Tag: post-capture

Miss the darkroom? There’s an app for that!

Apple’s App of the Day today (28 Dec ‘17) is Darkr. I don’t usually look too closely at the AotD, and sometimes not for days or weeks, but, as a photographer and former large format and darkroom enthusiast, this one certainly caught my eye.

Select your camera format or work in the darkroom

Darkr takes me back to simpler times, at least that’s what my heart is telling me. It is both a large format camera (and medium and “pocket” format camera) and a Darkroom all built into an app. What a thrill it was for me to lie in bed this morning and have an upside-down-and-backwards view camera image on my iPhone (also available for iPad, but my iPad Air has only a 5mp Camera), complete with etched grid lines and a loop for focusing. Anyone who has ever worked with a large format camera would appreciated this view.

When I say “large format, l’m referring to the old-style cameras with a leather bellows in front. For years, I used a beautiful Zone VI cherry wood field camera that made beautiful 4×5″ negatives. Yes, that’s inches – about half the size of the iPad screen I’m writing on right now. But 4×5″ was just the beginning; large format included 5×7″, 8×10″ (one of Angel Adams favourites) and 11×14”. There were even 16x20l versions that shot Polaroids! It was a huge industry through the late 19th century and right through the 20th century. I bought my “old-style” 4×5 camera in the 1990s! Working with negatives and transparencies that large meant the image quality was untouchable.

But alas, that era is behind us. My Nikon D800E captures more detail than my 4×5 could and my Sony RX-10iii isn’t far behind. The methods of working on a tripod may still be there, but the mystique of working under a dark cloth with a loupe around your neck and a pocket full of yellow, orange and red filters is gone, along with developing negatives, making test strips, changing contrast grades, and burning and dodging to make prints. BUT…

Darkr brings it all back again…

Yellow filter selected. Yes, it’s upside-down and backwards – it’s large format, after all!

…without the dark cloth and tripod, darkroom chemicals and water usage. As I said, as I lay in bed this morning, I set up my large format camera, selected ILFORD HP-5 film, put on a yellow filter, used my loupe to select the focus point, chose my shutter speed, tilted as needed, and “click” made my first exposure.

4×5 neg, complete with notches in top left.

This first exposure became a beautiful and classic 4×5 negative, complete with cut notches in the top left! From there, I entered the Darkroom where the immersive experience continued sans red light and chemicals. Honestly, I do miss the other-worldly experience of entering a darkroom with the acrid smell of stop bath and the earthy smell of developer (but not the mixing and washing).

In the Darkroom, I was presented with a series of horizontal test-

Test strips. Scroll up and down to change time; scroll left and right to change contrast.

strips. Swiping up increased the time, swiping down, the opposite. Swiping left and right changed the contrast, just like a multi-contrast head on an enlarger or multi-contrast filters. The filters are even coloured correctly – the level of detail the creators of the app have included is amazing, but not without some need for improvements (see below).

Toning options are available once you have a good-looking “print”.

Once you have a basic print, there are a variety of typical darkroom options: Crop, Dodge, Burn, Blur and Tone. The dodge and burn options take a little getting used to, but are great once you do. The best part, though, is how each option you use is stored as a layer. This digital advantage lets you revisit what you’ve done and change things about, although cropping really must be done first.

Final print – my first darkroom print in over 17 years!

So, why bother? As one commenter said, “I did darkroom processing for real…and I now realise I don’t miss it at all.” While I, too, am in this category, Darkr seems to retain well the methods and thought behind using film and darkroom processing, without the hassle of chemicals and water use.

Can you make “better” black and whites in other apps? Perhaps, especially with the near-endless sliders and options of apps such as Photos, Polarr and high-end apps like Lightroom. But there’s something about simplifying options that clarifies the process. For example, test strips: rather than constantly “playing” with sliders until things “look good”, going back and forth between whites and blacks and shaows, exposure and contrast, with Darkr, you are using a combination of exposure and contrast – two options – to attain your base print.

From there, you can apply dodging (selective lightening) or burning (selective darkening), just like using adjustments brushes in Lightroom. Lastly, you may (or may not) tone the image – selenium, cyanotype or sepia – in varying degrees.

Perhaps it’s nostalgia speaking more than practicality, but I feel apps don’t always need to be pragmatic and efficient to be useful. If anything, this simplification teaches one to be more observant. To the observant, the varying times of the test strips offer insights 8nto the relationships between light and dark, as does the switching of contrasts.

Perhaps this is my own darkroom experience talking and these nuances are not readily apparent to newbies, but I see this as not only nostalgic fun, but a good training ground of sorts, from the upside-down-backwards view presented by the Large Format  option to the selections of time and contrast. The limiting factor is the 12mp camera on the iPhone. If this system could be used with a 20mp+ camera, it would certainly be more enticing. That being said, you can import photos from Photos to work on them in the Darkroom.

The best part, though, is the price: Darkr is only $3.99. Actually, it’s free, but paying the $3.99 does two things: it supports the developers to keep refining the app (I have some improvements I’d like to see, and it unlocks some of the refinements that make Darkr so much fun.

Some of the improvements I would like to see include:

  • Spot metering – I would like to read my highlight and shadow areas to allow me to use…
  • Zone system placements; shadows with detail on Zone II – the “West Coast, Ansel Adams” way or highlights with detail on Zone VIII as Fred Picker invented on the East Coast;
  • Orange filter, for when yellow is too little and red is too much;
  • Cold and warm-tone papers options would be nice, even different paper bases;
  • Adding a cold-tone selenium effect of slight purple cast would be welcomed;
  • Vertical test strips are needed to accommodate checking different parts of a print. Making the print above would have benefitted from seeing the bright white of the duvet in the same strip
  • Lastly, the app needs a way to maintain the proportions when cropping (or select an aspect ratio).

I should note that these “improvements” may already be built into the app and I missed them. I’ll be spending more time with Darkr over the next few days and hope to discover more of it’s secrets.

GRIPS K-W Presentation follow-up

Many thanks to the folks at the Grand River Imaging and Photographic Society for hosting my presentation tonight. There are many excellent photographers whose questions and discussion added well to the evening.

A few people inquired about the “Nature Photographer’s Toolkit” I created to help organize ideas around how to approach scenes and subjects in nature photography. I’ve added a copy of the slide below. I hope it serves as a useful guide and reminder to explore a number of different avenues when in the field and in front of a screen.

Remember: Three-quarters of the effort in making photographs is done in the field before the shutter is released and half again occurs on-screen, for every compelling photo is greater than the sum of its parts.

London Camera Club – Field & Screen

This past week I was in London, Ontario enjoying the hospitality and good will of the London Camera Club. This is a vibrant and welcoming club that successfully offers programs to a wide range of photographers from beginners to highly experienced shooters – a tall order, well-achieved. Have a look at their website for some truly excellent and creative photography.

On Thursday evening…

…I spoke about exploring “My Own Backyard”. Despite having travelled and lived in many exciting locations around the world, I always come back to the importance of each of us being “experts” in our own backyards. After all, we are surrounded by landscapes and nature here in southern Ontario and we have four seasons in which to make very different and unique photographs.

Photographed two weeks ago on my way in to work.

Quite literally, our backyards become our “playground” for trying new equipment, new techniques and new ways of seeing. One can dash out, take a few shots, with a new lens or trying focus-stacking for example, then head back in, upload and being working on images within minutes. Or, simply, spend a few hours exploring shapes and colours in the garden at various points through the year. But, your backyard can also be stretched, and should be, really, to local conservation areas, country roads and, if you prefer cityscapes in your city’s downtown. Every city now has a few dilapidated buildings waiting for an empathetic eye. Over the years, I’ve made some very memorable photographs on my drive to work and have been visiting the Arboretum at the University of Guelph for 30 years of photographic inspiration.

Saturday…

was devoted to a “Field and Screen” workshop: a few hours in the morning out at Westminster Ponds followed by a few more hours in the afternoon processing images from the morning. It was pleasing to see a number of photographers using tripods – cumbersome, but necessary, as we had a slightly dull, humid, misty morning with the constant threat of rain as well as some fall colours to accent our photographs. I was also encouraged by the comments from participants who had never explored close to home like this. So often, we get comfortable with the views and scenery around us and we stop seeing them for their uniqueness. We forget that although they are the “same old, same old” to us, they are new for others, especially when we apply our photographic eye to bringing out the details others have stopped seeing. This is the beauty of working close to home.

I’ve posted a gallery of photographs I made during the workshop. I’ve added a couple of Before/After screenshots to show the initial imported “from the camera” raw image versus the “finished” screen image. I’ve also included some “Detail” photographs; these are cropped portions of larger photographs which, in themselves are engaging views I would have liked to spend more time exploring.

Thanks to Matt Litwinchuk for organizing the evening presentation and Saturday’s workshop and to Bill Niessen for his technical troubleshooting duirng the afternoon Screen session.

If you have any questions about the shooting or processing – please ask! As well, comments are always welcome. If you want to keep in touch regarding workshops, just subscribe to my blog using the panel to the right.

Are you editing your photos?

None of the photographs I make and publish are straight out of the camera. They could be, but they wouldn’t have the same impact as there are always improvements to be made. Besides, I want the photograph to represent what I saw and felt, not the machinations of an inanimate box with optics.

If you are shooting jpegs and you’re perfectly happy with them, then perhaps spending the time to learn and do photo editing is not for you. But, if you aren’t satisfied and you can see improvements to be made then read on…

Just to be clear, I’m editing with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, the industry-standard, fully professional app used by millions of Mac and Windows photographers around the world. However, there is a fairly steep learning curve for LR and it’s not the app to use for casual editing. Years ago, I started up the BYO Laptop course on Lightroom at Mohawk College in Hamilton. After 10 weeks of covering all the basics and some in-depth work on importing, organizing, developing, pre-sets, printing, books and black-and-white etc., users still found they needed to be actively and regularly using LR so as not to forget all it’s intricacies. Lightroom is an amazingly complete app, and I use it everyday, but it can be overwhelming without some good tutorials.

LR’s Before-After view showing the difference editing can make – not significant for this photo, but certainly an improvement from dull to glowing.

If you want to get started editing photos, begin by identifying the photos in your collection needing some improvement. We all have photos that need “rescuing” from mistakes we’ve made like under– or overexposure or poor composition. These are mistakes that should be corrected in-camera, but may be a good starting point for you to learn the extent to which photos can be “processed”. No doubt, though, you probably have others that are just lacking that bit of extra “umph’ (I know, how photographic!) to raise them from good to brilliant. Often it’s a slight adjustment to contrast, a raising of the shadows or taming of highlights or a little extra saturation.

This is where craft meets artistry. Photo editing works best if you have a preconceived “visualization” of what you want the photograph to look like. Many photographers start with a “meh” photo and try to breathe life into it using push-button pre-sets. While this can work, and it can teach you what’s possible, it’s better to start with the vision of what you want the photo to look like, then work towards it by learning what each of the options can do, and not do, for you.

Apple Preview > Tools > Adjust Color brings up this handy photo editing panel.

If this sounds intimidating, start with one of the best but basic editing apps out there – the one that’s already on your computer: if you have a Mac, it’s Preview (not Photos, not yet); on Windows 10, it’s Photos. Now, I can’t speak to the Windows experience because I don’t use it, so have a look at this article for some guidance.

Apple’s Preview is easy to use because you can open a photo already on your computer and make small adjustments to it. If you only want to edit a few JPEG files, Preview is the way to go – have a look at this comprehensive article from (surprisingly!) Forbes magazine. My only caution with Preview is that what ever changes you make become permanent once you hit “Save”. I highly recommend duplicating the photo first and adding “-Edit” to the filename, so that you can always go back to the original if you mess up.

Photos for macOS and iOS is much more complete. You can use it in Simple mode to make moderate adjustments or you can open a dozen or so various panels for a more complete editing suite (see below). It will edit both jpeg and raw files; more importantly, the editing is “non-destructive”, meaning, it is not changing the original file, but writing the edits in the background as a set of instructions that are applied only when you export or print the photo. Photos also allows you to add 3rd party extensions that further extend its capabilities.

In fact, Photos is almost as good as Lightroom. It only lacks LR’s ability to add graduated masks, adjustment brushes and bulk editing. LR is also the best possible photo app for printing, but that’s a whole different blog post.

The best article I could find to get you started with Photos is this one from MacWorld. There are also dozens of tutorials and videos online; all you need to do is Google, “How do I (fill-in-the-blank) with macOS (or iOS or Windows) Photos?” The other part of learning to edit is simply exploring; e.g. What happens to my photo when I do this?, but be sure to use the “Undo” button (or Command-Z my favourite keyboard shortcut!)

macOS Photos offers much more complete editing when you select “Adjust” then the blue “Add” in the top right.
macOS Photos – This is the simplified adjustment panel.

Other photo editors include Photoshop (Mac/Win), Pixelmator (Mac only) and Affinity Photo (Mac/Win). Photoshop isn’t really a photo editor, it’s more of an image compositor with editing adjustments that can be applied to photos. People still use it for editing photos because that’s all that was available for years. It has since been eclipsed by Adobe’s Lightroom which was designed from the ground up for photography. To fill the price gap between free and Lightroom, Pixelmator was introduced some years ago. It has since been eclipsed by Affinity Photo.

“AP”, as it’s known, is currently the leader of the pack for low cost, high-end editing, even giving Photoshop a run: AP is now considered Photoshop’s most capable replacement at about 1/10th the cost and it has a near equally-capable iOS app for newer iPads. An alternative to Lightroom is the more expensive, but very capable Capture One, used by those who can distinguish even higher-quality raw files from Lightroom’s (or claim to, anyway!)

If you’re bent on learning Lightroom (or any photo editing app, actually), give me a call or drop me an email. I can get you up and running in a few hours.

If you want really good black and white, then consider getting to know Lightroom.

Field & Screen #1 – A Sunny-Day Landscape from Killarney

 

Right-click and open this in a new tab to follow along.
Right-click and open this in a new tab to follow along.

Something I’ve wanted to do for some time now, is provide a “look under the hood” describing the photography techniques I use to make some of my photographs, both in the field and in post-capture processing on computer. This is the first, using a recent photo from Killarney Provincial Park in Ontario’s near north. I chose it because it was made NOT during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset, but rather in the mid-afternoon (2:39:57PM according to Lightroom!) when many people are active with a camera.

My wife Laurie and I had stopped for lunch on a quiet bay on OSA Lake – perhaps the most beautiful lake in Killarney with its vermillion blue colour. And, as you can see from the photo, it was a perfect summer day. What is particularly fetching about this part of Killarney are the white quartzite ridges of the La Cloche Range, the 2.5-billion-year-old eroded roots of mountains once higher than the Himalayas. As a photographer, it was the contrast of these rugged hills against the deep blue sky and lake with the rich green of the early summer coniferous forest that caught my creative eye. My goal in photography is to “reveal the art inherent in nature” and this seemed an ideal opportunity.

When working on any set-up, my mind is constantly going over four key aspects of photography – what I’ve come to call the Photographer’s Toolbox:

  1. How can I use the Ambient Conditions to my advantage? e.g. weather, time-of-day, season and lighting angle, quality and colour of light
  2. What Elements of Visual Design are at my disposal? e.g. foreground anchor, leading lines and pathways, shapes such as diagonals, S-curves, C-curves and triangles, camera angle (high vs. low), horizontal or vertical format and rule of thirds (or not!)
  3. What Technical Controls will enhance the scene before me? e.g. lens, filters, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation
  4. How might Post-capture Processing be used to reproduce what I visualized in the field? e.g. cropping, contrast, clarity, graduated masks, cloning, etc.

It works like a continually-scrolling flight checklist as I assess the scene and its potential, choose a location and camera angle, set-up the tripod, select the lens and settings on the camera and, ultimately, make the initial exposure and subsequent exposures as I assess the image on the LCD. Granted, the LCD is small, but it is better than what we had in the film days, which was nothing! I enjoy working with the LCD as it is reminiscent of my 4×5 days viewing the (upside-down and backwards) image on a ground glass.

Actually, the LCD plays a far more important role in assessing exposure. I’m a proponent of the ETTR method: Expose-To-The-Right, which I’ve written about previously: Exposure Part 1: M, A or…? and Exposure Part 2: All Hail the Histogram (both are PDFs of previous newsletters).

Ambient Conditions:  On this fine sumer day, I had a perfectly blue sky and high overhead lighting – not the ideal for landscapes – but I did have the colour contrasts working for me. The sun was behind me providing rather flat lighting, but again the colour contrasts help make up for it.

Elements of Visual Design:  The real work began with the all-too-common problem of landscape photographs: foreground. Although we often think of landscapes as being the “grand vistas”, every compelling landscape is anchored with a detailed foreground that invites the viewer to participate in the landscape. Without a decent foreground, everything else simply looks far away and unreachable. A detailed foreground also introduces movement into and around the photograph – very important if you want to keep the viewer’s interest for more than a few seconds.

In this case, there was some of the pink granite that also graces Killarney’s shores and ridges. But, the photograph needed something more to engage the viewer. Wait a moment… the canoe. I know, it’s a Canadian cliché, but at least it’s not red! Actually, if it was red, it may have been too much with the vivid blues and greens already present. Rather then “place” the canoe in the centre, it kept it to one side to create movement and on a slight angle pointing in the direction I want the viewer’s eye to follow. This is critical (and may sound contrived), but it is done all the time in art: subliminal pathways which cause the viewer to follow a certain path.

Snap 1
Snap 1 – Composition and Movement

In this case, your eye first lands on the bright bow of the canoe – the viewer’s eye always lands on the brightest part of the photo first. From there your gaze is guided by the canoe back to the ridges on the left, then it swings across the ridges towards the right, back down to the foreground rock then along the angled shoreline back to the canoe. The tree shadow in the bottom left helps to point your way into the photo again. You will notice the movement around the photo is clock-wise – a natural and intuitive movement for people. If I had placed the canoe on the right side of the scene, there would have been similar movement, but because we, in western cultures, read from left to right, your eye would not as likely be drawn to the empty left side of the photo.

When composing a photograph, work with the camera off-tripod. This gives you the freedom to move up-and-down, side-to-side, forwards-and-back to find the exact point, as American photographer Fred Picker once said, “where the scene is looking back at you”. For me, that’s when all the elements are aligned to provide a flow through the scene – difficult to describe in text (which is why hands-on “live” workshops are so helpful). I keep in mind the Rule of Thirds but work with it as a guide to remind me to keep things off-centre. Notice the horizon line, where the hills meet the lake, the foreground shore and the canoe itself – nothing is in the centre. This helps create the movement shown.

Technical Controls:  For most landscapes, I use a wideangle lens; in this case a 24mm ƒ2.8 Nikkor-D. With the camera tilted down and a small aperture (in this case ƒ11), everything from the foreground to the background will remain in sharp focus. I try to keep my aperture to ƒ11 as it is the “sweet spot” for this lens: it provides the maximum depth of field with the minimum softening of details due to diffraction (excessive bending of the light around the edges of a small aperture). I also used a circular polarizing filter. Often I don’t use a polarizer (a) with digital because the resulting blue skies are too saturated; and (b) with a wideangle lens because one part of the sky becomes more polarized than other parts. In this case, however, the polarizer pulled the greens and bright white quartzite from the hills and there was no obvious variation in the polarization from left to right (probably because the sun was directly behind me, lighting the sky more or less evenly).

I used the exposure recommended by the matrix metering in my camera, then reduced it by 2/3 of a stop. At full exposure, the canoe was showing blinking highlights on the LCD, telling me it was being recorded as pure white. Using exposure compensation to reduce the exposure kept those highlights in check. It made the rest of the photo appear under-exposed, but that’s irrelevant as it is easily corrected in post-processing.

Snap 2
Snap 2 – Original raw file with Exposure and Grad Masking

Post-capture Processing:  So here is the initial raw file opened in Lightroom. By the way – I use Lightroom for all my post-capture processing. I have yet to find a reason to use Photoshop except to blend images for focus-stacking or panoramas, neither of which I do much of.

My first step is often to click the “Auto” button, just to see what Lightroom does with the file. Its algorithms are usually pretty good, and while never perfect, they give me some ideas about how to adjust the image. Surprisingly, LR recommended increasing the White point, but then controlling the Highlights with reducing them. It may sound counter-intuitive, but LR “sees” the whites as the brightest 5%, and the highlights as the next 15% or so of the brightness scale. This tells me there was a little headroom to raise the Whites – a good thing for clean, crisp-looking photographs.

The opposite is true for Blacks and Shadows. There was room at the bottom to further drop the Black point. Raising the Shadows adjustment is always helpful for pulling detail out of the shadows. I raised the Clarity slightly to 10 as I found it gave better separation in the small wavelets on the water and better edge to the foreground rock. One thing you will notice (on the original LR view above) is that all my values are round numbers. I know I’m being pedantic about this, but I find the sliders to be ridiculously gross in their adjustments, therefore I use the cursor keys. By holding down the Shift key when “cursing” the values jump by 10 instead of 1. Rarely do I notice a difference of 1 or even 5, but, when I do, I use it.

Now for the adjustment masks and brushes. I use the Graduated Mask (M) frequently. I excepted to use it for the sky, but found that after the Tone adjustments, the sky was fine and natural-looking. I did add a Graduated Mask to the bottom 1/3 of the image, up to the base of the canoe. I often do this to help “contain” the viewer so they don’t go wandering out of the image. It is subtle (even subliminal), but it works. In this case, I adjusted the Exposure to –0.80. After doing so, the pink granite seemed a bit grey, so I increased the Saturation by 30. In this photo, there was no need for the Adjustment Brush (K).

Snap 3
Snap 3 – Cropping

Next, comes Cropping (R). For this, I made a Virtual Copy (Cmd+’), leaving the Master File as is – fully “processed” but uncropped. When envisioning this scene in the field, I saw it as a long and wide scene, similar to a panorama (2:1 ratio), but not quite, so  I chose a 16:9 ratio. Some photographers are loath to crop – I’m not one of them. I feel that the engineer who came up with the 3:2 ratio in the 1920s (Oskar Barnack of Leica cameras) shouldn’t dictate to me how the world should be viewed. I see in squares (1:1), sometimes in 4/3s (4:3 ratio), sometimes in 4×5 and sometimes in 3:2 as is the original aspect ratio of my camera. There are other times when the prescribed ratios just don’t work – and that’s okay, too.

Snap 4
Snap 4 – Spot Removal and Post-crop Vignetting

As I am working through the process, I am always looking for distractions that might catch the viewer’s eye, pulling them away from the point of the photograph. (I’m also looking for dust spots, usually in the sky, that need cloning out!) In this case, there are very few distractions, just some waves in the bottom right of the photo. I used the Spot Removal (Q) tool to clone three small areas as shown in Snapshot 4.

Lastly, I often add an Effect called Post-Crop Vignetting. This reduces the exposure in the corners and edges of the photograph. When used to a high degree, your photo can look like it was shot through a telescope. In this case, I want to apply just a little for the same reason as the bottom Grad Mask – to subliminally keep the viewer within the photo, away from the edges. It’s a technique that’s been used for decades – way back to the darkroom work done by Ansel Adams. When used correctly it is not overtly noticeable, but works.

OSA Lake and Killarney RangeSo, now it’s finished! Well, almost. Often, after doing some editing (processing), I will put the photo away for a while and come back to it a few days or a week later. With fresh eyes, I will often see something I didn’t notice before because I was too involved in the details of the image. So far, I haven’t done this; when I do, I will add those steps to this workflow and let you know.

Note: I’ve made a black-and-white version of this photograph which I think I prefer over the the colour. Here it is: you decide…

OSA Lake and Killarney RangeIf you have any questions about this process and/or the techniques used, let me know by adding a comment below. When looking through my photos either here, on Flickr or at QuietLight.ca, if you see one you are wondering about, suggest it for a future Before and After column.

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Thanks for reading!

Lightroom 5 Smart Previews are the future!

SmartPreviewsI am enjoying the new features in Lightroom 5. Although not a significant upgrade from 4, there are a few very helpful tweaks. Specifically, the Radial Filter tool, the Healing Brush (still work to be done on this, but it looks like 5.2 may solve the issues) and the Automatic Perspective Correction (and associated tools) in Lens Corrections are great additions to LR. Each of these features have become part of my typical Lightroom workflow.

The major change in my workflow resulting from Lightroom 5, has been the adoption of Smart Previews. Regular Previews allow you to add Keywords and perform other Library functions, but you can’t do any processing in Develop without access to the original file. Having Smart Previews allows you to process and, to some extent,  export images without actually having the original image. You might think, “But where would the original image be? Shouldn’t it be on your computer?”. If I was working on a desktop computer with a huge hard drive then, yes, the original image would always be accessible and I would not need Smart Previews. However, I do all my work on a laptop.

Laptop hard drives are never big enough. I remember swapping out the 256MB hard drive on my MacBook Pro for a 500MB and I thought I had all the room in the world – NOT – especially with 43MB Nikon D800E raw files! Before Lightroom 5, I would keep all of my current year’s original files on the laptop for easy access as they would be the ones I use the most. These would be backed-up as part of my Time Machine back-up routine. Original files  from previous years were kept on a portable drive (and backed-up to a desktop drive) – something I could bring along with me and could be powered from the laptop itself. This was my system for a good five years.

Now, with Lightroom 5 and Smart Previews, I don’t keep any originals on the laptop – just Smart Previews. In fact, i just moved 101GB of 2013 photos over to the portable drive and replaced them with 356MB of Smart Previews. What a space saver! Even more of a space saver is that I don’t keep Smart Previews of every photograph – only my best – those starred 3 or above. Note: My LR catalogue resides on my laptop so I always have access to all my previous images. It is currently 22GB in size for 35,000+ photographs; 17GB of which are regular Previews.

My LR5 work flow goes like this:

  1. Import new images  via LR from the memory card into a 2013-TEMP folder on my laptop. Note: I could, at this time, use a checkbox in File Handling to have LR create Smart Previews of all the imported images, but I don’t need Smart Previews for all of them; I only want them for my “best of” images.
  2. After import, I compare, cull, select and edit as needed. This includes adding 3 stars to anything worth spending time on. Out of 100 shots, I may give 3 or more stars to 1/4 or 1/3 of them. Why don’t I toss out the others? I don’t know, I guess I’m a bit of a hoarder!
  3. Once I’m satisfied with the photographs I’m working with, I use Library Filter > Attribute to select the 3 stars and higher photos and make Smart Previews of them by selecting Library > Previews > Build Smart Previews. This can also be done in Library by clicking the icon below the Histogram called “Originals without Smart Previews”. A dialogue box will appear asking for confirmation.
  4. With the Smart Previews created, I move the folder with those images to the portable hard drive and back it up.
  5. I carry on working on my laptop processing images as if they are originals. When I re-connect the portable drive with the originals, the new info is automatically written to the originals. Brilliant, really!

I’ve just gone back to my 2012 photographs, selected 313 files and built Smart previews of them. The 84GB folder of all photos from 2012 was reduced to 387MB of Smart Previews. Now I’m going to each of my annual folders and doing the same.

This gives me all the convenience of processing originals without the need of having the portable drive attached. Working from an internal hard drive is always faster than a portable drive. So now I have the best of both worlds – except for one caveat… when I’m printing or exporting full-sized jpegs (or tiffs, etc.) I will still need to plug in the portable drive as the Smart Previews are only 2540 pixels on the longest side (due to be 2560 pixels with LR5.2).

The move from processing in Photoshop to processing in Lightroom has been a wonderful space saver in itself. I would much rather work with 43MB raw files than a 220MB Photoshop behemoth (and that’s without the addition of any Layers!). Now with even smaller Smart Previews, Adobe is making processing even better. [At least Adove is doing something right!]

What has spurned me on to doing this is a recent demo on The Grid with Scott Kelby and Matt Kloskowski by Lightroom guru Tom Hogarty showing Lightroom on an iPad. This is why Smart Previews have been introduced – to make Lightroom more light-weight for the limited space of tablets. I, for one, am looking forward to doing initial selects and edits and processing on iPad.

So, if Smart Previews fit into your workflow, have a look at Julieanne Kost’s video to give you a visual of how all of this works. You’ll find it at AdobeTV. If you have any questions – just send me an email – terry [at] luxborealis.com.

The Nikon D800e and ISO

In various reviews, one of the “jaw dropping” features of the Nikon D800e that has been identified is its amazing image quality, not just at ISO200 and 400, but all the way up to ISO 3200. I thought I would put it to the test under conditions that are, for a nature and landscape photographer, somewhat “normal” to ideal. Yesterday morning was one of those perfect early summer mornings with soft lighting and no wind. It would have been nice to have a little more dew, but hey, when it comes to nature, you take what you can get and say “Thank you!”

The photographs were made using a Nikkor 20mm ƒ2.8 AF-D lens mounted on sturdy Manfrotto 055 legs with a heavy duty head. They were exposed using mirror lock-up and an electronic release. They were shot at ƒ22 – typical for landscape work where I want everything from the immediate foreground to the “far hills” in focus. ƒ22 does introduce diffraction issues, but more on that in my next post.

The 100% crops were all taken from the centre of each frame as I am trying to show how the camera performs, not the lens. The 20mm is a great all-around wideangle – a focal length I love for landscapes – but it does have chromatic aberration issues in the corners that need a bit of TLC to correct.

Shown below is a series for each of the ISO200, 800 and 3200 shots. The images have been processed in Lightroom 4.1, all in the same way at default sharpening. The values are shown for each photo in theLR  panel at the right of each screen capture. You will see Full image views of each photo plus a view at 100% for the pixel peepers and a view at 50% for the realists. I then applied what I would call “appropriate” sharpening to each image to bring out its best qualities and there is a 100% view of each. Yes, the sharpening is different for each, but that’s what one would expect when working to achieve highest image quality at each ISO.

So, now you can be the judge. How well does the D800e hold up at different ISOs? While you can click on an image and scroll through the gallery one at a time, once you are in the gallery, you can also right-click on an image and select “Open Image in New Window” or “Open Image in New Tab”. That way you can do direct comparisons right in your browser. Alternatively, from within the gallery, you can right-click and choose “Save Image As…” (or whatever the equivalent is in Windows).

If you’re like me, you just might be somewhat astounded at what the D800e can do at ISO3200. Under ideal conditions (“normal contrast”, properly exposed images with no excessive recovery of lost detail in shadows which generates noise) and with appropriate sharpening, it is possible to achieve truly printable images at high ISO. In this case, “truly printable” includes large format prints as ISO3200 at 50% and even 100% is pretty amazing.

Some thoughts on cropping…

Rock and Light VII

Late last year, there was a rather protracted exchange on a photography forum regarding sensor/film aspect ratio and cropping. A couple of photographers were quite adamant in defending the point of view that the aspect ratio of the camera is sacrosanct and that all photographs should conform to the sensor proportions and not be cropped. So, if you have a 2:3 sensor (most APS and all full-frame sensors) then all your photographs must be printed or presented at 2:3 (e.g. 12″x18″ prints or 1200x800pixels on screen) and never be cropped. Perhaps most confounding was that they also felt that if one was to crop anything from the photograph, it would be regarded as a “failure” to properly compose in the first place. Needless to say, not everyone agreed.

Now, I understand completely where they were coming from – image quality is maximized when the whole sensor/film frame is utlised. What was surprising to me, however, was the vehemence expressed in the posts in support of the no-cropping point of view.

Baraka and his extended family

Being a small-sensor user, I know first-hand the importance of making best use of the sensor to maintain image quality. What’s the sense of cropping on-screen or in the darkroom if all I needed to do in the first place was move closer to my subject? This “fill-the-frame” concept has been around for almost as long as photography and became particularly important with the adoption of the Leica Standard in 1932. Small-frame 35mm film now had to compete with medium and large-format cameras which were the standards of the day and had much larger film surfaces which meant much higher image quality. To maximize the quality from a 35mm frame, the photographer had to make maximum use of it without cropping. This notion developed a near cult-following with photojournalists and street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson leading the way. To prove they did not crop, they went as far as filing away the edges of negative carriers to allow the edges of the film to show in the prints.

Basically, supporters of this notion have carried forward Henri Cartier-Bresson’s (and others’) technique by making it their own. One can’t quibble with personal choice of style. However, is it right to impose that style on other photographers as “the only way”? Shouldn’t photographers be free to make their own decisions about style without having one imposed on them? And, while 20/20 hindsight is wonderful, to call cropping evidence of a failure to compose properly in the first place seems misplaced to the point of verbal bullying.

Precise composition in the field is essential. It’s part of the art of seeing. However, does the world fit nicely and neatly into a 2×3 rectangle? Or a 6×7 rectangle? How about 6×6 or 4×5 or 4:3? It can, if one forces the issue, but should photographers be tied to a rectangle with proportions determined by engineers and camera manufacturers?

Approaching Front, Winter

I have a sensor that is 4036 x 3024 pixels in dimensions: a 4:3 ratio. However, I recognize that some compositions “work” better as a square, a 1:1 ratio. Other scenes benefit from being closer to a 16:9 ratio or even 2:1, letterbox style. I’m not going to ignore a scene I visualise as a square format just because I’m carrying a rectangle! I shoot it with my rectangular sensor and crop to what I originally saw: a square. However, when doing so, I maintain image quality by carefully composing to make best use of the width of the sensor. For most of the images I choose to crop, I do so because that’s the way I saw it in the field. I made the exposure knowing that the scene before me doesn’t fit the format I’m using.

I suppose I could force each and every composition into the 4:3 rectangle of my camera, but, to me, that seems wrong. My goal as a photographer is to “reveal the art inherent in nature” not to force nature into the proportions of a pre-determined rectangle. While making that forced composition is, in itself, an excellent exercise in seeing, it shouldn’t dictate every photograph one makes.

From my perspective, the bottom line is this: if one is pursuing photography as a visual art, a creative outlet for self-expression, then one should not be constrained either by the legacy of previous photographers or by the technical absolutes imposed by sensor or film proportions. Art, in itself, is a vehicle for free-thinking, not a recipe book for re-creating what others are already doing or have done. “Rules” such as, “compose for the aspect ratio of the viewfinder” and “never crop” (or, for that matter, the “rule of thirds”) were created to guide us, in particular those who are developing their talents and style; they are not meant to be absolutes.

Finally, a winter photography day

I just came back from 5 great days up at the family cottage – great days for family and down time, absolutely lousy for photography. Dull grey skies, bitter cold followed by rain but with no snow to “clean” things up. So today I went out to try and make up for it. I figured that after the cold night we’ve had, there might be some interesting ice up around the small limestone gorge around through which the

Eramosa River, Everton, Ontario

Eramosa River passes at Everton. There wasn’t, but here’s what I came up with over a period of 70 minutes or so.

The first photograph is of the general area I was working in. Dull green cedars, dull rock, dull sky, but dynamic water. So I de-emphasized the sky and composed and shot knowing I would be turning everything into black and white. What I found, as the afternoon progressed, was that my journey started with the obvious and gradually morphed into the abstract. The more time I spent looking, the more I began to see.

So here is the obvious – a small waterfall, but a wonderful dynamic created by the rushing river below the waterfall. I wanted to keep the birch on the right side as it provided a sense of depth so I knew I would need at least ƒ8, probably ƒ11. Also, due to the brightness of the “white” water, I would also need to increase my exposure to +1 stop above “normal” (using exposure compensation).

Eramosa River, Everton, Ontario; photo by Terry McDonald
Eramosa River, Everton, Ontario

However, with these settings at ISO 100 my shutter speed was only 1/15th – too fast to really capture the swirling movement of the water. Adding an NDx8 and my polarizer slowed the shutter speed to 1 second at ƒ11 and, at ƒ16, 2 seconds. As it turned out, ƒ/11 was enough depth-of-field. The concern with ƒ16 and small sensors is that diffraction will reduce sharpness, so ƒ11 was used for most shots. However, a 2-second exposure produced the best water patterns, so I used ƒ16 knowing that stinger capture sharpening would be needed . One thing I’ve learned about moving water shots is that the patterns in the water are different with each exposure. I ended up exposing 8 frames before I had one with a pattern I was satisfied with. I photographed the same scene to produce a square composition – one that I am equally pleased with.

In Lightroom,  I converted the raw file to B&W then used the basic controls to bring out the contrast between white water, dark water, white snow and dark rock. I ended up toning down the snow in the  bottom right using a graduated mask and increased the brightness of the birch using a adjustment brush. Lastly, I worked with an adjustment brush at 50% flow to build up some of the exposure and contrast in the water flowing downstream.

This is a very pleasing image for me, given the dull day. Using increased contrast, I was able to extract from the flat lighting a three-dimensional dynamic image portraying the beauty hidden by the initial dullness.

Eramosa River, Everton, Ontario; by Terry McDonald
Eramosa River, Everton, Ontario

With the “grand scene” finished, I began looking at some of the details. I worked on capturing that great flow of water. In this case, I kept the photo in colour and, in fact, increased the saturation significantly (100% – a first time for everything!). I found the increase in saturation gives the water and the flowing streams of white greater depth – a three dimensionality below the water that added to the three dimensionality across the water and from upstream to downstream. After a few ‘sketches”, I determined that a 2-second exposure gave the most dynamic water pattern, so set the aperture to ƒ14 accordingly. This is in combination with ISO 100, a polarizing filter, an NDx8 filter and +2 exposure compensation.

Eramosa River, Everton, Ontario; photo by Terry McDonald
Eramosa River, Everton, Ontario

For about half the time I spent there, I worked on another small waterfall downstream of the original. In this case, I was looking down on it from above, and became intrigued with the interplay of water and ice, foreground and background. The water seemed to disappear into a nothingness. I had a terrible time with some cedars that kept creeping into the bottom of the frame and some snow that was on the rock in the upper right. This made composition critical. I could have cropped them out, but I would rather make full use of the sensor and spend a few extra minutes nailing down precise composition. Originally, I composed this a horizontal photograph due to the right left movement of the water. While it “works”, when I changed to vertical, everything seemed to fall together more precisely due to the natural shapes and lines in the image.

Again, a 2-second exposure gave the most dynamic water pattern, so I adjusted the aperture to ƒ8 along with the polarizer, NDx8 and an exposure compensation of +1.3 stops. In Lightroom, the raw file was converted to B&W and additional contrast was added to the water and the ice. Exposure was carefully controlled so as not to lose detail in the bright lower left. Finally, I added a split tone preset I created called “Subtle Sepia” which I find adds depth and life to the otherwise quite grey-looking scene.

Everton is a place I will return to throughout the winter. I must thank Alan Norsworthy’s Flickr page for introducing me to this photographic gem. There are many more wonderful images here awaiting just the right snow, ice and light.

For more on Winter Photography, sign up for one of my Winter Nature Workshops in Guelph on January 21st and in Dundas (near Hamilton) on January 28th. To learn more about Lightroom, attend the Introductory Lightroom workshop on February 18th followed by Advanced Lightroom on the 25th – both in Guelph. More information can be found on the Workshop page of my website: luxborealis.com

Winter Workshops

Check out my Winter Workshops page – top right of this page.

I am offering two winter outdoor workshops – one in Guelph on Saturday, January 21st and the same in Dundas on Saturday, January 28th. These are full day workshops with a morning field session and an afternoon critique session.

In February, I am offering a two-part Adobe Photoshop Lightroom workshop. On Saturday, February 11, I will teach basic Lightroom – Library and the basics of the Develop module. On Saturday, February 18, we’ll go into more detail on the Develop side plus do some printing using the Print module.

For more information visit: Winter Workshops