Important First Steps

Have you ever noticed how seemingly small decisions we make at the beginning of a process can have a large impact on everything we do from there on out? Well that’s probably the case in your photography. There’s a little camera setting working against you if you are a JPEG shooter and a software setting to be aware of as a RAW shooter.

Canon calls it Picture Style and Nikon calls it Picture Control. Choosing a picture style is a lot like picking a film to load in your old film camera; different films had different looks and the same is true for these in-camera presets. Like it or not, a picture style is being chosen for you when you shoot a JPEG or when you process your RAW images. These picture styles will increase or decrease color saturation, contrast, sharpness and tint by differing amounts to make your images “pop” but beware…what makes one subject look amazing will cause problems with another.

Scroll through the Picture Style menu and you’ll see options like LandscapePortrait, Standard and Neutral. Each of these options will permanently alter your JPEGs in the following ways. (RAW Shooters, this will apply to you once you get your image into Lightroom so keep reading!)

Fig 1

Landscape: Dramatically increases color saturation, contrast and sharpness to add drama and life to your landscapes.

Portrait: Decreases sharpness slightly and increases color saturation slightly to smooth skin and give it a healthy color.

Camera Standard: Boosts saturation and sharpness slightly to give your images that little oomph that they often need.

Neutral: Reduces contrast and saturation to produce images that are closest to what your eye sees.

Check out the following portrait with the different presets applied. Pay special attention to the texture and brightness (or darkness) of her skin and hair.

Did you pick a favorite? Great! But remember that if you’re shooting JPEG, these changes are permanent and once you’ve lost information in a JPEG it can be very difficult to get back. So, as a rule, I would suggest that you use the preset that gets you closest to what you want without going too far. For example, in the above image shot on neutral or portrait, you could further darken her hair and alter her skin slightly in post-processing to give it the love that it needs. If, however, you shot it on standard or landscape it would be increasingly difficult to pull that detail back out of her hair and darken her ever-brightening skin. The takeaway? In-camera settings are permanently applied to your JPEGs so choose wisely!

So what’s different about shooting RAW when it comes to Picture Styles? Well….nothing and everything. When you shoot RAW the Picture Style affects only what you’re seeing on the back of your camera since what you’re seeing is a JPEG preview and your photo editing software will discard the picture style once the image is in your computer. (Canon’s or Nikon’s proprietary software are exceptions to this.) This explains why when you shoot RAW you may have an image that looks great on the back of your camera but it looks flat and lifeless when you put it in Lightroom. Your camera preview includes the picture style adjustment and your computer’s initial preview does not.

When you import your RAW images into Lightroom or open them in Photoshop’s RAW converter (ACR) a generic picture style called Adobe Standard is applied to your image. Adobe Standard can be thought of as general adjustment created by Adobe to work for all cameras in most situations. I tend to stay away from generic, jack-of-all-trade settings and instead favor those that work best for specific images.

In my mind, the secret starting point for working on RAW images in Lightroom or Photoshop is a menu called “Camera Calibration.” Within this menu is a set of profiles created by Adobe to emulate your in-camera Picture Styles. I don’t make any adjustments to my images until I’ve finished choosing the best profile.

Go to the bottom right hand panel within the develop module of Lightroom to make your selection. Here you will see Landscape, Neutral, Portrait, Camera Standard and others depending on the specific camera you used. If you are viewing a Canon RAW file you will see Canon’s presets and with your Nikon files you’ll see Nikon’s presets.

When choosing a profile for my image I’ll select the one that affects the photograph in favorable ways without going too far. Look at the following close ups of the portrait with different presets applied. You’ll see that in some cases, the hair is so dark that it would be hard to recover detail and the skin is so light that it’s lost texture.

Or in the images of the Parliament Building in Victoria, B.C. you will see that based on your taste and how dramatic you want the photograph to feel, Neutral or Camera Standard may be the best place to start.

Once I’ve established the starting point for my post-processing I’ll then go through the rest of the develop settings and work on my image. As with JPEGs, beware, just because a preset looks great on one image doesn’t mean that it will be the best choice for another. Start with the right preset and add enhancements from there instead of trying to undo problems created by making the wrong choice.


You can find out more about Nikon and Canon’s Picture Controls by clicking the following links.

Nikon site Picture Controls:

Canon site Picture Styles:


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