Tips and tutorials

It’s not just pushing buttons

I was given my first digital slr camera (a Nikon D70) back in ~2005. I’d been using film slrs for ~8 years before that so I thought it was pretty simple. Use the camera in manual mode, meter, bracket and pick your favourite photo.

I thought that doing anything other than turning a photo black and white and maybe adjusting the contrast and colour later in Photoshop was cheating. I had some heated discussions about it with other photography enthusiasts.

It wasn’t until about late 2009, early 2010 that I really started to discover what that wonderful little machine could do. I was catching up with an old friend and fellow photographer and she saw me snapping away bracketing. In no uncertain terms she asked me what on earth I was doing, followed by a discussion on why I should trust my instinct for exposures – I’d been doing it long enough.

Then she changed the settings on my camera. She turned off my auto bracketing button, switched my ISO off auto (I hadn’t realised it was having such a bad effect on my exposures) and reminded me about setting my white balance.

Well didn’t that get me in a tizz?
Almost as much of a tizz as when I started my course and was told I had to shoot RAW. What the hell was RAW?

What a difference  those changes made! It was almost like getting a new camera (almost… not quite, I did upgrade but that’s another story).

RAW is the digital version of an old school negative. It’s just the basic camera exposure. No sharpening, no saturation, nothing fancy. It’s a larger file and retains extra information in it so that you can ‘develop’ the photo. When I was shooting jpeg I was letting the camera make the decisions for me and letting it discard information it didn’t think I needed. Information such as highlight and shadow detail. Noooo! RAW has different names for different brands. Nikon uses NEF, Canon has a different name. I usually convert to a DNG file when using Lightroom which can be read by both Nikon and Canon software as far as I know.

I started trusting myself more when it came to exposures and got to a stage where I could assess the light and know where to start from. I turned off the auto bracketing which gave me 3 exposures of every scene and started either doing it manually (as required), or using the latitude that the RAW file gave me in order to make minor changes if something wasn’t quite right. Some photographers will always bracket, others are strongly against it. I think it’s a personal choice and think of it a little like insurance. You hope you never need it but it’s a nice touch of security.

Turning the ISO off auto and selecting it myself got me back into the mindset of shooting film, where you selected your materials before you headed out on a shoot and you made your exposures based on those materials. The beauty of digital photography allowed me to set a different ‘film’ sensitivity (ISO) if needed but I no longer had to deal with noisy photos that didn’t truly reflect the exposures I thought I was giving the camera.

* Just an add on to this – I do sometimes find that in some circumstances say if taking snapshots at a party etc it’s useful to use the feature that allows you to set an ISO range to cope with low light. So if you know your pictures look bad over a certain ISO you can limit how high the camera will set it.

All of a sudden, I finally got why those people I’d been talking to went on and on about post processing and why it took them so long to get photos edited after a photoshoot. They had to manually do the work that I’d been letting my camera do for me. I’m still getting used to just how much the camera had done for me. I look at RAW files and they appear flat, lifeless…. the hardest change I had to come to terms with was the lack of sharpening. Having bad eyesight to begin with, it took me some time to realise that I didn’t just need new glasses, I needed to make some adjustments and not look at everything at 1:1 magnification!

I still don’t like overdone post processing or HDR but I love the amount of flexibility that shooting RAW has given me. In a similar way to the thrill I used to get watching my photos develop in the black and white darkroom, I now get a little thrill seeing the colours and tones in my photos awaken when I’m post processing. I have more confidence knowing that I have a little leeway if something isn’t quite with an exposure, that there is an opportunity to salvage an image after the fact.

Switching from Auto mode to using Program, Aperture or Shutter and then progressing to Manual are big steps and should be congratulated. But the learning doesn’t end there like I thought it did. There’s so much more both in camera and in post production that can change and improve how you work and what you create.

After 18mths I’m still learning so much about my newer camera, lenses and my editing software. It’s so exciting, and there is so much more to it than just pressing a button.

Straight from the camera. No sharpening, colour adjustment, nothing.

Same image after 'developing' in Lightroom and Photoshop.

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