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How to Take Better Photos

April 4, 2009

Sick of taking flat, boring pictures? Want to step up your game and take better photos?

Buy a DSLR.

Point and shoots have their place. They’re small. You can put them in your pocket and carry them around. Know what else you can carry around? Your cell phone.  Under the right conditions, both can take some pretty great pictures, but not with anywhere near the consistency of a DSLR.


1) The Sensor

Old cameras captured images by exposing film to light. Digital cameras work the same way, only, instead of film, they use an image sensor.

But not all image sensors are created equal. And the two most important differentiators between different image sensors are resolution and size.

Resolution is expressed in megapixels. This refers to the number of pixels on an image sensor. If you have a camera with 6.1 megapixels, it means that its image sensor possesses 6.1 million pixels. 12.1 megapixels equals 12.1 million pixels, etc. You get the idea.

Now…the higher the pixel count, the higher the resolution and the greater the detail of the final image. But more doesn’t necessarily mean better. As you cram more and more pixels into a sensor, you make each one smaller, less light sensitive, and more prone to noise. This is why that fancy 12 megapixel point and shoot sucks when you try to take pictures indoors or at night. It’s also why today’s megapixel wars are retarded.

Size refers to…you guessed it…the size of the image sensor. Many of today’s point and shoots use a 1/3″ image sensor. DSLRs use much larger sensors. Most consumer models employ an APS-C sized sensor, while pro models are increasingly moving toward “full frame” 35mm sensors that exactly match the dimensions of standard 35mm film. This chart from Cambridge in Colour offers some comparison:

The larger sensor of a DSLR allows for larger individual pixels, which in turn provides for better light gathering abilities and less susceptibility to noise.

Larger sensor sizes also tend to capture a better sense of depth, giving you images that pop rather than feel flat. For example, this picture was taken with a point and shoot:

…while this one was taken with a DSLR:

Remember – megapixels are overrated. What really matters is sensor size.

2) Lens Selection

With point and shoots, you’re stuck with one lens, and probably one with higher aperture values. I’ll tackle aperture in a subsequent post, but suffice to say, lenses with higher aperture values suck at blurring out backgrounds and providing the illusion of depth. This is a big factor in why so many point and shoots tend to capture flat, boring pictures.

With a DSLR, you can swap lenses to your heart’s content. This gives you the flexibility to adjust to different shots and different shooting conditions. Personally, I tend to use three lenses:

A Prime Lens: A prime lens has a fixed focal length (i.e. it can’t zoom) and, often as not, a small aperture value. This means it’s awesome for low light shooting and can blur the hell out of backgrounds for an unbelievable sense of depth. Because they don’t zoom, primes also tend to be small and easy to carry. They’re also ridiculously fast, great if you’re trying to shoot kids, dogs, or other similar creatures that won’t stay still.

A Telephoto Zoom Lens: Telephotos have longer focal lengths that let you zoom in on subjects from a distance. The act of zooming also “pulls” the background closer, so it is captured more out of focus, providing a good sense of depth for potraits.

A Wide Zoom Lens: One big limitation of point and shoots is that they can’t go wide. If you’ve ever tried to take a picture of a room, or the inside of a car, you’ve probably bumped up against this. Wide zooms blow past this and give you a much broader perspective, awesome for capturing either expansive landscapes or shots where you can’t get yourself far enough away to bring the whole scene into the frame.

3) Control

If you’re like most people, chances are your camera is forever set to Auto. Don’t worry, most DSLRs include an Auto mode as well, but as you grow as a photographer, they also offer a lot more manual control than a point and shoot. Yeah it may sound daunting, but it’s not.

What to Buy

Now, if you’re looking for a DSLR, you have a ton of options. Nikon, Canon, and Sony all make some mean DSLRs. My advice would be to pick one brand and stick with it, as lenses aren’t usually comaptible between them. I got on the Nikon bandwagon a long time ago, and still prefer them to anything else, but that’s personal preference.

Entry DSLRs – If you’re just stepping up from point and shoot, you’ll probably want to stick with a solid entry-level DSLR. These are typically smaller and more beginner friendly than uplevel models. Nikon makes two great ones – the D40 and D60. Sony has the A200, and Canon has the EOS Rebel XS and XTi.

Personally, I don’t like entry DSLRs. They are too small for my hands. That and their viewfinders feel restrictive next to uplevel models.

Mid-Level DSLRs – If you’ve got the cash, definitely consider taking a step up to the mid-level. These cameras are a bit larger, offer more powerful sensors, more features, and are usually of somewhat higher build quality. The Nikon D90 and Canon EOS Rebel T1i both bring HD video into the mix, and the Sony A350 has an innovative Live View setup that lets you use the LCD display on the back as your viewfinder.

Prosumer DSLRs – The good stuff. These cameras increasingly feature the massive full frame (35mm) image sensors, bulletproof build quality, better metering and focus systems, you name it. They’re also pricey. The Nikon D700 I drool over recently dropped to around $23o0 FOR JUST THE BODY. Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II and Sony’s A900 both play around the same price. While I don’t expect anyone reading this to go out and buy one of these, it’s a good idea to pay attention to them if you’re upgrading to a DSLR for the first time so you can best pick which camera brand you prefer. Once you invest in a lens or two (or three or four) it’s hard to bail for another brand.

Next up, I’ll discuss some key terms, what they mean, and how you can use them to take some kick ass pictures.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Kay permalink
    April 5, 2009 9:54 am

    Very helpful. Thanks for the post.

  2. April 5, 2009 2:18 pm

    Love it Matt – Great post. I’m still learning how to use all the fine tuning features on my camera (I have to admit – I use Auto a lot). I am trying to learn more, so this is REALLY helpful for novices like me! Keep them coming!

  3. Matt permalink*
    April 5, 2009 7:32 pm

    Glad y’all are finding it helpful! I have to say, it’s definitely cathartic to be able to write without client oversight!

    Key terms are up next, but if you have any specific topics you’d like me to cover, let me know!


  1. How to Take Better Photos, Pt 4 « Carpe Hot Dog

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