Camera Settings for ALP
In this segment, we're gonna talk about camera settings for night photography. First, camera settings that affect image quality. And there are just a couple of those. First and foremost, of course we're gonna be shooting RAW rather than JPEGs. Next, we wanna use our native or optimum ISO whenever possible, or if not, at least the lowest possible ISO. Then, we're gonna consider using camera's long exposure noise reduction. So these are the only settings that affect image quality. RAW, ISO, and long exposure noise reduction, not to be confused with high ISO noise reduction. We wanna shoot RAW for maximum quality and control. When you save only JPEGs, your camera is processing the file in-camera and compressing, discarding 30% to 40% of the information that's recorded. And you really wanna have access to every little bit of detail, because we're pushing the limits of what these cameras can do. So, again, you just wanna save every little bit of detail that the camera records. Next, use the...
lowest ISO that you can for best image quality. In some situations, for example star trails, or photographing under full moon conditions, there's no reason not to use your native ISO of 100 or 200, whatever your camera's native ISO is. And don't think that using the extended ISO, going below native, so if you camera says L, or low one, or low two, that's not going to improve image quality. In fact it actually deteriorates a little bit by constricting the dynamic range. So. In other situations like astro-landscaping, you're trying to record star points, use the lowest ISO that you can, considering the shutter speed and aperture. So don't use 12,800 if you can use 64. Don't use 64 if you can use 32, et cetera. It's important to remember that raising the ISO does not actually increase your sensor sensitivity. Your camera's sensor has a fixed sensitivity. When you raise the ISO, you're basically just adding current to the sensor and giving it more game. And when you have more game, you have more noise. So there you go. Lastly, just again, use native ISO for full moon photography, and the lowest ISO you can for anything else, and that's gonna give you the best image quality, which is really especially important if you're going to be making prints from your images. It's less of an issue if you're just going to be looking at your images on screen, putting them on Facebook or Flickr or what have you. Okay. So next, long exposure noise reduction. And this one requires a little bit of consideration whether or not you use it, because there are both advantages and disadvantages. Now if you're shooting with a Canon camera, they have what's called auto LENR, or auto long exposure noise reduction, and that's really a kind of a useful tool, because normally, when you activate long exposure noise reduction. What it does is, after your exposure's completed, the camera will then do a second exposure of equal length without actually opening the shutter. So if you're doing a 30-minute exposure, you then have 30 minutes of noise reduction afterwards, and that obviously can be really limiting to how productive you can be over the course of the night. But with Canon's auto LENR, it will only activate if and when it's needed, and it doesn't necessarily double the length of your exposure. That's a really useful tool, but on the other hand, it is not quite as good as having the LENR turned all the way on. The way it works is kind of a mystery. Canon's engineers won't reveal the secrets, but what I can tell you is that in cold weather conditions, where there's not a whole lot of heat build-up on your sensor, that auto LENR might only activate for a few seconds or small fraction of your total exposure, so you might have a minute or two of long exposure noise reduction on a or 30 minute exposure in cold weather, but in warm weather, where the ambient temperature allows the sensor to heat up, you get more noise, it may actually run for the full time. Any other camera manufacturer, whether it's Sony or Nikon or Fuji or Pentax, whatever, you only have the option for on or off. So if it's off, you have no in-camera noise reduction. If it's on, it automatically doubles the length of your exposure time. It's really a somewhat complicated decision whether or not to use this, based on the ambient temperature, based on your own experience of how noisy your camera gets, and again based on the final use of your images. If you're only gonna be looking at them on screen, it's less of an issue. If you're gonna make small prints, it's somewhat of an issue, but nothing compared to blowing up your images. Say you're gonna make a 24 by 36 inch print, something like that, in that case, you probably wanna use auto LENR, or LENR in general. Lastly, with regards to this, doing some testing to figure out exactly when is the time to use it is really helpful. And if you're gonna be doing this testing, remember to keep in mind that you have to test in different temperature situations. So if you do a test to decide whether or not the image's quality's good enough at 40 degrees, you have to retest again at 60 or at 80 degrees. Alright. So the warmer it is, the more noise you're gonna get, the more likely it is that you wanna use LENR. And then lastly, one more thought about this, what I sometimes do, is I'll have long exposure noise reduction turned off until I get to my final shot. So all my testing, and my quick shots, I don't have to sit around and wait for the LENR, but in the end, if I know that I've got a shot that I'm gonna print or is really important to me, I'll just turn it on just for that one exposure, and that saves a bit of time, but still gives me that extra insurance of having a cleaner file. Okay. So now, we've talked about camera settings that affect image quality, now we're gonna talk about camera settings for exposure determination. And there are just a few of those as well. First we're going to enable the camera's RGB histogram. Next, we're gonna turn on the highlights, or the blinking highlight indicator, and we're also gonna reduce the LCD brightness two or three levels below the default setting, or possibly use the auto-brightness. Exposure is determined by a combination of the histogram, the highlights, the image preview, and your own experience. All of these things kind of put together, used in various conditions to help figure out what your exposure's gonna be. First of those, again, we wanna use the RGB histogram. And why is that important? Why use RGB rather than brightness? I think this image here conveys that pretty clearly. So if you look at this brightness histogram on the top, it shows what you think would be an ideal exposure. There's no clipping in the shadows, there's no clipping in the highlights, and the overall exposure's kinda moved over to the right, like this would be the right from camera position. But if you look at the red, green, and blue histogram, you can see that the green one looks good, the red one looks good, the blue one looks good, but the red one is pushed all the way over to the right, and the highlights are clipping. So if you see this histogram, you're probably gonna make a different exposure decision based on the red clipping, whereas if you look at the average histogram for the brightness histogram, the averaging looks like it's perfect. So you're not gonna see that red clipping in the averaging of the brightness histogram. The histogram is the primary exposure determinant in natural light situations like this. Relatively low contrast, where you don't have a lot of natural or ambient highlights. Again, RBG histogram is the primary exposure determinant in relatively low contrast, natural light situations. If you are photographing in an urban environment, where there's more contrast, there'll be typically pockets of really bright light surrounded by a sea of darkness, much more dynamic scene. In that case, you're gonna wanna use the blinking highlight indicator, or just called highlights in some cameras. In our situation here, out in a natural light situation, the blinkies are basically going to help us figure out the exposure for light panning, 'cause the highlights of your image are probably gonna be just what you're doing with adding light. So you really basically wanna figure out what are important highlights that you need to preserve, and what are less important highlights that you can let clip. So for example, in an urban situation, you might want to not worry about a streetlight, the bulb or the filament in a streetlight, that's gonna be blown out no matter what, but maybe the sidewalk underneath the streetlight, you wanna preserve details in there. So that's where you use those blinkies. Out here in the middle of nowhere, where there aren't really any naturally occurring highlights, or many, again, it's your light panning, or for example if you are shooting into the moon, that might be your brightest highlight. Or if you've got really bright stars or planets, don't worry about stars blinking or clipping. Or if you're photographing by moonlight, you can just let that go, 'cause if you try to preserve highlight detail in the surface of the moon, you're not gonna see anything else in the landscape, because of the dynamic range there. So again, the blinkies are the primary exposure determinant in urban situations where you've got a lot of artificial light and a much higher scene contrast, and in nature, we use the highlights primarily for controlling light panning, because the light panning is typically the brightest part of your scene in these natural light situations. Lastly, we're gonna talk about LCD brightness, and there are a couple of reasons for turning that down. First of all, the brightness of the back of the camera affects the way that you perceive the exposure. And it's really relevant, or relative to the ambient illumination. So for example, if you have your LCD screen turned down, and you take the camera out into bright sunlight, you're gonna think that the image is really underexposed based on the image preview on the back of the camera. And conversely, out here in the middle of nowhere, if you have a bright LCD screen and a very dark environment, you might be fooled into thinking that an underexposed image actually looks pretty good. Of course, we're gonna be using the histogram and the highlights, but we also wanna have a sense of what that image looks like, and turning down the brightness to match the ambient illumination really makes that easier, and it also has the additional added value of preserving your battery life, 'cause the LCD screen on the back of the camera chews up more battery power than anything else. So if your camera LCD has auto-brightness, you can choose that, and that might be pretty good. One of the things that I like about Canon cameras is that they have further refinement on the auto-brightness, so you can choose auto and then auto minus or auto plus, and so just cranking it all the way down is pretty helpful. Alrighty. So, additional camera settings. What have we got? Exposure mode. We're always gonna be shooting in manual. There's no program, no auto-mode, not even aperture or shutter priority. We wanna have complete and total control over exposure. So we're using manual exposure mode. It's not a bad idea to use the two second delay or the self timer. It's not necessary if you are using an intervalometer or a remote, but if you're actually pushing the shutter button on a relatively short astro-landscape exposure, two second delay is not a bad idea. The mirror lock-up function, a lot of people wonder about using that for night photography, and it's really not important for exposures of multiple seconds. But mirror lock-up is mostly useful for exposures from about an eighth of a second up to one or two seconds. Anything longer than that, and whatever camera shake is there is not gonna affect a longer exposure of 10, 15, 20 seconds. Focus, we're gonna be switching that to manual, 'cause autofocus just isn't gonna work in these low light situations. Additionally, if you have a vibration reduction or image stabilized lens, you're gonna turn that function off, because when a camera's mounted on a tripod the little gyro in the lens actually has the opposite of the desired effect, and your image will end up with absolutely nothing being sharp. That's because the little gyro motor is continuously working and the camera's locked into a rigid position, so it cause vibrations in the camera rather than eliminating them. Let's see, we're gonna use live view for focusing. A lot of people don't really spend much time with live view, don't really understand how to use it, but knowing how that works on your camera is really critical, so live view for focusing. Use the info button the back of the camera so you can use the rear LCD rather than standing on your tiptoes and looking down on the top LCD. 'Cause you get more information, more control by looking at the back of the camera using the info button. Now if you know your camera really well and understand all the settings and how it works, then you might want to use the custom exposure modes or the user modes to tailor your camera to your night photography settings. Now the reason I say that you don't wanna do this unless you really know your gear well, is because some settings are saved when you switch between those custom modes and regular modes, and some are not. So it can be kind of frustrating to switch back and forth and find that some settings are preserved and some are lost. So really understanding your camera, knowing the controls really well is extremely helpful. So now, here's a bunch of camera settings that we don't really care about, because they're only for JPEG shooters. Among those we've got auto-lighting optimizer and highlight tone priority for Canon cameras, de-lighting for Nikon cameras, high ISO noise reduction, which is different from long exposure noise reduction, in-camera HDR in most instances, and then the picture styles for Canon or picture control for Nikon. All of these things only apply to JPEG images, and the caveat there is that when you're looking at the preview image on the back of the camera, you're not looking at your RAW file, you're looking at a processed JPEG, so any of these settings that you have activated are gonna be reflected on the JPEG preview on the back of the camera, and not on the RAW file once you load that into your computer. So for that reason, I recommend turning all these settings off. Auto-lighting optimizer, highlight tone priority, de-lighting, high ISO noise reduction, and picture styles. Turn all those off, except picture styles, or picture control, you can't turn it off, but you can set it to neutral, which means there's no in-camera adjustment to your RAW file, and what you see on the back of the camera is gonna accurately reflect what the RAW file's gonna look like. Those are the basic camera settings that we've got to work with and use for night photography. Just a couple of little thoughts here. It's really critical to learn your camera's controls, learn the menus, learn how to navigate the menus, how to make the adjustments intuitively. The better you know your camera, the more you can adjust it without having to think about it. It just frees you up to be more creative. If you don't have to think about making an adjustment, you can just do it intuitively. It just leaves your mind free to concentrate on the fun part of photography, the fun part of night photography, and that's the creative aspect, making images. So learn the technical side of it, get that to the point where it's second nature, and then you can put all of your energy into the creative part of photography. Alright. So along those lines, a lot of people think of digital workflow, and they think that begins when you take the memory card out of your camera and put it in your computer. Well, really workflow begins before you even go out to photograph. I think of workflow as starting with the way you organize your gear in your bag. It's really helpful if everything in your camera bag has its home, and it always goes back in the same place. That way, you don't have to turn on your headlight to find your intervalometer, you can just reach down, and it's in your bag, in the place where you left it before. It's always got its own place. You can grab your SharpStar 2 out of the bag, or you can grab a spare battery without having to fiddle around and wonder where you put it, 'cause it's always got its home in your bag. Work carefully, methodically. Develop an in-field workflow that's consistent. So for example, when I'm making a shot, I always start with composition first, and then I move onto focus, and then I figure out my exposure, and then lastly I'm gonna work through my light panning. And I do that every single time I do a shot in the same order. And having that consistency of workflow in the field makes for a more productive evening. You don't have to think about these things, you just kinda do it. So again, once you are comfortable and confident with your gear, you understand the technical side of what you're doing, it frees you up to be more creative, and you have more usable images, a higher percentage of usable images, and probably better ones as well. That's about it for camera settings. Next we're gonna talk about exposure.