I was talking to a friend the other day who was having trouble getting good jpegs out of his D200. Most were OK, he told me, but occasionally the camera would throw him a curve-ball - white balance out of kilter, or a shot that was just really flat and washed out. I asked him to send me a couple of samples of what he was talking about... and within seconds of looking at the EXIF data I had the answer.
Auto white balance, auto contrast, auto saturation, auto hue, auto sharpening, auto pretty-much-everything.
This friend of mine learnt his photographic craft the same way I did, on manual everything film cameras, processing black and white film at home and printing the results himself. Sure enough, he still uses centre-weighted metering and manual exposure, but all the extra options that come free with every dSLR had just been left at their default settings. And that, I figured, was where he was running into trouble.
Here's the thing: the computers that cameras use to make their focus, exposure and image processing 'decisions' really aren't that clever. They 'see' a subject and run an algorithm or three to focus the lens, set the exposure and deliver a processed jpeg that's, well, average-ish. It's rather like dropping off your films at the one-hour lab (remember that? It was only a few years ago), which worked by making similar computer-driven assessments of the images run through it to arrive at a finished result. Either way, the results can be pretty variable. Nikon actually admits that its auto white balance algorithms can deliver completely different results for otherwise identical shots taken in quick succession. Ah, the wonders of fuzzy logic.
Step back for a moment and consider what we're trying to achieve when we take a picture: we're recording an image by focussing light reflected from our subject onto a flat surface.
Stripped back to its essence, photography isn't that complicated. And one of the things that makes it relatively straightforward is that, most of the time, the light falling on the subject - incident light, to use the jargon - is fairly constant. If you've ever seen an (old-school) pro waving a mobile phone-sized gadget around in the air, chances are they were taking an incident light reading. After which, they'd set their camera... and leave it, unless the light changed.
The meter inside your dSLR measures reflected light from the subject. And the amount of reflected light will vary according to the brightness of the subject, the brightness of other parts of the scene, the position of the subject in relation to other objects, and... you get the idea. Wave your camera around and watch the exposure indication in the viewfinder dance around in sympathy. Did the light change while you were doing that? Probably not.
All of which pre-amble is a long-winded way of saying this: take back control of your camera. Try manual exposure. Try manual focus. Switch anything that says 'auto' to a manual setting. It'll force you to think, force you to pay attention to the light, force you to pay closer attention to the results you're getting.
It's really not that scary. And you'll probably be surprised at the results.
* It's always been a mystery to me why the north American car market is dominated by soggy, inefficient auto 'boxes that downshift when you least want it and deliver awful fuel economy...