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.