Outdoor photography

10:10 a.m. on March 5, 2013 (EST)
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So many of you here on TS take such nice pictures that I was wondering if anyone would like to provide a tutorial on taking good pictures outdoors.  If I may I'd especially like to request help learning how to do better taking digital pictures with the small cameras common to hikers.


10:36 a.m. on March 5, 2013 (EST)
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Im not an expert by any means, but ive had a few photo classes over the years. I think the best approach is to take several pics of everything. With folm this is limited to how much you carry, but digital isnt limited this way. The law of averages is on your side that way, your bound to get some good ones. Try not centering your subject, most people always center their subject, seems to be more interesting to have them off center to get more of the surroundings. We do have some pro photogs on here, so dont feel bad if you cant match them, they have thousands of dollars tied up in cameras and equipment. I like to take my pics without zooming first, then I can zoom and crop later, and get the frame and perspective I want. I miss too much by zooming in real tight.

12:21 p.m. on March 5, 2013 (EST)
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I have been taking adventure travel pictures for over 36 years and shot 110mm , 35mm and moved into digital in the last 45 years since I was 12 years old.

Any camera whether its digital or 35mm see's the world differently than our eye's do. When a image is captured, the image taken is not usually what we saw when we took the picture. The camera see's and reads different light waves. The image you get may look over exposed or under exposed or something in between.

I fix this in Adobe Photoshop. I can adjust the images color saturation, Brightness and Contrast, crop the image, rotate and flip it, etc in Photoshop.



I took this shot of a forest of Saguaro. It looks nice but the light being read by my camera is mostly on the sun reflected off the Saguaro's. The sky looks okay but the other light is a bit washed or over exposed.


In this image I have adjusted the Saturation increasing it to the maximum my Photoshop allows. The colors are better, the green of the Saguaro and even the sky are richer.


In this image I have adjusted the second pictures Brightness and Contrast making it darker, filling in the shadows and making the bushes seem more greener also.

So your camera and you see different things. The light coming into the lens will change depending on how you image the shot. If there is more ligh areas than dark the camera will generally expose for the light, if more dark than light it will focus on the dark and try to compensate either lightening or darkening the image you get.

So like I said above I adjust this in Photoshop and its taken me many years to play around with my images on my PC to get what I like.

Your choices will be different than mine. Some people seem to like the image just as the camera make it and so do not adjust them at all.

I am constantly shooting many images then later playing around with them in Photoshop to adjust them differently.

If you have a camera that allows you to adjust the ISO (100,200-1600) and the F-stops and other such adjustments. Experiment taking maybe 10 shots of the same exact image and shoot it in different exposures (f-stops) and ISO readings. Then you can see how differently each image comes out and choose the one's you like best.

Go online and research the often free didgital and 35mm courses and instructions on taking better pictures or check out all the books on the subject at your library.

Good luck!

6:18 p.m. on March 5, 2013 (EST)
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There is a lot to it, much more than I can relay here. I was a cinematographer for 30 years, shooting about half film and half video. During that time and the present I take photos in the outdoors. I miss film, but have almost completely changed over to digital. Although, as Gary says, you can manipulate the image in Photoshop or another program like Canon's DPP, you can't and shouldn't try to create something that isn't there. What I mean by that is, try to get the best material in field, so you don't have much tweaking(if any) to do later. WHile it is true that you should take multiple shots of the same scene with different lens openings(if you have that ability) you should also strive to get that first shot to count. This means learning your camera and the format.

Digital works much like the old slide film, like Kodachrome. That means it has a smaller range of contrast than negative film. This is essentially because digital doesn't have a great range of contrast, and it sees into the shadows better than it deals with highlights. In practical purposes, you want to under expose a digital image so you get more density, more information in the image. I usually underexpose my digital images at least one stop, and sometimes more, depending on what I am doing. Often even the simplest cameras have this capability. As well, with digital, try to shoot in situations where there is not a great range of contrast, UNLESS you want a particular look. Avoid things like bright clouds, bright snow and the dark face.

Also shoot RAW, if possible, or a JPEG with the highest resolution. When processing in your computer, batch processing is fine, but you may want to manipulate each image for best effect.

Overall, keep it simple and try to make each shot count. While it is true that you should shoot multiple images, the mistake that many who come from only the digital age make, is to shoot way too many images. A thousand images that are poorly composed, poorly lit, cannot make up for ten images that you took time on.

8:13 p.m. on March 5, 2013 (EST)
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How good an image is is more dependent on the photographer than the equipment. Having a $10,000 large format camera with a half-dozen extra lenses cannot compensate for not developing skill at visualization. You can get great photos with a small, pocket-sized point&shoot.

So how do you learn to visualize? The way to do it is to look at lots of images from the recognized masters. You could buy books, but you can just go to the library. This will help you decide what sort of pictures you want.

Do you want to take pictures of wildlife? National Geographic is an excellent place to look at wildlife photos by extremely talented photographers (NatGeo also runs photo seminars in many locations around the US and elsewhere). Scenery? Some of the photographers of the 20th Century who did great photos are Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and his son Bret Weston, Eliot Porter, Galen Rowell, and many others.

One exercise some of the great photographers who are teachers suggest is taking a piece of cardboard and cutting a rectangular hole in it the shape of your camera's image (4x5, 2 x 3, etc). Then walk around viewing the world through this frame. Hold it close and far from your eye, move it in and out shutting out the surrounding clutter (this is like a zoom lens, allowing you to "crop" the scene).

There are some rules, like the "rule of thirds" that Gary referred to above (though not by name). Lines in the scene can direct your eye. A balance of light and dark can make the scene look balanced or unbalanced.

Action pictures can be shot at a fast shutter speed to freeze the action (though that can look very static and frozen) or at a slow shutter speed to create a blur, with an implication of motion.

There are lots of things to avoid - the all too common "stand'em up and shoot'm" tourist portraits, for example ("Here we are looking at the Grand Canyon").

The beauty of digital is you can shoot hundreds of trial photos to study to see what tells the story you want to tell (that's what imagery is - telling a visual story - so look at the images you make and ask yourself, what is this picture saying? Is that what I wanted to say? Is that the story I wanted to tell?)

10:34 p.m. on March 5, 2013 (EST)
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Bill's post reminds me of a game I used to play with another DP. We'd set up a camera, either still or video, and then see how many shots we could get from that one location. We'd often refine it, such as tell a story, limit the lenses. As Bill says, shooting digital allows you to shoot hundreds(or even thousands) of photos, the old rule of garbage in, garbage out applies. As someone who had a long professional career, and have taught photography and lighting, I emphasize the discipline necessary to become a good photographer. With film that discipline was inherent in the medium as your shots were limited. Now, with digital, they are not. But I still shoot the same number as I would with film, even though I have the capability of far more. With large format cameras, the labor of setting up and composing, the expenses of processing and printing, enforces discipline.

And as Bill suggests, think about what you are trying to say. Find a voice. As a climber, you might have a series of striations in a rock face, sans any climbers.

Besides the photographers Bill mentions, there are others which can also be applied to outdoor photography. Bresson, Doisneau, Karsh, and the modern photographers.

5:46 a.m. on March 6, 2013 (EST)
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My little tip would be to always look at what's happening around the edges of your frame. Many a good photo (of mine) has been ruined or at least compromised by a blurry branch hanging in from one side, or by cutting off the top of someone's head, a mountain, or some other important subject.

This is one reason I am having problems working with my Canon G12 -- it has an imprecise optical viewfinder, and working in bright light it's hard to frame using the screen. Although I'm still reluctant to lug around a full SLR and lenses, I am now watching developments in the "mirrorless interchangeable lens" segment, one of those could be my next camera.

11:26 a.m. on March 6, 2013 (EST)
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A person with a good eye can put together composition, light, form, texture and interest in a photo.  Then they need to understand the limitations of their equipment and work around those to be successful.

6:50 p.m. on March 6, 2013 (EST)
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BigRed, any quality camera should include more in the viewfinder, that what will ultimately end up on the sensor or film. This was true of my Leica M3 and M2, as well as my Nikon, and my motion picture and video cameras. The difference is that many digital cameras do not have a bright line delineating the edge of the frame, or corner markers to do the same. It does make it difficult when the frame is imprecise. The fix is in post when you can increase image size and shift for composition.

9:21 p.m. on March 6, 2013 (EST)
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  • Bright day light typically results in too high contrast between shade and highlights; you end up with washed out highlights or featureless, black, shadows.  Early morning, late afternoon, or a cloud obscured sun will offer better lighting. 
  • When taking scenery images, include people!  Landscapes without a human presence tend to look sterile or lonely.
  • When positioning people in a shot, make a point to note their size relative to the overall image.  A common mistake is placing human subjects too far from the camera, so they become inconspicuous to the point of being unrecognizable and irrelevant.
  • When shots have a lot of sky or high contrast between subject and background, you should pick which area of the image to expose for.  Most cameras have the ability to point at a target, get a light meter reading, and then point at and shoot the intended subject while retaining the meter reading obtained from the initial target.  
  • Using an initial target, as described in the prior tip, can also be used to obtain the desired focal distance when the camera is otherwise unable to resolve the correct focus, such as in margianl lighting situations.
  • Some of what others have comment on, regarding composing the image can be learned studying art appreciation literature, especially books that dwell on the mechanics of composition.  A good artist and photographer actually will consider how they want your eye to travel around the image, and compose the image contents to facilitate that objective.  While this can be learned, it is an art, like music, requiring some natural aptitude, so some are going to be better than others, while some will just struggle to get a pleasingly composed image.
  • Study the elements of your image, and their interplay before snapping the shot.  My wife is the worst photographer!  She’ll get people with palm tree crowns sprouting out of their heads, wonderful smiling babies posed next to trash cans, and group portraits with a dog peeing on the bushes at their feet.
  • Create a story in the picture.  Just don’t have the people looking at the camera.  In fact looking askance or at each other creates a more provocative shot.  People hiking past on a trail make for a more interesting shot than the same folks in the same shot posing on the trail.  That said sometimes you have to contrive the “candid” shots for the best effect.
  • Try to comprehend how the camera sees things.  Often the scale of the outdoors does not translate in a photo.  As a mountaineer  I have seen a zillion shots of what I know to be really steep or exposed scenes, but they just look flat, as no reference points in the image effectively tell the viewer slope angles or distance from foreground to background. 
  • Likewise learn how the camera sees light.  For example cloudy days will appear as if shot under a blue tint light; while shots made near sunset will appear a lot redder than you recall in the first person experience.  Use a flash to lower contrast on nearby subject matter and to help illuminate dark shadows.
  • The flash has a relatively limited operating range.  Subject matter outside a ten foot distance will not be properly lit by most camera flashes.
  • As Erich said, there is a ton of details and techniques, enough to fills a shelf of books.    
  • Lastly, remember to experience your trip first hand!  I travel with some people who spend the entire trip peering through a view finder.  Take fewer photos, and experience the moment more.  I usually take less than a dozen images in a day, that is if I even bother unpacking my camera.


10:46 p.m. on March 6, 2013 (EST)
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"wonderful smiling babies posed next to trash cans, and group portraits with a dog peeing on the bushes at their feet." Ed, that's brilliant. Maybe your wife is making quite profound social commentary! I once did a series of spots for a women's clothing line in some dingy trashed out alleys. Nice contrast between the bright spring colors of the clothes, and the monochromatic look of the alleys.

12:07 a.m. on March 7, 2013 (EST)
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Erich said:

BigRed, any quality camera should include more in the viewfinder, that what will ultimately end up on the sensor or film. This was true of my Leica M3 and M2, as well as my Nikon, and my motion picture and video cameras. ....

 Reminds me of the 1960s-70s when the style was to make the prints showing the full frame of the film image, complete with the felt that had worn fuzzy from so many rolls of film that had gone through the camera - no cropping allowed, so it proved how skilled you were in framing the exact image. Never mind that it constrained you to a 24x36 frame, vertical or horizontal.

Gee, you have the new M3 and M2. I still have a IIIf and IIIg (actually from Barb's father - her brother didn't want those "old" cameras, taking a cheesy Pentax SLR instead).

1:27 a.m. on March 7, 2013 (EST)
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Unfortunately Bill, HAD the M3 and M2. The M3 was my Dad's, the M2 I got later. They, and my selection of lenses(90, 50, 35 and 21 Super Angulon) went to pay for my Canon 5D Mk 11 and lenses. Seattle has only one film lab...Ivey Seright and Pro Lab are long gone. I still have some Rollei stuff, and a Nikon, but can't remember the last time I used either.

My 18 year old son just picked up a Yashica RF and is really enthused about it. Could be part of the steampunk thing, akin to the new popularity of typewriters. I should have kept my old Underwood as well.

12:27 p.m. on March 7, 2013 (EST)
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As a geographer starting out I dutifully recorded landforms with slide film on my Dad's old 1949 Argus camera which used a handheld lightmeter.  I didn't realize it at the time (early 70s) but it was excellent training and took some damn fine pictures.  Later a Yashica and a Canon with thru the lense metering cleaned up the results.  I have been slow to embrace the digital cameras but like them alright.  I detest the enhaced images with surreal light and filters.  I have Canon Rebel but have embraced the tiny handheld cameras for trips like backpacking and canoeing.

Philosophically I am opposed to showing photos on the internet which puts me in a small minority. 



12:41 p.m. on March 7, 2013 (EST)
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The quickest way to moderately improve your photos is to improve composition- what is in the image, where it is in the frame, how things are arranged, and how each element relates to the others.  The easiest way to improve in that regard is to constantly study great photos and photographers. Always look for an notice really fantastic images, and absorb and study them! more formally studying design concepts, whether graphic design, cinematography, painting history, etc. 

If you want to REALLY improve you photography, learn and understand the basic function the camera and how it actually captures an image. That doesn't mean learning all about the sensors and computer programming and processing that happens in the camera "brain", but rather about the universal functional process of all photography. 

At the most basic level, all photography is a three part system: 

  • A surface that is light sensitive, and is altered when exposed to photons (Film, or an array of light receptive sensors) 
  • One or more light sources that make exposure possible
  • and a mechanical system to control how much light from the source(s) can get to the sensitive surface to "expose" it. 

There are things you need to know about each of those three parts, which I can describe in brief, but you'll need to take a photography course, learn from a photographer you know, study beginning photography books or video courses, and/or all of the above. 

Sensitive Surface

With analog photography, you chose the film for each application according to what you wanted to accomplish. Film sensitivity is designated   by ASA (ISO) numbers- a low number being less sensitive (ASA 100) and a high number being very sensitive (3200 ASA). The more sensitive the film, the less dynamic the value and contrast range is, and the more "noise" and graininess it possesses.  You also would need to chose the color/chemistry balance of the film, whether it was formulated to render daylight, incandescent, or some other color cast of light. Also, what the properties of the particular film are: low or high contrast, low or high color saturation, better for certain local color ranges, etc. 

With Digital, all of those things are controlled "in camera." ISO settings controll the sensor sensitivity, while the White Balance settings compensate for light color and temperature differences. Incandescent are warm/orange, daylight is cool/blue, overcast is even cooler, and florescent are greenish/horrible-obnoxious-changesome-hues-of-puke)

Light Source(s)

This one is pretty self explanatory: The sun, indoor lights, photography lights, etc.  But you have to be aware of the colour "personality" of each source, and know how to work with or use it. Most importantly, you have to understand the relative brightness or intensity of various lights.  With backpacking, the lights that come into play are limited: Sun, Moon, Stars, Fires, and Flashlights. But you have a wide range of options that effect your images through White Balance and relative exposure of light. 

Mechanical Light Control System

Internal mechanical light control systems vary in function from camera to camera, but the principles are the same. 

>You have an assembly of lenses that collect and focus light into the camera and onto the film or sensor. A wide range focal angles can be achieved through various lenses or "zoom" positions.  The Focal Angle is how much of what is seen in front of the lens is "projected" towards the sensor/film.  Though focused and collected, the light is at that point uncontrolled in volume or duration. 

Think of it this way: the film is like a sponge that you need to get just damp enough to use. You need a precise amount of light to hit that film or sensor.  The camera lens is like a large hose, but without any faucet on it to control how much water comes out. Without that, you either don't get enough water to get the sponge wet, or it is just gushing out, completely soaking you and the sponge and everything else. Not helpful.

So that's where the Aperture and Shutter come in

The Aperture (F-stop) controls the volume of light by changing the size of the opening on the back of the lens. Think of a tiny straw vs. and firehose. 

Next, in front of the sensor or film you have the Shutter, which covers the sensor to block all light from it, yet can open for specific lengths of time when you want it to. Going back to the water and sponge analogy, if you had a tiny straw providing water,  to wet the sponge you would need to let it run for a couple minutes, but a large hose could only be opened for a fraction of a second to keep from having too much water. The camera shutter allows you to let light in for specific amounts of time. If there isn't much light, say a moonlight snowy night,  it wouldn't matter how much you opened the aperture, you'd still need to leave the shutter open for a long time to let in enough light to expose enough for a photo. But, during a blazing noonday in summer you would need to both close down the aperture and use a faster shutter speed.

Ok, sorry if that was too much, but it's only the tiniest intro anyway, Lol!


3:55 p.m. on March 7, 2013 (EST)
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Thanks all.  Good info! 

9:36 a.m. on March 8, 2013 (EST)
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Wow, a lot of great info above.

1  Do not try to include too much in one image.  Ask yourself before you shoot 'Why am I taking this picture?" " What is the main subject"  Keep it simple.   For example, if you are taking a picture of a tree, make it a picture of that tree, not a lot of other objects around or behind.  Keep it simple.  Do not include clutter or "distractions".  

To experiment, take some pictures of someone inside your home.  When your done, note well what is in the background and around your subject.  Do you want it there?  Did you try filling the frame with your subject.  Look at portraits.  Is the top of the head always included?  If you didi not include the legs, where are they cut off?

2  Avoid having the horizon in the middle of the frame.  If the sky is beautiful, include mostly the sky.  If the foreground or subject other than the sky include only a small portion (or none) of the sky.  For example if you are taking a picture of a friend, don't have a lot of blank sky above his/her head. If it is a distant range of mountains, do not include much sky unless that is what you want (amazing clouds)  (Exception: if you are taking a picture of tree reflection on a lake or pond)

3  What about your angle of view.  Try views other than what you see at eye level. Get lower, maybe even on the ground, or higher up.  For example, don't shoot down on a flower.  Put yourself at ground level.

4  Read about "the rule of thirds", the most famous example is the Mona Lisa.  She is not posed in the middle of the frame!  And, yes, I know rules are meant to be broken.

Read Byran Peterson, Understanding Exposure.

Read books by John Shaw

9:45 a.m. on March 8, 2013 (EST)
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I meant to say in #2 "if the foreground or a subject other than the sky is what is most interesting......."

For example, look at photos of distant mountains (often snow-capped peaks) how much blank blue sky is above them?  There usually is not much.  Have those peaks right up close to the top of the frame.  Omit useless sky!

9:51 a.m. on March 8, 2013 (EST)
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Whoops!  I do not know how to edit posts.  Look at my thumbnail photo on the left taken by attaching the camera to the end of my hiking pole.  What does that blank blue sky add?  Nothing of interest.  My head should be right near the top of the frame.  Try cropping photos you already have.  When you crop in editing software the subject also gets closer and bigger and usually better.

Another rule of thumb.  When you think you are close to a subject, get closer! (as long as you can do so safely, especially if it is a rhino in your frame)

Okay. I am done......for now.

11:08 a.m. on March 8, 2013 (EST)
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In the mode of KISS, I should mention that the digital cameras today, and Photoshop, have too many bells and whistles. These have come around only since the digital age. Yet, the great photographers of the past were able to take really wonderful photos.

DON'T rely on all the settings in your digital camera. Go through the menu and select some basic settings. DON'T change them. Learn what your camera will do with these settings.

In my motion picture work, I and other DPs would complain when someone like Fuji or Agfa changed their film stocks. We had to learn a new stock, how it performed, what it saw. A Kodak rep I knew, once said that Kodak had a file drawer with new film stocks ready to go. But they didn't want to introduce them too frequently, because photographers would have to take time to learn the new stock, and that was time consuming and slowed the creative process.

6:10 p.m. on March 8, 2013 (EST)
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Erich, with film some were best for landscape others for portraits.  Right?  Now those same changes for example, bluer skies or saturation adjustments can be done in photoshop.  Digital cameras have "styles" so that color output can be changed, like film, before you take the shot.  There are landscape styles and portrait styles.  

As for changing camera settings, what about white balance?  The various choices give very different looks to an image.  "Learn what your camera will do with the settings", Yes!  A scene you are photographing has at least 6 correct exposure combinations of aperture and shutter speed with the same ISO setting.  But, each setting will give a different look to the image, mainly relating to depth of field.  Speaking of ISO you do not have to change film to get another ASA, just change the ISO with one click on your digital camera.

Ansel Adams and the other "old pros" spent hours in the darkrooms editing their images.  The same adjustments can often be made with one click of the mouse in Photoshop or other editing programs.  Photoshop can improve the look of an image, so that someone looking at it would never know it had been adjusted or changed in any way.

As for KISS, look at the image in my files of my pack on the ground (taken with a camera on automatic), before I knew much about composition and other techniques of photography.  I dropped my pack near the trail, saw wildflowers in the background that looked nice, so I took the shot.  But, what is it, a picture of the pack or wild flowers.  Answer.  Neither.

If I had wanted you to see the details of the pack and how it was set up, I should have gotten a step closer and taken a picture that would have shown you the pack, how a small flashlight my sister gave me was attached and many other interesting details, none of which you can see in the photo as it is now.  

What about the wild flowers?  If I had not mentioned them here would you have noticed them?  How well can you see them?  Do you see their differences?  Of course not.

In conclusion, if you want a photo of a backpack make it just that, a photo of your pack.  If you want a photo of wild flowers, then photograph a wild flower!

Do not try to include too many subjects in your images.  Keep It Simple, Stupid!!

6:20 p.m. on March 8, 2013 (EST)
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BTW  See that rod sticking up out of the back of my pack?  What is it?  If I had gotten closer and just had a photo of the pack, you would have seen that it was part of my broken hiking pole, not a fishing pole.  

I remember that day well.  Hiked all day and never saw another person, just a bear on the trail, and I was in Yosemite in August!  What a country!  

7:05 p.m. on March 8, 2013 (EST)
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"Erich, with film some were best for landscape others for portraits."

Rambler, with all due respect, I can't agree. The film stock I used, whether for still or motion picture, wasn't based on what I was shooting as much what I wanted it to look like. The performance of the film, and how I may have manipulated it but pulling or pushing it in the processing, determined which film I would choose. For instance, if I was shooting in a low light situation, I wouldn't necessarily use a faster stock. In fact, I might use a slower stock and rate it normal and process normal to reduce the contrast. Because the slower stocks usually have finer grain, grain wouldn't be an issue.

My point with digital and the many items available on a menu, is that I see many people running through the pages of a menu, trying to select certain settings so that they can make their shot what they want. Most of these settings are next to useless. All pros that I know agree that the menus and settings are overcomplicated and have too many settings. A few are quite useful and are akin to changing a film stock. But what I am emphasizing is that rather than trying to manipulate an image by changing the camera settings, you may miss your shot completely. Learn the basics of what the camera will do with certain standard settings. Change the shutter speed, play with lens openings and the "speed" of the sensor.

And certainly, Ansel Adams spent days printing. And yes, Photoshop can be used to manipulate an image quicker and with more possible changes than Ansel ever dreamed of. But overmanipulation in post, can't make up for a bad photograph. My advice to sage...use a simple camera with few bells and whistles and learn to take good photos that don't require much, if any manipulation. Change the aperture, the shutter speed, the ISO on the sensor, but don't worry about the multitude of other settings available. They are tools, yes, but tools don't make a photographer, any more than a fancy hammer makes a carpenter.

8:22 p.m. on March 8, 2013 (EST)
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I agree with Erich.

I think the vast majority of us are not on Erich's level, and are best served with the situational presets (idiot settings) present on most digital cameras, for example portrait, landscape, sunset, etc.  The only time I get into the exposure and focal setting is for the artsy stuff; that is far and few in between.  Learning simple tricks like using a fill flash and getting exposure and focal setting off a reference object go a long way toward making the canned setting work at least as well as our knack of composition, etc.


5:49 p.m. on March 9, 2013 (EST)
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have a look at some practical examples here :


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