Frequently Asked Photo Questions for January

Have a question about digital photography? Send it to me. I reply to as many as I can--though given the quantity of e-mails that I get, I can't promise a personal reply to each one. I round up the most interesting questions about once a month here in Digital Focus. For more frequently asked questions, read my newsletters from September, October, and November.

Improving Camera Phone Photos

I have a camera phone, and I find that many pictures are too dark, even blurry. I want to try a photo editing program. Do you have any suggestions or tricks that I should try?
--Diane King, Orlando, Florida

Camera phones have improved dramatically in the last few years, but most of them still take lousy pictures compared to more advanced point-and-shoot cameras or digital SLRs. It doesn't surprise me that you're getting poorly exposed and blurry photos.

The exposure problem you can fix, at least to a limited degree, in a photo editing program. I suggest that you increase the brightness, which you can do using a feature like the Curves tool in most image editors.

Blur is a little more difficult to correct--and by difficult, I mean you can't fix it afterwards. You have to avoid blur when you take the picture. To do that, hold the phone as steady as possible, and be sure there's plenty of light available, since camera phones tend to do poorly in low light.

You can read some other camera phone tips in "Five Tips for Great Photos With Your Cell Phone."

If you want to choose your next phone based on the quality of its camera, read "Smartphone Camera Battle: iPhone 4 vs. the Android Army" for some reviews.

The Sunny 16 Rule for Photographing the Moon

Your Hot Pic photo of the moon on November 8 was good, but it could have been better. Back in the old film days, I remember someone telling me a general rule of thumb when shooting pictures of the moon. The moon is lit by the sun, and effectively is the same as taking a picture in broad daylight. At ISO 400 he should have been using 1/400 at f/8, instead of 1/200 at f/8. The shot was good, but might have been better at 1/400.
--Bob McMillian, San Diego, California

Thanks for the note, Bob. You make a good point about the old rule of thumb for setting exposure, but I am afraid you have remembered the rule incorrectly. The upshot is that Lee Tenneboe, the Hot Pic winner, got it right.

The rule you're trying to apply arose in the days before cameras had built-in light meters, and it let you set approximately the right exposure in daylight (this rule works well for moon photography because the moon is illuminated by sunlight). It's called the Sunny 16 Rule, and as the name implies, it means you should set the shutter speed to the inverse of the ISO and the aperture to f/16--not f/8 as you assert.

Here's how the Sunny 16 Rule works. Say you want to shoot the moon the way Lee did. If your camera is set to ISO 400, you want to shoot at 1/400 second and f/16. But don't forget that you can change the shutter and aperture settings and get identical exposures, as long as you keep them "in sync" by increasing one while you decrease the other. In the case of the Hot Pic, Lee shot at 1/200 second and f/8. But f/8 is one stop faster than f/16 and 1/200 is one stop slower than 1/400, so mathematically, the settings that Lee used are equivalent to the traditional Sunny 16 Rule.

Flipping Photos

Does Paint.NET have the ability to flip a photo?
--Cher Staite, Bloomfield, Connecticut

Absolutely, Cher. I'm yet to meet a photo editing program of any kind--online, free, commercial, you name it--that doesn't let you do basic stuff like flip the orientation of a photo. Paint.NET is an excellent free alternative to a commercial photo editor like Photoshop, and you can flip photos both horizontally and vertically from the Image menu.

Camera Envy?

It seems that most winning photos are taken with higher-end SLRs. Why not have a contest for those of us who use more basic consumer point and shoots? There are more of us out there with these types of cameras than expensive SLR's, so you won't have a lack of highly qualified entries.
--Harry B, Henderson, Kentucky

I appreciate your concern, Harry--but let me assure you that all photos are considered equally when I judge the contest, and point-and-shoot entries have just as much of a chance of winning as those that were taken with a digital SLR. In fact, when I review the week's entries, I just look at the photos themselves. I don't discover what camera was used until I begin to write the results of the contest in Digital Focus. Consequently, we frequently feature photos by point-and-shoot cameras. And that's not too surprising, since point-and-shoot cameras are every bit as capable of taking excellent photos as their more "professional" siblings.

As I've said on many occasions, Ansel Adams made his art with cameras that were staggeringly primitive compared to even a low-end modern point and shoot. It's not the camera--it's how you choose to use it.

A separate contest would, I think, be counterproductive, because it would imply that photos taken with point-and-shoot cameras can't be as good as or judged alongside pictures from digital SLRs--and that's not the case.

If you're looking for ways to improve your chances with a photo contest like our Hot Pic of the Week, then I suggest you check out "Five Tips for Winning Photos," which is chock full of advice that you can apply whether you have a digital SLR or a point and shoot.

Layers 101

Layers continue to plague me. Could you please explain how layers work and when I would use them to augment my photo editing process?
--Richard Seuss, New York

Layers can make your photo editing easier, so it's definitely worth the time to learn. Using the Layers tool in your photo editor, you can apply fine levels of control to changes in your picture. By stacking several identical copies of a photo, for example, you can change exposure in one layer and saturation in another, and tweak the transparency level until you dial in exactly the change you are looking for. And that's just for starters; there are all sorts of specific effects that you can achieve by combining elements of your photo in different layers. To get started, I suggest that you read "Fine-Tuning a Photo With Layers."

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Wild Monarch," by Dwayne Taylor, Salem, Massachusetts

Dwayne writes: "I took this photo in my backyard this past summer. We have a butterfly garden that attracts many butterflies. In addition, we raise Monarch Butterflies and tag and release hundreds for the great migration to their overwintering sites in Mexico. Our 2010 season ended with us having reared, from eggs, almost 900 from June through September. Of those, we tagged 594 for the migration. Hopefully, some of them make it to bring us the next generations. This particular Monarch was a wild one visiting the garden for some nectar."

Dwayne used a Canon Digital Rebel XSi.

This week's runner-up: "Little Vermillion," by Bruce Marrs, Golden Valley, Minnesota

Bruce says that he took this picture on Little Vermillion Lake in Minnesota using a Canon A80.

To see last month's winners, visit the December Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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