Understanding Your Camera – Take Great Images not just Snaps

A traveller’s best friend is often their camera; it provides the means to bring memories back from the trip, enabling sharing with family and friends. Those that write about their travels rely on them even more to add some vibrancy and imagery to the descriptive prose of their articles.

Understanding your camera is essential to improve your photography and get the most out of your workhorse. Flat, uninspiring, poorly composed, focussed or exposed images will detract from the piece and not enhance it. Everybody wants their images admired and with a little effort there isn’t any reason this shouldn’t be the case.

 Understanding Your Camera; The Imperial War Museum North Salford Quays near Manchester, England on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography

Good composition is essential

It is important to look after your best friend of course, ensuring it is clean, batteries are fully charged and the lenses are clean. It should also be considered a tool however, it is merely a means of producing great images and to do this the user must become familiar with its functions. Consider it like a marine considers their rifle, no need to learn a “This is my camera” type mantra but the principle is similar.

Choosing the right tools

Good images are possible regardless of the type of camera you own, compact or full-frame DSLR*. Technology has advanced so far in recent years that even a reasonably priced point and shoot compact will surpass the quality of a high-end camera from just a few years ago. They will also have a multitude of features that will enable the photographer to take better images in most situations and show greater creativity.

That said it needs qualifying slightly, the better the camera, the greater the chances they will produce quality images more regularly. The ability to change the ISO setting, white balance, aperture and/or shutter speed can mean the difference between an average holiday snap and a really eye-catching image. Top end compacts, hybrid systems and of course DSLRs are capable of this and usually able to take in RAW file format too. It is not intended to make this a ‘technical’ piece with too much jargon but explantions of these terms will appear at the end.

Ultimately DSLRs have the edge in the creativity stakes, dozens of interchangeable lenses are available and there are also a plethora of filters such as polarisers or neutral density filters. These respectively enable use of a range of different focal lengths and the photographer to creatively affect the exposure of the photograph ‘in camera’.

The beauty of the digital era is that taking photographs is now relatively inexpensive. There is no longer any need to buy film; the number of images is only limited by the storage capacity available. Therefore there isn’t any excuse for not getting plenty of practice, take tons of photographs of everything, experiment. Take pictures around the house, down the street, around the town, everywhere, the more experimentation the more that will be learnt about how to use the camera.

 Streaming sunlight in the souks of Marrakech, Morocco Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011 adventure photography

Keep an eye open for the unusual

Practice makes instinctive

Shoot portraits, shoot landscapes, shoot action/sports, shoot night scenes, shoot in sunlight, shoot in shade, shoot still life, shoot wildlife, shoot abstract, shoot on the move, shoot with a tripod, shoot low, shoot high, shoot on the ground, shoot underground, shoot at a party, shoot at a club, shoot after a few hours down the pub, try panning, try zooming, learn to zoom with your feet, get the idea?

When out and about with the camera, capturing images, quickly review the ‘histogram’ to ensure that detail is not being lost and it is correctly exposed. If it is not quite right, tweak the setting, i.e. exposure compensation or aperture, then try again. Once happy with a capture, take some more from different angles, heights and perspectives; experiment again, one might be just turn out the best of all.

Composition is in my opinion the most important consideration of photography, technical aspects aside. Initially it is imperative to capture the image, exposure, focus and shutter speed all make a picture great, but if it is not captured in the first place, it cannot even be judged on these merits. Providing these are not too far from the mark they maybe corrected in the editing phase. There are simple rules of composition, but do not get overly fussy about them. Subjects placed centrally in the frame is usually a good one to avoid though, such images generally lack any real impact. Another common mistake novices make is to take a landscape focussing on infinity, without any foreground interest. A good image leads the eye around the photograph, allowing the observer to focus on various areas of interest when viewing your picture, hopefully seeing what it is that attracted the photographer in the first place. Lead in lines such as a road, stream, fence or wall can effectively guide the  viewer through the picture.

Be prepared

Take notes ensuring the circumstances of each image can be recalled later, review the images afterwards. Be critical, which have come out well, which did not come out as expected, what are the reasons for these? How could have been improved in either case? It is important to learn from each set of images captured.

 The high Atlas mountains of Morocco on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography

Include a little foreground interest – Atlas Mountains, Morocco

Have the camera ready for action when out, switched on and the lens cap removed, this will save valuable time when an opportunity arises. Try to anticipate the type of situation that may present itself, and set the camera up ready for this. Portraits, action shots, landscapes or cityscapes, wildlife or artistic all need a specific combination of settings and lenses, being ready for each eventuality will improve the chances of capturing a print-worthy image. Inevitably, there will be occasions when an entirely different situation than the one expected presents itself  but this is where familiarity with the camera will pay off, as it will enable quick and efficient tweaks can be made and make sure the image captured is the best possible.

All cameras have fully automatic settings and preset ‘modes’ for landscapes, portraits, even underwater and more. Those that really want to take good images need to take creative control however and to do this it is essential to understand the more creative modes/functions of the camera, some of these are as follows:

 Nightclub in Manchester Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011 adventure photography

Creative use of DOP

Aperture – The aperture is essentially the size of the ‘hole’ which controls the amount of light reaching the cameras sensor. Referred to as the f-stop, with the lower number corresponding to a larger aperture and allowing more light to enter the camera. This along with the shutter speed controls the exposure, a larger aperture enables a faster shutter speed and vice versa.

 Live musicf in a Manchester club Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011 adventure photography

Alternative use of DOP

Possibly the most important aspect however is that it will allow the photographer to change the ‘depth of field’ of the image. This is the ‘sharpness’ of the image back to front and is obviously important to focus the subject of the picture properly. Landscape photographers need an image ‘pin-sharp’ back to front whilst a portrait photographer requires the emphasis on the main subject, the background often being blurred to achieve this. The DOP is also affected by the focal length of the lens being used, the longer the focal length the shorter the depth of field.

Shutter Speed – This is the length of time the aperture is open and as already mentioned along with aperture controls the exposure. It can also be used creatively to control the amount of movement blur in an image, thereby conveying motion or other desirable effects.

Focal Length – Without going into the technical details, focal length is considered as the field of view or magnification power of the lens. Changing the focal length will change how much of the scene will fit into the image and how close it will appear:

 Understanding Your Camera; Moped boys in Marrakech, Morocco being panned Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011 adventure photography

Panning with a suitable shutter speed

Ultra-wide – 10-24mm usually used for landscapes or if the required to work close to the subject.

Wide – typically 24-35mm and a favourite for landscape photographers, with a wide-angle of view.

Standard – 50mm is generally considered as a standard focal length, but is between 28-55mm.

Short telephoto – a focal length of 100-200mm is typical of this type.

Long telephoto – 300-600mm and a narrow angle of view are the attributes to expect.

There are of course plenty of other variations for lens choice, but most of them fit broadly within these basic guidelines.

ISO Setting – The ISO setting controls the sensor sensitivity to light, the higher the ISO the greater the sensitivity enabling the photographer to take pictures in lower light conditions without using a flash gun. There is a trade-off however, the higher the ISO the more ‘noise’ this is generally undesirable and will affect the image quality. High ISO noise reduction is available with some cameras to ease this problem and noise can also be reduced in post capture processing.

White Balance – This ensures that the image has the correct colour cast so that it is more natural to the conditions at the time of capture. There are several settings available, suited to the particular situation at the time of capture. If taking RAW images, changing white balance in editing software is simple. It cannot be changed in JPEGs so it is important to have the setting correct during image capture.

Market seller in Marrakech, Morocco Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011 adventure photography

WB Daylight

 Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011.Market seller in Marrakech, Morocco Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011 adventure photography

WB Shade

Market seller in Marrakech, Morocco Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011 adventure photography

WB Tungsten

Market seller in Marrakech, Morocco Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011 adventure photography

WB Fluorescent

RAW or JPEG – If the camera is capable of taking images in RAW format it’s use is strongly recommended. JPEGs are compressed files; the camera will process the image before saving it and then compress it, therefore discarding some of the information. It will discard yet more information with each subsequent save and the file will deteriorate. RAW files save all the information, enabling more versatility in editing and are a lossless format, so no information is lost.


Histogram – If the camera allows this function, it is invaluable for ensuring the image is exposed correctly. It appears like a graph, and displays the tones and mid-tones, dark/shadows being to the left and light/highlights to the right. It is important that there is not any sudden ‘drop off’ at either end of the scale as it will mean a loss of information, also known as ‘burnt out’ or ‘blown.’ There is not really an ideal histogram, but it should seem like a cross-section of a mountain range, with the peaks towards the centre.

Exposure compensation – Certain scenes are likely to have varying contrasts within the composed frame. Bright skies and dark shadows being a prime example, although camera metering systems are extremely advanced and accurate, at times they get it wrong. Almost all DSLRs and many high-end compacts enable the photographer to adjust the exposure to compensate for this. If the histogram is bunched to the left and the image is too dark in the foreground then some positive compensation is required. Alternatively if it is all bunched to the right negative compensation need be applied. In each case. start with just one stop, take the picture and then adjust it again as required.

*Digital Single Lens Reflex

Do you have any tips to share that can help others improve their photography, please feel free to comment on the article or leave a particular piece of advice you have found useful?


Comments 4

    1. Post

      No worries John we all struggle to make that break and sometimes when we have taken a not so hot image maybe wish we hadn’t bothered, but in the long run it is very worthwhile as it will greatly improve your creativity. Occasionally there may still be a place for auto, but generally best to leave it to taking quick snaps with the iPhone.

  1. Miriam Gilbert

    Great article – thanks! As a brand new travel blogger, I have treated myself to my very first decent camera (a bridge type) and started to play around – but with these explanations I can make a bit more sense of the results (and hopefully start getting the results I want 😉

    1. Post

      I am glad you enjoyed it Miriam and hopefully find the other photography related articles equally useful too, good luck with the website and with the new camera, just get to know it well.

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