Breaking in a camera that is new to you. Each camera has a personality, you have to spend time understanding it to make good work with it.

This is a Nikon D810. Widely believed to be the best "all around" DSLR
in the marketplace today. Can I just pick one up and shoot it
and get perfect files right out of the box? Nope.

The web is packed with articles about how to choose a new camera, reviews of the latest camera products, and charts, graphs and infographics about how they perform. But in very few cases are there articles that tell you how to go about breaking in a new camera so that it consistently does what you want it to do. 

I'm sure we each have a different approach to getting familiar with the way our cameras operate but I'm equally sure that we're all looking for similar things: Good color. Good exposure. Good focus, Just the right sharpening. Pleasing or accurate tonality. 

If there was one universal camera menu, and if changes in that menu effected all cameras in the same ways, we'd only have to figure out one universal camera workflow and then overlay that to all the cameras we shoot with. But, clearly, this is not the way our camera universe works right now. Every maker has their own color palette, their own ideas about what constitutes the right exposure formula and so much more. We all want consistency but sometimes we really have to work at it to get what we want. 

I am using the D810 as an example because
I've had a somewhat more difficult time getting used to this camera than to most others. I'm finally getting to know the camera well enough to depend on it without needing to go to extremes. The one thing that is consistent for me, in getting good results from a camera, is the process of becoming familiar with it. Doing this is time consuming but worth the effort.

The first thing I do when evaluating a new camera is to make sure the white balance matches my intention for the scene. While many don't realize it, white balance ultimately effects exposure. You may have noticed that changing the WB of photographs in Lightroom moves the histogram and makes the screen representation lighter or darker (in many cases). Changing the color in a file means increasing or decreasing the output of one or more of the color channels. The change effects the overall mix of the colors in the image file and reduces or increases the overall levels. 

I like to test in the great outdoors or in situations where I mostly will use my cameras. If I go out to shoot tests in direct sunlight I set the camera to the daylight setting (sun icon) and use it for all of the shots I make in direct sun. You could also set a kelvin temperature if you wanted to. I'd choose 5500K for Texas sun between the period after sunrise and before the sun starts to set. Having a known color temperature reduces one variable in my overall camera assessment.

When I am first working with a new camera I take along an incident light meter and make readings the way I have always done with film. I start at ISO 100 because that's generally the setting for the highest overall quality from most cameras. Some start at 200 ISO and I'll use that setting if applicable to a particular camera (Olympus).  I shoot at the externally metered setting and then take frames at the camera's metered setting, if the two are different. In the field I evaluated the histogram in the camera to see the differences between a "camera exposure" and a "reference exposure." But the real test is on the monitor, back in the studio. In this example (the Nikon D810) my camera, when used with evaluative metering, tends to underexpose by anywhere from one third to one full stop, compared to the readings given by my known Sekonic meter. When I use the camera for work I lean on the external meters. 

The disparity is only true for the evaluative meter so you have to take that into consideration. If I use the spot meter or central area meter (in camera) there are fewer variations and I am less at the mercy of the cameras evaluative algorithm and more at the mercy of my own bad technique or laziness. If you generally use spot or central weighted metering your initial tests should also be at those settings.

Next up in the evaluation is getting to know the difference between your raw files and your Jpeg files. In some cameras the Jpegs and the raw files match up perfectly when you compare them on your studio monitor. Some cameras (and post processing systems) show differences, mostly in exposure, between the two file types. I like to set up a shot, meter and color balance it perfectly and then shoot a series of Jpegs and Raws at the same settings. While my Sony Rx10s have files that match I'm finding that the raws from my Nikon D810 are consistently darker than the Jpegs. I would have assumed the opposite since the dynamic range of the Nikon raw files is large enough to allow a further exposure to the right of the histogram scale but logic doesn't always win. 

The exposure tests you do will give you a good base from which to bias your camera for best results from each file type. 

Once you get the camera to match your studio monitor, in terms of histogram on camera and image on studio monitor you can go back to your camera and tweak the LCD screen so the output to the screen matches from tiny monitor to big monitor. I used the manual settings instead of letting the camera decide the levels to display based on ambient lighting. If you set your camera up this way you should carry around a loupe like one of the ones from Hoodman or Zacuto so you can evaluate the review image or live view image on the screen without  contamination from bright light sources.

Once you've done the hard work to get the exposure feedback loops all set up you are ready to move on to other pressing issues; including choosing the right shooting profile. There are many to choose from and they vary in their names and effects, from maker to maker. Generally you'll find: Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Neutral, Natural and Monochrome. On my first foray with a camera I set the profile to "standard" and zero out any changes of the parameter settings from those that come from the factory. I consider this setting the "preferred" setting chosen by the maker. 

If you like to photograph people you should find a person who is patient and willing to stand around while you fiddle with your camera. Set the right WB and the right exposure and then shoot all the different profiles on the camera with the same, exact scene in front of your camera. Then take the shots back to the studio and look at them on your monitor. Which one works best for you? To a great extent your personal taste will be the deciding factor.  I might always choose the "neutral" setting for my work because it holds the highlights and shadows well but I might want to have a bit more saturation. Every one of the profiles in the D810 has a parameters menu that allows me to make changes to each profile or "picture control". The things that you can fine tune in the D810 include: Sharpness, Contrast, Saturation, Clarity, Brightness and Hue. 

After I've decided on the overall look of the "picture control" or profile I want I shoot tests to see if a profile can be improved for my preferred look by adding or reducing one or more of the parameters available to me in the menu. On the "neutral" picture control I generally add one + click of saturation and one + click of clarity along with a boost of one click of the "brightness" parameter. 

Those settings give me a very good Jpeg most of the time. 

When I shoot raw I tend to spend more time in post processing but I still want to start with the right file for me. In raw I tend to shoot in Nikon's new "Flat" setting which has a much lower amount of contrast and sharpening in it. I can go into post processing knowing that I've captured good shadow detail and held onto needed highlight detail and will be able to fine tune the overall contrast with curves (in PhotoShop).  I found, through testing, that this setting gave me the biggest latitude and the most flexibility when working in raw. There are always situations where you will have to deliver unretouched files, on site. Having a fine tuned profile like my example of the "neutral" setting will keep you from embarrassing yourself while having a "sloppy but flexible" file like a raw coupled with a flat profile will give you a wide range of processing options but looks flat and crummy right out of the camera. Certainly not something you'd want to deliver directly to a client!

While you are in your initial phases of evaluating a new camera be sure to turn off the extra effects in the menu. If you have the Dynamic Range Optimization (DRO) set in a Nikon you'll have a hell of a time getting exposure reliably tuned in or understanding where you might need to be for contrast settings in your Picture Settings (Profiles). The reason is that the camera is opening up the shadows and clamping down on highlight exposure to create files with more dynamic range, at the cost of "correct" exposure. The same holds true for other makers' dynamic range fixes. Some cameras can make a muddy mess of a file if their dynamic range options are misused. Learn the base settings of your camera forward and backward before adding in the geegaws. 

There are two controls that are easy to misuse which are not reversible and can make a real mess of your files. One is in camera sharpening and the other is in camera noise reduction. Less is always better. Once you bake in too much sharpening you can't effectively pull it back out. What looks good in the field, viewed on a sun-drenched, three inch monitor can look totally over sharpened on a good, big monitor. If you dial the sharpness down you have the option of adding it later, and with much finer control. The same is true for noise reduction. You can kill fine detail with too much noise reduction and all the sharpening in post production that you can muster won't bring the really fine detail back. 

Perhaps the focus on noise over the years makes people paranoid about seeing noise in their files. If you don't like noise in your image files you can get rid of it in camera but you'll have tons more control, and the option to change your mind, if you lower the amount of noise reduction in camera and fine tune it in a powerful post processing program. You'll be happy you considered this. 

Here are a few more things to think about as you are zeroing in your camera (in terms of image quality):  The lenses you choose to use on the camera will make a difference in how you set your camera. Older (manual focus) Nikon lenses have beautifully deep resolution but have lower overall contrast compared to the newest generation of lenses. Part of this was by design. Film had inherent contrast and sometime a lens with less contrast was a perfect match to a contrasty film. The perfect examples using older lenses with very contrasty Kodachrome 25 and K-chrome 64 slide films. Those films had limited dynamic ranges and the shadows blocked up easily. A lens with neutral-to-lower contrast helped limit the shadow block up while also taking down the highlights just enough to make the finished slide very pleasing. Newer lenses and newer lens coatings have different aim points. When I look at images from newer lenses I see a much harder contrast with higher edge acuity but not as nuanced a level of sheer resolution. 

It makes sense. Bayer pattern filters on even the highest resolution digital cameras are making up about 1/3 of all detail anyway so it seems to make more sense to increase edge contrast to add to the overall perception of sharpness than to include the kind of resolution that will be, largely, overlooked by Bayer Interpolation. We can argue theory till we're blue in the face but the bottom line is that different lenses have different visual signatures. 

When setting up imaging parameters we might make different choices depending on how we like to shoot and what kinds of lenses we like to shoot with. With the older Nikons, such as the 105mm f2.5 and the 135mm f2.0, as well as the 50mm f1.2 I like to add a click or two to the clarity slider in the D810 to pop up the midrange contrast. If I am using the Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens I find that approach is contraindicated as the lens already shows higher contrast. 

We might even use different settings where the same lens is concerned. If you like shooting stopped down to f8.0 with a really good, modern lens you'll likely not ever need to increase the sharpness or contrast parameters but you might actually want to pull down contrast a bit to make the images seem more pleasant and natural. If I am shooting the lens nearly wide open I might alternately want to make up for the lesser contrast and sharpness that nearly every lens evinces when used wide open. 

Another thing to take into consideration is the difference in lens coatings between old and new lenses.  Newer lenses use more efficient coatings to reduce flare. They also use more elements to correct things that matter more to a different generation of shooters. Most new shooters I meet who are into technical issues believe that every lens should aspire to high sharpness across the field, from corners to center and even to the far edges. They also want their lenses to be absolutely sharp wide open. But doing so requires many more elements, and elements of complex glass, to get into this new ballpark of lens performance. This too changes the visual characteristics of modern lenses in a way that would take too long to explain here but also effects the way you'll set up your camera. 

To sum everything up, there is no one "right" setting that works for everyone. Each person must find the optimum way to create photographs that look right to them. From overly sharpened, color neutral files from a practitioner in the far east, to the overly vivid and saturated files of America's most hated camera reviewer, and everything in between. 

The only way to figure out how a particular camera can be customized for your work is to experiment with the settings that make the files look different. But here's another thing that's important! Change only one parameter at a time. If you change everything you don't know which interactions are at work and the effects you want to achieve are harder to quantify. 

Finally, the way you set up your camera will also be driven by the final use of your images. If you print large art prints you may find that you need to bias the camera to a contrast that fits with the paper and ink you use. If your work is destined for commercial, four color process printing you may need to adjust parameters and exposures to compress your tonal range into a tighter bundle that can be handled in CMYK production. If you are aiming mostly for the web you might need add sharpness in a different way. If you shoot portraits you will set your in camera sharpening and contrast differently that you would if your end goal was landscapes. 

You'll probably find that you'll need to change parameters as you go along to match your changing intentions. Just remember that what works on one cameras doesn't necessarily overlay directly to other camera models without modification. 

As you become more and more conversant with your camera's changeable parameters you'll find that you can mimic the look and feel of images taken with other cameras, across other brands. Love the Olympus colors? I'd be willing to bet you can get really close to mimicking the looks and feel with the picture setting menus and the hue and color temperature adjustments available on a D810 --- and vice versa. 

Trial and error is your friends, as is a small notebook and a pen. Write down the stuff that works! Once you have a camera zero'd in use the hell out of it so you get your value out of the time spent. 

That's it for right now. I'd also discuss auto focusing but that's still mostly a mystery for me on many cameras. If I figure it out in any absolute way you can be sure I'll write about it. 

Is that enough detail George?

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George Beinhorn said...

This is wonderful. While reading I thought of Tri-X circa 1972 and how, with a Nikon F, the only real control we had was in exposure and developing. As a utility photographer who did a lot of scrambling from indoors to outdoor shade and sun on the same roll, I found I could get by with a very flat negative: Tri-X exposed at ISO 200 and developed in Rodinal 1:50 for 5 min at 68 degrees, shake once every 30 seconds. Then print on #4 paper (better to increase contrast on paper than film because it produces less "grain." Those were the days. Now, with advice like Kirk's we can do it all electronically before we venture out to shoot. I LOVE the advice to keep things conservative and flat (shoot Normal, turn off in-camera sharpening and noise reduction, be careful with WB).

BTW, a recent comment of mine re the Nikon D750 was butt-ignorant and ignorable. I claimed its performance on a theater event was less than admirable. Actually - yeah, stupid me - I was looking at the frames in Capture NX-D and forgot that I had an inappropriate preset turned on by default. The D750 did pretty well - usable frames, with noise correction in PS, at very high ISOs up to 50K+. But I still think the Nikon V1 did admirably given a difficult challenge.

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi George, the difference between the small and large sensor cameras is not nearly as big as we've led ourselves to believe. I think noise is the one area that you can see more capability from larger sensors but in everything else the differences tend to be less dramatic.

Dan Higgins said...

Wow! I learned a lot from this post. Thanks.

Michael Matthews said...

Having read this, it's time for me to strip it back to the factory defaults and start over. One step at a time.

jiannazzone said...

Lots of helpful information, thanks! One thing we have lost from "classic" film cameras was that they all used essentially the same interface: shutter speed, aperture, focus. If you settled on a favorite film, you could quickly learn to set your ISO (ASA) up or down if needed or intuitively over or under expose a third, half, or full stop.

Willie said...

Hi Kirk,
Greetings from Australia.
I agree with this post very much. One does indeed have to learn the subtleties of each piece of gear and how they interact.

For the past two years the lens which has spent more time (around 80% of images) on my nikons than any other is the nikkor ai-s 28mm f3.5.
Yep it is a sharp little lens, but in a different way than the more recent digitally optimised lenses.

I find that after so much use that a certain look is almost expected. The way it draws the image is very appealing to me.

Not bad for an $80 eBay find. Likewise the 55m micro f2.8 is quite lovely too. Hmmm am I now echoing your recent column about old pre-af nikkors? :-)

Seriously though - if people spent more time - read a lot of time- with each piece of gear, then surely they would be able to effectively use said gear to meet the needs they have?

Wolfgang Lonien said...

Funny that you took your D810 as an example - I've just had the chance to shoot with one from my colleague Basti, and so I could finally compare it to my Olympus E-M10. And while the difference in handling and operation is day and night, the final results were much closer than I thought. Except of course if you start to play around with the raw files, then you'll see the differences pretty fast.
And your article is still true when thinking of old film cameras. My OM-2 for instance doesn't always fire my strobe remotes, so with that one I went back to the good old x-sync cable, which works every time.
As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

Anonymous said...

OMG! Logic and unemotional thinking about cameras. What next, practicality?