(21ST CENTURY DIGITAL CAMERAS, PHOTO PRINTERS, PHOTO PAPERS, CAMCORDERS, IMAGING SOFTWARE, DIGITAL EQUIPMENT AND MORE!) GUIDELINES AND QUICK TIPS FOR THE NEW DIGITAL SLR OWNER
David D. Kamanski
Digital Photography is rapidly gaining enormous popularity as prices fall while both features and final image quality increase. The benefits of saving film costs, easily sharing via e-mail or CD disks, editing in your own digital darkroom, and not needing to print all of your pictures which you can instead view in stunning beauty on a computer monitor are making the overall experience of owning a new digital camera more practical, affordable, and satisfying. Many are finding that given the ability to instantly review your pictures on a viewfinder and/or a computer monitor, one of the best reasons to go digital now is the great learning opportunities you gain from the near instant feedback with the ability to make adjustments, reshoot shots with different settings to get it right, and learn from your mistakes. In short, going digital now offers many a way to more quickly learn how to be a better photographer, improving photography skills, and providing a better potential to obtain outstanding & pleasing results.
Over the past 3 years we have seen digital cameras evolve from costly one and two megapixel units with limited abilities to offer the flexibility and results many were seeking, to the point where we now have many outstanding 3 to 5 megapixel consumer cameras using high quality glass lenses, with very impressive features at costs now approaching under $500. However, many photographers who have enjoyed shooting film with rather sophisticated yet relatively inexpensive interchangeable lens SLR cameras were not ready to be converted to digital cameras. Having invested a lot of money into high quality lenses which can be easily changed as needed for different shooting situations, many were waiting for more affordable Digital SLR styled cameras. Although prices rapidly dropped from $25,000 for early Kodak professional cameras in the mid to late 1990's, to $5,000 for the Nikon D1 just two years ago, these prices at early quality levels remained too high for many to justify a change. Well, that was the case until recently, when 4 major camera companies, Nikon, Canon, Fuji and Sigma, all well know to film photographers, announced this past Winter during the 2002 PMA trade show their latest Digital SLR cameras. The newly announced digital cameras all shared the attraction of having more affordable prices in the area of $2,000, and with a greater promise for outstanding image results from new higher capacity CCDs when used with skill and technique.
With the recent price drops for Digital SLR cameras along with the huge increases in image quality from new technologies & advanced software attracting more who are new to digital photography, there are several key factors which will initially be preventing the large number of new owners from getting consistent results. As many new & less experienced photographers flock to get the new breed of digital cameras, we can expect to see a lot of pictures which are not optimal for various reasons. We caution prospective buyers and new DSLR camera owners not to be discouraged by early results, even compared to the cheaper point & shoot style digital cameras. There are some lessons to be learned and some aspects you need to understand instead of letting first impressions get you down. These cameras can produce some of the most incredible results you have seen both in print and on screen, you just need to learn how to get there with your particular camera. You also have to accept that with DSLRs you may need to do a bit more post shot editing in software programs to get what you want. Accordingly, we set out to give many of you new Digital SLR camera owners a few quick tips and guidelines which we hope will help you get better results and allow you to enjoy your hobby more.
1. Read the Owners Manual
Those new to ownership of an interchangeable lens Digital SLR camera must learn to be patient and NOT expect the camera to simply produce near perfect shots just by pressing the shutter button, even if you found that your less expensive film or consumer digital camera produced great results with little effort. As you will learn, often jamming the shutter button all the way down in one rushed motion on a digital camera, without first half-pressing it down to allow an optimal focus lock, can result in blurry pictures. The Nikon D100 for instance has a focus mode shot selection in front with S, C & M settings. If you select the "C" setting for continuous shots the shutter can release before an optimal focus lock is obtained (called release priority), resulting in a possible out of focus shot. This feature is explained fairly well in the owner's manual. Accordingly, you may want to set this focus mode to the "S" mode for "focus priority" and follow the directions to first "half-press" the shutter button & wait allowing the focus to lock properly as indicated by the confirming in-focus light indicator found in the viewfinder. You can then lightly press the shutter button the rest of the way to take the properly focused picture. For more information we direct Nikon D100 owners to page 63 of the owner's manual discussing focus modes where it states that "Choosing single-servo AF ensures a sharp, focused image."
Other factors which need attention include learning the importance of holding the camera steady with a proper grip or if necessary using a tri-pod, avoiding too slow of a shutter speed for longer lenses & using too wide a lens opening when depth of field is needed, paying attention to when you have accidentally moved the focus point off your subject, and avoiding always having the many internal "custom" settings left to "automatic" defaults, when the conditions call for a change. An example of this last issue can be found with "auto sharpen" which is often designed for good reasons to be set to a "low" sharpness so you do not permanently lose details or increase the appearance of noise and JPEG compression artifacts occurring from being over sharpened internally. Instead, you are able to carefully sharpen the image in a more controlled manner using editing software in your computer's digital darkroom. However, if you desire sharper images straight from your camera knowing you do not want to spend a lot of time editing each shot, you can change the camera's internal custom sharpness setting to various pre-set levels such as "normal" or "high". You can also shoot in RAW image data modes with these cameras which allows you to set the sharpness and many other custom features after the shot, before you save the file as a JPEG from special software made for each camera.
And yet if you do not read the manual or understand how your new camera works you may say, "I paid over two thousand dollars for these results?" Keep in mind you can erase your bad results and go back and start from the beginning, to do what you should have done to in the first place which is to read your owner's manual, and then practice. We find that if you first ask yourself, "did I really learn how to use my new DIGITAL camera first", you will often find the answer is "NO", and now we can start to focus on the real problem, which is (mostly) not the camera's fault, but the person using the new DIGITAL camera. You often cannot easily transfer the exact same skills and experiences you have had with film cameras or prior point & shoot style digital cameras, as there are differences. The starting place for learning these differences can be found in a free book that comes with your cameras which is frequently neglected, but a great resource, known as the OWNER'S MANUAL.
New Digital SLR camera owners really must carefully read the OWNER' S MANUAL! Yes, the cameras do have automatic or pre-programmed "P" modes that can allow the camera to be used similar to cheaper film and digital "Point & Shoot" cameras. Yet those cameras are now adding special pre-set "scene modes" for the tougher conditions we frequently experience. However, there are differences as those cameras are often designed for those with less time to improve results later using image editing software programs which more experienced users have learned to enjoy using, or for those needing the convenience of pre-set features, lighter weight and greater portability usually coming from use of smaller bodies and lighter fixed lenses. Usually, these fixed lens cameras do have internal settings such as color, contrast, sharpness, white balance and exposure set to look pleasing for general shooting conditions, however at a potential cost in the resulting quality of the final image file which editing software cannot fully recover.
Thus, although smaller in size and generally easier to use without really understanding the manual, by staying with a film or point & shoot digital camera, you do lose some important forms of desired camera flexibility and some of the ability to obtain the highest image quality available. In addition, the CCDs and sensors sites used to capture images in consumer digital cameras are generally smaller, which can make image noise more noticeable. You also can lose the abilities to obtain other advanced results such as depth of field effects which are more visible using DSLRS. Many companies have been adding flexibility to consumer cameras and yet for Digital SLR cameras even the automatic settings are adjusted to retain (less aggressive settings) overall image quality throughout the work flow process, making the reading of your owner's manual more important then otherwise. Without reading the manual many may not realize just which settings can be adjusted for certain conditions, when to use them, and why the DIGITAL CAMERA is behaving a certain way.
2. Select Good Quality Lenses
We are seeing that after spending over $2,000 dollars for an advanced Digital SLR camera, new buyers are often lacking additional money to get good quality lenses. It is important that you select GOOD QUALITY LENSES for digital SLR cameras because of the way the light interacts with the current sized CCDs and other more complex reasons! Although we are not going go into great detail or make specific lens recommendation here, there are a few things you should consider. There are two main types of lenses, Prime or fixed lenses which have a fixed angle & magnification such as a 50mm lens, and variable Zoom lenses, which of course can zoom in from a wide angle to a very highly magnified angle such as 200mm or more. Prime lenses tend to be a bit lighter, less expensive, and sharper usually giving you very good to excellent glass for best results. These lenses are often described as sharp, free of distortions, bending, odd colors, flare, having good colors & contrast, etc....but at the cost of the flexibility you gain from variable zoom lenses. There are many kinds of Prime lenses including very expensive ones with high quality glass and high speed auto focus with anti-shake type technology. This makes it important to research how a Prime lens rates in testing results available on the Internet and elsewhere.
There are also many great zoom lenses, but they do obviously tend to be more expensive and the cheaper Zoom lenses while tempting can be a source of a lot of dissatisfaction with your picture results. Cheap lenses can be the main reason we see "Soft" images that appear out of focus or blurred ever so slightly. Keep in mind that most of the current digital slr cameras have a lens multiplier effect because the CCD itself is smaller then the size of a 35mm film frame, making the actual captured angle on the sensor narrower then what is captured by the frame of film in a 35 mm camera using the same lens. As an example on the Nikon D100 there is an approximate 1.5X multiplier resulting in a 50mm lens producing an image that is equivalent to 75mm on a 35mm film camera. If you have little money at the moment of purchase we suggest you buy for around $100 a good brand name 50mm f1.8 lens, such as the fine lenses from Nikon or Canon. Although we know many of you are aware of this, most cameras only take lenses made for their particular brand by use of a specific lens mount with specific threads and electronic contacts. Thus, for Canon users who are getting the Canon D60, get a nice sharp Canon lens, or for the Nikon D100 get a Nikkor lens and at least one that is highly rated (there are resources on the web that rate lens quality we suggest you check out). Try and stay away from cheaper off brand lenses to start with until you learn more, although there are some great 3rd party lenses out there. The quality of the lens you put on your camera will effect so many aspects of the final image result including color balance, contrast & sharpness, so please always try to get better quality given the cost you have already spent for the camera.
3. Avoid Extreme Shutter Speed & Aperture Settings, High ISO Settings or Poor Lighting For General Shooting Purposes
When taking pictures in conditions which are generally well suited for photography involving fairly adequate lighting or using a proper flash at close enough distances, shutter speeds need to be fast enough to avoid potential blurring that can occur from shaking of the camera and lens when pressing the shutter button in hand held shooting situations, or from the subject moving too fast. However, it can also be important to avoid too fast a shutter speed if unnecessary. Proper grip, slow gentle pressing of the shutter, use of a tri-pod if necessary and steady holding of the camera are also key factors. This becomes more important as you use bigger lenses which stick out further from the camera and have higher zoomed magnifications making any shaking of the camera greater at the end of the lens. This can result in a greater need for higher shutter speeds as the subject itself can be seen in the viewfinder moving a lot, even if the subject is fixed or still. Thus, if lighting is low on a cloudy day, in heavy shadows, or at dust & dawn, the shutter speed may drop to a slower speed to allow more light, but if you are zoomed in too much it will not be fast enough to avoid a blurred image. Thus, you need to watch your shutter speeds and keep them well above the magnification level you are zoomed at. For instance, if you have a 200mm zoom lens, you should shoot at over 1/200 of a second at minimum when hand holding your camera carefully, and we would really suggest trying to stay closer to twice the value of your zoom lens or nearer to 1/500th of a second at minimum if possible. If you have a 50mm lens on we would stay at around 1/125th of a second at the slowest to now avoid possible subject movement by say squirming kids etc. Wider angle lenses below 50mm may be best suited for lower light conditions allowing shutter speeds of 1/60th of a second and even near 1/30th if the subject is fairly stationary. Keep in mind many cameras have a mirror lock up feature which delays the image capture to allow possible shock & vibration from being introduced onto the CCD or Sensor especially during slower shutter speeds. For faster sports action try to shoot at over 1/500th of a second light permitting and often really higher shutter speeds are necessary above 1/1000 if the subject is really moving at high speeds outdoors.
Be careful though to check your new aperture if you increase the shutter speed too much, as you may get an undesirable depth of field if you have to compensate to get more light for proper exposure by opening the lens all the way to its widest setting. Usually lenses lose quality at the widest openings as the center of the glass is often the highest quality and therefore yields the sharpest results. Accordingly, we have seen in our shots better looking results for general depth of fields and sharpness at aperture settings in the range of f/8 to f/11. When you go below this range, depth of field become more shallow, meaning that objects and areas in front of and behind your focus point become out of focus. Too many new camera owners are taking shots at say f2.8 to get more light, but not all of the intended people or objects are in full focus because they are not within the narrower depth of field. Using the range we suggest when possible with good lighting will help reduce the appearance that a lot of the picture is out of focus or soft. However, with digital cameras there can also be some detriment to going with too high of an aperture (smaller opening) as once again to compensate for less light coming in, the camera will need a slower shutter speed, now creating a risk of camera shake blurring the picture, or the speed of a moving subject will be too fast for the slower shutter speed to freeze their motion and to look sharp. Also, at higher apertures, dust on the CCDs can become more observable given the way the light and focus points work inside the camera. It is difficult to rid digital cameras of all dust all of the time, so using mid-range aperture settings seems to work best for now.
In addition, too fast a shutter speed and/or to narrow an aperture can cause the automatic ISO setting on some cameras to change up too much to compensate for less light coming in to the camera, which can increase the appearance of grain or noise in the image. Thus by avoiding too slow a shutter speed, such as below 1/60th or 1/125 with some lenses, and too fast a speed say over 1/500th of a second for normal moving subjects, you keep your other exposure factors such as aperture and ISO from going outside of their optimal settings which may help avoid other perhaps negative consequences mentioned above. We suggest you always try to shoot at the lowest ISO you can for the lighting conditions available. Often going above ISO 800 on these cameras can begin to show very undesirable noise levels, although the Nikon D100 appears to excel in low light situations and we have seen impressive shots taken at ISO 1600 and higher.
4. Change the Internal Camera Settings to Your Liking & Practice, Practice, Practice
These cameras all have internal custom camera settings which can be changed for good reason. Everyone has different expectations, wants and needs, so if the manufacturer has not set things to your optimal liking, for goodness sakes change them. It may seem hard to believe but your tastes may be better then some programmer over in Japan. These cameras have several major settings which allow you to get different shot results straight from the camera that you may prefer. For instance we have already suggested that if you find your images to be too soft, and yet you do have a sharp lens, you are avoiding camera shake & subject blurring from too slow a shutter speed, you are allowing the camera to lock with optimal focus, you are holding the camera steady, you are pressing the shutter button smoothly, you have a good depth of field, and despite all these and other good techniques to get a sharp image, your image is never the less still a bit too soft looking to you, well then don't feel locked in, go to the "sharpness" setting found in the camera's custom menus and change it from "Auto" to "Normal or "High" etc... Either that or recognize that most high end cameras tend to undersharpen images initially so that details are not lost, and several of the filters used to capture colors correctly or prevent other distortions require slight blurring of the image initially.
As we mentioned before, oversharpening in a camera's firmware can permanently damage an image causing undesirable results that can not be sufficiently removed later by any software tricks. So, it is thought by many that not applying too aggressive of a sharpening filter when processing the image internally, as is often the case with more consumer type cameras, is actually a much preferred practice, leaving final sharpening to you in a software program as the very last step. Many experts will tell you that most of your software fixes or tweaks such as changing color levels or luminosity, applying other filters or corrections etc. should be done first before sharpening is done because of the way sharpening changes the pixels in an image. The same thing applies to exposure settings, which many complain of results in underexposure of the image, with a darker look then preferred. This is also usually done by design to help prevent highlights in a scene from being blown out, a result that cannot very easily be recovered, although the opposite task of brightening up a picture (often done with Photoshop curves) is much more possible.
Most DSLRs have a contrast setting, and perhaps the scenes you are often shooting are not being handled well by the "auto" setting. In the case of the D100 we would suggest that you consider changing the custom setting from "auto" to "normal" and see if that does any better. You can also turn the Exposure Compensation setting up 1/3 to 1 full f stop if you want to offset possible underexposure caused by these new camera's Matrix metering being perhaps a bit too aggressive in not allowing any blown highlights. There are many other settings, and variables to explore such as using a higher "Saturation" setting if you feel you want more punch to your shots straight from the camera, but again these are part of the learning curve of your new camera, a process that starts with reading the owner's manual and continues with your trial and error use of your camera. You must learn as you go, and with patience you will get awesome results. You need to learn how to use your histogram and viewfinder to see if you need to make adjustments before you leave a subject or lose the ability to reshoot it. You can also learn how to use the bracketing function to see the intended different results from controlled changes in EV settings and even White Balances. Remember these concepts and terms are usually explained to some extent in the owner's manual, although eventually you will probably want to seek out other resources such as on the Internet to get more advanced knowledge. You must then take that knowledge and apply it to your photography, trying again, and accepting that here is always a trial and error process with these cameras, which takes time to learn from your mistakes. There is simply a lot of truth for Digital SLR owners in the old saying "Practice make perfect!"
5. Learn to Use Software Programs for Post Shot Editing
You will soon find that it is impossible to always get the perfect exposure, the perfect settings, and thus the perfect results straight from the camera. What the above guidelines above are meant to do is allow you to get your shots within a more acceptable range of results that will allow you to fine tune or tweak them if needed in a software editing program such as Photoshop. These programs are so powerful and yet they do have limitations. Once you learn what can and cannot be accomplished using these programs, you will learn which issues in your picture taking to focus on. After you see how really easy it is to sharpen a picture in a software program to make it look tack sharp and impressive, you realize that you do not need to set the internal camera setting to "High" which may have been more immediately pleasing to your eye. This is also true for exposure settings, which you may learn to error on the side of slight underexposure to avoid blown highlights once you see how in 10 seconds with curves in Photoshop, you can pull out the details and brighten up the shot. Color corrections are also quite possible in these programs when things do not come out just how you want. These programs do take time, but like a film negative, DSLR image files often do need post shot processing in what we like to call the "Digital Darkroom" (and at least those chemical orders are gone). So do not be discouraged if you have to learn how to use new software as the rewards will be worth it, we are sure of that. Learn by doing and experimenting, the costs of deleting bad shots is cheap and easy enough. Look at what settings caused a less than desired result and try to anticipate more what setting are needed to get better and more usable image files under reoccurring conditions you most often shoot in. These images can then be further fixed up in programs such as Photoshop. If you see these as positive aspects of owning a new Digital SLR, and approach it with a more realistic attitude, then you will be well on your way to enjoying your new digital camera, and expanding your satisfaction in a very popular hobby shared by so many around the world! And ultimately, you will get great pictures!
Stay tuned for more as we explore image editing programs in part II of our guidelines and tips for new digital SLR owners, coming next month.
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