Even more photography stuff…

My favourite digital photography group is somewhat exercised and the moment by the problems of a person who takes “blurry pics”. Sadly, the post is a tad incomprehensible, which makes it hard for anyone to offer anything useful, but in general, the most common cause of blurred photos is the photographer, so don’t be too hasty to send your camera off for an expensive and needless repair until you’ve proved that it really is at fault.

A thought: when posting to an online group, or a forum, seeking advice, please be very clear as to what the problem is. For example, this is what the post says (obviously, I’ve removed personal information):-

I have an E-500 my pics are blurry when i take off distance pics. when
I stand up close on the same pics it is sharp. what am I doing wrong?
What is the right setting. I use fl36 flash. Has reset it . It still do
not solve the problem

You see the difficulty? I don’t have the faintest idea what the writer is saying. If, for example, one takes a distant picture, how does one then stand “up close” to it (if, indeed, that’s what’s meant)? If it’s near enough to stand up close, then it’s not distant, and vice versa. The writer, by the way, is a native English speaker – I’d never criticise someone for whom English wasn’t their first language – that would be crass. My suspicion is that it’s camera shake, which I’ve covered here. By the way, if there is anything between you and your subject – a twig or long stalk of grass is sufficient – the camera is likely to focus on that instead of the subject, resulting in blurred pics – always check.

Flash, by the way, should counter the effects of camera shake, but using flash for distant shots, as seems to have been the case here, is utterly pointless. You see it a lot at sports events, and all it’ll do is light up the back of the head of the person 3 rows in front!

When I first got my digital SLR, an Olympus E-500, I bought a Sigma 55-200mm zoom lens (110-400mm @ 35mm). I took with it what should have been a great pic – white farm buildings, fronted by a field full of horses, and framed by the woodland from which I was shooting. The house was the focus of the shot, and came out blurred (only very slightly – I’m a fussy bugger!). My immediate assumption was a duff lens, then I suspected camera shake and, eventually, I did what I should have done in the first place and examined the image closely.

The error was perfectly obvious, and it was mine. The auto-focus on the E-500 has three points across the centre of the frame (you can tweak this, but the camera was new and I left the it on fully-auto), and the house was at the top of the frame. A row of fence-posts ran from the house to the foreground, and the post about 12 out from the house, and in the middle of the frame, was pin-sharp! As it should have been, of course, as that’s where the a-f is located.

There are several solutions to this, not least paying more attention to what I’m doing, but had I centred the house in the viewfinder, taken up first pressure on the shutter release and recomposed the shot, all would have been well (though maybe not in auto mode, which really sucks and is only of use while getting the feel of the camera). Alternatively, I could have shot in aperture priority mode, selecting an aperture small enough to put most of the pic in sharp focus, say f11 (ramping up the ISO setting if necessary).

Aperture priority is probably the best all-round option (and full-auto the worst!), which is to say you set the aperture and the camera picks the shutter speed. There are some situations where the reverse is true – shooting a moving subject needs a fast shutter speed, for example, so shutter-priority is best.

Digital cameras have a wide array of pre-programmed Mode settings, which are fun to play with, but they impart no knowledge of what’s going on to the user, and as you gain more experience you’ll find you use them less. Of course many users are perfectly happy with the pre-sets, and never have any desire to go beyond them. Fair enough, but I, and I think most people, want more control, and that often means aperture or shutter priority. After all, digital cameras – especially SLRs – are not cheap, so why not get the best out of them that you can?

A very good compromise, though, is the Program setting. This allows the camera to choose the shutter speed and aperture, but all the other parameters are under the user’s control (unlike Auto or Mode, when nothing is). I find this very good in a situation where most shots have to be taken quickly, as in birding or, perhaps, at the zoo. You need to keep an eye on the light levels, and tweak the ISO setting if necessary (mostly it won’t be unless, perhaps, you go indoors, or under trees). The ISO rating, by the way, uses the same values as the old film speeds, so a low ISO setting, say 50, will have the camera selecting a wide-ish aperture and slow shutter speed, while a high ISO, say 400, will give you a small aperture and fast shutter speed. For ultimate control, though, the choices are aperture or shutter priority, and I favour aperture priority for most situations.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I have an intention tremor and, to neutralise this, I used to shoot at ISO 400, which gives me fast shutter speeds in Program or aperture priority modes, However, the E-500 generates a little noise at this setting (noise looks as if someone has sprinkled dust all over the image – in extreme cases). It’s not really intrusive, and it’s easily removed in Photoshop, using a plug-in called NeatImage, but dropping the ISO to 320 eliminates the noise and still gives me acceptably high shutter speeds.

The ideal solution to my tremor, and intransigent camera shake in general – some people will never be able to take shake-free photos – is a tripod, but even a lightish one like my Slik Able 300 DX is a pain to carry around all day. Manfrotto do an absurdly light tripod, at a tad under 1kg including the head (the Modo 785B), but ultra-light tripods are best suited to compact cameras or light D-SLRS with a short lens. The bottom line – the lighter the tripod, the less rigid it’s likely to be under any but perfect conditions. And don’t run away with the idea that carbon-fibre tripods are always ultra-light. They can be ultra-light, especially at the expensive end of the market, but be sure to check. Even when they are lighter, the price premium for what may be a tiny weight saving is hardly worth it.

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