Know your photos; know your camera

When it came to deciding who to ask to post the first guest post of 2012, the answer seemed obvious as soon as we started preparing the calendar for the Christmas post. We would invite the most prolific contributor from 2011, excluding any of the #eltpics curators. After a day counting, the list of the top ten was compiled so we could create the calendar and the name of our first 2012 guest blogger became clear….

Chiew Pang is a teacher based in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands, around 1,000km off the south coast of Spain. (You can read his Burning Questionnaire here). He’s best known for his ground-breaking blogs, in particular iasku, and is a keen photographer. I leave you in his capable hands:


I can’t remember when it was that I first heard of #ELTPics; I think it was in an interview with Victoria Boobyer; anyway, I checked it out and I got involved with it almost immediately as the idea appealed to me. The group has progressed steadily since then, and has amassed quite a respectable collection of images. So, it was with a feeling of honour that I accepted the invitation to guest for this blog, such a natural progression of the hashtag.

I’m not sure why the number 2 keeps cropping up in my brain lately. First, I wrote Two for the price of none, then I published the double bill in iAskU, and when I was thinking of what to write, this occurred to me…

As far as I can tell, most, if not all, of the photos in ELTPics have been taken by casual photographers like you and me, with a basic point-and-shoot camera. The essence of this article is two-fold; you may or may not need the second “fold”.

First, the lesson idea.

Enter the classroom, write P H O T O S on the board, hand a few markers around the classroom, sit down, or stand back, and watch.

You will get some funny looks until someone catches on, and start writing something on the board. What we’re doing here is basically to brainstorm words related to photos. Anything is acceptable, of course. Encourage variety; most will probably just write nouns as “photos” is a noun, but it’d be nice to have verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc.

When the pace starts to die down, ask a few students to explain the link between their word and “photos”. To vary, ask them for their opinion on someone else’s word.

That’s the first part.

Then, ask if anyone has a photo, which they themselves have taken, on their mobile phone, a pen drive, etc, to share with the class. If they haven’t, use some you have previously chosen (from ELTPics, naturally!). Beam one up. Talk about it. Or better still, hand the class over to a student – I’m very fond of doing this. Very often, teachers do all the asking with the result that the students don’t know how to structure questions! Encourage the others to ask this student questions based on the image. Take notes of emergent language to go through later! Repeat with other students.

Think of questions yourself. Throw one in every now and then to encourage them to think critically; you’d want more than just the normal ‘”Who is it?” and “Where was it taken?”


What were you trying to capture when you took this photo? Were you successful?
What were you doing before taking this shot?
What was the weather like? The whole day?
Where was the sun?
If evening/night, what/where was the source of light?
Where was the camera (at which level)? How did you hold it? With one hand or two?
If you could take the same shot again, what would you change?
What do you like/don’t like about the photo?

Ask if there are any enthusiasts of photography. If you’re lucky, there will be some! Do they consider themselves knowledgeable on the subject? You’ll be even luckier if there are some yesses!

If the answer is positive to either of these questions, tell these aficionados to explain to the class what makes a good photograph. If not, ask the whole class what a good/bad photograph means to them. Show a few from ELTPics and ask for their opinion, why they consider it good or bad, why they like it, or not. Show a few images and ask if they think there were taken by the same photographer. Why (not)? How can they improve the shot?

As a follow-up, why not have a competition? Get your students to submit one photo each. Here’s a good excuse to start a class blog! Load them up, set up a poll and they themselves pick their favourites.

How to make the most of your compact camera

OK, now comes the second “fold”. To prepare yourself for the above lesson, you’d need to familiarise yourself with some aspects of photography: you don’t want to be caught in a situation where you don’t have a clue as to what your students are saying, do you?

I don’t consider myself an expert, but having dipped my toes in photography on and off for the past few decades, I’d like to try to pass on some of the rudiments.

First of all, there’s nothing wrong with a point-and-shoot. Try to learn its strengths and weaknesses and use your eyes and imagination to create shots you’d be proud of. A great photographer can produce sensational shots even with the most basic of cameras, but the best camera money can buy won’t guarantee you a sensational photo. Remember that it’s the carpenter, not the tool.

You’d also need to know the basic photography vocabulary, so take out your camera manual and have another look. Learn the names of the parts of your camera. Know its features. Apart from the physical components of the camera, you’d do well to know this short list of important words especially if you want to try the above lesson idea.

aperture (also referred to as f-stop): this controls the amount of light entering through the lens. Note that the smaller the f-number, the greater the aperture is, and the more light that enters. It usually has an ‘f’ displayed before a number, e.g. f2.8, f16. Generally, when shooting in bright light, your automatic will narrow the aperture down to 11, 16 or even 22 (less light enters), and the reverse will happen when shooting in low light: my present camera only opens up to a maximum of f2.8 (more light enters).

The other important thing to remember is that the higher the number the more depth of detail you will get (see below).

depth of field: this refers to the range between the nearest and the farthest object in sharp focus. Generally speaking, you’d want the greatest depth in a landscape shot, but the contrary on a portrait so that the focus is on your subject, and not on the background (which will be in “soft” focus).

exposure (or shutter speed): this is the amount of time the aperture remains open. The slowest speed at which I’d recommend shooting hand-held is 1/60th of a second, maybe 1/30th if you have steady hands. For slower speeds, use a tripod if you have one; otherwise, support your camera on some steady surface.

ISO: International Standards Organization. All things being equal, the lower the value, the better the clarity and quality of the image will be. Bear in mind that the lower the ISO the less sensitive will the film be to light, meaning it would need more light.

JPG or JPEG: this is the file format most of you would be familiar with, and, unfortunately, is the only type most point-and-shoot will allow you to save your photos in. Just remember that it is a lossy format, meaning it’s compressed  and each time you save the file, some detail will be lost. RAW is a lossless format, and TIFF is almost lossless.

Megapixels: This is the number of pixels a digital camera can record. 1 megapixel = 1 million pixels. Contrary to popular belief, greater does not necessarily mean better. Sadly, this value has become more of a marketing gimmick than anything else.

Know your camera

So, how would knowing these terms help you shoot better photos with your little automatic camera? Well, first of all, even fully automatic cameras do give you a certain control of the variants. You can probably control the ISO, you can compensate the exposure, and you can play around with the “scene” modes, where the camera adjusts the aperture/speed according to the scene you choose, for example, beach, candlelight, or portrait. There are a fair few possibilities you should certainly play around with.

Don’t shake!

Get into the habit of holding your camera with both hands, your right hand holding the right side of the camera with your forefinger on the shutter, ready to shoot. Support the bottom of the camera with your left hand. Make sure your body is stable: stand with legs slightly apart, feet flat on the ground, not on tiptoes! If doing frog’s eye (see below), lie down flat, supporting your hands on both elbows. You can also place the camera on a steady surface. If you want to be on a squatting level, go down on one knee, or sit down on the floor.

Right Way

Right way

Wrong Way

Wrong way

Distance from the subject

Your camera is likely to be equipped with both optical and digital zoom. There is always a trade-off in zooming. If you can move closer physically, do it. I tend to stay away from digital zoom as the trade-off is usually unacceptable. When doing close-ups using macro mode, use a tripod if possible, and when using a tripod, use the self timer to avoid shaking. Pressing the shutter manually usually involves a little shake.

Angle and level

This is one aspect of photography which a lot of casual photographers ignore. Look at the hordes of tourists taking photos and what can you notice? They’re all shooting standing up, and looking straight ahead unless they’re taking a photo of a tall structure, whereby they will point their camera upwards, or, conversely, if they’re shooting at something below them, they will point their camera downwards.

So, there you have the three angles: up, down and straight.

But, apart from the angles, the level you shoot from can make an immense difference to your photo. The three basic levels are bird’s eye (overhead shot), eye-level and low (frog’s eye). Try taking a shot using all angles and levels of the same subject, and see the difference! Or walk around one day and shoot everything at frog’s eye level. That’s my suggestion for the next set on ELTPics: frog’s eyes!

Imagine... by aClilToClimb on ELTPics

Bird’s eye

Bird’s eye (@sandymillin)

Frog’s eye, looking upwards, almost vertically (@CliveSir)

Low level angling upwards (@fionamau)

Ghosts by Chiew Pang

frog’s eye, camera on floor, angle straight


This is a bit trickier with fully automatic cameras. The idea is to have the subject in sharp focus, and the rest in soft focus. The following photo was taken at 1/320s with an f-stop of 2.8, ISO-80. Notice that the rose remains in focus while the background, in contrast, is a little softer. It’s important to focus on the subject, and click on the shutter gently. If the subject isn’t in the centre of your frame, you’d still need to focus on it, press gently, but without going all the way. The camera will register the optimum settings. Without letting your finger go, re-frame the shot the way you want, and now, click the shutter all the way.

Sweeter than wine by Chiew Pang


Try to frame in your mind what you’d like to have in your photo. Are you interested in the background, or just the main subject? Or is there something even more interesting about the subject, such as the ring on her finger, or the tattoo on her neck? Move closer, or farther. Turn more to the left, or to the right. Angle upwards, or downwards. Which format suits better: portrait or landscape? Think about shapes and spaces. Look behind the subject: would he look like he had a tree growing from his head?


Where’s the light? Is the subject squinting? At the same time, remember that with the light behind your back, the subject’s face will be clearer, and if the light is behind the subject, it accentuates its form. Shooting subjects from behind can sometimes be very interesting. A fine example is Ian James’ photo (see below) I used for my Lonely Teacher Blues post. Observe shadows, play around with contrasts. If you want your main subject to appear darker, focus on a brighter area, press the shutter gently to get the settings before re-framing and clicking all the way (see Focus above).

The best time for day shoots are early morning and early evening, where the light is softer. The light offered by bright sunny days, contrary to what some people think, is just too harsh. Try stepping into shadows, or as I mentioned above, observe the contrasts.

I normally avoid using flash because the flash in compact cameras is just too hard at the best of times. Force the flash off, and if a tripod is not at hand, place the camera on a steady surface: chair, table, wall, floor… (see Distance from the subject above). Of course, by all means use the flash if there isn’t any choice, but just remember that the effective distance of these flashes isn’t very far. Don’t be like those people shooting in stadiums and concert halls with flashes, unless you’re more interested in seeing the heads of those in front of you.

In this image below, the camera was pointed to the sky first to get an exposure of 1/200s, f8.0; with these settings, the buildings and the tree appear as silhouettes against the brighter sky.

Remnants of the war by Chiew Pang

1/200s, f/8.0, ISO80

Try doing some black-and-whites for impact or nostalgia.

Old lady by @ij64

So, there you have it. You’re now ready not only to give a super photography lesson, but also to be more adventurous and to take even greater shots than you’ve already been doing, and all with your point-and-click!

All the above photos were taken by myself using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS62 (unless otherwise stated), and, no, I wouldn’t mind a Nikon D7000, thank you very much 🙂

For more samples of my photos, look in ELTPics in Flickr. For the full sets, look here.


10 thoughts on “Know your photos; know your camera

  1. Thank you, Chiew!
    I adore your writing skills and your photo skills! The way to go!
    I will use the lesson idea asap (pity the new term starts only in a month, arr!)
    And I might start contributing to ELTPics myself..then..!


  2. Thanks so much Chiew for this invaluable lesson on how to make the most of your camera. Mine is a simple point and click and I really would like to start paying attention to how to take more interesting photos, so this is an excellent tutorial. All the photos you have selected in your post are wonderful 🙂

  3. These are exactly the tips I was looking for recently! Thank you so much for taking the time to write this guide, Chiew! If you are ever interested in writing a lower level of the How To part of this post (for language learners) I would love to have a guest post on my MyEC blog. Many of our members would be thrilled to read these tips.

      • You wrote it so perfectly here! I wonder if you could summarize in 10 Tips for Using your Compact Camera or something like that. I know our members would really appreciate it. I once asked Marisa to do something similar with a great post she wrote (her original post was for teachers but she rewrote it for learners and posted on MyEC). Or, maybe I should challenge members in my writing group to come here and paraphrase your post. Some have been practising paraphrasing. Anyway, love this post! (And ELTpics).

      • You know that could be an idea. I actually think the language I used wasn’t that advanced – perhaps some words/expressions could be difficult – although it was long so learners may find that off-putting. Perhaps you could challenge them to rewrite by section, like one group does a different section…
        Let me know what you think.
        And, I’m really pleased to hear you liked it!

  4. Pingback: Know your photos; know your camera | #ELT 2012 |

  5. Pingback: The Burning Questionnaire: Chiew Pang | The Burning Questionnaire

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