Date: May 26, 2010
Before you head out for your summer vacation, let digital photography expert Mark Soper help you make sure you’re ready to take the best possible photos and keep your photos and equipment safe. In this must-read article, you'll discover the best camera settings for shooting great photos, preparing your camera for travel, choosing and caring for your lenses and much more.
Camera Settings for Maximum Image Quality
If you depend upon your camera to help bring back memories from your summer vacation, it pays to make sure your camera and your photographic equipment are ready to do the best job they can to help you remember every special moment. From the best camera settings to use to how to protect equipment against damage or loss, stick around and learn how to make your camera ready for photo opportunities this summer.
Whether you paid just a couple of hundred bucks for your digital camera or have a digital SLR powerhouse that cost over a thousand dollars, making sure your camera set for the very best image quality is important preparation to make before you head out for vacation. Check the following settings:
Your camera's resolution is measured in megapixels (often abbreviated as MP). Make sure your camera is set for the highest megapixel rating. With most cameras, you'll find the setting in one of the setup menus, which are often marked with a wrench or tool icon. Some cameras use abbreviations such as L(large), M(medium), or S(small), while others specify the MP rating or the actual horizontal * vertical resolution, such as 3264*2448 (Figure 1).
Figure 1 The Canon A580 displays the current resolution in pixels as well as letter codes for other resolutions.
By default, digital cameras produce JPEG photos, and most support two or three quality settings. Use the highest quality setting along with the maximum resolution for the best picture results. Keep in mind that the higher the resolution and the higher the quality of the picture, the more space it uses on your memory card. So, if you were not using the best settings previously, you’ll now notice that your memory card holds fewer photos.
What About RAW Mode?
Most digital SLR cameras (cameras with interchangeable lenses) and a few point-and-shoot digital cameras also support shooting in RAW mode. RAW files are sharper than in JPEG files, store a wider range of image information, and enable you to make color, white balance, and exposure corrections far better than you can with JPEG photos. If you want the very best quality photos, shoot in RAW. However keep these factors in mind:
- RAW files are 2 to 3 times larger than maximum quality JPEG files, so that so your camera stores fewer pictures per card when you shoot in RAW than in JPEG.
- RAW files must be converted to JPEG or other formats before you can upload them to websites, print them at photo kiosks, or share them with other users.
- If you want to upload photos as quickly as you shoot them while maintaining maximum editing options, consider shooting RAW plus JPEG if your camera supports it (Figure 2). Note that shooting RAW plus JPEG creates a large RAW file and a smaller JPEG file for each picture, meaning that shooting RAW plus JPEG uses the most space of any picture setting in your camera.
Figure 2 The Canon Rebel XTi supports three JPEG size settings, three JPEG quality settings, RAW, and RAW plus high-quality JPEG.
To learn how to prepare your computer to work with RAW images, see “RAW Codec” later in this article
Date and Time Setting
If your camera’s date and time aren’t set correctly, every photo will have incorrect information stored as part of its metadata. Good luck proving you were in Bora Bora on August 1st if your photos are dated January 1st! When you check date and time, be sure to note that most cameras use a 24-hour clock. So, if the current time is 5:30PM, set the camera for 17:30 (12+5=17).
Prepping Your Camera for the Long Haul
Any digital camera turns into an expensive paperweight if it runs out of battery power or memory card space. Here’s how to make sure you can shoot all day and all night every day.
If you don't already have a spare battery for your camera, make sure you buy one before you hit the road this summer. Yes, you might get sticker shock if your camera uses a proprietary battery pack, but you’ll get over it, especially when you realize that you can keep on shooting.
Spare battery packs are sold by the camera vendor, but third-party plug-compatible batteries (Figure 3) work just as well and are often $10-20 less. They’re available from many camera stores, camera departments, and storefront and online specialty retailers.
Figure 3 A Canon lithium-ion battery for a Rebel XTi (rear) and two third-party equivalents (center, front).
Make sure you take your battery charger with you, and if you're planning on going overseas, make sure your charger will still work when you arrive at your destination. While most digital camera battery chargers are designed to handle voltage ranges from 110V to 240V, you might need one or more AC power adapters to handle the connections used in different countries.
High-Capacity Flash Memory
Even with plenty of battery power, your digital camera will still become a paperweight if you run out of flash memory space. If your digital camera uses SDHC cards, you can find deals on 4GB or larger memory cards almost every week at electronics and discount stores. If you’ve never used an SDHC card in your camera, but you’ve been using SD cards only, don’t buy an SDHC card until you find out whether your camera can use SDHC cards.
Improving Carry Comfort (Straps and Cases)
If you’re tired of being a walking advertisement for your digital camera vendor, replace your current neck strap with something more comfortable. Neoprene rubber or leather and foam rubber combinations are some of the materials used to make your camera easier to wear around your neck or wrist.
While a traditional shoulder bag is a great place to store cameras, lenses, and accessories when you’re not in the field, it’s not the most comfortable bag to use for protracted hikes. The Photography Review website provides user-generated reviews of a wide variety of camera cases, photo vests, and backpacks for photographers. If you want to carry your camera more places, making the task more comfortable should be “job one” before you hit the road.
Upgrading Your Reach with a New Lens
If you're using a digital SLR camera with a standard zoom lens, also called a kit lens, you probably have the equivalent of a 3X zoom lens (18-55mm for Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony; 14-42mm for Olympus/Panasonic Four Thirds). What should your next lens be?
- Can’t get close enough to flowers, rocks, insects?Pick up a macro lens; these lenses allow you to shoot just inches away from small objects. Macro lenses also make good portrait lenses (use 50mm to 100mm for Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony; 35 to 50mm for Four Thirds).
- Can’t bring distant subjects close enough or make them large enough?Get a telephoto zoom lens. For Canon, Nikon, Pentax, or Sony, choose one with a 55-80mm short setting with a maximum length of 250-300mm. Compared to a kit lens at 18mm, 250mm is just shy of 14X magnification, and 300mm is about 16.7X. Four Thirds users use a 40-150mm or 50-200mm lens as equivalents.
- Can’t get everything into the scene, no matter how far you back up?You need a wide angle zoom, such as a 10-22mm or 12-24mm for Canon, Nikon, Pentax, or Sony (Four Thirds users need 7-14mm through 11-22mm).
- Want to shoot in dim light without a flash (flash is often forbidden in many tourist destinations)?Get a ”fast” (f/2.8 or wider aperture) lens. These are available in 25 to 50mm prime (non-zoom) types or in 3X or longer zooms. If you don’t want to replace your zoom lenses, the best deals are for 50mm f/1.8 lenses, which enable you to shoot in about 1/3 the light of an 18-55mm lens.
Protecting Your Lenses
You can spend several hundred dollars for a single lens, so why not spend a few dollars more to protect it? Each of your lenses should be equipped with a clear filter, such as a UV or lens protector filter. This filter stays on the lens at all times except when you use a different filter. It’s better for the filter to be damaged than the lens.
Keeping Your Lenses Clean
To keep front and rear lens and filter surfaces clean, I prefer to use a microfiber cloth and spray lens cleaner. I spray the cleaner spray on a portion of the cloth and then use the remainder of the cloth to clean and polished lens will. An alternative that's less messy is to use pre-moistened lens tissues plus a microfiber cloth. Either way, you can also use them to keep sunglasses and eyeglasses clean.
Better Photos with Better Filters
After purchasing a protective filter, make your next filter purchase a circular polarizer (“circular” refers to the design of the polarizing material; older linear polarizers don’t work well in autofocus cameras). It enables you to darken blue skies on sunny days, remove reflections from foliage and windows, intensifies all colors on a sunny day, and make rainbows brighter and easier to photograph.
To reduce unwanted reflection off filter surfaces, upgrade from low-cost uncoated filters to coated filters.
Steadier Camera, Better Photos
It doesn’t matter how much you spend on your camera if you come back with a bunch of fuzzy photographs. While the autofocus feature helps cut down on fuzzy photographs caused by incorrect focus, camera shake is a threat, especially when you're shooting with a long lens or in dim light. Here’s how to make sure your vacation photos are sharp and crisp.
Image Stabilization and Vibration Reduction
Camera shake becomes a big threat to sharp photos when you use a 6X or longer zoom or take pictures in dim light. While built-in image stabilization (IS) or vibration reduction (VR) is common on many recent point-and-shoot cameras, digital SLR vendors use two approaches to adding this shake-reduction feature.
Digital SLR vendors such as Sony, Pentax, and Olympus incorporate image stabilization into some camera models. In-camera stabilization enables you to use shutter speeds that are one to three steps slower than normal without a tripod. For example, if you normally have problems holding the camera steady at shutter speeds longer than 1/125 second, in-camera image stabilization helps you shoot sharp photos at shutter speeds from 1/60 second (one step slower) to 1/15 second (three steps slower), depending upon the camera, zoom settings, and how steady your hands are.
Canon and Nikon prefer to use image stabilization and vibration reduction technologies built into some camera lenses. Camera lenses made by Canon with image stabilization have IS on/off switches on the side of the lens barrel, while Nikon also uses the side of the lens barrel for its comparable vibration reduction (VR) feature. In-lens stabilization enables you to use shutter speeds that are as much as four steps slower without a tripod.
if you don't have any stabilization or vibration reduction features, or if you're planning to shoot a lot of landscapes, consider a tripod. Low-cost tripods are usually made of aluminum, but many tripods above $150 use carbon fiber to provide better vibration damping and reduce weight. Keep in mind that you should not use a tripod when you are using image stabilization.
A tabletop tripod is a good choice if you are pointing shoot primarily indoors or if you need to take pictures in situations where full-size tripods are not allowed. Some tabletop tripods are strong enough to handle a digital SLR with a standard lens, while others are designed mainly for compact point-and-shoot cameras.
Need easier-to-pack alternatives to a tripod? A beanbag that you can lay down on a car hood, open car window, the ground, or a porch rail does a good job of supporting a camera and lens. If you need to move quickly and you’re not trying to take time exposures, a monopod (which looks like one leg of a tripod plus a camera mount) is a suitable alternative.
Prepping Your Computer for Better Photo Management
is your computer ready for the onslaught of vacation photos? In our next article, we will be covering how to manage photos, but in the meantime, there is some things that you should do to get your computer ready.
If you're planning to shoot RAW photos, make sure you install the RAW codec for your digital camera on any computer that you can use to view your pictures. You can download a free codec for 32-bit versions of Windows from your camera vendor’s website.
Unfortunately, if you are using 64-bit Windows, you can’t use a 32-bit codec to view your RAW photos from Windows Explorer. A popular workaround is to install the free Windows Live Photo Gallery from Microsoft (part of the Windows Live Essentials suite); it’s a 32-bit program that can use 32-bit codecs to display RAW files. If you insist on viewing RAW file thumbnails in Windows Explorer on 64-bit Windows, check with Ardfry Imaging LLC for their line of 64-bit codecs (free trials available).
If you’re carrying a laptop or netbook on your trip, it’s the perfect place to store and review your photos. However, if you’re still transferring photos directly from camera to computer with a USB cable, a card reader’s a better way to do it:
- You don’t tie up your camera while transferring files.
- You won’t run down your camera’s battery.
- You can transfer files from one card while using another for more photos.
- Late-model card readers are much faster than cameras for transferring files.
- Your computer might already have a built-in card reader (Figure 4).
Figure 4 An SD (Secure Digital) memory card partially inserted into an HP laptop’s built-in card reader.
Most built-in card readers support SD (Secure Digital) cards and most other types of flash memory cards, but not all SD readers support the lookalike SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity) media; check with your computer or card reader vendor for help.
If your printer has a card reader on board, it might be able to transfer pictures from your cards to the computer, although some printers’ card readers are only designed for printing direct from the card.
Photo Recovery Software
Once you fill a card with photos, your goal should be to transfer them to safekeeping as quickly as possible. If you use SD or SDHC media, here's an easy way to avoid accidentally reformatting your card before you get your pictures transferred: move the slider switch on the side of the card to the safe position. However, no matter what type of media your camera uses, there's always a chance that you might delete pictures you want, or format the wrong memory card.
If this happens to you, stop using the card and install photo recovery software on your computer. Photo recovery programs generally cost from $30-$40, and some vendors offer free trials that display what can be recovered. If you shoot in RAW mode, make sure the program you select works with your camera’s RAW files (all photo recovery programs work with JPEG files).
Reading Your Way to Better Pictures
Your camera instruction manual can be dry reading, but if you’re faced with an unfamiliar situation, it can help you discover a new feature to save the day and get the photo. Field guides such as my own The Shot Doctor: the Amateur’s Guide to Great Digital Photos and camera-specific third-party books provide on-the-spot inspiration and advice to supplement your camera manual.
Protecting Your Equipment Investment
No matter how good a job you do of protecting your equipment and photos, photo equipment theft or damage could spoil your vacation. Check with your homeowners or renters insurance company for a photographic equipment rider or endorsement to protect your equipment.