Keeping It Simple

Sticking With Film • Simpler Digital • Accessories • Simpler Image Handling • Beyond Simple

Tech Tips: Digital Basics For Outdoor Photography

Yes, the world is a complex place. Technology can be baffling. True, some people just seem to be dedicated to making things difficult, and I know, sometimes you’ve read this column and thought photography was getting to be too technical and full of “stuff.” But what’s important is the end result: an image that communicates or motivates.There are many ways for you to achieve your photographic vision and it doesn’t have to be that hard.

Recently in my seminars, I’ve met a lot of people who are overwhelmed by the huge number of choices that can be made at every step of the photographic process, especially when they’re newcomers to digital. So this month, I’ll talk about the bare essentials.

Sticking With Film
Some of you are agonizing over whether you should move from film to digital capture. If you’re on a tight budget or not interested in using computers, film is still a viable option for both experienced and entry-level photographers. I even know a few pros who probably never will change to digital capture. The manufacturers are still making film and film cameras and will for some time. There’s also an abundance of slightly used, really good equipment out there on eBay, in newspaper ads, at your camera club and even at some of the megastores advertising in this magazine. While much of the finishing work—prints, stock sales, publication—is now done in digital format, you don’t have to become personally involved with it. And your film-based images can be scanned later and treated just as if they were captured digitally. So if you’re working in film and want to stay with film, keep on doing what you’re doing, and you don’t need to keep reading this month’s column. How simple is that?

Simpler Digital
The rest of you are either buying your first digital camera or advancing into the constantly evolving digital realm. How do you choose when and what to buy?

First, ask yourself what you want to accomplish with your photography. Is it basic documentation of national parks, the new baby or the nature around you? Maybe an advanced “point-and-shoot” compact camera is all you need, and the expense, heft and complexity of a D-SLR (digital single-lens reflex) would be more of a hindrance than a help. That’s not to say that a “do-everything” compact digital camera won’t be somewhat complex; after all, it does everything! The advantage here is that it’s compact, can have a zoom up to 12x, can take movies and has sufficient resolution (megapixels) to produce quality smaller prints and Web images without a large camera bag full of accessories.

The workflow that goes with a compact digital camera can be simpler, too. Typically, you’d use the less-complicated software (such as Adobe Elements) that came with the camera to organize, view and edit your images. Using many of the automated features built into the program, you’d make minor quality adjustments to exposure, contrast and color.

Even if you have a photographic agenda that can’t be achieved with an advanced small camera—such as macro photography, larger prints, wildlife larger-than-elk shots or wide-angle landscapes—it doesn’t have to be as hard or as expensive as you might think. The less-expensive D-SLRs are offering most of the features previously found only on advanced D-SLRs, such as large LCD screens, more megapixels, sophisticated metering systems and responsive shutters. But if you want to keep it simple, they also offer a large number of automated features that lower the complexity of capture and yield uniformly satisfactory results in most photographic situations. Auto exposure, whether aperture priority, shutter priority or fully automatic, will most likely give you an exposure that’s acceptable or can be successfully corrected in processing. Beyond exposure settings, many cameras in this range offer a number of program packages for specific photographic tasks, choosing for you that combination of exposure, shutter speed and other in-camera functions most likely to successfully capture, for example, landscapes, action or macro subjects.

With more complicated photographic agendas comes one of the most frequently asked questions at my seminars: Should I shoot in RAW or JPEG format? If you want to keep it simple, shoot in JPEG. Once you’ve set a few parameters for your camera’s JPEG format (read your manufacturer’s directions), your camera will automatically process the image for increased sharpness, color saturation and contrast, delivering to you an essentially finished product that can be used and shared in any number of ways without further conversion.

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Beyond your camera choice, what else do you need, really? Most photographic situations can be covered with two lenses: one in the wide-angle to normal range, such as 24-100mm, and one in the basic telephoto range, such as 100-300mm. There’s such a thing as a “do-all” lens, but they’re heavy and don’t always provide consistent quality throughout the range. Finally, you know I’m going to say that a tripod is necessary to improve your chances of good results in just about any outdoor photography situation. A tripod coupled with consumer-level lenses can yield results better than higher-level optics used casually without a tripod. Faithful use of a quality tripod can greatly increase the kinds of photography you can successfully undertake with a basic set of equipment. And the tripod itself can be simple; the two requirements are rigid legs and an adequate ballhead.

Simpler Image Handling
With all the inexpensive storage options available, and as each method becomes less expensive, you need to choose one consistent way to store your images. The simplest way is to use an external hard drive so all of your images are in one place and you never have to sort through CDs or DVDs to find them. How difficult is an external hard drive? It’s easy. It connects to your computer through the USB port, and you use it the same way as the internal hard drive that’s probably now completely full of images. Moving your photography off your computer and onto a separate drive will simplify your photographic organization and also may improve your computer’s efficiency for other uses. Buy two external hard drives and use the second to back up the first.

The next big hassle is the tendency to keep everything you shoot, either because you’re not sure how to choose what to save or you’re afraid to throw away anything. Take my word for it—get rid of the junk, and you’ll have plenty of good images to experiment with later, and you won’t have to sort through the garbage to get to them. It’s still simple, but true: The main difference between a pro and an amateur photographer is that the pro has a bigger trash can—or recycle bin.

Develop a basic workflow to optimize your images before filing them. The power of image-processing software can be intimidating, especially when you realize there are people out there who dedicate their entire lives to learning everything about the world of Photoshop. But you don’t need to know it all! Using Photoshop, Adobe Elements or another program, such as Adobe Lightroom, do some basic sharpening, exposure correction and/or color correction. Most programs have automatic features that often will make these decisions for you, but be aware that “Otto” doesn’t always make the right decisions. Next, clean up obvious spots and flaws, and you’re done. When you evaluate the result, remember, nothing says “digital” in a negative sense like oversharpened edges and oversaturated, unnatural colors. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

As for filing systems, there are as many of those as there are photographers. The simple keys? Take a little time to develop an uncomplicated structure that works for you, be consistent and stick with it, and don’t overwrite your original file after sizing it for printing. Instead, save the images you’ve worked on with a different name or file extension, preferably as PSDs from Photoshop or Adobe Elements.

Beyond Simple
So you’ve mastered the basics of digital, and you’re hooked. You know the possibilities are endless. New equipment, techniques and software are everywhere. Are you undaunted? Do you want to reach higher? Do you have a passion for photography that drives you to master everything there is to know in your quest to achieve your vision? In that case, it will be a never-ending education. I’ll meet you back here next month.


One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.