A blizzard of ways to customize your camera

It was hard to write an exciting title about this; and clearly, we did not succeed. But frankly, if you’re looking for or own a higher-end digital camera, programmable buttons, function buttons, or the like are a useful and commonplace offering in those cameras—and an easy way customize your camera. We’ll take a look at cameras that have them and generally how they’re implemented.

Dedicated Function Buttons

A camera with both dedicated function buttons and a AE/AF lock button that can be re-purposed as a function button.

A camera with both dedicated function buttons and a AE/AF lock button that can be re-purposed as a function button.

The top of the list for convenience, most higher-end digital cameras offer at least one dedicated function buttons. And often, you can assign a fairly lengthy list of functions to them, allowing you to really customize the camera to your liking.

Some manufacturers, Panasonic and Olympus in particular, really emphasize them. The DMC-FZ200 from Panasonic, at the top of their superzoom line, offers no less than four function buttons.

Not to be outdone, the Olympus OM-D E-M1,offers five and, if that’s not enough, lets the user completely redefine the camera’s mode dial.

Even retro-styled cameras like the Fujifilm X-E2 find space for at least one nod to customization.

Even the retro X-E2 from Fujifilm squeezes in a function button.

Even the retro X-E2 from Fujifilm squeezes in a function button.

Custom Mode Dial Settings

Many of these relatively pricey cameras also offer one or more positions on the mode dial where the user can save preferred groups of settings.

This feature also allows you to customize the camera to your liking, but in a different way. Instead of placing a camera feature one touch away like a function button, the custom settings on the mode dial usually save an entire camera setup.

Depending on the camera, everything from basic settings like aperture, shutter speed, and focus mode to more advanced things like white balance, ISO, and drive mode is saved. You recall the camera setup simply by rotating to the mode dial to the appropriate custom position.

A mode dial offering two custom camera setting positions, with a function key off to the right.

A mode dial offering two custom camera setting positions, with a function key off to the right.

Other Programmable Settings

Some cameras, perhaps without the real estate for dedicated function buttons, use a touchscreen display and often build in a programmable “quick menu” that lets you group popular functions for easier access.

Still others feature a ring around the lens that is programmable, depending on the specific camera, to adjust things like aperture, zoom, focus and focus peaking. Many photographers find this decidedly ‘retro’ approach very familiar.

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Learn more: dynamic range

An engineer could talk for hours about dynamic range. But if you give us a few minutes , we’ll explain it in ordinary English and tell you why it’s very important. In digital photography, dynamic range is two things, the range of all the dark and light tones in an image (luminance), or the range of luminance that an image sensor can capture. OK, we promised English and it’s easier to understand as an example anyway.

Dynamic Range on the High Side

Imagine the sensor in your camera as being composed of millions of tiny buckets that hold light. If more light comes into the bucket than it can hold, the excess spills over the sides. (This is called saturation of the image sensor.) So your camera makes a decision about exposure that uses aperture and shutter speed to control the amount of light coming to the sensor. Say you come upon a wonderful photo opportunity with a lots of bright and dark areas, but when you shoot it, some of the detail that was in the bright or dark areas is just lost. But it was a beautiful scene. What went wrong? Well you’ve run into the miracle of the human eye: it has incredible dynamic range, more than film and much more than digital cameras. In our analogy, the eye has bigger buckets. Much bigger. A much wider dynamic range.

Dynamic Range on the Low Side

Our bucket analogy still works for the darker parts of our image, but we have to add another concept. When there’s very little light coming into

Illustration of comparative digital camera sensor sizes.

Illustration of comparative digital camera sensor sizes.

our bucket, we sure don’t have to worry about some spilling over the sides, but then noise becomes a concern. This is electronic noise, you could think of this as a small, random, and unknown amount of light that is always in each bucket. When taking a picture of a dark scene, the camera will adjust the exposure to use as much of the dynamic range as possible, raising the ISO setting to fill the buckets in the lightest parts of the scene. As the ISO setting goes up, so does noise in the image. Image noise effectively limits dynamic range on the low side.

Factors Affecting Dynamic Range

The biggest single factor affecting dynamic range in digital cameras is the sensor itself. Generally speaking, larger image sensors have wider dynamic range because each photo site (each bucket) is larger. (This is not the same as image sensor resolution in megapixels). Each one can hold more photons. Most point-and-shoot digital cameras have either a 1/2.3″ or a 1/1.7″ sensor. In contrast most interchangeable lens cameras (mirror-less, rangefinder, and DSLR cameras) have 4/3 and APS-C sensors that are many times larger (see illustration, right). Noise is affected by the electronics that read the image information from the sensor, by the technology of the sensor itself, and also by sensor size. While many consumer digital cameras have specialized modes to address it, the fact remains that their small sensors lack the dynamic range offered by higher end cameras.

Say goodbye to summer: we’re back…

Lots of great weather, lots of wonderful pictures, but now summer is over. Our summer adventures have given us many ideas for new posts. Equipment manufacturers have stayed busy, so there are a lot of new offerings out there.

In short, there’s plenty to write about. If you’ll pardon the pun, some of things we plan to focus on are:

Equipment Reviews and Previews

We believe there’s been a shift in digital photography. Our target audience—photography fans, amateurs through enthusiasts—is getting more demanding and sophisticated. We will respond by including more interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs) and accessories, including many so-called mirror-less and rangefinder style models.

That said, while we will often cover features that DSLR cameras have, our reviews will concentrate on point-and-shoot cameras through ILCs.

Situation-Specific Shooting Tips

A trio of dianthus bids summer a farewell.

A trio of dianthus bids summer a farewell.

In the past, we’ve often combined feature discussions with situations where that particular feature would be useful. We’re going to add to that posts about individual photographic applications and how we recommend approaching them.

We hope our readers will find this to be another way to access information they can use to make their photography more enjoyable.

Digital Photography Technology Primers

If you follow the field, you know how fast digital photography is changing. New technologies and improvements are being introduced at an incredible pace. Keep up with it all right here: we’ll explain the science behind the technology in plain English and we’ll tell you what it means to your photography.

Using reflections in your photography

Angle of incidence shown here as theta.

Angle of incidence shown here as theta.

Reflections are one of those thing photographers often try to avoid, or at least control. For sure, they are a problem when they distract from the scene you are trying to capture. But they can also add a creative dimension to your photography.

Sources of Reflections

There are a surprising number of reflective objects in everyday life. Water, metal surfaces, and glass are all around and often highly reflective. Often they are reflective from almost any angle.

Other objects can reflect light, depending on the angle of incidence. This is the angle at which you are viewing (or photographing) the subject. We tend to shoot objects straight on (shooting perpendicularly); this is a very small angle of incidence (theoretically zero). Experiment with shooting using larger angle and you will find that many objects have at least some reflectance.

Ideas to Get You Started

Whether you are shooting to capture the reflection itself, or using it to augment your picture, reflections can add a lot to landscapes. Consider the shot of a lake scene with the surroundings reflecting of the water’s surface.

Another great source of reflections is the glass and metal used in architecture. You would be amazed what skies, other buildings, and people can look like when reflected off surfaces.

Lastly, you can also “manufacture” reflections. Pieces of glass and metal, especially odd-shaped pieces, can be the start of a great picture.

Something in the way of your picture?

We’ve all been in the situation where we could take a beautiful picture, if only we could get rid of something that’s between us and what we want to shoot. Most of the time we resort to re-framing the picture to eliminate the interference. But that’s not the only approach.

Depending on the size of the object, it’s position in the frame, and how accessible it is, you may have another approach available to you — and one that often has significant creative benefits.

A Story Helps

A number of years ago, I happened to be at the zoo. That’s a perfect example of an environment where there are often things between you and the scene you want to capture: in this case, fences. Not being willing to give up on the picture, and certainly not being able to get rid of the fencing separating the animals from the humans, I was forced to take another tack.

I got as close to the fence as I could, framed the picture and took it. And I was truly surprised at the results.

Why Does It Work?

Understanding a bit about light and optics helps, but our commitment in this blog is not to bore (or scare) you with technical details. So, suffice it to say that our general conception about light isn’t really correct. Most would assume that it comes in absolutely straight rays from the scene into the lens, and then onto the camera’s sensor. That’s actually not true. (In fact, such light is called collimated light and only occurs naturally from certain types of sources.)

But what you need to know is that light is actually coming into your camera’s lens from many different angles and can appear to have the effect of bending around objects.

By placing my lens right up to the fence, the camera was able to form a beautiful picture of some otters at play with only the slightest darkening of the frame where the fencing actually was.

Again, we don’t want to give a physics course here; we want you to go out and experiment for yourself. And, as always, please tell us about your experience. We think you’ll be surprised.

Summertime photography: some ideas to get you started

The arrival of better weather, more sun, and lots of outdoor activities presents many great picture-taking opportunities. In this decidedly non-technical post, we just want to get your creative juices flowing.

A beautiful summertime landscape.

A beautiful summertime landscape.

Sunny Days

The old adage is that photographers should be napping during the heat of the day. To be sure, sunlight is not always the best for pleasing pictures. An extremely bright scene, especially with the limited dynamic range of many consumer digital cameras, can lead to clipped or blown highlights and poor detail in the darker areas of the scene. But sunlight is not always bad, it can add a new dimension to your photography and allow many creative effects.

Consider looking for reflections (normally an undesirable effect in a picture) that offer a unique perspective on ordinary objects like buildings, water, and automobiles. Yes, you will probably have to stop the aperture down, speed up the shutter, or both, but you may just end up with a great picture demonstrating your photographic creativity.

Flora and Fauna

The difference in local vegetation compared to winter time is striking and worthy of some attention. Experiment with the macro capability in your camera. (See our article here.) Open up that aperture to isolate wildlife, or the blooms on a plant, and get beautiful bokeh that separates your subject from the background.

Another thought (and yes, you have to do some planning) is a before and after treatment of a scene as it transitions from winter to spring and summer. You’ll have to carefully document the camera location from shot-to-shot for alignment purposes, but you’d be surprised how ordinary things become amazing when photographed through the seasons.

Also consider experimenting with camera panning to capture wildlife in motion. This has the effect of freezing the subject in mid-stride (or mid-flight) with a pleasing streaking of the background.

We’ve done several articles related to fun summer photography applications. Feel free to browse the site and enjoy your summertime photography.

The next big thing: camera connectivity

The versatile SH100 digital camera from Samsung. (Courtesy of Samsung)

The versatile SH100 digital camera from Samsung. (Courtesy of Samsung)

We’ve all seen the changes over the last ten or so years in connected devices: phones, tablets, home security, appliances, and many, many more. Digital camera manufacturers have been listening. Many cameras introduced within the last year offer significant improvements in connectivity.

In this article, we’ve made no attempt to offer an exhaustive list of cameras that offer enhanced connectivity, nor to describe every connectivity option offered. Instead, the goal is to present some of the more popular connectivity options as well as representative cameras.

WiFi Connectivity

Probably the most familiar type of device connectivity, WiFi is a popular term for a wireless local area network (WLAN) based on the IEEE 802.11 standard. Most typically, WiFi networks feature relatively limited range or around 20 meters (~65 feet). Such capabilities integrate nicely with digital cameras to allow everything from image transfer to remote control functions like shutter release.

Still, true WiFi has been slow to come to digital cameras. In our un-scientific analysis, fewer than 10% of consumer digital cameras feature built-in WiFi, highly skewed toward recently introduced models. But, the Samsung SH100 (about $150) features a robust WiFi implementation including image transfer, remote control, and geo-tagging.

Near Field Communication

Recently introduced to digital cameras is Near Field Communication (NFC), a simplified short-range (usually less than 5 inches) radio communication method. Generally requiring less setup than other methods, NFC is making inroads in digital cameras because of its simplicity. In the NFC implementation in Panasonic Lumix cameras like the DMC-LF1, you just tap the camera against a smart phone or tablet for instant connectivity. Then you can share photos, remotely control the camera, and perform a host of other functions.