Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Landscapes with deep colour and oomph

We live in the wide brown country yes? Well, not everywhere. There are the most amazing variants of colour and texture in the Australian Landscape waiting for us to see them and capture for our enjoyment.

Everyone says to shoot in the golden hour right? Do you know what they mean by that? It is the brief time after dawn which lasts until the sun starts to climb into the sky and again just before and often just after sunset.

Shooting during the golden hour gives you brighter stronger colours with deeper reds and yellows and because the sun isn't right up there the contrast between the ground and the sky is low enough that your sensor can capture both without washing out (over exposing) the sky or dark ground (underexposing). Poor exposure loses information in the image. You end up with pure whites (RGB values maxed out at 255, 255, 255) or pure blacks (0, 0, 0) which almost never really occur in nature. The effect this has is to rob the magic from your image by reducing the contrast and giving us unnatural colours.

The image below is a semi rural scene right on the outskirts of Melbourne's eastern suburbs in Rowville.

Even when we shoot at this time within a couple of hours of sunrise the sun climbs high into the sky. As it climbs it becomes harder for your sensor to cope with the contrast in brightness between ground and sky. While the image above it certainly acceptable it doesn't have much punch. It's a nice image of a grassy swampy field with some farm land in the background. It's nice to look at but it doesn't really capture the attention even though it is properly exposed and the composition follows thirds and has some nice variation from front to back.

So what can you do about it? Well you could post process the crap out of it and bring down the sky and maybe you could improve it. You could probably add some clarity and improve the contrast with your sliders... or you could do what perhaps should have been done in the first place. Add a polarising filter and a graduated neutral density filter to tone down the sky. So many people think I'll just fix it in post. Don't. Your life is too short so why waste it and sometimes you can't. Spend a few seconds and bung on some filters instead of sitting frustrated at the computer for half an hour on the image, unless of course you like doing that!

What a difference between these two images. They're shot one after the other and with a slight delay as I put  the polariser and the ND8 filter into my filter holder. They are the same f/stop they're both shot at f/11. This one at 1/25th of a second and the other at 1/40th. The two filters reduced the light so much the shutter had to stay open longer to compensate.

The two filters together have deepened all of the colours and made the sky more of a spectacle improving the tonal range of the image dramatically. The greens and browns of the foreground have been enhanced. The field grasses in the background have better greens and the trees are green instead of grey and the sky has taken on a wonderful deep blue. Overall there is much more contrast between the two images.

The real story comes from the histograms as seen on the camera back (you do look don't you?) and within my file catalogue manager of choice Lightroom. The first image shows quite a flat set of colours without reaching that magic 18% saturation on a lot of the graph. Both the darker (left) and brighter (right) areas have issues with the darker space being unrepresented and the brighter area of the sky to the right being strongly over saturated in the whites. The second histogram is for the second image and shows good saturation right across the board reaching or exceeding that magic 18% in most of the channels. It has cut back on the white in the image to almost nothing but the blacks now have representation and the other peaks are much stronger in all channels but especially reds.

As always, feel free to comment constructively. I'm always happy to hear from you, especially now that Blogger comments are visible on g+ we can really interact and have a conversation. If you've got a question, please ask because others probably have the same one.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Everybody Chimps, or Perhaps Should

I use my digital SLR all the time. I am comfortable with what it can do and with what I can do although I do like to challenge myself with new things.

When out with groups of photographers or when observing a group I sometimes hear people scoff at people who chimp their camera immediately after creating an image. By chimping I mean the action of reviewing the image (or series) I just created on the in built camera display.

Why do I chimp? Simple, the camera has important features that will help me to know if I have captured what I envisaged:

  • Review my composition - did I capture what I expected - often you notice things on the screen you DID NOT SEE in the viewfinder especially if you zoom into the image?
  • Review the image for blown highlights or loss of detail in dark areas using the built in highlight and shadow warnings (badly over or underexposed areas flash on my camera - many others have similar features) - I can decide if this is acceptable or if I need to rework the image (either changing settings and/or adding filters).
  • Review the histogram to see how well the colour is spread across the available spectrum - digital cameras have a small dynamic range compared to our eye so why would you only use some of it? Of course there are times when you have no choice but if you do, then think about revising settings if the entire histogram is bunched up one end of the graph.
  • Zoom into the image digitally and check the main focus point and see how well the depth of field (the areas of the image that remain in focus) worked and if they didn't revise my settings. I can also check for blur - when using longer lenses particularly in lower light situations (I often do) sometimes hand holding will introduce an unacceptable (to me) level of blur to the image. I can add a tripod to rectify this.

For me chimping is an important part of image capture. I might only spend 1/10th of a second glancing or I might spend a minute looking around in the image but I nearly always do it. I often travel to locations to create images and generally have something in mind before I go there that I want to create. That travel would be wasted if I failed to get what I wanted because of a poor choice of settings.

So those of you that scoff - feel free - each to their own - but chimping helps my strongest and most vociferous critic to be happy - me.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Got Dust Bunnies? Wet Clean Camera Sensor

After a trip out to Cape Liptrap (2.5 hours from my home) where I took a number of images that I thought I would be quite happy with; I discovered in PS that there were spots spread around my images some huge, some small. I did a test shot of the sky and discovered my sensor was filthy.

The photo of the Cape Liptrap Light Station shows the impact of dust on the sensor. The Lightroom "visualise spots" feature shows the worst of the visible dust spots in this image. The spots took a reasonable image that would have been worth putting some time into in PS to perfect and instead made me waste time healing the spots.

I had seen the spots from time to time before - well, at least the bigger ones - they only show up at exposures greater than f/11. The reason they appear after f/11 is to do with the makeup of the sensor housing. The dust is on glass cover over the top of the sensor that is a small distance away from the sensor itself. At f/11 and below the spots cast a shadow so diffuse they can be hard to see. The smaller the aperture the sharper the shadow that is cast until you get to f/22 (or higher) and the spots become very sharp and visible. The light house image below was shot at f/22 for great DOF and to reduce glare from the sky. I took some shots of the sea at f/32 trying to achieve a misty look as the waves broke over rocks and they were awful because of the spots. While you can clean these in LR with the spot remover and in photohop with clone and healing tools it's a pain in the arse.

I started hunting around for someone to clean the sensor and even considered booking it into Canon where I would likely have no camera for two to three weeks. A friend of mine and fellow photographer (much better than me!) David Burren convinced me to have a go myself. Mainly it took knowing that someone I actually knew had wet cleaned their sensor and not damaged it. I had concerns because I'd read both good and bad along with an amazing number of people holding up crossed fingers to ward off the wet sensor cleaning devil. David commented that he has not had to wet clean for ages since starting to use the Visible Dust Arctic Butterfly brush. I decided to buy the brush and a wet cleaning kit suited to my camera body's sensor size.

Before cleaning I took a test shot of the clear sky at f/22 focused to the minimum setting (i.e. the sky is out of focus deliberately).

Filthy Sensor. Spots highlighted by drawing around them.
This photo shows all the dust spots I can find after shooting the sky at f/22 and viewing the raw at 1:1. There are hundreds of the little bastards. I circled them for clarity.

Why has this happened? I'm careful and never leave the body without either a lens or a cap on it. I change lenses quickly with the camera opening facing downwards. The dust will still get in there. I've had this camera for about 2 and a half years and use it in some really filthy environments and sometimes in the wet. The sealing on the camera body and between the camera and lens are good but not perfect - dust will get in - even with the 'L' series glass that I use. The situation can be even worse with the cheaper lenses that I have used in the past because they are not sealed like the 'L's.

I rang around  and eventually found a store which had most of what I wanted. I made the trip into Melbourne from home and bought the Arctic Butterfly and swab kit and the fluid. After getting home I cleaned a work area and cleaned myself then sat down with the camera.

Initially I tried a Giotto rocket blower but that made the problem worse. If you think about it, the blower just sucks in the dust particles from the air and blasts them directly onto the sensor. The Arctic Butterfly did remove some dust but the welded on spots were still there. Next I cracked open the sensor swabs and did a run through - looking at the sensor I could see spots still and streaks from the swab. A test shot came out like this.

This was much better but I still wasn't happy. Many (most) of the spots were gone but there were some stubborn ones, some had moved and there were some streaky areas where the fluid had dried dirty.
Next up was this one where even more of the spots were gone but I still had some streaky areas.

I watched the tutorial video on the Visible Dust website again and hunted out some videos of other people using the products on you tube. I noticed that some of them were putting the fluid drops further up the swab and I decided to try this. This meant that there was less fluid in contact with the sensor and the 2nd pass with the back of the swab would be only just damp.

This yielded a much better result with the majority of the streaking gone and only a few spots left to deal with.

I did another pass with the same technique.

After the final pass there were very few spots and they were very faint. While I could go back and clean again, I've decided not to tempt fate and leave it like this and see how I go on my return trip to Cape Liptrap. There is one new big chunk so I'll give it another pass with the Arctic Butterfly brush and get rid of it that way. I'm quite happy with this process. I got rid of most of the rubbish and have not damaged my sensor or removed the coating or lost my first born child as people on the interweb thingy would have you believe would happen.
After a drying session then a few passes with the Arctic Butterfly (the camera cleaning tool that sounds like a sex toy)  and cleaning the lens in case dust is coming off that - duh. I have now have this wonderfully clean sensor. There is one small smudge but I'm done. I did a couple of test shots and even at f/22 I cannot see the smudge changing anything. Thanks heaps to David Burren for giving me a shove in the right direction and confirming that someone I actually knew had done this deed and lived to tell about it. I guess it is like anything - get the right advice, take your time, be careful and it will turn out well.
I might point out that the cost of brush, swabs and fluid came to about $240 so is about the same price as a professional clean. The good news is I have a clean camera, seven more swabs in the box, heaps of fluid and a brush that I can use until I wear it out.
One note of interest - I definitely would follow the advice and not re-use a swab on the sensor after it has been used once - however, I did make use of them to clean the LCD, the view finder and the body of the camera. No sense wasting them. I even cleaned my computer mouse with one.
The tutorials on www.visibledust.com make it look easier than it really is. To put it in context - Imagine cleaning a window from 2m away using only a cotton bud stuck on the end of a pole wet with two drops of windex.

What can I say to someone considering the same course of action, or who has come across this article searching for the resolution to their digital acne? I'd say consider if you can do it. You need a steady hand and a great deal of care. The sensor is housed under a sheet of glass but it isn't designed to have any great pressure put on it. Research the products, decide which would suit you, consume every tutorial you can find and have a crack. The worst you can do is bugger your camera completely! If this scares you (it scared me) then drop it off to your favourite service center and let someone else do it. Before you do - take and print a test shot like I did so you can demonstrate how bad it is and test if they made it better or ripped you off when it comes back.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Too Much LIght? Neutral Density May Be The Answer

What are Neutral Density Filters?

Neutral Density (ND) filters are simply a filter that mounts in front of your lens either by themselves or in combination that reduce light over some or all of the frame. They can come as screw mount or as square filters that use a mounting system to hold them. They can be made of plastic or glass. There are many brands. You tend to get what you pay for. Cheap Chinese versions can be had on ebay for a few dollars or you can utilise brands such as Cokin and Lee. The cheaper filters cut the light but introduce colour casts (chromatic aberation) in the resuling image. They can introduce softness too.

They come in various ratings, the most common being one stop ND2, two stop ND4 and three stop ND8. There are others right up to ND400 otherwise described as black glass.

You will noticed in the four images above which are the same composition but with no filter, ND2, ND4 and finally ND8 that the exposure of the sky changes but if left to its own devices the camera will change other areas too as it compensates for the darker area.

Generally speaking the best way to make use of these filters is on manual mode. Yes I know that's scary but it does not have to be. Expose an image so that it's right for the darker foreground, in this case the sand. Then add the filter without changing the exposure. In the examples above I left the camera on AV and as it was using evaluative metering across the frame it over compensated for the dark band of graduation at the top. This is especially noticeable in the right hand image where the sand is quite dramatically whiter and brighter.

Amount of light passed
f/stops lost
ND400/Big Stopper
Note that the above table is not strictly accurate - especially the ND400 (it's really about 8.75 stops), I've tried to keep it simple so use this information as a exposure guide to find your starting point then trial and error from there.


Full frame ND filters are used where you want to reduce the overall light. They have many uses, but the most common is where you wish to use a large aperture such as f/1.8 on a bright day or bright scene. Choose a full frame when the lighting over the scene is even.

Graduated Hard and Soft

When the scene is not evenly lit and there is a lot of contrast from one area to another a graduated filter can be helpful. Half the filter reduces the available light and the other half is clear. The boundary between the halves can be hard or gradual. Hard edge filters are most useful where the edge itself is hard, in architecture and from sky to sea for example. Gradual filters are better where the transition is also more gradual, such as the forest canopy or a rolling meadow. The filters in the image above are gradual.

Black Glass

Black glass also known as big stopper or ND400 are a special purpose ND. They can allow you to manage a daylight exposure so long you can smooth the sea, eliminate traffic or even see a world without people.

In this image I'm holding my black glass to obscure the sun and it's light trail across the water. The exposure is made for the overall area then I held the filter in place. I felt this was the best way to show the dramatic affect that this black filter has on the available amount of light. It doesn't let you expose the sun properly but it does cut out an enormous amount of light.

How Are They Used?

Once affixed to your camera you use them as though you would use any lens. 

Be aware that in camera automatic exposure software often fails when you have an full ND fitted. Generally you'll have to calculate your own exposure values changing one or more variables of the exposure triangle (ISO, aperture or shutter speed) to increase your exposure by the number of stops of the ND.

For graduated ND you expose for the dark area and let the ND cut down the light in the bright area. 

Be aware that auto focus systems often don't work as you would expect with ND filters fitted. Some cameras and lenses manage better than others. I find that my camera manages a good focus lock with all but the black glass. With that it might work in extremely bright environments.

Use your camera to measure your light and set the focus and change to manual focus then carefully fit your ND filter(s) and adjust your exposure to suit. Note that if your ND is screw in and your focus ring turns the barrel of your lens then you have to be very careful not to accidentally change focus when fitting the filter.

I find that while the filter may claim 1, 2, 4 or 10 stops of light reduction this rarely turns out to be quite so simple. Adding 10 stops either by opening the aperture  increasing the length of the exposure or boosting the ISO by 10 stops usually does not yield a well lit image. If you've lost colour and your histogram is flat and not full width then you have not exposed sufficiently, try again with allowing more light in.

When would you use them?

Full Frame and Black Glass

The most common reason for me to dig an ND out of the bag is to increase exposure time. I use ND for making milky waterfalls, eradicating pesky people from a scene or perhaps creatively adding drama by having your model stand still while everyone else gets blurred.

This image by fellow Melbourne photographer +Trace McLean shows a creative use of the ND. His camera is set for a long exposure and he stands still while the peak hour people stream around him.

This creative use gives an impression of a rock washed by tides that shall not be moved.

Other interpretations include being unchanging in a world of change.

Of course you could replicate this in photoshop but that would spoil the fun of actually standing in the path and getting in the way unmoving.

The image was published on g+ and is used here with permission from Trace and shows the steps of Flinders Street Station in Melbourne under the famous clocks.

The image to the right is a sunset image from the groyne at Mentone near the end of Warrigul Rd.

The use of the ND400 allowed for a very long exposure that would normally not be possible at that time of day. This allows the eye to view the foreground detritus, the groyne itself and the path of light to the sun as the normally distracting wavelets of the sea are gone.

The black glass is also used to remove unwanted distraction and to add serenity to a scene. In the left image below there is a dog by the rock, a number of birds in the air and chop on the surface of the water. In the right image these are simply gone leaving the oily feel of the smooth water leading the eye to the distant shore and pastel sky.

The black glass also lends itself to creating characteristic mist that occurs in long exposures where there is bright light and waves.

All the ND is doing here is allowing for that wonderfully long expoure letting the magic of light and nature take care of the rest.

My final example use is astronomical  in 2012 Venus transited the Sun. The planet crossed between the sun and earth occluding a small area of the sun.

To achieve this shot I utilised two of the ND400's stacked together and my 70-200 at f/64 as well as the 2X extender which eats another 2 stops. This enormous reduction in light enabled me to catch this rare event in bright daylight. That black area of the image was bright blue sky.

I must urge caution when photographing the sun. Ever seen an ant fried with a magnifying glass? Now imagine that heat concentrated onto your camera mirror, sensor shutter curtain and the sensor itself or right into your eye through the view finder. Always use live view on the LCD to avoid blinding yourself.  When shooting the sun I keep the lens and camera covered with a dark towel until I'm ready to shoot. I shoot then re-cover before any noticeable heat build up can occur.

This image created during the White Night festival in Melbourne shows hundreds of thousands of people that have been turned into a brown mist by a black glass assisted long exposure of several minutes. The filter basically made them vanish.

Imagine what you could do with less people? Want to empty Bourke St at lunchtime? Get a clear image of the Flinders St clocks during the day? Black glass and a long exposure is the answer.

Mixing white cap waves with long exposure and good light yields a wonderful misty effect showing where the wave heights are as they come through. You get a base level which is the normal sea level without waves and a layer of mist the height of the waves. Black glass with a long exposure during the day or during the blue (pre dawn) or golden (pre sunset) hours will help you to generate this effect in your images. At the height of the day you may need to stack two or more black glass filters.

As a final image for this blog you can do wonderful things with waterfalls. Even small ones like this at Shiprock falls near Gembrook.

The black glass along with a long exposure develops the water into a white mist which looks so much better than stop motion water. The mist conveys the movement and even the sound of the waterfall to the viewer.


I utilise graduated ND a lot. I often use them at the beach and when creating landscapes. I've also used them to reduce the glare off water and to mask bright spots when photographing the interior of a structure with big windows. You can also use them in architecture where you want a blue sky with a reasonably well exposed building.

Fire Spinning With Steel Wool

We've all seen those glorious images of spun fire with orange streaks and bouncing sparks.

Ever wondered how it's done?  It's simple enough but first a word on safety. This is dangerous. It's very hot and will burn you,  your clothes and your surroundings. You cannot put it out until it finishes burning once it gets going.

The rain of fire is produced by burning a tight bun of steel wool laced into a kitchen whisk. Yep steel burns, how about that!

The steel wool comes from the hardware store and is quite cheap at a few dollars per kilo. The local home brand is fine. I use 00 or 000 both burn great. The whisk is from the supermarket. Go cheap they don't last long.  You can use just about any rope or string. I light with a butane torch but matches and a 9vdc battery will also work.

Lace the steel wool into the whisk fairly tightly minimising the wool that's outside the whisk. Outside bits come off as flaming burning molten steel meteors. I can attest that they really hurt when they hit you.

Once it's all good. Practice the spin for weight. Get well away from your camera if you're using one. My remote trigger can be locked on and will simply shoot continuously  Expose for the background. You want at least four seconds and up to thirty.  The fire is fairly bright so it will take a few goes to get it right.
Later you can work on patterns but for now go with the safest and spin it above your head. Light Up when ready and spin while the wool burns. The faster you spin the brighter the fire and the shorter time it will last.

+kevin beitler on g+ contacted me and suggested a square metal wire basket instead of the whisk and has written an article on his site about his method.

This image is his and is reproduced with permission of his rig.

You can read Kevin's article. Essentially Kevin's point of why he prefers the basket to the whisk is that it is safer (less blobs come flying out) and it's quicker to load.

To try it out, I made my own basket out of stainless steel wire mesh about 1.5mm diameter.

This basket will hold around 100g of steel wool and while it certainly resolves the blob problem that Kevin discusses in his article it also has some side effects that make me prefer the whisk.

  • The basket is much heavier and I got rope burn from twirling it;
  • There are a less sparks overall with most sparks at the start then it settles to a glowing blob of slag which persists for ages (which is great for drawing patterns);
  • You have to deal with the slag; and finally
  • It still had some big blobs fly out.

Below is an image of the basket in action. You can clearly see that the sparks didn't last very long and then settled into the glowing blob of slag. I had to twirl much harder and longer than usual to keep the blob glowing to make the photographs interesting.

Generally a 100gm spin in a whisk will burn and produce good strong large sparks for around 20 seconds at least where as 100gm in the cage ran out of sparks in less than 10 seconds then glowed for another 20 after that. I think if I'm looking to draw patterns like the atom then the cage is going to be useful, otherwise I prefer the whisk. Remember that if you turn the wool around every wire and lace it into the whisk rather than just shove it in the centre or wrap it around the outside the giant blob exodus is limited.

G+ people and fellow photowalkers +Nat King +Lady Fran W and +Charles Strebor found me this giant grill basket in the hard rubbish, of course I had to try it - it burns up about 250g of steel wool in 2 seconds but wow - what an amazing amount of sparks!

This is the giant basket in action, the fun is over very quickly and the resulting fire is very bright!

Charles was on the fire poi this night and I spun with whisk, basket and the grill basket during the night.

The grill basket is a lot of fun but is over too quickly and one of the few times I've been burnt came from this. So many sparks come out that you risk setting fire to yourself!

You can find  bunch of my spin images on g+.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Great Secret

What is the one thing that camera manufacturers don't want you to know? The one photography secret that is so powerful they guard it jealously going to any length to keep it from you. They spend millions of dollars every year in advertising to keep you in the dark. The great secret that should not be so secret.  We the consumer is driven to have the biggest, the best, the "greatest". It is manifest in the camera brand wars that we see on the net, at the club and even in the home between family members.

Great images do not come from a great camera in the same way that great carving does not come from the chisel, great cooking does not come the stove and great writing does not come from the keyboard. Great images come from the eyes, mind and hand of the person that made them.

Better tools can be helpful if they are well known and well understood by the mind using them otherwise the mind-numbing additional plethora of options can simply get in the way of a good photograph.

That vision is more important than the tools is borne out by the selection of timeless images that have come from photographers of the past. They did not have latest sensor X, brand Y and model N-1. They had a box with a simple glass lens in one end and a glass plate covered in emulsion at the other end. The really advanced ones had an adjustable box with a bellows. Ask yourself why these images are still with us today.

So what do you need to create great photographs? Vision. An eye to discover from the people, things and places around you what YOU like to photograph. That's all it is. Simple. In photography creating the image is all about you. Once your image is viewed it is completed by the viewer. They interpret your vision into their own.

Yes there are the classic rules and it does not hurt to learn them - but don't be driven by them (I'm not going to cover them plenty of others have). Break them when your vision says you should or you just feel like it. Gut feel should never be dismissed.

How do you know you have vision or the photographer's eye as I've also heard it called. Simple really, as you move around the space you are in you will notice things. You will see shapes, forms and colours, not as others see them as a whole context but ripped apart into their individual elements. You will start evaluating everything you see to get a feel for an image that might jump out at you. You will start to see light. You will see the colours as they change. You will see the impact the light has on objects as you move around and the light changes.

I didn't believe this when I was first told it, but now I know better because it happens to me and I love it.

The image in this post was taken at Tower Hill Reserve near Warrnambool in South Western Victoria. It is a beautiful place, one that I've visited several times and will always hold my attention.