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August 12, 2005

Best values for digital camera settings!

Filed under: Photography — Manish Bansal @ 9:31 pm

Back in the days of film, I used to own a Yashica MF-2 camera. It was as simple as a camera could get. There were no menus to fiddle with, no knobs to turn, and just one button to release the shutter. It didn’t even need the batteries if you didn’t want flash. And I should mention, it has never given me a technically bad shot – ever. All you had to do was press the button. How could you go wrong with that?

Then came the digital cameras and the question became – how could you ever get it right? My digital camera, an Olympys C-760, has more than 50 different settings! As Scot Adams said in Dilbert – we have come from simple tools like pointy wooden sticks to convolulted things like computers but our brains have not evolved at the same rate. And looking at my digital camera, I can personally vouch for that.

There are two type of settings in a digital camera. Ones that are same for each shot and ones that vary from shot to shot. Image quality (jpeg compression) is a fixed type of setting. You don’t want a lower quality for one shot and higher quality for another, assuming you don’t have any kind of strange fetish related to images. White Balance, on the other hand, has to be changed from shot to shot. Actually I don’t change it that often but all the pros say that they do. So there must be something to it. Here is what I do for fixed settings:

Sharpening:
Keep it ‘Off’. If your camera doesn’t have an explicit ‘Off’ setting, keep it to a minimum. I always used to keep it at 0, thinking that this would turn the sharpening off. It was only later I found that the scale was actually from -5 to +5. There is a reason people recommend to RTFM. A few reasons why in-camera sharpening is bad –

  1. Different photos need different type and differnt amount of sharpening. Digital cameras usually employ Unsharp Masking but the only thing that you can vary in that is the amount, not the radius, or the threshold. And that’s where the trouble lies. A tree shot with lots of leaves needs lower threshold than a Facial close up. Even if you could vary those other parameters, it would be too tedious to adjust it for shot to shot. So just turn it off and use your judgement later instead of leaving it to the camera.
  2. The sharpening should always be assessed at 100% size. Those tiny 2″ LCDs just don’t cut it. And you have to fiddle with the sliders a lot before you get the look you want.
  3. USM is not the best technique to sharpen photos. There are lots of other techniques which are More flexible and result in less artifacts. This alone mandates that you use PC to sharpen your images.
  4. Sharpening should be the last step in the workflow, after all the levels/curves/saturation etc corrections have been done. And then too it depends upon the intended use of the picture. Web only images need different sharpening than the ones which are to be printed. Usually you shouldn’t apply sharpening until it’s absolutely needed. Just save your edited file in PSD or XCF format without sharpening and sharpen just before using it.

Contrast:
This should be set to its minimum possible value. This results in a wider dynamic range which allows you to capture more detail. Increasing the contrast in-camera is like applying levels correction to the photo. A pixel which was 240 would now read 250 and the pixel which was 252 would be lost. Same applies to the shadow details too. So keep the contrast to a minimum and make sure that your histogram stretches from end to end. Even if the histogram is bunched up, it’s always possible to strech it later in photshp but there is no way to get back the details that got lost during capturing itself.

I always check the histogram right after taking the shot. Generally I end up shooting the same thing 3-4 times before I get it right but that’s ok. Good shots are worth this much trouble.

Image Size:
Use the biggest size your camera can capture. I always shoot at 2048×1536, the highest my camera can go. It’s all the more important if you shoot in jpeg. If you shoot at a lower resolution, the camera does not use less pixels to begin with. It can not do that. It would always capture the image at its native (highest) resolution and then resize it. And camera’s resampling algorithm are no match for photoshop’s bicubic resampling. So just use photoshop to resize later if you feel you don’t need the full resolution but always capture the image at the highest resolution possible.

Another reason to use full resolution is if you intend to print your shots. Digital images are typically printed at 300 ppi. So if you shoot at 1024×768, you can make a print of only 3×2.5 inches. Sure you can print this upto 4×6″ but it won’t look as good or as crisp.

Image quality:
Again, use the highest quality setting possible. JPEG is already a lossy format and further compression makes it even worse. The lower the quality (higher compression), the lesser the details in the image. That’s why most of the amateur flower shots have petals made of pure color, without any detail. At a resolution of 3 megapixels, the lowest quality JPEG file out of my camera is about 100 KB and highest quality file is at 1.5 MB! Those extra pixels count for something. The quality settings are generally named as fine, superfine etc and vary from camera to camera. Make sure you know that the setting of ‘High’ is really higher than fine or was it the other way around??. With storage being so cheap, there is just no excuse to throw away all that information. Get a higher capacity card if you have to. I use a 512 MB card which captures about 270 shots at highest resolution.

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