The process of gently breaking in new cameras.

The web is absolutely ablaze with gushing demonstrations of awe concerning the Nikon D800. I feel sorry for the folks at Canon who only launched a "very nice" revision called the 5Dmk3 instead of a revolutionary new photo machine.  If you read between the lines on Dubovoy's essay at the Luminous Landscape you'll quickly realize that this is the second coming of the ultimate camera.  (the Hasselblad 500 series was the first, IMNSHO).  

I had a call from a photographer friend today who owns the latest digital Hasselblad camera, a case of incredible lenses and shift adapters for it and a complete Canon system with all the tilt/shift lenses and most of the trimmings (including a brand new 5Dmk3).  His question for me:  "The camera store called.  They have a Nikon 800e set aside for me.  Should I pick up one and some of the tilt/shift Nikons?  And the 14-24mm?  And the 24-120mm?  And maybe one or two longer lenses, just in case?

See, not everyone's business is underwater.  But as good as the Nikon 800 is I'm sure that Canon will leapfrog over it.  They always do.  

My friend shoots differently than me.  He's an architecture photographer with acres and acres of experience and he comes home from a shoot with 40 or, at the most 50 shots to process and store. For him the file sizes are not a burden.  I shot 685 files today for a large medical practice today.  Each one of the files from my Sony a77 was about 25.1 megabytes.  I'm grinding through more gigabytes in day (post processing, galleries and storage) that he does in a busy week.  Different styles.  Different subject matters.  I do people. He doesn't stuff that doesn't move around, blink or grimace.  

Would I like a camera that shoots bigger files?  Not right now, thanks.  I'm waiting for the price of 4 terabyte drives to drop under $50.  But honestly, if I were putting together a system from scratch right now it would be kind of crazy not to strongly consider the Nikon.

I'm on a different track right now.  I'm more interested in the "user interface" than the absolute performance of a camera.  And after having just used the Sony a77 camera for two very different location assignments, one day after the other, I would have to say that the EVF on that camera is a game changer for me.  Most of my work is used just like traditional advertising and marketing photos have been used for the last six or seven years.  I can check the boxes with a 24 megapixel camera.  Web pages? Check.  Ads in magazines? Check. Brochures? Check.  Projected presentations in large venues? Check.  

What kind of work do I not do?  Big landscape shots printed 30 by 40 inches or larger for acquisition by collectors and galleries.  Uncheck.  I've never done it, I don't do it now and I don't see myself rushing into that market any time soon.

So, the files size I lusted after, back when I was shooting with my favorite Nikon (the D2X) was 24 megapixels.  Back then the medium format stuff was between 22 and 28 megapixels.  Now I have two cameras that do that with relative ease.  And they are incredibly fun to use.  But they are even more fun when you practice with them and get them figured out.

Here's my handy guide to figuring out new cameras:

1.  Read the manual.  Sit with the camera in front of you and read the manual, page by page. Find the stuff you read about and figure out how to set it.

2.  Go out and shoot for a full afternoon.  Limit yourself to one lens so you don't have more variables than you can handle.  Keep a mental note of the things that stump you.

3.  If you were stumped then go back and read the manual.  Try the stuff again.

4.  Set up a tripod in your studio and try all of the ISO's, one after the other, equalizing the exposure as you go. Then look at the files really big on your monitor.  Get to know the limitations of the files at various ISO's.  

5.  Do a "best scenario" shoot with your camera so you know just how good you can expect it to be.  For me that means taking a really nice series of portraits with the camera on a good tripod and the ISO cranked down to the point where the noise is non-existent and the dynamic range is fulsome and bountiful.  Look at the resulting files on your monitor and feel good about your camera.

6.  Go out and shoot it again.  But this time try to "feel" your way through the process instead of letting your brain try to power its way through the process.  Use some automatic settings and see where you can trust the brain in the camera and where you can't.

7.  Re-read the manual.  Then go out and try it again.  If you shoot sports go shoot some sports.  If you shoot portraits, do that.  If you shoot landscapes do that. Figure out the strengths and weaknesses of the camera in your specialty and then test ways to work around the weaknesses.

Once you break your camera in you'll have respect for what it's capable of and where it falls short.  And you'll be able to leverage or compromise.

The Sony a57 is a speed demon.  That's a plus.  The EVF isn't as good as the one in the a77. That's a minus.  That means I spend some time post viewing some critical stuff on the very good back panel screen.  But as I zero it in and see the differences between what the EVF shows me and what my studio monitor shows me I can depend on the rear screen less and my experience more.

An old Leica shooter once told me that you don't become a real photographer until you can set the shutter speed, aperture and focus of an M series Leica in the dark.  And then he added that the authentic shooters could also load the camera in the dark.  Pitch dark.  Not just "too dark for the AF module.."

I would submit that by getting to know your camera and carrying it with you all the time you'll get to know, almost unconsciously, exactly where the exposure comp button is and where the review button is.  How the camera sits in your hand.  How long it will take to start up.  How to fly through the menus to get exactly where you need to be.  And a lot more.  It's all about time with your camera.

In the end, if you know how to squeeze the most out of your camera you'll find you won't need the camera to do so much.  You'll know how to get the most out of it in every situation.

I know the a77 is noisy from ISO 800 up unless I convert files in DXO or some other program.  But I also know that for anything that doesn't move I can use the multi-frame noise reduction and get astoundingly clean files.  I use that a lot.  I use ISO 50...a lot. And it looks incredible.

Would I like a new Nikon D800?  If they come out with a body that has an EVF it would be hard for me to resist.  From where I'm sitting right now the one thing it does better than the Sony (big, detailed files with clean high ISO performance) is offset by the pleasure and usefulness of the EVF.  The files I'm working with are big enough and the dynamic range I'm getting is close as well.  Everything is a compromise.

Ah well.  Right now is the time for Nikon owners to strut around.  And they should enjoy it.  I remember too well the fallow days earlier in the decade when they huddled around campfires in fifty gallon barrels and prayed for the day they'd have noiseless files at 400 and something with a full frame sensor.  They watched many good friends succumb to the lure of the Canon miracle machines.  How the wheel turns....


  1. Well said. I'm always amazed at people who buy expensive cameras and send them back after two or three weeks, having decided their not for them. Maybe some people do know that quickly whether a particular camera will work for them - I'm not one of them. I find it takes me some months to get to the point where I have the camera figured out and it stops getting in my way. For me until you reach that point - the point at which the camera has stopped being something I consciously think about - I am not able to truly decide if it works for me. Of course, after a few months, I have found out it's quirks and weaknesses and learned how to make it work for me.

    I still have every manual for every camera I've ever owned but judging from the forums reading the manual is a lost art.

    1. I enjoy reading a well-written manual, but some of the manuals written for cameras today are laughable. A good manual will keep me coming back to it again and again.

  2. Load a Leica M in the dark .... Love to see that done with an M3 or M2. lol

    I have no problem with the aspect of reading a camera manual before using a new camera to familiarise yourself but I do have a problem with most digital cameras these days in that they have so many features, menus, sub menus, sub-sub menus, sub-sub-sub menus {sigh} to grasp. Arrrggghhhh - I just want to pick up the camera and shoot it not have to take on the task of a computer course! :-)

    Old Cameras 1-0 Modern Cameras

  3. Off subject but new raw converter in photoshop supports - A57

  4. I can load,unload AND develop the roll of film from my Praktica in pitch darkness. I'm also able to set stuff on my camera body in utter darkness.
    So I think I qualify as a "real photographer".
    Today I`ll look to myself in the mirror and bask in the soft glow.
    Then, I`ll go out with my G3 and take photographs.

  5. Finally, MFT has caught up with APS-C! But wait, APS-C has moved on and lowered noise and increased dynamic range - it is practically full frame! But wait, full frame is the new medium formaty! Ahhhhh - medium format has moved on too!

    At some level it goes both ways: new gear moves the technical quality forward, or changes the ergonomics - the differences are real. On the other hand, we've had pretty amazing cameras for a while now - new gear is unlikely to dramatically change my images.

  6. Kirk: I have some remarkable files from my first digital camera, a Minolta 7Hi. That is, remarkable for my kind of photography. I have beautiful 13x19 prints from an old Epson 1280 that still startle me today when I look at them. Now, would they be even "better" if I had used a file from my Nikon D7000? Of course, technically. And side by side there'd be no comparison, technically. Viewed up close, that is. But I wonder how much difference there'd be if they were viewed from, say, 5-10 feet away. In other words, far enough away that I was actually engaging the photograph and not the technical qualities of the print. And, here's the thing. The Minolta 7Hi, with all its limitations (and there were several biggies), was a joy to use. 28-200 fast zoom. Macro at 135mm. Screw on 3oz. teleconverter to 300mm. Light. Balanced. And fun, frankly. So, have fun with your new cameras!

  7. Gosh, I really do wish my 5d3 had 36mp of clean pixels. Really, I do. But it doesn't. Whatever is deficient in my photography, megapixels is not one of them. I read about the game changing D800 (that really needs to be used on a heavy tripod with live view and zeiss lenses or a few very select Nikon lenses if one wants to see any visible improvements over the more pedestrian canon 5d series or even nikons very own D4) what will I do?

    I don't know how I am going to survive hobbled by 24 megapixels! Ok, not really. I guess I won't be able to print those 20x24's without hanging my head in shame, oh wait, my epson 3800 won't print that large and I fear not too many people want framed prints that take up the whole wall of my living room---including me.

    Ok, time to make sure my batteries are charged cause I'm going out to take some technically inferior pictures.

  8. Excellent advice on how to break in a new camera, Kirk! That's how I did it with my Canon 5D and then my 5D Mk II. I think I'll skip the 5D Mk III, and not because of Nikon D800 envy. Yesterday I went over to Precsion Camera and ordered my Olympus OM-D E-M5, and was thrilled this morning to see that Adobe Camera Raw 6.7 supports it 9and your Sony A57). I will soon be spending several evenings and weekend studying the new owners manual and going out an practicing with the new camera and lenses. I know that you said to use a single lens, but I just couldn't constrain myself to do that...

  9. Yay to being a real photographer. Seriously, that guy can't be serious. Anyone that shot film can load a film blindfolded, let alone setting Aperture and Shutter Speed.
    Or maybe all the months dismantling and putting together my rifle in the army blindfolded, in mud, while being yelled at, with gloves, without gloves, behind the back, with gas mask, ... and always against the clock made my fine motor skills and visualization superhuman. ;-)

  10. Kirk,
    Enjoying the new site and recent insights. You have me really tempted to dip my toe into the Sony waters. Any comment on the noise of a57 vs a77? Also, have you tried the 16-50/2.8 on the a57? If so, does it pair well? Thanks!

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  12. I am on a similar mission with another exceptional, recently released camera, the E-M5. I totally agree with your assessment of what's needed to really learn a modern camera: study, use, repeat! Just as the D800 adds some new capabilities - both like and unlike what has come before, the E-M5 is not an E-P3 with an EVF - the new IBIS, to name just one feature will take lots of trial and error to really explore and use intuitively.

  13. Seeing the success of the D800, I'm sure Sony will leapfrog the D800 pixel-wise with their next full frame offering. If they use the same pixel pitch as the A77, they could do about 54mp, which is a lot. It would justify their expensive Zeiss lens lineup. The problem is, the noise would also probably be like the A77, not so hot anywhere above ISO100.

  14. My way of breaking in a camera is less systematic than yours but works for me. I do try to read the manual first. Then I just go and take shots with it, then view the results at various magnifications on my iMac's monitor. I tend to stick to ISO, AF, and exposure settings that I figure I will typically use. If the camera has an "Easy" mode I use it to see how it handles the various settings. Your idea of using just one lens for part of the breaking-in process is a good idea.

  15. When an instruction book was +-20 pages it was easy! That way you had time to learn to load a Leica in the dark! Loading Leicas for most new photographers is always in the dark! I can! Yippee!.
    I hate those Gutenberg Bibles on a modern DSLR.Then you pull out the flash, another Big Book.
    I hate DSLR. I want to set my speed, aperture and focus.
    Photography for me is "See the picture, Push the button!".
    I make instant coffee. I did Not buy a Cappuccino/Latte machine.There are places for that service, meet friends and LOOK AT PRINTS. Not on a screen!

  16. "Do a "best scenario" shoot with your camera so you know just how good you can expect it to be."

    This is the guide/tip I wish the "forum experts" would actually bother to do. They all insist on taking indoor photos of flat looking lamps at high isos and low shutter speeds and complaining about blur and lack of sharpness. Great guide Kirk!

  17. One can be selective in reading these 350 page manuals that come with the DSLRs. That is what an index is for. I don't use many features on contemporary cameras, such as scene settings, video functions or HDR in camera, I have no need for them so I don't have to read about them. Now my manual is down to a virtual 20 pages! So you don't think me a Luddite, I do own a Nespresso machine. Two expresso shots before reading the manual keeps me focused.

  18. Current Sony SLT models have ? button, if you don't know what a certain mode or feature does, push this button. Moreover, this "?" button works inside the feature to explain what each option and selection does what. Apple users can download PDF manuals for their cameras and load them into iTunes, it will show up in your iBooks app on iPhone and and iPad, very handy stuff in the field.

    1. That's great information. I'm downloading to my phone asap. Very cool.


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