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[Guide] Understanding the Android Camera

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Cyber Warrior #1

Cyber Warrior
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Posted May 18 '13 @ 4:58 AM

Smartphone photography keeps getting better. The Camera and Gallery apps that come with Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean) have evolved into powerful tools for taking, viewing, editing, and sharing photos.
Most people take pictures using Auto mode.. while there is certainly nothing wrong with that, it is a good idea to understand the basics of using Manual mode. Essentially, all Auto mode does is set the Manual mode settings automatically. But, sometimes Auto mode gets it wrong, and if you do not know how to use Manual mode, you are out of luck.
Before you take a picture, you can fine-tune the exposure, set the white balance, and tell the camera where to focus. You can photograph the entire world around you, 360 degrees horizontally and vertically. Afterward, you can add filters, tweak the exposure some more, fiddle with the colors (or remove them), crop the image, straighten it in both 90- and 1-degree increments, and put a frame around it. And when you're happy with the result, you can upload it to whatever social media sites you choose.
During this walk through I will be covering some digital photography terms and explaining their definitions as well as showing you side by side comparison shots of what each setting actually does to a photo. Keep in mind, not every Android device is built the same or running the same software.. so your settings may differ slightly but the overall concept should still apply. So let's get started.
The ISO setting on your camera determines how sensitive your camera is to light. If you are shooting in a lot of light, use a lower ISO setting. Use a higher ISO setting if there is not a lot of light. 100 or 200 is usually the standard settings.. set your ISO to 100 on a very bright day or 1600 in a low light situations. Keep in mind that a high ISO setting sometimes results in grainy or lower quality photos... notice the image on the right.
The shutter speed setting determines how fast camera shutter opens and closes when taking a photo. Long shutter speeds open the shutter for more time, letting in more exposure and light. Unfortunately, shutter speed is an automated setting on smartphone cameras, however, for now we have built in settings like 'Sports' or even 'Fireworks' which adjusts the cameras speed of how long the shutter stays open in order to capture moving objects without blurring them or adjusting them to let in the right amount of light.
If you are trying to freeze a moving subject, like a soccer player, set your shutter speed at 1/250th or higher. Of course, you can shoot slower if you want some blur for effect. Try shooting at 1/30th and move the camera with the player. Sometimes you can get a cool motion effect. Also, if you have a tripod, you can use a slower shutter speed. Bring the tripod to your kid's soccer game to get long exposure shots of the team playing. The background will remain in focus but the kids will have blurry areas around them. There are a few waterfall examples below.
The aperture, or f-stop setting, determines how much light is exposed in the shot. Think of it like filling up a bucket of water from a faucet. If you open the valve wide, more water comes out and the bucket fills up faster. If you close the valve to a small opening, less water comes out and the bucket takes longer to fill. The same concept applies to the aperture/f-stop setting, but the key is that lower numbers equal more light exposure, which might confuse you at first. F/2.8 opens the aperture up to let a lot of light in, which is good in low light situations. F/16 only lets in a little light, and is good on bright days when there is a lot of natural light.
Unfortunately the apertures on all or nearly all smartphone cameras are fixed. This means that we cannot work with this setting to adjust how exposed our photos are, we must look elsewhere. Our camera is fixed at f-2.6 which won't mean much to a beginner, but it has implications on our focus length and depth of field.
You can see how all three basic Manual mode components work together. The ISO controls the light sensitivity, the shutter speed determines how fast the shutter is open, and the aperture/f-stop tells the camera how much light to let in.
So now that you have a better understanding of what ISO, Shutter Speeds and Aperture can do.. lets cover the software side of things and the different modes that Android has to offer.
I suspect no one will need any introduction to this mode. Auto mode tells your camera to use it’s best judgement to select shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, focus and flash to take the best shot that it can. With some cameras auto mode lets you override flash or change it to red eye reduction. This mode will give you nice results in many shooting conditions, however you need to keep in mind that you’re not telling your camera any extra information about the type of shot you’re taking so it will be ‘guessing’ as to what you want. As a result some of the following modes might be more appropriate to select as they give your camera a few more hints (without you needing to do anything more).
When you switch to portrait mode your camera will automatically select a large aperture (small number) which helps to keep your background out of focus (ie it sets a narrow depth of field – ensuring your subject is the only thing in focus and is therefore the centre of attention in the shot). Portrait mode works best when you’re photographing a single subject so get in close enough to your subject (either by zooming in or walking closer) so that your photographing the head and shoulders of them). Also if you’re shooting into the sun you might want to trigger your flash to add a little light onto their face.
Macro mode lets you move your closer into your subject to take a close up picture. It’s great for shooting flowers, insects or other small objects. Different digital cameras will have macro modes with different capabilities including different focussing distances (usually between 2-10cm for point and shoot cameras). When you use macro mode you’ll notice that focussing is more difficult as at short distances the depth of field is very narrow (just millimeters at times). Keep your camera and the object you’re photographing parallel if possible or you’ll find a lot of it will be out of focus. You’ll probably also find that you won’t want to use your camera’s built in flash when photographing close up objects or they’ll be burnt out. Lastly – a tripod is invaluable in macro shots as the depth of field is so small that even moving towards or away from your subject slightly can make your subject out of focus.
This mode is almost the exact opposite of portrait mode in that it sets the camera up with a small aperture (large number) to make sure as much of the scene you’re photographing will be in focus as possible (ie it give you a large depth of field). It’s therefore ideal for capturing shots of wide scenes, particularly those with points of interest at different distances from the camera. At times your camera might also select a slower shutter speed in this mode (to compensate for the small aperture) so you might want to consider a tripod or other method of ensuring your camera is still.
Photographing moving objects is what sports mode (also called ‘action mode’ in some cameras) is designed for. It is ideal for photographing any moving objects including people playing sports, pets, cars, wildlife etc. Sports mode attempts to freeze the action by increasing the shutter speed. When photographing fast moving subjects you can also increase your chances of capturing them with panning of your camera along with the subject and/or by attempting to pre focus your camera on a spot where the subject will be when you want to photograph it (this takes practice).
This is a really fun mode to play around with and can create some wonderfully colorful and interesting shots. Night mode (a technique also called ‘slow shutter sync’) is for shooting in low light situations and sets your camera to use a longer shutter speed to help capture details of the background but it also fires off a flash to illuminate the foreground (and subject). If you use this mode for a ‘serious’ or well balanced shot you should use a tripod or your background will be blurred – however it’s also fun to take shots with this handheld to purposely blur your backgrounds – especially when there is a situation with lights behind your subject as it can give a fun and experimental look (great for parties and dance floors with colored lights).
HDR is short for High Dynamic Range. It is a post-processing task of taking either one image or a series of images, combining them, and adjusting the contrast ratios to do things that are virtually impossible with a single aperture and shutter speed.
An HDR image is commonly made by taking three photos of the same scene, each at different shutter speeds. The result is a bright, medium, and dark photo, based on the amount of light that got through the lens. A software process then combines all the photos to bring details to the shadows and highlights both. This helps to achieve the same task in the final photograph that the human eye can accomplish on the scene.
I would say that about 75% of my images use the technique, and if you are new to it, then you may notice a slightly different “look and feel” to the photographs.

Have any tips or recommendations? Feel free to share your knowledge in the comments.

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