Welcome to Odyssey Imagery. From time to time I will be posting some interesting nuggets about all things photography. Everything from tips and tricks to rants and raves.
Have you noticed more recently that you are getting some ghastly looking photos at concert venues (and frequently in live theater)? Welcome to the digital age. Or to the not-so-many-incandescent lights-anymore age.
Those areas of smooth, detail free muck—that may not even be in the color you remember seeing—are thanks to the growing use of LED stage lighting. Good old fashioned incandescent lighting is analog and the LEDs are digital. The digital sensors in cameras were designed to deal with analog light. When the two now digital worlds collide, they don't play nice.
Under the old lights, gels were used to change the color of the light. They work by subtracting some frequencies (colors) from a fairly broad spectrum to achieve the desired color effect. There is a variety of light frequencies passing through the gel and onto the stage. With the LEDs, various colors are made by adding together (mixing) the amount and intensity of only three fixed and narrow parts of the color spectrum—specifically red, green and blue. No frequencies between these three are present.
All mainstream digital sensors are designed to record only red, green or blue at each individual pixel. The actual range of colors that show up in the final image is the result of software in the camera interpreting each pixel with respect to what adjacent pixels are seeing. That interpretation is different from one camera manufacturer to the next, and even between models from the same company.
The problem is the result of the three narrow bands of color being used to light the stage. If the camera's software doesn't interpret the three specific frequencies being used correctly, or the filters on the sensor pixels pass a slightly different frequency than the LEDs are projecting, then you get areas that will have no detail (like an overexposure) and may not even be close in color to what your eye saw—more than likely it will just be white. This is because there are no intermediate light frequencies present for the software to put through its calculations. It is less likely to happen when both incandescent and LED lighting are used together, since the spill from the old lights will help the camera figure things out.
So, don't think your camera is broken. There is no white balance setting for LED lighting (at least not yet). And don't expect to fix it by changing exposure compensation. That won't do it. You just have to accept it until somebody comes up with solution—like maybe standardizing the frequencies used by sensor manufacturers and LED light makers.
With the winter Olympics winding down, those who live where there is snow will now have time to go out and do some shooting. We all know that snow is (mostly) white, but there are some foibles that can easily make pictures of the stuff look pretty awful.
It's really no secret that built-in camera light metering is a good general purpose tool for getting proper exposure. But there are some circumstances that can really goof things up, and snow is one of them. Built-in light meters are designed to analyze a scene and come up with an average that will try to balance the light and dark areas so that the total exposure comes out the same as taking a picture of an 18% gray card. That's fine in a high percentage of situations, but if the scene has large areas of really bright (or dark) light, those areas will influence the exposure way too much. In those cases, the snow (or sand at the beach) will be rendered as a middle tone and anything less bright will be grossly underexposed
Likewise, if you are taking a shot at night or in a concert or live theater, all the dark areas will be brought up to an unnaturally bright level and anything that is brighter will be completely blown out. So, what to do?
Most cameras have a setting that will provide some level of compensation for these situations. But again, the adjustment will be made based on the meter analyzing the entire scene. The results will be better than using a standard setting, but not as good as it could be.
Ideally, the solution is to switch to manual control and use what is called an "incident light" hand-held meter. These measure the strength of the light that is hitting the subject rather than what is being reflected off the subject. To work their best, these meters need to be held next to the subject when taking the reading. If you're on the slopes, that is not practical. But, if you want pictures of skiers and they aren't going through an area shaded heavily by trees, then taking the light reading from anywhere in the vicinity will work just fine. This will keep the snow looking white like it is supposed to and give good exposure to the subjects. Same holds true at the beach.
The next best method outdoors in these situations is to actually meter a photographic gray card. These can be found at any camera shop for just a few bucks. Let your camera meter the light reflecting off the card and set your exposure accordingly. This will keep the various levels of brightness more or less correct throughout the pictures you take. Outdoor sports action (day or night), such as soccer, football, baseball etc. come with a very handy metering surface that will give you good results—it's called grass. Just zoom in and fill the frame with the grass, set your exposure (manually) and start shooting. That green stuff is an excellent mid tone that closely replicates a gray card.
None of this will work for you at the theater or at a concert (unless you are the paid photographer and have pre-show access to rehearsals to measure the lighting setup). In this case, use the spot meter setting on your camera (if it has one). Try to find something in what you will be shooting that is a mid tone (medium grays and light greens work well), then zoom in and manually set an exposure from that. In these situations, you may need to do this many times for changing lighting, but it will at least give you far better results than relying on the camera's automatic metering. Manual settings are available for a reason and this is one of them.
Speaking of concerts, I'll have a tip shortly that may help explain why some of those shots you take look really weird—nothing like what you saw with your eyes.
Oh, my, how time gets away from you. Here it is February and I just today got around to putting up some of the shots from last July's trip to Africa. I guess I need to get myself more committed to keeping up with stuff.
In another month or so, I will be hanging an exhibit in the Silicon Valley area of California and then be rushing off on a trip to Portugal and Spain. I will be using some new gear that I'm in the process of shaking out now.
I'll try to get some more tips posted shortly.
Back some time ago, I discussed depth of field and how it affects different types of images. Here's something to keep in mind, particularly for portraits and other close work.
Depth of field is always parallel to the image plane. This can be an issue if you are accustomed to setting focus and then recomposing before taking the shot. For a portrait, if you focus on the eyes and then recompose, you run the risk of the eyes going out of focus because the depth of field will move along with the camera.
Compact cameras generally handle this well, since they almost always use face recognition (you can compose first then shoot); and they also have incredibly long depth of field anyway. But you folks who use SLRs may have a problem. Whenever possible (and it is possible with just about all recent SLRs), choose the camera's focusing point that is closest to the eyes. That will eliminate the need to recompose and risk moving the depth of field.
The same principle holds true with macro or any other close-up photography.
Sorry for the long absence. Had some family setbacks to deal with and then was prepping for and going on safari in Africa.
Now that I'm settling back into the groove, I'll have some posts coming shortly.
(Jury duty lasted until mid-December as predicted. I've been busy with the holidays and playing catch-up.)
We've all heard the term "optical illusion", but what is that exactly? Well, in simple terms, it is when the visual process makes you see something as it really isn't. The visual process involves not only your eyes, but also your brain. The brain is the part that becomes involved with the illusion, interpreting the image produced by your eye the way it wants it to look, not how it really looks.
The most common optical illusion we encounter each day is looking up at buildings. When you take a picture of buildings, particularly tall ones, you see distortion and convergence of walls. When you look at the same building, those walls are straight all the way to the top. Which one is the optical illusion? It's your live view of a straight building.
Your brain knows that the building is straight (unless it's the Luxor in Vegas), so it takes the image sent from the eye and changes it. Your camera on the other hand, shows you how it really is. If you could look at the image on the retina of your eye you would see the same thing that you see in the photo made by the camera—converging lines. Our brains can't handle that, so when we look at the building it is made straight—an optical illusion. It's no secret that things look smaller and smaller the farther away they get but the brain is more comfortable making things look familiar regardless of distance. You can see the same thing happen to a lesser extent when you look down a road or train tracks.
Another common optical illusion is the moon (or sun) looking huge when at or near the horizon (no, that is not a product of atmospheric interaction). The reason this happens is not as well understood as the building example. The most reasonable explanation is that, because our brain knows the sun and moon are really big, when you see them near the distant horizon with its tiny features the brain magnifies the celestial object to keep that perspective understandable.
If you think the atmosphere is what's really causing that magnification and it's not an optical illusion, here's what you can do to put that to rest. Next time there's a moonrise or sunset, set your camera's lens to the equivalent of a "normal" lens on a 35mm camera (a focal length of around 50mm). This gives the same field of view that you have when you are looking at something. Take a picture of the sun or moon and look at the photo. The sun or moon that covered half the horizon when you looked at it with your eyes looks no bigger in the photo than it would if you took a picture of it when it's overhead. The camera shows you unmolested reality.
So, next time you see a photo with straight buildings or a giant moon in the sky over a night cityscape, you'll know that the photo has had some work done. Perspective control lenses can take care of the buildings and digital editing can be used for either situation.
(Note: I've been wrapped up in jury duty, on a case that is projected to go into mid-December, so posts will be few and far between as you can see)
Many people wonder what the big deal is with RAW image files and what they are. In the realm of digital photography, cameras themselves generally will save images in one of two formats—JPEG or RAW.
Most consumer compact cameras only save images in the JPEG format. These images take up less space on the memory card and because of this you can get a lot more pictures on a card than you can with RAW. But, there is a reason...the JPEG file has been compressed by discarding a lot of the information that the camera's sensor recorded.
A camera normally has 3-4 different settings to control the "quality" of the image that is saved in the JPEG file. The highest quality setting compresses the information less than the lowest quality setting. But even at the highest quality setting, the file is often compressed to only 25% of its original size (a 1:4 ratio). What this means is that even at that "high quality" setting, 75% of the information recorded by the camera sensor is discarded when the file is saved.
The information that is discarded is what a lot of research determined is not crucial to our brains interpreting what the image looks like when viewed. That original JPEG file out of the camera is more than good enough. Set the camera to a lower quality and things can start to get dicey.
A RAW file saves all of the information recorded by the camera sensor. Nothing is discarded. Because of this, images saved in RAW format have more for the imaging software on the computer at home to work with and provide for more opportunity to fix exposure or color balance problems in the original exposure. One drawback is that each camera manufacturer has their own version of RAW file—unlike JPEG which is always the same regardless of manufacturer. The RAW file itself cannot be directly changed after the fact (without a lot of mysterious data manipulation), and that provides the means to always have the original image. When a RAW file is processed on the computer and saved, a new JPEG (or Photoshop or TIFF) file is created.
That is another advantage of RAW files. When a JPEG file is edited on the computer it will alter the original image file if you "Save" the changes. You must "Save As" and give it a new file name in order to preserve the original. When you "Save" a RAW file the software is doing this for you automatically. And, every time you save (even Save As) a JPEG file, that compression is being applied again. After 3-4 saves of a JPEG, what started out looking pretty good becomes something that looks like it was drawn with crayons.
If you are using a camera that only saves its images in JPEG format, and you like to manipulate them in creative ways on the computer, it is best to save the resulting image in a format that doesn't do any additional compression. Those formats are TIFF and, in the case of Photoshop or other dedicated image editing software, their proprietary format. These files can be reopened, changed, and saved over and over again with no degradation since they don't compress the image information.
Just a quick tip this time. We all know how great certain subjects can look when seen in black & white rather than color.
Just about every digital camera is capable of creating a black & white image, but please resist the temptation to do that. This is only my personal recommendation, but always shoot the original image in color. Why? Because the image may look just as good either way, but if you shot it in black & white you will never be able to retrieve the color. The black & white image saved by the camera will have no color information in it.
It is easy to convert a color image to black & white on your computer. Many cameras will let you do the conversion in-camera and create a second image in black & white (leaving the original color image intact). But if you didn't shoot in color, you'll never get color — unless you want to spend untold hours and money on special software or services to try to recreate the image in an approximation of the original color.
People pictures are one of the favorites of photographers everywhere. In fact, there are probably more pictures taken of people than anything else. Getting good pictures of people relies heavily on composition and lighting. Let's take a look at these aspects, starting with composition.
Looking back at the previous post about composition (Let the Games Begin), the "rule of thirds" (the grid) plays an important part in creating pleasing images of people. Let's look at the type of images that are referred to as portraits. Whether you realize it or not, the first thing that draws your attention in a portrait is the subject's eyes, the "gateway to the soul."
Even though the entire subject may take up most of the image area, it is the eyes that need proper placement. When composing a portrait of a single subject, the eyes should be placed on or near the upper imaginary line of the grid. You don't want those eyes in the center of the image. In addition to placement, the next most critical factor is sharpness. If the eyes are not in sharp focus, the image will not be friendly to the viewer.
Many poses are at a somewhat oblique angle which puts each eye at a slightly different distance from the camera. If you are using techniques to minimize depth of field (to separate the subject from a blurred background), you need to choose the point of focus carefully in order to keep both eyes sharp. For these oblique poses, it is usually best to focus on the inner corner of the eye closest to the camera. By doing this, even shallow depth of field will provide good sharpness to both eyes. The remainder of the subject can be slightly "soft" as long as the eyes are sharp. In fact, many subjects benefit from this since it tends to minimize imperfections in the skin.
Compact cameras make this task somewhat easier since most now have face recognition that will hone in on the eyes. The down side, of course, is that compacts have so much depth of field that it is difficult to get the background blurred out. See the last post for some tips about how to deal with that. More advanced cameras give you far more flexibility in controlling the final look.
When shooting portraits with more than one subject try to make sure that each of them is at a slightly different height within the image. If one subject is taller, this takes care of itself; if they are the same height, have one stand and one sit. When shooting more than two subjects in the same image, try to arrange them so that their faces are placed to form triangular patterns. In all cases, though, keep their eyes near that upper portion of the image or near one of the imaginary side lines of the grid. Also, try to keep all of their faces the same distance to the camera so that they will all be in sharp focus.
Lighting is the other major "make or break" factor in people pictures. Back when baby boomers were young, the suggestion that Kodak used was for the photographer to have the sun at his back or behind one shoulder. That was bad advice. If you dig out some of those old photos, you will see people squinting from having the sun in their eyes and faces with little definition.
Whether you are shooting outdoors or inside, subjects should be lit from the side or the back. Side lighting will create shadows that help define the face and will allow the subject to keep their eyes open naturally. Open shade is a good way to light a subject, particularly if there is something close to the subject that will reflect some stronger light on them. You can even create your own open shade by having the subject stand with their back to the sun. This not only puts their face in their own shade, but gives a gorgeous highlight to their hair. This technique requires the ability to manually set the camera metering to properly expose the face, something few compact cameras will allow you to do.
Posing people is an artform in and of itself. Sometime soon, we'll delve into it, but for now work on composition and lighting.
I decided that a bit of chat about depth of field would be good. Don't ask me why, but it seemed like a good topic. So, here goes.
Depth of field defines that area of an image, from nearest to farthest that is in acceptable focus. OK, you say, but what do I care about that? Well, depth of field is one of the tools you can use to create images that isolate the subject—portraits for example—or that have everything in the photo showing sharp detail—think landscapes. Controlling depth of field is the way to achieve this.
Depth of field (DOF) is controlled by three things: focal length of the lens; size of the lens opening (f/stop); and distance between the camera and the subject. Here is how it works:
—the longer the focal length, the less the DOF (shorter=more DOF)
—the larger the lens opening (f/stop), the less the DOF (smaller=more DOF)
—the closer the camera is to the subject, the less the DOF (farther=more DOF)
—total DOF is approximately 1/3 in front of and 2/3 behind the actual point of focus
There is much debate about how the size of the film frame or digital sensor influences DOF. But that doesn't really matter, since any given lens, using the same settings, will create the same DOF regardless of what it is projecting on. All the jabber that pops up about "circle of confusion" and other techie terms doesn't change the physics of what hits the focal plane.
That first factor—focal length—is the one that is the biggest limiting factor when using compact digital cameras. Because the sensor is so small (mostly around 1/2" diagonal or less), the focal length of the lens is incredibly short to create similar angles of view of a 35mm film camera (everything uses comparisons to 35mm cameras). What would be a 50mm normal focal length on the film camera translates to around 7-8mm on the compact camera. And a 28mm wide angle lens for the film camera becomes something around 4.5-6mm. Focal lengths that short create tremendous DOF, so much so that it is often impossible to take a picture that has anything that isn't in focus. Even when zoomed out all the way, the compact camera that is showing you what a 200mm film camera lens would, the focal length is only around 25mm or so—still rather short in the realm of DOF. And few compacts have very large lens apertures.
So, what can you do if you are using a compact camera and want to take a nice portrait of someone with an out-of-focus background? First, use the portrait setting on the camera. It is designed to force the lens to its widest aperture (f/stop). The next thing to do is zoom out to the longest focal length (telephoto) the camera has. The final thing you will probably have to do is get as much separation as possible between the subject and the background. Even zoomed all the way out and opened all the way up, that compact camera lens is still going to be giving you more DOF than you want. If you can't separate the subject and the background, you can try moving closer and not zooming out quite as much. Be careful though, because if you get too close and use too short a zoom setting, you'll wind up making your subject's nose huge and spread all over their face.
There's not much to say about getting good landscape shots with a compact. They have plenty of DOF for that. But, if you are using a film camera or a digital SLR, it is much more problematic to achieve the DOF that keeps everything in focus. Use the shortest focal length you have available and stop that aperture way down. Just don't go too small or that tiny aperture may defract the light coming through and cause a blurry image. And when shooting landscapes, remember to focus on something about 1/3 of the way between the closest and farthest thing in the image that you want to be clear and sharp. You can't focus on the mountain in the distance and expect the bush 10 feet away to be in focus too.
To clear up a bit of confusion some of you may have, when talking about lens opening (aperture), you have to remember that, unlike everything else in photography, bigger is actually smaller. That is, the bigger the f/number, the smaller the lens opening. The f/number is actually the denominator (bottom number) of a fraction where the numerator (top number) is always one. It represents the relationship between the diameter of the opening to the focal length of the lens. So you can see that as that f/number gets bigger, the size of the opening gets smaller (e.g. f/2 = 1/2, f/8 = 1/8). Don't despair. The camera meter knows all about this and will take care of what needs taking care of when you make a change.
It (almost) never fails. Whenever I'm half way around the world at someplace photogenic, and at a time of year when "it never rains here", I get rain. Or at least overcast skies. There are any number of arguments for and against the benefit of a solid gray sky, but I'm soundly on the "against" side of things. Actually, I'll admit that there are a handful of subjects or/and situations that are easier to shoot under the cloud (notice I said cloud and not clouds - if there are clouds that means there is some blue sky showing through, and that's OK).
The first thing necessary when shooting in overcast conditions is to be very careful about how you meter the scene. If you use average (overall) metering, you will invariably get a dark subject under a perfectly exposed 18% gray swath of sky - not what you are looking for. What to do? Use spot metering, if your camera has that feature, to set the exposure on whatever the subject is. Absent that, adjust the camera to overexpose by at least one EV (f/stop). It won't matter if the sky comes out absolutely white; there's no important detail in it anyway. You need to get the subject properly exposed.
Eliminating as much of the sky as possible can really help things out. By positioning yourself to use trees, shrubs, signs, buildings etc., to occupy the area of the image that would otherwise be sky helps in two ways. First, it makes metering easier since some, most, all of the sky is no longer influencing things. Second, just about anything other than that blank gray stuff is more interesting to look at. This is when you want to harken back to the post about leading lines and light/dark areas.
The one subject that comes to mind that is actually helped by overcast skies is flowers. The overcast eliminates the directional nature of sunlight and provides a flat, even illumination. This gives all the subtle detail of the blossoms an even look without competing with shadows caused by petals and leaves blocking the light. Just about every good photo you see of flowers taken outdoors is either under overcast skies, in the shadow of a building or overhang, or under a portable light diffuser the photographer brought along.
OK. I said it would be 3-4 weeks before my next post, and here it is eight weeks later. How time flies when you are recovering from two weeks of photo shooting, packing, unpacking, drying off etc. It's that last one, the drying off part, that really gets to me at times. It seems that no matter where I go, regardless of season, I get rained on.
Looks like an appropriate topic for this post. I have (sort of) gotten used to having it rain on me when traveling and shooting. I thought maybe sharing some of what I do might be of help to somebody.
First, I always carry one of those teeny umbrellas—the kind you can almost fit in a shirt pocket. I'm not too concerned with keeping myself dry since I usually have a hooded windbreaker to wear. Even with a large, 2-3 pound camera/lens combination, I can shoot fairly easily with the umbrella in one hand while it helps steady the lens and the camera in the other. It also helps that I have a battery grip mounted on my camera—that makes for more room to grab onto. I shoot with a Pentax dSLR that is weather sealed, so a bit of rain on it won't hurt. The lenses are another matter, so I make sure the umbrella shields the lens.
I have also made use of a great product called the RainSleeve. They make them in several sizes, varying according to the size of the lens you would have mounted on the camera. These things are made of clear plastic, like baggies, and fit over the camera body and lens. It is easy to operate all the controls and you don't have to worry about water getting on your gear. A big plus is that they add no weight, and can be carried in your pocket when not in use.
If you are one who prefers compact digital cameras, you can dispense with umbrellas and sleeves and get a waterproof camera. Most manufacturers make at least one model that can handle getting wet (some up to 10 feet or more under water) without damage. If your travel luck is like mine, next time you're in the market for a new camera, that might be what to look for.
For my next post, I think I'll go in to some of the problems I encounter when shooting under the clouds and how I try to work around them.
Now that we've had a little taste of what goes in to composing a pleasing image, there are a whole host of subtleties that can go a long way to making a good photo better. Hardly a complete list, but some of the factors that are involved are:
a horizontal composition tends to emphasize the breadth of a subject (good for landscapes)
a vertical composition tends to emphasize height
—angle of view
a wider angle of view adds depth and distance
a narrower angle of view creates the illusion of size
lighter objects tend to add a sense of depth (think of mountains...the farther away each range is, the lighter it appears)
—depth of field (the range of distances that are in focus)
large depth of field creates a feeling of distance and expanse
shallow depth of field aids in isolating the subject from the background (good for portraits)
The way to develop your skills in composing an image is to practice. Unlike the good old days of film, with digital cameras it doesn't cost anything to take a picture. So, there is no excuse not to take lots of photos to get into the practice of visualizing the final image before you press the shutter button. Your investment of an additional five seconds studying what you see in the viewfinder will pay off big dividends in the end.
I'm heading for France and Spain in a few days, and won't be posting to this blog for the next 3-4 weeks. So, you have lots of time to get out there and shoot something.
The discussion last time centered around the general topic of image composition. There are so many factors involved in dissecting an image, but it is difficult to argue that composition is the single most important one in creating something that is pleasing to look at.
The "rule of thirds" is a great place to start, but there are some other little things that reinforce the overall composition of an image. This time, we'll look at a couple of them. First is the influence that lightness and darkness have. When you look at an image, your eye is naturally drawn to the lightest area in the photo. So, it makes sense to try to have your main subject as the brightest object in the frame.
Many times, such as when shooting landscapes or skylines, there may be bright white clouds in the sky. These make for beautiful photos, but they tend to fight for the viewer's attention. What to do? Look for "leading lines" to guide the viewer to the main point of interest. Leading lines can be found everywhere — a roadway or path; a stream or river; fences; tree branches. The trick is to position yourself and frame the photo in the viewfinder using these elements. If there isn't a single object that is the subject, as is frequently the case in landscapes, leading lines can be used to help keep the viewer's eyes moving around in the image. By doing this, all of the picture will be seen as a whole.
Negative space is another feature of composition that is useful in providing balance. These areas containing minimal features can help keep a busy area from being too overwhelming. In people pictures, just make sure to keep that negative space in the direction the people are facing. Nothing is more disturbing than to see someone who is looking at or about to run into the edge of an image.
Next time, we'll look at some other things that are useful in enhancing the composition of your photos.
Did you "learn by doing" from last week's post? If you really gave some thought to it, you probably came to an "aha" moment — when you started seeing what it is about an image that makes you like it or not like it. Now, we will begin a journey through some tips and tricks that will make sense of what's going on.
We've all heard that in the real estate business, it's all about "location, location, location." Well, in photography (or any visual artform) it's all about "composition, composition, composition." If you stop for a moment and go back to the images you sorted through, you will realize that what really got you hooked or not was the composition of the picture. The lighting or the color may have had some influence, but it undoubtedly was the composition that had the greatest impact.
If any of the pictures you used for the exercise are in digital form on your computer, here's something to try. If it's a color image, convert it to black & white. An image you like will look just as good to you without color. That is an important point to remember — great color can never overcome bad composition. If that fantastic color photo tanks when you remove the color, then there is something very wrong with the composition.
There are many guidelines for composition (I'm not going to refer to them as rules because we are talking about art, not science), but the most basic is the "rule of thirds" — I know, I said i wouldn't call them rules. Divide the image into three equal segments in each direction. Where those imaginary lines intersect is ideal for placement of the main subject. Put horizons or other prominent horizontal features on, or very near, one of the imaginary horizontal lines. Likewise for vertical features. Many digital cameras have a way to show these lines superimposed on the LCD — a great aid to composing a great photo.
The one thing you should avoid, unless you are deliberately going for a specific artsy concept, is placing the main subject in the exact center of the image. By doing this, the viewer will struggle to move their eyes around the rest of the image. It's almost like putting their eyes in jail. Go back and look at the photos you used to begin developing your eye. You will likely see the "rule of thirds" at work in all the ones you liked and not so much in the ones you didn't like.
Next time, we'll take a look at some of the subtle things that have a big influence on overall composition. Until then, start practicing.