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Hints for Taking Better Photos

One of the pleasures of our Southern Indiana Region driving events is watching the scenery change as the seasons go by. Sometimes the view is spectacular and we wish we could capture it in a photograph. Sometimes we might want to shoot pictures of our friends' cars. If your passenger has a camera, he or she may have taken some great shots but may have also been disappointed by others. There can be many reasons why a particular shot didn't work but there are things you can do to insure more frequent successes.

The science of photography requires that a certain amount of light is required to record an image on either film or a sensor. The amount of light needed was based on the type of film you used in the olden days. Today it's related to the sensitivity of your camera's sensor.

Our drives often present varying lighting conditions. Fortunately, most modern cameras use automatic devices to read the light and make internal adjustments to give you a decent picture. Many will even focus for you. All you have to do is point and shoot. Right?

Well, if the result is not always what you expected, here are some reasons why that happens and a few suggestions for ways to have fewer disappointments.

Common Problems and Possible Solutions
1. Inconsistent Lighting and Motion

Because our drives often take us through forests and farmlands, the lighting can vary from bright, open sunlight to deep, dark shade. Heavily overcast skies cut out light, too. Those dark places cause trouble.

But if you have less light to work with, your shutter will have to stay open longer, causing blurred images because your car and the scenery outside were moving while the shutter was open.

Automatic metering can fooled. Here, a combination of a very bright sky and cars under the shadow of a cloud makes the cars too dark.

Bumps and vibrations from the road frequently cause blurred images.

   - In high-contrast, mixed lighting, wait for your subject to appear in the bright areas
     or wait until there is more even lighting.
   - If your camera has programmable settings, select one designed for active sports. The   
     shutter will prioritize speed over aperture (as much as it can). If you don't have
     programmed settings but can chose between aperture and shutter priority, choose shutter
     and try to shoot at 125th of a second or a 250th or higher. One 60th of a second is fine
     for standing still and capturing a stationary scene, but with a slower shutter speed,
     your own breathing may be enough movement to blur an image.
   - If you can't make any manual adjustments (or if you can but they are ineffective), watch
     for patches of sunlight to improve your odds for a good shot.
   - Hold the camera as steady as you can, but don't prop your elbows on parts of the car  
     because the car's vibrations will jiggle the camera.
   - Under iffy conditions, shoot several shots instead of one, in the hope that you will
     get at least one good one.

2. Glare and Morning Sun

Sunlight can reflect off your dashboard onto your windshield, producing glare that will ruin shots. Dust, bugs, or a film of any kind on your windshield can also interfere with views of other cars and scenery. Also, a built-in light meter can decide that your camera's flash needs to fire, illuminating your car's interior and bouncing light off your windshield.

   - Clean your windshield inside and out before a drive.
   - Use a polarizing filter to reduce glare if one can be used with your lens.
   - Turn your flash completely off while you're on a drive.

Another problem is that on early morning drives traveling eastward into a bright sun, the cars, trees and buildings in front of you can look dark and dull because the side you're seeing will be in shadow.

   - Avoid shooting while driving directly into strong, low sunlight.
   - Wait for a turn to the north or south so the sun will be to your side.

3. The wrong camera?
You don't need an expensive camera. As long as you understand what your camera does well and what it does poorly, you can usually take great shots.

   - Try the suggested remedies for the most common problems.
   - Note the Upsides and Downsides of different camera types in the next section.
   - Read through your camera's manual again. I find something new and helpful each time I
     look at mine.
   - If all else fails, consider a more capable camera for the kinds of shots you want to take.

About Cameras
Today, cameras come in many forms, from cellphones to digital tablets to simple "point-and-shoot" cameras to SLR cameras. Let's consider the merits of each.

    You probably carry one in your pocket or purse most of the time.
    Effortless shooting.
    Newer versions have very sensitive sensors and can shoot under surprisingly little light.
    You can store and share images easily.
    Smartphone apps allow some editing and special effects.
    You have to hold it out in front of you to see the screen in order to compose your picture.
    Small screen may accurately display image but it's hard to examine scene while shooting.
    It can be hard to see the screen clearly on a bright day.
    Few manual controls (if any) to override automatic functions.
    Small, very simple lens.

iPads and Similar Digital Tablets
    Similar upsides and downsides as phones, but tablets don't fit in pockets or purses.
    Heavier weight may contribute to blurred images.
    Larger screen size is helpful when shooting and viewing images.

Simple "Point-and-Shoot" Digital Cameras
    Digital controls will do most of the work.
    May have either a screen or a viewfinder window.
    Compact size and light weight.
    May have a simple zoom lens.
    Hundreds of images are stored on replaceable cards
    Small screen may accurately display image but can be hard to see.
    Inexpensive fixed lenses and zoom lenses require more light.
    Inexpensive or smaller sensors may require longer exposures.

SLR (Single Lens Reflex) Cameras
    With aid of a moveable mirror, the photographer composes shot while seeing through lens. 
    A variety of interchangeable lenses are available (a zoom seems best for drives).
    Various filters can be attached to lenses for special purposes (We use a polarizing filter  
        to cut windshield glare dramatically but it does darken the images, which can be
        corrected with Photoshop or similar photo editing software.
    Bigger sensors are more sensitive and work faster.
    Controls can function in either manual or automatic modes.
    Hundreds of images are stored on replaceable cards.
    Some models also shoot video.
    Although SLRs come in different sizes, some are quite large and heavy.
    SLR cameras and lenses can be expensive.
    "Faster" lenses (allowing more light through) can be very expensive.

Video Cameras
I'm ignoring video cameras like GoPro because they deserve a totally separate discussion.

Camera Terminology
This is the variable-sized opening made by moveable blades inside a lens. A wide opening lets in more light and produces a narrower depth of field (less of your picture will be in focus because the camera shutter will be open for a very short period of time). A tiny aperture lets in less light and has to stay open longer but gives you a greater depth of field.

Aperture is designated by the f-stop numbers often printed on the side of the lens. A fixed lens on an inexpensive camera may have only one setting. More complex lenses have an adjustable settings so you or the camera can choose the best f-stop for a particular situation. A complex lens might have an aperture range from f/1.4 to f/16 or higher. With that lens, the most light gets through at the f/1.4 setting, allowing a quick shot but narrow depth of field. The least light gets through at the f/16 setting, ensuring that more will be in focus, but the shutter will have to be open longer.

Lenses are designated by their focal length (see below) and by their widest aperture. For example, if you were shopping for a 50mm lens, a f/1.2 lens would let more light in than a f/1.8 lens (and it would cost more). Zoom lenses have an f-stop range such as a 28-300mm lens that might change from f/3.5 to f/5.6 as it is zoomed from being a wide angle lens to a telephoto lens.

Shutter Speed
When you push the button to take a picture, a shutter opens to let light hit a sensor and then snaps shut. Some cameras may give you little or no control over shutter speed. The camera may make all decisions for you. Other cameras may allow you to choose between totally automatic or manual settings, or you may be able to give priority to the shutter speed or to aperture settings. Remember that a good exposure depends on the right balance between aperture and shutter speed. For action shots you should prioritize shutter speed.

Focal Length
Lenses are manufactured in different focal lengths. In the case of traditional 35mm film cameras, the view they capture depends the length of the lens barrel and glass elements inside. A wide angle lens (taking in a wide view) might be 24 or 28mm, a "normal" lens (through which your subject looks the same through the camera viewfinder as it does with your unaided eye) might be 50mm, and a telephoto lens (like a small telescope) might be 100mm or larger. Zoom lenses have barrels that slide to change the relationship of elements inside to change focal lengths, for example a 80-300mm zoom.

When the switch was made from film to digital photography, sensors were smaller than a frame of 35mm film. Thus, the effective focal length of a given lens was increased 1.5 times. A 50mm lens taken from a film camera and mounted on a digital camera produced an image that looked like that of a 75mm lens. Today some sensors are larger and the difference is not as great.

Phones, tablets and point and shoot cameras that don't have zoom lenses use fixed lenses without much flexibility.

Some photographers prefer to rely on a group of lenses: a wide angle, a normal, and one or two telephotos. Zoom lenses, while convenient, are seldom as fast as fixed focal length lenses and are more likely to distort images at caertain focal lengths. On drives, Susan and I currently rely on a fairly fast 28-300mm zoom lens because changing lenses frequently and quickly in a Porsche can be difficult.

Depth of Field
When your camera focuses on a subject (either automatically or manually), the "depth of field" refers to the area in front of and behind the subject that is also in focus. The depth of that area increases when there is lots of available light or you choose to have a longer exposure. The distance shortens with less light or a faster exposure (which also increases the risk that a moving subject may slip out of focus before you shoot.

Depth of field is also influenced by the focal length of a lens. A telephoto lens or a zoom lens at the telephoto end of its range will have fewer things in focus than a "normal" lens or a zoom  set at a wide end of its range. See examples below.

Cameras that focus automatically are great except when they aren't. When you're hurrying to get shots, you may not always know what your camera has focused on. Sometimes you get a surprise. I'm not suggesting that you turn this feature off, but paying careful attention to the image seen through your viewfinder or on your screen will cut down on the "surprises".

Extra Thoughts
Intentional Effects
To achieve interesting effects, you have to experiment. I knew that if I used a slower shutter speed like a 60th of a second, and followed a car while it was passing, I could keep the car fairly sharp and blur everything else. It took many tries, but I was happy with this shot. Playing around with speeds, exposures, filters and different lenses can be fun!

Cropping Images
Most of the pictures shown on this website were cropped from the original photos. While on a drive, there's rarely enough time to carefully compose shots. It's more important to look for interesting action or scenic elements that will make the picture distinctive. Shooting a little wide offers more options for cropping. Maybe I will choose to crop out distracting elements, or to highlight the curve of road to make a shot more dramatic. With common photo editing tools, it's fairly easy to do.

Here is a shot Susan took during a drive to Huber's Winery. For the website, I cropped this pretty scene to heighten the sense of fall colors, the curvy nature of the road and the togetherness of the group of Porsche enthusiasts. See below.

The next picture is from the same drive. I could crop in tighter again, but that would place the cars in a not-too-exciting horizontal line across the middle of the frame. To make the scene more dramatic, I kept the cars and highway low to emphasize the wall of trees. Sometimes there are great images hiding inside our pictures.

We hope this article will be helpful and that you will be encouraged to to take more pictures on our drives and share them with the club on our website. - Jerry and Susan Jindrich

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