Cameras today are evolving faster than a Super Bowl defense. Just about every few months a camera manufacturer will introduce a new body loaded with features and technology not previously available—not that this is a bad thing. All photographers benefit from these new cameras and improved performance; it just means you might be upgrading your camera every year or so. Gone are the days of film cameras and upgrading every five years or longer.
As cameras evolve into supercomputer image-making machines, so do the options available in the camera for shooting, playback and editing. For the beginner or seasoned pro, knowing what settings to adjust and which ones to leave alone is important to getting the most from your camera. Use the checklist below to get the best performance from your new DSLR.
1. Shoot In RAW
Choosing the right file format is the first step in using your new DSLR. File format determines the size and quality of the final images captured on your memory card. The choices boil down to two options, JPEG or RAW. JPEG files are processed in the camera according to the settings you’ve set. These files are fine for many uses as long as you get the right exposure and white balance. But when you open JPEGs in the computer, the data has already been saved in this format, reducing your options for image optimization without degrading the shot.
RAW files are unprocessed data right out of the camera and the purest form of digital capture. Today’s software has incredible nondestructive options for RAW processing, allowing a variety of adjustments of the RAW image without degrading the shot. If you’re just starting out, try using the RAW+JPEG option, if your camera has this, to get both image formats. This approach takes up more memory card space, but you have the instant gratification of a JPEG at download and the option of working on RAW files if you need to make any major adjustments.
2. Use In-Camera Noise Reduction
I shoot in RAW with my Nikon cameras and do most of my image optimization in postprocessing. I apply sharpening, color saturation, contrast and other variables in Photoshop as I work on the image. But one setting I make sure to have on in the camera is long-exposure noise reduction.
I love to shoot twilight scenes and star trails. These low-light situations require exposures from seconds to more than an hour. The longer the exposure, the more noise that creeps into your image. Try a long exposure with no noise reduction, and chances are, your final image will be speckled with luminance noise in the shadows. As digital sensors heat up for long exposures, noise increases in the image.
But the good news is that many cameras now have long-exposure noise reduction, where the camera takes a second “dark frame” exposure with the shutter closed. The camera then uses this dark shot to identify the “hot pixels,” or noise, and eliminates them. However long the first shot is, the second dark-frame image will take the same amount of time. After shooting an hour-long star trail image, just put the camera in your bag and go have dinner. The final shot will be ready in one hour, but the wait is worth it to get a clean image with minimal noise.
3. Try Auto White Balance
White balance can make or break your shot. I like to use the Cloudy setting for my landscapes to add a nice, warm color to the image, and I use Daylight white balance to photograph people to keep skin tones more neutral. But what happens when you photograph a high-school basketball game or a live performance indoors? Sodium, fluorescent and incandescent lights might all be used in the same room. How do you fix this lighting stir fry? Try auto white balance.
Auto white balance relies on the camera to determine the correct white balance for a scene. Auto white balance works fine outdoors, but where it really shines is indoors. I regularly shoot indoor spaces on assignments, from arenas to small office spaces filled with mixed lighting sources. Auto white balance is uncanny in its ability to get the correct white balance. The next time you encounter an interior with mixed lighting sources, try your auto white balance.
4. Use Autofocus For Action
I’ll admit it, I use manual focus a lot. Call it old school, but I like to use manual focus on landscapes and portraits. My eyes are still good enough to ensure sharp focus, and it just feels right twisting that focus ring while shooting. But what happens when you’re trying to photograph a soaring bald eagle from a moving boat? Enter autofocus.
There are three important settings when using autofocus for moving subjects. First, turn on the continuous servo focus. This tells the camera that the subject is moving so the camera is constantly refocusing to freeze the subject.
Second, choose the dynamic focus pattern to activate more focusing points in your camera. This pattern will vary camera to camera, but I like to use a 9-point group pattern for subjects that are moving in a predictable direction. For erratic-moving subjects, choose a larger group pattern.
The last thing to set is the frame rate. Choose the fastest frame rate you can. I use a Nikon D3 and set the camera to Continuous High for 9 fps.
Every summer, I photograph grizzly bears along the Katmai coast in Alaska. When I first started photographing the bears, before autofocus, I was manually focusing a 500mm ƒ/4 lens. That resulted in more blurry shots than sharp ones. Last summer, I photographed bears using advanced autofocus. Now it’s uncommon to get even a single blurry shot!
5. Turn On High-Speed Flash Sync
TTL flash photography has had huge advancements in technology and capabilities in recent years. With a pair of flashes and using your on-camera flash as a commander, you can shoot wirelessly and create stunning portraits anywhere you travel. Make sure you learn how to operate your on-camera flash in wireless mode, both as a commander and a remote flash.
Take things a step further and set your camera to high-speed sync. With Nikons, this setting can be found in the custom function menu; with Canons, this option is found on the flash itself. Turning on your high-speed sync allows you to shoot at shutter speeds faster than 1?250 sec. (the standard sync speed for many cameras).
Imagine this scenario: You’re shooting by the pool at midday in bright sun, and you’d like to use some flash and an aperture of ƒ/2.8 on your subject. This aperture will give a pleasing blur behind your subject and eliminate the busy background. The camera tells you the correct shutter speed to use is 1?1000 sec. for the right exposure. High-speed sync will allow you to shoot at this fast shutter speed and still add flash to the shot.
6. Use Sensor Cleaning
On an average day processing images, I spend about 45 minutes eliminating dust spots. If I work on images three days a week, that’s more than two hours per week. By the end of the year, I’ve spent nearly two weeks of eight-hour days cleaning dust spots—not good!
Luckily for photographers, camera manufacturers saw the need for in-camera dust cleaning, and most new cameras now have a sensor-cleaning function. There are generally two opt
ions: Clean the sensor when the camera is turned on (or off); or clean the sensor manually by selecting this option. I like to clean my sensor manually every time I switch lenses, since this is the moment that new dust can enter the camera. If I’m working in a very dusty environment, I may turn the sensor cleaning on more frequently. Chances are, dust may already be in my camera, and this will help eliminate the spots.
7. Use Depth-Of-Field Preview
When photographing landscapes, I often need to maximize my depth of field in an image. I may need everything from two feet to infinity to be in focus. The big question becomes where to focus in the image to get the most depth of field. I used to do this by calculating my hyperfocal distance and using the aperture scale imprinted on the lens. But as lenses have evolved, the aperture scale on the lens has disappeared. How can you calculate the best focus point without this reference on the lens? Try your depth-of-field preview button.
When you’re not shooting, your lens aperture is normally at its maximum setting to allow light into the lens for a brighter viewfinder. When you press the depth-of-field preview button, the lens closes down to the aperture chosen, showing you in real time what areas are in focus in your image.
When I want maximum depth of field in an image, I set my aperture to ƒ/16 or ƒ/22, compose the shot and focus about a third of the way into the frame. Then I press the depth-of-field preview button, let my eye adjust to the darker viewfinder and actually focus while holding the button down. Once my eye adjusts to the darker viewfinder, it’s easy to focus exactly where I need to be to get the best depth of field for a scene.
8. Use Image Stabilization
Many of today’s lenses and cameras have image-stabilization capability. This technology has dramatically improved the chances of getting a sharp image in low light while handholding the camera. Combine image stabilization with high ISO, and you’ve entered a new dimension of digital photography.
Handholding a camera at 1?15 sec. at ISO 6400 allows you to shoot practically in the dark!
Some camera systems have stabilization built in to the lenses; other systems have it built in to the sensor. I always have my stabilization on, unless I’m shooting from a tripod. Depending on the generation of image stabilization you have, some camera manufacturers recommend turning the stabilization off when on a tripod. You’ll need to research your camera and lens to find what works best for you.
9. Use A Rain Cover
You just unpacked your new camera from the box, charged up the battery and put in a new memory card. Excited about using your camera, you burst out the door into a howling blizzard to photograph the drama of the storm. You remember reading somewhere how most new DSLRs are built to fend off snow and rain, and are completely sealed against the elements. About a half hour into shooting, you notice an “Err” sign blinking on the LCD panel. Your new camera has just become a paperweight.
Cameras today can take a lot of punishment. Many models are well sealed against the elements, and some pro models have fantastic weather sealing. But why push it? I’m always amazed that some photographers leave their cameras completely exposed to the rain sitting on top of a tripod. I use a Nikon D3, and it seems almost indestructible. I’ve dropped it on cement floors and shot it in blinding Gobi Desert sandstorms and Alaskan blizzards, and the camera has never let me down. But I still use a rain cover to protect the camera from the elements. Better to be safe than sorry.
10. Read The Manual
If you’re like me, you never read instruction manuals. I like to open the box, turn on the camera and figure things out. Chances are, I can take photos pretty fast without looking at any manual. But what about those features that aren’t obvious? What new features am I completely missing?
Since camera technology and features are rapidly advancing, it’s more important than ever to read the camera manual. Many DSLRs offer video, which is new to many people and worth reading about in the manual. New focusing patterns, metering modes, ISO settings and noise reduction make reading your instruction manual a worthwhile activity. And don’t forget to throw it in your camera bag for the next big trip!
Tom Bol is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Colorado. You can see more of his photography at www.tombolphoto.com.