Sea Blue Lens

Third Thursday Challenge: 02.2013


A few months ago, my friend Brenda, a wonderful photographer and author of the blog How to Feather an Empty Nest, started a linkup called Third Thursday Challenge. I’ve wanted to join in ever since I first heard of it. The goal is to expand our photographic vision, and the challenge is to try something new, something outside our comfort zone. This also fits well with my word for 2013, Explore, so this month I’m finally taking up the challenge.

In my recent post Breaking Through, I mentioned that I had discovered a way to overcome the soft images I’ve been getting from my dSLR. A couple of people asked in the comments if I would share what I had done. Although I didn’t do it with Third Thursday in mind, it was a new area of exploration for me so I think it qualifies!

Blurry Before -- Sharp After

Happy Discovery: Before and After
Click to enlarge the image and the difference will be easier to see.

After yet another disappointing photoshoot resulted in an entire series of soft images, I decided it was time to figure out what was wrong. I have a Nikon D5100. All the reviews I read before buying my camera highly praised its picture quality, but I haven’t been as impressed as I expected to be. So I went online and searched for variations of “unsharp photos with Nikon D5100.” Of course there are many reasons for unsharp images, but I was looking for something specific, not related to camera shake, poor quality lenses, too-slow shutter speed, etc. I found numerous discussion threads on various forums on this issue. I was not alone!

What I learned was that my camera’s shooting menu has a sub-menu called Picture Controls. My camera has six of them: Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, and Landscape. The default is Standard, a setting that’s meant to be acceptable for general, all-around shooting from landscapes to portraits and everything in between. That’s what the camera uses in Auto mode.

In Auto, the camera has a mind of its own.

Test Shot. In Auto, the camera has a mind of its own.

But — a-ha, the light begins to dawn — each of those Picture Controls has its own menu, where you can adjust contrast, brightness, saturation, hue, and SHARPNESS! In its infinite wisdom, Nikon’s default sharpness setting is, um, not very sharp. In Standard, on a scale of 1 to 9, the factory setting is 3. After some experimentation, I bumped it up to 6 and am much happier with the images I’m getting. I can still tweak sharpening a bit in post-processing if needed, but it takes much less work now to get the results I want.

Picture Controls don’t work if you’re shooting in Auto. In that case the camera uses Standard and decides for itself how much sharpening the subject needs. But in Program, Aperture or Shutter Priority, or Manual, you can select the Picture Control mode you want to use, and personalize it to suit yourself.

Vincent Grade StationBefore (Standard default) vs After (Vivid with Sharpness 6)

Vincent Grade Station
Before (Standard w/default Sharpness) vs After (Vivid w/Sharpness at 6)

I also shot a few images in each Picture Control mode to see what the difference was between them. I’m glad I did, because I discovered I prefer Neutral rather than Standard for the type of photographs I usually take. It yields a more natural color rendition that I like better — and, of course, I can still make adjustments in post-processing if I want to.

So that’s how I “fixed” my Nikon. I have no experience with Canon dSLRs, but I’d be surprised if they don’t have a similar feature somewhere in their menu. If you can’t find it on your own, just ask Google!

A note on these photos: All are straight out of the camera, except for close-up cropping to show detail. The side-by-sides were near-duplicate shots taken on two different days, the only difference being the in-camera Picture Controls adjustment.

So that’s my Something New for February. I’m already thinking about next month. Thank you, Brenda, for challenging me to challenge myself.

Come on over to Brenda’s and see what’s happening at the Third Thursday Challenge for February.

16 thoughts on “Third Thursday Challenge: 02.2013

  1. Lee – Oh, this definitely qualifies – what a fantastic challenge! You recognized a technical problem and set out to solve it. And look what was gained by your journey – improved images. This is exactly the kind of problem-solving the Third Thursday Challenge is all about. And by writing up your results, you have helped others improve their own images. I like how you methodically tested each Picture Control setting in order to determine what works best for you. Yes! Fantastic work. Thank you for sharing it with the TTC!

  2. Oh, thank you for sharing this information! I’m going to see what kind of settings my camera has that may affect my images. Great examples here and your explanation is well written.

  3. I don’t usually comment on a post twice in the same day, if ever!!!
    Just had to come back and tell you that I did find how to edit these settings on my Cannon DSLR. I know that this is going to make a difference in image quality for me, and save how much post processing I have to do.
    So, thank you again for this valuable information!

  4. This is an awesome post! What an amazing difference. Good for you and you’ll probably enjoy photography a lot more now. I have a Nikon D80 – 2006. I will check out my settings and see if there are any like that – I have noticed my pics are a bit soft and wondered if it was my aging vision?

  5. Thanks so much for sharing this, Lee. I’ve been unsatisfied with my images lately and now I know what to do. What a difference in your side by side images!

  6. Fantastic post. I have the same camera and have had issues on these too – but just put up with it and altered it in processing. It didn’t occur to me I could change all of these in-camera! I’m going to play with all these settings now I know what a difference it makes. Thank you so much for sharing.

  7. What a terrific post. I, too, suffer from softer-than-desired images, even when I’ve been extra careful to do everything I know to try. I will definitely check out your suggestions with my Nikon D90.

  8. Hey, that’s really cool! Can you please come out here and fix my camera too? And also go to Japanese food with me? Thank you. 🙂

  9. Genius…love that googling to find answers or some help. Good for you!!! You know I have a Canon 7D with these same possibilities and I never thought about changing them more than once or twice. But the way you went about it is as important as the information and I am going to give it a try once it stops raining!!! This is a brilliant posting for 3rd Thursday. Can’t wait to see what you come up with next month. Thank you so much. smiles: sharon

  10. Thank you, Thank you!! I’ve been playing with my camera settings today. I have a Sony so I had to do a little research to figure out how to adjust my camera. Oh, wow, it’s working!!!

  11. Lee, I don’t have your email address, so I thought I’d just contact you here. I hope you don’t mind but I linked to this post in my Journey of Fascination technique post. If you do mind, I’ll quickly remove it! Just let me know! I’m so grateful you made me realize soft images were a fixable problem!

  12. This is huge! I’ll be checking mine for sure, (Canon) because I’m not happy with the results. I always have to sharpen a lot.

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