A Guide to Setting the Photo Style on a Panasonic GH3
I recently got a Panasonic GH3 camera and was interested in understanding what the Photo Style and its related Picture Quality settings did. I understand that they set parameters for converting the RAW image taken by the camera into the JPG file stored on the data card. But I was wondering what things the settings actually changed so that I could decide how to set my camera. I didn't want to be constantly changing the setting for each shot, or even for each photo session. I wanted something that would create a JPG that I could use as a base for my post processing (PP). Yes, I know that starting with the RAW file and using a RAW converter program is the way to go to be sure of getting the optimal end product. But about half the time I find that starting with the JPG works just as well. For the other half, where the image is just too difficult to do what I want with the JPG, I do start with the RAW file.
So, in order to figure out what settings to use I posted a question on the Micro-Four-Thirds forum on dpReview. The answers I got back either didn't understand my question, or else recommended I go out and play and pick one for myself, or else they just told me what setting they figured out from trial and error. This left me to go out and play. Before I headed out I figured I should think about the problem first. There are seven Photo Styles:
I eliminated Monochrome and Custom since I'll do my own conversion to B&W and Custom is just a saved modification of one of the other styles. This left me with five styles. Now each of these styles can be adjusted with four sliders for:
When I first started this adventure I figured that the styles were just a combination of settings for the four Picture Quality settings. Each of the four can be adjusted from +5 to -5, for eleven choices if 0 is included. I was wrong, the styles are not just Picture Quality settings. Each of the styles start with the four settings at 0. So, as I headed out to play I had 5x11x11x11x11 settings to try. This comes to 73,205 possibilities. Clearly I had to reduce my task. My first thought was to just try the four sliders at -5, 0, and +5. This would simplify my possibilities to "only" 5x3x3x3x3 = 405. Much more reasonable but still beyond what I was in the mood to do. So more creativity was needed. I thought about the four sliders, since I had a reasonable idea what they were doing. I had little clue what the styles were doing. I was pretty sure that I could do a better job of sharpening and reducing noise from an image using my PC software than the camera was going to do. Also, I figured that the minus settings for these two were not going to increase the blur or the noise in the image. So I decided to just put those two to -5. Next I thought about the Contrast slider. Different images need different amounts of contrast, but I did not want to be adjusting it for every image. I figured if I started with minimal contrast I would probably get the most dynamic range and could then work with the curve in my PC to get what I wanted. So I decided to set the Contrast slider to -5. By forcing the three sliders to -5 I greatly simplified my job. However, before I calmly headed out in this direction I decided to run my first test.
I took a set of images with the slider settings at 0,0,0,0 and -5,-5,0,-5 to see if the all-0s looked better. Notice that I left the Saturation slider at 0 for both sets. I ran this test for each of the five styles. I was pleased to find that I was just as happy with the 3by-5s as I was with the all-0s. So this left me with two remaining questions: which style to use and what to set the Saturation slider to. Still fully testing this would require 5x11 images and 55 was still more that I wanted to tackle. So I decided to go after the style first.
Now I need to explain my testing procedure. I decided to take a number of images on the tripod with no changes in the ISO, shutter speed, aperture, etc. The only thing I would change would be the style and sliders. I'm primarily a landscape photographer so I headed out to land some scapes. Unfortunately I didn't figure on the changing sun on my partly cloudy day. There was no consistency in the brightness or strength of the shadows in my images. So I moved indoors.
For my style analysis I decided to take two scenes, one low contrast with subdued colors and one high contrast with bright colors. For each scene I took ten shots, five with the settings at -5,-5,-5,-5 and five at -5,-5,0,-5. So I ended up with four shots for each style. Actually I compared the five styles across the four scene/saturation groups. As I would expect, the low contrast scene looked better with the saturation set to 0 and the high contrast scene looked better with the saturation set to -5. So, I compared the five styles with the high contrast scene and the saturation set to -5. And I compared the five low contrast scenes with the saturation set to 0. I ignored the other ten images. I was able to quickly eliminate the Vivid and Scenery styles. They both looked too juiced-up for me. I am looking for an image that I can work with on my PC, not a final image. If I was looking for the final image out of the camera I would probably just change the style for each shot. This is probably what Panasonic had in mind in the first place, but not what I wanted. So I was left with Standard, Natural, and Portrait styles. I was surprised to find Portrait in this group, but it was similar to the other two. On close comparison with the other two I was able to find the biggest difference in the "warmth" of the colors. This made sense for a Portrait setting. But in my mostly landscape work I didn't want to warm up the white balance. So Portrait was out. Now to decide between Standard and Natural. Now I should mention that Panasonic provides extremely helpful descriptions of each of the styles in their manual. Here are the two finalists and their descriptions:
Standard - This is the standard setting.
Natural - Soft effect with low saturation.
The description of Standard was not very helpful. But the description of Natural caused me a bit of concern. The term "soft effect" may imply that the camera is actually blurring the image. I might even expect this kind of thing for a portrait setting. So I went back to my test images and looked closely for blurring. I even compared a RAW image that I converted myself on my PC with the same Natural image to make sure no blurring was gong on. It wasn't. So the term "soft effect" remains a mystery to me. The term "low saturation" didn't bother me. I planned on tackling that issue in my next phase of testing anyway. Switching back and forth between the Standard and Natural images was an exercise in subtlety. The differences were very small and it took me while to even see what was changing between them. It finally came down to a little more resolution in the shadows without any perceived loss in the highlights. The winner was Natural by a nose. I'm quite sure if I spent the rest of my time with this camera set to Standard I would not lose much. But Natural it will be.
Now I needed to figure out where I wanted the Saturation slider set. For this test I chose one scene with both high and low contrast and high and low saturation. I then shot eleven images, one for each slider setting from +5 to -5. Each step was noticeable but fairly small. Of course comparing +5 with -5 was dramatic. This test was actually easier than I had expected. As I stepped through the settings the high contrast parts of the image went from over-the-top to just fine. The low contrast/saturation parts went from a bit subdued to just fine. Most everything looked just fine at either 0 or -1. Like my previous decision I made a choice of 0, but -1 would have been just about as good.
So the final settings for my Panasonic GH3 will be set to:
Style = Natural
Contrast = -5
Sharpness = -5
Saturation = 0
Noise Reduction = -5
I do not expect I will be changing them. Oh, I may try Portrait -5, -5, 0, -5 someday. Or I may try playing some other way. But my GH3 will "reset" to the winner of my test results. Of course I still don't really know what Panasonic is doing with the styles.
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