Story and Photography by Don Komarechka
A new camera is always exciting, especially if it’s your first DSLR camera with plenty of bells and whistles. The whole contraption may be a little overwhelming, but a few settings and fundamental techniques can help you get started on the right foot.
After assembling the camera and setting the date and time, you might find yourself navigating a sea of settings, options and menu screens trying to grasp the full capability of the camera. Most cameras offer far more options than you’ll ever need to explore, but there are valuable settings to track down and adjust before you get started.
JPG or RAW
The age-old question in digital photography is what quality setting should you use to capture your images? Every image you see on the Internet is in JPG format, but many of these photographs start as an unprocessed “RAW” files provided by the camera. This raw information requires editing and processing before a sharable or printable image can exist, and demands your time and attention for each image captured.
RAW image processing is not for everyone, especially beginners just learning the ropes. It can, however, offer much more flexibility in post-processing and can save you from occasional incorrect exposures. Software such as Adobe Lightroom is an excellent tool to handle RAW images; add this software to your list of things to learn as you become more familiar with your camera.
If you’re shooting with your new camera in JPG mode, you can still expect exceptional results. Be sure to choose the largest file size as well as “fine” or “superfine,” whichever is the highest setting your camera offers. This will create larger files, but memory has never been cheaper and it’s good to start with the highest quality image you’re comfortable with.
Back button focus
Right off the bat, you should learn a better way to auto focus the camera. On almost every camera you’ve used before, holding down the shutter button half-way would focus the lens (and meter for the exposure), while pressing all the way down would trigger the shutter. What if you wanted to focus and shoot independently? This can help get more accurate focus and better timing for your images.
The biggest advantage for a landscape shooter is that you’ll never have to put your lens into manual focus again. You can shoot without refocusing the image, keeping your subject sharp as you recompose your scene (most useful on a tripod). Action and wildlife shooters will find this setting useful when trying to lock focus on a subject without the camera “hunting” for focus if the subject isn’t located precisely on a focus point designated by the camera. This is a valuable technique to learn from the start, and most cameras allow this to be configured.
This is configured in a different way on various cameras; on Nikon cameras, look for a setting called “AE-L/AF-L button” and set it to “AF-ON.” Canon cameras allow this to be set through a custom function, often called “Shutter/AE Lock button,” and setting this to “AE Lock/AF” will be your ticket. Most cameras have this feature, and finding the exact location may require a brief exploration of the manual.
Most modern cameras allow you to push the limits by using sensitivity settings beyond what the manufacturer would consider acceptable. If the camera is rated for ISO 6,400 as a maximum, you may be able to push the sensitivity even farther, as high as ISO 25,600 in many cases. The quality falls off quickly, but it can be helpful in a pinch. A grainy/noisy photo is almost always better than a blurry one!
These settings are not labelled conventionally, and on Canon cameras this needs to be enabled via a “Custom Function” menu. Every camera will have a different number of custom functions, but you’re looking for one called “ISO Expansion.” Once enabled, most cameras will have an H1 and H2 setting available when selecting the ISO sensitivity of the camera. H1 corresponds to double the previous value, and H2 is typically double the value of H1. If the camera’s highest setting is normally 6,400, you now have access to 12,800 and 25,600 settings. Nikon labels these settings Hi1 and Hi2, sometimes with steps in between. Look for these options on other cameras as well. Some manufacturers (like Canon) choose to keep this disabled by default, as you might not be completely happy with the results. Expanded ISO settings are an advantage, as long as you’re aware of potentially lower-quality results.
There’s much more to explore “under the hood” of your camera, and as you become more acquainted with the hardware you can dig even deeper. With these extra options and techniques at your disposal, it’s time to take your lens cap off and start experimenting!
To read more great how-to articles from Outdoor Photography Canada magazine pick up the January 2014 issue of OPC today, or subscribe!