Paul's Nikon Digital Page with Tips on Beginning with a D300

I have been shooting digitally since February 1999; starting with a point-and-shoot Agfa ePhoto 780. It was a sub 1MP camera (350,000 pixels to be exact) and cost $400. This was around the time of the Kodak DCS500 series (built around the Canon EOS-1) and the DCS600 series (built around the Nikon F5). It's amazing how far we've come in just a short amount of time. From a long time before that I've been a computer geek, and a Macintosh die hard. I had fiddled around with Photoshop, but didn't do too much. Macromedia Fireworks was a program I used a lot in that timeframe. It was great for batch resizing images, which at the time wasn't too easy to do in Photoshop (at least I didn't know how to do it)!

Anyway, digital was always many steps behind film back then. Digital wasn't considered serious by many except at newspapers. It was just considered quick and easy. Film was for all my real work and digital was for snapshots and webpages. A hybrid workflow was to scan my film. Between then and a short time ago I followed the endless debates of film versus digital and I must admit I was one of those diehards who couldn't imagine digital ever being better than film. Stupid. I struke a compromise by buying a Minolta film scanner. But that was a real pain! And was only 35mm. Then I started getting PhotoCDs with every film processing. All this was a real pain too. The lab was in the middle of Boston, a train ride away from work. My end product was great: I'd get great 16x20 prints from professional scans, but at great cost.

Fast-forward all the way to late 2006. I'd been chugging away this way for a long time and by that time was using a 2MP digital camera (the HP PhotoSmart 912C). I realized digital had become serious and I realized film's limitations most notably in processing time and lack of control over the final print. Keep in mind for film I was still using all manual 35mm and medium format cameras. There was no such thing as autofocus for me which made sports a real pain!

Well, December 2006 during Christmas break I finally took the plunge. I went with the Nikon brand over Canon even though Canon had the full-frame 5D as an option. Why did I do that? Simple reasons: I felt the build quality of the D200 was much better than the 5D (this was the market I was in, not the 1Ds or D2X market) and I felt Nikon was an underdog, at least in the pro market. I like underdogs, hence my Apple fixation and recent joys of how they have grown their products. I shot about 35K frames between January 1 and late November 2007. Then I sold both cameras and upgraded to two D300 cameras the day they were released for the improved high ISO performance and much better autofocus that I needed for sports.

My gear currently includes: Two Nikon D300 camera bodies, one MB-D10 grip (complete with the BL-10, EN-EL4a, and MH-21 accessories), SB-600 and 800 flashes with SU-800 commander, Custom Brackets Digital Pro E (for events) and Really Right Stuff B91-B (for sports) brackets, Photogenic stands, umbrellas and 40" softbox, JTL background stand, seamless papers, various muslins, and 52" white/gold collapsible reflectors. I also use Alien Bees B800 studio lights with radio triggers. I meter my lighting carefully with a Shepherd Polaris meter: the second oldest piece of my gear.

I have also collected a bunch of lenses: Nikkor 17-55/2.8, 35/2, 50/1.4, 85/1.8, 70-200/2.8 VR with Really Right Stuff foot, 300/4 AF-S with Really Right Stuff collar and foot, TC-14E II teleconverter, Tokina 12-24/4 super wide angle, and Tamron 90mm/2.8 DI Macro lenses. I use screw-in B+W UV or Hoya Digital Pro protectors and a B+W slim circular polarizer. I don't use graduated neutral density filters anymore (read below). I experimented a little when settling on lenses. There were several buy, try, sells in there over a period of several months. I didn't care for the Sigma 50-150/2.8 or the 18-50/2.8. They were both slower focusing than the Nikon equivalent, weren't close to the same build quality, and were smaller and lighter. I tend to like big and heavy. Optically, the 70-200 is better. The wide-to-normal lenses were close in image quality from both Sigma and Nikon, so it's a good bang-for-the-buck lens.

For primes, I settled on the 85/1.8 because I usually shoot that focal length with the 70-200 for tight portraits and I didn't see the need for the expense of the 1.4 lens. I generally use the prime lenses for studio work or when I'm challenging myself to find images at a fixed focal length. The 85mm is used exclusively for studio or sports, the 50/1.4 and 35/2 are used for studio and really dark places like band concerts where I can move around and get the shot or dark gyms. The 300/4 I use almost exclusively for sports. It's invaluable and it weighs about as much as the 70-200, but significantly less cost than the 300/2.8. I've really never needed f/2.8 at 300mm. The 1.4X TC I rarely use, but it's in the bag when I bring the tele lenses just in case. The 12-24 is an especially nice focal length range for DX cameras.

I use an ExpoDisc for white balance, though most of the time I don't bother and fix white balance in post. I use all Lexar Pro 133X and 300X UDMA 4GB and 8GB CompactFlash cards. I sport a Domke J1 bag as my walkaround and a LowePro Nova 5 AW bag for extra gear in the car. For pods, I use my trusty 1990 era Bogen 3001 tripod---it's about the only item of my photo gear that's old now which is quite a change because my philosophy a few years ago was "old is best"---and 488RC2 head with quick release. I use it for fireworks or water and some landscapes with the Nikon MC-30 remote release but almost nothing else these days with the ability to pump up the ISO and VR. I do use a Gitzo GM2941 Series 2 Basalt monopod for sports.

On the digital darkroom side, I'm using a MacBook and iMac 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo running OS 10.5 Leopard with Photoshop and Bridge CS3 (with Adobe Camera Raw 4.3) and Nikon's Capture NX. My MacBook is just for on the road downloads. My iMac is my darkroom tool. I calibrate monthly with ColorVision's Spyder2. My image management isn't database driven yet, although I've bought Lightroom and Martin Evening's book and will probably explore it soon. My image management is simple, but it works. I first decide if my shots are for press, photo business, or personal. I keep three separate directories for each. Once I decide which folder they will go in, I put all shots from a single shoot directly from my card reader into a folder with yyyy-mm-dd-shootname naming convention. Inside there is the nnnND300 folder with all the RAW NEF images. If there are multiple cards used from two cameras, then I put them in there too. I almost always shoot RAW. 12-bit compressed for press. 14-bit uncompressed for business. One or the other for personal, depending on the situation and what my ultimate goal is for the images. I immediately bring the images into Bridge. I put all the NEFs in one folder. I can do that because the names aren't the same: I've replaced the standard DSC_ prefix with PT3_ and PT4_, the names of my DSLRs. PT is my initials and 3 and 4 refer to the fact that I'm on my third and fourth DSLRs. I sort by date created (make sure you sync the clocks on multiple cameras) and I batch rename everything to shootname-nnnn.NEF. Then I go through and delete any obviously bad ones. I then append my saved "BASIC" meta data which has copyright information. I then develop only the better images which are a subset of what's left. I won't go into what I do in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and Photoshop. That's beyond the scope here. If you are looking for good books, check out:

I generally start from top and move my way down in ACR and that's 90% of my processing. Color temperature is first and saturation is last. I open in Photoshop. Noise reduce if ISO 800 or up in Noiseware Professional. Crop if needed, usually keeping the 2:3 ratio, and save as a Level 10 JPG. When I'm done, I put all those JPG images in their own sub-folder. These are the images I want to present to clients for proofs or put in my private photo galleries. I convert some to black and white using the channel mixer and append a BW extension to the filename. I use Photoshop to create the gallery. I run a custom PERL script on my Linux webservers to change the headers and footers and customize the gallery the way I like it. Eventually, I want to use a database driven gallery software like Menalto's Gallery, but I'm not there yet. For clients, I create custom web pages with a link to the gallery. I generally post comments on which images I like and why. That's why I show them color and black and white. For large events, I use SmugMug to present the gallery.

I said above I don't use graduated neutral density images anymore. That's because high dynamic range software is so good. I bracket such wide range exposures and use Protomatix Pro 3. What an amazing piece of software.

When it comes time to print at Miller's or Simply Canvas, I usually do finer work in Photoshop on those particular images. Sometimes I redevelop the image in Bridge. For prints 8x10 and larger, I retouch as needed and save as a layered PSD. Then I crop for print size and save those as Level 12 JPG with the filename followed by print size (i.e., 8x10). For images larger than 16x20, I uprez with Genuine Fractals 5 and save as uncompressed Tiffs.

For backup, I use Prosoft Engineering's Data Backup 3. I use three 500GB backup drives. The first is a clone of my working disk. My two other drives are permanently connected by Firewire 800 and turned on two or three times a week for general backups or after I've worked on an important shoot. The backup is a simple copy option (not a sync or clone) that backs up any new or modified files from folders I've preselected in the script. I only backup data, not applications. The backup never deletes anything off the backup drives. If I want to do that, I do it manually. In this way, I can delete shoots periodically off my working computer drive and keep copies on my backups forever. Well, forever, is a long time. I guess until I need to replace the drives. I tested the backup extensively before putting it to work. That's important. You want to make sure your backup scripts are working as you want them to. Only after everything is backed up, do I put the cards back in the cameras and reformat. I always reformat in camera.

For those of you who know about shutter, aperture and ISO and how they work together and are new to the D300 or digital SLRs, you may find the following helpful (I gave this advice to a friend):

You have to first decide if you will shoot RAW or JPG.

Advantages to RAW: white balance control in post, better noise control at and above ISO 1600, and exposure tuning. Disadvantages to RAW: you have to import them into photoshop and process them. If you get picky, like me, you process one by one and this is time consuming.

Better is to not be picky like me and shoot in JPG Normal. This is how I learned. Advantages to JPG: smaller files, no processing at all (unless you want to). Disadvantages: see advantages to RAW.

Honestly, if you are only going to make small prints (8x10 and smaller or even 11x14 and smaller) just stick with JPG. It's much better that you focus on learning the camera. Because you will probably screw up a lot in the beginning and it won't matter whether you shot RAW or JPG.

Then when you want prints from those JPG files, go to You upload and print the images you want and in two or three days they are at your doorstep. Please don't go to CVS or Wal-Mart. Trust me: just use Mpix. Since you are beginning, always check to have them do color correction. Prints are awesome. They come delivered in a box, and sealed in plastic wrap. They don't deliver in flimsy cardboard mailers like almost all other labs do. If you want black and white, don't bother with their black and white paper, just print on color paper and they are almost as good (it's really a matter of taste).

So now that that's all done, all you have to worry about is how to use the camera. If you just follow what I write below you should be able to do it yourself. To start you don't need to learn anything in the menus. Everything you set on the camera body.

I never use Auto ISO. I think it's cheating. But if you want to you can. I suggest you don't because then you will get addicted to cheating = not good and leads to sloppiness.

That's all you have to remember. Try not to go higher than ISO 1600. But if you must, you can boost to 3200 and get acceptable images. If you learn those three things that's 90% of getting a good exposure. For now I would NOT worry about spot or center metering. Choose subjects that don't have a differences in light (like a group where half the group is in dark shade and the other half is in bright sun). Since digital costs essentially nothing, you can afford to screw up a bunch and still have a lot of keepers. This is the great advantage to digital. It's addicting also. It can also be a justification to get sloppy with technique. But you won't fall for that!

Move focus selector to where you want it (by looking in the viewfinder). Press shutter halfway = focus. Keep going = shoot.

Once you shoot, if you must you can look at your image on your really nice LCD. All you do after a shot is hit the PLAY button to the left of the trash can icon.

The only other thing you need to know is that the meter will only stay on so long. When it goes off you cannot change the aperture or change focus point or see any settings in viewfinder. So, you just hold down the shutter button halfway and you're all set. I got stuck with this when I got started. Now you won't. It takes a small getting used to. But once you do it's muscle memory.

Well, this is a quickie post about what I'm currently doing and maybe some tips on getting started. I'll probably update it soon and add some more useful information later. We'll see. This is a work in progress.