Self-Photography 101

Self-photography has a perhaps earned reputation as the venue of the bathroom-mirror crowd. However, it need not be so. Here are a few tips that can lift self-shots up a few notches.

• Avoid cell phone pics if other options are available. Phones aren't designed or intended to be digital cameras.

• Unless dark images are for artistic purposes, e.g., silhouette shots, they detract from the subject of the pic. If you can't be seen, why post it?

• Digital cameras are like computers: they don't do what you want them to do, but only what you tell them them to do. Here are two things to consider.

• • Shooting against a bright background, such as a window on a sunny day, may result in a dark foreground object. Digicams ordinarily adjust for brightness based on the average of the entire image, and the bright areas tend to dominate. Many cameras have a metering method setting for using center-weighted or spot metering rather than the whole image, to allow concentrating on the brightness of your subject rather than the window.

• • Although the light that you are in might be considerably less than the brightness of the background, the automatic flash might not fire because of the background light. The camera may have a setting to fire the flash every time. If not, move to another position to avoid the background's effect.

• For flash photography, the average digital camera's flash is useful to about ten feet. Beyond that, consider investing in a "slave flash" that responds to the camera's flash and adds its own far brighter light. To eliminate the starkness of a flash, a layer or two of tissue over the flash will soften and diffuse the light. The light source of slave flashes (or hot-shoe mounted units) can often be tilted and swivelled in order to provide "bounce" lighting, which gives a much more even and softer light. OTOH, the crispness and starkness of a direct flash can be used to good effect. Experimentation is the keyword.

Be aware that point-and-shoot digital cameras don't work with most optical slave flashes. The problem is that the built-in flashes on point-and-shoots typically fire twice (note: NOT the "red eye" flash). There is a preflash that allows the camera to set white balance and other parameters, and then the second flash creates the image. However, most optical slaves will trigger on the preflash, resulting in its light adding nothing to the picture. To test that, photograph the slave unit using the camera's flash. If the slave triggers but the image doesn't show the light from it, you have the preflash issue.

There is no easy way to adapt the slave to ignore the preflash. However, there are slave units that include the option to ignore the preflash. Amazon carries the Zeikos ZE-DS12 flash for under $15. There's a "Slave Mode" slide switch on the back that allows ignoring up to 3 preflashes. For the usual P&S cameras, S2 would be the setting. The way to be sure is to photograph the unit four time, once per switch setting. Whichever setting shows the light from the flash is the one to use with the camera.

The downside of slave flashes is that for close subjects, the flashes will overexpose the image. Use them for shots of subjects beyond the maximum range of the built-in flash. If one likes to control exposures and the camera allows it in Manual mode, play with the F-stop, shutter speed and ISO settings to get good results from the slave.

• A cheap tripod can make a world of difference in image quality, since it avoids degradation caused by "camera shake", involuntary muscle activity when hand-holding the camera. This effect is more pronounced in telephoto and low-light, slow shutter shots. Cameras with image stabilization can correct some of it, but don't rely on it.

• Another major advantage of using a tripod is that it eliminates the need for shooting full-body shots using a mirror. That last-resort option has several strikes against it, not the least of which are flash flare washing out the face and upper torso, autofocus zeroing in on the mirror surface rather than the reflected person's body, and the image being reversed.

• A tripod also allows using the timer function that delays the shot for at least a couple of seconds, thus eliminating the camera shake caused by pressing the shutter button. On a ten-second delay, you can move away from it and arrange yourself for maximum effect.

• The delay function often includes the ability to take multiple shots. With that function, you can get a series of shots from which to select the best one(s). Be aware that if the shots require the flash, the time between exposures will be increased substantially.

• Many digital cameras have a cable that connects it to the A/V input (red, white and yellow jacks — yellow is always video) of TVs, older monitors, etc. Connecting the camera to a TV or display allows seeing from any position a large view of what the camera "sees". It's great for framing, lighting adjustments, pose tweaking, etc.

• Autofocus is imperfect. If you're not within the AF zone, you'll get a perfectly-focused background and a fuzzy foreground, especially if you are fairly close to the lens. Best bet: experiment to see where you have to be in the image to have yourself in focus rather than whatever is in the background.

• When you have your prized photos safely transferred to the computer, it would be worth examining them and maximizing them for posting. An excellent program is Irfanview ( www.irfanview.com ), the Swiss Army knife of non-pro freeware image manipulation and processing utilities. You can correct brightness, contrast, saturation, color balance, gamma and sharpness (corrects slightly-out-of-focus shots). You can add effects if desired. You can resize the image, crop it, rotate it, do horizontal and vertical flips, and save it in a lot of different formats.

• For the inveterate tweakers without the bucks for Photoshop, Gimp and Paint.net provide an enormous resource of image editing and manipulation power. Be aware that they are not "user friendly" for newcomers. They assume that the users are already familiar with the basics and are looking for more horsepower.

• Note that Paint.net requires Microsoft's .NET (aka DOTNET) Framework (Version 3.5 SP1 minimum) on the computer. The program's download is small because it uses the routines in .NET rather than include them in a much larger file. It will automatically install the framework if it's not on the machine.

• When you're satisfied, post your pics with confidence.

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