Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs

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Digital Outback Fine Art Photography Handbook

© Bettina & Uwe Steinmueller

5 Using a Digital SLR in the field (also about Cameras)

5.0 The Cameras

5.1 The multiplier

5.2 Dust is your enemy

5.3 Exposure

5.4 Know your histogram

5.5 White Balance (WB)

5.6 ISO

5.7 Batteries and Storage for your images

5.8 The "Every File Twice" principle


This section is not intended to be a replacement of a manual and/or a good book about digital cameras in detail. This is section should help you to see the main differences to regular film cameras and their advantage or disadvantage.

First of all digital SLRs feel almost like the regular SLRs. But then there are enough differences. The most obvious is that a digital camera uses no film but captures the images with a CCD or CMOS sensor and stores the images on storage media (Compact Flash Card, Smart Media Card, Sony Memorystick, Microdrive or on some other small hard drives)

5.0 Cameras
5.0.1 Brief History

The category of what we call digital SLR's was actually introduced by Kodak. Kodak modified standard film bodies by Nikon and Canon into digital cameras. Early a 2 MP (Megapixel) camera was considered high resolution. But even these cameras got very popular with many journalists. One of my favorite photographers in this sector is Neil Turner who I believe still uses a 2MP Kodak camera based on a Canon body.

Then in Fall 1999 Nikon announced it's famous D1 (we got one March 2000) which was the first ever digital SLR designed from ground up. Of course there are a lot of advantages with having a body designed for digital and nothing else. Then in 2000 Fuji introduced the S1 and Canon it's D30 (first SLR based on a CMOS sensor).

5.0.2 Cameras

We actually don't want to talk too much about the cameras as we think you can produce good artwork with all of them. But of course is the number of pixels (assuming they are close in quality) a factor which gets important once you want to print big.

Check out our experience reviews and you probably get some understanding of the different models.



For subscribers we will try to help them making a better choice (see our subscribers forums). But first do the following exercise and answer these questions for yourself:

  • What do you want to photograph?
    • Speed in terms of frames/second
    • Fast autofocus needed
  • How large do you want to print?
  • Do want to work in Photoshop? (if not forget all of these cameras)
  • Do you have Canon, Nikon or Contax lenses?
  • What is your price point (don't forget you need more than just the body)?
  • What ISO speed do you want/need?

We know that there are many more questions to ask but at minimum you need these answered first. Then browse through this handbook and find out what you want more than just having a camera body.


5.0.3 Lenses

All(!) of these digital cameras will show best results with the best lenses available. Get the best lenses you can get. The old rule is still true: Better a low cost body with great lenses than the other way round.

We regret today all lower quality lenses we ever bought. Also fewer great lenses are better than many low quality ones.

5.0.4 Tripod & Heads
Whenever you can use a rigid tripod and a good head. Your results will not only be sharper but also better framed.


5.1 The multiplier

Today the CCDs or CMOD sensors for digital SLRs come in smaller sizes than regular 35mm film. We will keep this as a fact and not try to find out why because we have to deal with this fact of life or build our own cameras.

As most of these digital SLRs use normal 35mm lenses (except the E10/20) the sensor covers only a percentage of the original 35mm film plane. The crop has a content as if it has been photographed with a longer focal length. The factor is dependent on the size of the CCD or CMOS sensor. The larger its size the smaller this factor called "multiplier".

Common today are multipliers of 1.3-1.6. The following table shows the effect to lenses with different focal length. For a film photographer the meaning of all his lenses change.


Quite dramatic is the change in the wide angle range. Here many people long for a full sized sensor. For us it is not such a big deal as we do not use extreme wide angle that much. Our 17-35mm lens gives us enough wide angle. On the other side for wildlife photographers this works like a free tele extender and a full sized sensor would lose all that advantage.

5.2 Dust is your enemy

There is a downside of digital SLRs with interchangeable lenses. As we open the camera to change the lens dust can enter the mirror chamber and get onto the fine structure of the CCD or CMOS sensor. Using just a bulb blower as suggested by Nikon and Canon (although the D30/D60 seem to be less prone to dust) just does not work and while Kodak and Fuji support the cleaning with "Sensor Swabs" this is not at all allowed by Nikon and Canon.

We all hope "there is a way" but till then everyone has to deal with it his own way. Here the Olympus E10/20 have a selling point. They use a sealed fixed zoom with the following advantages:

  • Sealed camera stops dust
  • The lens can be optimized for digital

By the way in about latest 5-10 years all lenses will be optimized for digital once digital dominates the market. While the Olympus approach is very interesting there is of course a price to pay:

  • Canon and Nikon deliver a much wider range of high quality lenses
  • Nikon and Canon dominate the professional market
  • The CCD in the E10/20 is smaller which introduces some more noise for the photos.
5.3 Exposure

The contrast today's digital SLRs can handle is about the same as chrome film. The consequence can be easily blown out highlights. We all would like to have a contrast range which comes close to negative film and would be more forgiving with overexposures. Also underexposure is not really desirable as underexposed shadows show more noise

Rule: Never blow out your highlights because what is lost cannot be re-created.

5.4 Know your histogram

But here is help which only the digital camera can provide: All digital SLRs provide a way to view the result of the last photograph taken and show a histogram of the the gray scale values from 0 (black) to 255(white) (The histograms of Kodak's 760 and ProBack show values relative to neutral gray).

We will show 3 histograms (here taken from Photoshop) and comment there characteristics.

Here the highlight (right side of the histogram) are just lost. Only in very rare cases this would not be a candidate for delete. Some might recommend to "burn" the photo in Photoshop. But still that is faking details in the highlights which are not there.

Here is only a small spike in the highlights and it very much depends on the photo whether this might be a problem or not. If the spike represent a real pure white or an unimportant detail than this photo might be still OK. But otherwise we are in trouble.

Here the highlights are OK. We lost a bit bit of the dynamic range in the highlight area but this can be corrected in Photoshop. You should aim for histograms like this. Again: don't blow the highlights.

Of course the histogram only helps if you can repeat the shot. Fortunate in nature photography this is often the case except for photographing birds and other wildlife. Unfortunately even the sophisticated exposure measurement of today's cameras is often not good enough to get perfect exposure very time. Probably many photographer are better in good exposure metering than we are but watching for the histogram gives us a great tool. If we have an overexposure we dial in an EV compensation and repeat the shot. We watch the histogram all the time and some digital SLRs allow the display of the histogram automatically after very shot.

If we work from a tripod we only use manual exposure as is is easier to correct exposure than using EV correction and also often the right values don't change that often if light is the same while the camera metering might just change because of the scene.

5.5 White Balance (WB)

With film you care about the white balance by choosing different types of film or use filter to compensate for different light (indoor, sun, cloudy, shade, flash, ). Getting the WB right is key to correct colors.

We only use RAW file formats with the different cameras (see discussion later) and in this case the WB can be quite efficiently corrected later. For fine art photography not really the true color counts (would someone use Velvia for that?) so we are more interested in the subjective correct WB.

Digital SLRs allows to measure the right WB at the time you photograph which might be optimal but is also not too easy in the field (nature). So we mostly set the WB to some fixed setting (which is e.g. "daylight" for our Nikon D1x) and adjust the WB later. Also a very good practice is to photograph a photo with a gray card (or even better a Macbeth ColorChecker) in the same light as the following photos and use this photo later for the right WB correction.

Correcting WB (and color in general) is very tricky, needs a lot of experience and we would not even think of being a master here. But with practice you get better.

Also one thing has to be observed: The judging of colors is very much a function of mood. Sometimes colder colors (more blue) are found and then your want more warmth (more yellow) and all these experiments add up to a lot of time optimizing your images.

If you sometimes feel lost. Don't worry you are not alone!

5.6 ISO

All the digital SLRs allow to change the ISO value on the fly by just dialing a new value. This is a big plus of digital because you can change ISO speed picture by picture.

But like in the film world there is of course no free lunch. Lower ISO means lower noise (better image quality) and higher ISO higher noise (lower image quality). Noise can show in many different ways. If a camera shows the noise like some more or less grain than this is very positive as we are used to grain from our film based experience.

5.7 Batteries and Storage for your images
5.7.1 Batteries
Unfortunately the digital cameras need much more power than the film cameras. These are quite powerful little computers. Staying away from some car or electric outlet for longer than a day can be a pain and you might need to carry special batteries (3rd party accessory).

For some batteries (e.g. NiMH packs) it is nescessary to decharge/charge them properly to get maximum output. See the references section below for more information.

If you need more power than your camera can supply (longer disconnected from any recharger or using other devices like flash and digital wallets) you might look at other large capacity batteries like Qantum or the Digital Camera batteries (allso see references below)

5.7.2 Storage

Also you need to store your digital images. Example: My Nikon D1x uses per compressed RAW images about 4MB and other SLRs might even need more space. So shooting 250 images will need at minimum 1GB of storage. The cheapest solution so far per MB is a Microdrive and we carry with me about 3.2GB storage on IBM Microdrives. This is easily enough for us for a day but not for a week. In the case that you are longer away from your computer than your Microdrives can hold you need a digital wallet which can store 10-20 GB of files.

Aren't Microdrives more error prone than compact flash cards? Probably they are. So if you want to be more on the safe side than you need to spend more money to invest into CF cards. The Nikon D1 did not officially support the 340MB Microdrive and some people (including us) experienced some sort of trouble. We lost about 4 photos due to some MD failure. Bettina once lost some more files but only because she did not watch properly the image counter. Keep an eye on the counter to ensure that the file as properly written to the card or Microdrive.

As film can be lost in the mail also digital files can be lost for many reasons:

  • The card get corrupted (often bad sectors)
  • You format a card which has not yet beenw downloaded

If this desaster happens to you you need special tools for recovery:

  • better do not(!) use Norton utilities as they may damage data that be used by
  • use "PhotoRescue"

PhotoRescue (Data Recovery from deleted or corrupted CF Cards)

Fortunately we currently had no real damaged CF card or Microdrive. So we took a fresh formatted (formatted in the Nikon D1x) 1GB Microdrive and looked what PhotoRescue would find on this card.

PhotoRescue found 167 NEF files from our last 4 outdoor photo sessions (which means it had been also 4 x formatted). Only 3 of these NEF files were not usable anymore. We agree with other reviewers that PhotoRescue can be a life saver for otherwise lost photos. We would recommend to use PhotoRescue before analyzing the CF card with other tools like Norton or Scandisk. Norton and Scandisk might repair the structure of your card/disk but could also make small changes which prevent PhotoRescue to recover valuable photos.

Download a trial version (PhotoRescue can be registered later) (PC/Mac)

Order PhotoRescue for $29 from here (PC/Mac)




5.7.3 Digital Wallets

Digital wallets are devices which can store digital files in the field and are smaller than any notebook and also have more capacity than compact flash cards or even Microdrives. I would suggest that you have enough cards (CF or Microdrives) for a day of shooting (we have about 3.2 GB in Microdrives and rarely do more than 1GB a day).

If you the stay longer than one day and have no laptop with you then you need a digital wallet. We would even argue that you need two digital wallets and also be nice to them. Why two? Let's just think you are for a week in the field and fill 15GB of disk and this disk crashes. You get the answer? What if a Microdrive crashes? Than you had a bad day. But 15GB is a much bigger disaster than just 1GB.


Tip: Watch the download to the wallet very carefully that you don't miss any error during the transfer. Why could it fail?

  • Battery low
  • Corrupted sectors on the card
  • Error in the unit
  • Wrong file system on card (e.g. 32bit FAT as the Kodak cameras can read/write)
5.8 The "Every File Twice" principle
Your digital files are your digital "negatives". If you lose them the photo is gone forever. The good news is that a copy is easily made and has the same quality as the original. That means make as soon as possible a copy. An always keep the copies on two different media and even better at different places. We come back to this later.
© Bettina & Uwe Steinmueller
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