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Due to quite a lot positive comments on my reviews (thanks!) and requests about how I shot the pictures and which equipment was used, I've compiled a small three part "how-to" that covers anything from photographic basics up to some studio- and sports-photographing techniques.

Again, I want to emphasize, that this has nothing to do with "professional photography" - it's just to show which kind of results can be expected from a rather low budget (compact-)camera if used the right way. And these can get quite impressive sometimes!

Deutsche Fassung: hier klicken!

  Equipped with a digital SLR from Canon, Nikon or others, some fancy lenses and a good portion of practice,
  great photos of our racers in action are almost guaranteed.
  But all those nice features, like fast, predictive autofocus, quick bursts and low noise at high sensor
  sensitivities come at a price... around 1500-2000 Euros for the average equippent (or a bit cheaper if you prefer
  2nd hand)
  Those of us, who lack the money - or simply do not want to invest that much - still have an option: the fixed
  lens compact camera, from the "point and shoot" up to the serious photographic slr-like shaped tool.
  This article focusses on the use of digital compact cameras with their limitations against the more professional
  digital single reflex lens cameras.

  All pictures shown in the following three chapters are crops or resized images out of my archive. They are
  randomly chosen and used before or are currently in use.


 Part 1: A brief introduction to digital photography

It's all about light ... yes, and your subject. But as you usually get to decide about the latter one, you often have to accept, whichever light conditions are available.

"Aperture", "exposure", "sensitivity" sounds familiar to you? Know what "A", "T(S)" and ISO stands for on your camera's dials? Great, then move straight on to the second part!


Or rather not? Ok then, let's start with the basics!
A digital camera's sensor is the pendant to a conventional camera's film. It's sensitive to light, and that's where the similarities end.
The sensor of most compact fixed lens cameras ist just about 9 x 6 millimetres in size. It can take picture after picture without need for a replacement (e.g. film transport) and it's sensitivity to light can be changed on the fly.

In front of the sensor, there's the lens: Traditionally not interchangeable with compact cameras, but especially well adjusted to the sensor's needs (or rather should be ... or the cam was quite cheap)
A compact camera's lens has three features:

  • the focal range, usually given in millimetres with a "full frame equiv." suffix, which indicates the focal lengths, the camera would have, if it had a full frame 35x24mm sensor. Otherwise, focal lengths would not be compareable between cameras with different sensor sizes.

  • Aperture - in most cases, the lowest number at each end of the focal range is given. Note that this is actually a fraction (f/2,8 .. f/4,0) so that a lower number actually translates into a bigger aperture.

  • Shutter - contrary to DSLR systems, the aperture doubles as a basic shutter. Exposures are then controlled electronically directly on the sensor.

Let's leave the focal range for now, more important are the aperture and the exposure time.
The aperture controls the amount of light, that reaches the sensor. Given an aperture number of 2,8 an aperture set to 4,0 will halve the amount of light, the sensor gets. And with 5,6 that will again be cut in half. Your photo is going to get darker and darker as the aperture closes.

Because that isn't a pretty thing, the exposure time (colloqually "shutter speed") comes into play: whereas the aperture controls the amount of light, the shutter speed controls the period during which the sensor is exposed to light.
Understandably, a photo taken at f/4,0 with a shutter speed of 1/100 second appears as bright as a photo taken at f/2,8 with a shutter speed of 1/200 second.

"Now what's the difference?" I hear you ask.
To be honest, with our small sensor cameras, there isn't much of a difference for normal use (there is a difference at a very close distance to the subject or at very high focal lengths, see part 2 and 3)
I'd recommend to leave the aperture wide open all the time. The lens is often reasonably sharp, you get the highest possible shutter speed (smaller risk of camera shake) and there's no diffraction.

Longer shutter speeds are good if you want to impart a sense of speed and blur everything except your moving subject (see part 3, panning)
On the other hand, flying debris and roost trails look good at very high shutter speeds because that freezes the motion and you can see particles in mid air.
If the available light doesn't long for a high enough shutter speed (usually 1/1000 sec up to 1/4000 sec) and your aperture can't open any wider, there's a third option: sensitivity! This is usually indicated by an ISO number, where ISO 100 often means base sensitivity. ISO 200 makes the sensor twice as susceptible to light, meaning cutting the exposure time in half.

There is downside to this deal however: increasing ISO numbers increases the noise seen on the pictures (or the sometimes really bad artifacts of noise reduction from the camera) and decreases the sensor's dynamic range (the gap between the darkest and the brightest areas the sensor can at the most record in a single picture before it goes completely black or pure white.)
Compact cameras suffer a lot from higher ISO settings, because their small sensors (about 1/3rd to 1/5th the size of a DSLR) need high amplificiaton which degrades the original signal.
Better keep your ISO-setting to 100 or 200. With some cameras, you can go up to 400 and perhaps 800.


  Great... now, what does that have to do with my camera?!

It depends on what type of camera you have:

  • If you've got the rather cheap point and shoot model that does almost anything automatic, you can't get very creative about the settings. (there are maybe some or a few dozen of pre programmes scene-modes you can choose from...)
    This type of camera is for casual use, and it takes a lot of effort to achieve acceptable results with rc-cars.

  • On the other hand, there are far less, more expensive cameras with an SLR-like design (prominent lens barrel and grip) with good optics and all automatic, semiautomatic and full manual control modes.

"Semi automatic" means the photographer chooses one variable in the "photographic equation" and the camera chooses the other parts (shutter speed/aperature and possibly ISO setting) according to the available light.

From my own experience, I'd recommend "aperture priority" mode: you select the aperture and the camera decides on the correct shutter speed (and sometimes ISO setting when allowed)
This way, even beginners can get correctly exposed photos (with the shutter speed, the camera can compensate a lot more than with the aperture) and have some creative control from the onset.

Continue part 2: "Studio" - photography
Continue part 3: Outdoor and action photography

Special: Offroad-Action Photo-Thread (DSLR)

Text, pictures and translation by Aaron Banovics
This article was published on on 6-3-2007