FILM IT! - A Pre-flight Quick Check

Written by Ernesto Santos on .

DSLR Cameras are complicated tools these days. When we shot film we worried about making sure the film was loaded correctly and advancing in the take up reel as we went from shot to shot.

We checked and double-checked that we had the right exposure, that the lens was in focus, and that we had the correct ISO/ASA setting. That was pretty much it, and even then, we ruined many a roll of film if we forgot to check these settings during each session.

Fast forward to the present; today’s cameras are not only light gathering machines, they are mini-computers with incredible image processing power. You only need to drill down the menu system of your DSLR to understand how complicated these cameras are today. The complexity, the shooting options, and the myriad of settings available to us, can be overwhelming and may even make you break into a cold sweat.

In an effort to try and get a handle on all this image making power I tried to separate out some of the more critical and basic settings that can impact your images in an irreversible way. So, what do I mean by that? Well, I looked at the camera settings in my Nikon D810 and D4 and evaluated each one by a single criterion, whether the effect of the setting was reversible, could be made null, or was correctible in some sort of minimally invasive post-processing adjustment. White Balance is a good example. As most of you know, the camera white balance setting is totally correctable in post processing – even if you are shooting in a “baked-in” file format such as JPG. If you are shooting in raw it is hardly an issue when out in the field, knowing full well it can be adjusted to your heart’s content later at your computer with no ill effects to image quality.


After thinking about it and determining which settings can have a permanent effect on our photographs I came up with five camera and one lens settings that will more than likely impact your images in an irreversible way and that require your undivided attention from shooting session to shooting session. I am assuming that you have set the more esoteric camera settings to your custom settings banks based on the type of photography you are involved in. While this is something I highly recommend there is a potential pitfall here. The custom shooting banks are not static. If you are in a particular shooting bank and you make a change to one of those settings you need to remember to reset it to your preferred setting after your shooting session. Fortunately, many of these settings do not forever impact the image. They can be ignored, negated, or fixed in post. What I did was try to isolate the few settings that are “mission critical”, if you will, and the ones you should review each and every time you pick up the camera to take a photograph. With a little creativity I was able to come up with an easy to remember and catchy acronym to help you recall these six settings. I call it FILM IT! And here is what it represents.




Focus Focus is vitally important. You simply cannot fix a blurry image, period. Make sure you have the correct focus settings for the type of photographs you are making. If you are taking a landscape shot, make sure you have the foreground, middle ground, and background in acceptable focus. If you are shooting action, use the appropriate auto focus settings to give you the highest percentage of “keepers”.  





Image Quality Check your camera to make sure you are shooting in the correct file format. Your choices are RAW, JPG, TIF, or a combination of two like RAW/JPG. If you need a raw image and your camera is set to JPG you are now forced to process images in a much smaller color bit depth and the adjustment latitude is severely compromised. Also, check the camera’s color bit depth setting when in raw, do you want the added color data afforded by shooting in 14-bit color? Or do you need smaller file sizes?





Level the Camera While a crooked image can be corrected in post processing, the impact in having to do this can be the difference between that perfect image and something that has been compromised. Any time you have to rotate an image in your image editor two things happen. 1) You lose pixels when you have to now crop out the empty space created around the edges after rotation. 2) During the rotation the image must be interpolated to realign the image content. This introduces softness to the image. Why not take the time to make sure the camera is level? It is worth the effort knowing you are not deteriorating the image quality down the line.





Mode (Exposure) Here is one that is not so obvious. Sure, it is convenient to use the right exposure mode for the particular moment. But it goes beyond this. In landscape photography you should be concerned with the aperture setting above all other options. When shooting sports it’s probably the shutter speed that is of the most concern. While this is not the most critical of the six settings the correct exposure mode can make you a better photographer by eliminating frustrating situations where you are fighting the camera auto settings. Select the best mode for the situation and you can shoot with abandon focused solely on getting those killer images.





ISO This one is simple. Set the ISO according to how much light sensitivity you need. Then make a conscious decision about how much digital image noise you are willing to accept. I like to think of the ISO setting as the one place where you have to make a thoughtful compromise. ISO can impact not just the exposure equation, but also depth of field, possibly creating mood or effect (think low-light imagery, or blurred motion), and making it possible to get the shot, that otherwise would not be possible. On the down side – it is really deflating when making some great landscape images only to find out you shot them all at ISO 6400 and the digital noise level is unacceptable, especially if you need to pull detail out of the shadows of the images.




Time (Shutter Speed) This is another setting that can ruin a photograph and make it totally useless. When shooting moving subjects and you are hand-holding the camera this is a critical setting. You may think you are getting acceptably sharp images by reviewing them on the rear LCD of your camera but when you get them up on your computer they look soft. This can be a crushing experience. I include shutter speed here instead of the aperture setting in your exposure equation because a soft image is not recoverable. Shallow depth of field can be worked around but not image softness, unless of course, it is done purposely. Even in landscape photography, where many believe the shutter speed is not important, believe me, it can be. Think about shooting a pretty landscape on a windy day. If the wind is blowing the foliage around a low shutter speed will create blur – possibly in enough of the image to ruin it. If this is the case raise the ISO so that you achieve a shutter speed that will freeze the blowing leaves in the image.