Friday, December 28, 2012

Post-Processing Reality Check

After reading the first issue of my recently renewed subscription to Outdoor Photographer, I checked out the online version. I soon found Tom Till’s Digital Pitfalls: A Cautionary Tale in which he discusses coming to terms with the issue of “how much enhancement is too much”. This is something that many of us think about from time to time as we “tweak” our images in post-capture processing.

Included in the article, among others, is an image of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park which Tim used to illustrate how his approach to post processing has changed. That reminded me of our “Southwest Canyon Crawl” in September of 2004.

That May I bought my first digital camera — a Canon S1 IS. It was somewhere between a DSLR and a point-and-shoot, featuring a whopping 3.2 megapixel sensor, 10x optical zoom, LCD viewfinder that flips forward and rotates 270° (great for taking candid shots), and a full manual mode.

Along with Monument Valley, we visited Zion Canyon: 
Bryce Canyon: 

and the Grand Canyon — This is the North Rim:

When I look back on my initial attempts to “touch up” my photos from that trip, I realize that I may have “overcooked” some of them. I attribute that, in part, to the simple fact that I had no idea what I was doing or really trying to achieve. In addition, my first editing software was Adobe Photoshop 7® which is not what I would call a particularly intuitive tool to use.

Here’s the out-of-the-camera shot of one of the buttes in Monument Valley:

Here’s what it looked like after I hacked away at it with Photoshop 7®:

And here’s what it looks like with some minor adjustments in Lightroom®:
Lightroom®, Nikon Capture NX® and other products, to mention just a few, provide us with the capability to sharpen, boost saturation, reduce noise, adjust the dynamic range of the shadows and highlights, etc.

It’s just so tempting and easy, and fun! But, where does one draw the line, if at all? Does it matter if the resulting image has no real connection with the original? For me, it depends.

When I submit an image to a microstock site, I know that I need to be very selective about my edits. I’ll add a bit of sharpening, adjust the levels, remove some noise and perhaps extraneous objects if I can get away with it, but that’s about it. Otherwise, the reviewers will reject it as having been over-processed and it will have been a wasted effort.

However, if I’m posting to this blog, or putting up a new gallery on, I allow myself far more latitude in terms of the adjustments I make.

I know there are some people out there who claim that a “real” photographer doesn’t need to do any post-processing. Personally I feel that anything goes, whether it’s using a split neutral-density filter before pressing the shutter release, or Lightroom’s graduated filter during post-processing to darken the sky. Either way, as a photographer you make a conscious decision that affects the final image. Who is to say what is too much processing?  It is totally subjective.

Happy processing!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Duck Photo Challenge Winners

Back in August I challenged my faithful readers to show me your best photo of a duck. Today, I’m thrilled to be able to finally announce the results of this exciting challenge.

First: the Runner-up

The lucky runner-up is Melinda from Austin, Texas. And, although Melinda clearly didn’t quite fully grasp the basic concept of the challenge, i.e., we were talking about ducks, not swans or dogs, I say: “close enough”.

As I understand it, Melinda’s dog, Prince, was happily chasing a tennis ball on Lady Bird Lake in Austin and minding his own business when a swan got a tad too close.

Warning: Some viewers may find the following images disturbing.

Prince then decided that swans are more fun than tennis balls and so, the chase began.

Eventually, Prince closed the gap and the swan made its escape.

And Now: the Winner!

The winner of the prestigious “I’ll Show You My Duck if You Show Me Yours” challenge is Carolyn from Campbellville.

Here’s her winning photo of two ducks fighting (I prefer to think of them as playing):

  • Camera: Nikon D7000 – (See Lessons Learned with my D7000)
  • Lens: 70-200 f/2.8 – lucky you!
  • Exposure: 1/800 sec at f /3.2
  • Exposure Program: Manual
Not only is this image sharp, colourful and compelling, albeit somewhat disturbing, but more important, it meets the primary requirement of involving a duck. Sorry Melinda :(.

Thanks for Playing!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tips for Improving Your Panning Technique

If you aren’t familiar with panning, it is the technique where as your subject moves past you, you follow it with your camera. The idea is to create or enhance a sense of motion or speed by freezing the subject, blurring the background, or both.

Never having had much luck with this technique, I decided to see if I could improve my results.

Initial Decisions
For my subject and location, I decided on cyclists riding the Martin Goodman bike path on the Toronto waterfront.

When it came time to pick a lens, I chose my 70-300mm zoom (Nikkor VR 70-300 f/4.5-5.6G). My rationale was that if I could keep the aperture wide open, and zoom in on the cyclists, I would get some good blurring of the background.

Test Shots
Once you have your lens mounted and have set up the camera the way you want, take a couple of test shots. Don’t worry yet about panning. Just make sure the basic exposure is correct. Don’t forget to check the histogram. Viewing the image on the LCD doesn’t always give you an accurate indication of whether or not there are any blown highlights or lost shadows.

Next take some pan shots. Find a comfortable stance that enables you to move smoothly and pan at a steady speed. It takes practice, so experiment with different techniques, speeds, etc. Don’t be too critical of the results at first and try not to get discouraged.

In my case, I started shooting as the cyclists approached me, zoomed out and then in as they passed me to keep them filling the frame.

Here is one of my early test shots:

  • Shutter speed: 1/13 second – too slow to get a crisp image of the cyclist, but not bad for the blurred background
  • Aperture: f/25 – not exactly the wide aperture I had planned on in my rationale for choosing the 70-300 zoom
  • Focal length: 70 mm – couldn’t get far enough away to be able to zoom per my rationale
 Here’s another:
  • Shutter speed: 1/60 second
  • Aperture: f/8.0
  • Focal length: 70 mm – same problem as the first shot
I like the way the wheels, especially the front, seem to have lost their roundness, suggesting speed to me.
Tip: Positioning the cyclist slightly to one side of the frame leaves room for him to keep moving through it.

Rethinking My Technique
Shutter Release Mode
I soon realized that I should be using Continuous Shutter Release Mode. This allows you to hold down the shutter button and have the camera record multiple images until you release it. It’s like a motor drive on a film camera that advances the film automatically to the next frame as you hold down the shutter release. On my D7000 using Continuous low speed, I can preset from 1 to 5 frames per second, or using Continuous high speed, the camera will shoot up to 6 frames per second.
Note: This will require that you have a high capacity flash card, especially if you are shooting RAW, but it will improve your odds of getting the results you are looking for.

Lens Choice
In order to fit the cyclists in the frame, the 70 mm minimum focal length of the 70-300 lens required that I be farther away from them than I could be. Furthermore, even if I could get far enough away to be able to zoom to a longer focal length, at that distance, the cyclists would have to be moving very fast for me to be able to pan quickly enough to blur the background and create the desired sense of speed.

Therefore, I switched to my 17-50mm lens (Tamron VC 17-50 F/2.8G) which has a significantly wider angle of view, allowing me to be closer to the cyclists.

On the next shot, although my horizon wasn’t level, I did manage to freeze the cyclist and provide some room for him to move through the frame.

  • Exposure: 1/50 at f/7.1
  • Focal length: 36 mm
I liked the way the spokes tend to disappear at the slightly slower shutter speed, however the background isn’t very interesting.

For the next shot I made two additional adjustments to my technique.

Exposure Mode
First, I switched to Manual Exposure Mode. Up until this point I had been using Aperture-Priority, i.e., I choose the aperture to control depth of field and let the camera choose the appropriate shutter speed for a “correct exposure”. However, as I panned from less light to more light (most of the cyclists were coming from the east and heading into the late day sun), the shutter speed got progressively faster. I also think that the camera was struggling a bit to adjust the exposures and focus in continuous shutter release mode. In any event, the switch to manual seemed to improve my results.

Second, I knelt down on one knee about 10 feet away from the bike path. Being lower meant I was more level with the cyclists.

I like how the cyclist is framed between the two blurred trees.
  • Exposure: 1/30 at f/18
  • Focal length: 34 mm
Zoom The last important change to my technique was to zoom as I panned. This allowed me to have the cyclists filling the frame throughout the pan. This technique can also create an interesting effect on the background blur if the shutter speed is slow enough that the focal length changes during the exposure.

I love the colours in this shot, especially the red pants and tires.

  • Exposure: 1/50 at f/5
  • Focal length: 45 mm
  • Slower shutter speeds created the background blur I was after.
  • Using a moderate zoom lens allows you to be close enough to the subject to blur the background as you pan, and to keep the subject framed the way you want as it gets closer or further away from you.
  • Manual Exposure Mode gives you the most control over the exposure, but if you aren’t comfortable with that, go with Shutter-Priority.
  • Continuous Shutter Release Mode improves your odds for getting good results.
This guy was a particularly good sport — too bad I didn’t think to zoom out a bit.

Happy panning!

Monday, August 27, 2012

I’ll Show You My Duck if You Show Me Yours

When the seasons change, or when I just can’t decide what it is that I want to photograph on a given outing, I usually head to the Toronto waterfront or Grenadier pond.

In these cases, chances are that my subjects will include ducks, Canada geese and other waterfowl. Chances are also pretty good that when I get home and start viewing my images, my wife Lesa will peer over from her PC and say “What, more pictures of ducks?”

She just doesn’t get it. My reply is that ducks, simply by virtue of their “duckness”, make good subjects – they are fairly cooperative and do a variety of somewhat cool things like float about, take off, stick their heads in the water, forage, etc.

Okay, so here’s my favourite duck photo. What I like most about it is how the duck's shadow acts like a diver's mask to bring what is under water into focus.

If you’ve ever been too shy to show your duck in public, here’s your opportunity to do so.

Here’s how:

  • Comment on this blog post and either include a link to a photo of your duck, or email me a copy at and I’ll post it here for all to see.

Once I’ve seen enough ducks, I will ask all my faithful readers to vote on which duck they like best. Failing that, our panel of experts (Lesa and me) will choose the winner – which will most likely be me.

Thanks for playing!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Integrate Capture NX 2 and Lightroom into Your Post-Processing Workflow

As a long-time user and advocate of Nikon’s Capture NX 2 (CNX) and a new user of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (LR), I was eager to find a way to take advantage of both tools in my post-processing workflow. Both tools provide non-destructive editing of RAW image files. The bad news is that edits applied to RAW images made using one tool, are not visible to the other.
However, the good news is:
  • After initial editing of the RAW images, I usually create TIF files for further editing, which are visible to both LR and CNX.
  • LR’s auto import and other features provide the link between the two tools.
Getting Started
  1. Create the following folders:
    •  CNX Edits – This is where you save your TIFs after editing RAW files using CNX. This folder will not appear in LR’s Library module because it is not part of the catalog.
    •  CNX Imports – This is where LR automatically moves the TIFs from CNX Edits and imports them into the LR catalog.
    •  LR Edits – This is where you export your TIFs after you have processed the RAW files using LR and then want to do further adjustments in CNX.

    Note: In my main “Photos” folder I have a top-level folder called “Work” which is where I created these folders, but you can name and put them anywhere that suits you.

  2. In LR, enable auto import and set the watched folder to CNX Edits, and the destination folder to CNX Imports.
    For complete instructions on how to set up and use auto import, read: Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 - Import photos automatically.
  • Setting CNX as an “Additional External Editor” from within LR
    This is an optional feature but if, from within LR, you want to be able to edit TIFs in CNX while still working in LR:
    1. From the LR Edit menu, choose Preferences, then click the External Editing tab.
    2. Under Additional External Editor, click Choose and then enter or paste the path to CNX, e.g., C:\Program Files\Nikon\Capture NX 2\Capture NX 2.exe.
    3. For the File Format, choose TIFF, specify any other settings you want, e.g., Color Space, Bit Depth, etc. and then click OK.
  • Processing your RAW files and creating the initial TIFs
    Depending on what you want to do with a particular image and which tool you want to use to process your RAW images first, do one of the following:
    • Using CNX – open and adjust the RAW image to your liking, then save it as a TIF in the CNX Edits folder.
    • Using LR – in the Develop module, adjust the RAW image to your liking, then save it as a TIF in the LR Edits folder.
      Note: Before you click Export, be sure to check Add to This Catalog otherwise you won’t see the image in LR.
  • Editing your TIF images
    Here is where the power of this approach really kicks in – You can now make further adjustments to a TIF you created from either CNX or LR.
    To adjust the TIF using CNX, do one of the following:
    • In LR’s Library module, right-click the image (or the thumbnail of the image) you want to edit, choose Edit In, and then choose Edit in Capture NX 2.exe.
      CNX launches and opens the TIF, unless it was already open, in which case it just opens the TIF. Make any further edits required in CNX and then save the file when you are done.
    • If not already open, launch CNX, navigate to either the CNX Edits or LR Edits folder depending on where the TIF is located, open the file, make your edits and then save the file.
    In either case, the adjusted file will be available in the appropriate LR catalog folder with the edits applied.

    To adjust the TIF using LR:

    • In LR’s Library module, navigate to the appropriate catalog folder, select the file, click Develop, make further edits and then save the file when you are done.
    You can continue to make additional adjustments using either tool until you are satisfied with the result.

    Moving your edited images to your final folder

    1. In LR’s Library module Navigator panel, navigate to the root folder where you will place your final TIFs.
    2. Right-click the folder name and click Create folder inside “{folder name)” … and type the name of the folder, e.g., “Project 123 final”.
    3. In LR’s Library module Navigator panel, navigate to the folder containing your final TIFs (either the CNX Imports or LR Edits).
    4. Select the files you want to move, and then drag them to the final folder.
    You can now print, post, or do whatever else you need to with your final images.
    Happy editing!

  • Tuesday, June 19, 2012

    Tips for Shooting on Windy Days

    On our 2008 trip to South America we visited Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia. We were very lucky to be there on the first day in a couple of weeks that it wasn’t raining or at least heavily overcast. However, the winds were ferocious – when we got back to Puerto Natales at the end of the day we were told that the winds were blowing at over 100 kilometers per hour!

    Here is Lesa contemplating walking out on the beach to the icebergs that had been blown into Lago Grey. We only made it a few hundred yards and had to turn back because we were literally being blown off our feet.

    Here’s a cropped close-up of a couple struggling to shield their faces from the spray and flying sand.

    Taking photographs on blustery days presents a number of challenges, including:
    • Getting a sharp image
    • Getting a clean image
    • Protecting your gear
    • Protecting yourself
    Getting a sharp image
    Here are a few tips to reduce the effects of camera shake:
    • Use the heaviest-duty tripod you can carry, lock your elbows on your body as you are shooting, or brace the camera and yourself on firm supports, e.g., rocks, buildings, or anything else that won’t wobble in the breeze.
    • If you are using a tripod, use a wireless remote rather than pressing the shutter release which will introduce some additional camera shake. Nikon’s ML-L3 Wireless Infrared Remote Control costs about $25 CAD and the battery on mine has lasted for years.
    • Use any available image stabilization features of your camera or lenses. Nikon calls this vibration reduction (VR); Canon: image stabilization (IS); Tamron: vibration compensation (VC).
    • Freeze the action by using the fastest shutter speed you can get away with (i.e., 1/250 of a second or higher).
    • At the risk of introducing a bit of noise, consider using a higher ISO, i.e., above 400 (depending on your camera). If you do, also consider using High ISO noise reduction, if available, to reduce the graininess of the image.
    • Improve your odds by taking multiple captures in quick succession in hopes that at least one will be in focus. To do this, use continuous shutter release mode.
    Getting a clean image
    Keep your mirror and sensor clean
    If you need to change lenses, keep the inside of the camera (mirror and high-pass filter) clean by sheltering the camera body and lens from the wind and making the lens changes as quickly as you can.

    If you can, before you put on the new lens, keep the body facing down and give the mirror a quick blow with a bulb blower.

    Check that your sensor’s high-pass filter is free of dust (especially if you change lenses frequently). Take a shot of the sky, or other light-coloured expanse, and then view the entire image on the camera’s LCD at 100%, or the maximum available enlargement. Dust will appear as dark spots. You should do this periodically any time you are out shooting.
    For example, the image below, taken off Middle Cove near St. John’s Newfoundland in May, is the victim of a dirty high-pass filter – look in the top-right for the spots:
    Here is a 100% crop of the same image that clearly shows the spots as they would have appeared on my D7000’s LCD. (Too bad I didn't follow my own advice...)

    Cleaning the high-pass filter isn’t as difficult as many think. However, you do need to know what you are doing, so be sure to follow the instructions and try it at home first. If you need to clean it when you are out shooting, do it in the most protected area you can find.

    I recommend that you always carry a travel-size sensor cleaning kit in your camera bag. I use VisibleDust VSwabs™ and VDust Plus™ cleaning solution, but there are lots of other equally good products on the market.

    Keep your lens filter clean
    Dust, spray and finger prints can too easily find their way on to the lens filter. Be sure to inspect the filter often and use a bulb blower, or soft lens cloth if necessary, to remove the nasty bits.

    Protecting your gear
    • Attach a UV or other filter to protect lenses from blowing sand and spray (especially salt water) that can damage the lens without a filter. Filters are far less expensive to replace than your lens.
    • Keep the lens cap on whenever possible to protect the filter.
    • Keep a plastic bag over your lens (and entire camera if possible) while you are out in the elements, and remove it when only when you are shooting.
    • Keep your camera bag closed as much as possible to keep out dust and spray.
    • Keep your lenses and body in plastic bags when in your camera bag.
    Protecting yourself
    Don’t forget about staying safe yourself!
    Here are few things to consider packing to protect yourself:
    • a good windbreaker with a hood
    • extra hat (they tend to blow away)
    • extra sunglasses
    • sturdy footwear
    Finally, don’t pack more camera gear than absolutely necessary. Any extra weight you have to carry increases the likelihood that you could lose your balance, trip or even fall, especially when walking on rough terrain. And perhaps even more important, equipment can be damaged.

    Wednesday, March 28, 2012

    Lessons Learned with my D7000

    A month in Africa taught me a lot about what I like and dislike about my Nikon D7000. It also taught me some valuable lessons.

    About the Trip

    My wife Lesa and I spent most of the first two weeks of our trip in Lesotho. As a volunteer board member of a Canadian charity that supports people living with HIV/AIDs and/or with its effects, Lesa wanted to visit some of the projects and people funded by Bracelet of Hope. My “job” was to take photos and videos to help promote the charity.

    What I liked about the D7000

    Low-light capability – ISO values of up to 3200 produced usable results, especially with High ISO Noise Reduction on High – values above that started to generate a lot of noise. Here's a shot at ISO 2500 during an evening game drive at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve (70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G lens; f/6.3; 1/60s; High ISO NR: ON (normal); Active D-Lighting: Auto.)

    For some better wildlife shots, take a look at my south african wildlife gallery.

    User settings – The D7000 provides two sets of camera settings (U1 and U2) that let you save and then recall a ton of pre-sets that you can use to suit the conditions. I defined U2 for videos, being sure to include setting the Focus Mode to AF-S, along with some other less critical settings, and U1 for stills. Once you set up the camera the way you want, you can save the settings from the Setup Menu and then recall them quickly using the mode dial.

    Recent Settings menu – This is very handy if you are changing settings that are buried deep in the menu tree, e.g., High ISO Noise Reduction, Set Picture Control, etc. When you choose this option from the default My Menu, you have quick access to the 20 most recent settings you have changed. Note that the manual is not very clear about how to make the switch from My Menu to Recent Settings.

    Virtual Horizon – This lets you easily determine if the camera is level, even if you orient the camera for portrait shots, i.e., turned 90 degrees - Pretty cool. I assign this to the Fn (Function) button on the front of the camera for quick access.

    What I didn’t like

    Built-in microphone – The D7000 manual does note that the microphone “may record lens noise during autofocus or vibration reduction”. In addition, outdoors if it’s windy, noise can be a huge problem (as of course it is with the mics on many other cameras). Also, unless I was within a few feet of the people I was filming during interviews, the playback volume was way too low, even with the Microphone volume set to High Sensitivity. A particular challenge for me was that many of Basotho interviewees were extremely soft-spoken so we had to keep asking them to speak louder.

    One time that the mic really did work well, even though it was too dark for the video, was when two white rhinos charged out of the bush late in the game drive. The driver had to boot it in reverse for a minute or so (it seemed quite a bit longer at the time) until they gave up the chase. You can listen to the audio here.

    By the way, I checked Vistek’s site yesterday and it looks like you can pick up a really good external mic for about $250 CAD.

    Qual button – This button lets you define the file format (RAW and/or JPEG) and the JPEG quality. I think it’s too close to the ISO button which I tend to use a lot. Only once in a month did I intend to change the quality. Several times I must have pressed Qual by mistake and found that I had switched from my standard RAW+Fine to another setting. While writing this though I realized that, in at least one instance, the change in quality setting probably wasn’t the fault of the camera’s design. More likely it was one of the children at the Zulufadder day orphanage who simply couldn’t resist playing with the buttons.

    Mode dial – I would like to have a lock on this like the one for the Release-mode dial, or perhaps have it be harder to turn. I was continually putting the camera in the bag and pulling it out again throughout the day, either to protect it or just hide it. Many times after pulling it out and shooting for a while, I found that I had accidentally turned it to a different mode. With the camera slung over my shoulder, or just carried with my hand on the grip (which, incidentally I love), this was less of an issue.

    Lessons Learned:

    • For anything new, e.g., shooting video, figure out how it works BEFORE trying to use it for anything important.
    • Every time I pick up the camera, check the mode dial to make sure it's set to what I want, along with other critical settings, e.g., image quality.
    • Whenever possible, particularly for videos, use a tripod. Vibration reduction or holding the camera on my knee just doesn't cut it.