Top two settings and techniques for your new digital camera

Dumbo area of Brooklyn looking toward Manhattan, photo by NSL Photography

Someone, possibly you, has been whispering in another’s ear about how much you need to have a new digital camera to capture all those amazing sights you see while traveling — panoramas, cityscapes, seascapes, landscapes and special people — to permanently capture the precious memories of your journeys.

Perhaps you’ve already received your new digital camera for Hanukkah, or maybe it’s still to come for Christmas or Kwanzaa.

It’s never too early to think about what you need to know about your new camera to ensure those wonderful memories will be well captured.

There are two issues I’m asked about more than any others by photographers new to digital photography or with a new digital camera with a higher resolution sensor.

The top setting vexing new digital photographers, and even those who’ve been using digital cameras for a while, is white balance. New digital photographers wonder what in the world white balance is, and others want to know why their photos’ color looks strange, not realizing it’s white balance.

White balance is a setting on the camera which allows it to compensate for different color temperatures of light being emitted by different light sources, even the sun, under the various lighting conditions photographers often encounter.

Generally, digital cameras are excellent at automatically compensating for a specific range of lighting conditions and sources. They are automatically able to get the image color right for many fluorescent lamps inside to moderately overcast skies outside. Much of the time indoors, however, when using available light or available light supplemented with your flash, and outside, when your subject is in the shade or under a heavily overcast sky, the colors in your photo will have a strange cast, not what you saw with your eyes. Under those circumstances, white balance must be set manually.

All digital cameras have a number of manual white balance settings available, and you need to learn when to use them.

There are three major reasons photographers produce blurry photos of even static subjects: poor handholding technique, poor shutter release actuation technique and a lack of understanding that sometimes you need help in holding your camera still, even when using optical stabilization or vibration reduction. Digital cameras which have higher resolution sensors exacerbate the blur potential.

It’s generally a good idea to turn optical stabilization or vibration reduction on, as it allows your camera or lens to compensate for your movement while holding your camera/lens, but there are times when you should turn it off. In bright light, your shutter speed will often be faster than 1/500 second. If your shutter speed is that fast or faster, turn your optical stabilization or vibration reduction off. In general, these systems are currently unable to set/reset themselves quickly enough to work properly.

In fact, at high shutter speeds it’s possible that optical stabilization or vibration reduction may actually cause some blurriness.

Even digital point-and-shoot cameras that have no viewfinder, which force the user to frame and focus their images via the monitor screen on the back of the camera, can benefit from good handholding technique. Spread your feet comfortably. Pull your elbows into the side of your body when possible. Don’t tense your arms and hands. Hold your camera with your left hand on its left side and your right hand on the right side, with a finger free to activate the shutter release. Don’t hold the camera too tightly to reduce hand shake.

If you’re using a camera with a viewfinder, use it whenever possible. This three point handholding technique used when framing and focusing via a viewfinder reduces camera/lens shake better than any other. Spread your feet comfortably. Pull your elbows into the side of your body when possible. Don’t tense your arms and hands. Hold the camera viewfinder to your eye, with the camera resting on your face (forehead/nose). Don’t pull it to your face too tightly. Hold the camera with your left hand on its left side or under the lens, if it’s a long one. Hold the camera with your right hand on the right side, with a finger free to activate the shutter release.

Most people stab at their digital camera’s shutter release button that often moves the camera just as it’s capturing the photo. Instead, put your finger on top of the button and roll it over the shutter release button to depress it. You can also press it halfway down to activate autofocus, stop momentarily, then finish depressing it to make the photo. That can reduce camera movement even more.

When it’s dark, many photographers turn to tripods to hold their camera, and in many circumstances that’s about the only way to hold your digital camera steady. If it’s not too dark, such as in a museum, when your flash isn’t effective due to the distance from and breadth of your subject, consider steadying yourself — and thereby your camera/lens — by using a wall, column or other object. I’ve used this technique often. It works well.

Ned Levi is a professional travel photographer. You can view some of Ned’s travel and other photos at NSL Photography, or get more travel photography advice at the NSL Photography Blog.

  • Lisa Simeone

    Wow. That photograph is gorgeous!

    (Don’t forget, though, that taking innocent pictures can get you accosted by cops and DHS goons.)

  • Guest

    Thanks. I was pretty safe with that one, but I’ve certainly been threatened with arrest for making images from time to time, even with a press pass.

    Thanks for your readership.

  • Lisa Simeone

    You’re clearly one of those scary types we’re warned about in this book:

  • NedLevi

    Apparently so.

  • Lisa Simeone


  • MeanMeosh

    Thank you for finally clearing up a mystery for me – why my digital photos look overexposed when the sky is fully overcast. Next time, I’ll try messing with the white balance.

  • Guest

    It may be more than just white balance. When you have essentially a white sky, especially if it’s a significant part of your image, the camera’s meter can be easily fooled by all that white. Moreover, we often find in such an image, that with the amount of white in the frame, coupled with the remainder of the frame, which is likely very dark in comparison, the total tonal range (the range of light to dark) of the subject while within the specification of the human eye, exceeds the specs of the digital camera’s sensor. Photographers would say the dynamic range of the scene exceeds the capability of the camera.

    There are multiple ways of compensating. You can under expose the image, then in post processing mask the image to separate the white sky from the rest of the image and adjust the exposure of each section separately, most easily accomplished when saving one’s images in RAW instead of JPG. You can use HDR, and put together multiple images to make one, where you’ve exposed each for different portions of the scene. You can use your camera’s bracketing settings to automate the process to a large extent when making your individual exposures.

    The problem of getting one’s exposure right when you encounter overcast skies, and/or backlighting, which often have similar exposure problems, is something that often comes up in workshops I run.

    Thanks for your readership.