Sea Blue Lens


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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.


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About the Equipment

Columbus Day Weekend, Ocean Park, Maine

In my last post, I said, “Sometimes it is about the equipment.” One of the direct outcomes of the Find Your Eye classes I’ve been taking is that I have just purchased my first digital SLR.

Just to cut to the chase, I’d like to say…Whoo hoo!!!

A little history

My first SLR was a hand-me-down Nikkormat. In the mid-70’s I bought a Pentax ME, which I adored for its compact size that fit my hands and my style perfectly. By the end of the 80’s, some vision changes meant that I was missing a lot of shots because I couldn’t focus properly, so I bought a Nikon N8008 autofocus SLR. It was an awesome camera, and I still have it, though I haven’t used it in at least ten years.

In the late 90’s, I discovered the compact, autofocus point-and-shoot. The sweet little Minolta I got was small enough to slip into my purse, and took brilliant photos. The bag full of heavy Nikon equipment slipped to the back of the closet, while the little Minolta went to England with me three times. (I’ll be happy to show you my picture of Her Majesty!)

In 2003, I discovered the delights of digital with a tiny Canon Digital Elph. What an amazing camera! It took great photos in almost any light, and it had an actual viewfinder along with its little LCD screen. I wore it out — one sad day it simply would no longer record images.

Next came a Canon Powershot S2 IS. I loved the 10X optical zoom and other features, and it, too, had a viewfinder as well as a swiveling LCD screen. But it was too bulky and heavy to slip into a purse. To fulfill that need, last January I got a Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7. Wow! Leica lens, 25mm wide angle, 12X zoom…all in a camera about the size of a pack of cigarettes (not that I’ve ever carried around packs of cigarettes, but you know what I mean).

The Panasonic is the camera I’ve been using for the photo assignments for these Find Your Eye classes. I love the size and capabilities of that camera. But there were times when I became very frustrated because I simply couldn’t make it do what I wanted it to. I couldn’t control depth of field because the apertures are so limited. Many photos were very contrasty, with bright areas blowing out even if I deliberately underexposed the image.

Worst of all, in common with the latest generation of compact digital cameras, it has no viewfinder, only an LCD screen. The LCD is large and very bright and works just great in low light situations. But since I do most of my photography outdoors in bright sunlight, I was often literally working blind, having to just guess if my subject was where I wanted it in the frame, and if the camera was focused on the right target.

The happy ending to this long story

I did some research and, to make a long story short, decided on a Nikon D5100 with 18-55mm zoom lens. I got it just before my vacation, and if you can believe it, decided NOT to take it with me. I was traveling light. This past weekend, we had a glorious burst of Indian Summer, and I finally got into the field with my new baby. I am in love! I’d forgotten how wonderful it is to use a truly fine camera. Unfortunately, I’ve also forgotten much that I used to know about the technical side of photography with an SLR! So far I’m still on Auto, but we’re slowly getting acquainted.

Sunday, I took the Nikon and the Panasonic to the beach and took some identical shots with both, just to see how the images would differ. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I am more than pleased with the results. The Nikon images are richer in color, with more subtle gradations in tone, and much smoother and finer in detail. Did I mention that I’m in love with my new camera?

I was trying to explain the difference to my sister, who is not a photographer, telling her that I didn’t know what I had been missing. I knew she “got it” when she likened it to a person with poor eyesight getting their first pair of glasses, something we both know well. Yes! That’s exactly it. The world looks a lot different through my new lens.

Here’s a little sample, SOOC (except for a little cropping in the side-by-side):

Left: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7. Right: Nikon D5100

Taken with Lumix DMC-ZS7

Taken with Nikon D5100

The fine print

I want to emphasize that nowhere in her wonderful blog or her classes does Kat encourage her students to run out and invest in expensive cameras or any other equipment. In fact, she emphasizes that it’s not about your camera, and that whatever camera you have right now will work just fine. As we’ve all heard many times before, it’s not the camera, it’s the photographer who makes the image. Just like it’s not the paint, but the painter who produces the masterpiece.

I’ve learned a lot using the camera I had, and I’ll continue to use that camera. But one of the things I’ve gotten from this class is a desire, and a commitment to myself, to do more with my photography — not in the sense of going pro or any such thing, but simply for my own pleasure and satisfaction. For me, it reached the point where it really was about the equipment.

I am so ready for this.