Cheap Camera Challenge #1

October 4, 2012
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One of the things photographers hate hearing is, “That’s a nice camera! It must take great photos!” It removes any skill from the photographer and blames or praises the camera for any image produced. I sought out to try and prove this wrong. While it’s true that a good camera might take sharper or clearer images, it is still only a tool that a photographer uses to make an image. It’s the process from beginning to end that creates the final image: from location planning, timing, lighting, shooting, selection, all the way on to processing.

For this challenge, I used an old Canon SD850IS that’s about 5 years old. It’s an 8 megapixel camera released in 2007. At the time it was one of the nicer point and shoot cameras available but nowadays, it would have trouble keeping up with the camera on your average smartphone. I could have opted to go with a phone camera, but there are a couple features of the camera that aren’t available on all phones yet: optical zoom and exposure compensation. Optical zoom is important because most phone cameras have a fixed lens and any zoom options available are digital zoom, which means the camera just takes a cropped portion of the sensor and interpolates it back to the full resolution. This generally results in a less sharp image, even if it is the same full 8 megapixels of a non-zoomed shot. Optical zoom allows the lens to zoom so that the image is actually drawn larger on the sensor. This means all the pixels are available for the image. It also changes the perspective you get with regards to background objects and distortion because you’re physically changing the focal length of the lens, like we discussed in the previous article on focal lengths and lens choices.

Exposure Compensation

Exposure Compensation meter

The second important feature is exposure compensation. When shooting with a dSLR in changing conditions, I often shoot in aperture priority mode and dial exposure compensation up or down as I see fit. Exposure compensation basically lets you tell the camera that the image should be darker or brighter than what the camera thinks. Cameras don’t necessarily know what black or white should be. If you point your camera at a white wall, it will try to make your image a middle gray. If you point your camera at a black wall, it would also try to make your image middle gray. By setting exposure compensation, you’re essentially telling the camera, “this is a white wall, make the whole image brighter” or a more common situation, “this is a black costume, make the whole image darker”. This is important for point & shoot cameras since you often can’t manually set aperture or shutter speed, but most of them will still have an option for exposure compensation to allow you to adjust overall exposure.

Thanks to my lovely model, Desu, and assistant, Hall To, for putting up with me again!

These are comparison shots of similar images taken with the Canon 850 IS and a Canon 5D Mark III. Regardless of which camera I was using, I had a particular composition and framing in mind before pressing the shutter button. So you can see that the images are very similar. Since a “cheap camera challenge” doesn’t mean no additional help, for all these shots, my light source was a large white reflector held by an assistant to camera-left . Bouncing light with a cheap reflector or even a large piece of white cardboard is a simple and cheap way to light a subject. In these wide shots, I used the 4x optical zoom of the cheap camera to constrain my background. I stood back further and zoomed in to give me the proper perspective. I ended up blurring the background in Photoshop afterwards anyway, but it gives me the field of view of a 100mm lens that I prefer. On the 5D Mark III, I used an 85mm lens at f/2 to constrain and blur away a busy street in the background, straight out of the camera.

In these portraits, I had to dial in positive exposure compensation because the strong backlight from the sun threw off the camera’s exposure meter. The auto settings from the camera made the image too dark because it was trying to expose for the strong backlight and not blow out the highlights. The positive exposure compensation would force the background highlights to be overexposed, but I would get proper exposure on my subject’s face, which is more important. Of course, you could get around this by not having your subject under strong backlight and just finding a nice shaded area to shoot in. You could also try to light your subject as strong as the backlight to even out the exposure overall, but doing so is a bit more difficult with a reflector depending on the situation (and your subject might not like being blinded!).

Conclusion

Hopefully, I showed that you don’t need a fancy camera to get great results and that your vision and understanding of the tools you have available are more important, whether that’s a point and shoot, smartphone, or DSLR camera. Focusing on things like proper lighting or perspective control will get you much further with your photography as they are concepts that will carry through regardless of what equipment you use. You can also achieve DSLR-like images via post processing after the shoot, but this adds more time to your workflow. So do you need a special camera to get great results? Not necessarily, as it’s just another tool in your bag, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

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Tim is the principal photographer for FiveRings Photography and co-founder of Cosplay Photographers. When not shooting cosplay and writing about it, he's busy photographing engagements, motorsports, and fashion. He can also be found playing Diablo 3, Starcraft 2, World of Warcraft, or Bejeweled when he should really be editing photos.

1 Comments

  1. I feel that blurring the background afterwards doesn’t give us the true photo from your P&S camera. One of the main differences between DSLRs and P&S is that DSLR can give a nice bokeh, with the right lens. Faking the bokeh just doesn’t work with the comparison much. What did the picture look like before you photoshopped the bokeh in?

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