Nikon’s Capture NX2 RAW Editor

One of my students (so K. this is for you) who uses a Nikon DSLR found a copy of Nikon’s proprietary RAW editing software Capture NX2 and she wondered if it was something she could use.

After we talked about the difference between shooting JPG images where the camera makes all the decisions and essentially bakes the image so there’s not much you can do to change any of the parameters like brightness, contrast, noise reduction, etc. as compared to shooting RAW images where you make all the decisions in post-production software like Photoshop, Photoshop Elements or Lightroom.

Many new photographers just want to view their images of their vacations or the kids at Christmas and shooting JPGs which can be viewed in just about any software including IPhoto which is included on all MACs or Picasa which can be downloaded for free and can be used on MACs or PCs. Most point-and-shoot cameras only create JPGs but all DSLRs give you the choice. In fact, all DSLRs (I think) allow you the choice of shooting RAW files plus JPGs so you can have the best of both worlds (with the caveat that you’re using up twice the memory space on your memory cards and causing the camera to do more processing during each shot).

But let’s get back to Capture NX2. Here’s a link to Capture NX2 After The Shoot book.

Many professional and advanced amateurs shooting almost exclusively in RAW believe that NX2 is the best RAW photo editor for Nikon NEF (Raw) files. Some say it’s better than Lightroom 3 ($299) which is a huge favourite with wedding and special event photographers who shoot a lot of images on each job. Some say it’s better than Photoshop ($800) which is the industry standard and is used by everyone who wants to highly manipulate their images. Portrait and landscape photographers use Photoshop as do top-notch wedding photographers who use a lot of secondary software plug-ins to create photographic works of art. (BTW these are the photographers who get $5k to $10K a wedding and are in high demand.)

So if you’re a Nikon shooter and you find a copy of NX2 in your box what have you got?

NX2 is a full-featured, non-destructive RAW editor that uses something called U-Point technology which allows you to drag a pointer directly onto the photo and change anything locally right on the image with having to make masks (as in Photoshop). Not only is U-Technology super fast but it doesn’t create huge image sizes which can be a problem in Photoshop.

I find NX2 now to be very fast on my MacBook Pro which is a big improvement over previous versions which could be slow. NX2 also can use NIK’s Color Efex filter software editor which is a very versatile tool and well worth the cost.

NX2 also does what’s called non-destructive editing. In other words you never edit your original file, which some software editors do. With NX2 you can always return back to your original RAW file.

In NX2 it’s recommended that you begin with global adjustments such as cropping, straightening, noise reduction, white balancing, overall brightness and contrast changes before moving to specific changes such as selective colour or sharpening changes before ending with overall sharpening and outputting a finished JPG image (which is where you would have started if you were shooting JPGs but in this case you’ve made all the decisions about how your image is going to look).

It takes some patience to learn NX2 but that’s the same with any photo editor and trust me NX2 is a lot easier to use than Photoshop and does as great a job as a photo editor. Can’t ask for more than that.



Your First Lesson

I’ve been teaching quite a few individual students who got new DSLRs or point-and-shoot cameras and wanted a couple of lessons before heading off on vacation.

So here’s a quick checklist for everyone who can’t make it to Oakville for a personal session.

  1. Read your manual. Painful as some are to read, it will help you to understand your camera.
  2. Figure out how to reset your camera. This returns your camera to factory specifications so if you accidentally screw something up this will fix it.
  3. When you reset a Nikon, the JPG quality reverts to “normal”. Go into the menu and set your JPG quality to “fine”. You’ll get better images on fine.
  4. Learn how to download your photos from your camera to your computer using a USB cable or memory card reader.
  5. Once you’ve got your images on your computer make a back-up copy to an external hard drive or burn a DVD of your images.
  6. Shoot JPGs until you understand why and how to shoot RAW files.
  7. Process your JPG images in IPhoto on the Mac or Picasa (free) on PCs.
  8. If you want to shoot RAW files (which allow you to make many more adjustments to the image as compared to JPGs where the camera makes all the decisions buy Adobe Photoshop Elements or Lightroom to do your RAW editing.
  9. Learn how to format your memory cards (buy a couple of 8 or 16 gig cards) in your camera so you can use them over and over again. Before formatting make certain your saved images are safe in your computer and saved in at least two separate locations.
  10. Shoot lots and lots of images. It’s how you’ll quickly become a much better photographer.
Okay. Now you’re ready for part two. Here’s what I teach my new students:
  1. Until you get familiar with your camera shoot in automatic mode. The camera will make all the decisions for you including whether or not to use the flash.
  2. Once you’ve been getting good images on automatic, start shooting in P or program mode, Camera again makes all the decisions but now you control the flash.
  3. If you’re shooting a lot of indoor shots buy the flash the manufacturer sells. If there’s a choice, buy the bigger flash. (Take a course on how to use your flash. Especially learn how to bounce the flash off of ceilings and walls. You’ll get radically better indoor shots. People will marvel.)
  4. Next purchase is buy a fast lens like a 50mm f/1.8 which for Nikon and Canon sell for around $150, These “faster” lenses allow in more light so can capture really nice available light indoor shots.
  5. Start practicing shooting in A or aperture mode where you control the opening of the lens and the camera compensates by changing the shutter speed so you can get images that are sharp on the subject and blur the background. Wedding photographers use A mode a lot.
  6. If you’re shooting sports learn how to shoot in S or TV mode (Canon cameras) to set the shutter speed while the camera compensates by setting the aperture.
  7. Learn how to set your ISO to specific speeds rather than allowing the camera to decide what ISO to use. Slow ISO speeds (100 – 200) make for great outdoor shots in daylight. Higher ISO speeds (800 – 1600) will allow you to shoot in dim light but can create excessively noisy (think grainy in film lingo) images. 
  8. Now learn how to use M or manual mode. Here you use your light meter to determine the shutter speed and aperture for total artistic control.
  9. Buy a tripod* to stabilize the camera. Use it for landscapes and night-time photography. Also buy a remote shutter release to fire the camera.
  10. If you’re really enjoying the hobby, go join a local camera club (some are better than others) and attend the meetings and go on the shooting workshops.
* There are two ways to buys tripods: the expensive way and the really expensive way. The expensive way is you go out and buy a $1000 tripod with a $500 pro-quality ball head. The really expensive way is to go out and buy a $75 tripod. In two years you’ll go out and buy an $800 carbon-fibre trips with a $200 head to take on vacation. Eventually you’ll lust for the $1500 model (price has gone up) with the $500 head and you add it to your collection of tripods. I have three tripods and I’m working my way up to the $1500 purchase.

Shooting the Special Event

Saturday night was the 55th annual Charter Party and club-level International Speech contest for First Oakville Toastmasters here in Oakville, Ontario. I was asked by the organizers to again shoot the evening and especially the International Speech contest winner (who it turns out was my wife Marion). Photos here at Peter West Photography.

When you’re shooting a special event the best suggestion I have is shoot a lot. Documentary style photography requires a good eye and an ability to slip in and out of shooting opportunities without creating too much attention.

Lighting at any special event held indoors is going to be a challenge and the Bronte Harbour Banquet Facility is no exception.

So what should you use as far as equipment is concerned?

You’ll appreciate a full-frame DSLR. Who wouldn’t? But at an opening bid of around $3K just for the body most of us are shooting DX format and even Micro Four-Thirds (Olympus Pens, Panasonics G-series and others). Regardless of what camera you’re going to need an external flash that allows for bouncing the light around and at least one fast lens.

On Saturday night I was using Nikons. My D-300 was my main camera and my D-90 was my backup. I had two SB-900 flashes and I forgot my Gary Fong Lightsphere which would have thrown a lot more light into the faces of my subjects than the straight flash bounced off the high ceilings even with the little reflector pulled up. Bummer.

Bringing in a set of lights or even putting the flashes on stands would work but remember this is a special event with over 100 people crammed into a medium-sized room. Anything on a stand that isn’t tied down is going to get knocked over.

So your best solution is going to up your ISO as high as your camera (and software. I use Lightroom 3 for its ability to handle hundreds of images and for its noise reduction software ability.) will allow (thus the full-frame advantage over DX and DX’s advantage over the Micro Four-Thirds in the ability of the larger sensor to capture more light in dark venues without dramatically increasing the noise in the image) bounce your flash and shoot with your camera using a slow shutter.

As for the mode when shooting in slow shutter I like to use aperture which I set to fully open the fast lens (a fast lens is one which will open to f/2.8 or better) or manual mode which allows me to control everything. This creates backgrounds that glow with ambient light. You need to be fairly close to your subject for the flash to stop any action and reduce blur caused by movement.

The automation in cameras today isn’t your friend if you’re starting to shoot at a pro-level. I’ve seen shooters at wedding shooting with Canon Rebels with the kit lens and an external flash they use on camera straight on in automatic mode. This is not the way to shoot a wedding. You absolutely need to know the difference between auto, program, aperture, shutter and manual modes and how to use them.

For wedding photography, regardless of what camera, you need a faster lens (I used a 17-55mm f/2.8 DX format zoom) and a 35mm f/1.8 fix lens. I also used my 12-24mm f/4 super wide angle for shots in the crowd.) and know how to bounce as big an external flash as you can afford. You can never have too much light. There’s a ton of other stuff that helps but this is the absolute minimum. I’d carry a second camera body like a Rebel or D90 just in case the main camera fails and I bring two flashes minimum.

Monolights that you setup for group shots are next IMHO. Don’t buy cheap lights as their white balance will vary with their flash output. Cold lights are great for video but are tougher to use well for still photography when you don’t know the venue and are under time constraints. Also remember the knock-over factor. 

The idea wedding kit looks something like this:

  • Full-frame DSLR (or two)
  • Backup DX DSLR
  • Full-frame 17-35mm, 35-70mm and 70-200mm lenses and all f/2.8
  • Full or DX format lenses: 35mm f/1.4 lens, 85mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.8 which for DX series is cheap at $150
  • two big flashes like SB-900s for Nikon with Pocket Wizard remote controls
  • two monolights such as Alien Bees or better yet Elinchrom
Finally don’t try to shoot videos and the same time you’re shooting stills. You can’t do both in the time allotted for the event. If you have a second shooter who is shooting video make sure you’ve got a game plan worked out so you don’t keep walking into their shots. If you’re working with someone you don’t know who is doing the video, well good luck. I’ve watched as novice wedding shooters walk in front of the video camera just as the rings were being exchanged. Almost witnessed a homicide.
BTW while I use Lightroom for special event photography, I’d be using Photoshop for my detailed wedding work. 
My special event images get pretty much the same parameters dialled in (exposure boost 10%; white balance set using the eyedropper where possible) clarity down 10% or more (soften faces); vibrance up 20% (make the image pop); and saturation at zero or up 5% (avoid too much colour). Noise reduction up based on faces. I like to add vignetting which isn’t to everyone else’s tastes so I have to be careful here. Remember this isn’t high art. It’s mean-and-potatoes shooting used most often on member’s websites.
For weddings I can still use Lightroom but if there’s any detailed work to do and if you’re getting paid enough then Photoshop is the way to go on individual images.

How To Go Pro

Nikon just announced the new D-800 full-frame DSLR at around $3K and Olympus announced a new OM-D micro four-thirds pro-level body at around $1K.

So should you run out and trade in your old antiques for this new stuff? I’m sure tempted as I have invested in both systems.

Sure if (a) you can afford the ticket and (b) these cameras will pay for themselves inside of a year or so.

If not, then keep shooting with your old equipment until such time as you get good enough to actually find work.

And how do you find work in photography?

That’s easy.

You shoot lots and lots of images. You shoot everyday. You shoot everything and everybody that gets in front of your camera.

You create a professional-level portfolio website. Print your images and take them around to local galleries. You send out notices to the local newspapers about your gallery showings even if their just at the local coffee shop for a week.

You contact the editors of magazines and ask them to look at your work. (Make certain the magazine uses your kind of work. Boudoir photography won’t impress the editor of Outdoors Canada. Then again you never know. Shoot special events. Shoot weddings. Shoot news stuff. Shoot art. Shoot crap. Maybe even go to photography school. But above all keep shooting.

When I was a boy I was told there were no jobs in journalism. Everyone who bought that lie never worked in journalism. I ignored the advice and I worked in journalism all my life.

It’s that simple…and that hard.

More Yoga and Photography

You may have noticed I’ve been somewhat absent from the site and that my last two posts have had a yoga theme. There’s a reason 🙂 I’m doing a lot of yoga right now and as it’s the tail end of a very dreary winter not as much shooting as I’d like (although I’ve got a private gig this weekend).

So here’s a video shot in New York City that celebrates yoga in the city but also shows you what you can do with just about any DSLR that shoots video and can take a really wide angle lens.

If you have really good headphones or expensive in-ear buds the music is terrific.

Best of all, bet the video makes you smile. Enjoy (and oh yes nameste).