Tips for better photos with your new Micro Four Thirds digital camera this Christmas

Written by Gary on December 11th, 2011

Many people will be upgrading from point and shoot digital cameras to mirrorless cameras with much larger sensors and better image quality this Christmas.

One of the best to go for this Christmas is the Panasonic GH-2 or the more affordable Panasonic G3 Micro Four Thirds camera.

Most of the following tips will also apply to the excellent Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras such as the E-P3 or E-PL3.

Most will buy the twin kit lenses although some will opt for just one 3x zoom lens or perhaps the 10x zoom lens.

The Panasonic and Olympus kit lenses are actually very good lenses and well worth having, but like all kit lenses, are really only useful in bright conditions such as outdoors. They are substantially better optically than the Canon kit lenses which not only are much larger, but have the extremely annoying problem of the front element rotating as you focus making use of polarising filters and gradient fiters much more frustrating.

Beginners will initially resort to the iA camera mode (intelligent auto mode which tries to determine the best settings for the scene it detects).

This is fine until you get used to using your camera and you start to understand ISO, aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation and depth of field.

Some basics of photography:

  • the smaller the number in the f value, the wider the aperture and the more light comes in, and the more you can blur the background
  • as a general rule, shutter speed to minimise camera shake should be faster than 1/focal length of the lens. eg. using a 100mm lens, one should aim for a shutter speed of 1/100th sec or faster.
  • bright sunny conditions generally require the following exposure settings – the “sunny 16 rule” – f/16 and shutter speed 1/ISO. eg. if ISO 100, then need shutter speed 1/100th sec. You can use this as an easy to remember baseline if you want to work out manual exposure starting point.
  • avoid using very small apertures such as f/16 and f/22 as although you get more depth of field, sharpness overall will be less due to diffraction effects.

As good as the iA mode is, it can’t determine what YOU would like your images to look like, so let’s look at a few tips for better photos with these cameras.

Keep your camera and lens clean and dry:

  • avoid getting dust on your sensor – change lenses quickly and in dust free conditions where possible
  • avoid getting fingermarks, etc on your lens glass – consider using a protective high quality UV filter. Cheap filters degrade image quality especially if light sources hit them causing flare.
  • dirty lenses or filters will decrease image quality – clean them with care!
  • none of these cameras are weatherproof – rain or salt water will not be tolerated well and you may end up with a dead camera

Ensure your camera battery is fully charged before an outing and your memory card is empty:

  • nothing worse than having a flat battery or run out of memory so you can’t capture that magic moment
  • remember to always backup your important photos onto at least 2 different devices in case one fails, is stolen or is lost, or you accidentally delete the images.

Take control of the aperture – BLUR the background or make everything sharp:

  • With the larger sensor size, you now have more control over how much is in focus and how much the background is blurred, particularly if you are lucky enough to have bought a wide aperture lens as well such as the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 portrait lens or the Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens.
  • Take control of this by changing your camera exposure mode to A instead of iA – over 90% of my photos are taken in A mode (aperture priority).
  • This mode means YOU MUST select an aperture to use and the camera will adjust exposure accordingly.
  •  If you want the background blurred, you should select the widest aperture possible for that lens eg. f/1.8 for the portrait lens, f/3.5-5.6 for the kit lenses depending on the amount of zoom you are using.

Get rid of harsh shadows in your outdoor portraits – use fill-in flash:

  • If you are shooting people relatively close up (less than 3m or so away) in outdoors, consider forcing the flash to fire as a fill-in flash to remove dark shadows on their faces.
  • First, flip up the flash to turn it on, set exposure mode to S so that you can set the fastest shutter speed for flash on these cameras which is 1/160th sec, set menu under camera setting to FLASH = lightning symbol (not lightning symbol followed by A) as this will force the flash to fire whether or not the camera thinks it should.
  • Then set the related menu item, FLASH ADJUST to a negative value such as minus 1 EV because we don’t want the flash to dominate the image but just a touch to get rid of dark shadows and add catchlights to the subject’s eyes.
  • Note that the built-in flash will not be powerful enough to significantly reduce shadows due to bright sunlight.
  • Bright sunlight, generally requires use of a polarising filter or ND filter to allow larger apertures, and a more powerful external flash such as the Olympus FL-50. If you are crazy enough to be doing a lot of bright sunlit portraits and wanting less harshly lit results, then you may be better to choose a high end dSLR with a flash sync of 1/300th sec instead of the 1/160th sec on these cameras.

Shoot in RAW plus jpeg for the best quality images:

  • if you value your photos and at any time in the future may decide to adjust your photo in Photoshop or Lightroom, etc, then you should set your camera menu item to QUALITY = RAW ::: as this will save 2 images – the RAW file and a jpeg file
  • Ensure your jpeg file is also being saved at its largest size (unless you specifically just want a small image), set camera menu item to PICTURE SIZE = L
  • the RAW file will take up more room on your memory card but it records MUCH more data than a jpeg file and will give you much better image quality if you start manipulating your image on a computer.
  • the RAW file should be regarded as your negative in the days of film – keep it safe, you never know when you will want to play with it.

 Buy an image processing software package such as Adobe Lightroom:

  • most people have seen the nice effects which can be achieved using iPhone apps such as Instagram.
  • you can do much better than this using computer software such as Lightroom and basic image modification to alter the feel of the photo, add vignetting (darkening around the edges to force viewer to concentrate on your subject)  and remove skin blemishes is not that hard to learn and will value add to your photography immeasurably.
  • Lightroom can then be set to export the end image to an image size appropriate for uploading to the web, or for printing.
  • you can use Film Mode on your Panasonic camera to create a different look in the camera of your jpeg (it will not affect your RAW file), but it is not the same as using Lightroom.
  • the Film Mode though is very handy for shooting movies!

Watch that exposure compensation dial:

  • a very important function is the exposure compensation dial which allows you to over-ride the camera’s guestimate of the exposure so that you can tell the camera very easily to make it lighter or darker.
  • the camera will try to give most of your subject the darkness of mid-grey, but the camera is easily confused when you have a dark or very light subject, or the background is dark or very light.
  • this dial gives YOU the chance to take some control of this.
  • the dial is a toggle – you push it in to swap between exposure compensation mode and changing the settings mode.
  • fortunately, Panasonic has moved this dial away from the front position as on the GH-1 where it was easily accidentally changed causing exposure errors.
  • ALWAYS check the viewfinder -3..0..+3 setting to check that this exposure compensation is set appropriately.

Use the viewfinder not the LCD screen to take your photos:

  • holding a camera at arms length will result in camera shake and this will decrease the sharpness of your photos and may even give blurred photos, particularly in low light or when using telephoto zoom settings.
  • hold the camera to your eye and brace it carefully to reduce camera shake

Try to keep ISO to less than 800:

  • photography is all about compromise
  • the higher the ISO is set, the more sensitive the sensor becomes to light, but there is an image quality cost to this benefit
  • image quality in terms of noise, and the amount of light and dark can be shown in the same image (“dynamic range”) is best at lowest ISO values such as ISO 100-200
  • in low light, or for fast moving subjects, if you do not have a wide aperture lens, you may need to increase the ISO to allow an adequate shutter speed to reduce blurring due to camera shake or subject movement.
  • the current cameras will give excellent results at ISO 100-400 but noise starts to be visible at ISO 800 and higher, but may still be very acceptable even at ISO 1600.
  • as a last resort, you may need to use even higher ISO such as 3200-6400.
  • larger sensor cameras have less noise at higher ISO but these have other compromises such as larger lenses, etc.
  • in the camera menu, you can set ISO LIMIT = 800 which will come into play if you set ISO to AUTO and you use an exposure mode other than M.

Manage your focus settings:

  • in general, use AFS instead of AFC as AFS means that the camera will only try to auto-focus when you half-press the shutter rather than continuously as with AFC
  • continuous AF can be useful when shooting movies or sometimes for moving subjects, but usually it gets in your way.
  • using AFS means you can half-press shutter button to focus on your subject, then while still keeping it half-pressed, compose your scene and then take your shot
  • the AF options on the camera menu or on the AF button allow various options:
    • face recognition mode (assuming you have set menu item FACE RECOGNITION = ON) obviously is very useful for portraits although can be a little slow
    • subject tracking mode can be useful for locking onto a relatively slowly moving subject – just position the central AF markers on your subject, half-press shutter release so that camera selects that subject to target, remove finger from shutter release and the camera will track that subject until it disappears from the field of view. This can be very handy for some situations but I must admit I use it rarely.
    • multiple region AF mode – has a built-in algorithm for focusing on a subject anywhere in the field of view, unfortunately, the camera will often AF on everything but not the subject you are after.
    • centre spot AF modethis is by far my favorite mode. Just place your subject in the centre of screen, half-press shutter and hold to lock onto that focus, recompose scene and take your shot. If there will be a delay in taking the photo, press the AF lock button instead of using the shutter release. A green circle will display to show focus is locked. To unlock the focus lock, press AF lock button again.

 Buy a circular polarising filter of the size to fit your lens:

  • this filter can serve several functions but should only be used in bright conditions outdoors
  • on a sunny day it can give nice rich blue skies (you will need to adjust the filter by rotating it), particularly if the sky is right angles to the position of the sun.
  • it is essential for getting nice saturated leaf colours when taking photos of forests even in overcast conditions
  • it cuts down the amount of light coming in which may allow use of larger apertures in sunny conditions – for instance, most Panasonic cameras have a fastest shutter speed of 1/4000th sec and even using ISO 100, you will not be able to use f/1.7 aperture in bright sunlight without over-exposing the scene.
  • cutting down light also allows longer exposures for those moving water shots (requires a tripod)
  • it can reduce reflections on water and glass which can be used to advantage

Buy a Cokin soft gradient filter for dramatic cloudy skies and storms

  • unless you have the sun behind you, the clouds will generally be over-exposed in your photos and lack detail
  • a solution to this is to place a half-filter in front of your lens and adjust it up or down so that the clouds are made darker
  • most commonly used is a 0.6 soft ND (neutral density) filter
  • you can get coloured versions such as a tobacco one to enhance sunsets, etc.
  • fortunately for the smaller lenses used with Micro Four Thirds cameras, you can use smaller and thus cheaper filters – the Cokin A size would be adequate for most lenses. dSLR users generally need the larger P size filters.

 Buy a wide aperture lens for indoor use and blurring backgrounds:

  • the kit lenses have widest apertures of f/3.5-5.6. These do not let enough light in for most indoor or low light photography, although you can resort to using flash but autofocus may be slow.
  • a wide aperture lens allows faster autofocus in low light, more ability to blur the background and ability to do hand held shots without a tripod or a flash even indoors or outdoor at night.
  • examples of such lenses include:
    • Panasonic Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens – tiny but sharp and can be bought for about $350 – very nice party lens and street lens at night time
    • Panasonic Leica-D 25mm f/1.4 for Micro Four Thirds – a little larger but better quality lens and more expensive (don’t get confused with the much larger and heavier Four Thirds version which will give similar results – see here for examples of the great photos one can get with this)
    • Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8 – a nice portrait lens with more telephoto than the above, can be bought for about $350-400 – this is probably the best lens for most beginners to get so they can get their nice portraits. This lens will allow similar background blurring as with these taken with the Olympus 50mm f/2.0 macro lens, although of course, you will not get as much macro with this 45mm lens.
    • Olympus M-Zuiko 12mm f/2.0 – a beautiful wide angle lens with nice manual focus as well as fast AF – not for most beginners though, and will not blur the background much given it is such a wide angle lens, but very handy for low light travel photography.
    • Rokinon 85mm f/1.4 lens – a large, heavy lens with no autofocus but at $265-280 it gives fantastic photos with beautifully blurred backgrounds  at a very affordable price – but you do need to use manual focus. Plus you need a MFT adapter (from China on Ebay for ~$20).
    • Olympus OM 100mm f/2.8 lens – manual focus only but very nice for night time concerts – buy 2nd hand on Ebay for ~$150, plus you need an OM-MFT adapter (from China on Ebay for ~$20)

Buy an external flash:

  • direct flash from the camera generally should only be used as a fill-in flash (see above) or as a last resort when there is not enough light
  • buy an external flash which sits in the hotshoe of the camera and which you can rotate and aim at a white wall or ceiling to give a much nicer “bounce flash” for your party portraits
  • a nice cheap one to aim for is the Olympus FL-36 or its newer, more expensive version, the FL-36R (Panasonic cameras unfortunately do not utilise remote TTL flash and so there is no added benefit of getting the R version. The Panasonic branded flashes do not add anything and are too expensive).
  • it has enough power to bounce the flash while being not too bulky for these cameras (the more powerful FL-50 is a bit big)

 Start looking for good lighting and composition:

  • as good as the camera is, the photo is generally very dependent upon the lighting on the subject and how you have composed the scene for visual impact.
  • many professionals will spend far more on lighting than on their camera
  • lighting is incredibly important to the success of most photos
  • look for lighting situations which flatter your portraits – generally light coming from 45deg angle above, and preferably coming from a wide area such as a window rather than a small light source such as a flash or the sun. Consider placing your subjects under a verandah to avoid harsh overhead lighting.
  • don’t bother photographing high contrast scenes in high contrast lighting eg. waterfalls or forests on a sunny day are generally not going to do well – wait for overcast periods and use a polarising filter, or consider very early morning or dusk – the goldern hours when light is not so contrasty.
  • generally avoid light sources hitting the front of your lens as this will create flare and decrease contrast – unless you want this effect such as in some portraits at sunset.

 Experiment:

  • getting better at photography is not only about learning more but more importantly actually getting out there taking photos and experimenting with different settings, different lighting, different compositions.
  • digital photography brings to you an amazing opportunity to experiment and get immediate feedback on your results so the learning process is much easier and faster, and no longer as expensive as it was in the days of film.
  • the experimenting does not need to stop in the camera but continues on your computer.
  • the mirrorless cameras such as Micro Four Thirds and Sony NEX allow you to buy relatively cheap legacy manual focus lenses on Ebay for well under $200 and can open up new avenues of experimentation such as macrophotography, blurred background and lovely bokeh photography on the cheap.

 Some notes on using legacy manual focus lenses:

  • you will need an adapter to fit onto these cameras (check Ebay – usually about $20-40)
  • these do not have electronic communications with the camera so the camera cannot control them, nor will the camera know what aperture you have set on them.
  • you must manually set the aperture by moving the aperture ring on the lens
  • you must use A or M mode on your camera
  • you must set the camera to manual focus (MF) mode
  • on Panasonic cameras, you must set the camera menu item under C-spanner SHOOT W/O LENS = ON otherwise you will get a message that lens is not attached properly
  • on Panasonic cameras, the flash may give inaccurate exposures in TTL mode, use manual flash mode instead.
  • on Olympus cameras, you need to set the lens focal length on the IS (image stabilisation) button so that the camera knows how to adjust the IS function.
  • to focus accurately, use the camera magnified view capability, on the Panasonic, this is invoked by pressing the AF button and then you can use the arrow buttons to move the selected area around before pressing the OK/menu set central button to go into magnified view. Half-press shutter to return to normal view.

Click here for more tips on taking better photos including some basic rules of composition.

 

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