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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
Digital Learning Curves
by Gary W. Stanley

I've had the opportunity over the past five years or so to attend the PMA (Photographic Marketing Assoc.) annual product show held in this country. Manufacturers come from all over the world to show potential buyers the latest and greatest in photography related products. With well over 1,000 exhibitors, it is very easy to come away from a show like that with your head spinning and reeling from all the new products and techno-talk. That doesn't even include all those evil thoughts of ways you could re-finance your home just to cover some of the new toys that you now "Must Have!"

Well, no matter how you do it, or how you justify it, you manage to find a way to own one of those latest do-it-all digital cameras. At first you probably did what I did, and that's put the camera on auto-everything and shoot a few pictures. Wow! That's pretty cool, I can view the image immediately, download it to my computer, and see a nice size image on my monitor. Now, I just made the assumption that you already know how to take the memory card from the camera, transfer the images to the computer using either the connecting cord that came with the camera, or the accessory "Pocket Reader" that you may have purchased when you bought the camera. I am also assuming that you are able to get those images loaded into the software program that you are using with your computer.

You do have a computer don't you? You are familiar with imaging software such as Photoshop, aren't you? Wow! All of a sudden you begin to realize just how far you've come from the days when you just opened the back on your old Pentax K1000, put a roll of film in it, took a few shots, and then let your photo lab do the rest.

Did you notice how I simplified the traditional process of loading film: Remember this? Hopefully the film caught on the sprockets okay, and it's advancing properly. Oh, when you are finished shooting, don't forget to push the film release button on the bottom of the camera before you try to rewind the film, or you will tear the film sprockets causing you to accidentally expose the film when you open the back, thinking the film has been re-wound into the cassette when in fact didn't.

If you handled that part okay, you still had to get in your car, drive to a camera shop or photo processing lab, drop your film off, and then return later to pick it up. "I'm sorry Mr. Stanley, but there was nothing on your film, it was totally blank. Did you load the film properly?"

As you probably have guessed by now, this is called a "Learning Curve." We easily forget that this is a very normal part of the photographic process. While the equipment may change, the learning curve remains. Sometimes this learning curve is gradual, sometimes, it is very abrupt. It all depends upon what it is that we are trying to accomplish, and on how determined we are to see it through.

Welcome to the "Digital Learning Curve!" 

While we have mastered many of the photographic techniques necessary in order to capture the kind of images that one would hope to capture, this massive digital technology wave has challenged us once again to tackle a new learning curve. I purchased my first professional level digital camera only last fall. I did exactly what I said at the outset of this article: I put the battery in, loaded the CF (Compact Flash) card, attached a lens, and headed out onto my deck. I set the camera up to operate automatically, and took a few shots.

After about a twenty-five year (and counting) continuous learning curve, I knew that what I had just done was only a temporary adrenalin fix intended to curb my excitement, and if I wanted to quickly get up to speed with this new camera, I was going to have to read the manual and expect that there would be, yet, another "Learning Curve."

As some of you may know, I spent the winter at home recovering from brain surgery (yes I do have one, and the MRI to prove it). My only photographic outlet for the most part was the harbor view in front of my home and the deck from which to shoot. The digital camera became a very useful way to stay fresh photographically. I would wait for some interesting light, step out onto the deck, compose my shot and take several images. I would then head back to my in-home office, download the CF card, edit the images, and if I liked what I saw, I would make several 13x19 prints. 

The other thing that I was able to do was to see my results, go back out and re-shoot. I quickly became familiar with the camera's menu and found myself able to navigate very easily making subtle changes to things like white balance, exposure, trying filters and image quality settings such as the JPEG and RAW files. I soon realized that this was the most important part of the "Digital Learning Curve," and it also resulted in my writing this article (that, and constant prodding from my editor).

As I mentioned last month in my article on exposure, I compared exposure readings between my film camera, the Nikon F100, and the new digital camera the Nikon D100. I was comfortable that they gave me similar readings, so the next step for me was to make sense out the various white balance settings. The D100 gives you seven different white balance settings, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Direct Sunlight, Flash, Cloudy, Shade, and Auto White Balance. Within each of these selections are submenu compensation settings of + or - 1, 2, and 3. Wow! At first glance this could seem a bit overwhelming. In reality these choices are similar (only more easily adjustable) to the reasons you make different film choices depending on the type of light that you plan to shoot under, i.e. tungsten, fluorescent, daylight, etc.

Based on that information, I ran a series of simple tests photographing both sides of a gray card. I started by selecting one white balance setting, shooting at that setting, then doing the same thing with the other choices. I did not bother with incandescent, fluorescent, or flash settings, because I was just interested in my typical outdoor shooting situations. I could also use the + or - 1, 2, and 3 compensation to fine-tune each white balance setting even more until I found the setting that I liked (Photo: Example Gray card Cloudy 0,-1, -2, -3) (Photo: Example White Card Cloudy 0, -1, -2, -3) .

Gray Card White Card

Zero, No Adjustment

Cloudy -1

Cloudy -2

Cloudy -3

My personal findings were that I preferred Cloudy with 0 compensation in most sunny to light cloudy or on fairly bright overcast days. On cloudy overcast days or when raining or drizzling, the Cloudy -3 setting worked well especially when working in a forest environment where the overcast sky and the green foliage tended to cool the colors in the subject that I was photographing. The Auto White Balance and Direct Sunlight (Sunny) white balance settings worked well, though they appeared somewhat cool to me, kind of like comparing the old Kodak Ektachrome to Fuji's Velvia. Since I prefer a Fuji Velvia or Kodak E100VS type of warm and saturated film, this cloudy white balance setting was perfect for me. I did additional tests with my 81A warming-polarizer filter to see how it affected some of these settings. To me it works just as well with digital as it does with my film camera.

Road Auto

Road Sunny 0

Road Cloudy 0

I've had very good results shooting in the JPEG High image quality setting. I like the number of images I can put on my CF card and the results I'm getting making 13x19 prints from digital capture. However, I know that the RAW file (Nikon's NEF file) stores the maximum amount information or data within each photographic capture without losing anything to compression. Compare JPEG's 8 bit per channel or about 256 shades of gray per channel and 16.7 million colors, to the RAW file that allows you to capture the camera's 12 bits, 4,096 shades of gray per channel, the approximate 68.7 billion colors, and you can quickly see how the RAW file can be very useful in capturing the subtle details of an image just as you experienced it. This is also important information should you decide to make large high-quality prints (Swampscott Boats and Fog. from RAW file) 

I recently started using the new Adobe Camera RAW plug-in software (Look for an up-coming review right here), and found adjusting the image to be a breeze, and very user friendly. So in keeping with my own personal "Digital Learning Curve," I've now purchased another 640mg CF card (I now have two 1 gig Microdrive cards and two 640mg high speed CF cards) and have forced myself to do more shooting using the RAW capture feature.

These are just a few examples of my approach to tackling this new learning curve. Understanding and getting comfortable with white balance was my first priority. The camera was very similar to my other Nikon cameras so I was able to concentrate on just the digital aspect of this learning curve.

Besides your own trial-and-error method to the "Digital Learning Curve," don't be afraid to read the manual, read magazines such as Vivid Light Photography, PC Photo or Outdoor Photographer that often feature articles related to digital imaging. People in the know that you can email or go to their website are: Our own editor and contributors here at Vivid Light Photography, Jim McGee, Moose Peterson, Chuck McKern (Beginner and Advanced Questions) and myself. Rob Sheppard, George Lepp and Tim Grey from Outdoor Photographer and PC Photo are also great informational resources when questions arise.

Needless to say I've found my own "Digital Learning Curve" to be well worth the time and effort needed to allow me to take my photography to yet another level, and to be able to keep it fun, interesting and rewarding. Now it's your turn! 

All photo's were taken with the Nikon D100, the Nikkor 18-35 for the two stream shots, the Tokina 24-200 for the sunset boats shot, and the Nikkor 80-400VR for the boats and fog shot. 

The New Hampshire streams, were shot at Cloudy-3, and for the two harbor shots, cloudy white balance was added to the boats at sunset, and for the boats and fog, white balance was left as shot using the RAW (NEF) file and working in Adobe Camera RAW. 

The test shots of the gray card were all shot with a $25,000 Hasselblad with a digital back and a 6mm fisheye lens. JUST KIDDING! 

For more information check out these Web sites:

Light Chasers

Moose Peterson

Tim Grey

George Lepp

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