Getting the Best Results from Your New Camera

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Let’s face it: aside from getting together with family and friends to celebrate the holiday season, the neatest part of the holidays is the exchange of gifts. And if you’re reading this article, there’s a pretty good chance you just received a new camera, a new lens, a flash or some sort of photo-related goodie as a holiday gift (hopefully something you have been pining for).

No doubt you will be playing touchy-feely with the new camera, lens, etc, before the ribbons, bows and wrapping paper settle on the floor. And undoubtedly you will be putting the new camera, lens or whatever through its paces as soon as the batteries are in place. The question remaining, however, is how far will you go in truly getting the full value from your new toys?

Learning the Finer Points of Your New Camera

With few exceptions, new cameras typically contain numerous improvements over their predecessors. If your current camera is two or three generations older than your new camera, these improvements can be significant, especially in terms of performance. In-camera creative filters and scene modes aside, these improvements typically include faster burst rates, quicker shutter and autofocus response times and higher definition video capture.

No doubt the quality of the images your newer camera captures will be sharper and display noticeably improved color rendition and tonal values, thanks to higher-resolution imaging sensors and improved image-processing technologies.

Nonetheless, there are a few avenues worth exploring that can lead the way to improving—considerably—the quality of your stills and videos. Do keep in mind you can shoot tests till the cows come home, and it doesn’t cost you a dime, which is one of the sweeter aspects of shooting digital.

Your Camera’s LCD

Your first stop should be the camera’s LCD, which many photographers blindly trust as being the gospel truth when evaluating proper exposures. (Hint: It ain’t necessarily so!) The days of gritty-looking 230,000-dot LCDs are thankfully giving way to screens featuring far greater resolution, some exceeding a million-plus dots.

But brilliance and clarity aside, how accurate is the image on your camera’s crispy new screen compared to the same image opened up on your computer’s monitor (assuming, of course, you calibrate your monitor on a regular basis)? If it turns out the image on your LCD is brighter or darker than reality dictates, it’s a simple matter of adjusting the brightness levels of your screen to reflect the brightness levels of your computer monitor. Adjusting the brightness levels of your camera’s LCD is usually achieved through a selection found in your camera’s menu. So, scroll through there and adjust it!

Your Camera’s Exposure Meter

The exposure systems of almost all of today’s cameras are phenomenally precise under the most extreme lighting conditions. And that’s something you can take to the bank. If, however, your exposures are consistently too bright or too dark, you can easily adjust your camera’s exposure sensitivity levels to better fit your taste by adjusting the camera’s exposure compensation dial. While it’s comforting to know post-capture exposure tweaks are always possible (within reason) in Photoshop and other photo-editing programs, nevertheless, the goal should always be to capture it right in the first place, especially if you’re only shooting JPEG format.

A fast and easy method of capturing a set of comparative exposures is to prompt your camera to shoot sequences of bracketed exposures of the same scene. By doing so under varying lighting situations and examining the results on a properly calibrated computer monitor, it’s easy to determine the limits of how far you can goose your camera exposures before you begin eating away at your shadow and highlight details. If your camera features HDR functionality you should also shoot bracketed exposures in HDR mode in order to best determine your camera’s “comfort zone.”

The “correct” or “best” exposure—which aren’t necessarily the same—are often subjective rather than objective. When shooting with the camera I currently own, it’s not unusual for me to dial down the camera’s idea of what the best exposure is by 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop.

Your Camera’s White Balance System

Like your camera’s exposure system, your camera’s white balance (WB) system is equally accurate under most lighting conditions. But just as you shouldn’t trust your camera’s program mode to nail every exposure scenario, it’s well worth the time and effort to explore the limits of your camera’s WB settings.

Nine out of ten times, your camera’s auto white balance setting (AWB) is fairly accurate in capturing the correct color balance of the scene you are photographing when shooting under “average/typical” lighting conditions. But just as your camera’s exposure system is not always true to the spirit of the photograph you are taking, the same caution has to be applied to your choice of WB settings.

Even bright sunny days cannot be taken at face value. Though most AWB settings will enable you to replicate the look of a sunny day, it’s important to take the time of day and even the time of year into consideration when establishing WB settings. As an example, AWB is usually reliable when shooting during the midday hours. If, however, your goal is to capture the warmth of the earlier or later hours of the day, your camera’s AWB setting will inherently try to neutralize the warm tones that make the scene photo-worthy in the first place. Basically, if your goal is to capture the warm rays of early morning, late afternoon, or pretty much anytime during the winter months when the sun tracks closer to the horizon, your best bet is to set your WB to the “Sunny” or “Daylight” setting (i.e. 5600K). By doing so, the scene’s ambient warmth will remain true to life.

If you’re using color correction or any sort of creative color filtration, here too, you should set your camera to the closest non-auto WB setting that matches the Kelvin rating of the ambient light source in which you’re photographing. If your camera is set to AWB, there’s no telling how accurately the color values will ultimately be rendered.

Your Camera’s ISO Settings

Your new camera might boast a top ISO rating of 6400, 12800, 25600 or higher, but how in terms of noise, grain or artifacts do your image files suffer when pushed to such extremes? The pictures taken at your camera’s highest expanded ISO sensitivity levels might be good enough to view on your camera’s LCD, your tablet or even your computer screen; but they might not be up to the challenge of a 13 x 19-inch print, or in the case of a smaller point-and-shoot camera, even a decent 8 x 10.

By taking the time to run a few simple test exposures at progressively higher ISO sensitivity levels—and preferably on a tripod and under several types of low lighting—you can easily establish your camera’s real-world ISO limitations.

Your Camera’s Flash System

Regardless of whether you’re using the camera’s built-in flash or a more powerful hot shoe mounted flash, you should take the time to run your flash through its paces outdoors and indoors to see how it performs under varying lighting conditions. As with your camera’s exposure system, your photographs might here, too, benefit from a plus/minus tweak of its output settings when shooting outdoor fill-flash or when shooting under murkier lighting conditions. And in this case, too, the “correct” exposure may not be the “best” exposure. The choice is yours to make.

HD Video

Whole chapters can be written about HDSLR video technologies. Perhaps we’ll tackle that entire subject at a later date in the form of a series, so you’ll have time to come up for air. For now, let’s just say almost all digital cameras capture HD video with sound (mono or stereo) in a variety of formats and levels of quality. Regardless of the details of your particular camera, shooting video with any camera designed to capture stills can be challenging, and here, too, the best way of understanding the pros and cons of your particular camera system is to go out and take pictures with it.

Practice panning and zooming; shoot your tests handheld as well as tripod mounted in order to discover what’s possible and not so possible when shooting in both modes. Also pay attention to the sound quality of your video clips—and if you’re not impressed with the audio portion of your video capture, you can probably purchase a higher fidelity shoe-mounted mic.

Depending on your camera, you may or may not have autofocus functionality when shooting video, in which case you’re going to: A) quickly become an expert in manual follow-focus technique, or B) invest in an HDSLR rig with a focusing-wheel attachment.

And don’t forget to experiment with frame rates and the other video-related options your camera may offer.

Calibrate your Monitor Lately?

In order to establish a reliable standard by which you can accurately judge all of the abovementioned trials, it’s imperative that you calibrate your computer monitor on a regular basis. Because if the color, tonal and contrast settings aren’t accurate on your computer screen, all is for naught.

Now for the technophobic among you, be advised that the process of calibrating your computer screen is as easy as loading up the software, placing a colorimeter (usually sold with the software application) on your computer screen and clicking on “CONTINUE” or whatever command the software menu dictates. The costs of screen-calibration systems have come down dramatically (several are well under $100). Even the pricier systems pay for themselves in a short time, when you factor in the expense of ink and media when printing one off-color print after another of your image files. Even if you are shooting primarily for the Web, bad color is bad color no matter how much money that new camera costs.

The bottom line is: if your screen is out of whack you’ll never, ever be able to produce an accurately rendered print. So take the time to adjust your LCD's brightness levels, calibrate those monitors and go enjoy using that new photo equipment.