When you're working to a deadline, or with a client who needs to see the work quickly, tethering is a huge asset. No one is scrambling over a miniscule image on the camera, you aren't looking at some JPEG rendition, you see the converted RAW on a large screen in real time. Fortunately, most cameras can be tethered. Let's look at some options to make that work.
The first problem is the perspective that tethering is not reliable. It doesn't have to be, and a key way to prevent tethering of any kind from failing is to disable auto power off on your camera before you tether. It's in the menu system, somewhere. If you cannot find the answer in your manual, then search online and move on.
Secondly, you need a good cable. Tethering can be done via Firewire, USB and even over network connections, depending on the camera that you are using. Cheap ass cables will only cause you trouble. I have found great success with the cables from the folks at Tethertools. I only ever go with brightly coloured cables because when I am tethering, there is a cable running somewhere and I don't want to be tripping over it, the room light might be dim and finding a black cable in the dark is not fun. Be aware that all cables have a limited run length so if you need more than 15', you will need an extension with an active repeater, especially with USB because as a protocol, USB2 is mostly brain-dead.
Third, you need tethering software. If you own a Canon DSLR, or an Olympus OM-D series, you get tethering software in the box at no cost. If you shoot a Nikon DSLR, Nikon wants to charge you $225 for their Camera Connect 2 software. This is a completely nasty move, in my opinion. Charging a customer extra for barely adequate software is a bad thing. Sony A7 users can tether using the Remote Control option with a correct cable. Hasselblad offers its Phocus software and firewire connection. PhaseOne includes Capture One for tethering with the new cameras offering both Firewire and USB3 options. Adobe Lightroom also does tethering, but has its issues. Some vendors such as Hasselblad and Fuji offer plugins to Lightroom or Photoshop to enable tethering. Capture One tethering is another option and is really fast. There are also third party tethering software options. If you use a Windows machine, there is a Canadian company recommended by regular reader Stephen Morley called Tetherscript Technology Corporation out of Vancouver BC. They offer ControlMyNikon and ControlMyCanon as well as a Cinematography solution. With pro versions of their software priced at $49.99 it's a great solution, I just wish that their products ran on OS X. Their entire business is about connecting cameras to computers and they get it.
You should of course do some research up front to make sure that your camera supports being tethered. Some entry level products just don't do that. Let's presume that if you've gotten this far, you can tether.
Power up the computer and launch your software. Connect the camera to the computer. Turn the camera on. In your software, enable tethering or remote shooting, depending on what the software calls it. Some tethering allows for saving images to the computer and to the card, some only to the computer. Some cameras will not tether at all without a card in the camera, even if the card is not being used.
Some tethering software, actually allows you to change settings on the camera from the computer. This can be very handy if you are doing the review yourself, or you have a talented PA assisting you. There are even tethering options that work over WiFi, but in general, this is much slower than a cable connection. If your camera supports a network connection such as a Canon 1Dx or Nikon D4s, you get the highest throughput.
Now let's be honest. Lightroom is most widely known for tethering. Unfortunately, Lightroom has a reputation in the past for being unstable when tethering with dropped connections and other problems. With Lightroom CC and 6, tethering broke badly and while Adobe has been fixing things, at this point in time, I cannot recommend Lightroom as your tool for critical shoots. It's very slow, and if you are shooting fast in RAW, it can even cause your camera to freeze up while waiting for Lightroom to import the images on its end. I recently did a shoot where this proved to be a serious issue. I didn't miss any shots, but my shoot was delayed and subjects were inconvenience. In post shoot tests, I discovered that the issue is related SOLELY to Lightroom as Canon's EOS Utility and Capture One both delivered superb performance with no camera lag at all. So for my use cases, Lightroom as a tether target is off the list for now. The news is worse if you shoot Nikon. Nikon tethering broke a while ago in Lightroom on the Mac, allegedly because Adobe was using a very old and not secure manner of connecting to OS X. Apple Developer relations had documented for months that this methodology would be dropped in El Capitan. The story was that Adobe was using Nikon's SDK, which could be accurate. As it stands right now, if you shoot Nikon, you must use Nikon's proprietary capture tool or Capture One if you use Macintosh. I don't use Windows and cannot offer any commentary in that regard. If I don't need to have corrections applied in the flow, I will use the EOS Utility because it is so light and so fast, but if I need professional functionality, I'm going to use Capture One.
One of the best things about tethering is that you can shoot your grey card in your first frame, apply your camera profile and have those settings automatically applied to the images as they come in to the computer. This is very handy and will save you a lot of time through your process. You may still need to do other retouching, but at least you will get your colour and white balance consistent across the entire shoot. In my recent shoot, my friend Laurie was assisting and felt that the images were coming in a bit cool, so being able to set the white balance up front and have the settings applied automatically was a real advantage. Or would have been, because we discovered that Lightroom was not applying the settings consistently. In subsequent tests, I did not have that issue at all with Capture One. While Canon's EOS Utility can be set up to send images to the application of your choice, I found no visible way to make a setting in Digital Photo Professional 4 and have it apply to all other incoming images. The documentation is Canon typical, sparse and very basic. Perhaps it's there and I simply could not find it.
Tethering is not hard, connectivity challenges and software issues notwithstanding. A great way to learn to tether successfully is to set up in your home and shoot some macro or close up work. Buy a bouquet at a local store and set your camera - lens combo on a tripod. Choose whatever lighting you want, but before you start shooting, connect the camera to the computer and start the tether process. If you don't have tethering software and are shooting Nikon or Canon, you can get a 30 day free trial of Capture One from the PhaseONE website. If you have Lightroom on a Mac and do not shoot Nikon or Leica, try Lightroom's built in tethering. It is slow, but you own it. If you use Windows, try out the tethering packages named earlier.
You will get better images. You'll be looking at them on a larger computer display and subtle focus challenges will be immediately visible, plus you will have real zoom in power. If you've never tried focus stacking, using tethering can really help you get the hang of this powerful practice.
If you don't want to shoot macro, grab a family member or friend and do some casual portraits. Make sure that your subject can see the display showing the images as they come in. They'll see things that they like, or don't like and will become better and more consistent subjects because they'll be able to see how things are going right away.
A few hours spent in relaxed shooting while learning how tethering works for you will be time well spent.
Until next time, peace.