Day 270: Figuring Out My Digital Camera

originally published September 26, 2012

Today’s article is presented as a public service. And by ‘public’, I mean ‘me’. Allow me to explain.

Next week, my wife and daughter are going on a school trip to New York. I will not be going; instead I’ll be right here, writing a thousand words each day for my adoring fans (all five of you, including myself). I have instructed my family that I would like a pound of Stage Deli pastrami, a slice of cherry cheesecake from Lindy’s, and a case of Cherry Coke to wash it all down. Since I don’t actually expect I’ll get any of that, instead I’ll simply insist upon some photos.

Here’s the problem. We have a mid-range Canon SLR digital camera, with numerous functions in addition to the default ‘Auto’ setting. My wife doesn’t know how to use any of them. My daughter only wants to use her iPhone. Don’t get me wrong, the iPhone has a good camera, but I’m spending the weekend in drabsville, Alberta. I want the highest possible quality photos of all the fun I missed.

Ms. Wiki feels my pain, so her Random Articling let me loose in the world of digital camera modes. Pay attention, family.

Digital cameras are designed so that even people who look like this:

…can aim, click, and take a decent picture. But really, if you’ve already spent over $500 on a camera, you might as well aim for more than ‘decent’ and learn some of the functions of your toy. Also, don’t call it a toy.

There are two technical terms to consider: aperture and shutter speed.

If the world around you is a big bucket of stuff you’d like to look at later or insert into a slideshow to bore your friends, then the aperture is the hole in the bottom of that bucket that leaks those memories into your digital library. If you set your aperture to be tiny, your camera will be squinting and providing a shallow depth of field, and your photo of Grand Central Station will look like this:

…thus disgruntling the husband/father you’d left behind, unless you have a really great story to go with that railing. Setting the camera on ‘A’ Mode (or ‘Av’ Mode) will allow you to choose your aperture setting. This is measured in F-Stops, which stands for “Frenchman-Stops”, because the more Frenchmen you have crammed in a phone booth, the less you can see each of them clearly.

Wow, I’m starting to doubt my source here. Forget that last part. Just remember, when you’re standing in Grand Central, and you want to make sure the foreground, middle ground and background all look clear and in-focus, open up that aperture. That means a lower F-stop. Fewer Frenchmen.

If you aren’t looking to tweak the deep focus of your subject, you might want to switch to ‘S’ Mode (or ‘Tv’ Mode, for ‘Time Value’), which allows you to control the shutter speed. You’re going to want to tighten up that shutter speed if you’re standing in Grand Central Station and you spot someone with a hilarious T-shirt. Leave the shutter open too long, and you’ll get this:

…and the shot will be ruined. Now none of your friends back home will be privy to this delicious slice of garment-wit that you found in your travels. Don’t you feel ashamed? You should.

‘P’ Mode, which stands for ‘Program’ mode, will let you control the flash and focus, but leaves the aperture and shutter speed for the camera to figure out. If your camera doesn’t feature manual focus, then ‘P’ Mode isn’t going to do you much good. You can still turn the flash off in AUTO mode, where everything technical is done for you, so ‘P’ Mode isn’t going to net you much more in the way of results. But you’ll feel like you’re being more tech-ish than the average ‘AUTO’ mode user, and that confidence will make you a better person (unless you’re a dick to begin with, I guess).

Some cameras have specialized modes, designed to make it easier to know what you’re doing so that you can get all this photo-taking over with, and down your next bagel. For example…

Portrait Mode sets the aperture to capture a narrow depth of focus, which is ideal for taking a snapshot of you and the guy you just met on the street who claims to be a writer for Saturday Night Live, but who’s really unemployed and just wants some tourists to take a picture with him while his zipper is down.

Just like in the world of printing, the opposite of Portrait is Landscape Mode. This opens up the aperture to soak in the vast city-scape from your perch on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in focus. I should point out that Portrait Mode will enhance skin tones, and Landscape Mode highlights the blues and greens, so if you were stalking Alec Baldwin along Fifth Avenue and your photo makes him look like he’s about to spew street-bought pretzels from Saks to Barney’s, you may have accidentally left your camera on Landscape. Be more careful.

Close Up Mode is what it sounds like: ideal for close-up shots. A tourist in Manhattan probably won’t take a lot of close-ups, though if you’re lucky enough to come across a dead body, you’ll want to switch to this setting in order to capture every grisly detail.

Sports Mode is what you’ll want for taking photos of athletes. It’s a known fact that neither Eli Manning nor Derek Jeter will show up in focus unless you set your camera to Sports Mode, even if you just ran into them on the street. That’s because… well, magic.

Night Portrait Mode is like Portrait Mode, but night-ish. There’s a thing you should know about taking photos at night, or in darker places – most of your shots will either be blurry, or they’ll look like this:

You want to open up the aperture and leave the shutter open to let as much natural light in as possible. A flash is fine, but it usually looks unnatural. Also, for a room the size of Grand Central, a flash will do nothing for you. But if you get your settings just right, you’ll need a steady hand or something to sit the camera upon, because any little jiggle will make the picture a blur.

Honey, if you’ve read this article (and I know you have, because you are contractually obligated to read all of these articles, even the ones about video games), I hope you’ll feel a little more confident about operating our digital camera and bringing me home some breathtaking photos of NYC.

If you don’t – just get the kid to take the pictures. And don’t forget my pastrami.

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