Whether you have a point and shoot camera or a digital SLR, you may find that you have many of the same settings. Understanding these settings and how they work is one of the fundamentals of photography. Without this knowledge, you will never be able to take your shots to the next level that custom settings offer. One of the most critical mistakes beginner photographers make is using the ‘Auto’ modes on their cameras. While this is fine for simple snapshots, actual photography requires much more. The first thing to do is to find and read your camera owner’s manual.
There are several different ‘modes’ on your camera that determine the level of automation that your camera will provide. These modes are generally adjusted by a dial located on top of your camera, and may range from fully manual, meaning you have control over every single aspect of the shot, to fully automatic, meaning the camera will control everything for you based on the current conditions.
There are two categories (or ‘zones’) of modes, Basic (automatic) and Creative (manual), each of these zones makes up half of the dial. Most dials have ‘Fully Automatic’ mode in the very center of the dial, marked by a green square. Basic modes are marked by icons that represent the primary use of that particular mode, and are generally accessed by turning the dial clockwise from fully automatic mode. Creative modes are marked simply by letters, and are generally accessed by turning the dial counter-clockwise from fully automatic mode.
Portrait Mode – Icon: A side (profile) view of a head. – This mode brings subjects in the foreground into sharp focus, and may enlist the use of a larger aperture to blur the background.
Landscape Mode – Icon: Mountains. – This mode is for taking shots of distant objects, or wide-angle shots, and will bring background objects more clearly into focus by setting a smaller aperture.
Night Scene Mode – Icon: Icon containing a star. – This mode uses flash and a slower shutter speed to illuminate the subject and allow more light to enter the camera.
Macro Mode – Icon: Flower. – Used for extreme close-up shots where the camera may have trouble focusing in other modes.
Shutter Priority (TV) – In shutter priority mode, you are able to manually adjust the shutter speed while the camera controls the aperture and ISO (speed and graininess of film or sensors).
Aperture Priority (AV) – Aperture priority mode is similar to shutter priority mode, but lets you adjust the aperture, while the camera controls shutter speed and ISO. Using AV gives you control over the all important depth of field.
Aperture (f/stop). Aperture (also known as f/stop) is how large the iris (or eye) of your lens opens up. A larger aperture means a larger opening in your lens for light to pass through. When referring to aperture, a smaller number is always a larger opening. For example, an aperture of f/5.6 is a larger opening, and therefore lets more light in, than an aperture of f/11. Each unit of measurement in aperture is called a ‘stop’ one stop up would be making the lens opening larger, and one stop down would be making it smaller. A single stop down of aperture lets half the light in that the previous stop did.
Adjusting aperture also changes your Depth of Field. Depth of field is how much of the area, measuring away from your camera, is in focus. If you are tightly focused on an object that is relatively flat, you only need a short depth of field. If you focus on a group of people standing at varying distances, you would need a long (or large) depth of field. Basically, a short depth of field (which would be caused by a large aperture) will be clearly focused on a relatively shallow area. The item you focus on may be sharp and clear, but any objects in the foreground or background may be blurred. A smaller aperture would create a larger depth of field, and bring all objects, regardless of distance from the lens, into perfect focus.
Taking Photographs of Paintings
Taking photographs of paintings has a few problems, which can be avoided by thoughtful camera adjustment and the careful use of light sources.
- GLARE. Glare is something we are all familiar with, since we see it daily. Glare is usually caused by polarized sunlight being reflected from a surface. The important fact to remember about glare is that glare displaces color. A rule about paintings is that we can either have light or color in a certain area, but not both. Since a painting is mostly about color passages, we need to eliminate the presence of glare.
- TRIPOD. It is a good idea to have a tripod to mount your camera on when shooting photos of your paintings. This is especially important for indoor shots when slower shutter speeds would be involved. The slower the speed, the more likely it becomes that a photo will be blurred. For the sharpest photos, it is vital to use a tripod and to delay the shutter speed.
- FLASH. Never use a flash to shoot a photo of your painting, since a flash will guarantee the presence of glare and cause hotspots on your photo. Most cameras can be set for no flash.
- FOCAL LENGTH. The old cameras like the Brownie and Instamatic had 50mm fixed focal length lenses. The reason for this is that at this focal length, the photo produced would approximate what the human eye sees. Now, all cameras have zoom lenses, which have variable focal lengths. My Sony A350 has a 16-105mm zoom lens. At any focal length above 50mm, the lens will bring objects closer. At any focal length below 50mm, the lens sees a wider angle and distortion is introduced. It is best to shoot photos of paintings from a distance of 6-8 feet using a slight zoom of about 85mm, which eliminates distortion of the photo. An 85mm fixed focal length lens is what professional portrait photographers use because it flattens facial features a little and makes people look better.
- LIGHT SOURCE. It is important to use a color-balanced source of light. For indoor lighting, the use of Ott lights, GE Reveal, or other bulbs that have the same or similar temperature as natural sunlight should be used. Natural sunlight has a temperature of 5,000-6,000 Kelvin. Incandescent bulbs are generally warmer, while fluorescent bulbs are cooler. The use of a bulb that is not color balanced will change the colors that the camera sees.
- LIGHT POSITION. Ideally, for indoor photos, two light sources are desirable, positioned on each side of the painting. The lights should either be at very shallow angles to the painting, or actually facing each other. The chance of glare is minimized at these angles. On the contrary, when the light sources are placed close to the camera, the chance of glare is greatly increased due to the reflection of polarized light. For outdoor photos, it is best to take the photos in mid-day, but not in direct sunlight. Pick a spot in the shade that has a lot of diffused light.
- PAINTING SETUP. The painting should be propped up in a manner that it will be at right angles to the camera lens. In other words, all four edges of the painting should be equidistant from the camera lens. I like to use the screen view on my camera to square up the painting because I can see how the edges line up with the edges of the screen. They should all be parallel. Also keep in mind the presence of reflected light onto your painting. For example, if you prop up a painting in the grass against a tree, you will get some green light in the painting. The surfaces surrounding your painting should be neutral in color.
- POLARIZING FILTER. If you own a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera, the lens will have some screw threads on the front inside edge of the lens for filters. A good filter to have is a circular polarizing filter because it will eliminate most glare, as well as saturating your colors. Remember when I stated above that light displaces color? There is some glare in everything we see, which tends to wash out colors. We clearly see this at mid-day when the sun is high in the sky. Colors are more saturated when the sun is low in the sky, and in the shade, all due to the reduced glare. A circular polarizing filter takes out glare, and in the process all colors become more saturated. That is called a win-win situation. For photos taken outdoors, of paintings or landscapes, a polarizing filter will saturate your colors, which is a desirable result. If you have a point and shoot digital camera instead of a DSLR, it will probably not have the necessary screw threads on the lens, so your best bet is to take your painting photos outside in the shade, or inside with careful positioning of the lights.
- VARNISH. If possible, photograph your painting before you varnish the surface. This is very critical if you use a gloss varnish on your painting, and less true if you use a satin varnish. If all you have is gloss varnish, and do not like the glossy finish, just mix some bees was in with the varnish to produce a satin finish. To make the bees was workable, just work some paint thinner in until the was becomes a soft paste. Then, mix the bees wax paste into your varnish.
- FRAME. Always photograph your painting without a frame. With the frame on the painting, it is impossible to avoid deep shadows along the edges due to the protruding frame.