For more than a decade, Canon EOS cameras have had an important — but often overlooked — feature called Picture Style. It’s a menu setting, allowing photographers to shoot with a certain look. It’s similar to the old days when you could choose different types of film, from black and white to a more saturated look. And unlike film, Picture Style lets you fine-tune this look, modifying things like sharpening, color saturation, and most importantly, contrast.
Picture Style settings are especially vital to sports photographers who shoot JPEG images, since their settings define the actual look of your files. For RAW shooters, if you process your images in Canon’s Digital Photo Professional software, you have complete control during the RAW processing step of these important attributes, and the software uses the camera settings as a starting point. With most third-party RAW process software, Canon’s Picture Style settings are ignored, and you use other tools in those programs to fine-tune color rendering, contrast, and sharpening.
Note that recent versions of Adobe’s Lightroom® software do have a somewhat hidden setting to emulate Canon’s Picture Style settings — in the Lightroom Develop Module, it’s in the PROFILE section…click on the icon with four rectangles (Profile Browser), and then select “Camera Matching” in the palette that appears. These emulations aren’t literally the same as what Canon-generated settings would deliver, but if you understand the power Picture Style can bring to your image quality, they’re a nice way for Lightroom users to quickly achieve somewhat similar results.
There are six (sometimes seven, if your camera adds the “AUTO” Picture Style option) different Picture Style settings in Canon EOS cameras, and they are very consistent from one model to the next. Here are the ones most likely to be important to sports photographers:
The Standard Picture Style gives a boost to color saturation, sharpening, and contrast — its intent is to give images a rather vivid and snappy look, especially on computer screens. It can be greatly effective when actual lighting in the scene is somewhat flat, like on overcast days.
This may be the best-kept secret in the Canon EOS system. Neutral Picture Style tones down contrast, and renders colors in a less-saturated way. On bright sunny days, or in hard, contrasty light indoors, the result is usually more details in shadows and highlights, skin tones that are less prone to look “sunburned” in bright sun, and overall an image that holds more information and detail. By default, in-camera sharpening is not applied, but in the “Detail Settings,” you can dial up sharpening to a level 3 or 4, so images probably won’t need to be sharpened in your computer after they’re taken.
Frankly, this shouldn’t be a sports shooter’s first Picture Style choice. Unlike all the other Picture Style options, Faithful attempts to colorimetrically render accurate color, with no attempt to shift color rendering for pleasing results to the eye. And it can only do this if you’re working in true daylight (roughly 5500K, or light equivalent to midday sun). Out of the box, its images often look rather flat and muddy. So why consider it? If you’re ever faced with problems in getting a particular uniform color to reproduce accurately — bright purple and certain blue or brown shades come to mind — the Faithful Picture Style can sometimes be an option to consider. Like Neutral, you should go into “Detail Settings” on the menu and boost its sharpening level.
I tend to use the Standard Picture Style on assignment, knowing my client’s needs for a more neutral look to the images. Even though it generates images with bright color saturation, I can always bump up the vividness and saturation of an image if required later on, so I don’t find a need to shoot that way. Plus, I’m not a big fan of oversaturation and overworked images. I like a natural look, like we would see in real life. The Picture Styles are fun to play with, and if I’m feeling a bit artistic for my personal work I often go with Monochrome, producing black and white images in-camera.