Real World Styles (Part 1 – Canon Camera Picture Styles)

Canon EOS 30D Mode DialAnyone who has read more than a few entries on this site will probably realise that I am a little bit obsessed with ‘Styles’ in both Microsoft Word and tools such as CSS. It struck me that it might be beneficial to look at some real-world things that use something similar to styles to help convey my message. The analogy to word processing or document styles will not always be tight, but hopefully it will be informative. Today, I’m going to look at Canon cameras and their ‘picture zone’ settings. Modern Canon cameras of most levels up (but excluding) their professional level cameras have the means to select a picture mode; on the EOS 30D pictured above, that comes in the form of a Mode Dial.

Canon EOS 30D Mode Dial Manual PageUnlike Styles in documents, the Mode Dial is not a ‘Style for the visual appearance of the output’, but it is a ‘Style for the user-interface and internal settings’ for the camera; although to some extent the latter can effect the former (because internal settings have been changed, the image will be processed and output differently from another setting).

So how do these ‘styles’ work?

Well, firstly, any setting in the ‘Basic Zone’ sets most if not all camera settings to a default that Canon have assessed to be sensible for that mode. In Portrait mode, for example, (the little face icon) the camera will:

  • Select ‘One Shot’ focusing (focusing is only done when you half-press the shutter button);
  • Multi-shot drive (when you fully press the shutter, multiple shots will be taken the longer you leave your finger on the button);
  • A general metering mode that are all assessed to be good for portraits;
  • Prioritise the use of a wide shutter aperture to help blur the background and leave the subject in sharp focus.

If however, you select Sports mode, the camera will:

  • Select ‘AI Server’ focusing (where the camera continues to focus on a moving subject even as the shutter is half-pressed;
  • High Speed Multi-shot drive, to take multiple shots as the shutter button is kept pressed down, but even faster than the ‘Multi-shot drive’;
  • Select wider apertures to help keep the shutter speed very fast, to ‘freeze’ the action.

The lists above are not even the full extent to which the camera settings are effected. For example, on these Basic Zone modes the camera has an option to change the ISO speed depending on the overall level of light to help freeze the action, it can change the way the flash is programmed to operate, and furthermore it disables many camera options that can be controlled in the ‘Creative Zone’, and sets them to appropriate defaults (settings like White Balance etc).

The Creative Zone

When set to a Creative Zone setting, the camera leaves most decisions up to the user, and all the decisions noted above (for focusing mode, Shutter drive, metering mode etc) are left to the user to make the decision on what they should be. The camera also changes the way the user-interface is used. For example, in ‘Av’ (Aperture value) mode, a little dial next to the shutter is used to change the aperture setting that will be used in the lens, but switch the mode to ‘Tv’ (Time value) mode and the same dial is used to control the shutter speed. In either case, this particular camera is left in an auto-exposure mode that automatically selects the other value (aperture or time) to correctly expose the picture (based on the metering mode you have currently selected). The trouble with describing this process is that it sounds horrifically complex, but in fact in use it really is quite natural in use.

The Mode Dial – Not Good Enough for Pros

This is one area where our analogy does not match our hopes and expectations for Styles. Canon Professional level cameras do not feature the Mode Dial, and many professionals can be a little arsey about the amateurs that use it. In contrast, we have learnt from a previous analysis of Word software, that Microsoft is continually biasing Word for use by people who don’t know about Styles, rather than biasing towards the professionals who should. Of course, Canon professional camera users can make all the settings they need to, manually, but they can only do it manually, one at a time; a Canon amateur-camera user can make the same, sensible settings, by turning a single dial. Who is the clever one? Especially as, in my experience of an old EOS 5 ‘pro’ camera, many of the settings have to be made by holding down one or two buttons, and then spinning a dial… this is not quick.

There are probably a few real reasons why Canon has decided to leave this distinction in their range of cameras:

  1. They need to retain distinctions between ranges, the interface for the Pro cameras is more complex, but may also be perceived by professionals to be ‘more professional’ or perhaps ‘more manly’?
  2. Professionals really should have more time and experience to understand their cameras. Amateur users on the other hand need to be given controls that produce good overall results without exposing them to all the complexities. Professional users will always expect the fine-grain controls though;
  3. The Basic Zone modes disable certain camera settings and prevent the use of other settings, for example, Camera RAW data (the very best data for image processing, straight from the sensor) will never be saved in the Basic Zone settings, regardless of your choice when the Creative Zone is in use.

I Argue for Image Zone settings on Pro Cameras

I believe that the Mode Dial and Image Zone settings should be brought into the professional Canon camera range. Perhaps not as they are currently configured, but something similar certainly. Here is what I imagine Canon believes a professional photographer does:

  • Professional portrait photographer goes to the studio and spends all day taking portraits OR
  • Professional sports photographer goes to the track and spends all day taking sports photos OR
  • Paparazzi goes to the beach and spends all day snapping Posh and Bex three miles down the beach with a ginormous telephoto lens OR
  • Landscape photographer sets up at 5am and waits for hours for light to be just right for that one beautiful shot.

But here is my scenario, as an amateur, for a ‘track day’ above:

  • Go to the track and take a few photos of the crowds and scenery whilst waiting for races to start;
  • Take some photos of racing cars / bikes as they rush past;
  • Notice a helicopter flying overhead, and take a photo of that;
  • Take crowd photos as someone popular wins;
  • Notice dramatic lighting in the area and take a ‘landscape’ style shot of crowd / and or track.

…and so on.

Now I can believe that professional photographers can go a whole day taking only one kind of photo, but I can no longer believe that photographers find earning money so easy that they ought to. This leaves just one aspect that needs to be changed to make the Image Zone useful to professional photographers; make them fully configurable settings. Instead of always using a standard image size, allow the camera owner to choose which image size and settings a particular Image Zone setting will use, allow RAW mode in the Image Zone, and so on. Suffice to say, I would have spent a lot more money on an EOS 5D camera, had it had the Mode Dial with extra configuration capability, and instead I got the cheaper EOS 30D.

Anyway, enough ranting for now! I hope that I have demonstrated that a form of Styles are present in Canon cameras, and I believe that similar systems exist in most brands.

Notes

The Canon EOS 30D also has an internal set of settings called Picture Styles. These are quite like Styles in my favourite document sense of the word, except they permanently change the stored jpeg data (I believe). Picture Styles in this sense are settings that effect sharpness, colour saturation etc. that change how the image data is processed after the image is shot, but before it is stored onto the memory card. Overall, I prefer the comparison of Styles to the Mode Dial even though that is as much about internal (invisible) settings in the camera, and adjustments to the user interface and how it works.

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