Recently a photographer friend of mine came to me with a complaint. The images captured by his camera don’t have the same vibrant colors, high sharpness and good contrast compared to the pictures taken by his friend with the very same camera model. Does his camera need to go to the repair shop? Not really!
Before we understand why this happens, we must first understand that a digital camera is practically a computer with lens stuck in front. Just like any computer it needs to be given instructions. Of course this does not mean that you should start with a paper and pen and start writing programs which is simply not what is expected from us photographers. Manufacturers know this and hence allow you to feed your instructions (or inputs) to the camera’s computer in a much simpler way. The camera after capturing the image, processes the data using these inputs from you. These inputs, often called “settings” or “parameters”, control among others – saturation (the deepness or richness of color), sharpness, contrast, etc. If these are set to low values, then the computer processes the images accordingly and produces an image with muted colors, less sharpness and contrast. This is the reason why different cameras even of the same model can produce widely different images under the same lighting conditions. Not knowing this fact can lead wrong conclusions.

How these settings are used, depends on the image file format you have chosen. If you have selected JPEG, then image is processed as per your settings and these are “baked” in the JPEG file. Hence, they are difficult to alter later. On the other hand if have chosen Raw format, then these are not internalized in the file like JPEG, but are treated as inputs to the Raw converter and hence are easily alterable later. Only when you convert the Raw file to another format will these get baked in.

Next what settings should you choose to get a pleasing portrait with accurate skin tones, or a flower with saturated hues or a landscape with vibrant colors? Unfortunately, there are no universal settings and, settings that look good for a particular subject say, nature will not be good for portraits. For example, a high saturation setting will give you a great looking flower but will make skin tones look terrible in a portrait. Also, it is also very difficult for you to remember what values you had set for saturation, sharpness or contrast for a landscape every time you try to capture a landscape. Choosing different settings every time will give you inconsistent results. Recognizing all these problems, manufacturers have now incorporated into cameras an easy way to set these parameters. These are called Picture Controls or Picture Styles or by some other similar sounding name, depending on the manufacturer. For easy understanding we will use the name Picture Control for the rest of the article.
Picture Control is a “set” or a “group” of user definable parameters. Each set includes individual settings like saturation, sharpness, contrast, etc. Some manufacturers may include a few other parameters too, but the three mentioned are the most important.To ease the operation of a camera, manufacturers themselves give several pre-defined Picture Controls (sets) like Portrait, Landscape, Vivid, Monochrome, etc. Each set has its own (default) values for saturation, sharpness and contrast. So if you are photographing a landscape, you can simply choose the Landscape Picture Control and if you are doing a portrait, the Portrait Picture Control. Let us see in more detail what some commonly used Picture Controls do.

Standard – This is a sort of ”one size fits all” Picture Control suitable “generally” for a wide variety of subjects. If you are not sure what specific Picture Control your subject needs, try this.

Neutral – As then name implies the JPEG is created as close to the original subject as possible. For example, the colors are not boosted and sharpness and contrast are maintained as close as possible to the original. It is widely used in product photography since you do not want to change trade mark colors (example, Coke red) of products. This is also the ideal setting in case you want to post-process your images later in a computer.

Vivid – Here the colors are boosted to a high saturation level and will look very vibrant. It is ideal for brightly colored flowers, birds, etc. However, do not use it for portraits as it will make the skin tones look to ruddy and unnatural.

Landscape – As the name itself says it is ideal for landscapes. Greens and reds are boosted more than the other colors.

Portrait – This setting reproduces skin tones correctly.

Monochrome – Not many know but you can make excellent monochrome images directly from your camera without any post-processing. This Picture Control even has built in filters to simulate the use red, orange, yellow and other filters. However, I suggest that you use this only if you do not want to do monochrome conversion in post-processing. The reason for this is, you can easily create a monochrome image from a color image in post-processing but the reverse may even be impossible! So, if you had this Picture Control set and generated a monochrome image in camera and later want the same image in color, then you are stuck! If you still insist on monochrome conversion in camera, then it is better you generate a JPEG plus a Raw file when you photograph. You will be able to get color information back from the Raw file with the help of a Raw converter.
Now, the question is, while setting parameters has been greatly simplified, what happens when you don’t like the default values the manufacturer has given. Well, this has been taken care too. You can start with any default Picture Control and then modify it the way you want it. For example, if don’t like the saturation level in the Landscape Picture Control, you can increase it or decrease it to suit your taste. Not only that you can save these modified settings as a user defined Picture Control and recall it whenever you want!
Thus Picture Controls allows you to conveniently apply default or your customized settings, all in one go. All this ensures faster and less error prone operation. It also ensures more consistent images.

Next, how do you choose Picture Controls? Picture Control options are present in the “Shooting” menu of your camera. Since introduction, Picture Controls have become very popular. Since they are used extensively and often, many cameras now have a dedicated Picture Control button. Pressing this button will allow you to set the Picture Control you want without going through the cumbersome menus.
Before concluding, I would like to say one more thing. There is a tendency to set the Picture Controls in such a way to get high levels of saturation, sharpness and contrast as these characteristics are pleasing to the eye. There is a pitfall here. Remember that it is very difficult to reduce saturation, sharpness or contrast once they are high, while it is very easy to increase them from a lower level. So, a good practice is to keep these parameters low in camera and turn them up in post-processing. Use high values for these settings only if you do not want do any post-processing.
Picture Controls are often confused with “Scene” exposure modes since they have the same names Landscape, Portrait, etc. Typically these scene modes are chosen with the mode dial on the top left of the camera. So, how are these modes different from Picture Controls? First, Picture Controls can be used with any exposure mode like Manual or Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority. On the other hand, the Scene modes are derivatives of Program exposure mode giving you very less control on shutter speed or aperture. Next, Picture Controls only affect the JPEG image generated and do not control anything else. On the other hand “Scene Modes” affect a lot of other aspects too. For example, when you choose Landscape scene mode, a small aperture is chosen (for large depth of field), flash is disabled and so on. This is apart from setting the appropriate values for saturation, sharpness and contrast. Scene modes in general are aimed at beginners and give far less control than Picture Controls.
So coming back to my friend, all that he has to do is to choose the right Picture Control and use it either directly or customize it to get vibrant colors, sharp images and contrasty pictures. No need to send the camera for repairs!
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All text © Ashok Kandimalla

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