Magic Camera Settings

Just before they leave for vacation, they send me an email

Every year in early summer I start getting the Magic Settings email requests. Basically, they all pretty much go like this: "I just bought a new Nikon XXX camera and am leaving on vacation tomorrow. I was wondering if you could send me your settings file so I can load it into my camera and get better pictures."

(Oh oh. Thom's turning red and steam is coming out of his ears, that can't be good.)

First things first. Rule number one of Important Things to Remember in Life is being violated here, and we need to address that first. That rule is this: never buy something just prior to needing to rely upon it. First, it might fail almost immediately, but you didn't account for any time to deal with that if it happens. Equipment with electronics in it—and that includes cameras—tends to fail with a few days of first use if it has a manufacturing fault. After a couple weeks of use, such equipment tends to be pretty darned reliable right up to the point where you abuse it or use up its expected life span. But those first few days? Think 5% chance of failure and you won't be far wrong. So, if you're going to go on a special vacation this year and want to preserve it in photo memories, don't wait until the last minute to decide to upgrade your camera equipment. Get it early enough so that you can make sure it isn't going to suffer early component failure and that the QC the factory did actually worked.

Unfortunately rule number two is being broken, too: never rely upon something until you learn how to use it. For example, Nikon's manuals for their high-end cameras are all over 400 pages long. These cameras are that complex. Sure, you might not use half the features they have, but even if you only use half that's still 200 pages of manual to read and understand. 

Sometimes those emails I get include something like "I plan to read the manual (or one of your books on the camera) on the plane, but it would really help if I had your settings as a starting place." This is equivalent to saying two things: (1) read the manual for me, and (2) read my mind. I can do #1, and it generally produces books that are two or three times longer than the manual because Nikon skips over a lot of things or doesn't explain context. But #2 I can't do yet. I've tried it with a few women in my life, but I haven't yet perfected my technique, apparently. 

But let me play the game these folks want me to play for a moment. My usual JPEG settings for a Nikon DSLR are a Picture Control of Neutral with Contrast set to -1. Why? Because I'm trying to optimize the data captured by my camera (actually, many of you reading this will know that I go much further than that most of the time, using a UniWB setting, shooting raw only, adopting a linear Custom Curve, and several other settings that aren't "normal" [the folks that send me those emails just read that as "blah, blah, buh-blah, blah blah.";~]). But play along with my JPEG settings for a moment. What if I were to provide them to the unsuspecting, hasn't-read-the-manual-yet, about-to-go-on-vacation user? Well, I'd get a nasty email after the vacation was over, I suspect. "My colors are dull, and I have to spend too much time post processing to get anything usable" they'd write me. So maybe I should suggest Picture Control Vivid, with Saturation +1, Contrast +1, and Sharpening 8. Think I'd get any emails after suggesting that? You bet, and they'd go something like this: "I tried your settings but all the red flowers I shot—my wife was wearing one every day—don't look right." 

The truth of the matter is that there are no magic settings. None. Nada. Zilch. Don't exist. Indeed, DSLR users gravitate towards such cameras because they want to take control over what the camera does and doesn't do. And that takes thought and study to master, not a file with suggested settings from someone who doesn't usually shoot JPEGs in the first place. 

Moreover, there isn't one right way to do anything in photography. You'll note that in my basic Sharpening and Black and White Conversion tutorial articles on this site, I don't write: do it like this. Instead, I write about what's happening, how that impacts different things, and then provide several different options that you can explore as starting places. There really isn't a right and wrong way to do anything in photography. If you were to look at only straight prints off an Ansel Adams negative, for example, you might decide that he wasn't a very good photographer. But it's really the combination of all the things he did from start to finish that produced his work. 

Okay, some of you are probably still complaining. "I got great prints from my film cameras all the time, so those film cameras must have had magic settings." Not really. Most people used negative film, which Kodak and Fujifilm pushed to have extreme latitude towards error, and for which the photo finishing companies then produced equipment that looked for common errors and fixed. Digital has some issues that make it a little more difficult to apply the same after-the-fact just-fix-it magic: at both ends of the digital capture there are brick walls that can't be leaped. Overexposure produces pixels that all have the same value: 255,255,255. Underexposure produces pixels that cannot be distinguished from noise. Only if you capture data between those walls do you have any chance at getting the image you're likely to want. Thus, Thom's Magic Camera Setting #1 is:

  • The Histogram. If you don't know where it is on your camera, find it. If your camera supports channel histograms, make sure that's enabled and use them. Of course, you'll need some study to understand what the histogram is telling you, but remember those walls I just mentioned: the noise wall is at the left side of the histogram, the brightness wall is the right side. If you've got things slammed up against either wall, you've got data that isn't going to be useful in the final image. In really contrasty scenes, that might be impossible to avoid, but at least you'll be able to make a decision about which wall to let your data escape over.

As for your other image settings, as I noted earlier, I can't win. I will say that Nikon's defaults for all the current cameras tend to be on the slightly contrasty, slightly saturated, slightly unsharpened side. I personally prefer to work with low contrast, no extra saturation, lightly sharpened images. But I also fall in the minority of most photographers. 

Surely there must be other settings that I can suggest. Yep, and #2 in my recommendations is a doozy.

  • All or Nothing focus. Either put the camera on its most automated autofocus ability (Auto Area AF, usually), or manually focus. The reason I suggest you avoid the in-between settings—which, by the way, are the ones I use most—is because they all require great study and practice to master. All those middle-level settings have nuances and implications that you need to know about to take advantage of. You aren't going to pick those things up by reading the manual on the plane and not practicing, and I guarantee you'll get a lot of out-of-focus pictures if you try that.

I've got one more big suggestion:

  • Control something. One of the most important controls on modern DSLRs is the exposure mode setting. On the consumer cameras we have Scene exposure modes (sports, macro, landscape, night portrait, etc.) plus the standard exposure modes (Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, and Manual). The one exposure mode setting you never want to use is Auto. The only time you use that is when you hand the camera to a waiter to take your picture. If you don't want to venture in to the standard modes, then at least pick the Scene exposure mode that comes closest to what you want to do. For the rest of you, if you've got some background in photography then you'll know that Aperture-priority is the usual choice, because it impacts focus decisions. In both cases, you're picking something and the camera is doing its best to make the other things work in conjunction with that. 

That suggestion leads to my final suggestion: control more. As you get more comfortable with the camera, turn off the all-automatic stuff and get away from the defaults one thing at a time. Don't try to change all variables at once. Change one thing at a time and make sure you're comfortable in what that change produces before moving on to another feature. Many things on Nikon cameras can be tackled in a hierarchical way, too. For instance, Picture Controls. Start your experimentation by just picking the named Picture Controls. Find the one that you like for the situation you're shooting. Then and only then drop down into the Picture Control to change the individual components of it, and change only one of those things at a time (even though there is some interaction between them, it's still better to tackle one at a time, IMHO).

The best, most concise instruction manual in the modern world comes on the back of shampoo bottles: lather, rinse, repeat. So here's the camera manual equivalent: learn, experiment, control, repeat. Pick one feature or option to learn about, experiment with it to see what the range of things it does might be, figure out how you want to control it, then repeat the process. The expanded version can be found in my books ;~). 

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