D-SLR Facts

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I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “Camera’s don’t take pictures; people do.” Sure, that’s true, but you still need a camera to create a permanent record of your visual experiences. It’s also true that the more sophisticated the camera, the more creative control you can have over your photographs. However, all digital SLRs, from entry-level to high-end, share many features and functions. Some are obvious, and some happen behind the scenes.

Let’s take a look at some of the less frequently discussed features that can help you to get the most out of your digital SLR camera—as well as your creative experience.


1. Camera Care

Your digital camera is a precision piece of equipment, and it should be handled with tender, loving care. To ensure years of use (even though an updated model will probably be introduced every 18 months), here are some things to remember.

Never leave your camera around anything with a strong magnetic field, such as a television set, a loudspeaker at a rock concert or an electrical motor. Keeping clear of antennas that emit strong radio signals is a good idea, too. Strong magnetic fields and radio signals can damage image data.

Magnetic fields also can damage memory cards, as can static electricity. Airport X-rays, however, don’t damage digital cameras or memory cards.

High heat and severe cold can cause a camera malfunction. At very low temperatures, the LCD panels might not work, and you can run out of battery power quickly.

2. Be Sensitive To Your Image Sensor
When you clean the sensor, you’re not really cleaning the sensor, but rather the low-pass filter that covers it. When you clean this filter, use only products designed specifically for photo-sensor cleaning, and follow the instructions very carefully.

When I’ve shot in dusty conditions, such as when I was photographing the sand dunes in Namibia, I cleaned my sensor every night. Better safe than sorry is my motto.

3. A Shutter’s “Mileage”
Would you buy a used car without knowing the mileage? Of course not. When it comes to buying a used camera, it’s also important to know its “mileage,” that is, the approximate number of shutter activations it has been through. And if you’re buying a new camera and plan to take a ton of pictures, it’s important to know its estimated mileage, too.

For example, the Canon EOS 40D has an estimated 100,000 shutter activations. That may sound like more /images than you’ll ever take, but a sports photographer could take that many pictures in a year—or sooner. Higher-end digital SLR cameras have more durable shutters. The shutter in my Canon EOS-1D Mark III, which I used to photograph this series of whale tail photographs in Antarctica, has a life expectancy of about 300,000 activations.

Before you head out on the road with a new or used camera, check its mileage. Some cameras offer counters. For those that don’t, you have to rely on the previous owner’s honesty. And speaking of honesty, “driving conditions” also are a factor.

Don’t panic if you do plan to shoot hundreds of thousands of pictures. Shutter replacements cost between $250 and $500, which isn’t bad when you own a high-end digital SLR that cost more than $5,000.

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4. Your Eyes Vs. Your Camera’s “Eye”
Our eyes are incredible light-sensitive devices. We can see a dynamic range of about 11 ƒ-stops. That’s why in a scene like this Mongolian landscape, I could see into the shadows, and the highlights in the bright clouds weren’t washed out.

Our digital camera sensors can “see” about five or six ƒ-stops. Therefore, it’s our job as photographers to work with that limitation to produce /images that look like the scenes we see—or at least look like we want them to look.

We can accomplish that goal by controlling the light and compressing the contrast range with reflectors, diffusers, flash and filters. Of course, we also can control the light in the digital darkroom.

The key is to realize that what we see with our eyes isn’t what the camera sees with its “eye.” Learning how to see the contrast range of a scene—and knowing how to compress it with accessories like diffusers, reflectors, filters and flash units, and how to control light in the digital darkroom—will make us better photographers.

In addition, seeing the light will help keep us from being disappointed when what we see in real life isn’t what we get on our camera’s LCD monitor, perhaps saving us from deleting outtakes that can be turned into keepers.

5. sRGB Vs. Adobe RGB And RAW Vs. sRAW
I’m a nut about capturing color—great color! In fact, when I’m out on location, as I was when I photographed this Masai woman in Kenya, I look for color and try my hardest to get good color in-camera.

One way to ensure the best color images is to set your camera to Adobe RGB color space. When you set your camera to the other color option, sRGB, you’re choosing a smaller color space, one with fewer colors. There’s an easy way to remember why sRGB has fewer colors: the “s” in sRGB stands for “smaller” color space.

That said, you might not notice the difference in the two color spaces unless you’re doing commercial work or making super-big prints of scenes with a superwide color and contrast range.

Let’s talk RAW. Some cameras offer both a RAW mode and an sRAW mode. When you shoot in

the sRAW mode, your file is much smaller than a RAW file, meaning that there’s less information in the file. For example, on my Canon EOS-1D Mark III, a RAW file is about 10 megapixels compared to the 2.5-mega-pixel sRAW file.

For me, RAW is the only way to go because I want the flexibility of having that extra data in the digital darkroom.

6. ƒ-stop Info
When I first became interested in photography in 1975, there was a popular expression about how to get a good, extremely sharp picture with great depth of field: “ƒ/22 and be there.” The idea was that if you set your lens at ƒ/22 and had a good subject, you’d have a good chance of getting a good shot with the maximum amount of depth of field.

With digital SLRs, shooting at small apertures like ƒ/22 might not always be the best idea because pictures may look a bit soft. Here’s why. The aperture blades have the potential to deflect and bend light as it passes by them and scatters it as it heads toward the digital image sensor, so at smaller apertures, this will be more of an issue. At fairly wide aperture settings, the vast majority of the light rays entering through the aperture are unaffected—only those on the outermost peripheries are impacted by the aperture blades. The wide opening means that nearly all the transmitted light continues on its way, sharply focused by the lens.

I hardly ever take a picture at ƒ/22, choosing ƒ/11 as my smallest ƒ-stop, as I did here when photographing the interior of a church in Peru.

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7. Internal Filter Flare
When shooting into the sun with a digital SLR, the sun can reflect off the low-pass filter that’s over the image sensor, bouncing onto the rear element of the lens and creating a ghost image.

Usually, the ghost image appears on the opposite side of the frame. You can erase a ghost image using the Clone Stamp tool in Photoshop, but here’s another idea. Don’t shoot the subject as tight as you may like. That way, the ghost image may appear out of the final frame. When you crop the image, you’ll crop out the ghost image, which is what I did with this picture of a shipwreck off the coast of Namibia.

8. When Pixels Bloom
Here’s a fact about digital SLRs that I’d like to share so that you don’t freak out and think that something is wrong with your camera when you view a really big enlargement of a scene where very bright and very dark areas meet, as illustrated by this neon sign.

In this photograph, you see the light from the sign spilling over to the dark areas in the scene. That’s normal. That would happen even with film.

On a digital image sensor, where very dark and very light areas meet, the light from bright areas can spill over from the bright pixels to the dark pixels, creating a halo around those dark areas.

In digital photography terms, this is called blooming. You can’t see the blooming effect (different than the light-spilling-over effect) in this picture because it’s small on this page. When viewing an image like this on your monitor at 50% or less, you might not see the effect either. If you think there’s a chance of blooming in a picture, the first thing you should do is enlarge your picture to at least 200% on your monitor to check. Also keep in mind that when you increase the contrast and sharpness of the image, you increase the blooming effect.

9. Memory Card Info
This photograph of prayer wheels, which I took in the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan, is packed with details. It got me thinking about a memory card experiment you should try.

Format your memory card. Compose a scene with lots of detail—trees and grass and foliage in a landscape, or a headshot of a person with a beard. Take five exposures with your ISO set at 400. Now check your camera to see how many exposures you have remaining. Note that number.

Now, format your memory card again. This time, compose a scene with few details—say a sky with clouds or a baby’s face. Take five exposures with your ISO set at 100. Now, check to see how many exposures you have remaining.

As you’ll see, you’ll have more remaining exposures after your few-details/low-ISO setting. That’s because the amount of information in a file affects its size, and files with more detail and more digital noise (which you get at higher ISO settings) are larger than files with fewer details and less noise.

Something else you should know about memory cards: Always format them in-camera and not with your computer. In-camera formatting sets up the memory card for that particular camera.

10. Firmware Updates
Your digital SLR comes with built-in firmware that sets many of the camera’s functions, such as autofocusing and metering. From time to time, camera manufacturers update the firmware, optimizing the performance of their cameras. You can easily download the firmware from the camera manufacturer’s website to your camera via the cable that comes with your camera.

To update the autofocusing on my Canon EOS-1D Mark III, I simply connected my camera to my computer and downloaded the new firmware on my camera. Now I get a higher percentage of sharp action photographs, such as this picture of my son and his friend playing lacrosse.

All digital SLR owners should check the manufacturer’s website regularly for these updates. They’re important.

On a side note, also check the website for your inkjet printer. New drivers are introduced occasionally that will make your printer perform at its best.

Rick Sammon’s latest book, Rick Sammon’s Exploring the Light: Making the Very Best In-Camera Exposures, covers just about everything you need to know about digital SLRs. Visit www.ricksammon.com.