Using the automatic settings on your digital camera is handy, but after a while you’ll notice it doesn't make your pictures turn out perfect. In fact, you’ll probably still have to adjust exposure and/or other settings in post production anyway.
I hate spending hours on end in front of the computer screen sorting through photos. For this reason, I always try and capture the best photo I can within the camera. That meant learning to do without the auto-function buttons, and doing so has absolutely minimized the amount of editing time required for post-production.
Learning to shoot without your AF crutch takes a bit of practice at first, but if you have the time to practice, your images will be closer to perfect whether you plan to edit them after getting them downloaded or not.
Here are some simple ways to capture the best image within the camera prior to downloading.
Set White Balance
What type of light are you shooting in? Is it cloudy, sunny, day or night? Are you shooting indoors under incandescent or fluorescent lights? Set your white balance to match conditions in order to optimize the colors in your photos before shooting.
White balance is how lighting and temperature affect the color of white in your photos. Settings in the camera will allow you to correlate the color temperature to the lighting available in the shot. For example, if you are shooting on an overcast day, set your white balance to 9000 -10000 K for Shade or Heavily Overcast Sky. If you’re shooting inside under florescent lighting, using the 4,000 - 5,000 K setting for Florescent Lamps.
Using the auto white balance function may work for some photos, but not others. Having white objects in your photo will help the auto function to work properly, but be mindful of colorful scenes, or those having mixed lighting as they may not come out as planned. An adverse affect caused by using the auto white balance function will cost you more editing time in the end.
Where Is The Light
Besides setting the white balance to match the atmosphere you're shooting in, you'll want to pay attention to which direction the natural light is coming from in order to set up the shot so the light will fall on your subject.
Oftentimes in wildlife photography you may not have the opportunity to take a shot in the best lighting conditions, but in this next example you will see how lighting can affect the same shot.
The first shot of the Bald Eagles was angled more into the light which washed out the color of the sky. The second photo shows a very blue sky because the light was shining from behind the camera and onto the subject.
Look for the light to set up your shot, but if conditions won't allow you to adjust your location, you might try adjusting the ISO.
How much light needed for a good exposure will depend on shutter speed, aperture, and the camera’s ISO sensitivity. ISO is a sensor in your camera that can be adjusted to enhance lighting in a photograph.
Unfortunately, not all cameras (and lenses) are created equal when it comes to how much light it can capture. ISO ranges in digital cameras vary by model. That’s why it is so important to know your subject matter before buying a camera. (Read more about how to purchase a digital camera in the previous blogpost: 4 Easy Steps for You to Find the Best Digital Camera.)
I have found that early morning wildlife photography or night photography requires a little finessing of the ISO in order to shoot faster for a sharp image, but no matter what model your camera is, there are consequences when adding too much.
The basic rule is to keep the ISO as low as possible for a good exposure without it adding too much grain and noise in your photos. Normal ISO ranges run between 200 and 1600, but it is a good idea to experiment to see for yourself what your camera is capable of.
Sunny days call for an ISO setting of 100 or 200, but every time you double the ISO (like from 200 to 400) you only need half as much light which means you can adjust your shutter speed or aperture to shoot a little bit faster.
In the three moon photos below, note the aperture, speed and iso settings for each. As you can see, each combination shows a different look at the full moon.
On this particular night, the moon looked orange close to the horizon. The first shot had too small of an aperture to light the shot, even with the iso at 2500. The second shot showed an accurate color at the horizon on the first night. On the the following night, I missed the shot at the horizon, so the color is displayed accurately for when the moon appeared higher in the sky.
f/22 1/250s ISO2500 f/11 1/250s ISO2500 f/9 1/80s ISO500
By adjusting the ISO, I was able to shoot with larger and smaller apertures, and faster or slower speeds in order to find the sweet spot for a true depiction of the moon's color. You might also be interested in reading Quick and Easy Moon Photography Tips.
When trying to capture a full moon, you may have such a slow shutter speed that the image blurs due to the earth’s rotation. (See image to the left, below.) By adjusting the ISO higher, I can eliminate blur and capture a sharper image by using a faster shutter speed. (See image to the right, below).
Another way to know whether your photos have good lighting and exposure is by using the camera‘s histogram function while shooting.
Shoot using Histograms
By setting your viewfinder to include the image histogram, you can tell very quickly whether the photo is exposed properly.
The histogram shows the tonal range of brightness values in the image - from shadow, to mid-tones, to highlights. Strive to match the histogram to the tonal range in the scene.
Under normal lighting, you’ll want the histogram to peak near the center of the graph. A little left to center will be a bit darker, and a little to the right a bit lighter. In a darker scene such as a sunrise, the histogram should be more towards the shadows end of the graph. That said, if you take the shot and the histogram shows a peak in the highlights area, you’ll want to adjust your settings (aperture, speed, iso) to capture a darker image. Otherwise, your beautiful sunrise will be washed out with muddied tones of gray.
Capture with Sharp Focus
Oftentimes, photographers believe they can hand hold their camera for a sharp image, but the truth of it will be exposed once photos are viewed at 100% on a computer screen.
I hate blurry images! That’s why I use a tripod or a rest when shooting wildlife or landscapes. Just don't forget to make sure the camera is straight and level before taking the shot.
(See crooked horizon in the example below.)
Another way to ensure sharp images is by making sure the shutter speed is fast enough to eliminate blur. Bird photography is a prime example of using a fast shutter speed to capture sharp images since you can't ask your subject to hold still for a photo.
As you can see in the Cedar Waxwing photo below, the first image looks like a pretty good shot. But notice how soft the image is when it is enlarged? Had this been in sharp focus, the cropped image would have shown more detail in the birds feathering, beak, and eyes. So even though it was a nice shot of a Cedar Waxwing pair, the lack of sharpness would not allow for a good, enlarged photo. Unfortunately, that was the only chance I had at this shot. The couple never appeared snuggled together on a branch in perfect lighting again that summer.
The subject moves around a lot in wildlife photography, so using a fast shutter speed is just as important as choosing the right aperture to ensure the entire subject is in focus rather than just its beak. ISO can help tweak the shadows in less-than-ideal lighting conditions, too. Just don’t tweak too far!
In the next example, the two Pied-billed Grebe remain in crisp focus even after cropping. Note the feather detail, the focused eyes, and water droplets on the one's back.
A great image is a sharp image even after cropping in your favorite photo editing app.
Photo Editing Apps
After downloading photos to the computer, open them in your favorite photo editing app to begin the arduous task of post-production.
Aside from capturing the shot, this is the second most exciting time in photography because you never really know what you’ve captured until seeing them enlarged on a computer screen. Like opening presents, you will most certainly be eager to see that one special shot and whether you captured what you had hoped.
Culling the Herd
If you’re anything like me, you’ve taken several hundred photographs, and some in many different exposures to capture the perfect shot. Since you won’t be using all those shots, sort through the herd in the ‘fit to screen’ view and delete all the junk.
Even after the first look while checking for good exposure, sharpness, and composition, you can still be fooled into thinking you’ve captured a crisp photo. To ensure you keep only quality photographs, review them again at 100% magnification on the computer screen to closely examine the finer details and again, delete the junk.
Crop for a good composition using high resolution quality print settings.
Make sure you don’t crop too small if you’re planning to have large prints made. The rule of thumb for photo resolution is 300 pixels per inch. By dividing the pixel size of your image by 300, you will know how large or small your image will end up being and whether a high-quality print can be made.
If you’re looking for a specific sized print, multiply the size of your height and width by 300 pixels per inch to get the pixel size required of the image file. Likewise, when you are uploading images to the web, don’t use a high-resolution file. Otherwise, it will take forever… and I mean FOREVER for the page to load. 72 pixels per inch is plenty big on resolution, and there should also be preferred pixel size on the website you are loading to.
RAW versus JPG Images
The advantage of working with JPG images is the file size is much smaller, so if you are taking a lot of pictures and need space on the camera card, you may decide to shoot in JPG rather than RAW because the image doesn’t save as much information in the file as RAW.
That said, JPG images do not contain all the image information. Therefore, editing a JPG image may not work out so great in the end - if at all.
Shooting in RAW offers the most editing control over the photo's color, exposure, white balance, sharpness, shadows, etcetera.
If you have attempted to capture the best image possible within the camera by using the steps above, then you shouldn’t have to do a whole lot of fixing in the end. But you’ll want to double check a few things before calling the image good.
1. check white balance and adjust as needed to make sure the whites in your photo appear white.
2. make sure you don’t overdo the blacks and contrast to the point of losing details. Maintain a tasteful and pleasing image, not gaudy and obnoxious.
3. sharpen your image if it needs a small tweak but junk any images that require a lot of sharpening.
4. after all is edited, take a break.
Walking away after sitting at the computer for hours is imperative for a good and tasteful edit. Come back a couple of hours later, or even the next day to take another look. You may find that you got a little overzealous with the contrast, or other editing tool. Luckily, RAW images will allow you to revert to the original image and start again.
Lastly, save your images in whatever format needed for end use. Don’t forget to add your name as the photographer within the file information, and copyright it. I like to save photos as high-resolution JPGs for ease of ordering prints, and I save others as low-resolution JPGs for ease of use online.
I hope this helps you to limit the amount of post-production time you’re already spending. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather be out taking photos rather than sitting in front of the computer screen for hours editing.
Let me know how it goes, will you?
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Bray, Chris, 2020, Australian Geographic, https://chrisbrayphotography.com/tips/raw_vs_jpg.php
Cambridge in Colour, 2020, Tutorials: White Balance, https://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/white-balance.htm
Cambridge in Colour, 202, Camera Histograms: Tones & Contrast, https://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/histograms1.htm
Golowczynski, Matt, July 18, 2017, Cheat sheet: How to understand ISO settings, https://www.digitalcameraworld.com/tutorials/cheat-sheet-how-to-understand-iso-settings
Nikon USA, June 29, 2021, Understanding ISO Sensitivity, https://www.nikonusa.com/en/learn-and-explore/a/tips-and-techniques/understanding-iso-sensitivity.html
Patterson, Steve, Image Resolution and Print Quality, https://www.photoshopessentials.com/essentials/image-quality/