[The following is a transcript of the embedded video.]
Are you disappointed by the quality of your pictures because they look pixelated, or the colours don’t look authentic, or they’re simply too light or dark, and you just want them to look good?
Let’s sort it out.
My name is Paul and this is Exposure Therapy. I’ve taught group photography workshops for the past three years, and in this video, I’ll discuss three common problems encountered by beginners, and what you can do to fix them.
1. Picture quality and resolution is set too low
The first problem relates to picture quality and resolution, and it’s the easiest to remedy. If you’re noticing that your high-megapixel camera isn’t producing photos with the level of detail you’re expecting, you have an issue with picture resolution. The Resolution affects how closely you can crop or zoom into your picture on a computer or phone before noticing obvious pixelation. In this example, you’re seeing two versions of the same photo. The left one was saved at my camera’s highest resolution, which is 24 megapixels, and the right using a lower setting. Notice how I can’t zoom as closely to the image on the right, and when I force it, we see pixelation instead of fine detail.
The solution is to go into your camera’s picture settings, which on most cameras is located at the top- or left-most of the menu list, and ensure your selection is set to the largest resolution, which is most commonly designated as Large or with the letter L. This tells your camera to save your pictures using the full resolution of your image sensor so that you’re using all the megapixels you paid for.
In addition to resolution, your camera also lets you choose between different image quality settings. This affects how much data compression your files undergo; more compression can produce images that show visible blockiness, artifacts, and colour degradation, especially around high-contrast edges or areas of flat detail. In this example, both photos were saved at the same resolution but with different quality settings. The photo on the right was saved using lower-quality than the picture on the left, and with closer inspection, it shows some degradation, which isn’t ideal.
To make sure this doesn’t happen, you should go back into your camera’s picture settings and select the highest JPEG quality that’s available. This is typically described using words like Fine, Extra Fine, or the letter F. The high-quality setting on Canon cameras is depicted with a smooth quarter-circle icon.
Your camera is now set to record photos using its highest resolution and best JPEG quality. Keep in mind that picture settings are what I call “persistent”, which means that you don’t need to worry about repeating this process every time you turn on your camera.
2. Poor colour balance (white balance)
Now let’s tackle the second common problem, which relates to colour. You’ve experienced poor colour balance if you’ve ever taken a photo that appears to have a cooler or warmer colour cast than you remember seeing with your eyes. This sometimes happens when you’re taking pictures of largely monochromatic scenes, like those in which a single colour is a dominant hue, or when you’re taking pictures in dim indoor lights. Such situations cause your camera to misinterpret the colour of the light, and you end up with an unwelcome colour cast.
You can easily avoid such mistakes by telling your camera the correct colour of the scene’s primary light source. This is a two-step process.
First, you’ll have to step out of the comfort of full Auto mode and into Program shooting mode, which is a fully automatic exposure mode that gives you access to several features that were previously unavailable. You can shift between modes using the Shooting mode dial, which is located on the top of most cameras. Here it is on my 11-year-old Canon 7D. Turn the dial to “P”.
Now that you’re in Program mode, you can make changes to how your camera interprets the colour of light sources. The setting you’re looking to adjust is called White Balance and is labelled “WB” on many cameras. Here’s the White Balance button on my Canon 7D; and here’s how I change it using the on-screen menu. If you haven’t changed it before, its probably set to the default “AWB”, which stands for Auto White Balance.
Auto white balance generally provides adequate results in scenes featuring a variety of colours. Beyond that, many cameras let you choose from several white balance presets designed to match commonly encountered lighting conditions. The most common presets are Shade, for when your subject is lit by blue skylight; Cloudy, for photos taken under overcast conditions; Daylight, for subjects in direct afternoon sunlight; Tungsten or Incandescent, for subjects lit by energy-inefficient light bulbs; and Flash, for when you’re using your camera’s built-in flash or a speed light mounted to your camera’s hot shoe. The Fluorescent presets found on modern cameras are only approximations for the huge variety of fluorescent and LED lights on the market, so pick these with caution and don’t expect perfection.
Some cameras have additional, more advanced presets, such as “K” and “Custom”, which uses this icon, but they’re beyond the scope of this video.
For now, the presets I described above—Shade, Cloudy, Daylight, etc—should help you get great photos with consistently accurate colours in situations when Auto White Balance has the potential to be inaccurate. Of course, I don’t want to imply that Auto White Balance is always bad—it’s not, it has a time and place. However, you’ll get better results when you pick a preset that matches the scene’s lighting.
Keep in mind, if you go back to using Auto mode instead of Program mode, you’ll lose the ability to select White Balance.
Let’s take a look at an example of what White Balance looks like when it’s wrong and when it’s right. The photo on the left was taken with Auto White Balance, and my camera incorrectly read the scene as Daylight, which is a setting intended to match direct afternoon sunlight. My grandmother was sitting by a large window, and although it was sunny outside, direct sunlight wasn’t the main light source. Her face was illuminated by the light of the sky. That’s why the scene, as shot, looks too cool and produces skin tones that are almost grey—that because skylight is cooler than Daylight. Changing the camera’s interpretation of the scene to Shade, which is the correct setting for subjects lit by the blue sky, produces much more authentic and pleasing colours. Keep in mind, this example is simulated, and in practice, you’ll have to make the right choice before taking the picture.
By the way, White Balance is a creative choice as much as a technical one. The most accurate White Balance setting isn’t always the “right” one; sometimes, the right White Balance setting is simply the one whose look you prefer the most. So feel free to experiment and discover your preferences.
3. Incorrect auto exposures (and fixing them using exposure compensation)
The last common problem that many beginners encounter is inaccurate auto exposures. These are often experienced as photos that come out too dark or bright in comparison to what you saw with your eyes, or perhaps what you were hoping for. Fortunately, there’s a very simple and intuitive way to nudge the camera’s auto exposure in the right direction. This is done using a function called Exposure Compensation. Similar to White Balance, Exposure Compensation doesn’t work in Auto mode, so you’ll have to keep your camera set to P mode to use it.
On many beginners DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, Exposure Compensation is set by pushing the button labelled with a plus and minus symbol—it looks like this—and then rotating your camera’s main control dial. Rotating the dial either adds or subtracts the amount of compensation, which is typically expressed using positive or negative numbers in your viewfinder or on the main screen. Positive numbers tell your camera to make auto exposures and negative numbers tell your camera to make them darker.
As a general rule of thumb, very bright scenes and subjects call for a positive adjustment, while those that are dark need a negative adjustment.
Let’s take a look at a simulated example. In this photo of a white dog on snow, the dominance of light tones throughout the scene fooled the camera into thinking there’s too much light and a reduced exposure is warranted. Being smarter than the camera, we know that both the dog and the snow should look white, not grey. So for this scene of a bright subject, adding positive Exposure Compensation produces a much more desirable and authentic result. And once again, in practice, you’d make this adjustment before taking the picture.
Bear in mind that Exposure Compensation is a persistent setting. To avoid accidentally sabotaging your next series of pictures, it’s good practice to reset it to zero before turning off the camera.
Now you know how to recognize and remedy the three most common mistakes made by new photographers. If you have requests for future topics, let me know in the comments, and I’ll address them in future videos. In the meantime, you can learn more about photography on ExposureTherapy.ca. See you next time.