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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How to Get Great Straight Out of the Camera Shots From Your Digital SLR

I mentioned in this post that I would reveal to you the secret about DSLRs. Then I thought, maybe it isn't a secret, maybe it just seemed like a secret to me, because I knew absolutely nothing about DSLRs prior to buying my first one back in July. Either way, I hope this post will stop at least one of you from bashing your head against the wall or throwing your expensive new camera out of a moving car in frustration because you are not getting the picture quality you expected from your DSLR.

I bought my DSLR after my third child was born. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get a good picture of the boy with my point and shoot. The problem was that 99% of my picture taking was happening inside in poor lighting conditions. With the point and shoot, I had two choices, I could use the flash, which completely washed out my son's pale complexion, or I could ramp up the ISO, which invariably lead to a shot so grainy I wound up deleting it. I needed a fast lens and a camera with better low-light capabilities. I needed a DSLR.

Unfortunately, buying a DSLR was not, as I had expected, the immediate answer to my picture-taking woes. In fact, I had new woes. My images now lacked sharpness and the colors were dull and lifeless. Nothing I did improved the quality of my photographs. I was frustrated and upset. I considered returning the camera, since I preferred the pictures I took with my point and shoot to the ones I was now getting. I went back to where I purchased the camera. The salesperson told me that I was expecting too much and would never get well-optimized images straight out of the camera. He told me that all DSLR images need some post processing. I was outraged. I could not believe that I bought an $800 camera that could not produce, without significant work on my part, images that were at least comparable to those produced by my $200 point and shoot.

After much investigation, I discovered that it IS possible to get great straight out of the camera shots with a DSLR. I'll say it again - you can get great SOOC shots! The secret is in the processing, as the salesperson had told me, but the in-camera processing, not post processing. It turns out point and shoots are specifically manufactured to produce sharp, saturated snapshots that are pleasing to the consumer eye. Manufacturers achieve this by setting the cameras' default settings to automatically apply fairly heavy-handed in-camera processing. In other words, the cameras are pre-set to add sharpness and saturation to the images they capture. DSLRs, on the other hand, either apply very light processing, or no processing at all, depending on whether you are shooting in JPEG or RAW. This deficit of in-camera processing allows you, as the photographer, to control how you want your photographs to look. You can control the look of your photographs one of two ways - you can spend time post processing, or you can change the in-camera settings on your camera. Now, I am not saying that you won't want to post-process your photos. What I am saying is that, in most instances, if you get your exposure right (more on that to follow), you will not HAVE to post-process.

Here's what you should do: Sit down with your camera's manual. All DSLRs have menus that allow you to go in and tweak the camera's settings. Learn how to do this. Play with your camera. Decide whether you like the bright, contrasty colors produced by your camera's "Vivid" (on Nikons) setting, or if you prefer colors that are more true to life. Determine how much sharpening you want applied to your pictures in-camera. Is your camera shooting dark? Play with the exposure compensation setting. You can change anything you want. Anytime you want. And that is a beautiful thing.

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