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Home > Featured > Changing the Look of Your Photos: Picture Parameters

Changing the Look of Your Photos: Picture Parameters


Oh, the good old days. When you could go to the cinema, have a slap-up meal afterwards, and then catch a taxi home. And all for a pound, with change left over.  

Actually no. I’m not that old. Honestly. But I do remember the days before digital, when film was the only way to make a photo. I’m not the nostalgic sort so I don’t get too misty-eyed about the demise of film. (Though of course reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. It is still there for those who want to use it…) 

That said, there were pleasures peculiar to film that I do sort of miss. The sheer variety of different film types you could buy for one thing. Here’s a very short list of a few films I used when I first started as a photographer: Kodacolor Gold; Kodachrome; Ilford HP5; and not forgetting Fuji Velvia, the go-to film of anyone who wanted to be a landscape photographer in the early 2000s. 

Scanned black and white negative. I’m now not sure what the film was, though I suspect it was HP5. (I’m not even sure where the negative now is, but that’s another story.) Look at that grain, it’s marvellous!

The reason there were so many types of film is that each had its own particular quality. Take Ilford HP5 for instance. (Which is still available!) It’s a black and white negative film, reasonably fast so ideal for documentary or low light photography. It also has a wonderful grain structure, which adds a lovely texture to a print. Fuji Veliva on the other is a colour transparency film, renowned for its punchy greens and blues (which is why it was so beloved of landscape photographers). It was also very contrasty, so better suited to soft light days.

The high contrast of Fuji Velvia makes it difficult to use in certain light, but when conditions are right the resulting slides just glow on the lightbox.

You could be forgiven for reading this, shrugging your shoulders and thinking, ‘So what? What relevance does this have to me, with my cutting edge, 21st century digital camera?’ Well, lots actually. Your camera has different ‘film types’ actually built in! These are a camera’s picture parameters. 

This is where life gets complicated. Manufacturers generally don’t like to use the same terms for things, other than common camera functions such as aperture and shutter speed. I’m using picture parameters here as a catch all term for… Well, if you use a Canon camera then picture parameters is known as Picture Style. However, on Nikon cameras the equivalent option is Picture Control. Rather sweetly Fuji cameras have Film Simulation options. (Fuji made – still make – film, so Film simulation has options such as Velvia, Acros, and Astia which replicate the look of the Fuji’s film types.) Sony has Creative Style, and so on.

Canon’s Picture Style options on an EOS 5D MKIII.

Despite all these different names for picture parameters they all do essentially the same thing. They allow you to choose a particular ‘look’ for your pictures, including the contrast and colour saturation of a shot, its sharpness (or edge contrast, not the way the lens focuses), and a few more specific options besides, such as black and white (more commonly shown as Monochrome). 

If you regularly shoot Raw you could safely ignore picture parameters and just use the default setting. (We’ll come back to why you may not want to do this in a moment…) The picture parameter selected at the time of shooting can easily be unpicked later in post-production, even when you’ve chosen an option such Monochrome. (The colour information is still buried inside the Raw file, just not displayed when you view a black and white shot in playback.) However, shoot JPEG and it’s a good idea to think carefully about the picture parameter you use, if not necessarily for every shot at least for the duration of a shooting session. 

The effects of the various Picture Control options on one shot showing Flat (Fl); Landscape (La); Neutral (Ne); Portrait (Po); Standard (St); Vivid (Vi); and Monochrome (Mo)

Let’s do this using my camera, a Nikon Z6. If I skip to Set Picture Control on the Shooting menu I’m faced with the following options: Auto; Flat; Landscape; Neutral; Portrait; Standard; Vivid; and Monochrome. (There are other, more… odd, options such as Dream but I’m just going to ignore those for the moment because they’re, well… odd.) Because I like to be in control of my camera I’m going to ignore Auto. This picture parameter gives the camera the power to render colours and contrast the way it thinks fit depending on the type of scene it thinks you’re shooting. 

The default is Standard. (Just like picture parameters, the options often have different names depending on the manufacturer too. However, there is likely to be an option like Standard on your camera too.) Standard renders colour in a pleasing, not too garish, not too muted kind of way. contrast isn’t set too high either, and sharpness is reigned in. Standard is a bit Goldilocks, which is why it’s the default. 

You can’t go wrong with Standard, which generally produces pleasing colours without the need for tweaking. (As long as white balance is set correctly, but that’s another story…)

More exciting are options such as Vivid and Landscape, which increase colour saturation and contrast, as well as sharpening a photo more aggressively too. This produces punchier images that have more impact. (If you think of Landscape as the digital equivalent of Velvia you can’t go wrong.) Portrait, in contrast, reins in sharpening and contrast, and tweaks reds to produce pleasing skin tones.

Neutral and Flat are the polar opposite to Vivid and Landscape, both reducing colour saturation and contrast, with Flat more extreme than Neutral. Monochrome, as mentioned above, produces black and white shots.

Picture parameters are presets, but you can go further with them as each option can be tweaked. By selecting the sub-menu for a particular option I can further adjust the levels of colour saturation, contrast and sharpening and then save these adjustments. You can spend hours just playing with these adjustments, honing picture parameters to your specific needs.

The Nikon Z6’s Picture Control sub-menu, with the various options – such as Contrast or (colour) Saturation can be subtly tweaked.

So, which picture parameter is best? There is no right or wrong answer to this question, just as there is no right or wrong film to use. A lot depends on your aesthetic preferences or the conditions you find yourself shooting in. However, if you intend to tweak your shots later – when shooting JPEG – you’d be better off avoiding picture parameters that increase colour saturation and contrast (Vivid or Landscape) in favour of Neutral or even Flat

I’d also avoid the contrastier options when shooting in high contrast light too, as this will make highlights more likely to blow out and shadows to block up. That said, a high contrast option is useful in low contrast light – such as a misty day – to add bite to a shot. Oddly enough, I’d avoid Monochrome if you want to shoot black and white too. You have far more control over the black and white conversion in post-production than you do in-camera.

As mentioned, this doesn’t really apply to Raw. However, it’s still worth taking a look at your camera’s picture parameters. I often select Neutral, as this is a nice, er… neutral picture parameter. This means that in playback I can see a picture that is close to the tonal range of the final Raw file, with a reasonably accurate histogram too. (Flat would be more accurate still, but I just prefer Neutral.) Shoot using Vivid, and the higher contrast might fool me into tweaking exposure to avoid losing the highlights or shadows.

Post-production software, such as Adobe Lightroom shown, generally has picture parameters options that closely match those found on your camera. 

So there you go. Your camera has a well-stocked range of films ready for you to experiment with. And without the 36 exposure limit or an expiration date. Now if only there was something on at the cinema this week that I really wanted to see…

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