Step Away from the Delete Button!

Taking pictures with digital cameras is fun. We get instant feedback from that little screen on the back of the camera (for purposes of this article, I’m referring to digital “point-and-shoot” cameras, compacts and dSLRs). We can delete whatever we don’t like, on the spot, right? Sure. But… how many pictures have you deleted then and there just because they didn’t look “good enough to keep” according to that little LCD preview? Hundreds? Thousands? Two words: Bad Idea. Why? Because you might inadvertently – and forever – trash that “money shot,” the “keeper of the year,” the one you’ve been trying to get for years, your best picture ever! I know: You’re thinking, “Well, how could that happen when I can see exactly what it looks like on my [itty bitty] LCD screen, and it looks awful, so what’s the big deal if I delete it now and make room on my memory card?” Look at the words I italicized: “exactly” and “itty bitty.” Go brew some coffee, and come back. I’ll wait. Then I’ll tell you why it’s a bad idea….

You’re back? Great. Where’s my cup??? (Sorry; I’m writing this in the morning before my first cup kicked in…  😉

Fun fact: What you see on your camera’s LCD is nothing more than an internally-processed, approximate representation of what your camera captured on its sensor. It’s a highly-compressed and processed JPEG image, but it’s not necessarily exactly how it will look when you open it in your photo editing program. (Even if you shoot in the “raw” mode, which is off-topic for this article, your camera still processes a JPEG preview on the LCD), and it processes that JPEG according to settings you’ve made in your camera, together with the manufacturer’s proprietary algorithms  “Ok, so what,” you ask?  It’s easier to show you: The images below are before-and-after results of a shot I took while I was on a trip with my eldest son in Arizona, visiting the Desert Botanical Gardens that day. The Chihuly Glass exhibit was there at the time (check the talented  Dale Chihuly’s website to see if his must-see exhibition is coming to your area), so besides the botanicals, we were also treated to beautiful Chihuly glass displayed throughout (I’ll show an example after the next images). Because there was so much to see, we stayed until well after dark. I was teaching my son, a then-budding photographer, to always look around him, and not just photograph what he sees in front of him. He saw me do that throughout the day. At one point, soon before closing time, something made me turn around and look behind me, and I thought I saw something in the distant hills. I couldn’t quite make it out, so I exposed manually, crossed my fingers (it was getting quite dark and I didn’t have my tripod set up at the moment, but I didn’t want to risk missing what I thought I might have seen), and made a grab-shot using my old-but-trusty 18-200mm on the camera I used at the time, a Nikon D300 – which is now one of my backup cameras. Naturally (said facetiously, since I was rushing), the frame was waaaay underexposed, but I didn’t have time to re-try. I almost deleted it, thinking I didn’t get anything. Wrong-O! I later converted and opened  it in my photo editing program, adjusted the exposure and tones, cropped a bit, and – coolness! – it was a silhouetted man sitting atop a distant hill, apparently gazing into the distance, looking peaceful in his solitude from where I stood.

NEF4625_DesertBotanicGarden_before2

I couldn’t quite make out what was on the mountain (it was much harder to see in person, at that moment, than it is here). If I’d deleted it, as I was tempted to do, I’d have missed the surprise in the next, post-processed image.

After adjusting the exposure a bit, cropping, and other little tweaks, I clearly saw this man, silhouetted against the post-sunset sky, looking almost other-worldly. Don't delete from your camera!

After adjusting the exposure a bit, cropping, and other little tweaks, I clearly saw this man, silhouetted against the post-sunset sky, looking almost other-worldly. Don’t delete from your camera!

Remember, what you see on the camera’s LCD screen isn’t exactly what you’ll see on your larger computer screen, or tablet, or TV. Its main purpose – besides passing the camera around to your friends to see – is to give you a quick idea of the exposure (which is best determined by checking the histogram if your camera offers that feature; I’ll discuss what a histogram is, and why it should become your best exposure-checking friend, in another article), focus and composition – did you accidentally cut off the top of Uncle Billy’s head (which may not be a bad thing!). Side note: what you see on the LCD – and what you see in your viewfinder – isn’t always 100% of what the camera “sees” and captures. That depends on the camera. The manual will tell you what percentage of the actual image can be seen in the viewfinder and on the screen. This means that you might actually photograph more of the scene than you thought. This is a good thing; sometimes we fill the frame too tightly, not allowing “breathing space” and also not giving us enough flexibility if we later have to crop it, whether to fit certain dimensions, cut out an edge of the frame, or whatever reason. This is, by the way, one of the main reasons I recommend setting your camera to “JPEG fine” or whatever your particular camera refers to as the highest-quality, least-compressed JPEG file, unless you’re shooting raw.

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What you see on the LCD screen is an approximation of what your camera actually captured.
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Chihuly Blue

This is one of the beautiful Chihuly Glass pieces exhibited at the Desert Botanical Gardens in Scottsdale, Arizona when I was there in 2009.

MILD TECH TALK ALERT: There are many, many factors that come into play when image and/or raw files (I’ll write about raw files vs. image files another time, as well as expand on other things I mention in this paragraph) are transferred from one device to another. One is color space. Images look different from device to device, depending on the color space they’re captured in, the color space assigned or converted to the image in your editing program, bit depth, resolution at capture, your monitor’s calibration (or lack thereof), the brightness settings on your monitor and on your camera’s LCD, how they’re converted if shot in the raw mode, and so much more. Our eyes can see about a gazillion more hues and shades (“color”) than our devices can reproduce. That reproducible range is called the “color gamut”. Your camera processes the JPEG on your LCD screen in a small color gamut, usually the sRGB color space. Adding to the confusion is that your photo editing program may default or be set to a larger-gamut RGB space, for instance, Adobe 1998 RGB, or ProPhoto space, among others. Even more…. the output device (e.g., printer) uses its own color space (printers are horses of another color – pardon the pun). Printers are CMYK devices; home/consumer printers and editing software communicate with each other about, among other things, how the printer should convert and interpret the RGB color values being sent to it. Each RGB (red, green, blue) and CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, key/black) hue is, in simple terms, assigned a hexadecimal number, and that number is communicated from the computer to printer so that RGB devices (e.g., computer) can tell CMYK devices (e.g., printer) how to interpret and print the image file being sent to it. There’s so much more to this, but it’s beyond the scope of this article.

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Don’t delete anything but the most obvious duds!
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Below is another example of why you shouldn’t delete straight from your camera. That “awful” image you see on the LCD might really be fantastic; you just don’t know it yet. You have to see it on a larger screen to truly be able to evaluate it, and also do some post-processing such as adjusting the exposure and white balance to the extent you can, making global and selective total adjustments, maybe crop to a better composition, and so on. That underexposed image on your LCD screen might be salvageable later; just be patient and give it a chance. You can always still delete it. If I didn’t follow my own advice, I’d have inadvertently tossed the only decent image (see below) that I captured during the Orionid meteor shower in October 2012 (the Orionids are remnants and debris from Halley’s Comet), but I didn’t see anything keepable from the LCD screen – I didn’t see until later what I’d actually photographed, after I adjusted the exposure – and I whooped in surprise! (Boy am I glad I shoot raw for almost everything except fast action!). Here’s how it happened:

I was shooting the meteor shower with some friends. It wasn’t much of a show from where we were; we each saw one or two while watching the sky between midnight and 3 am, but no one was able to capture anything on camera, including me. Or so I thought. Below are before-and-after images. The first is what I saw on my LCD screen, and while my friends and I took a break and scrolled through the images on our cameras, I almost deleted it. Then I remembered my rule – don’t delete anything but the most obvious duds (e.g., out of focus, compositionally impossible to fix later, etc.). Since I shoot raw, I can later adjust the exposure if necessary (as well as white balance and some other things). So… The image on my LCD was dark – very underexposed – but later when I edited it, I increased the exposure and made a few other tweaks, and voilà! A nice Orionid streak in the sky. The second image is what my camera had really captured, but since it was so underexposed, the preview on my LCD showed a blah picture and I almost trashed it. What a mistake that would have been.

3364_orionid_before1

This is the “before” image: what I saw on the back of my camera. If I had deleted it, I would never have seen the next “after” image!

This is the "after" image: I'd never have seen the Orionid if I had deleted it from the camera before first viewing it on a larger screen and then adjusting the exposure!

This is the “after” image: I’d never have seen the Orionid if I had deleted it from the camera before first viewing it on a larger screen and then adjusting the exposure!

So… buy a few extra memory cards and stay away from the delete button! Wait until you can see what you really shot on a larger screen, because the image you delete too soon may be one you’ll never have another chance to photograph! 

Meanwhile, keep on shooting!

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~ by Karen Rosenblum on February 17, 2013.

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