by Harry Flashman
Picture Taking for Dummies
My 11 year old daughter asked me to show her how
to use my camera. I agreed, but did nothing.
Children’s enthusiasm does wax and wane, so
hence my tardiness. The desire may have gone by
the next week. However, now on the third week
and getting exasperated mutterings from daughter
I decided to acquiesce.
Teaching children anything can be a difficult
task, but my “almost” teenager is now old enough
to understand concepts and physics in
particular. Why physics? Because cameras all
obey some very simple physical laws, no matter
how many pixels are stored inside.
Despite all the image stabilization trickery,
the first lesson is merely on handling the
camera to avoid camera shake. Using supporting
tricks by leaning on a pole or setting the
camera on a table top.
The second lesson is focusing for a sharp
picture. Now I know 99 percent of digital
cameras have Auto-Focus (AF), but it is amazing
just how many weekend photographers get ‘soft’
pictures. This is generally when taking
photographs of couples, where the focusing eye
is looking between the heads and focusing on
some point in the far distance. The differences
and the ways to correct any problems can be
demonstrated at the time, and the child becomes
proficient at managing the factors.
Light and lens is a good way to start showing
the novice that the camera is really just a
container trapping the external light. The
larger the aperture, the more light gets in.
That is relatively easy for young minds to
grasp, but the reverse numbering of the f stops
is a bit of a hurdle.
Shutter speed is also an easy one, with the
longer the shutter stays open, the more light
Now the temptation is to leave it there and just
go play with the mode controls, but I believe
that by giving the child a solid grounding in
the basics, makes for a better understanding of
“painting with light” as photography is often
By handling the two variables of aperture and
time individually, you can demonstrate the
different results – thank goodness for the
instant gratification that today’s digital
cameras will give you. I also found that by
using aperture priority when playing with
shutter speed and shutter priority when playing
with aperture it made it such that the novice
was only required to understand one variable at
a time, by letting the camera do the rest.
It was only after that grounding in the basics
did I get her to look at the modes, and Little
Miss could see what the different modes were
actually doing. To stop a railway train use a
fast shutter speed. To give me as much detail as
possible, then a slow shutter speed will work
If the day is overcast, then open up the
aperture to let more light in. If photographing
on the beach with bright light everywhere, then
cut down the light entering the camera by
closing the aperture. Remember again that the
aperture numbers are the reverse of what you
would intuitively expect. F4 is a large
aperture, while f 16 is a smaller aperture.
And whilst I know that modern digital cameras
can always give you an image especially when in
‘Auto’, I am trying to get my daughter to look
beyond the camera being in charge, to the
photographer being in charge.
It is important for your child to understand
that good photographs are ‘made’, they just
don’t happen. To sparkle up their shots, look
for points of interest to include in the
viewfinder. Then work out how to really use that
point of interest in the shot. This may require
shifting position, but is worthwhile.
Finally, there is the vexed question around
‘selfies’. Narcissism is not an admirable
feature in our society. I will let my daughter
take her own without me!
How ‘mega’ do you want your pixels?
Did you get a new camera for Xmas, New Year or your birthday? Or did you get
a newer smartphone? You know, one of those phones that does everything other
than iron your shirts.
But can they really do everything? I saw a young photographer last weekend,
trying to take shots of moving action, with a camera phone, and being
Now whilst I know that camera phone technology has improved over the years,
the end result is always a compromise. Is it a camera you can get phone
calls on, or a phone that takes pictures? It is like the microwave oven that
has a clock built in. Do you buy it to tell you the time in the kitchen, or
to defrost food? (Please do not write in with the correct answers, there are
no prizes for obvious questions!)
It actually stands to reason that if it needs a boxful of electronics, with
an expensive piece of glass mounted on the front of it to get great photos,
then you are not going to get the same quality from a camera phone. No, I
use my camera to take photographs only, and use my mobile phone to ring
Chiang Mai, not to photograph the Chiang Mai moat.
One of the problems when comparing cameras with cameras (forgetting camera
phones for the minute) is people tend to read the magic number called
megapixels and conclude that it is the deciding parameter between brilliant,
good and not so good. 24 megapixels is better than 12 which in turn better
is than 4.
Whilst the above is partly true, it really does depend upon what you want to
do with the end result. Are you going to be blowing it up to the size of a
barn door, or will it be an 8R (10x8) at most? If you have been hired to
produce photographs for billboards, then look at a camera with megapixels
coming out its strap swivels. For everything else, anything from six to 10
MP is more than adequate.
So what should you be looking for when buying a camera these (electronic)
days? To start with, a fast autofocus. Instant zip-zip, not “pause for a
second while I get myself ready and then zip”.
I also recommend inbuilt image stabilization. So many photographs are
spoiled by camera movement producing ‘soft’ images, which can be overcome
with image stabilization electronics. And as a further small advantage,
these types of systems are particularly good for the senior citizen
You should also look at the shutter speeds the camera is capable of.
1/2000th of a second should stop a railway train (in Thailand, not in Japan)
and be sufficient for 99 percent of action photography. It is also
advantageous if any proposed camera has a time exposure setting so you can
take photographs at night, including fireworks.
The other factor of importance is the Aperture, commonly called the f stop.
The lens should be able to open up to at least f 4, and close down to at
least f 16. This is to give you control over depth of field in your picture
Just about every camera (other than a phone camera) has several modes for
you to play with, or to help you. An ‘Auto’ mode for the days you are
feeling lazy, or too rushed to start selecting shutter speed and apertures,
is totally necessary for the weekend photographer. A for ‘Auto’ is fine for
at least 60 percent of weekend photographs. It is only when we start getting
into the remaining 40 percent that we need extra capabilities.
However, unless you are very aware photographically, a mode setting that
selects the optimal shutter speed and aperture for the action photograph is
a good feature to have in your new camera. Most cameras these days also have
many other modes, and although I still believe you should know ‘why’ you
open up by a couple of f stops when the subject is back-lit, which is what
the ‘back-light’ mode does for you, that isn’t really necessary. I’m just
being old-fashioned, I suppose.
And my normal camera? 12 MP, 1/2000th shutter speed and f 2.8.
Items you must have!
This week’s column is dedicated to those of you that have just
got a new camera. Especially if this is your first camera.
Cameras do need looking after, and today’s cameras, even in the
consumer range, are no longer cheap. It is difficult to find any
half-decent DSLR camera under 20,000 baht and even the better
point and shooters are around 10,000 baht. Your camera
represents a substantial investment – look after it.
The first items to get with the camera are a blower brush, a
pack of microfiber cloths and some lens-cleaning fluid. These
items are particularly important if your camera has a removable
lens, as dirt and abrasive grime can enter the camera every time
you unship the lens.
How many times have you got a small piece of grit in your eye?
Often, I will wager. Small particles such as that can be very
bad for the lens focussing and zooming mechanics too. When the
camera is “open”, this is a potential threat. Always try to
change lenses in a clean environment
DSLR and mirrorless camera owners who change lenses on a regular
basis will find that, over time, blobs will appear in photos.
That means you’ve got dust on your sensor, and it is time for a
cleaning. You can do a simple “dry cleaning”. Warning! You will
need a steady pair of hands.
Other threats to your camera are moisture and condensation and
are the easiest ones to counter, but the dampness comes from
more than just being caught out in the rain. Thailand is a hot
and humid environment. How many times have you taken your camera
outside and found you could not see through the viewfinder
because it had steamed up? That is condensation. The best answer
here is to keep small sachets of silica gel in your camera bag,
or in the little “socks” you keep the lenses in. When the silica
gel changes color you can pop them back in the micro-wave and
rejuvenate them very easily. Many bottles of tablets come with
perfect little sachets in the top of them too.
There will also be times when you get caught in the rain, or you
may even want to get rain shots. The camera body is reasonably
water proof, but you should carefully wipe the outside of the
case dry afterwards, and especially blow air around the lens
barrel and the lens mount.
After water, the next threat is being dropped. Most larger
cameras come with a strap in the box, but they’re often cheaply
made and function as little more than free advertising for
camera makers. In more dangerous settings, they’re also a great
way to advertise to thieves that you are carrying a Nikon or
Canon. Get a good, sturdy after-market strap, and always use it.
The camera is not safe just because it is in a camera bag
either. Many cheap camera bags do not have cushioning inside.
Buy an expensive one. With camera bags, you get what you pay
Corrosion is one condition that can kill a camera, and all
cameras these days have a battery, the source of corrosion when
they leak. Check your batteries regularly, with rechargeable
ones kept fully charged and when it seems that the battery loses
its charge very quickly, it is time to get a new one.
While still on batteries, buy an extra one, so you will not be
left in the situation where you have run out of power, while
there’s a million dollar shot in front of you for the taking!
Even though many third-party batteries are just as good as the
genuine article, you should be sure to check user reviews of the
brand if you can. If you’re worried about buying a copy, buy in
person at your local camera store so you can make sure it works
and fits your camera before you take it home.
The final item I believe you should have to go with your new
camera is a good tripod. A good tripod is not cheap. My very
expensive Manfrotto is now over 30 years old and has been on
shoots all over the world. The el cheapo won’t last till next
Photography for children
Did someone give your child a camera this Xmas? It could be his
or her passport to millions, as good photographers can demand
very high fees. However, you have to start somewhere, and a
simple point and shoot camera is a great starting point for a 10
One reason why photography today is good for children is they
get instant gratification. No waiting at the chemist for photos.
Today it is click and there it is!
First lesson - always use the camera strap. Children can drop
Second lesson - take several shots of the same subject, but vary
the approach. Shoot in landscape format and portrait formats.
Shoot from above, low down and central positions. If possible,
with your camera, use different lenses or at different extremes
of a zoom lens.
Backgrounds can make or break a photograph. Teach your children
to look at the background as well as at the subject. Backgrounds
do not add to a shot, but they have the ability to ruin a shot.
How many photographs have you made with trees growing out of
Another problem which shows up with many new photographers is
the horizon line being off at a drunken angle. Teach your
children to look critically at the framing of the shot before
squeezing the shutter button. And after, when reviewing the shot
in the LCD, to take it again if the horizon is skewed.
Teach your children how to hold a camera with two hands and none
of this one-handed approach while waving three fingers with the
other and saying “Nung, song, sam”. Despite anti-shake
technology, there is a limit!
For me, one of the first ‘rules’ for photography is to Move In
Closer. Make the subject fill the frame. In other words, make
the subject the obvious ‘hero’ and your child will get better
Another factor to teach is that when illustrating a school
outing, for example, they will need to show where they went, as
well as their class mates who went on the trip. This is also a
time to take plenty of shots, but not 100 shots all the same!
It is important for your child to understand that good
photographs are ‘made’, they just don’t happen. To sparkle up
their shots, look for points of interest to include in the
viewfinder. Then work out how to really use that point of
interest in the shot. This may require shifting position, but is
Placing the hero at the intersection of thirds can be a little
hard for youngsters to understand, but even to show them to
place the subject off-center can be enough.
Provided your child is a teenager, he or she is old enough to be
taught the different ‘modes’ offered by almost all digital
cameras these days. This includes ‘Portrait’, ‘Sports’, ‘Flash’
and ‘Fireworks’ and many others. Teach them that modes just take
some of the mechanical/optical steps away from the photographer
and uses the automatic functions in the camera instead. However,
the modes do not signify the only way to take a sports
photograph, for example. Blur can denote speed much more than
1/1000 of a second and stopping the motion.
Just as their teachers grade school homework, sit down with your
budding photographer and discuss their images. Get them to
understand which shots are good, and which are not so good, and
One of the most important items for new photographers is a small
notebook and pencil. Teach your children to make notes as to the
camera settings they are using for every shot. Then while going
through the shots with them you can see areas where they can
improve over the settings they used to take the shot. But with
no notebook, both of you are flying blind.
Older children can be introduced to the basics of exposure
values, using the Aperture Priority mode and the Shutter
priority mode, and the concept of ISO ratings. They can then
take shots moving between the three variables and have a very
practical lesson in how these affect the final images.
Photography is a good hobby for children and teaches them to
think and look critically at their own images.
Videography for amateurs
Did you get a video camera for Xmas? Or a DSLR that has a video
function? Do you know how to use it?
Video is becoming more popular every day. Have a look in the window of a
camera shop and you will find as many video cameras as there are still
cameras. In addition, many still digital cameras have a video capability
as do many camera phones, so there is probably just as much video work
being done as still.
The main difference between still and video lies in that still
photography freezes a moment in time, while video photography tells a
moving picture story.
For the still photographer it is a case of looking at the background and
then working out the best combination of shutter speed and aperture. For
the video photographer it is a case of working out the story line and
then how to shoot the various elements in the story.
One of the ways you can pick the first time video user is the fact that
the camera operator spends much time taking shots of still subjects.
Having not made the mental adjustment from still photography, many
minutes are taken up with a video of his wife standing by the front door
of the hotel. That was a ‘still’ shot. With video, you film your wife
checking out at the cashier’s desk, picking up her bags and walking
towards the exit. Then you rush outside and the next footage is her
coming out of the hotel and hailing a taxi. You have just shot a living
So where can you go to ‘learn’ this new art? Just as still photographers
have photographs in books and magazines to study, the video photographer
has a very ready source of informative examples to scrutinize. This is
called TV! Sit down in front of the goggle box and see how the pros do
it. Even the dreadful Thai soap operas have good cinematic technique! So
start to look critically at technique. Where was the camera, relative to
the subject? Did they “zoom” in or was it one far shot and another close
up to follow? How many times did the cameraman actually use the inbuilt
zoom? You may be amazed to see how seldom!
Here are a few more “rules” which can help you produce better video.
Firstly, no rule is absolute, but you should have a good reason to break
it. Having said that, let’s look at a few basics.
You should shoot people in full or three-quarter profile to let the
viewers see both eyes. The one eyed effect does not look good. Again,
look at TV. When two people are talking, the camera shoots over the
shoulder of person one to shoot the second person face-on to the camera.
When the first person replies, the shot is taken the other way, over the
shoulder of the second person. You can also take shots of the person who
is listening to the other speak. These are called ‘noddies’, because the
person will be nodding while listening to the other speaker.
When shooting people, place the subject’s eyes one-third down from the
top of the frame no matter the type of shot. It is that old rule of
thirds again. Dead central is boring!
Another shot to avoid is one with large distances between people. Again,
look at the soaps on TV. The people are really standing much closer than
they would in real life (in each other’s personal space in fact), but if
you have them a meter or so apart, you lose ‘contact’ in the video.
Focusing. This is a common problem with still cameras with Auto-Focus
(AF), and 99 percent of video cameras are AF too. The magic eye in the
camera focuses on a spot in the middle of the screen. When you are
filming a couple, if the magic dot is not on one of the people, they
will end up out of focus and the background perfectly sharp.
Application of these simple aspects of video photography will give you
(and those who watch your videos) a much better end product, and a much
more satisfying one for yourself to produce.