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Which Features should I Choose; Which Features should I Use?

Forest Color; Hiawatha NF Copyright  2012  Andy Richards

Forest Color; Hiawatha NF
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

I‘ll freely admit I am sometimes a thief of ideas. Recently, my friend, Dean, from the SOV Photography Forum, asked a rhetorical question: whether participants thought some of the “bells and whistles” available on our modern digital cameras might actually detract from our imagery? Broken record here (although one has to wonder how many readers “get” that analogy anymore) – but I’ll repeat it anyway: a camera is merely a tool (Dean knows that, of course. He is an accomplished photographer in his own right. It is why his question is “rhetorical”).

Unfortunately, many of the tools in the physical tool bag hinder the best use of the most important tool!

But it’s an interesting question, Dean. Every experienced photographer has a bag of tools. Some are big bags, some not so big. Every good photographer has their own favorite tools. But the best photographers all have one tool that they universally agree is the most important tool in the “bag.” We all have it. It is always securely mounted, squarely between your shoulder blades. And unfortunately, many of the tools in the physical bag, hinder the best use of that most-important tool!

Many of the features camera manufacturers work hard to “R&D” and bring to market, are extremely useful enhancements to the tools. They aren’t necessary enhancements; just useful enhancements. I have said this before here, but if I were teaching beginning photographers, my ideal teaching tool would be a very basic SLR/DSLR that would only be used in “manual mode.” This would hold particularly true in the area of exposure theory. I want the photographer and her creativity to control the tool; not the opposite. I am concerned that when we start relying on all the “gee-whiz” “smartness” of today’s modern digital camera, we develop the tendency to focus (pun intended) on features rather than image making. And as we plan our shooting around the features, we begin to loose the creativity that distinguishes a photographic image from a snapshot.

Reading my Magic Lantern Guide for any of my DSLR Cameras (I like this series as a plain English, more logically laid out instruction book than the manual that comes with the camera), or sorting through the menu systems, it becomes obvious that there are a mind-boggling array of “features” built into these modern miracles of technology. Where we have come since my original all-manual AshiFlex 35mm SLR back in the 1970’s is nothing short of amazing. But like everything “new,” I am not certain it is all “good.”

With modern digital cameras, there is a tendency to focus on features rather than on image-making

It is a fact of economic life that the sales of all cameras by the major manufactures is driven and supported by the general consumer (and indeed by the consumer-oriented “Point and Shoot” cameras). While the pros and those of us hobbyists who “dabble” in the higher-end camera bodies may not always appreciate it, those consumer purchases are what fuel the R&D and support the ability to offer the so-called “flagship” cameras sold by manufacturers. So, whether we like it or not, we are bound to get “prosumer” and “pro” camera bodies that are bloated with “features”some of us may think are useless features (actually, a fair percentage of working pros use the features I have just called “useless,” so I am clearly being unfairly biased here. But they use them knowing what they do for them; they tend to be time and post-processing saving tools).

I do not recommend most of these features for most serious users. When I buy a new model, I usually spend an hour or so, learning about these features (mainly about where they are found in the menu system and how to turn them off). The modern DSLR camera is a small computer. But is has nowhere near the computing power of your desktop, nor the editing power of a computer program like Lightroom or Photoshop (or any of the other commonly used editing programs, for that matter). So why would anybody want to rely on an inferior processor for their end-result images? But if you turn on all the “gee whiz” features (sharpness, so-called “vivid” image rendering, and even white balance setting and fine tuning, that is exactly what you are choosing to do).  The image at the beginning of the blog was taken on my D700 which has as many “features” as any camera out there.  Yet my image was rendered with all the gadgetry shut off, the image quality settings all at “neutral,” and my camera’s settings turned off (all except for AF, which I use almost universally).  I used the manual exposure setting on the camera meter with a spot metering setting.  It required me to “think” about everything I was doing.  Yet, in my view, it is one of the better quality images I have produced in the past 5 years.

Oh, and one other thing: in order for some of these features to have any effect on your images, you must also choose to let the camera render your images in a jpg (or sometimes tiff) format. If you capture and save your images in the manufacturer’s native raw format (an in most cases, you should), none of these in-camera features will have any effect on your captures. I know that some pros (particularly sports photographers, and wedding photographers and some photojournalists) will choose to shoot in jpg format. But they do so with great knowledge of their choice, including the limitations that go along with those choices.

I turn almost all of the features off

Blindly enabling those automatic exposure, do-it-for-youpriority” settings, like Aperture Priority, Shutter Speed Priority, or the worst of all, Program Mode has a limiting effect on your photography. Note that I said “blindly.” I am not saying that these features (with the possible exception of the “Program Mode,” for which I cannot imagine any other legitimate use than to switch it on to hand the camera to a passer-by to take a snapshot of your family or group – something I am not sure I would do anyway, with an expensive camera 🙂 ) do not have their significant useful purpose. They are tools that need to be used for specific circumstances and with full knowledge of what they do—but more importantly, their limitations.  The Red Jack Lake image, again, was a no bells and whistles settings image.

Red Jack Lake; Hiawatha NFCopyright  2012  Andy Richards

Red Jack Lake; Hiawatha NF
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

My personal approach (and it perhaps needs to be put into the perspective that I am primarily a landscape photographer) is to turn everything off. I don’t want any in-camera enhancements to the digital image. I want it neutral (As my friend Al Utzig never hesitates to point out, I am not afraid of “enhancing” an image. I just prefer to do it in the controlled environment of my computer). Once I have turned everything off, I will go back and selectively enable tools that I find personally useful.

So where am I going with this? Rather than re-hash it, I’ll suggest you go back and look at my series “Taking Your Photography to the Next Level.” This gives you the background on why I don’t think these “features” are always a good thing. If you are experienced, and know the basics of photography, perhaps you can start using these features to your advantage, as the tools they are. However, even experience photographers would do well to sometimes go back to basics. I recently came to the realization that I was relying too much on the ease and simplicity of the Aperture Priority Setting on my DSLR bodies, to the detriment of good exposure technique, and more importantly, I was limiting my own creativity to work with other aperture and shutter speed the way it was intended to be used.  Once again, the Elliot Falls image was made using manual exposure mode with no special items on the camera turned on.


In an upcoming blog, I’ll discuss my own use of some of these features and why and when I use them.

Good Shooting…………………….


2 Responses

  1. Being pretty Zen-like, I’m pretty sure that keeping it simple is the best way to go. Make the cleanest “negative” that you can. Do what you want later in post production.

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