Early digital cameras struggled to deliver the quality and resolution of their film forefathers. As sensor technology advanced and quality comparisons fell away, camera makers began focusing on the processor to take advantage of these onboard computers for more sophisticated camera functions. Now there are digital cameras that even have dual processors—something found only in higher-end computers until recently—and that computing power enables a variety of features that no film camera could ever offer. Today’s DSLR has more in common with your first computer than your first camera.
Though not strictly "apps" in the traditional sense, many of the technologies and camera features we look at here let you do things with your photos in the camera that otherwise would require special gear or computer software. We expect the lines between computer and camera to blur even further in future models.
Sony introduced this great feature in its compact camera line, and now includes it on interchangeable-lens models. Wide-view stitched panoramic images have long been popular, but traditionally were painstakingly produced by shooting a series of images with a tripod-mounted camera (carefully aligned to rotate around the front nodal point of the lens) and then combining the images using special panorama software.
With Sweep Panorama, you merely activate the feature and sweep the camera across the scene. The camera records the images and stitches them together automatically. Newer Sony cameras also offer a 3D version of Sweep Panorama (though you’ll need a compatible TV to play back the images in 3D).
Most entry-level and midrange DSLRs offer a number of subject or scene modes that automatically preset the camera for photographing specific types of subjects and scenes. These generally include portrait, landscape, close-up/macro and sports action, plus such things as sunset, night portrait, child and more. Film SLRs were able to adjust the shutter speed, aperture, flash and drive mode, but DSLRs also can adjust such things as sharpening, contrast, color saturation, hue, ISO and more to suit the subjects.
A number of digital cameras have built-in intervalometers, which allow you to set them to shoot a series of images at desired intervals automatically. Thus, you can produce a series of still images that show a flower opening or the movement of shadows across a scene during the day.
Once you have your time-lapse series, you can create cool movies using software—check out what one photographer did with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II on a flight from San Francisco to Paris at vimeo.com/21822029.
Now that most digital cameras include video capability, the ability to shoot time-lapse movies is appearing, as well. For example, Panasonic’s Variable Movie Mode lets you adjust the frame rate for 80% to 300% of "normal" to produce slow-motion and accelerated-motion effects.
Picture Styles (Canon’s name for the feature, since it was first to include it in DSLRs) let you choose an appropriate "look" for your images, then fine-tune it as desired. These might include presets such as Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Natural, Vivid, Muted and Monochrome. Once you choose one of these "looks," you can further fine-tune the contrast, sharpness, color saturation, color tone, and in Monochrome, the filter effect and color toning.
You even can create and save custom Picture Styles to use on future images. Some manufacturers provide additional styles that you can download from their websites and install in your camera.
Nikon calls this feature Picture Controls, Olympus calls it Picture Modes, Pentax calls it Custom Image, and Sony calls it Creative Styles.
If you encounter higher-than-normal contrast in a scene, you might want to try your camera’s contrast-control features. Canon’s Auto Lighting Optimizer, Nikon’s Active D-Lighting, Pentax’s D-Range Shadow and Highlight Correction, and Sony’s DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer) help maintain detail in bright and dark areas in such scenes. While early versions of these features were just "on" or "off," versions in newer DSLRs give you the option of choosing the strength of the effect if you wish. Canon’s related Highlight Tone Priority feature provides improved detail in bright areas.
High-dynamic-range (HDR) images provide better detail in bright and dark areas, and originally were created by shooting a series of bracketed exposures, then combining the best details from each into a single HDR image using your image-editing software or special HDR applications. A number of digital cameras now do this in-camera automatically. Set the camera for HDR, and it shoots a normal exposure, an underexposed image for highlight detail and an overexposed image for shadow detail, then combines the best of each into a single HDR image. (Some cameras just do two shots in HDR mode, one under and one over the "normal" exposure; that’s really all you need to improve detail in bright and dark areas of a high-contrast scene, and reduce registration problems with handheld HDR images.) While it’s best to do HDR photography with the camera mounted on a tripod, some cameras incorporate technology that even compensates for minor camera movement between handheld shots.
Canon’s recent consumer DSLRs offer some Creative Filter effects you can apply to already-taken images in-camera. The filters include Grainy B/W, Soft Focus, Toy Camera, Miniature and Fisheye. You can adjust each effect to "tweak" the result.
Nikon Special Effects (introduced in the D5100) can be applied to about-to-be-taken images and previewed on the LCD monitor. Effects include such items as Selective Color (records one to three colors you select, with the rest of the image in black-and-white), Miniature, Color Sketch, Night Vision, Silhouette, High Key and Low Key. You can apply some effects to movies as well as still images. Effects images are saved as JPE
Gs whether you’re shooting JPEG or NEF (RAW) images. You also can apply a selection of effects to already-shot images via the retouch menu in a number of Nikon DSLRs.
Olympus introduced Art Filters in its E-30 DSLR, and has included them in its DSLRs and mirrorless E-P series cameras ever since. The filter selection varies a bit from camera model to camera model; the E-P2’s Art Filters include Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama and Dramatic Tone. With some cameras, such as the E-P2, you can apply effects to movies as well as still images.
Recent Pentax DSLRs offer Digital Filters, whose effects you can apply to already-taken images in-camera. These include Toy Camera, Retro, High Contrast, Sketch, Extract Color, Warm Color, Pastel, Miniature, Monochrome, Color Filter, Soft, Starburst, Posterization, Fisheye, Slim, Custom Filters and more.
Photographers have been combining two or more images to create new montage images for a long while. Digital cameras make the process easier and more effective. With some, you can display the first image on the camera’s LCD monitor and use that as a guide to compose the second image you’re about to shoot—much easier than trying to remember where everything was in the first shot as you shoot the second image. Of course, you can combine images in your computer, too, with more control. But doing it in-camera is quick and convenient.
Grid Lines and Virtual Horizons
Viewfinder grid lines make it easy to align the horizon and other horizontal or vertical lines in an image. In film days, you could purchase and install an optional focusing screen with grid lines (with higher-end SLRs).
Today, a number of DSLRs offer on-demand viewfinder grid lines and electronic virtual horizons that serve the same purpose. The virtual horizons are especially useful in that they show when the camera is level even when the horizon doesn’t appear in the image. Generally, grid lines and virtual horizons can be displayed in the eye-level optical or electronic viewfinder and on the LCD monitor, whichever you prefer using.
While lens manufacturers take great pains to produce lenses that are free of aberrations and distortion, the fact is, these things exist in all lenses, to a degree. You can compensate for them when processing RAW images, but a number of cameras do it automatically in-camera. Canon’s Lens Peripheral Illumination Correction eliminates vignetting (light falloff in the corners of the image) with lenses registered in-camera, mid- and high-end Nikon DSLRs automatically compensate for lateral chromatic aberrations (purple fringing), and current Pentax DSLRs can be set to correct for lateral chromatic aberration and distortion automatically when compatible Pentax lenses are used.
A few digital cameras have built-in GPS units (including Sony’s SLT-A55 DSLR), which can record the location where each image is shot (latitude, longitude and altitude). This information is recorded in the image’s EXIF metadata. You can sort images by location, and plot them on digital maps. You also can get geotagging GPS units that enable this capability (Nikon’s GP-1 for some of its DSLRs, for example).
For some time now, many digital cameras can detect human faces in a scene (including a number of DSLRs), and optimize focus and exposure accordingly. This simplifies photographing people or groups. An offshoot of face detection, Sony’s Smile Shutter can detect when a subject is smiling and trip the shutter at that moment.
One bane of people photographers is the fact that people blink, often just as the shutter is tripped. Blink-detection technology can detect a blinking subject, and warn you that one or more subjects blinked in the last shot so you can reshoot on the spot.
In-Camera Noise Reduction
Most DSLRs offer in-camera noise reduction (NR). It comes in two flavors: long-exposure NR and high-ISO NR.
When you make long exposures, more noise is produced as the exposure times lengthen. Most DSLRs have a long-exposure NR feature that takes a second "dark frame" after you shoot an image, activating the sensor for the same duration, but with the shutter closed. This records the noise pattern. The camera then subtracts the noise pattern in the dark frame from the data in the actual image to reduce the noise quite effectively.
When you increase the ISO setting of a digital camera, image data is amplified, resulting in increased noise of a different sort. High-ISO noise consists of two parts: chrominance noise (color blotches) and luminance noise (grain, like gray spots). This is different than long-exposure noise, and the camera deals with it in a different way. Exact details vary among camera manufacturers, but basically, the weaker settings deal with chrominance noise (which most viewers find offensive), while higher settings also work on luminance noise (and might reduce fine detail in the process). You also can use just the default setting, which works well for most images.
You also can apply NR when you process your images, of course, using your RAW converter or image-editing software, but it’s very convenient to be able to do it as you shoot. The main drawbacks to in-camera NR are that it’s not as effective as postproduction NR (your computer’s processor is more powerful than cameras’ built-in processors, allowing for more powerful NR algorithms), and it slows camera performance: Since the long-exposure NR "dark exposure" is equal in duration to the image exposure, it takes the camera twice as long to record each image; and high-ISO NR can reduce the number of consecutive exposures you can make in continuous-drive mode.
Sony’s Multi-Frame NR shoots six frames in rapid succession, then combines the data into a single image with greatly reduced noise, providing ISO settings up to 25,600 in cameras that otherwise top out at ISO 6400.