Great weather and summer vacations equal photos — lots of photos — and videos too. But nothing’s worse than flubbing a shot you really care about, so we assembled 20 expert tips that run the gamut from shooting with any camera to editing, layout, and printing once you’re back at your Mac.
There’s something about late spring and summer that brings the cameras out: Memorial Day picnics, your nephew’s graduation, a day at the beach, the kids’ first trip to Disneyland. Capturing memories with your digital camera or camcorder has never been easier — if you had told us a few years ago that we’d be snapping 5-megapixel stills and shooting 720p video with our iPhones, we would’ve bet a whole box of Drumsticks that you were mistaken.
But getting those photos and videos (and the projects you’ll make with them back at your Mac) to look their best is a whole other game of baseball. Auto mode is all well and good, but to squeeze the highest quality out of your precious summer memories, it helps to have some know-how. So we turned to professional photographer Jason Whong for the best tips for shooting photos and video, editing them to look great, and even printing them out. Not every tip will apply to every situation, but you’re sure to find at least a handful that are just as essential as SPF 15.
Grab Your Camera
These tips are for those fun, creative times when you’ve got your camera or camcorder in hand and want to take that extra step
1. Some Contrast Is Often Good
What makes something stand out? What makes it pop? It’s contrast, which is the difference in brightness from one part of the image to another. Simply put, a picture with brighter brights and darker darks often looks better than an image in which the brights and darks are closer together.
The low-contrast image (right) has been badly adjusted: it doesn’t have dark darks or light lights. The high-contrast image looks better. The lights are a bit lighter, and the darks a bit darker.
You can do a few things to adjust contrast. Many cameras let you set the amount of contrast you’d like the in-camera image processor to apply. You can also tweak it yourself using iPhoto, Photoshop, Aperture, or other image-editing tools on your Mac. Don’t go too contrasty, though, unless you’re trying for an edgy effect. You can also compose your shots with more contrast so the subjects stand out from the background.
2. Avoid Color Casts
If you’ve ever noticed that a picture looks like the colors are way off, it could be because the camera was expecting to see a different kind of light than what was in the room. Different kinds of light sources have different “color temperatures.” Light bulbs tend to be warm, while daylight skies tend to be cool. Your eyes and brain compensate for color temperature differences better than cameras do.
Your camera needs to know what kind of light is in the area when it makes an image. It can use its automatic white balance mode to guess. If it’s right, white will look white and everything else will look as good as it can. Poor colors happen when the automatic white balance messes up, when you manually set white balance improperly, or when there are multiple light sources of different color temperatures nearby.
In the first image, the model is lit both by a kitchen window and a fluorescent light on the ceiling. The nasty light from the ceiling colors the model’s shoulder and hair, and gives the room a yucky glow. Turning off the light gives us a natural light source, and makes it easier for the camera to get the colors right.
Familiarize yourself with your camera’s white balance controls, and if you don’t use them, leave them in automatic mode. In outdoor daylight photography, you often don’t have to worry much about light sources because you’re usually working with just the sun. Indoors is a different story. Assuming there’s only one kind of light inside, you may end up introducing a second kind of light by turning on your flash. In rooms with multiple light sources, there may be even more color temperatures. Try turning a few off.
3. Tripods Aren’t Always the Answer: Photo Edition
Suppose you take a shot and it’s too blurry — not because it’s not in focus, but because the camera has left its shutter open for too long. It needs to open the shutter to let light in to make the image, but with the shutter open too long, the image can be messed up by the motion of your hand. Some people think this means they should run out and buy a tripod to avoid photographer-caused motion blur.
In an extreme example of motion blur due to the shutter being open for too long (1/4 second), we get blur from both holding the camera and the moving subject. A tripod won’t help here.
Before you spend the money, try changing some of the settings on your camera. A good starting point is setting everything to auto and turning on the flash. But if that won’t work, you can try setting things manually. If your camera has image stabilization, make sure it’s on. ISO controls how much or how little light the sensor needs to make an image; boosting it should let you take an image with less light. The f-stop setting of the lens controls how much light goes into the camera during the exposure; setting it lower lets more light in, letting you take a picture with a shorter shutter speed setting, which makes motion blur less likely. If none of that advice helps, maybe you do need a tripod.
4. Try Flash Outdoors
A flash is great because it lets us add light to pictures indoors, and a lot of cameras will automatically use it in low-light situations. Did you know it can add some kick to outdoor lighting situations as well?
With the flash on, you don’t always need to have the sun at your back, and your subject doesn’t have to squint as much because the sun is in her eyes. Also if your subject is in the shade, but the background isn’t, the flash can make sure she shows up against the bright, sunlit background.
You can use flash outdoors to fill in shadows or make someone stand out a bit from a background, especially one that’s brighter than your subject.
Remember what we said earlier about mixing lights of different color temperatures? Your flash is probably in the ballpark of the color temperature of sunlight and doesn’t look all that bad in cloudy weather, either.
5. Off-Camera Flash Is Even Better
Flash from the camera: Bor-ing!
A big problem with the flash built in to a camera is that it’s too close to the lens. It makes artificial-looking shadows that don’t look like what people actually see because we don’t go through life wearing spotlights on our heads. The light we see usually comes from above or from the side, and shadows cast from those directions help our brains fill in the third dimension.
Flash bounced off of a white ceiling gives soft, downward shadows.
If you buy an external flash, you may be able to try bouncing it off of ceilings or walls to create better shadows. Or try using a flash extension cord so the flash can be positioned much farther from the camera (like, in your left hand, while you hold the camera with your right). It’s not something you’ll want to do every time, but now and then, it should give you some interesting variety.
Flash held above and to the left of the camera gives hard, diagonal shadows.
6. Consider Shooting RAW
Your digital camera contains an image processor that talks to the light sensor in your camera and turns that conversation into an image. In most cameras, the processor also decides how much of the information from the sensor it can keep and how much it can discard to make a JPEG file. If you work on the JPEG file later, you’re working with less data than the image processor did.
Both Adobe Photoshop and Apple’s Aperture let you work with RAW images. In Aperture, it’s possible to work with RAW images without even realizing it because the workflow and user experience are about the same as working with JPEG.
Telling your camera to create RAW files usually gives you much more information to work with for each image and makes it much easier to correct for underexposure later on your Mac. If you shoot RAW, you will have to perform additional steps on your Mac if you want a JPEG. But is that really a drawback?
7. Tripods Aren’t Always the Answer: Video Edition
Using a tripod while shooting video is a stylistic choice. The tripod can be helpful when you’re zoomed all the way in because it gives you a stable image. You may not need to carry around a tripod; some cameras come with image stabilization to compensate for the shake. Or you can get closer to your subject and zoom out, making the shake barely noticeable.
This tripod isn’t made expressly for video (because it can turn the camera on its side), but the knob on the left makes it very useful. It’s a tension adjuster, which can make it easier to have consistently smooth camera movement. We’ll take that over a $20 tripod any day.
If you decide to get a tripod, it’s probably because you’ve committed to eliminating shake from your video. You can buy a cheap tripod, which will give you the stable shot you want, but that’s about all it’s good for. Because they don’t always move smoothly, cheap tripods don’t perform as well when you need to move the camera while it’s recording. If the tripod you’re using gives you jerky motion, you may want to try a more expensive one that offers adjustable tension for smooth pans and tilts.
8. Try an Off-Camera Microphone
The microphone on your camera does a decent job of picking up the sound where the camera is. Unfortunately, the sound often isn’t as clean right next to the camera as it is nearer to the source. If all the important sound will be near the camera, you’ll probably be fine with the built-in mic. But if you’re going someplace where the sound will be bouncing off walls and floors before it reaches the mic, you may want to try using a microphone that you can place closer to the source.
If your camera lets you connect an external microphone, consider buying a wireless lavaliere mic kit for those shots where you’ll be farther away from the person you’re shooting. Such a kit usually contains a clip-on microphone attached to an audio cable, a transmitter, and a receiver attached to another audio cable. Tell your subject to run the mic cable under his shirt and put the transmitter in his pocket so it stays out of the shot. Connect the audio cable from the receiver to your camera’s audio port, but also look for a way to attach the receiver to the camera or to yourself so that you don’t need to carry it separately.
9. Digital Zoom Sucks
There are two kinds of zoom: optical and digital. Optical zoom uses a lens to narrow the field of view of an image. Digital zoom uses in-camera processing to blow up an image after the lens has zoomed in as far as it will go.
The in-camera image processing of digital zoom saves some time that would be spent in post-production, especially with video, as your software renders each frame of a cropped shot. It may give you a sharper image than you can get by cropping one that’s only optically zoomed, but your image can still look puffy from lack of detail.
The digitally zoomed picture (left) lacks detail, and though it may beat the optically zoomed image (right) that we cropped in Aperture, both are no match for the more detailed image (bottom) we got when we “zoomed” with our feet.
If you’ve reached the limit of optical zoom and your subject isn’t big enough in the frame, see if you can zoom with your feet by getting closer. That definitely beats digital zoom. If you can’t get closer, turn on the digital zoom — especially if you’re shooting video — so you don’t have to crop the shot later.
10. Compose Your Shots or Crop Them Later
When you’re behind your camera, pay attention to what you see in the frame. Consider aesthetic principles. Try to fill the frame with something visually interesting. Of course, make sure it’s in focus. Getting it right in the camera means you can spend less time later working on improving the shots.
This shot is poorly composed. There’s too much space around the subject, and it looks like this flagpole is coming out of her head.
Once you’ve brought your photo onto your Mac, consider how a tighter crop (by cutting out the unnecessary parts of the image) might make it better. It takes a lot of time to crop video in software, so composing your video shots the way you want them can really save time.
11. Resolution Is King
If your camera lets you take pictures of varying sizes, try using the largest. It will likely cause your camera to make large files (and fill up your memory cards and hard drives faster), but a larger image has a number of benefits.
You can print high-resolution files at larger sizes without the image starting to look puffy because there’s often more detail to work with in larger images. You can also crop larger images into smaller ones. It’s a lot easier to retouch a high-resolution file than it is to retouch a small one.
If you’re starting with a small image, you can’t print it as large without it looking grainy, and it may be harder to edit the image convincingly. Going from small to big doesn’t work as well as going from big to small. You can always make a tiny version of your large image for email or the web without losing quality.
Back at Your Mac
Post-production tips for more professional photo and video projects
12. Tighten Your Edits
When you’re sequencing video clips in iMovie, it’s tempting to just drag the clips in the order you’d like the shots to appear. Doing that gets you a finished video, but it doesn’t necessarily give you a polished one.
There are 16 frames at the end of this shot that we don’t need—that’s about a half-second of awkwardness.
Look at each shot in the sequence. Is it too long? Shorten it. Does it have just a half-second of unwanted sound or video at the beginning or end? Trim the unwanted part. Good directors don’t just slap one shot after another. They make sure each shot starts and ends at the right time.
13. Switch to Gamma 2.2
The gamma setting controls the overall contrast in a display. It used to be that there was a Windows standard gamma (2.2, which about matches the gamma of a CRT) and a Mac standard gamma (1.8). Some images created on one platform would often look too bright or too dark on the other as a result.
When Mac OS 10.6 came out, Apple decided that the Mac ought to be on the 2.2 gamma standard, just like Windows. The sRGB color space, which defines a range of colors, has a gamma of roughly 2.2. The Worldwide Web Consortium has standardized on sRGB. Not everybody has a web browser that corrects for gamma before displaying an image.
You really want to be at gamma 2.2, unless you have a color management expert telling you otherwise.
Simply put, if you want the most people on the internet to be able to see your images the way you see them, you should be in gamma 2.2. In fact, Apple’s advice to Aperture users (atsupport.apple.com/kb/HT2026
) is, “Unless you have a color management expert instructing you otherwise, select a 2.2 gamma and a D65 white point.” It’s worth a trip to the Color tab in System Preferences > Displays to check whether you’re on gamma 2.2. Click the Calibrate button and advance to the step for determining the target gamma to make sure it’s set to 2.2.
14. Vector-Based Images Scale Better
If you plan to use some sort of logo or graphic across multiple projects (a website, a photo gallery, a DVD menu, and so on), it helps to have a vector-based version of the graphic. Vector art tends to scale larger without any loss of quality, unlike graphics that are stored as pixels. Common vector art file types you may encounter include Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), Adobe Illustrator (AI), or Encapsulated PostScript (EPS). If you have a graphic made of pixels (such as a GIF, JPEG, or PNG), and you want to run it larger than actual size, it’ll look pixelated.
The Mac|Life logo was created in Adobe Illustrator. The light blue lines and handles represent the vectors that make up the logo, making it easy to scale as large or small as we like.
15. Working with Lossy Compression
Images take up a lot of memory, gobs of it. That’s why programmers have come up with ways to compress the images, so they’ll take less space and transmit more quickly. Digital-camera makers love JPEG compression, which is characterized as a “lossy” compression format. Simply put, the way JPEG makes an image smaller is by making an intelligent guess about how much of the image it can discard. You’d be surprised by how much you can throw out from an image before anyone notices.
Adobe Photoshop gives you various options when saving JPEG files. Decide which quality setting works for you. Setting it to 5 makes medium-sized files.
Many cameras let you choose how aggressively the built-in image processor compresses the images. Less compression potentially leaves more detail in the photo, which is great if you plan to work on the image later on your Mac. Most software lets you choose how much you want to compress a JPEG image, too. Try not to get too aggressive, though: it’s when the algorithm tosses out too much that you start to see unwanted changes, called artifacts, on an image.
16. Rulers Are Better Than Eyeballs
If you use well-designed templates, such as the book templates in iPhoto, you don’t have to worry much about alignment because someone else already thought of that. But if you’re laying out images and text on your own for the first time, you may be tempted to use your eyeballs to align things. It’s a bad habit to get into.
The light-blue lines are guides that we placed precisely along the rulers. They don’t appear on the document, but they help us align the text layers for precise spacing and centering.
Your software may display rulers along the top and side of a document. It may also let you place (non-printing) guides onto a document to help you align things. Use them to make sure everything’s really lined up. The programmers gave you these tools. Use them for better documents.
17. Contrast Increases Legibility
Think of the last book you held in your hand. Chances are, the color of the paper was off-white (or yellow, if it was older). The words in the book probably were black, which stood out nicely from the background. The publisher didn’t print the words in a lighter color because it would be harder to read against the lighter-colored background.
You’re already covered if you use iPhoto’s templates: changing the background color behind text results in a corresponding change to the text itself. It won’t let you make the text blend in with its background.
The gray letters over the dark red plastic tub are legible, but they don’t stand out as well as the blue letters.
But if you’d rather do it yourself by adding type to an image or some other design project, consider what will be behind the text and how it will affect people’s ability to read it. If the background is dark, use light letters. If the background is light, use dark letters. You can also try using drop shadows or outlines to make the text more legible.
18. More Fonts Aren’t Always Better
You may have hundreds of fonts at your disposal, but that doesn’t mean you should use all of them in the same project. Using just a handful of carefully chosen fonts gives you a better result than if you’d used 20 on the same page. Consider also what your font communicates when you use it. It’s probably not the best idea to use Comic Sans on a program for a funeral.
One or two fonts would be OK in this design. But four fonts for four words? Yuck.
Designers can become emotional about fonts. Some think Arial is a fake, inferior version of Helvetica; some say Papyrus is overused. While not everybody thinks some fonts are gauche, most people think too many fonts are a chore to read. Two or three is plenty.
19. Spot Color vs. Process Color
Most people don’t have to think of this because printing is so easy. But if you’re working with a printing company on a brochure, photo book, or other complex printing project, it can be helpful to know the difference between spot color and process color.
Process color usually blends cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks to make a colorful image. That’s four inks. It works well for photos, but doesn’t do as well on pure, solid colors.
Spot color prints a specific color onto the page. By working with fewer than four colors of ink, you may save some money over process color, and you may choose a color that can’t be made with process printing. You can also use metallic or pastel inks. But you can’t do a photo this way.
If you know you want both a specific solid color and a photo on the same project, talk to your printing company about adding spot color to the print job, then open your checkbook.
20. Master ColorSync
Working with color can be a challenge on any platform because different output devices can reproduce a differing range of colors. Apple solves this problem with ColorSync color management software. The color characteristics of each device are described in files called color profiles. ColorSync Utility lets you view and edit the profiles. When you connect a printer, scanner, or digital camera, ColorSync automatically assigns a profile.
The last time we provided images for a big print job, we set up Photoshop using Edit > Color Settings, the way the prepress technicians asked us to.
If you’re working with a commercial printer, ask them how to set up ColorSync or your applications to match their press. They may give you a file ending in .icc, which is the color profile of their press. Put it into Library/ColorSync/Profiles to make it available to your applications, or follow their instructions.
Aperture uses “Onscreen Proofing,” which is configured with View > Proofing Profile and activated by View > Onscreen Proofing. We’ve now set up both to use the ColorSync profile called “newpress.”