Taking Pictures with Different Cameras

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Key Vocabulary to Remember

  • Rule of thirds
  • Steady shot
  • Tripods and stands
  • Lenses, magnification (X or zoom factor)
  • Wide angle/Narrow angle shots
  • Image formats
  • Aspect ratio
  • Auto exposure
  • Auto focus
  • Auto white balance
  • HDR
  • Macro mode

Apple IBook G3 12.1"


Each camera offers different capturing abilities that have a major impact on results. Experience plays a major role in improving performance, yet it is important to know right from the beginning what expectations to have. The following details will be focused upon that.

It is good to know that the most common way to take photographs is using the smartphone or camera in a landscape or horizontal position. In this way, you end up with pictures that have the best chances of capturing your subject and be detailed enough. While some situations may look excessive, it is always better to have slightly more room for your subject and interesting background than too less. Sometimes, you may be better served by the portrait or vertical orientation of the camera, as it can better capture a single individual and its posture.

Remember that the way you orient your camera most of the time is landscape or horizontal. It is good to know that there are other orientations, such as a portrait one, and it is advisable to experiment with multiple orientations and taking pictures at various distances from the subject, as this offers more opportunities on editing.

Photo sessions

It may seem all too obvious how you should take a photo, however, to the best of my judgement, I made a list of quick suggestions to apply while the remainder of the page shows the reasoning behind them in particular details. This should ensure you take at least above average shots, when given the opportunity. Always keep in mind that a session could get longer or shorter, depending on context, and you need to agree in advance with your subject, if this applies. Never rush a session or have one when exhausted, the risk of ruining such an opportunity is too high.

Avoid considering a good photo as being the result of simply pointing the camera and creating a lasting memory. Great shots require at least a degree of planning that takes 5-10 seconds in the least. Always consider how much the subject is able to cope with such requirements and avoid needlessly exhausting him or her when you are just testing various approaches. Require undivided attention only after the final preparation stage. Avoid too much experimentation with poses and shooting techniques unless there is a broad agreement with the subject, a shooting session is exhausting and your subject may have to experience more on the same day. Acting kindly and understanding matters a lot.

Advanced preparations

Ensure you have the right setup on your first photo. It is easy to forget what you used last time, so you need to get your camera back to the typical settings. That means no optical zoom or having the default camera focus length, the default 4:3 or 3:2 image ratio, a clean lens (particularly for smartphones), the photo mode you always use preset, no pre-applied effects, and a well-charged battery.

When you need or want to experience with modern accessories such as straps, lights, stands, always do so well in advance of your shooting session. Having prior knowledge on how they behave, no matter how subtly the change feels, will matter a lot in the stress of a photo session, where everything has to be well rehearsed and executed precisely.

The shooting rundown

Advanced preparations:

  • Decide whether you want a wide or a narrow angle shot, a portrait or a landscape one before doing anything else;
  • Decide where outdoor light offers the best conditions or adjust indoor light to your needs, if possible;
  • Avoid taking photos with the light behind the subject, or when large shadow areas occur, in front of the camera;
  • Avoid direct sunlight falling unevenly on the subject, unless you really want an artistic effect;

Final preparations:

  • Attempt a quick initial framing to give a good idea on the optimal distance to the subject, do not take a picture yet;
  • Observe and avoid other subjects or elements that are drawing needless attention to them instead of your subject;
  • Adjust focal length on your camera or switch to a different optical magnification factor to reach optimum framing;
  • Try focusing and exposure adjustment on different parts of the picture to reach even subject exposure (smartphones);


  • Try focusing on different parts of the picture to reach even subject exposure (semi-professional/professional cameras);

The actual shooting (now you may raise the attention of your subject, if conditions apply)

  • Think in advance what the shots succession will be, what angles to focus upon;
  • Be flexible in your plan, if you notice the subject being well suited from a particular angle;
  • Give around a one second pause after the camera or the subject moves, to reach a stable shooting position;
  • Keep the camera steady and leveled before taking a shot, take 1 or 2 more quick shots if you suspect an unsteady hand;

After taking the photos, give a cursory glance to your shots and decide if you attempt to re-take the same ones, switch to a new pose or end the session. Do not delete poorer shots yet, you would be wasting time precious time with your subject.


It may be obvious that focusing is always in the center of the picture, where the actual reason and position of the subject you wanted to capture is best. However, there are situations where the subject may be better of to be slightly off-focus or to have the focus on a certain feature. Most cameras do have auto-focus and some may use different ways of interpreting where focus shall be or give the possibility of having manual focus.

In my experience most pictures work very well with autofocus on mondern cameras, regardless of how expensive they are. Of course, more modern technology translates into faster autofocus and better results. However, having the choice of manual autofocus may also be helpful. This is not a wrong description. The manual choice means you can select where the focus will occur by half-pressing the snapshot button on semi-professional and professional cameras. The same principle works by pressing somewhere on the image in the camera application of smartphones. After that, the camera system tries to focus where you want and can take a picture when required.

You can slightly alter the position camera and, if it is not too far from the original position, the camera remembers the distance at which it should focus. Of course, this works best at distances of less than 10 meters, where professional and semi-professional cameras can have very good focusing capabilities and estimations using a red light beam. These advanced cameras also have internal screens that may give instant, direct feedback on focusing right to your eye.

As strange as it may sound, having the possibility and mastering the technique of triggering focus on a specific part of the image is a professional skill. The ability to make the best use of focusing can end up with pictures that have most details where you want rather than where they would have it by default.

Steady shots are best

The best way to take photos is using a tripod. Having a perfectly stable camera position makes it possible to have the best images, regardless of the type of camera you use. Any, movement, no matter how slight, reduces the clarity of the image. The progress of image capturing technology and instant processing has made possible today's surprisingly good photos with a camera simply held in a hand.

While all cameras have quite advanced image stabilization possibilities, you still end up with best pictures when the camera is perfectly steady. Unfortunately, tripods or stands are bulky, heavy and cumbersome.

Steady shots with one hand

Despite how it may seem, you always create better shots using a single hand, as long as the camera or smartphone is not too heavy and you do not hold the device too high. The reasons two hands are not better than one is due to the fact that slight trembling on one hand is less noticeable than the one that compounds from both hands. Moreover, all image stabilization algorithms handle better movement in mostly a single direction and this is why you will easily end up with better pictures this way. However, there are times when one hand is not enough.

If you do not have confidence in holding a camera with one hand, try to improve your technique and resort to straps or bands to avoid falls, until you are experienced enough. Mastering single hand camera operation is the best approach to having great pictures and faster captures.

Using a tripod or stand

Tripod and camera stands come in different sizes and build quality, but there is no substitute for a good design, meaning that you end up with costly and heavy equipment. Depending on how much you have to move by yourself or using different vehicles, you can get by with lighter or heavier options. Generally, the heavier and more advanced the tripod or stand is, the better are your chances at quickly orienting the camera in a direction and obtain a steady shots. The handle on the camera stand can turn the camera with high accuracy. Good tripods always have various compensations and dampening techniques, resulting in quick and stable shots. Also, the way in which the tripod is firmly grounded makes it possible to afford various movement mistakes that would otherwise ruin a capture.

Extensible tripods and stands are best for highly movable photography, while being easily packed in bags. Sophisticated tripods require luggage space and are more difficult to carry. In time, and based upon your activities, you will get used to different stands and opt for the best choice. Experiment with tripods and stands.

Focal distance and magnification factor

Depending upon the distance from your subject and specific requirements such as emphasis on certain features, you will require different optical configurations from your camera. For a smartphone or semi-professional camera, everything will be easily set by pressing a few buttons, and you enter the specific magnification you require. For a recent smartphone, it results in switching from one of the internal cameras to another, and the new setup is immediately noticeable on the screen, as the fixed magnification factors, usually from .5 to 2x are indicated.

For semi-professional cameras you press a button near the shutter and it zooms in or out the image, while the magnification factor is indicated on the screen. The closer you are, the lower the indicated value, while the further you are from the subject, the greater the required magnification factor is to reach a usable picture. Always keep in mind that the farther you are from your subject, the greater the focal length is required, the lower the amount of useful light that enters your camera and the greater the impact of even slight shaking has on your image stability. It is always the best to be right near your subject, when possible, no matter how good your camera and lens system is.

On professional cameras, the magnification factor is more limited and you require physically swapping lens systems to reach the desired focal length and magnification factor to easily focus your subject. This means that, for instance, you may have a 18-45mm lens set for typical portraits, general pictures and nature ones, while you switch to a 55-210mm one for closeup on birds from far away or for capturing mountains and other natural wonders from a very large distance.

Every time you resort to using focal distances on an optical system you experience specific situations that are suitable to one configuration or another, and no theoretical study will show exactly what you can do in specific circumstances. For any camera, any situation that is at the limit of focal lenses and you consistently require such a scenario, makes you, the photographer, aware that you need to compensate by changing your positioning from the subject to further compensate for a specific framing requirement.

Focal lengths, magnification factors, and the way to compensate for limitations on your camera need to be experienced repeatedly and well understood. With any camera there is a learning curve to master and you need time to reach adequate results on new equipment, before changing anything once more in your setup.

Smartphone cameras

Smartphones are easily the most versatile devices. It seems that everything is obvious yet there are a lot of untapped possibilities. True photo abilities are rarely known in detail. Most of the time we rely on having everything set on AUTO and just taking a snapshot, but all phones offer much more than that.

The right image format

It may seem that operating a smartphone is straightforward in this respect, just select the highest resolution in MP or megapixels. However, the best choice is far from that. As manufacturers got into a stiff competition, they tried to differentiate through less than respectable means. One such trick was to showcase a much exaggerated claim of sensor resolution. A normal approach would be, for instance, to show the real sensor resolution instead of the interpolated one. You simply cannot have a 64MP sensor in a midrange phone, when a professional camera, even at the high-end, has around 40MP.

What will you achieve by using the default option of a very high resolution? As it seems, there are some minor issues. The highest resolution image does not show necessarily more detail, on close inspection, and may exhibit whitish fringes near the edges of objects. This is due to heavy contrast enhancing processing that leaves such artifacts, reaching an image that is not better from a lower resolution one while it occupies more storage space and makes editing slower.

The best approach is to evaluate, separately, each resolution and format, on the same scene and subject, to determine which one works best. A common approach is to notice the format and resolution. Let's say at the 4:3 aspect ratio you have 64MP and 9268x6936 resolution, while at 3:4 aspect ratio you get and 16MP and 4624x3468 resolution. As a rule o thumb, the maximum resolution is never the actual sensor output and at lower resolutions the camera has a reduced risk of post-processing artifacts. Moving further up the options list, the so-called full resolution has a 4:2 format and is 4624x2084 and while the 16:9 one is 4624x2604.

In this vast array of possibilities you cannot know which format is the best unless you take photos in daylight, preferably with sun-rays that are occluded by some obstacles yet shine through other areas. If there areas where the light shine brightly are under-saturated and the whole picture has little detail, you may need to select a broader image format, such as 4:2 instead of the typical 4:3 to have enough hinting on an overexposed picture and adjust accordingly. If the image has closer vertical and horizontal resolution there may be less of chance to see how far the light that affects your scene is coming from the unused sides of the sensor. This issue is much more common as you may expect while it also seems elusive, as what you don't see in the picture actually affects your end results.

Understand what formats and resolution capability your smartphone camera exposes and make extensive tests in scenes that have intense light as well as relatively dim areas Try exactly the same framing on different image formats and notice which one looks better.

Wide or narrow angle shots

With a smartphone camera you have the advantage of extensive customization and obvious, quick results but you do not have the best optics system. This is why you need to be experienced in choosing the right configuration for the task and leave some settings, that you know of, only for specific circumstances.

Although it is counterintuitive, I generally suggest not pursuing neither a wider angle nor a narrow angle format, but be highly flexible in your approach. If you generally have less of an issue with scenes that show overexposure in parts of them, you can freely use a narrower angle format or a tight image format such as 4:3, while if you notice poor overall image quality you may have to switch to a wider format such as 4:2.

The optics of your camera are the major limitation and you need to take into account many aspects. Experiment extensively with different setups before attempting a shot at a specific time of day or in a specific situation that you are not familiar with. It is always better to repeat annoyingly a process than to fail it altogether.

Camera applications

Unfortunately, using a different camera application, despite potential new possibilities, rarely works as intended. There are very few applications that offer significant improvements for Android phone, for instance, no matter if we consider paid or free software. The issue is that there are few users of advanced features and development itself requires resource that have to be tailored towards a larger variety of manufacturers an extensive testing to reach good results.

Most applications have worse performance than the ones supplied by the manufacturer and offer only minimal additional capabilities. None of them will result in dramatically improved pictures as most of the processing happens beyond the camera application control, and sometimes they have worse capturing delays and response due to not having the same hardware-software optimization that is only available to the manufacturer.

However, if you want to experience with a different application and see how it suits you, the best replacement I found and tested for many years was OpenCamera, an open-source versatile camera application that is, obviously, free of charge and well enough behaved to be on par or even above typical commercial software.

While default camera application on smartphones may not be to your liking, it is recommended to get used to them. Definitely better overall results are difficult to achieve even with dedicated applications.

Different operation modes

Leaving the default AUTO mode most of the time is preferred, and having the PHOTO mode active by default. Changing settings on the fly when you also want to take pictures can result in missed opportunities for captures and this is the main reason we accept the AUTO mode. It is important to also know what is offered by other modes. Some smartphone may not have all modes or have them named slightly different. Only the most relevant ones are presented.

The strongest recommendation is to always disable the FLASH function, which may be indicated by a lighting symbol. You may end up with uneven washed pictures, it is pointless outdoors and results in less practice to make the better use of lighting in indoor environments. Any aspiring photographer should avoid using the flash unless he has good self-made or purchased light diffusers mounted on the stand-alone flash housing of typical professional cameras.

Typical Camera Operation Modes

AUTO, Photo mode (AutoExposure, AutoFocus, Auto White Balance)

This mode is a good compromise. You can end up with surprising results using this mode and slightly changing the way in which you frame your subject. Try to use the main camera and avoid magnifications such as 2x or more or .5, which is less than 1, as they may slightly distort your capture and offer lower resolution than your main camera. When framing the subject is impossible at standard distance, definitely use any magnification that offers better chances of capture rather than risking to lose such an opportunity.

Auto Exposure and Auto Focus are the biggest improvements in recent phones so I highly recommend using them to the full extent. When you can point at part of the image and adjust both values you can very quickly reach good photos. Auto exposure on the part of image that interests you, ensures that the picture is never washed out or overly dark. Slightly adjusting the focus near the area with high shifts from dark to bright areas create the most balanced results. For artistic effects, you may experience with different points on the same frame and see which one ends up with a more interesting image.

Auto White balance is less obvious but it highly important in having consistent results. As outdoor lighting conditions change throughout the day, most modern cameras are able to compensate for slight colour inconsistencies, ending up with more pictures that are similar to the way in which our eyes perceive the reality. There are very few situations where using a manual auto-balance may result in better results, other than for artistic effects that achieve an artificial look in certain scenes. In most situations, the advanced auto white balance feature is best used as is.

The alternative method to using AUTO values would have been to fiddle with so many settings in the hopes of reaching a reasonable result, such as: exposure, shutter speed, ISO values, white balance. All of these values must be slightly changed even when a picture is only shifted by a couple of centimeters. This is the power processing that your camera makes so that you end up with usable results when pressing the snapshot button. However, knowing how these value change results may help you better understand what your camera is capable of.

Experiment with adjusting focus and brightness on various parts of the scene you intend to capture. It is the fastest way to end up with the best photos!

ISO Modes

The ISO mode indicates the sensibility of your camera that is preset to account for specific lighting conditions. You use high ISO modes when taking pictures in low lighting situations, as high as 20,000 and you use low ISO modes as 100 when taking photos in bright light conditions. This means that it applies various compensations along with increasing or decreasing the exposure time to end up with useful images. Most of the time, the camera you have either does not even present ISO values when self-adjusting exposure or present these values to you as an indication of its operating range.

In some particular cases, such as when you want to obtain a specific grainier look, you may artificially increase the ISO mode value, if your camera allows. Decreasing this value is not recommended as you end up with too dark pictures to be usable in most conditions. You may attempt an artistic effect on a bright direct sunlight, but it is debatable if this is worth. In the past, the ISO mode had a direct impact on image captures as specific photographic film formulation were used for typical outdoor use and others for indoor use.

Most of the time, you do not need to adjust the preset ISO mode. However I highly advise you to keep track of the current active preset in some lighting conditions to determine if you are operating beyond your usual camera optimal range.

Exposure time

All camera vary exposure time based on the scene assessments they make, but only professional cameras always expose this information, if set to do so. The exposure time can be altered by the user but it is best left as is, since successfully altering the value requires to involve changing the ISO mode, white balance and other settings. This is why you rarely need to alter the exposure time.

Exposure times can be as low as 1/100 seconds, or a hundredth of a second to one as high as 3 seconds. Low exposure are typical for highly bright scenes while low ones are typical for night shots, with even higher exposure times required for sky-gazing situations. Most of the time you will be somewhere in between with your values. No two cameras will behave the same in different lighting conditions and this is also the case for different accessories such as polarizing lenses or different lens systems that may be used on your professional camera.

If and when displayed, as is the case on professional cameras, the exposure time is another important hint about the camera operational conditions. In very low light situations the exposure time increases, noise and accuracy decreases, and observing the typical exposure time in different conditions can improve your shots.

HDR or High Dynamic Range

We would like to have the highest ability to capture lighter and darker parts of our picture, but the two requirements are opposite to each other. We either strive for better details or we avoid overblown pictures. HDR or High Dynamic Range promises to change all that. However, there are many caveats. The most important is that HDR means a composite picture, a picture that superimposes the less exposed and more exposed picture of your subject. This means that some details are preserved but colour accuracy is not maintained.

To compensate for colour mismatches between the lower and higher exposure snapshots, the picture is processed and ends up over-saturated. Since the result is so heavily processed and there is no way to control transformations, many pictures will end up with an artificial look. Also, it is important to be aware that such compounded pictures require more time to capture and, thus, do not lend themselves well to scenes or subjects that are not static.

The above mentioned limitations are present in any camera, whether we consider smartphones, semi-professional or professional products. HDR truly became interesting, unfortunately, because it stood out from conventional photos, as some manufacturers attempted to differentiate themselves. As this tendency became common and many people enjoyed the artificial look, there is little interest to mute the picture and get closer to what the principle of HDR photos state it should be.

The so-called "HDR" is unpredictable and leads to results that are rarely consistent. Heavily processed images coming out of the camera look less attractive to some viewers. It is better to avoid such camera modes, but it is advisable to experiment with them to better understand how they are achieved and their pros and cons.

Macro mode

Some phones have a dedicated MACRO or extreme closeup mode, that operates at a distance between 2-5 centimeters from the main camera or a dedicated one in an array, in more modern products. This context requires very bright lighting conditions so it is more suited to outdoor purposes. On professional and semi-professional cameras, the macro mode is, most of the time, suggested with a flower icon.

Professional cameras do not have a macro mode and they rely on using lens systems with short focal lengths to allow the necessary emphasis and focusing requirements on such scenes. For instance, taking a macro shot may require a 15-18mm focal length or an even shorter one.

Macro most is best suited to natural environments, highlighting leafs and flower details, but it can also be used with certain ubiquitous objects from around us that may have a different meaning when pictured so close.


While potentially appealing, panorama modes present many shortcomings due to limited abilities of phone camera lenses. Curvature aberrations are highly noticeable and lead to generally poor images. Any misalignment in successive photos or changes in light affect the final outcome. It is not recommended to use this mode except for practice purposes. With proper hinting on accurate camera positioning on subsequent shots, it can result in usable pictures that are, however, somewhat less spectacular than you may hope. For such situations, professional camera users have superangular lenses that are unavailable on other devices.

In most situations, it is ill-advised to rely on panorama shot mode. It is good to know, however, through experimentation, what can be achieved.

Slow-motion and Burst Mode

Showing the movement of a subject may be interesting in some circumstances, as happens in sports, dance or when there is an interest in highlighting a well known phenomenon that is too quick for us. Capturing such scenes require cameras that are able to take quickly a set of pictures, at very short intervals. However, requirements for this type of captures are even stricter than for typical photos, as exposure times are shortened and the available picture processing times are much more limited. The result is that pictures can more easily end up being underexposed or darker than they should, or show slight focusing problems.

Before cameras were able to take successive snapshots at intervals below one second, the only ability to capture subjects and movement was to use the so-called "Burst" mode. This ability commonly translated into a couple of pictures being taken in 5 seconds, usually one every second. Another additional use of this mode aims at obtaining more useful snapshots, since at least one of them may end up with a good result. Unfortunately, using burst mode in these circumstances results with more near copies of the same picture, wasting space and time. Overall, the same limitations applied as for slow-motion pictures occur for burst mode pictures, meaning that the risk of under-exposure and focusing were present. Some cameras may still provide a burst mode today.

As a rule of thumb, most cameras will require much better lighting and improved stability to capture useful slow-motion pictures. There are few circumstances where the burst mode will be useful.

Timed pictures

In the past, pictures that were taken with a timed delay of a couple of seconds were, perhaps, the only way to achieve the camera operator to also be part of the picture, long before smartphones created the selfie photo opportunity. Nowadays, using timed pictures does not offer as many advantages since most cameras are much better able to handle our preferences. Moreover, since we experience countdowns less in our lives due to most products reacting faster, waiting for the countdown and making repeated attempts when something goes wrong, seems tiring.

Due to the risk of not synchronizing the picture with the subject, as the person taking the picture is not aware precisely when the snapshot will take place, timed photos frequently end in frustration, and may be avoided.

Timed shots and burst shots

Timed captures were used when more subjects would have to be inside the scene, commonly including the photographer as well, and they were created using standard cameras. Modern smartphones can create good enough pictures but a camera mounted on a tripod and using a timed shot still creates the best picture. You can experiment with different countdowns and see which ones are best for the occasion, as they are generally used for event photos.

Burst shots may seem to be a good choice for subjects that may experience vast movement or when you are afraid of not capturing a steady shot. However, most of the time, you end up with more images than you really need, and choosing the proper one gets tedious after a while. You also need to use more storage space. These are the reasons why burst shots are rarely used unless the events require the best chance of ending up with a useful picture, mostly at events.

Use timed and burst shots sparingly, and preferably only when you have a tripod or stand that justifies such complex preparations or post-processing requirements.

Hinting information

All cameras can expose various information that is useful for persons that want to operate and learn more about the device. Information such as the current preset mode, flash activation, exposure time, ISO mode, estimated new shots available space.

Rule of Thirds

Photos with great potential maintain the same attributes in just about any circumstance. Proper framing is an essential technique that can offer the best possibilities for future use. A common way to achieve that is to apply the so-called ruled of thirds: you divide your picture into 9, focusing your subject close to the center of the image and having sufficient details to make the best use of the transitioning area between each of the 9 divisions. Good pictures have the main subject slightly off center but make good use of the frame to draw attention in other parts of the image as well. A subject should not fill the entire image or be the sole point of interest in the center of the picture or anywhere else. The composition should be balanced by other elements.

A major side-benefit of applying the rule of thirds is that you easily end up with photos that can be easily cropped or have only their interesting points emphasized in a particular format. This is particularly useful when we consider that images are generally by default wide and narrow, or created as landscape formats, as on for the cinema, while some popular devices, such as smartphones, may favour the square format and include text or different information below the picture. Having a subject and framing technique that is flexible enough results in final pictures that can be cut well to reach very good results in any purpose.

You should learn to be familiar as quickly as possible with the 9 square, or three columns, three rows guidelines, where something interesting happens at each interesection. All cameras can superimpose this grid on the screen, to give you hints on captures