What to Know When Composing and Taking Images

Before digital cameras, the only way to get a digital image was to take a picture with a film camera, get the film developed, then have the photographic print or slide digitized using a scanner. When digital cameras launch, all you had to do to make the effective purchase was to choose the camera with the highest figure of megapixels.

Over the last 10 years, digital cameras have changed so rapidly and introduced with new features so dramatically that the number of megapixels is no longer an acceptable indication of camera quality. Digital camera buyers will rejoice in the improvements and number of new features that digital cameras now offer.

Unless your first digital camera is an economy model with no adjustable features, the range of control settings on oiler can seem quite daunting. In this section we examine the controls that you are likely come across on your digital camera, and discuss what they can do for you when you are composing and taking your images.


If you have used traditional film cameras before, then you will be familiar with most of the setting controls available on digital equipment.

However, if you are completely new to photography, and want to do more than just produce the most standard of images, then read on…

Creative control

If you want to produce something a little different like to experiment and would love to explore your artistic abilities, then getting to grips with the settings controls on your digital camera will not only be vital, but also potentially a lot of fun! There is a great deal more to most digital cameras than the automatic mode that comes as standard.

But what do these various digital camera settings control? Here is a brief explanation of what each of them does.

Exposure: With manual exposure you can control the amount of light that is allowed to reach the image sensor – this will determine how light or dark your photograph will be once it has been taken. The exposure of your image is controlled by a combination of the aperture size and the shutter speed of the camera.

Focus: With manual focus, you can choose which object or area of your subject you would like to be in sharpest focus. Good focus takes a lot of practice to perfect, but will repay the effort involved with more rewarding photographs.

Aperture: The aperture is a small hole behind the lens through which the picture is taken. The size of the hole is varied by manual or automatic adjustment to allow more or less light in, as needed. Its diameter is measured by what is known as an “F-spot”.

Shutter speed: The time that the shutter remains open for is the shutter speed. The longer the shutter is open the more light is allowed in, so for low light conditions, it is left open for longer.

White balance: You can use the white balance setting to control the light that you are using to illuminate your subject and improve the colors in your image.

instantShift - Shutter speed

ISO speed: This feature measures the camera’s light sensitivity. Usually the feature is self-adjusting, so you do not need to worry about correcting what is a very delicate balance in your camera.

instantShift - White balance


There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to composition. There are, however, several general principals which can help take you from being an outright novice to having enough experience to go your own way

Horses for courses

The very first thing to consider is why you are taking your picture. Is it to record an event such as wedding? If so, the odds are that you will be disturbing copies to family members, in which case the recipients will expect to see photographs in the usual format. However, if your images are going to be used in some sort of publication, you may well need to compose your shots to fit in with a “house style”. In this case, care must be taken to learn exactly what this entails before you begin taking photographs, as many publishers often have very different requirements.

When the final use of your images is not dictated by other people, you can clearly do whatever you want in terms of their composition. This is where you can test your creativity, and in doing so, have a lot of fun. The facility to take and delete photos at will makes digital cameras particularly suited to this approach – you can experiment to your heart’s content without having to worry about throwing away lots of expensive film.

Grabbing attention

To make your images stand out from the crowd, you need to catch the viewer’s attention. You can do this in many ways: by using dramatic colors; by choosing an eye catching subject; or by framing the subject itself in an unusual or visually stimulating way.

Background issues

When you are working out your next shot take a close look at the way the major elements are going to appear in the resulting image before going too far. Strong lines can make or ruin a photograph, depending on how they are used. If you are working outdoors on scenery views, vertical lines can extend from things such as trees, lamp posts or buildings, and horizontal lines can come from horizons, roads, bridges, and so on. If, however, you are working on close-up shots, you need to be a little more careful about objects that you might not otherwise notice until you are back at your computer.

Staying on the level

Sooner or later you might want to take some photographs of large expanses of water – rivers, lakes or the ocean. It is one of the unwritten rules of artistry that things that appear level in nature should be portrayed level in pictures and photographs. When you have a subject that you want to highlight without being obvious about it, you can play all sorts of visual tricks. For instance, you can use other parts of the scene to lead the eye to your intended element. Roads, tracks, rivers and hedge have all been used to good effect many, many times, so if you can come up with new and exciting ways of doing this, your pictures will score lots of extra points from onlookers!

Using space

Once you have got your subject in place and decided on the other important features, it is important to check out the empty spaces in your image. Used incorrectly, they can ruin your picture, but used property, blank areas can really enhance the message you are trying to convey. For example, if a racing car is entering a long straight, and you want the viewer to see that there is nothing up ahead, show lots of track.

Similarly, any other attempt to indicate motion over distance-perhaps images of canoeists, cyclists, aero planes, trains and automobiles – can all be improved in this way. If you have no reason to show a large empty area then find some way of filling it – skies can have clouds and fields can be populated by livestock. No-one need know that these things were all added too much foreground in later using your image manipulation software.

Finding an angle

Another way of exploring your creative side is to make your subject more interesting by presenting it from unusual angles. Rather than taking a portrait from straight ahead, for example, use a chair or step ladder to get above your subject or crouch down below it. This will immediately make the picture more intrinsically interesting.

If you are going to take a photograph of a tall narrow subject such as a skyscraper or a pine tree, or a low, wide vista like an open landscape, then it is a good idea to match the aspect ratio of the resulting image to the subject. This is the ratio of the width of a picture to its height. For example, when a picture has an aspect ratio of 1:1, it is square, but at 2:1 it is twice as wide as it is tall in other words, it helps to make the shape of the picture fit the shape of the subject.

Visual checks

Once you have got your layout and angles sorted out, it is important to check how your subject shows up with respect to the background – if their colors are similar, it may well be that you cannot distinguish one from the other. If so, this photograph will be a wasted effort, unless you can rearrange your angle, the lighting or the depth of the field, to make them stand apart.

Balancing acts

Having good visual balance in an image simply means that all the elements in it are well distributed so that it does not look lop-sided, or top – or bottom- heavy. While there are likely to be times when you will want to do this deliberately (such as adding empty space to convey motion), most of the time you will need to be taking balance into account.

Losing your balance

Imbalance can be caused by many things other than object distribution – for instance, a predominance of strong colors on one side of your image can make the other side look dull and empty. Likewise, deep shadows can throw an otherwise well-composed image off balance. If this is the case, you will either need to wait for the light to change naturally, or you will require in-fill from another source, such as a flash gun or electric lamps.


instantShift - Focus on image

Getting the focus right is one of the most basic, but most difficult operations in photography. Not only do you need the right lens in place, but there are a whole host of other factors to keep in mind.

Staying in focus: There are two kinds of focus: physical and virtual. Physical focus is achieved using adjustments in the lens position, whereas virtual focus is performed by software in the camera’s processor.

Fixed focus budget cameras: Many budget cameras have no facility for focus adjustment – they do a reasonable job so long as the subject is not too close or too far away. Due to their low price and acceptable performance, disposable film cameras have become very popular in recent years.

Auto focus: Once you move up from the budget sector, just about every digital camera has the provision for auto focus. This is a facility where the camera senses how far away the subject is and sets the focus accordingly. Some of the better cameras allow you to see the focus point, whereas cheaper models will only pick up on whatever is in the centre of the image.

Manual focus: If your camera has a manual focus facility, it allows you to disable the camera’s auto focus and take full control of matters. For a start, you can decide for yourself exactly where the focus point is going to be. It is not until you have mastered the art of getting really crisp edges to your subjects that you can start to exploit the depth of field for full dramatic effect.


It is clearly viral to make sure that your photographs are not too dark or too light; this is determined by what is known as the image’s “exposure”. When an image receives too much light it is said to be over-exposed, if an image has too much light in it and becomes over¬exposed this results in a loss of color. The end result is normally a photograph that depending on the extent of the over-exposure, may seem to be composed entirely of a series of light greys and whites. Conversely, too little light will produce a dark feel to the image; this is known as under-exposure.

Seeing the light

The actual amount of light that is allowed into the camera and onto the sensor is controlled by two things – the size of the aperture and the amount of time that the shutter is open. When the exposure is being controlled by the camera, all the shutter speed and aperture settings are determined automatically. The camera’s processor calculates the correct settings by measuring the scene’s light levels via a special light-petering sensor. Just how accurately the exposure is determined will depend on many things, but the most important factor is which part of the scene is measured. Most cameras try to account for the fact that the sky is very bright, and so they bias the readings towards the bottom of the picture, but usually give priority to the middle of the scene, on the basis that this is the most likely position for your main subject.

If you are in doubt about how well the automatic exposure setting on your camera is functioning, many models offer an exposure bracketing facility, in which a series of pictures are taken, each with a slightly different exposure. You can then look through them and choose the best image, according to your preferred exposure.


One of the most challenging things to get right in digital photography is the light. Not only it is important to get this right for the overall scone, but also for the shadows and detail features in your images.

Light temperatures

Photographers often talk about light in terms of its temperature. Light that is biased towards the red end of the spectrum is said to be warmer, whereas that which is shifted towards the blue end is said to be cooler. For example, household electric lights are redder than daylight which is said to be cooler due to its blue content.

Exposures and light

When photographs are taken in low light conditions, it is necessary to use longer exposure times to capture the maximum amount of available light. Under these circumstances it is vital that the camera is held steady; or else severe blurring will occur. A tripod is the usual answer, but in the absence of one, you may be able to find a stable surface upon which you can rest the camera. If this is the case, it is a good idea to use the self-timer to trigger the actual shot.

Flash photography

All except the most basic of digital cameras have a built-in flash. Unfortunately, it is only when you get to the more expensive models that there is the facility to directly control an external flash gun. However, some of the in-built units do have several modes. The default setting is the automatic mode, in which the camera adjusts itself to deal with the ambient light conditions. This can usually be turned on and off very easily to suit the occasion. It is important to remember that the flash needs to recharge between depending on the circumstances, this can take more than 10 seconds on a mid-range camera.


instantShift - Red eye mode

Anyone who has ever taken a flash photograph of a friend or relative will be familiar with the dreaded problem of “red eye”. Unfortunately, this common condition occurs just as much in digital photography as with film, but it can be avoided.

Red eye mode

When light strikes the eye, a certain amount of it gets reflected back towards the camera – and in doing so it gets filtered by the internal structures of the machine. In the case of eyes that are adapted for use in daylight, this reflected light shows up as red, whereas in animals whose eyes have adapted to being able to see at night the reflections may be other colors – such as green in dogs, for example.

The red eye mode available on many digital cameras gets around this problem by giving the eye an initial burst of light, before producing a second flash while it actually takes the picture. The first burst of light causes the iris to close partially, which blocks most of the red light from being seen by the camera.

One thing to take into consideration is that this contraction of the eye can make the person being photographed look less attractive in the resultant image, so if this worries you, do not use the red eye flash mode; instead, remove the red color in the eyes of the subject by using your image manipulation software on the finished photograph.

There is a further mode now commonly used to control how the flash on digital cameras operates to reduce red eye. This is the “flash synch”, and it has two settings, which are known as the “1st and 2nd curtains”. In the “1st curtain” mode, the flash is fired at the beginning of the shutter opening, whereas in the “2nd curtains” mode it is fired just before the shutter closes.


The “White balance” facility on digital cameras is designed to counter color “temperatures” and to standardize colors, through several different modes.

Auto: In auto mode, the camera deals with any color balance changes itself

Daylight or sunny: This mode is the best choice when photographing in sunny outdoor locations.

Incandescent or tungsten: This mode is the best under incandescent lighting.

Fluorescent & fluorescent H: These modes are for use under fluorescent lighting.

Cloudy: The best choice when photographing in cloudy conditions.

Flash: The best choice for flash photography.


Being able to review and delete pictures on the LCD screen of your camera is one of the greatest advantages of digital photography. Depending on how your camera is configured, you can either get quick review lasting a few seconds each time you take a shot, or you can set it so that you can take as long as you like.

Choosing which images to keep

I review my images firstly to check that the subjects are all in frame. Then I look for any other objects that might have unintentionally ended up in the shot – either in front of, or behind, my main targets. If I am satisfied at this point, I then use the review zoom button to dose in on the main parts of die image Next. I examine the edges of my subject for sharpness. If all is still satisfactory, I then look at the shadows, and check to see if I can make out sufficient detail. The other things I check for depend on the situation; for example, if I am photographing 3 butterflies, I might have managed to get all the technical details right, but the butterfly might have closed sits wings or shifted position as the shutter closed. In this case I will try to re-shoot the linage following the same procedure. The golden rule is: NEVER be too hasty with the delete button!


instantShift - Camera modes

Digital cameras offer several different modes to facilitate many different kinds of photography. As A rule, the more you are able to spend on your camera, the more modes you will enjoy.

Close-up or macro photography

Macro photography is the technical name given to what is more widely known as close-tip photography. The subject matter for close-ups is irrelevant – the choice is entirely your own! Many people like to take pictures of natural items in the countryside.

The right camera

If you have a fixed focus camera, forget it – macro photography will be out of your reach until you obtain more suitable equipment. If you have a mid-range digital camera, you may well have a macro mode, in which case you can make a start in this fascinating field of photography. If you are lucky enough to have a high-end camera, while you may not already own a specialist macro lens, there will be several available to suit your model.

Unless you have one of these, you will soon find that there are real limitations to what you can and cannot achieve. Macro mode on a mid-range digital camera will allow you to capture images from distances of around 10cm (4in) up to about 50cm (20in).

Macro and compacts

Personally, I find that when I use a compact camera, I get the best results when I use the highest resolution setting at distances of around 50cm (20in) than I do when I try to shoot closer up. One of the best things about macro photography is that you can experiment endlessly the more things you try, the more you will learn, and this on its own may make the exercise worthwhile for you.

Portrait mode

Portrait mode sets the camera up to take images where the subject is in focus, and the background is blurred.

Self-timer mode

The self-timer allows you to take the picture and be in it at the same time. Most digital cameras have this facility. When set to this mode, you simply line the camera up, press the shutter release button, and get into position. The camera will usually beep quietly until it takes the shot.

Auto mode

In the Auto mode, as you would expect, most of the settings are controlled automatically by the digital camera, so if all you want to do is point the camera and take pictures, this is the mode for you. There are, however, several things that you can still do to enhance your images in this mode.

Firstly, you usually have the option to zoom in to the subject Just how much you choose to zoom will depend on how close you are to the subject and how much of the background you think you should include. If you like the background, leave it on a high resolution – if not, you can crop it away later in your image manipulation software until you are happy with the results.

Manual mode

Once you have learnt the basics of how your digital camera works, you may well want to experiment with the photographic special effects that it offers. This is where setting the camera to manual comes in; essentially, this mode hands you control of both the shutter speed and the aperture size.

Shutter speed priority mode

When the camera is set to shutter speed priority mode, the aperture size is still automatically controlled for the best exposure, but you get full control over the shutter speed. You may choose to do this so that you can set it to a very high speed for capturing moving objects, or alternatively you may want to go for a very slow shutter speed for subjects such as waterfalls.

Aperture priority mode

When you set the camera to aperture priority mode, it still calculates the best shutter speed to give you the optimal image exposure, but also allows you to adjust the aperture size to suit a particular effect. This can be very useful if you want to play around with depths of field – that is, the relative crispness of objects in the foreground and background of your image.

Stitch mode

You may well have seen images produced by panoramic film cameras before – such as school photographs, in which several hundred pupils line up in wide, massed ranks so that they can all be photographed together. How many of you remember the weird and wonderful cameras that slowly spun around on rotary mounts as they recorded your unhappy visages? Well, these days most of the better digital cameras can take similar pictures by using what is known as “stitch” mode. This is where a series of overlapping images are re-processed by the camera into one extra-wide panoramic view.

Landscape mode

Landscape mode sets the camera up to shoot expansive scenes. It generally does not have quite the same range flexibility as stitch mode, but it is an ideal medium for taking photographs of countryside scenes and so on.

Low light mode

Low light or night scene mode allows you to capture an image where a close-up subject gets lit by the flash, but the rest of the scene is given a low shutter speed. This lightens the background to make it appear to match the foreground subject.

Auto-rotate mode

If your camera has an auto-rotate mode, it means that an orientation sensor is used to detect which way up the camera was held when a shot was taken. If the mode is in operation, it turns all the images through the appropriate number of degrees so that they are all the same way up when you review them. If you are displaying your images on a television set or computer monitor, this facility can be very useful indeed.

Photo effects mode

If your camera offers this mode you can shoot images with all sorts of interesting and exciting effects.

Vivid: This effect enhances the colors and overall contrast to make the image seem brighter and sharper overall.

Neutral: This feature does exactly the opposite of the Vivid setting – it tones down the colors and contrast in the image.

Low sharpening: This feature reduces the strength of the outlines of the subjects in the image to give them a softer look.

Sepia: As you would imagine, sepia mode records the scene in sepia tones instead of full color, enabling atmospheric image effects.

Black and white: When this effect is applied, images are recorded in monochrome. Many people think that this is the best way to convey artistic images, feeling that the effects achieved are more subtle than color.

Custom effects: With the custom setting, you get full control over color, contrast and image sharpness.

Fast action mode

The fast action mode is used for taking photographs of fast moving subjects such as cars and trains.

Slow action mode

The slow action mode is generally used for creating artistic shots with blurred images of moving objects. It is Ideal for photographing running water, especially waterfalls or waves.

Continuous shooting modes

Many digital cameras have their own version of the film camera’s motor drive. There are two commonly available versions – low and high speed. Typically, the low speed continuous mode will allow you to see each image on the LCD screen as it is captured, whereas the high speed version does not. These modes are excellent if you want to take a series of shots of some kind of action event – a bowler at a cricket match, an overtaking maneuver in a car, a motorcycle or horse race, or simply your kids playing a with the family pet!

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  1. I’m sure you meant “f-stop” right?

  2. Thanks for all the wonderful information! I have yet to figure out everything on my camera! I think this should help! :)

  3. Thanks a lot for Great Information. I will keep this page and try it with a my camera.

  4. Thanks a lot for a post full of great information, i will keep in mind your tips while clicking pics.

  5. Proof reader?

    Nice roundup though.

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