Equipment Overview & Shooting Workflow

This is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of my e-book Adobe Photoshop Lightroom: A Professional Photographer’s Workflow. Chapter One is titled, “Shooting Workflow” and it covers how to set up your camera, cleaning the imaging sensor and also how to use the histogram for accurate exposures. The e-book is available on my website. Click here to read more about the e-book and to purchase it.

As I said in the Introduction to this e-book, a solid workflow begins with image capture. How you expose the image, set up your camera and set the white balance all have a major effect on the final image. How you expose and shoot an image has just as much effect on the outcome as how you process it after the fact and this is the seminal point that most photographers miss and other workflows fail to incorporate into their thinking. Until you have enough experience to be confident in your shooting abilities—i.e. reading the histogram and all of the technical aspects of shooting digitally this might sound like a cat chasing its tail. But once you are waist deep in the digital photography game and read through this entire workflow the process should make sense and will become more intuitive with practice.

In this chapter, we’ll cover my complete shooting workflow including everything from setting up the camera to dialing in your white balance and exposure. We’ll also cover some camera maintenance issues like cleaning your imaging sensor and I’ll cover some tips to keep your camera functioning at its best. But before we jump into those topics, I will discuss some of the equipment I use to create my adventure sports images.

Equipment Overview

In this section, I want to give an overview of the equipment I own and use, so that you the reader can see exactly what cameras, lenses and gear I use to create my images. This section is not meant to be a recommendation for one brand over another. It is not my intention here to start a flame war between Nikon and Canon shooters. Both companies make stellar camera equipment and we are all better off because of the competitive nature of these two companies. Rather, by briefly discussing the range of gear I use, it is my hope that you can see the equipment behind my shooting workflow, which is much more than just the cameras themselves. As the quote by Ansel Adams at the beginning of this chapter indicates, we are all still trying to “comprehend and control” our new digital tools.

I will admit, like many photographers, I am a gear head. I am fascinated and amazed by the technology we have today. But, when it comes down to it, the cameras and all of the other equipment we use to create images are just tools. I continually strive to produce incredible images, but I also endeavour to get the best image quality possible. To that end, I use and own the latest high resolution digital cameras from Nikon. I am currently shooting with the Nikon D4 and D800. If I need more resolution for a certain project or assignment then I will rent a medium format digital camera system like the Hasselblad H4D, which is my favorite for its ease of use and incredible image quality. As an adventure sports photographer, the slower medium format cameras are not ideal for what I typically shoot, hence I don’t shoot with them very often. But every once in a while I get hired to shoot an advertising campaign, which usually involves a conceptual portrait, and requires the extreme resolution of digital medium format. As with any craft, by choosing the right tool for the job, we can make our lives easier and assure the outcome is in line with what the client needs.

I have owned and used Nikon cameras for the last 27 years. I was a Nikon shooter long before I turned pro and because of my familiarity with that system I have stayed with Nikon. I have also owned both Mamiya and Hasselblad medium format film cameras in the past. It was really difficult to sell my Hasselblad 503CW. I loved that camera, but my 12 MP digital Nikons were creating the same image quality—and didn’t require me to spend hours on end scanning film. As a side note, I do work with Nikon quite often. I have shot several assignments for Nikon and I also write a biannual column for Nikon World Magazine here in the USA. Hence, as you might imagine, part of the reason I shoot Nikon is that they are a client of mine. I am not sponsored by them and I have to buy my cameras at full price just like everyone else.

A screenshot of a double page spread in the e-book which shows most of the equipment I use to create my images.

I don’t want to dwell too long on the equipment here but I will say that the equipment you choose does affect the final image quality in the this new digital era. A camera with a high megapixel (MP) count and a smaller sensor will not necessarily have better image quality than a camera with a larger sensor with a lower MP count. This might help to explain how DxO Labs ranks the 36 MP Nikon D800 as the top camera on the market (as of this writing), even surpassing the much more expensive 80 MP Phase One IQ180 medium format digital Back. In their testing, the Nikon D800 trumps every other DSLR on the market in terms of overall image quality—including cameras with a higher MP count. As Nikon has been saying for years now, the quality of the pixels is more important than the quantity.

Overall image quality is determined by a number of factors including the imaging sensor, the quality of the lens, the raw processor used to work up the image and not least, the photographer’s technique. With today’s high resolution digital cameras, the quality of the lens is a huge factor. As you can see on the spread shown on the next page, I use some of the best quality lenses Nikon has on offer. With the newer high resolution cameras, often the lens is the limiting factor. By this I mean that most 20+ MP cameras can resolve more detail than the lenses attached to them. The new Nikon D800 is pushing their lenses to the absolute limit and I would be surprised if any of the Nikkor lenses can resolve as much as that 36 MP sensor.

As stated in the text, I own and use Nikon cameras (both the D4 and the D800). In very rare cases, when a client needs greater resolution than the 36 MP images from my Nikon D800, I will rent a Hasselblad 60 MP or 80 MP medium format camera.

One of the interesting things I learned when I first started shooting with the Nikon D2x years ago was that 12 MP packed onto a DX sensor forced me to use higher shutter speeds to get tack-sharp images. Now, with even larger MP counts, it is even more critical to understand what you are shooting with. A Nikon D800, with 36 MP, is resolving the same detail as a much heavier 4x5 large format camera. Most 4x5 large format cameras are used while sitting atop a tripod. Hence, when you think about it, a D800 is a very lightweight version of a 4x5 camera; and as such, it will need to be held very steady to get sharp images. Factor this into your thinking when shooting with high resolution cameras at slow shutter speeds.

Now that we have discussed some of the camera equipment that I use lets move on to the pre-shoot camera check, where I discuss all of the things I do to set the camera up and make sure it is performing as it should.

Pre-Shoot Camera Check

Before any major assignment I run through my cameras settings and make sure everything is set up the way I want it and the camera is operating as it should. This is a very important aspect of shooting digital—just as it was with film —though it is quite a bit more involved now than it was back in the film days. With todays extremely complex digital cameras and their extensive menus, it is easy to overlook a critical setting. Hence, this section is one of the most important in the entire book. Below is a list of items I routinely check on my camera before heading out on a photo shoot:

  • Make sure image comment is active in the camera with “Copyright 2012” in the EXIF metadata
  • Check the camera’s date and time—especially when shooting in other time zones and with multiple cameras
  • Make sure that the camera is set to shoot in the Adobe RGB color space.
  • Make sure file numbering is set for continuous, which is very important to avoid overwriting files.
  • Format all memory cards in the camera so they are all clean and ready to go.
  • Clean the imaging sensor on all cameras to avoid hours on end removing dust spots in the post-processing.
  • Compare camera’s LCD histogram to Photoshop Histogram to establish exposure accuracy and to judge the amount of headroom in the highlights. [Note that this is usually done only once when I get a new camera and test it out before my first photo shoot.]
  • Test focusing accuracy of all lenses used for an assignment. Fine tune the autofocus if needed.
  • Set a custom or preset white balance color temperature.
  • Make sure Autofocus is set up correctly for the shooting situation.
  • Set camera to shoot only RAW image files unless JPEG’s are needed, then shoot RAW+JPEG.
  • Double-check camera settings: ISO is at minimum setting for lighting, exposure compensation is at zero, High ISO noise reduction is off, sharpening is off, Long exposure noise reduction is off (unless shooting below a shutter speed of ½ second), etc.

Don’t worry, if some of this sounds confusing, we’ll cover all of these topics and more in this chapter in great detail so that you have a full understanding of how to set up your camera and perfect the image while shooting. The rest of this chapter will be an in-depth discussion of these topics and other related topics.

Copyright © 2012 Michael Clark Photography. Used with permission of Michael Clark Photography. If you would like to read more about the book Adobe Photoshop Lightroom: A Professional Photographer’s Workflow or purchase a copy please visit my website. To read the rest of this chapter and the rest of the e-book purchase it for $24.95 on my website. The e-book is a high resolution PDF file.

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