What's it all about?

This blog is about photography and photoediting. Its purpose is to provide hints and tips and links to interesting and useful resources for digital photographers, regardless of their level of expertise or experience. It is aimed at people who use digital SLR cameras and who process their images using the latest versions of Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

The author of this blog is Glenn Springer and you can read more about him at his web portal at faczen.com. Information on workshops, and links to everything is at photography.to. Glenn's original blog, which is an ongoing journal of his photographic meanderings goes back to 2006 and contains many additional hints and tips, as well as representative images that he has made. Gallery quality prints are available through his Smugmug gallery site. It is an interesting place to visit to see a variety of quality images, as well as an ongoing general journal of photos going back several years.

Photography workshops are scheduled every few weeks starting in the Spring. For an overview of what's happening, please visit the photography.to website.

The most recent blog post is below. Scroll down to the bottom to see the list of previous postings or search for any particular topic.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

HDR: is it here to stay?

I think so. In anticipation of an upcoming sequence of articles on HDR techniques, I offer the following thoughts, which I wrote for another blog I read. There were passionate comments from both sides, which evoked the following response from me.
People certainly are polarized when it comes to HDR. Either they love it or they hate it, and within those camps there are those who disparage anything not realistic and others who are captivated by the surrealistic or more extreme treatments.

In my humble opinion, the HDR concept is a valid approach to rendering an artist's (a photographer or pixel manipulator can be an artist) vision. The current software offerings have made creating HDR images available to the masses. There will be good ones and there will be bad ones and there will be ones you like and others you dislike.

An almost perfect analogue is typography. Everybody and his brother (or sister) who has MS Word has the tools to be a typographer. How few of them have the vision.

Ansel Adams was doing HDR's in 1939. He compressed 7 or 8 zones of light values into the 5 or so that could be reproduced on paper. Are there those who don't appreciate or like his work? Undoubtedly. Do some people think his technique was flawed? Sure. Does anyone doubt for a moment that he saw through an artist's eyes? I don't believe so.

Can one criticize technique? Absolutely. But is it fair to criticize an artist's vision?

HDR is just a medium. An art form. HDR is to digital photography as oil or chalk-and-charcoal is to painting. I for one enjoy seeing the results when a real artist creates an HDR image. And I'm going to keep trying too. One day, maybe, some of my images will match what I see inside my head.
What do you think? Your comments are more than welcome.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Time for a tune-up?

Once in a while, you need to get a tune-up. I sent my camera in to Nikon for repair and I learned a lesson that I want to pass on to you.

I know we're all different, but I'm going to venture that you're probably better at taking pictures than you are at maintaining your finely tuned, very expensive equipment. Let's talk about that.

Are you exactly like me? Probably not, but I'll bet there are similarities (yes, I put my pants on one leg at a time. I sleep from time to time, I go to the bathroom, even the Queen of England passes gas from time to time [mind picture!]). We're all different but here's what I'm talking about:

I take my camera out every day. Rain or shine. Snow and wind and temperatures of -40°C. When I do, I shoot anywhere from a few frames up to a maximum of 500 or so. I come home, grab the CF-card(s), stick them in the card reader and upload them to the computer, being sure to make a second copy on another external drive at the same time (OK, that was nagging. Help me out: I'm trying to pretend I'm your mother here. Don't run with scissors and if you keep making that face it will stay like that).

Then I spend 'way too much time editing and sorting and printing and emailing and reading blogs and forums and newsgroups... and somehow I never get around to looking after my equipment. Until something overt goes wrong.

I'm not very good at maintaining my stuff. Some people are, but not me. I'm a really bad mechanic (I break things. Trust me - all I have to do is look at stuff and it breaks) so I don't try to fix things any more. Especially when they're little tiny precision things like you find inside cameras and lenses.

I spent all that money on Nikon gear because I knew it was rugged, war correspondents bang them around in combat zones, Scott Kelby gets them knocked over by NFL quarterbacks, they just keep on going and going and going... but sometimes they do break.

The focus sensor on my D300 broke. Well Nikon won't say "it broke", they said they 'adjusted and cleaned it'. Same thing with my 70-200 lens. They 'adjusted' it. They charged me $300. You know what? A fair price. Someone else I know dropped his D2X on some concrete steps and he paid $450 to have it fixed. Probably also fair.

Here's the thing: when Nikon (or Canon, or Sony or...) services your gear, they make it like new again. When I got it back, they had changed every soft part on the outside of the camera (those little rubber doors, the grip), they even replaced the escutcheon plate on the 70-200 lens where my fingers had worn out the white screened markings, because that's fresh and new.

They inspected everything. They even mounted the big lens on a projector and looked at every inch of a target. Then they tuned it so that it was factory perfect.

And they CLEANED it. I swear, it wasn't that clean when I bought it!

We all clean our stuff. You learn really early that spotless glass takes better pictures than ones with freckles. We've all learned how to carefully clean the sensor in our cameras. But not like the factory does it.

If you're going to Africa like Ron is, or you're going into wedding season like some of the pro's I know, or you just want everything to be perfect when the opportunity for that killer shot arises, think about sending your gear in for a tuneup*.
I spent $300 and got peace of mind in exchange. No excuses now: if something is out of focus or otherwise not correct, it wasn't the camera, it was ME. And every time that happens, I try to learn what I did wrong and not repeat it.

Pick a time when you can spare your camera for a couple of weeks, then, "just do it". And don't forget to floss, and sneeze into your arm. And it won't kill you to call your mother just to say 'hi'.

* I called Nikon to ask them what they charge. They (can't speak for the others) will inspect your gear and do an external cleaning for free, whether it's in warranty or not. Then if something is wrong, they'll give you an estimate for the repair (or adjustment, they call it. I think they don't want to admit anything can break!). Minimum charge for a tuneup for a body is $50, and they told me they charge $86 per hour for general repairs. They also have some flat rate charges.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Shooting for Micro-Stock

If at first you don’t succeed...

You know how that saying ends. I don’t fail at a lot of things, and damn it, I haven’t given up on this one yet, but this is difficult.

I’m going to talk about shooting for stock. Most of us have surfed the stock photography sites, at least a little bit. Have you ever wondered about becoming a contributor? About shooting for stock photography?

Another saying:
  • Those who can, do.
  • Those who can’t, teach.
  • Those who can’t teach, write about those who do and teach.

 OK, I stole the last line but it fits. Just so you don’t have to Google it, the original quote is “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” And it was written by George Bernard Shaw in Maxims for Revolutionists: Education. Man and Superman, 1903. Just another piece of trivia if you ever get to be on Jeopardy.

Here’s how this all started. A member of our club, Les Palenik, shoots for stock. He told me that I have some great images, and asked if I’ve ever considered it. I was intrigued and went online to research it. If you start by Googling “Stock Photography”, you come up with over 8 million hits so this is a serious business.

So I did some research, looked at Les’s links and went over to the big guy – Shutterstock – to have a look.

There are different levels of stock photography. Shutterstock (SS to the cognoscenti) is a “Micro-stock” site where you have to do big volumes to make anything. I think the maximum price you’ll pay for an image today is $28, and that’s for unlimited use, even if you’re creating a National ad campaign for Coke (that’s “Coca Cola”, not the other kind). Limited use of a screen-size image, if it isn’t free, will cost a buck. So you have to sell lots of photos to make any money at it. It’s a numbers game. Put 20,000 images up and some of them will sell to someone! They have millions of buyers.

Getty Images is different. I haven’t delved deeply into their structure but if you select an image as a potential buyer, they want to know what use you’ll put it to, and charge accordingly. I selected one at random and said I wanted to use it on the cover of a travel brochure and got a price of several hundreds of dollars.

Here’s the catch, though. Not just anyone can post images on these sites, you have to be authorized as a contributor. Getty has a very involved and onerous process, go to their site to read about it. http://www.gettyimages.com/.

What Shutterstock does (http://www.shutterstock.com/), is asks you for 10 images. Seven out of these 10 have to meet their criteria and be accepted, and then you get your contributor card. If you’re not approved, you have to wait another month before submitting again. Even then, all images you send them are vetted. So what are these criteria? I’ll tell you in a minute.

Here’s a really good thing. There are a set of forums for Shutterstock contributors and wannabe contributors and in one of these, there are people who will help you to understand the requirements. If you submit images to the forum, you will get critiqued. They will tell you what is right and what is wrong with the images. They don’t pull punches, they’re not out to make you feel good, they don’t care much about your feelings: they just tell it like it is. Put on your flameproof suit, leave your ego at the door.

 So I dug out my best image and sent it in. They want a 500px wide image to look at, and a 100% blowup from within the image. Just figuring out how to do that is a challenge! Here:


No brainer, right? I removed the logo on the front of the canoe because I know they don’t want any logos. I cleaned it up and sharpened it. You know what reaction I got?
“OOF” (that’s short for ‘out of focus’). Too much noise. Artifacts. Unacceptable.

 WHAT? You’re kidding me. OK, the very tip of the canoe isn’t totally sharp, but you’re kidding right? Nope. They’re serious. So I tried again. And again. And again. Bottom line – looking through over 30,000 images I found TWO. TWO. That the experienced moderators on the forum thought might be accepted. I spent a lot of time discussing and trying to figure out why. And I think I tracked it down: I overprocess my images. Too much sharpening produces artifacts. Imperfect exposures create noise. Excessive noise reduction makes it unsharp. It’s a vicious circle. The “RAW vs. JPEG” article I wrote earlier came out of my experiences at Shutterstock.

 The premise is, at SS, that they don’t know what a buyer wants to use an image for, so all images on the site have to be technically correct and usable, I suppose, up to printing on the side of a bus. Also they are super-sensitive about any commercial identification in an image. If there is a car in an image it better not be a Ford (they’re really picky) and if you’re using an image in an ad for Subaru, that would be logical. If you take a picture of the Toronto skyline, you have to get rid of that “Bank of Montreal” logo on their building.

There is an exception: newsworthy images for editorial use only.

 Want another example?

Here’s a shot of the Lynx at Muskoka Wildlife Centre. Nice picture, right? Sharp focus, good composition and lighting, interesting subject, right? Buzzzzzzzzzzzz. It would be rejected. The main reason: I was told, “OOF”. They’re seeing some motion blur, if you look at his whiskers really closely (caused by the fact that although I used flash fill, the shutter speed was slower than it should have been. I wrote this up here). And again, something they call “artifacts”.

 What’s that about? Well if you sharpen a picture, you get little texture oddities in the smoother areas. If you try to get rid of them by using noise reduction, then you lose sharpness. You’re between a rock and a hard place.

I haven’t solved it yet. Here’s a picture of Cottonwood Manor that I did last summer at Lake Erie. Nice, huh? Not for Shutterstock. “OOF”. “Can’t see the textures in the bricks”. Can you believe that? Oh and by the way: that might be a recognizable building. You need to get a Property Release from the owner before they’ll accept it.

 I haven’t given up yet, but it’s frustrating. I’m especially perturbed by the fact that I can’t seem to shoot a picture with acceptable focus, even using all the right techniques – tripod, cable release, mirror lockup, I had a suspicion that there might be something wrong with my camera because it’s common to all 4 lenses I have.

 If you’ve been reading my blogs, you know that indeed, I had something wrong with the camera, but I have to admit that the problem may lie elsewhere. When I get it back from Nikon next week, I’ll be out of excuses and will have to look at my techniques, both behind the lens and at the computer. I’m pretty sure I’m over-processing my images.

 Certainly, I’m not shooting the right kind of pictures for stock. First of all, I’ve developed a bad habit of thinking I should shoot a wider image and crop the bad parts out. I have to start thinking in terms of the full frame. If nothing else, it will certainly improve my composition techniques. Artistic pictures do not have that “CV” SS is looking for. “Commercial Value”. Saleability. Commercial appeal.

 If you’re interested, go to Shutterstock.com, sign in as a contributor, then access the forums under “resources” and go to the “critique” one. Stock photographers are another breed entirely and you’ll learn a lot, just hanging out there. Be prepared to be humbled.

 In summary, here’s what they’re looking for:
  • Technically perfect images. Pin-sharp focus, perfect exposure, noise and artifact free, minimum 4Mp size. Don’t even think about using that el-cheapo 2x teleconverter. It won’t be sharp enough.
  • “Commercial Value” (CV). Images that people might buy. No ducks. Everyone sends in ducks. Nobody wants to buy them.
  • No identifying logos or anything else that might be construed as a copyright infringement. You can’t shoot a pair of basketball shoes because even if you’ve removed the Nike Swoosh, someone might identify them as being Nikes. You can’t shoot the CN Tower unless it’s only part of a skyline scene. You can’t include a car in a scene especially if it’s a Ford.
  • Any person in any image must sign a model release. Not only that, but his or her signature has to be witnessed by a third party. Ditto the owner of any recognizable building or structure. There’s an exception to this rule: if the image is topical or newsworthy, and then it might be approved for editorial use only. This is a very tricky category and new submitters are discouraged from sending in editorial images.
  • They want a broad spectrum of images in your first 10. Not all landscapes. Not all tabletop shots. No ducks.

Les has a couple of thousand images up on Shutterstock. Shooting them requires a whole new vision – some very mundane things have a high CV potential: the latch on a briefcase. A house with a 2-car garage. An old TV set. You don’t make much on the sale of an image – maybe 50¢ or $1 – but if you sell 1000 images a month... (Getty is different. You make more but it’s HARD to get hired).

I’m sticking with this because I know that if I solve the technical issues I will be a better photographer. The techniques will spill over into my other work. And besides, I don’t give up so easily! Stay tuned.

Using Flash Fill

You know what “Dynamic Range” is, right? It’s the difference
in light intensity between the brightest whites in your image and the deepest shadows. Often it’s more than your camera, your monitor or your printer can handle. One possible way to bring it within the gamut of those devices is to fill in some of those shadows by throwing a little extra light in there. We’re going to talk about using your flash to do just that.

It has been written that the human eye can discern 7 octaves of light. Your eye is amazing. Look outside on a bright day and let your peripheral vision take in some dark objects around you. You can see detail in the brightest areas
and in the darkest ones (sometimes you can’t: like looking at your dashboard in the car on a sunny day. That’s when there are more than 7 octaves of light intensity). Film, or a digital sensor, can only handle 4 octaves. You need to set your exposure so that the brightest areas are not blown out, but then the shadows will all be filled in! So throw some extra light on the subject!

That’s an extreme example. More likely, you’ll deal with those situations a different way. “High Dynamic Range” or HDR processing is another way of handling it – you shoot more than one image of the same scene with different exposures and merge them together. If you’re shooting in RAW, by the way, you might be able to use a single exposure, make a copy or two, and adjust the exposures so that you’re covering all the light levels. HDR is a topic for another day.

Maybe you’re doing a portrait using that beautiful available light from a North-facing window. Or you’re shooting a picture into back lighting or with a bright snowy background and there are deep shadows on the faces, or they’re just underexposed. This is a job for fill-flash.

The little pop-up flash on your camera (unless you’re lucky enough to be shooting with a pro body like a D3x, which doesn’t have one) is next to useless for lighting an image with flash, but it might just do the trick for filling in some shadows. It will still suffer from red-eye problems because of where it is in relation to the lens, and it’s not very powerful so it won’t reach out very far (I get a real kick out of watching a stadium event, like a football or a basketball game, and seeing the flashes going off all around the stadium, even in the nosebleed seats. Don’t people realize that they’re not going to light up that Dwight Howard dunk from the 700-level with the little flash in their point-and-shoot?).

Back on topic: there’s a difference between lighting a scene with flash and just using it for fill. Find the adjustment on your camera to control the amount of flash. Set it to –1 EV or thereabouts: that’s one stop less than the ambient light, and give it a try. It might be too much or too little, but it’s a good starting point. That’s “minus one”, in case you missed that. Here’s an image I did at –1-1/3 stop, for example.

Eyes. Shot with flash fill. The flash output was 1-1/3 stops under the ambient light.

If you have an external flash, so much the better. Especially if you can control it remotely, so it’s not mounted on the camera. Light coming from an angle is much more interesting than light from directly above the lens.

Here the flash (Nikon SB-600) was held above and to the right of the flowers. Much better lighting than if it had been on the camera.

Now everyone knows that the duration of the burst of light out of a flash is short. When you reduce the amount of light coming out of the flash, you’re generally reducing the duration of the flash, not its power! So if you want
to freeze that hummingbird in flight, get the flash close and you might be able to achieve that 1/50,000 second burst of light. But that’s NOT what this article is about. In fact, I’m going to show you what can go wrong.

Everything comes with a penalty: your shutter speed has to be slow enough to sync with the flash (in most cameras, that means a shutter speed of 1/125 or 1/60th. The D300 goes to 1/320 sec). So forget that shallow depth of field shot,
you’ll be shooting at f/11 or f/16 on a bright day.

Here’s where I made my mistake at the Muskoka Wildlife Centre. I had the camera at the default 1/60 sec flash sync speed, so I got camera movement and even subject movement in many of my images. You know the rule: trying to hand-hold a 200mm lens at 1/60, even with VR, is iffy at best.

This exposure used ambient light with exposure compensation set at +1 to brighten the snow and the flash fill at –1 to fill in the shadows. I naively thought I could also freeze the motion. No such luck. In fact, I was shooting with a
200mm lens handheld, and the shutter speed reverted to 1/60 second. Not a chance. I was lucky ANYTHING was in focus (look at the green pine branch on the ground), thanks to VR. Just giving you something to think about and a reason to go RTFM (Google it) for your camera and flash.

The white light is from the flash bouncing off the ceiling. The green is from those horrible plasma lights.

Here’s another issue. Colour temperature. Now this shot is illuminated by flash, not just filled, but look at the differences in colour between the flash (daylight) and the ambient light (fluorescent plasma lighting). Can you say “ugly”? Here’s another example that makes it really clear.

The curling team was lit by my SB-600 flash with Gary Fong Diffuser. But LOOK at the colour of the light in the rink in the background! This points out the real difference in Colour Temperature that you will have to deal with somehow. This is NOT Flash Fill, by the way. It's Flash Illumination.

And another one. Remember that closeup of the eyes above?

The ambient light was daylight, all right, but it was filtered through some green trees. Look at the awful colour before I adjusted it in Photoshop! So if you’re going to mix ambient light with flash, be aware of colour temperatures.
Generally speaking, the unmodified flash runs around 5500°K which is the colour of a sunny day.

So here’s a summary:
  • Use fill flash to open up dark or shadowed areas in an otherwise bright scene
  • Expose for the normal ambient light and set your flash to put out at least one stop less light
  • If you’re trying to freeze action, light the scene with the flash, don’t just fill it.
  • Check how to set the shutter speed on your camera when you’re using the flash.
  • Think about colour balance with the other lights in the scene, and
  • Practice, practice, practice until it becomes second nature.

Here’s one more image where I used flash fill.

Surprised? I wanted a soft, long exposure for the mist and the background, but I wanted some detail and sharpness in the dock itself. So I gave it a little shot of flash at –1eV and exposed the rest of the scene for 1/3 second at f/22, ISO=100.

Winter Photography

Shooting pictures in winter is just like shooting pictures in summer except:

(1) it’s cold. That affects you and your equipment. The last thing you want to do is take your camera and lenses into a warm environment then back out again. Condensation makes it impossible to shoot some times, and can’t be good for your stuff*.

(2) there’s this white stuff on the ground. It really messes with your exposures. You need to think it through.

Spot metered on Lynx and exposure compensation set to +2/3EV. 1/60 at f/4.5, ISO=200

If you’re shooting with a spot meter, nothing changes. You’re metering on the subject, not the snow (well unless you’re shooting a snow scene). If you’re using averaging or matrix metering, your camera is going to try to make the snow 18% grey, not white. So your picture is going to be underexposed. So if you are trying to meter a scene and not an individual subject, it’s probably a good idea to overexpose a little. As a general rule, probably around one full stop, so set your exposure compensation to +1. That way, the subject will have a better chance at being properly exposed and you’ll have nice white snow.

Normal exposure. Nice "grey" snow. The camera tries for 18% grey. 1/2500 at f/2.8, ISO=200

This is the same shot at +1EV. The snow is blown out but the exposure on the huts is better.
1/1250 at f/2.8, ISO=200
Nice white FEATURELESS snow. Blown out. Overexposed. What to do, what to do. The dynamic range between the snow and the possibly dark subject is too high. Oh, wait: did I just use the phrase “High Dynamic Range”? HDR for short? I did, didn’t I. Not a bad idea, if you’re shooting a static subject, but what do you do when the subject is moving? Say like the lynx... you have to get the amount of light on the subject closer to the amount of light on the snow. Hmmm... what to do... aha! Flash Fill! Or use a reflector to throw more light on the subject.

HDR created from a total of 5 exposures – one at nominal, the other 4 at -2EV, -1EV, +1EV and +2EV. Look at the detail in the snowpile to the left and in the trees behind.

Generally, I'll bracket exposures like crazy in the winter. Sometimes you'll guess very wrong. And sometimes you'll be right, but use your head!

Spot metered somewhere on the lake surface, NO exposure compensation. White vignette added for effect. 1/5000 sec at f/8, ISO=200.

* I'm still waiting to find out. It looks like the continuous autofocus servo or the software controlling it failed on my D300. Last time it functioned was at the Minden Ice Races and I'm thinking the cold might have gotten to the camera. Nikon has it as I write this, so we'll see...

That said: to prevent condensation, go to a canoeing or kayaking store and get yourself a DRY BAG big enough for your camera and lens. Before taking your camera into the warm from the outside cold, seal it in the bag with outside air. Let it warm up to room temperature. Cold air contains MUCH less moisture than warm air so when it warms up it stays dry.

Photoshop CS5 Content-aware Fill Trick

Today we’re going to talk about the Content-Aware Fill tool in Photoshop CS5. It’s an amazing tool but sometimes it seems to have a mind of its own! I want to introduce you to a trick I found to make it more predictable.

Content Aware Fill (CAF from now on so I don’t have to keep typing it) and the content-aware healing brush have dramatically streamlined the workflow, especially when trying to remove things like power lines or other objects. You can use the venerable clone stamp tool, but it’s more work, leaves behind lots of artifacts you have to clean up, and if you’re not careful, creates repeating patterns that are annoying and distracting in the image.

But sometimes, CAF produces unpredictable results. That can be good or bad: here’s a little ad image I created without intending to, when all I was trying to do was to isolate a couple of First Aid kits on a background. CAF picked up some unexpected content when I tried to use it. A very neat unanticipated effect!

Original photo

After CAF

How I used it on the website. Some extra effects from Topaz Adjust 4

 Generally, though, you’re trying to remove something from an image and replace it with what looks like the original background. If you’ve never used the Content Aware fill and healing brush functions, here’s a simple example. If you have, you can skip a few paragraphs.

Suppose I want to remove the sign from this picture.

The original photo

Draw a loose selection around the sign. You can use any selection tool – I usually just use the lasso but in this case I used the quick selection tool then expanded the selection by 50px or so. If the selection is tight then you’re going to see seams and edges around the area after you fill it. Be generous – give it space to breathe! Then hit Shift-F5 to invoke the Fill dialog and select content-aware from the drop down menu. It’s sticky: it’ll still be selected next time you try to use it.

In this screen capture, I painted the edges of the selection so you could see it.

Make a selection then initiate the "Fill" operation

The sign is magically gone. But the post is still there (I could have removed that in the same step but then I wouldn’t get to illustrate the CAHB -- Content-Aware Healing Brush). The background fill isn’t perfect but this is just a quick example. Paint over the post with the CAHB using a brush that’s about 50% bigger than the post (again, it needs room to breathe) and like magic, the post is gone, replaced with what Photoshop figures is what you wanted to be there.

Now use the content-aware healing brush

Here’s the finished product.

The finished image

What the CAF tool does is to look around the layer and using some very sophisticated algorithms, calculate what should replace the area you’re filling. I’ve just dropped a major hint about what the trick is. So if you’ve already figured out what I’m going to say, great! If not, follow me here.

OK, here’s another image I want to remove something from. The table at lower right shouldn’t be there.

So I make a loose selection around the table, hit shift-F5 <enter> and it’s gone! It even added in the wall duct, almost right down to the corner. But not totally seamlessly – it left some traces behind so I need to go in and fix it a bit.

Easy enough, right? Just make another selection around the area you want to clean up and do it again. Uh oh. Look what I got!

It picked up the leg from elsewhere in the image. Not what I wanted! I want it to pick up plain blank wall.

So let’s limit what CAF has available to it to choose from when doing the fill. Select only acceptable areas and copy them to a new layer (make the selections, then hit ctrl-J or cmd-J on a mac). In this case, you’ll have a layer that has only blank wall. Be sure to include the area you want to replace.

Working on that new layer, make a loose selection around the area you want to fix up and do your shift-F5 thing again. Sometimes it takes a few passes to completely clean up the image, but it’s relatively painless and quick. The last step is to merge the new layer with the original one. All done!

This is a lot less work and leaves a much cleaner blend than any of the other methods I’ve tried. OK well maybe not in this example, because I was trying to use one that was really obvious so you could see what’s going on. And I did it in a more complex than necessary sequence so I could show you how to do it and get the screen captures as I went along.

You could make your workflow even faster by creating a new layer first, either by selecting only the areas you want CAF to work from and hitting ctrl-J (Cmd-J) or by duplicating the whole layer then erasing all the stuff you didn’t want. Remember to leave enough behind for CAF to work from, outside the area you’re filling.

Any thoughts? The comment field is awaiting your input!

-- 30 –

Shooting Action Scenes

Here’s the bottom line. If you want an action image with everything is focus and no blur, you’re going to have to use a fast enough shutter speed. But do we really want everything sharp in all of our images? There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

For everything to be blur-free, the slowest shutter speed you can shoot if you’re hand-held is “one over the focal length of the lens”. So for a 200mm lens, 1/200 second. For a 50mm lens, 1/50 second (there are some of you who are going to argue that cropped sensors – less than full-frame – are even worse. We could have that technical argument all day but bottom line, it’s the same). There are ways to get around that: shoot with a tripod or monopod. Have VR (vibration reduction) lenses or cameras. But even if the subject is not moving, that’s your limit.

 If you’re trying for tack-sharp focus, think again. Double that speed, at least. To reach that high speed, you may need to compromise on your ISO setting. I’m shooting hockey action next week with my 70-200mm lens. Indoor lighting in an arena is awful. I expect I’ll be shooting at ISO 1600 or 3200, 1/1000 sec at f/2.8.

 If the subject is moving, it’s a whole new ballgame. Or, by the way, if you’re moving. Sometimes you have to go a whole lot further. Picture a racing motorcycle coming right at you at 200 miles/hour. Good luck. Even if your autofocus is up to it, are you? What you need to do in that circumstance is manually focus on a point and when the racing bike hits that point, trip the shutter. Right. Good luck with that. The solution in that circumstance is to use your fastest cycle rate – in the D300 it’s 6 frames/second or 8 if you have an external battery. Hold down the shutter release just before the bike reaches the pre-focused point and pray.

 So what about that same motorcycle travelling across your lens? Even with a high shutter speed, you’re not going to get the shot unless you pan with the bike. And never stop moving, even after you’ve released the shutter (trust me. I know, after the shot, who cares? But if you don’t, you’ll be bringing your camera to a stop just at the point of release. Follow through, like a golfer or a skeet shooter.

 OK, now as I said, does everything have to be unblurred? Not necessarily. In fact, you give the impression of motion when the background has a motion blur to it. The trick is to pan the camera with the moving subject. Believe it or not, I’ve gotten pretty good images shooting a 200mm lens at 1/30 second. Pan smoothly – keep some part of your subject in the same place in your viewfinder – let’s say the driver’s door of that car or the wheel of the bike. This takes practice, lots of practice. Go out on the road and shoot at cars going by (Watch them slow down if you dress in black or dark blue when you do this. They think that’s a radar gun!). Think about what you want to accomplish in advance and try it!

Stop Action. Doesn't look like he's moving but this is the sharper image. Shot at 1/1000 second, f/7.1, ISO=200.

Panning with the moving car. Shot at 1/40 sec at f/22, ISO=100.
Even with such a low shutter speed you can get sharp images, but you have to practice, practice, practice!

JPEG vs. RAW: it's a no-brainer. Or is it?

We’re going to look at some of the issues revolving around whether to shoot in RAW or to shoot JPEG. This isn’t as black-and-white a decision as you may think.

Let’s first look at what we’re talking about here. Unless you have had your head in the sand, you know that pretty well all modern DSLR’s (and even some point-and-shoots) have the capability of shooting in RAW. Actually ALL digital cameras can shoot RAW, only some of them can deliver images in it. Some cameras automatically convert everything to JPEG before outputting them. All of your photo club buddies, the forums online, the sales people in the stores and the training sites like NAPP harp at you to shoot in RAW. “Anyone who shoots in JPEG can’t be serious”. We’re here to think about that.

So the RAW file is the basic full image that the camera has captured. Nothing has been done to it – every pixel, every level, everything that the sensor saw, is in the RAW file. A JPEG is the same picture after the computer (your camera IS a computer) plays with it. It does a bunch of stuff to the image that we’ll look at below, compresses it so that the file is smaller, and it does a lot of that by only affecting things you’ll never see. Most of the time.

You can’t use your RAW file for anything. You have to convert it – to a JPEG, to a TIFF, to a GIF, to something else before you can output it anywhere. That means to print it, to look at it onscreen, to submit it to your club competition, even to process it in Photoshop. But it contains EVERYTHING so it’s your best starting point. Sometimes.

A RAW file (by the way, there’s no real standard. Nikon has their NEF format. Canon has CR2. Other manufacturers have their own proprietary formats. Adobe is trying to get the world to go DNG which stands for “Digital Negative” but that hasn’t happened yet. And Sony wanted the world to go Betamax. Remember?) needs to be manipulated. You need to have a program that will do that – the most common are Photoshop and Lightroom, both of which use exactly the same engine: called “ACR” or “Adobe Camera RAW”. Yes there are other programs out there, but I haven’t used them for many years. And here’s where the problem arises.

When you import your RAW images into, say, Lightroom, you choose one of many presets – maybe your own custom one – to do some initial adjustments. Remember, you can’t use a RAW file without adjusting it: the image will be flat, dull, soft focus, and really big.

What prompted the writing of this article was a problem I’ve been having. All my images were oversharpened, but were actually out of focus because of the noise reduction I had to do to compensate, and were fraught with artifacts. I only discovered this when I tried to submit images to Shutterstock where they are REALLY fussy – another article will cover this topic – and they all got rejected. I was at the point where I figured there was something wrong with my camera and was preparing to bite the bullet and ship it to Nikon (along with my credit card info, making sure I had lots of available credit limit!). Then someone suggested that I shoot some comparisons between RAW and JPEG so I did: and almost fell out of my socks until I figured out what was going on.

Look how unsharp the RAW file is!

Here’s what’s happening: your camera is a lot smarter than you think. It’s a computer. Before it gives you back your picture in JPEG form, it applies sharpening and de-noise algorithms, it sets your white balance, even the colour space, changes the Gamma and modifies the relative contrast, and much more.

Now that big, bad, computing machine that’s sitting on your desktop can do that too. Much more powerfully, and with greater flexibility. So which computer should you use? The little one in the camera or the big one on your desk? Depends how much time you have and how much attention you are prepared to give to your pictures. Depends on your skill level too: are you as good as that team of software engineers over at Nikon? Maybe not, but of course not all images are the same, so how can they know what’s best for a particular picture? Well, they can’t… but they can give it a ‘go’!

My problem is, I’m not that smart. I seldom “RTFM” (Google it!). I just wing it. And sometimes I fly like a brick. Coming back to those initial adjustments in Lightroom, I was overdoing it. I was setting my sharpening to “100” where “25” would be a better starting point. I even pushed the clarity and vibrance up on all images as I brought them in because, well, I like them better that way. But it shouldn’t apply to all images.
Here’s an example of a picture I worked on for this article.

Look how much the camera already did to create the JPEG

The one on the right is the JPEG as it came out of the camera. On the left is the RAW file as I imported it to Lightroom and where I had set everything to “General – Zeroed”, so no adjustments. About 30 minutes later, I got it looking like this.

Two minutes of fiddling with the JPEG got me this. The workflow for the RAW file is below.

Gee. Almost as good as the JPEG! Well if you’re just going to look at it on a computer screen, that is. Or send it in to a newspaper for printing (their process is really low quality). But if you’re going to print it or project it on the side of a bus, it’s much better. It has a wider dynamic range, there are more colour nuances (JPEG is limited to 256 colours for each channel – R-G-B. RAW has 4096 or even 16384 levels per channel), more detail.

Does it make sense to process hundreds of images individually? A typical day at the ice races yielded about 400 images, of which some 250 or so were ‘keepers’. Imagine 30 minutes each and for what? Yes, you can batch process – you work on one image, save the settings and sync all the other pictures to those settings. You’re doing what those Nikon software engineers are doing, but you’re starting with your own custom settings. That can be good, or that can be bad, depending on how smart you are.

You can do a LOT to a JPEG image in Lightroom, or in ACR. You can change almost anything that you can do to a RAW file (although the camera profile is fixed), except you’re working on an image that has already been reduced in quality, compressed and had stuff stripped out of it. The RAW to JPEG algorithms in your camera has already done most of the work for you, but, as I said, at a cost.

So. Bottom Line. If there’s the remotest possibility that I might want to do high quality printing on an image, I’ll shoot it in RAW. That means most of the time, when I’m out shooting casually, or I’m doing landscapes or portraits, I’ll shoot RAW. But if I’m going to shoot the ice races, or a hockey game or an air show or any other event where I’m going to have hundreds of images to work through and tweak, and where I’m not looking to print anything or do high quality output, I’ll shoot JPEG. If I’m not sure: my camera has a setting where I can actually do both: RAW + JPEG FINE.

And those photographer friends who look down their noses and sneer at anyone not shooting in RAW? Ask them if they’re so serious, why aren’t they shooting with a Hasselblad H4D? Then go have a nap while they stay up all night processing their images.

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Have your say! Comments are super welcome!