Prologue: In follow up discussions to my November/December Canon SX50 Review article, many people asked advice on how to get better results with their cameras. I took the opportunity from one such query to write an overall summary of the techniques I employed at the time to achieve consistent high quality images. Ultimately in using the camera, I switched one of those techniques, changing my choice of metering from evaluative mode to spot mode, but that is a topic for a future article. Here is the original discussion:
Ketan wrote: I have noted that the Canon SX50 takes very nice images but most of the time, these are post processed. Now, for a guy like me who does not post process much, can you give some simple tips on how to get sharp jpeg images straight out of the camera (SOOC) ? I find that most Canon P&S cameras (including the SX50) give softer images. I appreciate your advice on basic settings for sharper images.
Me: With the SX50’s 1/2.3 sensor and a lens with an optical design that even a computer would find intimidating, it's not surprising that many images would come out a bit soft. That's one of the reasons the camera has so many settings, including different levels of sharpness and contrast. In getting the best results, much depends on the mindset of the photographer. In your case, since you prefer not to post process, you would have to play with these settings to see what suits your needs best. For those like me who consider post a fun and creative part of the whole process, we would tend to turn these settings down and have finer control of them through software after the image is taken. Different strokes for different folks.
That being said, there are a number of techniques I find that help in getting very good images straight out of the camera. Now we have seen many fine images by people who use the AUTO mode. And that's fine. I'm sure from seeing these results that AUTO does a reasonably good job based on the database of subjects written into the SX50’s DIGIC processor. But the way I see it, the best images come when the photographer controls the camera, not when the camera controls the photographer. After many decades of learning to control my equipment, I feel very comfortable not using the AUTO mode. But that doesn't mean I don't use the automatic features of the camera. I just set them up to respond to my input.
The first automatic feature I really like is the evaluative metering mode. I have found very few instances in which it hasn't given me a very good base exposure to work with. From there I can quickly make adjustments to my taste using the EC control. Typically I'll go -1/3 for most sunlit scenes, but I can also go anywhere between -1 to +1/3 depending on the quality of the light I see and the final effect I want on the image.
But what about the primary basis of the exposure? With these tiny sensors, I tend to not worry much about the f-stop. Even wide open, there is usually plenty of depth of field when you're not shooting really close up. So I set my camera to Tv mode. Between the lightness of this camera, the small sensor, and the long lens, these are the ingredients that would cause the slightest shake or vibration of the camera to erode details in the image. If the edge of an element in an image covers only one or two pixels, the image will appear sharp. If camera shake or vibration cause that edge to cover 4 or more pixels, now we're beginning to see a soft picture. The primary answer of course is to use a tripod with a cable release. Good sometimes, but otherwise a real bummer for carefree shooting with a P&S camera. So the secondary answer is to always use the fastest shutter speed available to overcome the movement. My default for Tv mode is 1/500th second with continuous IS turned on. I'll go higher if there's enough light.
The best images also come from using the lowest ISO possible, which usually doesn't play well with high shutter speeds when the light goes down a bit. So in the Menu I set the Safety Shift to ON. When the low ISO can no longer support the chosen Tv shutter speed, this automatically downshifts that shutter speed slower. If I have to take the shot quickly, it'll still come out properly exposed with the highest shutter speed for that ISO. And hopefully the IS keeps it steady. But if I have the time and see the shutter is getting too slow, I compensate by quickly switching to AutoISO. Now the ISO for this camera can get pretty high with acceptable results, but I find 400 to be the top of my "quality" range, so that's where I've set AutoISO not to exceed. And I've also set it to range up slowly so as not to give higher intermediate ISOs than I need. This now gives me up to two full shutter speeds higher to maintain a steady shot in the dimming light. So I'm not in AUTO, but I am using well thought out automatic features to supplement my technique in getting sharp detail in the SOOC image.
Now a bit about shooting technique. The LCD of this camera is nice. But I rarely use it for shooting beyond about 200mm (full frame equivilent). Although 1200mm is the long telephoto, 200mm is still telephoto and a point where camera shake can play a big part in image sharpness. At this magnification, holding the camera out in front of you with no support other than your outstretched arms can add enough "shake" to lose detail at all but very high shutter speed/IS combinations. Instead, I hold the camera to my eye using the EVF, with my elbows firmly but comfortably resting on my chest, a sort of human tripod position. For best results, I also take a full breath, let it half out and then squeeze the shutter (don't press it, squeeze it). I am relaxed, the camera is relaxed, and the least amount of shake or vibration is being introduced to the shot. The result is very sharp details for static subjects. Moving subjects are a whole different ball of wax, but with them sharpness may not be your first concern.
All of this of course takes practice while making changes here or there to suit your own style. But as a baseline, when put into practice, these tips can result in improved results with any camera, big or small. And hopefully for the small camera sensor, results good enough to need little or maybe no post processing at all.