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.