Getting better photos from a digital camera

My employees chipped in and got me a digital camera. I travel (domestically, internationally) a great deal and like to photograph some of the restaurants and inns I visit. I recently took some interior photos in fairly low light conditions and am disappointed by the bluriness. I tried to hold the camera steady, but didn’t do the best job. Apparently, the lens on this camera (not an SLR) isn’t particularly “fast,” meaning it doesn’t gather light very well and thus makes a somewhat long exposure necessary. I do NOT like to use flash, as flash alters the mood and floods everything with brilliant white light.

A tripod is too awkward to carry, but I could travel with a monopod. Problem with a monopod, in my estimation, is that it eliminates movement on one axis (up-down), but not on the other two axes (L-R, Front-Back).

In short, will a monopod do a reasonably good job of steadying a camera, given a reasonable exposure?

You can get mini or pocket tripods. Some of them double as clamps or have velcro straps that allow you to fasten them to sturdy objects.

A monopod isn’t a bad option. Adding even a single point of stability will reduce the motion for the 1/40 second that you need.

You can also (probably) increase the ISO of the camera at the cost of increasing the “noise” in the shot. There are various programs (e.g. Noise Ninja) for reducing the noise in post-processing.)

Two suggestions:

  1. Get on of the mini tripods already suggested - they only cost $6 and are brilliant.

  2. Shoot on “sports” mode if you have it - shorter shutter speeds mean less blur, and you’ll be amazed what you can do with Photoshop once you’re back home.

It’s always better to under-expose, as the camera actually captures a lot more detail than you realise. Over-exposure (ie. white space) and blur are v. difficult to fix.

I suggest you don’t raise the ISO value with a consumer digicam. The small sensor isn’t suitable for that and noise will rise dramatically even with a modest ISO increase. If you want good interior shots use the lowest ISO. Use a tripod if you can’t shoot with flash. Using a “sports” mode to force a high shutter speed is even worse than high ISO as the underexposed image will have the same poor signal to noise ratio.

There are some monopods with legs, imagine a tiny tripod with the legs nearly flat to the floor attached to the bottom of the monopod. This can be a substitute for a tripod but it may not be for you. They are pretty wobbly so the only way to use them effectively is to let the camera settle don and use a remote shutter release, preferably an electrinic one. Most consumer digicams don’t have that but you can use the self timer and do a pretty good job. Bogen/Manfrotto make some nice monopods with the tiny accessory legs which will be marginally thinner than a folded up lightweight tripod which is probably a better idea.

Look here, B&H Photo

FWIW I often use a monood but just so I can get steady shots in the range of 1/4-1/2 second. Mind you I’m u sing a DSLR that I have accessorized to make even heavier than normal (Nikon D100 with extra battery complartment/grip) and I can easily get steady handheld shots at 1/8 second with a moderately wide lens but this takes a lot of practice. Oh, no tiny legs on my monopod.

Well, the noise is not that bad and it can even, sometimes, lead to some artistic effects, in some ways mimicking the old film grain. I’ve taken quite a few shots with high ISOs on my digicams that I’ve considered very acceptable.

Besides, if the OP doesn’t want to use a flash and can’t use a faster lens, then if there’s anything at all moving in the picture, increasing the ISO and shutter speed are the only hope. Everything is a compromise.

And Noise Ninja is a fantastic noise reduction program.

That said, if it’s one of those pocket-sized digicams, then I really would be careful about shooting anything over 400 ISO. I have yet to see an acceptable photo at 800 from one of those cameras.

Personally, I don’t like carrying around a tripod or even a monopod. It’s a pain in the ass. The less equipment I have to deal with, the better. The simplest solution is to look around your environment and see what can be used as a tripod. I’ll use backs of chairs, tables, columns…whatever is available. There’s usually something you can use as a temporary tripod.

Does your camera have a delay between when you press the button and when the shot is actually captured? They’re not like standard cameras, which take the picture pretty much straightaway after you pres the button. I was working with a digital camera, and was taking some horribly blurrry pictures because of this delay: I’d press the button, think the shot was taken, then move the camera slightly, which destroyed the picture when it actually was taken.

If you can learn the delay and learn how long you need to hold the camera steady (so that you’re not moving it when it’s taking the picture) after pressing the button, your pictures might improve.

What great employees!

I highly recommend going out and just practicing. Since it isn’t film you can blow a buttload of pictures while learning and it won’t cost a thing. YAY!

Start outdoors with permanent objects. Then moving, then shaded. It will give you a good feel for what to expect in a less time constricted way.

I have a Manfrotto monopod. I love it, but it ain’t no way small to carry around. It is tubular aluminum, with three telescope sections, and it is strong enough for me to put my hand in the loop strap as I take a picture and lean on it real hard. That gives me a quarter second exposure easily. I also tend to find a heavy object and use it to brace against horizontally, for taking night shots, or low light indoor. However, you are pretty much committed to carrying the monopod around after the picture taking, and before, so generally it sits in the car, unless I know I will need it.

With all that, and Picassa2 I can take pretty darned good shots in ordinary room light. But the hard facts are that light levels are the weak point for digital photography.


“Our friend brings us good news. If the Persians darken the sun with their arrows, we will be able to fight in the shade.” ~ Dieneces of Sparta ~

How do you mean? They are no more a weak point than in conventional film photography.

CCDs are expensive, so most cameras have really tiny CCDs. That means the lens must have a very short focal length to achieve a reasonably large field of view. An 8mm F/2.8 lens (typical “standard” lens built into compact digital cameras) collects as much light as a 40mm F/14 lens, or 1/25 the light of a 40mm F/2.8 lens. The higher efficiency of CCDs goes a long way towards making up the difference, but still, compact digital cameras aren’t great for low light levels.

If we’re talking digital SLRs, that’s a whole different story. But even there, most commercial digital SLRs have sensors smaller than 35mm. Typically half the size or smaller (in area).

Well, I predominantly shoot dSLRs, so my point was that light levels are not the weak point for digital photography in general. My Fuji S2 at 800ISO delivers less noisy images than shooting Fuji Super HGII 800 (or whatever the film is today).

Still, I don’t understand how f/2.8 on a pocket digicam is different from f/2.8 on a Hasselblad. It’s obviously letting in less light, but it also has less area to expose. 1/60 f/2.8 should produce the same exposure, regardless whether it’s taken on a 4x5, a 35mm, or a pocket digi.

The difference is “pixel” size. The Hasselbrad has a 6x6cm film, so if you want to achieve 3000x3000 resolution, you can use film with 0.2-mm grains. But if you want to achieve 3000x3000 on a 2/3-inch CCD, you need 5.5-micron pixels. If both were exposed to F/2.8 lenses, the light intensity at the detector/film is the same, but the 0.2mm grain collects 1200 times more light than the 5.5-micron pixel simply because of the larger pixel.

Or think about this: an ISO 400 film in a 4x5 camera produces a spectacular image. But if you want to achieve the same resolution with 35mm film, you’d need something like ISO 64, right? (Very roughly speaking.) So larger cameras have better low-light sensitivity if configured for the same resolution.

OK, we’re obviously thinking about this in different ways, then. I mean, I of course understand all this (it is my profession, after all), but I’m using terms differently. What you’re saying has more to do with the resolution of a camera, not the light sensitivity. ISO 100 is ISO 100 across platforms. Whether you have a 2x2 CCD array or a 3000x3000 array, the sensitivity is the same. I don’t see how light levels play into this. Low light or full light, the 2x2 CCD image will be crap.

What I’m saying that there’s a tradeoff between sensitivity and resolution. For a given resolution (number of resolution elements across the image), larger cameras are more sensitive and perform better at low light levels. If you compare two cameras, both 5-megapixel and with F/2.8 lens but one has a 1/3" CCD and the other a 2/3" CCD, the one with the larger CCD has better sensitivity.

I find that I can take pictures more easily, and with better results in low light situations using my film camera body, than with my digital camera body. Since the lens is not only similar, but in fact the exact same lens, I make the distinction that I can (and do) use the film camera when I am going to be in a low light situation.

Empiric judgement not based on credentials.


Damn scr4, you are the only other person I have seen that has tried to explain why small CCDs can’t images as good as large ones. Every time I see your handle my brain associates it with silicone controlled rectifier on a schematic. Weird.

FWIW most DLSRs have a sensor about 2/3 the size of a 35mm film frame dimensionally, area is 0.44… that of the full size sensor. Canon and a few others have models with full size sensors but they are extremely expensive.

pulykamell, this is a really hard concept to understand. Basically it’s part of the old TANSTAAFL rule of photography, for everything you gain you lose something else. A bigger film frame means you need a longer focal length lens to get the same field of view. Using the same relative aperture, f2.8 for example, means the absolute aperture size is proportional to the focal length. All this means that at the same exposure value the bigger camera is puttig more photons on the film plane. This means more information to make an image. We are already reaching quantum limits with CCDs at high iso values so it’s doubtful any future technology will change this.

Something else compounding the problem is higher pixel counts in consumer cameras. Adding more pixels to the same area past a reasonable number actually make worse images. This is why photojournalist cameras like the Nikon D2h actually have only four megapixels, half the number of lots of consumer cameras. This camera can make better images often with better detail, particularly in low light.

I thought I was following you guys, but I guess It seems pretty intuitive and obvious to me that a camera with a smaller CCD is not going to have as good images as one as a large CCD. That’s like 35mm film v. 120 film. That said, I guess I still don’t understand the underlying point. Megapixel count don’t mean a thing if you have a CCD the size of a pinky fingernail. My old D1 at 2.7 megapixels produces better images than a point and shoot digital at 6 megapixels. That I know from experience. But that’s not the argument. All I’m saying is that the sensitivity to light is independant. To expose for 18% gray, if you get 2.8 1/60 on a cheap consumer digital v. a 12 megapixel Nikon D2x, you should still get the same 18% gray. I’m not talking about resolution or quality of image. I’m saying f/2.8 is f/2.8 is f/2.8.

My point was that the low light levels as the weak point for digital photography is an unfair and inaccurate characterization. Personally, I find digital outperforms film in most low-light situations.

No, that’s not correct.

Let’s say you have a CCD from a Sony T7 and a Nikon D70. The T7’s CCD is a 5-megapixel 1/2.5" CCD, so pixel size is about 4.5 microns. The D70 has a 6-megapixel 23.7x15.6mm chip with 8-micron pixels. You set both chips behind F/2.8 lenses and point them towards the same gray card. The light flux hitting the CCD is equal, but since the D70’s CCD has almost 4x as much area, each pixel is collecting 4x as many photonas as the pixels on the T7’s CCD. If we assume these CCDs and readout circuits have the same noise characteristics, the smaller CCD requires a 4x longer exposure to achieve the same S/N ratio.

The reality is a bit more complicated, because I just assumed noise is independent of shutter speed, which isn’t true. And there’s the issue of “full well” - a physically smaller pixel takes fewer photons to saturate, so you usually can’t use longer exposure to improve S/N. You may have to use the same exposure and accept a worse S/N ratio.

That’s true for digital SLRs with large sensors. But low light levels is a weak point for compact point-and-shoot digital cameras.