Getting Started with Tethered Capture

by Steve Anchell

Steve Anchell

November 01, 2011There has been a lot of buzz lately in the photo community over tethered captur. While digital cameras have made instant viewing a reality, camera LCD displays are too small to be a substitute for 3 x 4-inch Polaroid previews, which once were the film studio standard. Tethered capture has expanded the ability for both photographers and their clients to preview the image almost instantaneously on a computer. As a tool for pros, tethered capture has become so popular that mainstream programs such as Adobe Lightroom (LR) are now including it as a standard feature.

In fact, Lightroom 3 has made tethered capture available to anyone with a Nikon or Canon camera. Not that tethered capture was not previously available for these two: Both the EOS Utility that comes bundled with Canon cameras, and Nikon Camera Control Pro 2 (CCP2), which is sold separately, have excellent capture programs that allow the user to control all camera functions, exposure mode, white balance, ISO and  image quality right from the desktop. This is especially useful when photographing static subjects such as architecture or tabletops, but is not an option for moving subjects, as there is a slight delay between the time the shutter is released via the on-screen display and the time it writes to the hard drive. While the software is writing the image to the hard drive, the shutter cannot be released.

This is not the case when the subject is captured through the viewfinder using the camera's shutter release. If the subject is moving, such as a model or an athlete, the camera can be used at its maximum record and write speed. As the shutter is released, the first image will appear on the computer screen almost immediately, with the others appearing as they are written to the hard drive. This is similar to what happens when you record to a media card inside the camera using continuous capture mode—an image isn't available for viewing on the camera LCD until the previous image file has been written and moved out of the way. But once a burst of images is written, they are immediately available for viewing and editing by either the photographer or client.

Both the EOS Utility and CCP2 allow images to be opened in their own dedicated utility program or in Lightroom 2 or 3.  Using either the EOS Utility or CCP2 will also allow complete control of all camera functions directly from your computer.  With some programs, including Lightroom, white balance can be added to the first image and then auto synched with subsequent images. In any difficult or critical lighting situation, which for me is any assignment, I make it a habit to photograph a white balance card as the first image. For still photography, the card should be neutral gray; for video, white is recommended.

Tethered capture using the new LR3 feature, while a step in the right direction and an indication that the Adobe people are taking the needs of the professional seriously, is extremely limited. It basically allows you to release the shutter, but all the settings must be changed on the camera and are not in the computer. Not bad—but you can do better if you don’t have the Canon or Nikon programs.

There are at least two programs available that can be downloaded as shareware. Both of these are designed for Mac and both allow your computer some degree of control over the camera. Mountainstorm, www.mountainstorm.co.uk, will import directly into LR2, and I’m guessing it has a LR3 update in the works. Sofortbild, www.sofortbildapp.com, will allow you to save your images in a folder on your desktop or hard drive and then import them into Lightroom. Both programs will display your images on your screen as you record them, just as in the EOS Utility and CCP2. Currently, the Mountainstorm program works with Nikon, Canon and Fuji cameras. Sofortbild works with Nikon but is planning to expand to include Canon, Sony and Panasonic.

One of the weaknesses of the Nikon program is that it does not allow you to save the images to both a media card and a hard drive. In fact, it doesn't even give you a choice of one or the other; rather, the images go directly into your hard drive, like it or not. The Canon utility allows you to do both, as does Sofortbild. Some pros like to have their images recorded on both as insurance when they are shooting tethered. If this is important to you and you are using Nikon, then try using Mountainstorm, which allows you to save to the camera’s media card and to the computer.

On a recent location assignment to make staff photographs for a CPA firm, I was able to set up an iMac tethered to my Nikon D700. This allowed the office manager, who had hired me for the assignment, to view each portrait as it appeared on the screen and choose which one she liked best. Using the Survey feature in Lightroom she could view multiple images side-by-side to help her make the final decision. This was a big hit with the client.

During an assignment in my studio to photograph perfume bottles for Rochelle Boleyn Cosmetics, tethered capture allowed me to set my lights, white balance, composition and exposure with minimum effort. Anyone doing a lot of table-tops should consider using tethered capture.

While I don’t recommend carrying a laptop for wedding candids, tethered capture is invaluable for the formal and pre-nuptial portraits. Capture the formals in tethered and make certain you have what you need. Then set your assistant up on a card table and let him or her download your media cards as you go. Your assistant can keep an eye on your camera gear while running a Lightroom slideshow, to which you can continuously add during the event while taking orders from guests at the same time. Anyone who has photographed weddings for a living knows how difficult it is to get orders from guests after the show is over. If they see a good photo of themselves and their friends on the screen there is a very good chance they'll order one on the spot. Have a dye-sub printer on hand if you really want to expand this part of your business.

On the one hand, tethered capture dumbs down the skill it takes to be a photographer, but on the other hand, it is an effective cost-saving tool for the experienced pro. And, as can be seen in wedding photography, it creates new revenue possibilities.

If tethered capture is something that sounds like a fit for your style of work, you should check out Joe McNally's tripod rig, which can be found on Joe's blog: www.joemcnally.com/ blog/2008/01/28/the-mcnally-tripod-rig. Joe uses the Gitzo GT-55660SGT tripod along with a Manfrotto Accessory Arm 3153B and a Gitzo G065 Laptop Platform, made just for this purpose. You’ll find this rig will greatly facilitate your ability to photograph tethered, both in the studio and on location.


Steve Anchell is a writer and photographer, and teaches darkroom and digital workshops from his home in Salem, OR. He will be teaching his popular five-day workshop, “Alternative Large-format Techniques,” for the Photographers' Formulary Workshops in Montana from August 1-6.  For more information about Steve and his workshops visit www.steveanchell.com.

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