The Importance of Getting the Image Right In-Camera

The Importance of Getting the Image Right In-Camera

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When you strive to get your images right in-camera at the moment you take them you’re going to reap many benefits that you might not even realize.

“Just Photoshop it” has become a recurring theme in photography when it comes to fixing image errors. Depending on who you talk to it can seem like Photoshop is a magic pill that will solve all manner of photographic problems. While it’s true that image-editing applications can help deal with a variety of issues, from correcting exposure to removing objects to swapping a cloudy sky for a sunny one, there’s a lot to be said for the philosophy of using as little editing as possible.

The Importance of Getting the Image Right In-Camera - butterfly on a red flower

I didn’t need Photoshop to get this image. Instead, I needed to get up early, know where the light was coming from, and understand how to use my camera equipment.

This is a tricky subject to tackle because there is so much wiggle room when it comes to defining what the term in-camera really means. To some, it means allowing for no post-production at all, even simple cropping. Others define it as getting things mostly correct at the time you press the shutter button, even though some basic adjustments such as straightening or exposure correction might be needed later.

There are photographers for whom getting it right in-camera means looking out for background obstacles, stray hairs, or wayward arms and legs that might otherwise ruin a good picture.

I don’t like to get caught up in the minutia of what in-camera means. But I will say that if you can strive to have more aspects of a picture correct at the time you make the image, the end result will be that much better.

This holds true for most types of photography save for the outlier examples like extreme focus stacking in macro photography or the types of artistic creations and collages that require post-processing.

two kids with arms around each other - The Importance of Getting the Image Right In-Camera

An ounce of prevention

There’s an old bit of wisdom you might have heard that goes like this:

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

It applies to many areas of life and the same holds true for photography as well. If you can take a few seconds to fix problematic areas at the time you take a picture it will save you untold minutes or even hours back at your computer. This took me a while to learn when I first got started with portrait photography. But the more I operate by this philosophy the more efficient my workflow becomes.

portrait of 3 ladies - The Importance of Getting the Image Right In-Camera

Do you see the green recycle bin on the left side of the photo? It might not look like much, but if this is printed on a large canvas it would stick out like a sore thumb. Background distractions like that are much easier to fix by adjusting things during the session instead of spending time Photoshopping each image later.

Years ago the only things I knew to look for when taking pictures of clients were things like smiling faces and good posing. As such, I often found myself banging my head against my keyboard while going through my Lightroom catalog afterwards because of unwanted distractions in my photos.

Automobiles, pedestrians, trash cans, litter, animals, street lights, and a host of other imperfections can all be fixed in Photoshop but it’s so much easier to just make sure they don’t even show up in your photos in the first place.

portrait 3 ladies in trees - The Importance of Getting the Image Right In-Camera

Eventually, I did see the recycle bin so I altered my point of view just slightly, which took a few seconds but saved me a lot of post-processing time.

This works for other things too like stray hairs, bits of dirt and debris that can get blown around and land on clients, or unwieldy shirts that like to get un-tucked. These problems can all be solved to some degree or another using computer software but it’s never going to be as fast or simple as just dealing with them when they occur.

The trick to doing this is to be looking out for such things at the time of the photo shoot. That is what took me so long to really learn, and to be honest I’m still learning even now! There are so many things to look out for when taking pictures. That background flotsam or bits of rubbish on the ground might be the last thing on your mind, but they can easily ruin a photo or at the very least cause you to spend much more time eliminating them afterwards than you would like.

My best advice to you in this regard is to simply train yourself to be aware. Look at your surroundings in addition to your subjects, and work on seeing background elements and other distractions that might normally escape your eye.

When you see things, take corrective action and even let your clients in on what’s going on. I have paused many photo sessions to say things like, “Oh no, there’s a street sign in the way behind you. Let’s all take a few steps this way…” and every time it has been appreciated by the people who are paying me to do a good job. It sends a message that you know what you are doing and care enough to get the shots right.

portrait of tweens - The Importance of Getting the Image Right In-Camera

A more extreme version of this, but one that’s just as important, is to take note of problematic points that cannot be altered in Photoshop and deal with them at the time of the photo session.

Issues like sign posts sticking out of heads, heads turned in the wrong direction, hands in awkward places, or having people with complementary outfits in close proximity to one another can easily ruin an otherwise outstanding photo session and are all but impossible to fix in post-production. The more you look for these problems and fix them on the spot, the better your photography will be.

Lighting and exposure

Years ago with early digital cameras, it was crucial to get the exposure just right at the time you took a photo. But today’s digital cameras have such incredible dynamic range that you can clean up a great deal of exposure issues in post-production. However, this should be used as a last resort and not relied on as a general rule, almost like a safety net below a trapeze artist.

When shooting in RAW you can lower highlights, raise shadows, and adjust color all day long to get just the right look you are aiming for. This is a huge benefit if you are doing work for clients. It’s even useful if you just want to squeeze the most out of your shots as a casual photographer. This type of exposure correction has saved my bacon more times than I can count when doing work for clients.

expecting couple in silhouette - The Importance of Getting the Image Right In-Camera

This couple was severely backlit which made for a very challenging photo situation.

Despite the flexibility of the RAW format and the editing possibilities offered by many photography applications such as Lightroom, Photoshop, and Luminar – you will find that it’s best to mitigate potential exposure and lighting issues at the time you take the photo instead of on your computer.

It’s not that you can’t fix exposure issues in post-production later, but that if simple exposure adjustments can make them disappear before you even take a picture then why would you want to spend time fixing it later?

The Importance of Getting the Image Right In-Camera

It took a lot of editing to wrangle a good result from the RAW file, but I could have just adjusted my exposure settings on the spot and saved myself a lot of time afterwards.

Your time is valuable

The more time I spend as a photographer the more valuable I realize my time really is. Even if you are a working professional who makes 100% of your income from photography, the less time you have to spend editing your images to fix exposure issues means more time doing other things that would help you hone your craft or grow your business. Or time you can spend with your family!

Even though you can fix a host of photographic issues ex post facto there’s no substitute for doing what you can to get it right in-camera and make sure those issues never even happen in the first place. Aside from saving yourself untold hours of time fiddling with sliders and layers on your computer, you will also be growing your skills as a photographer.

It will take some practice as you learn to reduce unwanted distractions and get accurate exposure settings when you press the shutter button. But you will reap rewards in terms of knowledge, confidence, and sheer experience. In the end, the result will be better photos taken by a better photographer, and that’s the kind of benefit you just can’t get by moving sliders around in Lightroom.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

  • Walter Polley

    yes, but one of the three young ladies still has a tree growing out of her head

  • There is something about being aware of what you are capturing and how. However you should not stop this capturing the emotion of a moment. If you stand around checking out different poses, what is in the background, etc you lose the element of life from the photo.

  • dabhand

    “Aside from saving yourself untold hours of time fiddling with sliders and layers on your computer, you will also be growing your skills as a photographer. ” – Rather a broad brush statement, you would have to be very poor with post processing to spend untold HOURS fiddling with sliders etc. The key word in creating the output is processing – Just like in non-digital days, shoot and then process.

    In digital photography it is no different, the process involves both the camera and the means of processing the image; Shooting in RAW offers the flexibility to process an image in a particular style rather than using JPG and allowing the manufacturer’s inbuilt processing style do the job for you. If you want to control the output you need to to understand both your camera and the means by which your images are processed.

  • markflag

    When shooting RAW processing is necessary.

  • Ron

    I totally agree with the Simon. I grew up during the film era when once you had taken the shot there was very little that could be done to change it; this meant that one had to be as accurate as possible with one’s shots. I still follow this philosophy and waste virtually no time changing things on the computer except under the odd exceptional circumstance. That time, for me, is far better spent being out and about taking shots than sitting in front of the computer manipulating photos to look the way I think that they should.

  • Sima john

    While you thinking that you are already a
    photographer but it is really not enough to be a photographer by just
    clicking things randomly.

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