Digital Decisions: Use Your In-Camera Controls Wisely

Be Careful When Boosting Colors, Contrast, and Sharpness

by Peter K. Burian

Excessive contrast, sharpness, and saturation create serious problems
Excessive contrast, sharpness, and saturation create serious problems
© Peter K. Burian
All Rights Reserved

Tips and Techniques for Using In-Camera Settings

A slight increase to sharpness, contrast or color saturation can be useful at times - if needed for specific reasons. The problem is, very few cameras offer fine control. They require you to make a fairly significant adjustment. If youíre not happy with the results, itís very difficult to fully correct a major problem using image editing software.

Hint - Evaluate your camera! Before you decide to use any of those three controls on a regular basis, make some test shots with your camera. Take some pictures of subjects that you frequently photograph: a person, a landscape and some buildings, perhaps. Start by testing the color saturation adjustment. Take the first image at the Low setting, the second at the Normal setting and the third at the High Saturation setting. When reviewing images on your computer monitor, ask yourself the following questions.

Does high saturation produce a very pleasing effect, or a garish, wet-paint look? Is it ideal for colorful icons that you might find while traveling but totally unsuitable for people pictures? And what advantage does low color saturation provide? When would this option be useful? Use the same testing approach with the Sharpness and Contrast adjustment controls.

Moderate contrast, sharpness, saturation settings produce more natural effects
Moderate contrast, sharpness, saturation settings produce more natural effects
© Peter K. Burian
All Rights Reserved

Beware When Using Your Camera's LCD Monitor

Most camerasí LCD monitors are small and they rarely provide a truly accurate view of an image. Make all of your evaluations on a computer monitor after downloading the JPEGís. If you donít have time for extensive testing of your own camera, leave all three parameters at the default (Normal) level. The better digicams will produce surprisingly good results.

Does your camera produce slightly low sharpness, contrast or color richness? No problem. In fact, thatís probably ideal because itís easy to boost any of the three aspects in a computer. Decreasing their effects (while maintaining a natural "look") is much more difficult. Use the appropriate tools in your image enhancing software. Youíll get ultra fine control and you can adjust the levels until the image looks perfect.

The Bottom Line

After testing dozens of digital compact and SLR cameras, I rarely find a need to increase sharpness, contrast or saturation with in-camera controls. Occasionally, Iíll select a lower level for sharpening or for color saturation, at least for some subjects: portrait and wedding pictures with a "softer" effect. And in very harsh, noonday light, Iíll decrease the contrast level for most types of images. Since it's easy to boost all three parameters in Photoshop or Elements, Iím generally satisfied with the end result.

Check out Peter Burian's online Digital Photography course at BetterPhoto!

About Author / Instructor / Photographer, Peter K. Burian
Photography Instructor: Peter K. BurianPeter K. Burian, Photo Journal Syndicate (, is a freelance photographer based in Toronto, Canada. His outdoor, travel, nature and active lifestyle photographs are available as stock for editorial and advertising use. He markets his work direct to photo buyers via and is also represented by three stock agencies: Corbis, Alamy and The Stock Connection.

Peter Burian also writes illustrated books about photography and camera equipment, including:

  • Co-author of the National Geographic Photography Field Guide.
  • Author of 15 Magic Lantern Guides to SLR camera systems.
  • Author of Mastering Digital Photography and Imaging (Sybex), covering the technology, equipment and techniques, with 270 pages of practical advice
In his spare time, he is a Contributing Editor with Photo Life, Photo News and Australian photography magazine. Finally, Peter Burian is a course instructor who teaches two online photography courses: Mastering the Digital Camera and Photography and Mastering the Canon EOS Digital Rebels. Sign up today to learn how to make great photos with your digital camera!