Take Your Best Shot

Your camera's Auto mode can be a blessing and a curse. The mode does a great job of choosing appropriate in-camera settings when you're shooting in broad daylight or in well-lit rooms, so it's a quick and easy way to snap decent photos with minimal work. However, it can also become a crutch that keeps you from getting the best shot possible.

Take Your Best Shot

Every camera--even a bargain-bin point-and-shoot--has image-enhancing options hidden in its menus. The lowest-end cameras have scene modes that adjust settings based on the environment and usually produce a prettier shot than Auto mode will. And by using a digital SLR or a camera with manual controls, you can take your photos to another level entirely.

How much can a scene mode or a manually exposed shot enhance your photos? PCWorld Labs manager Tony Leung, PCWorld photographer Robert Cardin, and I worked together to find out. We picked six common shooting scenarios, some of which require tricky manual adjustments to capture the ideal shot, and we took a picture several times in each scenario: one using the Auto setting, one using the appropriate scene mode, and one on which we manually adjusted the settings. In most cases shooting with a scene mode offered a vast improvement over using Auto mode. In a few instances, tweaking manual settings resulted in a better-looking (or dramatically different-looking) shot than the scene mode delivered. Judging from those results, we definitely recommend using a scene mode instead of Auto mode in most cases.

For the test, we used our top-rated point-and-shoot camera, the Canon PowerShot S90. It offers very good images for a point-and-shoot, a selection of scene modes, manual exposure and focus controls, and, of course, an Auto mode. The S90 also has a wide-aperture f/2.0 lens and good high-ISO performance for a pocketable fixed-lens model; those factors let us shoot at higher shutter speeds, achieve shallow depth-of-field effects, and take better shots in dark environments.

Our test shots are meant to serve as a good representation of what a photography novice can do with simple in-camera adjustments. You're bound to get different results if you use a different camera--in general, you'll see better image quality and have more manual options with a DSLR and less-impressive photos and fewer options with most point-and-shoot cameras.

The Basics: A Glossary of Commonly Used Camera Controls

Shutter speed: Using a slow shutter speed lets you capture more light over the course of a shot, and it turns moving objects into a blur. In most cases you should use a tripod (or at least a flat, solid surface) when you're shooting at slow shutter speeds. As long as both your camera and your subject remain very still, a slow shutter speed is the ultimate weapon for capturing a crisp, bright, well-detailed shot in poorly lit environments.

If you use a slow shutter with a moving subject, the blur effect can work to your creative advantage, conveying speed or adding an otherworldly effect to flowing water. Conversely, use the fastest shutter speed possible to freeze a fast-moving object in place.

Aperture settings: Aperture is the yin to the shutter speed's yang--use them in perfect balance. A wider aperture lets in a lot of light, allowing you to use faster shutter speeds. Lenses with wide apertures also permit shallow depth-of-field effects that keep the foreground in focus and the background a bit blurry.

Finding the sweet spot can be tricky: Some combinations of aperture and shutter speed lead to pitch-black photos, and others look completely overexposed. To help you find the right balance, many cameras have aperture priority and shutter priority modes in which you select your preferred setting for aperture or shutter and the camera automatically optimizes the other setting.

ISO equivalency settings: Higher ISO numbers let you shoot in dark situations and at faster shutter speeds without using a flash. Although they help you brighten an image without futzing with aperture or shutter settings, they also tend to degrade image quality. With most point-and-shoots, high ISO settings translate into more visible noise in photos. In fact, the quality of high-ISO results is one of the biggest differences between DSLRs and point-and-shoots--DSLRs have large, powerful sensors that eliminate most of the graininess you'll get with a lower-end camera.

Boosting the ISO settings in your camera also takes a toll on photos' color accuracy, as the exposure often takes on a red or orange tint as the sensor's light sensitivity increases.

Next: Portrait and Macro Modes

Selecting a scene mode
Although scene modes vary from camera to camera, you usually choose them by setting the mode dial to 'Scene' (or a similar label) and picking a mode from the on-screen menu. Some cameras put the most frequently used scene modes directly on the mode dial.

Portrait Mode

Usually the first option in your camera's scene mode menu, Portrait mode is built for one of the most common photos you'll take: the head-and-shoulders shot. In most Portrait modes, the camera recognizes the presence of faces in your scene, focuses on them, and adjusts the color in the image to enhance skin tones. In many recent cameras, Auto mode even defaults to Portrait mode settings if it detects a face (or faces) in the shot.

In Portrait mode the camera also tries to narrow the depth of field behind the subject: It keeps the person's face in focus and slightly blurs the background, drawing the viewer's attention to the face and away from distant objects.

Unless you're shooting in broad daylight or a bright indoor setting, Portrait mode usually fires the flash. It does this to bring out detail in the subject's face, but it often reduces the intensity of the flash to avoid overexposing the foreground.

In our three test portraits, the flash was too intense in Auto mode, making our subjects' faces a bit too bright for our liking. Portrait mode was much better at properly exposing the image and enhancing our subjects' skin tone.

In our manually composed shot, we turned off the flash and tried to harness natural light by using a wide aperture with a slow shutter speed. The result is a portrait that's a little more subtle and natural-looking. Nevertheless, Portrait mode generally does a great job on this kind of photo.

Macro Mode

In Macro mode, the camera uses its minimum focus distance to keep small objects or details that are close to the lens in sharp focus. Our test pictures provide some clear-cut examples of why you should delve deeper into your camera's settings when taking up-close shots. We used a tripod for all of our macro photos.

In Auto mode, the camera keyed in on the clasp and band behind the watch face instead of focusing on the watch face in the extreme foreground. As a result, much of the image's foreground detail was out of focus. Auto mode also boosted the ISO equivalency to 640, used an aperture setting of f/4.9, and set the shutter speed to 1/250 of a second. The mode boosted the ISO in order to use a faster shutter speed, which would have come in handy if we hadn't been using a tripod or had been trying to shoot a moving subject. The faster shutter and higher ISO also meant, however, that we would see less detail in our shot if we tried to crop and resize it.

The camera's Macro mode improved the shot dramatically. Our S90 adjusted its focus properly and kept the same aperture setting, but it reduced the ISO setting to 320 and slowed the shutter speed to 1/125 of a second. The results looked far better than what we saw in the shot taken in Auto mode.

We then attempted to outdo the Macro mode results using manual settings. In our full-manual shot, we used the focus controls to lock in more sharply on the brushed-metal faceplate. We were able to close the aperture to f/8.0 and shoot with a much lower ISO sensitivity setting of 80; that allowed us to slow our shutter speed to 1/13 of a second.

The combination of a low ISO setting, a narrow aperture, and a slow shutter speed let us capture a more detailed, evenly exposed shot with less visible noise in case we wanted to resize the image. It's important to note, though, that the manual settings we used here are appropriate only for still-life macro shots. Since we used a relatively slow shutter speed, any objects in motion would have appeared blurry. If we had been shooting a moving subject, the Macro mode's settings would have done a better job than our manual choices.

Next: Night Scene and Night Portrait Modes

Night Scene Mode

A camera's Night Scene mode is built to take landscape or cityscape shots when there isn't a lot of natural light. It usually demands the use of a tripod: Depending on the camera, the Night Scene mode may use a slower shutter speed, meaning that you'll get a blurry image if you try to steady the camera with just your hands.

We weren't pleased with our Auto-mode results. The camera boosted the ISO to 800, shifted the aperture to a wide-open f/2.0, and used a fairly fast shutter speed of 1/15 of a second. Color accuracy and fine-grain details suffered at those settings. The camera also fired the flash, which illuminated the post in the foreground and caused light to reflect off the mist in the sky back toward the camera.

The results from Night Scene mode were surprisingly disappointing. Although the camera properly adjusted the shutter speed downward to half a second and used a lower ISO of 160, the flash still fired while the aperture stayed at f/2.0. The resulting image closely resembled the one taken in Auto mode.

Our night-landscape manual settings produced some of the most dramatic differences we saw across all of our test shots. We turned the flash off to avoid illuminating the post in the foreground and having the mist reflect light. Next, we tried to improve the detail by dialing down the ISO to 100 and using a very slow shutter speed of 6 seconds. The slow shutter also made the surface of the water look smooth, while the lower ISO made colors seem more accurate. The slow shutter let us close the aperture to f/5.6, deepening the depth of field while still capturing plenty of light for a well-exposed image.

Night Portrait Mode

Although it sounds similar to Night Scene mode, Night Portrait mode is a different animal altogether. It's designed for capturing evenly exposed shots of a person standing in front of a nighttime background. Executed well, a night portrait will let viewers see detail in both the person and the dark background. It's a useful scene mode for vacationers, since it's ideal for taking nighttime photos of family and friends in front of landmarks.

Cameras handle this mode in various ways. Most commonly, the flash fires to enhance detail in the foreground, while the camera slows its shutter speed to capture a detailed, naturally lit backdrop. Other cameras turn off the flash and take several shots in rapid succession at different exposure levels, and then combine the images to create one evenly exposed shot; the camera uses overexposed images to highlight details in dark parts of the scene and more evenly exposed images to highlight details in lit areas. In both flavors of Night Portrait mode, a tripod or flat surface is handy, and sometimes a necessity.

In our test night portraits, Auto mode had a hard time capturing details in the background. Because the flash was too powerful and the shutter speed was a bit too fast (1/30 of a second), it illuminated the subjects well but eliminated many of the background details. For example, the "Pier 28" sign on the building is unreadable in our Auto-mode shot.

The PowerShot S90's Night Portrait mode fires the flash, opens the aperture to f/2.2, and slows the shutter to 1/8 of a second. In our photos it was much better than Auto mode at highlighting foreground and background details, and the "Pier 28" sign is clearly legible. The camera also used a higher ISO of 500 to brighten up the building and the bridge in the background, which were well out of range of the flash.

On our manual shot, we used the flash to illuminate the subjects, but we reduced the ISO to 320 and slowed the shutter speed to 0.6 second to capture background details while preventing image noise. We also closed the aperture to f/5.6 to make background details more visible, but you can't see much of a difference in depth of field between our manual shot and our scene-mode shot; the effects of aperture adjustments are more pronounced in DSLRs and other large-sensor cameras.

In our manual shot, we especially liked how the aperture setting surrounded the streetlights in the background with a star-like pattern. You can achieve the same effect by using smaller aperture settings when shooting any bright lights.

Employing a bit of skill and creativity with your flash can help make Night Portrait mode more effective: If your camera supports it, you can dial down the flash intensity to avoid overexposing your subjects, or even put a piece of tissue paper or cloth in front of it to weaken its overpowering effects.

Next: Sunset and Fast-Action Modes

Sunset Mode

If you're lucky enough to get a clear shot of a breathtaking sunset, the last thing you want is a boring photo. The Sunset scene mode is a Landscape scene mode (it sets the focus to infinity and uses a smaller aperture to create a wide-angle view that's completely in focus), with one key difference: It boosts the warm red tones, making the vivid colors of a sunset practically jump out of the photo. That kind of color enhancement is sort of cheating, but the results can be even more stunning than the sunset itself.

Auto mode properly identified our test scene as a landscape, and because it didn't tweak the colors, it snapped the most true-to-life representation of the sunset. If you want accurate colors and more detail in your sunset shots, use Auto mode.

The test shot we took with Sunset mode made the sky's colors appear deeper, with a somewhat artificial-looking red tint. If it's drama you're seeking in your end-of-the-day photos, you should definitely use Sunset mode for the occasion.

In manual mode, we tried to outdo Sunset mode's dramatic flair by using color filters; we also closed the aperture to f/8.0 to create a deep depth of field, and used medium to fast shutter speeds. We boosted the blues, reds, greens, and contrast, and came up with an even-more-surreal result. Depending on our choices, the image looked dramatically different: Sometimes everything had a warm yellow tint, other times we enhanced the light blue in the sky, and still other times everything was pinkish-red.

Colleagues who viewed all of the photos tended to prefer the shots we took in Sunset mode. The colors seemed fake in both our Sunset and manual shots, but they looked more realistically fake in Sunset mode (if that makes any sense). We give the victory to Sunset mode here--but depending on the sunset you're shooting, we suggest taking extra photos using any color-accent modes your camera may have. That way, you can see how the scene looks with different filters.

Fast-Action Modes

The mode for fast-action shooting varies in name and function. For capturing fleeting moments, your best option is a fast continuous-shooting or burst mode, which breaks the action into split-second, frame-by-frame sequences--the more shots you can take in a second, the better chance you'll have of ending up with a keeper.

Unfortunately, such rapid-fire shooting isn't available in many point-and-shoots. Most low-end cameras have a scene mode that boosts the ISO to harness a lot of light and uses the fastest shutter speed to catch a speedy subject. This tactic produces noisier images--and gives you only one chance at the perfect picture. The mode is usually called "Sports" or "Action" mode, and sometimes "Anti-Blur," "High Sensitivity," or "Kids and Pets" mode. Some cameras also have motion-tracking autofocus, which locks on to a moving subject; such a function generally works best if your subject is wearing a bright color that's distinguishable from the surroundings.

In our action test shot, we finally found a shooting environment in which Auto mode performed about as well as a scene mode or manual settings did. Auto mode picked a fast shutter speed of 1/500 of a second and set an f/6.3 aperture to keep the background sharp. Although our subject's T-shirt and shoes had a bit of blur, Auto mode froze her in place.

For some reason, the "Kids and Pets" mode on the PowerShot S90 selected a slower shutter speed of 1/320 of a second; and in comparison with our Auto-mode shot, the resulting image exhibits a little more blur. It isn't as sharp when viewed at a larger size, suggesting that the camera's autofocus had a hard time locking in.

As for our manual selections, we concentrated on using the fastest possible shutter speed. We shot at 1/1250 of a second, freezing our subject in place. Because of the fast shutter speed, our manual shot looks a touch darker--even underexposed--but it has no visible blur, and we would be able to crop or enlarge the image without seeing any ISO-related noise.

When shooting action, however, freeze-framing a moving subject isn't always the best look; in our test shots here, you can't tell how fast our subject was moving. With that in mind, you can use some alternative methods for capturing creative action shots. If your camera has adjustable shutter speeds, you can use them to make subjects in motion look like they're moving fast. By slowing the shutter speed and then panning the camera to follow a subject's movement, you can create evocative "blur trails" behind the subject.

Placing your camera on a tripod, pointing it at a moving scene, and using a very slow shutter speed is great for shooting nighttime traffic scenes or cityscapes: The background appears sharp and in focus, while moving cars are reduced to bright beams created by their head- and taillights. Using a slow shutter and a tripod is also a popular technique for capturing flowing water, as it smooths out the surface of the water in your photos while conveying a sense of motion.

Photographs by Robert Cardin, Tony Leung, and Tim Moynihan

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