Digital Camera Tweaks

Shoot the best quality

Great photos start with the right camera settings. When you capture photos in JPEG mode, you can choose among several quality levels; the higher the quality, the fewer pictures you'll be able to fit on your camera's memory card. I prefer to set my camera to its highest JPEG resolution and quality setting--memory cards are cheap, and I can always shrink a photo to e-mail it. Also, the lower the image's resolution, the less detail you have to work with later; that's important if you want to use your image editing software's crop tool to make an enlargement of some small detail.

For the ultimate control over your photos, shoot in RAW+JPEG mode (if your camera supports it). You'll get both a JPEG image you can share and a duplicate image in RAW mode that you can use to edit and print without sacrificing a single pixel of image quality. Browse here for tips on choosing the best image file type.

Don't forget your camera's sharpening setting. I add a small amount of in-camera sharpening to my shots, since most digital cameras tend to take slightly soft photos. In-camera sharpening also eliminates the need to perform a lot of post-shot tweaking of photos on the computer.

Reduce the noise

If you take photos in low-light conditions, you probably know that you can increase the camera's ISO setting to help freeze the action. Unfortunately, higher ISO levels also increase digital noise, which is why messing with these settings is often considered a last resort.

Thankfully, if you need to bump up the ISO, help is close at hand. Noise-reduction software such as PictureCode's US$35 Noise Ninja (a free limited-function version is also available) reduces the digital artifacts that high ISO levels generate, making your photos as clean and smooth as if you had taken them at the default setting. Noise Ninja comes with profiles of digital noise for many common cameras, and creating custom noise profiles for your specific camera at each ISO level is easy. Just load a photo, point Noise Ninja at the profile for your model, and your photo will be polished in a blink. For tricky photos, I love the software's Noise Brush, which lets me selectively apply noise reduction to just certain parts of the image, preserving small details in the process.

Mask stuck pixels

Any device can be marred by "dead" and "stuck" pixels--including the sensor in your digital camera. (See "Unstick Your Pixels" on the second page of the Graphics enhancers tutorial to read about a remedy for an LCD monitor.) Bad pixels become more likely as your camera gets older. Under most photographic conditions you might never notice them; but some kinds of photos--especially long night exposures of fireworks, cityscapes, astronomy, trails from car lights, and similar scenes--can really make the problem pixels stand out. The static appears because when you leave the camera's shutter open for an extended time, the cumulative effect of bad pixels can litter your photo with bright spots of digital noise.

You can subtract the bad pixels from your scene by using a program such as TawbaWare's US$15 PixelZap. The utility is smart enough to fill in the information lost by these bad pixels, eliminating the bright or dark dots scattered randomly around the photo. I've also used PixelZap to remove the fuzzy "halos" that sometimes appear around blips in my images that were caused by my camera's stuck pixels.

Flex your lens

Looking for a way to take some truly unusual photos? If your camera is a digital SLR model with interchangeable lenses, the US$150 Lensbaby might be just the ticket. Attach the Lensbaby to your Canon Digital Rebel, Nikon D50, or any other SLR camera, and use it to expand your photographic vocabulary.

The selective-focus lens is a flexible tube that you bend with your fingers as you prepare to take a photo. The result? One part of the photo is in sharp focus, while the rest of the picture looks blurry. It's like a cross between a soft-focus lens and a tilt lens (the sort of lens pro photographers use to correct perspective when shooting pictures of buildings).

Using Lensbaby takes some practice. More art than science, this gadget encourages finger gymnastics, as you move the flexible lens around with your fingertips until you like what you see through the viewfinder. The lens is compatible with such add-on lens kits as a wide-angle adapter, a telephoto adapter, and a macro filter.

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