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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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8 Comments »

  1. This is great advice. From the perspective of a casual user of the digital camera who really does not need all these settings, using suggested default values is a great start.

    The reality is that having all these settings simply confuses 99.9% of digital camera users.

    Good Job Manish.

    Comment by Anonymous — October 5, 2005 @ 3:38 pm | Reply

  2. great Blog pal..
    very informative..
    but ur mail id was nt there..
    landed at ur blog lookin for some bangalore pals..
    if u like makin pals..shoot in a mail ..

    cheers
    Sudhirchauhan@gmail.com

    Comment by SudhirChauhan — October 11, 2005 @ 4:58 am | Reply

  3. I shoot at 2560×1706, with a depth set at 4.1MP which is all I need to get 4×6″ prints if I need them, so no need for the max 5MP!! 🙂 Settings in a digital camera are a bit tough to handle when all you need is a photo of that one moment. I’m thankful that my Kodak LS753 comes preloaded with pre-configured settings for different kind of shots so I don’t have to manually mess around with settings like white balance etc. I just select the kind of shot I’m gonna take, like a “landscape” or a “close up” or a “night landscape” or of “firework” etc, and the photo just comes out pretty good!! 🙂

    and yeah, I’m kinda novice with a digital camera, having shot just a few hundred photos with it!! 🙂

    Comment by Amit — February 28, 2006 @ 9:09 am | Reply

  4. Once you gain some experience with the camera, you’d look back and have a good laugh for using all those presets 🙂
    I tried to leave a comment on your blog but it won’t show in Hindi. How do I do that?

    Comment by manishbansal — February 28, 2006 @ 9:34 am | Reply

  5. Once you gain some experience with the camera, you’d look back and have a good laugh for using all those presets

    quite possibly. but then I don’t like the thought of manually changing the settings for taking pictures. if I’ve to set it only once to take a batch of photos, then its ok, but having to change a number of them with each different shot, well, it looks like a lot of work. for example see here the photos from my last outing on 19th Feb. I switched between the presets a lot of times taking those & it was just as easy as rotating a small wheel & then pressing it. Now to manually change a setting, I’d have to go to the menu, choose the setting & then the value for it, quite a long task to do when you are shooting pics in a hurry!! 🙂

    I tried to leave a comment on your blog but it won’t show in Hindi. How do I do that?

    you mean how to write in Hindi? Well, you’ll have to either use a hindi tool like HindiWriter or you can use one of the online tools like Uninagari or Hug2

    Comment by Amit — February 28, 2006 @ 1:41 pm | Reply

  6. Actually you don’t have to change the settings each time. In fact, you don’t have to use the manual mode at all. Just use Program mode and only change the exposure compensation. That’a all I do on my digicam. The presets work best only when there is enough light. Otherwise they are a hit or miss. My photography blog is here.

    Comment by manishbansal — February 28, 2006 @ 2:02 pm | Reply

  7. uh ok, actually I’m not that comfortable snapping photos, I barely snapped a hundred photos from my old film camera which I’ve had for more than 10 years simply because it was a lot of trouble having to load the film & then get it developed etc. & I’ve not been any photography buff. its only since I’ve got my digital camera I’m more into photos since I don’t have to load a film(a 512MB card is enough for all the photos on an outing) and I don’t have to get any film developed(I just store the photos on my PC), so its not a trouble any longer. so I’m sort of novice in this & only a few days ago I was reading some tips etc. on Kodak website on how to snap good photos etc.

    so it’ll be sometime before I get used to it & then I’ll try messing around with settings n-all. when I got the camera I was just snapping on “auto” mode, its only last month that I started shifting to other presets depending on light & my need for a flash etc.!! 🙂

    Comment by Amit — February 28, 2006 @ 5:43 pm | Reply

  8. and your photoblog is very good!! 🙂 you can view my audio-video blog at http://eye.amitgupta.in/.

    Comment by Amit — February 28, 2006 @ 5:49 pm | Reply


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