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In-Camera Settings for RAW Outdoor Photography – Picture Styles & Picture Controls

Nature and Landscape photographers who always shoot RAW might never think about changing their in-camera picture style / picture control settings, since all of the options (sharpening, contrast, etc.) will disappear in most RAW editing programs such as Adobe Lightroom and Bridge.

In other words why would you want to “mess up” your camera’s contrast and colors?  Aren’t the default settings the best way to gauge your exposure, white balance, etc?  Not necessarily, especially for an outdoor photographer who shoots RAW and needs to frequently push the envelope of dynamic range while pursuing their artistic vision and maintaining accurate color reproduction.

For an overview of how you can maximize your exposures and better visualize your artistic vision for a scene, watch the video and then keep reading below!

What are Picture Styles?

A Picture Style (or Picture Control, on Nikon) is a set of in-camera processing options that affect how your images will look on the back of your camera.  Of course if you shoot JPG or record video, then these settings are all FINAL and cannot be un-done later.  So be careful!  However if you shoot RAW these in-camera settings can be changed later without harming your image quality.

In-camera picture controls usually include some or all of the following settings:

  • Sharpening
  • Contrast
  • Brightness
  • Saturation
  • Hue

In addition to those specific settings, there are also some main options:

  • Standard
  • Neutral
  • Faithful
  • Vivid
  • Portrait
  • Landscape
  • Monochrome

Each of these main settings has its own sub-options for the sharpening, contrast, etc. This gives a photographer complete control over the “look” of their images.  In my opinion, there are two major reasons to use picture styles / controls, even if you are a RAW-shooting photographer:

Camera LCD Accuracy

The pursuit of technical perfection is part of what drives us.  It’s okay to admit it!  Many photographers are also engineers or architects or other mechanically-minded folks, and to us  this pursuit is both entertaining and satisfying.

I’m not talking about pixel-peepers who photograph brick walls all day, though.  While there is a time and place for that, I’m talking about true, “in-the-field” methods and techniques that give us better results.

I’ll quit beating around the bush: your camera LCD can “lie” to you a little bit.  Especially as a RAW shooter, because what the camera LCD is showing you is the in-camera JPG processing.  The in-camera picture style, and any contrast or saturation adjustments, will cause your shadows and highlights to be inaccurate.  Usually this means that shadows look too deep and dark, or highlights blow out / “blink” sooner than they really should.

[Rewind: How come your computer display makes images look different than on your camera LCD?]

To get the best possible exposures in very dynamic settings, (It could save you from having to bracket and perform time-consuming HDR processing!) try this:  Use a neutral picture control in-camera, and maybe even turn the contrast down towards its lowest setting!  You’ll get a much more flat image on the back of the camera, but at least your highlights and shadows won’t “lie” to you as much.

Depending on which camera you have you may also have access to things like “Active D-Lighting”, (a Nikon feature) …or “Auto Lighting Optimizer” or “Highlight Tone Priority”. (which are Canon features)  These features all work differently depending on the camera you have, so you’ll want to test them out very extensively before actually trusting them in the field.  However I have gotten very good results from Nikon’s “Active D-Lighting” function over the past few years. Check out a demonstration below!

Improving Your Creative Vision

Okay, now let’s throw technical accuracy out the window for a second, and talk about the FUN way to play with your in-camera processing!  Some of you may feel like this is amateurish or silly, but I actually really enjoy using the in-camera settings to boost my contrast, saturation, …or sometimes even play around with in-camera B&W images!  Of course I only do this in situations where things like dynamic range are very manageable, but when the time is right it can really help me get “in the zone”.

Simply put, I feel that it helps me to envision my final result from an artistic standpoint.  Plus, it’s fun!

Demonstration of In-Camera Picture Styles

vivid-picure-style-650In-Camera Image Using “Vivid” Picture Style and High Contrast

picture-style-active-d-lighting-650In-Camera Image Using Active D-Lighting and Negative Contrast

picture-style-active-d-lighting-raw-unedited-650Raw, Un-Edited NEF Image in Adobe Lightroom 5 – EWW!

picture-style-active-d-lighting-raw2-650Raw, Edited Image processed using the SLR Lounge Preset System

Conclusion and Recommendations

As you can see above, adjusting the in-camera settings for contrast and dynamic range really helped me envision my final result!  In fact after I recorded the above video, I actually ended up masking in a tiny bit of the sunrise from the in-camera JPG onto the RAW image, because I liked the subtle tones and colors so much!

So, I highly recommend at least experimenting with your camera a little bit.  Here are a few final tips:

  1. Experiment with different exposures, to see just how far you can push your highlights in post-production before they begin to look “weird”
  2. Experiment with different picture styles to see which colors you like the best, for which environments.
  3. Test your camera’s ability to recover shadows, and try to find an in-camera picture style that best represents the amount of dynamic range you are comfortable with processing safely in post-production.
  4. Always, always, always remember to undo any drastic adjustments, before shooting anything other than RAW images!  If you shoot JPG or video, you could ruin those if you’re not careful.  Personally, I create completely separate picture controls / picture styles for every different environment / image format I might use.

[Rewind: You can also use in-camera processing (sharpening) to help improve your accuracy with image sharpness!]

We’ll have many more tutorials coming soon that expand on how to use the different picture styles to your advantage, and even how to custom-design a picture style or in-camera curve for your camera!  For now, here are a couple more images created using in-camera processing taylored to the final result. Enjoy!

picture-style-vivid-originalIn-Camera Processing: Vivid, With Added Contrast & Saturation

picture-style-vivid-raw-un-edited-650Raw, Un-Edited NEF Image in Adobe Lightroom 5

picture-style-vivid-650Final image, processed in Lightroom using the SLR Lounge Preset System

 

picture-styles-b&w-panorama-originalIn-Camera Processing: Monochrome with Added Contrast

picture-styles-b&w-panorama-650Final image, processed in Lightroom using the SLR Lounge Preset System
(Click HERE to view a larger version!)

Thanks so much for tuning in and take care!

=Matt=

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Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

Comments [8]

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  1. ANDRÉS ALEJANDRO GARCÍA HURTADO

    Isn’t just better to look at the histogram? anyway, I never see the lcd screen unless I need to focus manually when using a tripod…

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    • Matthew Saville

      Andres, see my comment above. Using your histogram and using this technique go hand-in-hand actually, IMO, this technique simply helps make your histogram look more like how it will in post-production!

      =Matt=

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  2. Chris

    What about just reading the histogram?

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    • Matthew Saville

      Chris, using your histogram is something that I highly recommend! This method that I’m describing above is something that actually HELPS your histogram as well, by making it look more realistic or comparable to your own specific editing style. I personally like to edit my RAW photos to have loads of dynamic range, so why not set up my camera so that my histogram displays a similar dynamic range?

      =Matt=

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  3. thgh

    Problem is… You don’t get that for Canon :P

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    • Matthew Saville

      THGH, of course you get that for Canon! Canon DSLRs have all the same in-camera controls, they just have all different names. I usually never say this, but check your camera’s manual to see which features are named what? That will help.

      =Matt=

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  4. Josh

    Great tutorial on this. I have my Nikon menu set to use “shooting menu bank A” as factory default and use the other menu banks to play with shooting modes

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  5. Anthony Thurston

    Thanks Matt, lots to think about here.

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