Even today's cheapest cameras are technological marvels compared to the sluggish clunkers we called "top of the line" a dozen years ago. Thanks to the photo evolution, cameras can recognize our friends' faces, or even wait to fire on a group shot until everybody's smiling.
But for all this techno-gadgetry, camera manufacturers have tragically moved form in front of function on all but the most expensive cameras. Case in point: Controls for the two ultimate camera functions—shutter speed and aperture—have been removed from prominence and are now, in nearly every case, buried in the bowels of mini-button menu hell.
Sure, this is fine if your only goal is to point and shoot—that's exactly what most models are designed for. But modern cameras lack manual controls specifically to remove the biggest variable in picture taking: the photographer. This allows the camera to make every decision—about exposure, focus, and more.
The camera sorts through the complex algorithms and makes the right choice perhaps 90 percent of the time. But about 10 percent of shooting situations will fool the sensors and create lousy pictures. To fix the problem, it helps to understand how light beams are recorded in your camera as photographs.
Envisioning this is not complicated: Just think of light passing through your lens as water passing through a faucet. The shutter is a timer, opening and closing the valve for a specific duration. Simultaneously, the aperture controls the volume or intensity of the light, either by reducing or enlarging the hole through which it passes. The longer the shutter is open and the wider the aperture, the brighter the image.
If the sensor gets too much light, the image will be overexposed, with no details in the highlights. Give it too little light and the picture will be underexposed, with no details in the shadows.
A perfect exposure lies in the middle, allowing for a touch of gray in both the shadows and the highlights.
Today's auto-everything cameras can't always deliver this sweet spot, and that leads some photographers to go to manual mode to get back in the driver's seat.
On some cameras, persistent photographers will find manual control options hidden deep in the menu, typically only after extensive button pushing. It's a lousy and frustrating solution.
Fortunately, most cameras provide another, easier option. It's called "auto-bracketing," essentially a no-cost insurance policy for people (or cameras) that consistently bring home poorly exposed images.
To take advantage of it, search through your camera's menus until you find "auto-exposure bracketing" (AEB for Canon and Sony, and BKT for Nikon). Select that option, frame your image and fire the shutter—your camera will, with no manual readjustment, immediately capture three images identical in every way except for exposure.
One will be correctly exposed, one underexposed and one overexposed. Don't waste your time assessing or deleting these images in the field; wait until you're home and can see them better on your computer screen. You're bound to find a good one.
Creative photographers can take it to an even higher level, combining the best parts of two different exposures into a single, perfectly exposed image using Adobe Photoshop or other digital imaging software. For everybody else, the important thing is to remember the two potential downsides to bracketing. First, you have to wait and hold the shutter button until your camera fires a sequence of three—a guaranteed failure when shooting action. Second, you'll record three times as many images on your memory card, requiring triple the storage space. But memory cards are so cheap these days, that shouldn't hold you back. Thank evolution for that, too.