Why You Should "Get It Right In Camera" :: Digital Photo Secrets

Why You Should "Get It Right In Camera"

by David Peterson 2 comments

I know, you spent a bundle on the latest piece of post-processing software. Your most over-used photography phrase is, "I'll just fix it in post".

It’s not surprising, really, and you're not the only one. After all, post-processing has given us some really wonderful tools. We can make images sharper. We can clean up noise. We can fix underexposure and overexposure. We can adjust white balance. In a sense, we’ve kind of made things too easy on ourselves. Because that phrase "I'll just fix it in post" is on a lot of photographers' tongues, not just yours.

  • Traveler DC-8300
  • 100
  • f/6.7
  • 0.002 sec (1/500)
  • 35 mm

Underexposed Lawns by Flickr user Tom Lawrence

So why is it a big deal to just fix it in post? Well, in a lot of individual cases, it’s really not. Adjusting a slightly underexposed photo, for example, is a pretty easy fix and the results are virtually indistinguishable from an image that came out of camera that way. But there are lots of reasons why it is bad practice to just let your post-processing act as your personal failsafe. Let’s start with a little history lesson.

Why film photographers cared more about getting it right than modern photographers

Post-processing isn’t a new thing. It’s just that we used to do it in a darkroom, and today we do it on a computer.

In the darkroom days, we used smelly chemicals, expensive machines and light sensitive paper. Printing a photograph was part science, part art. If you got it wrong, you were out a sheet of paper. And like film, photographic paper was not inexpensive. So the best practice was always to capture the best possible negative, so that you could limit the number of tries it took to get that perfect print.

Today, it doesn’t cost anything to tweak a “negative,” or that digital version of a photo that might one day end up on paper. What we forget far too often is that an activity doesn’t have to have a financial cost to be expensive. Time is also costly.

Let's say for example that you underexposed every single photo of your niece’s wedding. You obviously can't give her any of those photos until after you've corrected them. And that means a long afternoon (maybe even multiple long afternoons) sitting in front of your computer, tweaking every single photo before you can finally save it on a CD that’s actually fit to present to a bride. Unless you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, and you really, really, like playing with your post processing software, you probably have better things to do. So while you technically may not be losing any money, you are losing time. And your time is worth something.

Prevention of laziness

Today's digital cameras make everything so easy. If you don't feel like messing around with your camera’s settings, you don't have to, because your camera was designed to make a lot of those decisions for you. It can evaluate a scene and decide on the best shutter speed and aperture, without any input from you. It can figure out the white balance. It can do all the focusing. So it's easy to see why so many photographers think they don't need to worry about the details. Since the camera is designed to do it all, why would you have to do anything?

  • Canon EOS 7D
  • 3200
  • f/3.5
  • 0.167 sec (1/6)
  • 100 mm

Get off the "Green Box" (aka "AUTO"): These are where you should be. by Flickr user MoHotta18

The problem with this point of view is that it promotes laziness. Now I know your mother spent many years trying to impress upon you the idea that laziness is a bad thing. And she was right. Because even though your camera is, under most circumstances, perfectly capable of making all these decisions for you, letting it do so all the time is not good for you as a photographer. For example, if you don't learn how to evaluate light, if you don’t have any experience making decisions in tricky lighting situations, and if you never think about light at all because you don’t feel like you have to, you don't grow as a photographer.

Your photos maybe perfectly fixable in post-processing, but they're not going to be particularly groundbreaking. That's because lazy photographers don't think about what they're doing. They don't have any reason to. Their camera does all of that for them. And add to that the fact that your camera doesn’t always get it right, and you’re just creating extra work for yourself.

Here's another way to look at it: let's say you never move your white balance off of that auto setting. I know you're aware that the auto white balance setting isn't the best or most reliable way to get the whites right every single time. Mixed lighting situations such as the type you might encounter indoors, when there's light coming in through a window mixed with light coming from an artificial light source, are going to produce images with a color cast. The only way that you can fix this is by learning how to use your camera’s custom white balance setting. But because you know that you can do a quick auto color correction and post processing, you may not have ever bothered to figure out how to use that setting. That's fine if you only take the occasional photo. But if you take a lot of photos you may find yourself spending an awful lot of time in post processing clicking on that auto color correction button. That's not the most efficient use of your time, especially when it may only take you 10 or 15 minutes to learn how to use your cameras custom white balance setting, and another two or three minutes applying it whenever you're in one of those lighting situations. So not only are you making it so you have to spend way too much time sitting in front of your computer, you're also depriving yourself of an opportunity to learn how to use your camera, how to see the world, and how to take better pictures.

  • 469
  • 3 mm

Camouflaged Norio by Flickr user sjrankin

Social media

If you’re a big user of social media, you probably shoot a lot of images in the field and then immediately upload them to your favorite social media platform. Now in theory, you could go back and edit a bad photo and re-upload it once you get home, but in the meantime you’ve got one of two problems. If you wait, you’re missing the moment. Let’s say for example that you’re at your niece’s wedding, and you’ve promised to keep her Facebook page updated with photos as the wedding unfolds, that way friends and family who couldn’t be at the event can still be there virtually. You can’t fix these photos in post, because by the time you get home, the wedding will be over. Your niece’s friends will be annoyed because they didn’t get any of those promised pictures. The age of social media has made everything immediate, and if you can’t deliver photos immediately, you’re one of the dinosaurs.

The second potential problem you have is that you don’t miss the moment—instead you upload a bunch of bad photos. This isn’t really a solution, either, because people want to see bad photos just about as much as they want to see no photos, which is not at all. If you’re going to upload images to social media in real-time, you have to get them right in camera.

    Beijing by Flickr user Paul D'Ambra - Australia


    On that same note is the average patience level of the average person. In the not so distant past, people were used to waiting. We might have waited a week for our photos to come back from the lab. If we wanted them sooner, we paid a fortune for one hour photos. But today, we don’t have to wait. We can view those photos on the LCD seconds after shooting them. If we want to, we can go straight home and print them out ourselves.

    The chances are pretty good that your niece wants to see her wedding photos right away. If you can’t do that because you’re not done processing them yet, she might hire someone else to photograph her next big event, or worse, ask your cousin Ed.

    Because you can

    If you know your camera’s settings well enough that you can get most of your photos right in-camera, you’re going to take more pictures, you’re going to take better pictures, and you’re going to spend less time chimping and looking like you don’t know what you’re doing. If you’ve got aspirations towards going pro, this is something that’s going to help you. People want to hire a photographer who knows what he’s doing.

    Because you don’t want to miss the moment

    Most of the stuff that’s worth taking a photo of is stuff that you can’t do over again. At that wedding, the “you may kiss the bride” moment is only going to happen one time. Your Disneyland vacation is only going to happen one time, too, even if you’re the sort of family who goes to Disney every single year. Because there isn’t a single moment that will happen on this year’s trip that will happen next year in exactly the same way. That’s not the way life works. Sure, you could fix all those images in post. But the chances are if you’re getting that lazy with your camera, you’re going to also end up with images that you won’t be able to fix at all. And again, knowing how to use your camera—and how to get the photos right every time you click the shutter button—means you’ll miss fewer of those irretrievable moments.

    • Canon EOS Digital Rebel XSi
    • 100
    • f/2.0
    • 0.001 sec (1/800)
    • 50 mm

    The Sunset Kiss by Flickr user Ben C.K. (Benck's)


    When you have confidence in yourself and a good working knowledge of things like lighting, composition and settings, you’re going to take better pictures. And though you can crop and tweak the levels and fix the white balance after the fact, what you can’t do is adjust the position of the sun, change your camera angle or spot that perfect moment. Having confidence in your gear and yourself isn’t just something that will help you achieve technically perfect shots, it will also help you to create fundamentally better photographs. And I don’t care which version of Photoshop you have, you can’t do any of that in post.

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    1. Priscilla says:

      Have already been working on improving the "in-camera" shot, thanks to your classes as well as articles like this inspiring one. Another compelling reason I find to get the shot right in camera is that every post-processing change seems to introduce a little noise to the final image - not a welcome addition.

    2. Marg says:

      Great article. I am new to photography and the very first book I read was all about learning to use your camera for how & what it was meant to be. Your eye sees & likes what it sees hence why you take the pix. You get out & enjoy & capture the moment by learning to get it right "in camera"

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