splicing them into songs.<br/>This was taken at the Chevalier Artspace, a former artists’ studio space, musicians’ jam spot, and sometimes speakeasy in Greenfield.

    This image was created in Picassa, with a photo of a “noise musician” adjusting his audio samplers and processing equipment, and the program’s “neon” filter. It’s a quick one-click edit that can create some interesting effects. I don’t know what became of Joe or his music, but a 16 by 20-inch print of this picture graces my game room. I found the edited image fitting, since Joe himself made an act of taking sampled sound bits and filtering and splicing them into songs.
    This was taken at the Chevalier Artspace, a former artists’ studio space, musicians’ jam spot, and sometimes speakeasy in Greenfield.

  • To highlight the vivid colors of this wilting flower at the Montague end of the rail-trail bike path, I carefully selected the areas around the petals, and "desaturated," or removed the colors, from the background.

    To highlight the vivid colors of this wilting flower at the Montague end of the rail-trail bike path, I carefully selected the areas around the petals, and "desaturated," or removed the colors, from the background.

  • Of all the pictures I’ve taken in the last year, this is a hands-down favorite. The scene is the Northfield Drive-In’s projection booth, where projectionist Paul Bader has spent many a summer night, spooling, loading, and playing the many reels that make up each film.<br/>There are several things that make me love this picture. The lighting, mostly from a small desk lamp, reflects brightly in the middle of the blue block wall, then fades to black as it nears the edges of the frame. The spokes of the spinning film reels seem almost non-existant thanks to their high speed and motion blur. On the desk, Bader’s cigarillo sits stubbed out in his Budweiser ashtray, awaiting his return. On the wall, Angelina Jolie’s stands watch as Lara Croft, in posters from the “Tomb Raider” series. The photo, I think, tells a bit of a story about the man behind the projector.

    Of all the pictures I’ve taken in the last year, this is a hands-down favorite. The scene is the Northfield Drive-In’s projection booth, where projectionist Paul Bader has spent many a summer night, spooling, loading, and playing the many reels that make up each film.
    There are several things that make me love this picture. The lighting, mostly from a small desk lamp, reflects brightly in the middle of the blue block wall, then fades to black as it nears the edges of the frame. The spokes of the spinning film reels seem almost non-existant thanks to their high speed and motion blur. On the desk, Bader’s cigarillo sits stubbed out in his Budweiser ashtray, awaiting his return. On the wall, Angelina Jolie’s stands watch as Lara Croft, in posters from the “Tomb Raider” series. The photo, I think, tells a bit of a story about the man behind the projector.

  • This image was something of a happy accident. On a walk at one night in Turners Falls, I happened upon a half-open sunflower on Central Street. I took out my pocket-sized SX260HS, turned on the flash, framed up my shot and fired. It wasn’t until I returned home and saw it full-size on my laptop that I noticed the spider in the lower right.<br/>The rule of thirds comes into play here. The spider sits at one of the “power points,” and the greenery comes in from the upper left to move the eye into the flower.<br/>This photo was edited with GIMP. To do so, I brought the black and midpoint input levels up. Doing so made the darks darker; a charcoal gray in the background turned to pitch black, and the yellows and greens became richer.

    This image was something of a happy accident. On a walk at one night in Turners Falls, I happened upon a half-open sunflower on Central Street. I took out my pocket-sized SX260HS, turned on the flash, framed up my shot and fired. It wasn’t until I returned home and saw it full-size on my laptop that I noticed the spider in the lower right.
    The rule of thirds comes into play here. The spider sits at one of the “power points,” and the greenery comes in from the upper left to move the eye into the flower.
    This photo was edited with GIMP. To do so, I brought the black and midpoint input levels up. Doing so made the darks darker; a charcoal gray in the background turned to pitch black, and the yellows and greens became richer.

  • Of all the pictures I’ve taken in the last year, this is a hands-down favorite. The scene is the Northfield Drive-In’s projection booth, where projectionist Paul Bader has spent many a summer night, spooling, loading, and playing the many reels that make up each film.<br/>There are several things that make me love this picture. The lighting, mostly from a small desk lamp, reflects brightly in the middle of the blue block wall, then fades to black as it nears the edges of the frame. The spokes of the spinning film reels seem almost non-existant thanks to their high speed and motion blur. On the desk, Bader’s cigarillo sits stubbed out in his Budweiser ashtray, awaiting his return. On the wall, Angelina Jolie’s stands watch as Lara Croft, in posters from the “Tomb Raider” series. The photo, I think, tells a bit of a story about the man behind the projector.

    Of all the pictures I’ve taken in the last year, this is a hands-down favorite. The scene is the Northfield Drive-In’s projection booth, where projectionist Paul Bader has spent many a summer night, spooling, loading, and playing the many reels that make up each film.
    There are several things that make me love this picture. The lighting, mostly from a small desk lamp, reflects brightly in the middle of the blue block wall, then fades to black as it nears the edges of the frame. The spokes of the spinning film reels seem almost non-existant thanks to their high speed and motion blur. On the desk, Bader’s cigarillo sits stubbed out in his Budweiser ashtray, awaiting his return. On the wall, Angelina Jolie’s stands watch as Lara Croft, in posters from the “Tomb Raider” series. The photo, I think, tells a bit of a story about the man behind the projector.

  • One of many fun effects available in free photo editing software, "droste" can wrap your image around several spiraling geometric shapes with a few quick clicks.
  • This poor, abandoned bike on Conway Street in Greenfield has weathered many a snowstorm, sometimes becoming buried in the banks. To come up with this image, I used three layers - one containing just the bike, the other two the background. One I left as it was, the other I used a radial motion blur on. Afterward, I blended them into one, by adjusting the opacity on each layer, to let a little background definition show through.
  • Here, Emily Bull, now of Northampton, slips into her roller-derby alter-ego, Emma Killya, on the porch of her old Greenfield apartment.<br/>I used an on-camera "color focus" feature to highlight the reds in the scene, converting all other hues to grayscale. This, however, picked up several red Chrismas lights in the background. So, I loaded it up in Picasa, which lets you select an area of the photo to stay colored, and grayscales the rest. After a couple clicks, only the bright reds on the subject and her cigarette remained.
  • The 2012 Green River Festival was a photographer's dream, with bright, vivid colors everywhere the eye - or lens - could see, as dozens of balloons launched from the Greenfield Community College grounds throughout the weekend.
  • This edited image was inspired by the digital art of Northfield’s Kevin Slattery, who I interviewed for a feature story. Slattery, a professional graphic designer by day, uses photographs as the source material for some of the comic-book-esque images in three self-published books.<br/>To create this image, I used two photos. In the first, I held an empty beer bottle up to the camera, to fake a first-person perspective shot. I used GIMP’s “posterize” feature to reduce the photo to four colors, then cut the background away. I then carefully selected the bottle, and made it more translucent with the program’s opacity control.<br/>I then took a picture of a friend fanning her mouth after she sampled some spicy “fire cider” at the People’s Pint. I posterized this image as well, then superimposed the cut out hand and bottle over it. My previous adjustment to the bottle’s opacity allowed the background to show through.
  • On a week-long vacation to Florida, I stopped by the Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg. The architecture outside is almost as intrigueing as the masterpieces within. To focus on the lines in the building's glass bubble exterior, I used the simple, one-click neon filter in Picassa. It had the added bonus of removing a blurry spot from a scratch on the camera's lens.
  • For this un-edited photo, I schlepped my tripod and my little Elph 300HS camera to the May 2012 Strangecreek music festival. I set up at the side of the stage as Firewormz put on their fire dancing show. I experimented with shutter speeds; one second didn’t yield enough flaming trails, and at three seconds, the fire trails became so chaotic and bright that I couldn’t make sense of them. So, I settled on two seconds, and took dozens of pictures.
  • When my photo of the 2011 Green River Cleanup made The Recorder's front page and elicited compliments from the newsroom, I started to get the idea that I may be onto something.
  • This photo is one of the first I took with my newest camera, the SX40HS. I arrived home one night, saw the moon large and low in the sky, and got out my camera. I extended it to its full 35x zoom, propped it against the roof of my car, anchored my elbows, and shot. The resulting image was cropped and white balanced, but otherwise unaltered.
  • This image was created in Picassa, with a photo of a “noise musician” adjusting his audio samplers and processing equipment, and the program’s “neon” filter. It’s a quick one-click edit that can create some interesting effects. I don’t know what became of Joe or his music, but a 16 by 20-inch print of this picture graces my game room. I found the edited image fitting, since Joe himself made an act of taking sampled sound bits and filtering and splicing them into songs.<br/>This was taken at the Chevalier Artspace, a former artists’ studio space, musicians’ jam spot, and sometimes speakeasy in Greenfield.
  • To highlight the vivid colors of this wilting flower at the Montague end of the rail-trail bike path, I carefully selected the areas around the petals, and "desaturated," or removed the colors, from the background.
  • Of all the pictures I’ve taken in the last year, this is a hands-down favorite. The scene is the Northfield Drive-In’s projection booth, where projectionist Paul Bader has spent many a summer night, spooling, loading, and playing the many reels that make up each film.<br/>There are several things that make me love this picture. The lighting, mostly from a small desk lamp, reflects brightly in the middle of the blue block wall, then fades to black as it nears the edges of the frame. The spokes of the spinning film reels seem almost non-existant thanks to their high speed and motion blur. On the desk, Bader’s cigarillo sits stubbed out in his Budweiser ashtray, awaiting his return. On the wall, Angelina Jolie’s stands watch as Lara Croft, in posters from the “Tomb Raider” series. The photo, I think, tells a bit of a story about the man behind the projector.
  • This image was something of a happy accident. On a walk at one night in Turners Falls, I happened upon a half-open sunflower on Central Street. I took out my pocket-sized SX260HS, turned on the flash, framed up my shot and fired. It wasn’t until I returned home and saw it full-size on my laptop that I noticed the spider in the lower right.<br/>The rule of thirds comes into play here. The spider sits at one of the “power points,” and the greenery comes in from the upper left to move the eye into the flower.<br/>This photo was edited with GIMP. To do so, I brought the black and midpoint input levels up. Doing so made the darks darker; a charcoal gray in the background turned to pitch black, and the yellows and greens became richer.
  • Of all the pictures I’ve taken in the last year, this is a hands-down favorite. The scene is the Northfield Drive-In’s projection booth, where projectionist Paul Bader has spent many a summer night, spooling, loading, and playing the many reels that make up each film.<br/>There are several things that make me love this picture. The lighting, mostly from a small desk lamp, reflects brightly in the middle of the blue block wall, then fades to black as it nears the edges of the frame. The spokes of the spinning film reels seem almost non-existant thanks to their high speed and motion blur. On the desk, Bader’s cigarillo sits stubbed out in his Budweiser ashtray, awaiting his return. On the wall, Angelina Jolie’s stands watch as Lara Croft, in posters from the “Tomb Raider” series. The photo, I think, tells a bit of a story about the man behind the projector.

"Say 'cheese!'"

That about sums up my photographic expertise for the first 29 years of my life.

I’d squeeze a few friends into an awkward grouping, add some forced smiles, and snap a picture with a disposable camera. That was the extent of my camera work before I started writing for The Recorder two years ago, and was forced to learn.

“But Dave, you’re a writer, not a photographer,” you say. “Don’t they have professionals for that?”

Yes, but sometimes, when our pros are busy elsewhere in the county or otherwise unavailable, we wordsmiths have to shoot for ourselves. So, I got a crash course in photography through a combination of trial-and-error and some friendly pointers from our professional shutterbugs and editors.

It all started back in March of 2011.

“This is our newsroom camera,” said managing editor George Forcier as he thrust a Nikon D70 into my hands on one of my first days at the paper. There were so many buttons and dials, I thought I’d never figure it out. And I was a bit nervous — the entry-level dSLR (digital single-lens reflex, but that’s not important) was worth more than the pickup I drove at the time, a beat up, rusted out, olive drab green 1994 Ford Ranger that I bought for $150 and made road-worthy.

Those first few photos were, I’ll admit, about as ugly as that truck. But they elicited some good advice.

“The subject’s too close to the wall,” said Forcier, critiquing a headshot I’d taken of Ed Rayher, winner of the 2011 Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest. “See that shadow against the wall? Next time, have him take a step forward.”

There were also gems like “Take more than one picture, it’s not like you’re wasting film,” and the ever-popular “Focus!”

So, I learned. I took the feedback to heart, and whenever I lifted that camera to my eye, I could hear my editor’s voice in my ear, like Jiminy Cricket on my shoulder.

One proud moment came after the annual Green River Cleanup in October of 2011. I covered the event with our former Saturday photographer, Geoff Bluh. With volunteers cleaning up the river in several locations, we split up, and I took the D70 just in case.

My photo wound up running on the front page of that Monday’s paper. When I returned Tuesday, Forcier, conservative with his compliments, told me how much he liked it. In it, two volunteers stooped over a 55-gallon steel drum and rolled it out of the woods and through the muck. A little girl in a pink rain slicker watched from the sidelines, and the shutter snapped right at the moment her rubber boot came down with a splash of muddy water.

Though my skills were improving, I had precious little time to practice. I couldn’t just take the company camera home, and, unless I was shooting something for a story, I couldn’t justify playing with it on the clock.

So, about a year later, I bought myself a little Canon point-and-shoot, on sale for $150. Though it had a fraction of the D70’s functionality, I had a lot more time to toy with it, and I fell in love with my pocket-sized camera.

But it was not to last. On a long weekend at the beach last June, I managed to get some sand inside the zoom mechanism, and it killed my little camera.

Sad, but that’s why I bought the extended warranty. I recommend it, but only if you plan on taking your camera out of its case and using it. They’re sensitive devices: lenses scratch, dust and dirt get in places they shouldn’t, and they can easily be damaged if dropped.

When I went to return it, my model had been discontinued. I opted to use the store credit to upgrade to a more advanced — but still pocket-sized — Canon Powershot SX260 HS.

It offered a host of other features. Full control over the shutter speed from 1/3,200 to 15 seconds, an adjustable aperture, even a semi-manual focus. Quite a step up.

Those additional features opened up a world of options for me, and once I learned to use them, I was hooked. By Thanksgiving, I found myself the owner of another camera, a Canon Powershot SX40 HS. It added a viewfinder (handy when the larger LCD display is overcome by solar glare), a “hot shoe” for attaching any of Canon’s professional Speedlite flashes, a fold-out, tilting LCD display, and easier access to some of the features found on my other cameras. Bought on sale, it set me back another $300.

Although my skills and equipment have gotten better since, some of my favorite photos were taken with that $150 camera.

Jammed up in jargon

The list of features, functions and other terminology can seem overwhelming to the uninitiated. Don’t be daunted; it’s really not that complicated.

Three key settings — aperture setting, shutter speed and ISO value — make up the “exposure triangle,” and work together to determine if your picture will be too dark, too bright or just right.

Before my second camera, I had no idea what an aperture was. Turns out, it’s a mechanism not unlike the pupil of your eye. It opens to let in more light, and contracts to let in less. The obvious effect is brightness — a more open aperture makes for brighter, more exposed pictures, and vice-versa, but it also has an effect on “depth of field.”

Depth of field refers to a picture’s focal range. When you take a picture, you usually focus on the subject. The farther something is from the focal point, the more out of focus it will be. A narrow depth of field can sometimes be desirable — it draws the eye to the subject and makes it seem sharper in comparison to the blurry background. A wider depth will make more of the scene appear in focus, resulting in a sharper overall picture.

Aperture settings are measured in F-stop numbers. A higher F-stop means the aperture is smaller. The smaller the aperture, the wider the depth of field. Confused? Here’s how I remember it; the higher the F-stop, the wider the depth of field.

Shutter speed is a bit simpler. It measures the amount of time the camera’s sensor is exposed during a picture; a longer exposure yields a brighter picture. However, it can result in washed-out, overexposed pictures and can also make moving subjects appear blurry.

For fast-moving things — hummingbirds, airplane propellers, race cars — a faster shutter speed will freeze the subject in place, but you may need to open the aperture and/or raise the ISO to get a well-exposed picture.

What’s ISO? It sets the sensor’s light sensitivity.

In film photography, each roll of film has an ISO value, meaning photographers would have to re-load their cameras to get different ISO levels.

In the digital world, it’s as easy as pushing a button. Lower ISO values will take clearer pictures in well-lit scenes, but may require the shutter to stay open longer, making moving objects prone to motion blur. High ISO values are useful for moving subjects or low-light scenes without flash, but higher values can result in grainier pictures.

Some cameras allow the user to adjust all of these settings.

In aperture priority mode, the user selects the aperture setting, and the camera adjusts the shutter speed for optimal exposure. Shutter or time priority mode determines the aperture size depending on the shutter speed the user selects. A “manual” mode lets the user set both values independently of each other for fine tuning or special effects.

The photographer can also just set the ISO, and the other settings will adjust for exposure. Or, you can go fully automatic and let the camera do all the work, but what’s the fun in that?

Photography on a budget

When you start investing in cameras, equipment and editing software, the sky is the limit. As I write this, Best Buy’s website lists a Nikon D3X dSLR camera body, sans lens, for a whopping $6,699.99 — and that’s on sale!

On the other end of the spectrum, the electronics retailer sells Vivitar’s ViviCam for $29.99. But you’re not going to get a lot of functionality in the under $30 range.

So how do you get the most for your money?

Well, that depends on what you want in a camera. Looking online can help, since retailers often give much more information on items online than you’ll find in a store. Some sites also let you compare merchandise using side-by-side specification charts. Pretty handy.

A side note: when shopping for electronics, I prefer to stick to well-known manufacturers. For example, I’ve had too many no-name $20 DVD players die on me to think they’re a good deal. When comparing features to costs, I’ve found Canon to have some good values. The Recorder’s pro photographers are Nikon diehards, but I found more bang for my buck with Canon. Your mileage may vary.

Before you start comparing prices, figure out which features are important to you. Want to take detailed close-ups or “macro” shots? Look for a camera with a minimum focal distance of an inch or less. Want to catch that bald eagle circling at 150 feet? Look for an optical zoom of 20x or more. If you want to take pictures in low-light environments without flash, look for a maximum ISO of 1,600 or higher, and adjustable shutter speed. Want to take it fishing? Look for something water resistant. Shooting sports? Find a camera with a “burst mode,” which takes several pictures per second. If you like landscapes, consider one with a panoramic mode, and a tripod to keep your camera anchored as you take several photos to be stitched into one.

Some features can be deceiving, like zoom. A camera may advertise a “40x zoom,” but it’s actually a 10x optical zoom coupled with 4x digital zoom. Digital zoom simply enlarges an area of a photo, giving the illusion of an up-close shot, while sacrificing resolution. It’s like sitting closer to your tiny TV to make it look bigger.

Digital images are composed of thousands of little squares of color, called pixels, and camera resolution is measured in megapixels. The higher the number, the higher the quality. This doesn’t matter much if you’re just taking pictures for 5- by 7-inch prints, or to share online on Facebook or Instagram. But if you want poster-sized prints, you’re going to want a higher resolution. For example, my Canon SX40 HS is rated at 12.1 megapixels, which Canon claims is enough to make clear, crisp, 16-by-20-inch prints.

Remember, the higher the resolution, the more space each picture takes on your camera’s memory card. If you’re going to take a few pictures at a time and regularly upload them to your computer, storage won’t be a big concern.

Most digital cameras on the market today use removable memory, and the most common is the SD card.

The benefit to removable media is that you can keep several little cards in your camera bag, pocket, glove-box, or wherever, and swap them when one’s full. Even the lowest-capacity SD card will fit more photos than the 24 to 27 available on a roll of 35mm film.

Though each card costs between $10 and $40, you’ll never need to buy film, or pay to develop a full roll and find you’ve only got a handful of good pictures. Shoot away.

Though cards are capable of storing thousands of pictures, when they start to get full they may take longer to store each image, which could delay your next shot. You can solve this by periodically cleaning out your card’s stored pictures — just make sure to download the keepers to your computer first.

When you do clean out your memory card, it’s best to use the on-camera “format” function, rather than simply deleting pictures. This clean-sweeps your card; just deleting pictures can slow down your save time, crippling your capability for continuous or burst-mode shooting.

Shooting

Remember, your camera and your eyes see things differently. The eye can discern motion and depth, and your brain stitches its many images into a cohesive whole. Your camera will freeze a moment in time and two dimensions, flattening the image and often blurring the line between foreground and background.

This is a double-edged sword.

If you want to convey a scene just as it you see it, you’ll have to find the right lighting and angle to properly portray it. And, keep in mind, head-on lighting like on-camera flash can further flatten an image; to illustrate depth, make sure your subject is illuminated at an angle, and you’ll get some better shading.

If you’re into the abstract, you can fool the viewer by capturing a familiar object in an extreme close-up or at an unusual angle.

Composition

Before you take a picture of something, think. What are you taking a picture of? Is it an “insurance shot” meant to simply show the subject just as it is? Are you trying to say something with your photo? Do you want the viewer to know what it is right away, or make them think? What you aim to do with your image will dictate how you should compose it.

Imagine your camera’s display divided into nine sections, like a tic-tac-toe board. Some cameras offer an on-screen grid for this. Place subjects near the lines’ intersections, or “power points,” to draw attention to them.

You can also move the viewer’s eye around a picture by framing it so that curves or lines lead the eye through the picture. In doing so, consider the way your subject and background interact.

While you’re considering composition, think about the lighting, too. Is it at an angle that will highlight some parts of your subject and leave others in shadow, showing depth and detail? Also, check to see if your picture is backlit. A bright background can make for an underexposed subject.

Focus!

Unless you’re going for something “avant garde,” you’re going to want to make sure your subject is in focus. Don’t trust your camera’s tiny LCD display to tell you your picture’s sharp. Instead, take several pictures, each time taking your finger off the shutter, then pressing it halfway to auto-focus before driving the button home to take a picture. If your subject, or the part of it you want clearest, isn’t in the center of the frame, center it. Then, push the shutter halfway and hold it there, and re-compose the scene the way you want it before taking a picture.

I learned this the hard way.

Too often, I’d return to the newsroom, proud of the shot I’d taken, only to blow it up full-size, and realize my subjects are blurry and in need of a re-shoot. Now, I like to experiment, and take several pictures, with the focus set at different points.

On most point-and-shoots, auto-focus is the way to go. Though some offer a “manual” focus, it’s driven by an electronic interface, rather than a direct mechanical adjustment. Scrolling through a menu to select manual focus, then thumbing the tiny controls to adjust it, can be time-consuming and cumbersome, and it’s often not worth the trouble.

Hands-on learning

The best way to get used to a camera and its settings is to practice. In fact, The Recorder’s own Paul Franz, known across the county for his work, is self-taught.

First, brush up on your camera’s basics. Learn where the buttons are and what they do, then put down the manual, go out and take pictures of everything. Take several pictures of the same subject, using different settings and angles, so you can see what effects they have.

If you’ve already taken some digital photos, even if you used an “auto” mode, you can find out which settings yielded which results.

On a Windows PC, this is as simple as right-clicking on the image file, and select “properties” from the pull-down menu. Then click the “details” tab up top. This brings up the photo’s EXIF data, which can tell you things like the photo’s resolution, the make and model of camera used, and the settings with which the photo was taken. Some cameras store more EXIF data than others. (Sorry Mac users; I’m Apple illiterate.)

Some photo-sharing sites, like www.flickr.com, will list some of this EXIF data right alongside the pictures. This can give insight into the images others create.

Even if that valuable EXIF data is hidden, you can still look to others’ photos for inspiration; you’ll just have to figure out the “how” on your own.

Editing

Once you’ve got your pictures off of your memory card and onto your computer, it’s time to edit them – if you choose.

Professional programs like Adobe Photoshop can go for nearly $1,000, depending on how many bells and whistles you want.

That didn’t fit my budget by a longshot.

I did some poking around, and found two free photo-editing programs for PCs, and both have salvaged photos I thought were beyond repair.

Picasa, made by Google, is a very basic, user-friendly program. It offers quick, easy fixes like red-eye reduction, photo straightening, brightness and contrast and cropping, all a mouse-click away. It also has fun features like colored filters, black-and-white images, negative images and a function that takes the edges of objects in the picture and makes them look like neon lights in a color of the user’s choosing. It’s available at picasa.google.com.

GNU Image Manipulation Program (or GIMP; their acronym, not mine) is a bit more complicated, but has a slew of features you won’t find in Picasa, as well as user-made downloadable add-ons with even more effects and functions. Designed as a free alternative to Photoshop, it’s available at www.gimp.org. There, you can also find a general users’ manual as well as in-depth tutorials on specific features. You may need them; the software is powerful, but it comes with a steep learning curve.

I’m not close to mastering the software, but I’ve been able to do quite a bit with it.

Whatever direction you want to take your photography, there is a bevy of resources available online, in bookstores, and at your local library that can help you get there. So, grab your camera, brush up on the basics, get out there and shoot!

Staff reporter David Rainville has worked at The Recorder since 2011. He covers Bernardston, Leyden, Northfield and Warwick. He can be reached at drainville@recorder.com or
413-772-0261, ext. 279.

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