Web design for business and holiday property websites in the UK and Europe
Website advice for clients
To help you get up to speed quickly with your new business website here is our advice about the key issues you will face. Click on the topics below to move down the page to the advice.
- Domain names - how to choose & where to purchase
- Responsive design - making a website mobile-friendly
- Editing photos - software suggestions and tips
- Sending photos to us - how to send photos
- Writing text for your site - a few tips
- Sending text to us - how to send text
- Business email - configuring your email software
- Your hosting control panel
- The content management system (CMS)
- Google Analytics and Maps
- Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) - get a better ranking with Google, Bing, etc.
- Designs that adapt to smaller devices - responsive design
- Taking photographs for your site - basic photography tips
Which domain name should you choose? One issue here is whether or not to choose a domain name that includes one or two keywords. This is a contentious issue and although the search engine algorithms are continually changing there does seem to be an advantage in having one or two keywords in a domain name. So if you have a self-catering cottage called "Green Gables" near Leeds, a good domain name might be green-gables-cottage-leeds.co.uk The extra length shouldn't matter too much unless you are trying to create a high-profile brand, in which case you will want a leaner and snappier domain name (but you will also have a bigger marketing budget that will more than compensate for having a domain name with less immediate SEO value).
Why is there a benefit to having keywords in the domain name? The search engine algorithms may well favour those domain names, but a more important benefit certainly comes from backlinks. People who link to your site often just use your domain name as the anchor text for the link (the anchor text being the text that is highlighted as a link on the page). Backlinks are much more valuable if you have keyword-rich anchor text, and you will automatically get that kind of backlink if you have keywords in your domain name.
Warning! Some have been tempted in the past to ignore their business name and use a string of their most important key words as their domain name (e.g. www.5-star-cottage-with-hottub-sleeps-8-cornwall.co.uk). In the past there was no penalty for doing this. In recent years, however, Google has started penalising websites that employ techniques like this - techniques known as "keyword stuffing". Conclusion: One or possibly two keywords in a domain name can be a plus, but avoid anything that could look like keyword stuffing.
If your preferred domain name has already been purchased, try adding a small and easy to remember word. So if frinton-bnb.co.uk has already been taken, try go-frinton-bnb.co.uk or stay-frinton-bnb.co.uk.
Are hyphens in the name a good idea? Hyphens can make a name easier to read (but slightly trickier to type and dictate). If the name will look confusing without hyphens, you should go for hyphens. If the name remains easy to read, some would advise dropping the hyphens. Won't the search engines get confused and fail to distinguish the words in an unhyphenated domain name? No. Do a little test yourself. Put a single word like "villa" or "age" in the Google search box and then look down the listed domain names to see the word being highlighted even in unhypenated domain names.
Who should I buy a domain name from? First of all, you should buy a domain name directly from a reputable registrar, not through a middle-person. The domain name is the linchpin of the whole operation, so you need to make sure it is registered in your name, with your details, and you have the access details for the account.
Handcrafted Websites is not a domain name registrar but we can recommend reliable registrars in the UK. Contact us and we'll advise you.
How do you make a website work well on smaller tablet and mobile devices? Basically there are two solutions. Either you have a second website built especially for mobile users, or you ensure that your website has a layout that will adapt automatically to the width of the visitor's screen. The first solution makes sense if a company has a larger budget and is aiming specifically at the mobile market, and is happy to manage two versions of the same content. The second solution generally makes more sense for businesses on a tighter budget that aren't selling things specifically to mobile users.
So how do you make the design of the website adapt itself automatically to different screen widths? The answer is: Responsive design. This is not something that can be plugged into older websites. It is a design technique that needs to be used at the outset when building a website. On main plank of responsive design involves specifying all the widths of elements on the web page in percentages. A second plank involves changing the arrangement of columns on a page. Three columns along side each other will work well on larger screens, but on the smallest screens it won't, so for those screen widths all the web page content is re-presented in one long column for the user to scroll down.
Is the design responsive? Test the responsiveness of a design on a laptop or desktop computer with a mouse by pulling in one side of the brwoser window. If the design is reponsive, you will see the material shrinking and reordering itself to fit the smaller window.
Can all designs be made responsive? The best design approach for a responsive site tends to be one that uses a fairly clean and simple layout, and that does not try to pack too much data on each page (data-heavy pages will have slow page load times that will put off people trying to access the page via a poor internet connection).
All Handcrafted Websites designs going forward will be responsive. We will also advise you on how to keep your website friendly to mobile devices. An important factor is the page load time. A slide show with five or six full-width photos might look good on your laptop with a lightning-speed internet connection, but on a mobile device with a poor connection it could take too long to load the photos. The advice in that case would be to avoid loading each page with too much data.
Editing digital photos
Every website needs photos. You might take some yourself or you might use commercial photos. In either case the chances are that the original photos wil be way, way too big to upload directly to your site. If Handcrafted Websites are going to design your site and you are going to send your chosen photos to them, it would be nice if you resized them before sending them. How? You need software. You might have got some bundled with your digital camera. If not, look at the options below.
Mac users have their own image editor. See these Mac image editor instructions.
Windows users looking for a good commercial product might consider Corel's reasonably priced Paint Shop Pro Photo. We have used this in the past and recommend it.
Free Windows-compatible solutions include the Faststone Photo Editor.
The above is a great little programme for editing photos one by one. If you need to resize a batch of photos, changing them all to the same dimensions and saving them to the same folder, use the Faststone Batch Photo Resizer.
Another popular alternative piece of photo editing software is Photoscape.
Alternatively browse the latest alternatives at CNET.co.uk.
To resize images that you are going to send to us, a good rule of thumb is to resize them so that they are 1000 pixels wide (the height doesn't matter). When you save the images there will be an option to specify a level of compression. This will determine the size in bytes of the final image file. Be careful! If you apply too much compression, an unacceptable level of detail in the photo will be lost. Try to keep the level of compression low so that enough of the detail is retained. If you are shown an indication of the final final size in bytes, give yourself up to 500kb (0.5mb) per image.
If a photo is intented to fill the full width of the screen (e.g. a wide background image), it should be 2,000 pixels wide.
Save the resized image with a new file name. Use only lowercase letters and leave no gaps in the filename. Use a name that describes what the image depicts (e.g. doublebedroom2.jpg, not image0003.jpg). Save it in the JPEG format, using a lowercase extension (.jpg).
Sending images to Handcrafted Websites
You will need to send us the digital images for your website. To do this you simply attach the image files (that will end with the .jpg extension) to an email.
Don't attach more than 15mb of data to any one email. If you have lots of photos, or if they are big (in bytes), please send them in batches.
To send a batch of images you can put them into a zip archive so that you only have to attach and send one file. If you don't have any zip software, download the free 7-Zip programme for Windows. Mac users might try MacZip.
Please do NOT send photos embedded in Word documents or PDFs. Just send the original .jpg files.
Please bear in mind that if you have photos for a slideshow or gallery, the photos need to have the same orientation (i.e. landscape or portrait), and they need to have the same proportions. We can crop your photos for you if the proportions vary from photo to photo.
Writing Text/Copy for Your Website
The text is important. Firstly, people will pay attention to how well you describe your products or services. Secondly, the text is far more important than the photos if you need to move up the search engine rankings. Search engines only really pay attention to the text on a page. We will help to improve the text that you send us, not only to make sure it makes the best possible impression on human readers, but also to make sure it ticks the right boxes with the search engines. The latter are looking out for certain key words and phrases repeated in the text. We will make sure that the most important key words and phrases are repeated without this sounding artificial to human readers.
One tip regarding the text is: Don't just write only about what you are selling (the beds and breakfast in your guest house, for instance). Instead, describe other details that will interest and attract potential customers. If you have a guest house in a beautiful resort, include information about the resort and find a few links to sites with further details that visitors might appreciate. Note that it is an advantage to have a few links like this on your page, even though you are giving free promotion to the sites you link to. Do some research and find the best links.
Although we rely on you to provide the initial textual input, we will carefully edit and possibly extend the material you send us. Of course, any changes we make are subject to your approval.
Sending text to Handcrafted Websites
You can send text in a Windows-compatible text file attached to an email. Acceptable formats are .txt, .rtf, .doc and .docx. Please don't send the text as a PDF.
Include information about the page title and which photos you want to accompany the text.
Simply attach the text documents to an email to us.
Alternatively, text can be pasted directly into the body of an email.
Setting Up Your Business Email
For business you are almost certainly going to want to use an email address that ends with your domain name (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org). For that we need a good email client (i.e. software for reading, writing and organising emails). We recommend Thunderbird. We use it so it will be easier for us to advise you if you run into difficulties. (A popular alternative is Outlook Express.) Choose the version of Thunderbird for your operating system here:
Once your website goes live we will send you the configuration details you need to set up the new email account on your software.
Note: Don't try to set up a business email account on Thunderbird or your other email client before your website is up and working.
Before you set up an account on your email client, you need to decide whether the account is going to be an IMAP account or POP3 account. You have a choice of either when using our servers for your email. Here is some information to help you decide which is better for you.
IMAP or POP?
If you are going to rely on one main device (e.g. a laptop or desktop computer) to access your business emails, you should set up a POP email account. If you want to keep life simple, set up a POP account and use a single device to read and store emails.
Use IMAP if you need to access emails from more than one device (e.g. desktop/laptop and hand-held devices). The IMAP account lets you - for instance - read an email on one device and later see the same email in your inbox on the second device. With an IMAP account the mail files are left on the server, and there is a system to synchronise certain files and folders displayed across multiple devices. With a POP account mail is downloaded when it is read - copies are not left on the server for you to access from multiple devices.
Below are the most important settings needed to configure POP and IMAP email accounts on Thunderbird, if you need more detailed step-by-step instructions please download the following PDF documents:
Setting up a POP account
Basically, the configuration details fall into three categories: 1. Your personal details; 2. Details for the incoming server; and 3. Details for the outgoing server.
Your personal details
The name you want to appear in the From box in emails that you send (set this to whatever you like);
Your email address;
Your username: This is your email address but with a + sign in place of the @. E.g. info+mysite.co.uk
Your password (we will let you know what this is).
Those same personal details are used by both the incoming and outgoing mail servers.
Incoming server details
Incoming Mail Server: pluto.uksrv.co.uk
The connection to the incoming mail server uses a secure SSL/TLS connection.
If there is an option to choose secure authentication, do NOT choose it.
The secure SSL/TLS connection uses port 995.
Outgoing server details
The outgoing main server uses the SMTP protocol.
The mail server name is pluto.uksrv.co.uk
It also uses an SSL/TLS connection.
The outgoing connection uses port 465.
When you try to connect and download emails you might be asked whether you trust this server. Click that you always will.
You will also be asked for your password. Handcrafted Websites will tell you what this is when your site goes live.
Setting up an IMAP account
When setting up the account you will be asked for a name (i.e. your name as it will appear in the part of the email that gives information about the sender). Choose what you want for this.
As well as being asked for the email, you will be asked for the password. Handcrafted Websites will tell you what this is when your site goes live.
Your email client may try to locate the correct servers on its own. If servers are located automatically, check that the details EXACTLY match those given below (including details of port numbers). If they don't match, manually enter the correct details (in the Thunderbird account setup wizard you should see a little button marked "Edit" to allow you to manually set the account details) .
Your username: This is your email address but with a + sign in place of the @. E.g. info+mysite.co.uk
Server Type: IMAP Mail Server
Server Name: pluto.uksrv.co.uk
Connection Security: SSL/TLS
Authentication Method: Normal password
Description: (enter whatever name you like just to identify this account)
Server Name: pluto.uksrv.co.uk
Connection Security: SSL/TLS
Authentication Method: Normal password
Username: (the same as the one used above with the + sign in place of the @)
If you run into difficulties setting up the account, have a look at the helpful Thunderbird tutorials listed below.
IMPORTANT: Read the warning about your mailbox below to avoid nasty surprises in the future.
Online Thunderbird guidance
If you run into difficulties, you can find initial instructions for creating a new account on Thunderbird here:
If you need to check or change account settings after the account has been set up the following should be helpful
For further assistance, see the list of How-To documents on this support page:
Your mailbox has a capacity of 250mb. This will eventually fill up if you don't ensure that old emails that are no longer needed are deleted on the server. If the mailbox does fill up, the email address will cease to work until space is freed up. You are advised to do the following.
1. In the main window of Thunderbird locate the Local Folders on the left. Right click and select the option to create a new sub-folder. You can then use this folder to store emails that you don't want deleted automatically. Incoming emails can be put into the folders by dragging and dropping from the list of emails visible when you are looking at your inbox. You might want to use more than one such folder.
Protect the emails in that new folder. Click Tools -> Account Settings again and find the Disc Space item underneath Local Folders on the left. Click it to see the options. Select the option Don't Delete Any Messages.
2a. With IMAP accounts: Click Tools (in the menu across the top of Thunderbird) and select Account Settings. In the menu on the left of the new pop up box, click Synchronisation & Storage. Select one of the settings to automatically delete emails (either over a certain age or over a certain number).
2b. With POP3 accounts: Click Tools -> Account Settings. Immediately under your account name on the left is the item Server Settings. Click it. Find the option Leave Messages On Server. Make sure this is NOT ticked.
3. Periodically archive mail in your inbox. This will move the archived mail offline in an archive folder on your local device. You can see archived mail by clicking the dated archive folder.
To archive mail, begin by displaying all the mail in your inbox. Select the first email in the inbox list that you want to archive, then SHIFT-Click the last mail you want to archive. Two buttons should appear on the screen once the large group of emails has been selected: one saying "Archive," the other "Delete." Click "Archive." Thunderbird will automatically create dated folders and move the archived emails into the relevant folders. That will free up space on the server.
You have a control panel for the hosting account. The most common reason for logging into your control panel is to check what is happening to your mailbox. It is a good idea to check from time to time if your mailbox is filling up, because if it does fill up the email address will stop working. To log into your control panel use your domain name with /cpanel/ appended:
Use the CPanel username and password that we will send you when your website goes live.
After logging in you will see a page full of icons. In the first instance, the most important is the one named "Email Accounts". By clicking that you can see your business email address/es. To the right of the listed addresses are a series of options. The one on the far right says "More". Clicking it brings up the option to access the mailbox and read and write emails on line for that address. You will have to reenter the password for the email address (this is usually the same as the password for the Control Panel), then you will be given a choice of software to read the emails. I suggest you choose Horde. This gives you direct access to your mailbox on the server - useful if you think something has gone wrong and you want to check whether there are emails on the server that haven't been downloaded onto your PC, or whether the mailbox might be getting too full.
Tip: If you are concerned that the mail system might not be working correctly, to get the most accurate picture of how full your mailboxes are go to the main control panel and click the icon marked Disk Space Usage (in the section entitled Files). You will see there an accurate indication of how much of the disk space allowed for emails has been used up.
If your mailbox has a huge number of emails that you need to delete, first make sure that you have downloaded and saved on your PC the emails that you need, then contact us. We can quickly empty your mailbox for you.
Autoresponders and email forwarding
Click the Home link at the bottom of the Control Panel window to get back to the original window full of icons. Then look for the icons giving you access to the autoresponders and email forwarding systems. The first is useful if you are going on holiday and need to send a message to this effect to enquirers. The second is useful if, for some reason, you want to use a non-business email address as your main address. (Note: We recommend NOT using email forwarding because this can lead to the mailbox filling up and ceasing to work without you realising it.)
The content management system (CMS)
What is the CMS?
To be able to update (and perhaps extend) your website without having to delve deeply into the code used to actually build web pages, you need to have your site built with a content management system (CMS). The latter gives you a simple-to-use interface enabling you to alter the text and photos in key parts of your site.
Is a CMS tricky to use? If you already know how to do simple word-processing and image editing tasks on your computer, you should have no problem finding your way around the CMS. We will provide full documentation to explain how the system works, and we will be on hand to provide email support if you need anything clarifying.
Will you need anything installed on your computer? The CMS will operate on the server, not on your computer. However, to handle images you will need some software to resize your digital photos. See the suggestions above.
Will the CMS impact the search engine optimisation of the site? With many content management systems there is a concern that they might make the site less search engine friendly. However, the CMS we use has excellent SEO features and and sites managed with it have nothing holding them back in the race for search engine rankings.
If you have further questions about sites with content management systems, don't hesitate to contact us.
Using the CMS
To change the content of a website built with the MODX content management system (CMS) you first need to log into the manager area. Do that by adding /manager/ to your site's URL, like so:
Use the CMS username and password that we gave you when the site went live.
Make sure that you read and digest all of the information and advice about the CMS before you begin updating the content of the site.
Google Analytics and Google Maps
You need to register with Google for at least two Google services before your site goes live: Google Analytics and Google Maps. To do so you first need to have an account with Google (free). Go to accounts.google.com/SignUp. You will then see the form to register with Google. That will open the door to the full range of services provided by the Internet Emperor.
1. Google Analytics: This will give you detailed statistics about website visitors. Register at the address below.
Once you have an account with Google, you need to register for Google Analytics. Do that here: http://www.google.com/intl/en_uk/analytics/.
The page where the answers might be non-obvious is shown below.
Select the options circled in red. Lower down the page make sure you enter the correct URL for your website, like this: http://www.mywebsite.co.uk. Select the country that your website is hosted in (the UK if we are hosting your website). In the section with options to share data with Google, you can untick the boxes unless you intend to use other promotional tools like Google Adwords. After agreeing to the terms of service, Google will give you the snippet of code we need to insert into your web pages. To keep things simple, make a note of the UA number like the one circled in red below.
Ignore the rest of the code. Copy the UA number into an email and send it to us. We will make sure the right snippet of code is inserted into your website templates in the right place.
Within 24 hours or so Google will begin recording visitor data, and you will be able to log into Google Analytics to see the stats.
2. Google Map: You need to create a Google map, putting the pin where your property/business is. Go to the following address. Make sure you are signed into the Google system (your username will appear top right).
Look for the My Places link and click it to create a map which will allow you to place a pin on your exact location.
Click Create Map.
Zoom into the map to find your location. Move the map so that the location of your property is as close to the centre of the map as possible. Then click and drag the blue placeholder (circled below) so that it points to your property. In the popup, add the name of your property and in the box below type the full URL of your website homepage. Then add a title and description in the column to the left of the map. Select Public. Then click Save.
Click the link icon (shown below). Then click Send (circled below) to send the details of your map to our email address. In the text box for the message, add the name of your property and your domain name so we know who it is from.
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
The techniques known as Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) aim to move your website or web page closer to the top of the lists created by search engines like Google and Yahoo. In recent years SEO has become big business and a number of those offering SEO services are not necessarily particularly scrupulous. Once your business website goes live you will start to get spammy emails from "businesses" offering SEO services. Be careful! If someone promises to get you to the top of page one, he is - to put it bluntly - lying. He will take your money, your website will stay where it is, and he will disappear.
The advice here is intended both to help you avoid getting ripped off and to show you how you can do lots to help your site to rise in the listings with little or no financial outlay.
Like football, search engine optimisation is basically a game of two halves: one part being what is called on-site SEO and the other being off-site SEO.
To decide where a page should come in a search list, the search engine makes a note of a particular set of features on the web page. The first SEO task is to make sure all those features are present on your key web pages and are set up to highlight the most relevant key words and phrases. Because this involves working with the code for the web pages it is usually something only the designer can do. At Handcrafted Websites this on-site optimisation is something included as standard in every website design package.
A few words about key words because this is the most important part of on-site SEO for you.
Key words: To be given a good listing the page needs to highlight the relevant key words. If, for instance, you provide bed and breakfast in Keswick and you know that most people searching on the web will type "keswick bed and breakfast" in the search box in Google, Yahoo or Bing, then these will be the key words for your website's home page.
These need to appear in different parts of the page. For instance, each page has two titles: one visible on the browser screen and another in the invisible head section of the web page. The most important key words must appear in these titles. In the invisible head section there is also a description of the content of the page (a kind of summary that each page carries with it). This must also highlight the key words.
It is also a good idea to have a fair amount of text on the page that repeats the various key words and phrases. Here a balance needs to be struck between writing text that seems natural and pleasant for human readers while also achieving the density of key words that will score enough points with the search engines.
In the normal process of designing web pages we will make sure that they are constructed in the right way so that they can work well with the search engines. This we do as a matter of course; it is not something we charge for separately.
What you should do at the outset is spend some time researching the best keywords for the key pages of your website. Choosing the best key words is absolutely crucial. With our full SEO and website promotion service we can help you do this, or you can do it yourself.
Once the web pages have been constructed correctly the big issue is incoming links from other sites on the web. The search engines need to judge how popular a page is, and they do this by looking for other websites that link to it - incoming links that are sometimes refered to as backlinks. Building up a rich network of high quality incoming links from other websites is what off-site SEO is all about.
It doesn't matter how well-designed the page is, if there are no links to it from established pages on the web, the search engines will never find it and it simply won't be listed.
For more information and advice about how you can promote your website effectively for little or no financial cost, send us an email and we will point you in the right direction to begin an effective website promotion campaign.
You may want to make sure that your website looks good on smaller mobile devices (iPods, iPhones, etc). Often the best solution for larger sites with bigger budgets is to make a second site designed with the limitations of those devices in mind. In other cases, a good solution is to use a responsive design that will automatically adapt to different browser widths. We use a responsive design for our site. Pull in one side of your browser window to see what happens to the design when displayed in a smaller area.
There are two aspects to a responsive design. Firstly, the design is fluid, meaning that the widths of elements on the page are set as percentages of the browser window width (instead of giving them a fixed width in pixels, which is still the most common design technique). As a result, the columns in the design get narrower as the window width is reduced. Secondly, the layout of the columns changes completely if the width of the browser window falls below a certain threshold. Instead of trying to squash columns in a row on a very narrow screen they all line up vertically as sections of a single column, allowing more width for the contents of the columns.
Not all designs can be made responsive. The main issue is that text and pictures don't respond in the same way when the browser width is reduced. The text continues to occupy the same area but the photos shrink. If you want a design where blocks of text need to line up perfectly with adjacent photos, it will have to be a fixed-width design and not a fluid or responsive one.
Taking your own photos for your website
Your site will need photos. Occasionally you will need one or two commercial photos. We can source those for you, usually at little cost. As for the photos of the products or services you are selling, why not take the photos yourself (at least initially)? Here we have some practical advice to help you do it well.
If you are going to photograph interiors, use a digital camera that has a wide angle lens. A lens that will be wide enough for most purposes is 28mm. (Note that cameras like this advertise their lenses as 28mm, but the actual figure written on the rim of the camera lens will be 4.6. This is a bit confusing, but the figure of 28mm is borrowed from the larger format non-digital cameras which many people are still more familiar with.)
Set the size of the photo. Set the width of the photo to be around 2,000 pixels wide. Setting the size in the camera saves time editing the photos later and makes it easier to attach the photos to an email if you need to send them to us.
Use a tripod. To get pin-sharp photos you need to hold the camera perfectly still. Either you do a course in transcendental meditation to gain perfect control of your body's involuntary movements, or you use a tripod. The tripod also makes it easier to leave the camera in one place while you think more about how you compose the objects in the field of view.
When choosing a camera it is worth looking for one that gives you some degree of manual control over the settings. The most important settings to be able to control are the following (in this order): the white balance, the focus, the aperture, and the ISO rating. For more details see the appendix at the bottom of this page.
Composition and Lighting
There are two things that make good photos: composition and lighting. However good the subject of the photo is, you need to think a little about how to position it in the frame relative to the other objects that can be seen. One tip regarding composition is to have something interesting in both the foreground and the background of the photo.
Lighting is the other factor to pay particular attention to. Your subject needs to be lit well. Our big tip for people photographing interiors is: Don't bother with the flash. Photos illuminated by a flash built into the camera almost always look bad, so you certainly want a camera which lets you deactivate the flash in low light. Instead, for indoor shots choose to photograph on a moderately sunny day when the room is nicely lit by sunshine coming through the windows. Then switch all the lights on. Take a series of photos from the same position with different settings (altering, in particular, the white balance to compensate for the artificial light). Note that if you have a tripod, you can take good, sharp photos indoors in relatively low light, relying more on the room's lights instead of resorting to that nasty flash.
Let's compare these two photos:
The photo on the left is not so good. Firstly, it is too dark. To avoid this, it is a good idea to take two or three photos from each angle using a slightly different shutter speed for each one. Most digital cameras will let you know what the shutter speed is if you adjust the details shown on the screen. Secondly, the white balance setting is not quite right - the camera is still set for sunlight and the picture has turned out too orange. These complaints apart, the really big problem is the composition. It is flat, and we have a large white area with electrical sockets, which is not very flattering. Having the corner of the table in the frame also doesn't do us any favours. By comparison, the photo on the right has a better composition, with something interesting in the foreground. The photo is brighter, as it should be. It's much better.
Here are the slightly technical details about the white balance, the focus, the aperture, and the ISO rating.
If you have to take photos indoors, it is vital you can alter the settings on the camera to take into account that the scene is lit (if only partially) by artificial light. If you don't regulate the setting appropriately, the photos will either come out far too blue or far too orange. (To a great extent, this can be changed on the computer afterwards, but why not avoid having to correct the mistake?)
Most cameras let you point at an object, half depress the shutter button to focus on the object, and then recompose the shot with your finger still half depressing the shutter button to keep the focus where it was. We would say this is essential.
The aperture is the hole behind the lens that lets the light through. The diameter is expressed as an F number - the smaller the number, the wider the aperture. Here is why having some control over the aperture matters: Sometimes you will want to take a photo where there is something close to the camera and something in the distance, and you want them both to be in focus. This is only possible if you can set the aperture so that it is smaller (i.e. with an F number of 5.6 or greater). A narrow aperture gives you what is called greater depth of field (i.e. a wider range from the foreground to the background that will be in focus).
In the old days of film, we bought film with a particular speed, and the speed was expressed as an ISO number ranging perhaps from 50 to 1,600. Films with a speed of 50 were great for really sunny days when we wanted the crispest possible photos, while films of 1,600 were great for taking photos indoors with poor lighting (although the photos with fast films were never as sharp). Digital cameras have the same system and it is good to be able to manually set the ISO number. Here are two situations. If you have the camera on a tripod indoors with low light, you will want your photo to be as sharp as possible (the point of having a tripod is to take better quality photos). To get a photo of the best possible quality, you need a low ISO rating (50 or 100); but on automatic in low light your camera will push the number up much higher. Ideally you want to keep the ISO number as low as possible. Alternatively, if you want to take a photo standing on a chair, for instance, (and interior shots sometimes look better from higher up, even though we generally prefer to use our tripod), the shot will be hand-held and it will be an advantage to make sure that the ISO number is quite high (say 400 or 800) so that camera shake will not cause the photo to come out too blurred.
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