Getting off Auto – Tweaks & Twiddles

It’s been a while since I did a post in this (occasional) series talking about getting away from the camera’s full Auto mode and I was feeling a bit geeky today, so I thought it time for another ramble. The first (on basic settings) and second (on exposure and one or two related things) can be found by following the links.  For those that have forgotten, I typically use Canon DSLR (and in this one, Photoshop Elements) terms purely as that’s what I use, but the principles apply across any camera/software programme.

One of the basic choices you make when you first start playing around with a camera – particularly DSLRs – is whether to shoot in RAW or JPEG (and no, I’m not going to get into arguments over whether it’s RAW or raw, JPEG, jpeg or jpg etc! Life’s too short :-)).

A RAW image is one that’s saved pretty well directly off the sensor – it’s lossless (in other words you get EVERY bit of data available) and gives you the maximum opportunity to get the very best shot. But it comes at a price – you have to process that image on the PC after taking the shot.  Why go the effort?  To understand that you need to understand what JPEG is.  JPEG is a compressed format – it throws away data in order to give you a smaller file size, in the same way that MP3 music files are compressed from a CD.  Like the music files, the more the compression the easier it is to notice the lowered quality – if you squash 50 shades of red into 5, you’re going to have odd looking colours and an unpleasant picture.  The advantage of JPEG (apart from file size) is that it’s pretty universal – it can be viewed on any device, unlike RAW files which are proprietary to the camera maker (ie Canon RAW files are different to Nikon ones) and are not viewable on PC, tablet etc without specific codecs or drivers.  As a rough rule of thumb, I’ve found that you get RAW file sizes around 1 byte per sensor pixel (so a 20MPixel sensor gives you 20MB file sizes), JPEG straight from the camera are 1/3 to ¼ of the RAW size (the more colour-complicated the image, the larger the file sizes).

So, an example to demonstrate RAW vs JPEG. This was printed out on white paper, then I took a photo of it.  The camera was set to save the image as BOTH RAW and JPEG – I then processed the RAW file to give a reasonable result.  I also cropped and fiddled with the JPEG file a bit to try and darken it enough to show up the grey dotted lines above & below the words, but as you can see, they’re not visible.  In other words, I was able to recover detail using the RAW file that was completely lost in the JPEG.

RAW


JPEG


Now we can have the discussion about what’s the purest form of photography. Straight Out Of Camera (SOOC) advocates maintain that it’s always best to get it right in camera & that editing the image on the PC is somehow wrong and deceptive.  Whilst I will agree that getting it as right as possible in camera is a good idea, it’s not always easy with unpredictable wildlife, so don’t feel bad about the need to tinker with an image.  As we’ve already seen, processing the image on a PC later on allows you to get a better result and will also allow you to make better thought out choices about how the image is processed.  You can tweak colours, lighting & sharpening just how you want to achieve your goal rather than relying on the camera defaults (which by their very nature are going to be “typical” or “average”).  That’s not to say that you HAVE to use RAW – if you’re happy with the results you’re getting and can’t face the hassle, don’t worry about it, but I’d also suggest it’s worth trying out some of the tweaking abilities of the likes of Photoshop on your JPEGs – you’ll be surprised just how much difference a few simple alterations can make.

Photoshopping an image tends to make people think of manipulating and combining images to tell fibs like this


But for most of the time, the sort of Photoshopping we do with wildlife is simply tidying up a shot, performing the sort of tasks the camera does internally, but hopefully better.

So, time for a quick cup of tea I think, then we’ll crack on….

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Find me on Flickr / All about your camera - The Getting off Auto Index

  • OK, so having decided to take the plunge and start tinkering with an image on the PC, let’s look at an example. This isn’t necessarily a brilliant picture, but I took it especially badly to act as an illustration (honest!  All my pictures are normally perfect. Really they are.  Cough, cough :-)).

    This is the RAW file, straight from the camera and saved as JPEG (so it displays!). It’s a bit bleurgh, colours are somewhat flat, composition’s rubbish etc.


    So the first thing I typically do is some basic tweaks when importing it to Photoshop Elements using Adobe’s RAW converter. Why Photoshop Elements?  Simple – I find it easier and much cheaper than full Photoshop, yet more powerful on individual pictures than Lightroom.  Plenty of other tools available that do the same sort of thing though, so experiment and find one you like.

    In the RAW import tool, I’ve boosted saturation, vibrance, clarity and contrast a little, but dropped highlights a bit (as the Egret’s a bit bright). I generally do this on import as a head start on getting the colours to look right.


    The next decision is whether to crop the image or not. This Egret was at a fair distance and I think it looks a bit lost in the frame, so I’m going to crop.  I feel things on the move need space to move into, so will leave more empty space in front of the bird than behind.  I could have focussed, then recomposed to place the Egret off centre to start with, but I’d still have wanted to crop away most of the background, so it was easier to take the shot with the bird centrally placed, knowing I could re-arrange later.


    This one doesn’t look right to my eyes


    Finally, a slightly closer crop, some use of the Auto buttons in Elements (Auto-lighting, Auto-contrast, noise reduction and Auto-sharpen) give us this


    OK, so I’m pretty happy with that. I haven’t spent HUGE amounts of time on it; more fettling of the individual settings would doubtless improve it slightly, but it really comes down to what the use of the picture is.  If you’re going to display on a small device, it doesn’t need to be as good as a big screen.  Printing is pretty forgiving of noise (noisy pixels blend together better when it’s ink on paper), so you don’t need to worry as much about de-noising it.

    Incidentally, if you’re going to do a lot of photo processing on your PC, think about getting a screen calibration device. This will ensure your screen is rendering colours accurately.  If your screen is inaccurate, you could end up with all your pictures looking dim, bright or with an odd colour cast to others on the web.  Having an accurate screen will also help you decide if the image is sufficiently detailed to work with in the first place.  All white birds like this Egret are notoriously difficult to see detail on – here I’ve turned the highlights right down so you can see all the feather details in the white.  Except it isn’t brilliant – there’s a definite blown area on its back.  Probably get away with it in this image, but there’s no way to solve this, you need to lower the exposure a little bit at shooting time to prevent it happening.


    Finally, what not to do. Don’t zoom right in and look for trouble.  You’ll find it.  Zoomed in like this…


    You can see it’s rubbish. Bit noisy, soft, rather unpleasant. Hey, it was ISO2500 in dim light. But no-one looks at a picture this close normally, so don’t kick yourself over imperfections. View it at the resolution or size you normally do and decide on its impact without a magnifying glass.

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    Find me on Flickr / All about your camera - The Getting off Auto Index

  • In reply to Whistling Joe:

    Will be bookmarking this WJ to read and digest properly.   Thanks very much for all your time.

    Lot to learn

  • In reply to gaynorsl:

    Great tips, advice and pointers WJ, really good of you to take the effort to create such a helpful and interesting thread;   I do shoot in RAW which gives me more options on edit and as you say much detail is lost when importing through the compressed Jpeg file.   I guess one of the most difficult things is photographing white birds and your tips are most useful on how to gain the best exposure for bring out the detail.     Like Gaynor, I will be bookmarking your post for future reference so many thanks for all the great info, it really does explain efectively the differences of RAW and Jpeg and the tweaks !    :)    Now if only you can talk to the camera manufacturers into bringing down the price down for f2.8 lenses which I think we all need in this country   lol !!     

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    Regards, Hazel 

    "Each kindness shown to birds or men is sure to flutter back again" 

  • In reply to HAZY:

    Lol!  If I could talk down the price of f/2.8 lenses, I'd have a full set myself by now :-)

    A further thought on the blown highlight issue.  The software that comes with the camera may help identify troublesome areas too - certainly the Canon DPP software does.  You can turn on highlight (and/or shadow) alerts, which look like this screengrab

    The red areas being blown. 

    Admittedly, shuffling between different programmes to squeeze every extra improvement from an image is probably too much hassle for every picture you take, but if you're entering a competition or similar, you may want to take the time

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    Find me on Flickr / All about your camera - The Getting off Auto Index

  • In reply to Whistling Joe:

    cheers WJ,  I do have the histogram and highlight which I can refer to on the camera LCD and in later editing which admittedly I don't look at as often as I should and find with a lot of post editing I have to really tweak the highlight slider to get the best detail showing, especially on white birds.  I guess its all a matter of keep practicing and learning from mistakes !   I always welcome any tips and  pointers and I also welcome any comments (good or especially critical points ! ) on my photos as I never take it personally and prefer to know where I'm going wrong so I can learn and adjust :)    Thanks again for the info, its really good of you to take the time for such a detailed input.    Have bookmarked for future reference :)

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    Regards, Hazel 

    "Each kindness shown to birds or men is sure to flutter back again"