I got a lovely new tripod for Christmas, and I meant to tell you how I take my pictures, since my mother-in-law and others have asked for details or advice and I've been meaning to reply. As with so much of what I do, I am self-taught in this and just wind up finding something that works and sticking to it -- this is my huge disclaimer for any of you who actually do know what you're doing left shaking your heads at my dumb directions by the end of this. (There is a really comprehensive photo tutorial at The Switchboards which may be helpful if you'd like more detail about how things actually work, but I am easily confused and function on a more need-to-know basis, so this far-less-technical version is mine.) Although most of my keepers involve luck, a decent camera, a little well-placed profanity, and a vast quantity of unusable photos shot in order to get just one I like, here is how I take my pictures:
I use a Canon PowerShot A80, and I really like it. It captures natural light in a lovely, rosy way (though I could be accused of taking this a little too far -- I like my color to be quite warm and luminous). It is a 4.0 megapixel camera, and seems to serve our purposes very well. We had an older digital camera that wasn't as nice, and I found it absolutely couldn't grab light in the same way as this one, so if you're struggling, you might consider this. I also make sure that I've set the camera at the highest resolution, just in case I want to print any of the pictures out. You'll have room for fewer photos, but since I upload them to my hard drive quite regularly, this doesn't matter. If you're going out and want to take vastly more pictures at a lower quality, set the resolution lower. But let's assume you're just taking pictures around the house or neighborhood: Keep the resolution high and you'll have more options in the long run.
I take most of my pictures on the "Portrait" setting, which keeps objects in the front of the frame crisp while blurring the background. I turn off the Auto-Focus option so that I can control where the camera is focusing and reading light; center the rectangle where you want the focus/light reading to be, and hold the button down halfway, until it beeps (or whatever your camera does to tell you it's "got it") -- then click!
I always shoot without a flash. I loathe the flash almost as much as I loathe most overhead lighting. (I keep the bulbs in ceiling fixtures for safety, but I never turn them on and have been known to sneak into the guest room and re-light it if unknowing guests accidentally use the overheads instead of the many ambient and vastly more romantic table lamps in the room, but that's just me, as in "This is Alicia: She can't share at restaurants and she'll yell at you if you flick a switch in her house.") Anyway, please turn off the flash. It reflects off your objects and ultimately washes everything out. Trust me. Or I'll have to yell at you and come over there and turn it off myself.
Once you've turned off the flash, your camera will automatically compensate for this by widening the aperture (or the amount of light it lets in) or changing the shutter speed, which keeps the lens open for a longer period (and also obviously lets in more light). I think. (See, I told you -- I barely get it.) When you have less light, and your lens is open for a longer period, things that are moving in the frame can be blurred. You, moving the camera, can also cause still objects to get blurry. When I am taking photos of still-lifes, I always use a tripod to hold the camera. Always.Yes, always. The results are strikingly improved over trying to "hold still" while you're shooting. If you're frustrated with your pictures of things that aren't moving, I would suggest investing in this. It's a really inexpensive (around $25) way to improve things significantly, especially if you are interested in taking still photos of crafts you've made, or a room, or a flower or something detailed like that. Make friends with your tripod and keep it close at hand and get good at unfurling it's legs quickly and you will grow to love it.
In addition to placing the camera on the tripod, I also set the shutter to open two seconds after I've pushed the button. (You can do with the self-timer feature.) This rules out the possibility that I will jiggle the camera with my big fat finger while I'm pushing the button. I push it, release it, stand back, and two seconds later, it clicks. I take all my product shots this way. The camera automatically finds the focus for you, so things always come out clear. If I'm doing something really close up, I turn on the "Flower," which allows you to focus on things that are very near to the camera.
Once I've downloaded the pictures to my computer, I save them to the hard drive in separate labeled folders by subject, not just date -- I take so many photos they can get really disorganized, so I'd rather have more pedantically labeled folders than a billion random images labeled "IMG046_72" etc. to shuffle through. Once the photos are on the computer, I close the transfer software, which often comes with some kind of very basic -- too basic -- "viewer," and open the folder in the Photoshop "Browse" window. There is, of course, other software available for working with your photos, and I'm assuming it works much the same way, but I'm not sure, so this next part is for Photoshop-havers; but you could try it with whatever you have.
This is by no means a technical tutorial on using Photoshop, which is an enormously capable and complicated program. For the purposes of this paragraph, we'll just assume that you want to take decent photos and save and re-size them to post on your blog or send over email, not print out. Most people who send images over email just send whatever the camera gives them, and oftentimes those photos can be huge and take a long time to get into someones in-box. But you can easily resize them to post on a web site or send more conveniently, and your recipients will love you more. The first thing I do is choose the cropping tool, which looks like a sort of arrow thing on your palette. Then I go up to the top and set the specs for that tool: For any photos I want to use on-line, the maximum resolution (or dpi -- dots per inch) setting necessary is only 72. Saving pictures at a higher dpi when they won't be printed out is unnecessary, and they'll take a lot longer for people to download. Then I set the size of the frame I want to crop my image at. I like squares, so I often do a 8 x 8-inch image; for rectangles, the standard 6 x 8-inch image is nice -- you can go bigger on these if that suits you, but keep the dpi set to 72. Then use your cropping tool to select the new area of the picture you want to include, and hit "Enter" to crop. Make sure that you are looking at your photo at 100%.
Once you have your image cropped, you can play around with the color. I almost immediately just go up to "Image" and choose "Adjustments/Curves." You'll see a diagonal line. This helps enhance the darks and lights in the photo. Play around with pulling dots on this line either above it or below it and watch what happens. The lighting of your photo will change. I choose two points -- one toward the top right corner, which I pull above center; one toward the bottom left corner, which I pull below. You want a smooth curve (no big zigs or zags), and a pleasing look. This is something you can experiment with until you like what you see. It's all to taste -- just play with it and get comfortable messing about. You can always try using the "Auto Color," "Auto Levels," and "Auto Contrast" functions, and they will sometimes work beautifully -- but not always. Just undo, and play with the Curves, or even the Levels, though I usually find that Curves gives me enough of what I like, and that's usually good enough for what I'm doing.
The last thing I do is "Filter/Sharpen" the image, but you need to be careful with this. If it's looking soft, sometimes sharpening can crisp things up for you, but there is no substitute for a properly focused, fairly well-lit photo. Too much "sharpening" can turn your image really grainy, and that's not good.
When you have something you like, go up to "File" and choose "Save for Web." I usually have it set to the tab with "4-up" showing, and that will optimize the image at different "qualities" for you to see. Look at the bottom left corner and see how the size and the time it will take to load changes. Choose the best-looking image at a fairly reasonable size and speed. Then rename it and save it. I never change my original, downloaded images; I always keep them exactly the way they come in off the camera in case I want to redo something. After I've Photoshopped an image, I always save it with a new name, as a jpeg, and use that newly saved beast for any sending or posting I want to do. I think it's a good habit to get into; I have often gone back to the original and given it another try and been grateful to have the opportunity.
I hope this helps. I used to really hate taking photos, especially product shots. Hate is not even a strong enough word. My photos never matched the visions I had for them. But learning just a little bit about how to make things look nicer has increased my enjoyment quite a bit, and I love taking pictures now because I can make them look closer to what I see. I don't seem to be able to take classes or read manuals very well, so if anyone has any tips (or corrections) they'd like to add, please don't hesitate to comment. I know I have a lot more to learn, and it's always been easier for me to learn something from friends.