Saturday, December 12, 2009

Highton Ridley's Video Tutorial

18-55mm lens at 18mm. 1/100 sec at f/18 and ISO 200.

I took the above shot back in July on a trip to Monterey. It was a beautiful day--there were these great clouds in the sky, and they were blocking the sun and creating some nice soft light. The water was amazingly clear, and there were all of these coarse, reddish-brown rocks at the end of the beach that added some great contrast in color and texture to the water.

When I tried processing the photo originally, though, I had a tough time getting the colors right and there wasn't really enough of a subject to make the shot interesting, so I kept giving up every time I tried to do something with it.

Then, a few weeks ago, I discovered this "high contrast black and white" workflow that another blogger, Highton Ridley, has generously shared on his site. I copied his workflow to create the above image, and I think the black and white works a lot better. It manages to highlight the awesome textures while mostly hiding the color issues.

Highton Ridley has created a superb video tutorial to share his workflow. Have a look at some of the inspiring work on his site, then take some time to watch the video; it's really cool! I think you'll also find his accent quite soothing :)

I learned a lot from his video. The high contrast black and white process is interesting in itself, but I also felt like I picked up some more general Photoshop knowledge from it.

I've included my notes from the tutorial below, mostly for my own benefit. Some of the techniques here are fairly advanced, and some of my notes probably won't make sense without having seen the video first, but here they are.
  • To perform the HDR, he creates three exposures from a single RAW file. I had kind of forgotten that this was a possibility! It works as long as the single exposure has enough detail in the highlights and shadows, and prevents you from having to align three separate exposures.
  • In creating the three exposures, he adjusts the exposure to get the tones "right" in a part of the image. I'm accustomed to just taking three exposures at -2, 0, and +2 and working with that. I'm curious if he gets a better result by choosing the exposures more carefully.
  • While playing with the HDR settings, he emphasizes preserving detail, bringing out textures, and creating a range of tones.
  • He seems to be using a trial version of Dynamic HDR, perhaps that program has a less intrusive watermark?
  • He does some perspective correction in Photoshop. I didn't notice the change, but it'd be interesting to learn more about this.
  • He converts to black and white using sliders to control how dark or light each color is represented. He begins by flipping through the different presets to find the best starting point.
  • You'd think it'd be easy to just convert to grayscale, but really there's a lot of adjusting you can do to get it just right! Again, he focuses on preserving detail and textures, and getting a nice range of tones.
  • He shares an interesting method for increasing overall contrast:
  1. Add a curves layer, don't touch the curve (leave it linear), and hit ok.
  2. Change the "blending mode" of the curves layer to "overlay".
  3. Bring the opacity of the curves layer to 0%, then gradually bring it up (it looks like there's a way to simply drag the mouse left and right to adjust the opacity) (52% for his image)
  • He also shared an interesting method for adding a vignette:
  1. Add a generic layer
  2. Change the blending mode to soft light.
  3. Press "d" to set the default colors, then fill the layer with black.
  4. Choose the largest eraser, with a brush size of 2500px. Make the eraser as soft as possible--turn the hardness down to 0%.
  5. Use the eraser, starting in the center and working outwards, to create a vignette.
  6. Turn down the opacity of the vignette layer some (62% for his image) to make it more subtle
  • His last step is to flatten the image and apply unsharp mask.
There were a couple things I saw him do which I couldn't figure out...
- How do you use the scroll wheel to flick between B&W presets?
- How do you use the mouse to move left and right to adjust a layer's opacity?

Here is how I applied his workflow to create the above image.

I started with a single RAW image. In Lightroom, I straightened the horizon and removed dust spots, then created 2 virtual copies and adjusted their exposures, one at -2ev and one at +2ev.

I exported the three images as TIFFs (TIFF is a loss-less format) and imported them into Photomatix. I wish I had saved the Photomatix settings to show you, but I didn't. Here's the tone-mapped result, at any rate.

The color HDR output is pretty neat, but it needs some work to bring it back to reality. To publish the color version, I think I'd need to go in and repair the sky by masking in some of one of the source images, and maybe work on the rocks some, too. If I want to keep doing HDR, I need to get to the point where I'm comfortable doing that kind of sophisticated masking, but I'm not there yet. In the meantime, I think the black and white conversion hides some of these color issues and still looks great.

I took the HDR output into photoshop and converted it to black and white. Below are also the values I used in the black and white adjustment layer.

To wrap it up, I used his contrast and vignette techniques, which added a lot of punch (the above image looks really flat by comparison), then brought the result back into Lightroom to use its powerful sharpening tool.

Thanks again to Highton Ridley for sharing his knowledge and technique!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

We're having a baby, what camera should we buy?!

Or, the alternate title, "2009 Holiday Camera Buyer's Guide for Expectant Parents".

We have a couple sets of friends who are expecting babies this next year. We all want to remember our children's early years well, and our friends are interested in trading in their older compact cameras for something that will help them better capture their growing families.

Being their friend-who's-into-photography, I feel obligated to give some input. Now I should include a disclaimer here: there are a few reasons why I'm qualified to give an opinion, but probably more reasons why I'm not. Nonetheless, I care about my friends and have done my best here, and I feel pretty good about the conclusions.

It's an exciting time to buy a digital SLR! Jess and I use a Canon 20D, which is just about four years old now, and I can assure you that our camera is pretty low on the list of things which are holding us back from creating better images ("lack of artistic talent" being much higher on my list :) ). Even the cheapest SLR today can outperform ours in some important ways, so you'll be buying a really powerful creative tool!

First, a few general thoughts on buying a camera.

Don't invest too much
Cameras don't hold their value long after the next model comes out. Just like a car, a new TV, or any other piece of consumer electronics, cameras depreciate in value each month you own them. So try to resist the urge to spend too much on features that will be cheaper and more standard next year.

Canon releases a new model of its lower-level cameras about every 12-18 months. Check out the timeline at the bottom of this wikipedia article.

Ignore the Megapixels
I have to admit that trying to gain a complete understanding of the megapixel issue has been a big headache for me; there's a lot of incomplete information out there, and it feels like every time I learn something new it opens a few more questions. Fortunately, there seems to be a pretty consistent conclusion that unless you're intending to make pretty large prints, more megapixels aren't going to help you in any way.

I decided not to try and completely restate the arguments I've read--it was a lot to cover and I wanted to avoid accidentally proliferating misinformation. But here's at least a short summary of the big arguments.
  • Cameras you'll be looking at today have at least 8MP, which is plenty for the resolutions at which we typically view our pictures. Online and on our computers, we share and view images at much lower resolutions than an 8MP camera can provide. For example, to make a 1920x1080 wallpaper for your 24" widescreen monitor, you only need a 2.1MP image.
  • You can look online to find recommended maximum print sizes for a given resolution. Any camera you buy today is sufficient for making excellent 8x10 prints.
  • We tend to lust after more megapixels thinking that it will give us sharper images. But if your images don't look sharp, it's pretty unlikely that your camera resolution is the problem. It's more likely an issue with poor focusing, subject movement or camera movement at low shutter speeds, lens quality, image noise, or even the aperture used.
  • Megapixels are a deceiving measurement of resolution. It requires a large change in the number of megapixels to produce an appreciable change in resolution.
For a more in-depth discussion of the issue, check out this article.

All that to say, don't pay more to get 12 or 15 megapixels instead of 10. Look at the camera's other features like how it handles noise at higher ISOs.

The upside to the megapixels not being important is that the entry-level SLR you buy today will hopefully be sufficient for you for a relatively long time!

Shooting In Low Light
Alright, so don't let yourself spend more than you need to, and don't sweat the megapixels. What should you look for then?

What people seem to want most out of their cameras is to get great shots in the poor (low) lighting conditions we live most of our lives in, i.e., indoors or at night. We want to sit in our baby's bedroom and capture a great scene of him smiling and waving his arms around--never mind that there's not much light and the subject is moving around!

Instead, what we get is a noisy, grainy, blurred, or even out-of-focus image that's not at all what we saw. The easy solution? Spend lots of money on your camera! Buy a $2,500 Canon 5D with superb noise performance and spend another grand or so on a super-fast zoom lens. Problem solved, post written.

Oh, what's that you say? You don't want to spend that much? :) Well, on the opposite end of the spectrum, here's what I'd suggest. Keep the camera you have, and don't ask the impossible of it. Instead, go to the park, throw down a blanket under a tree, and take some photos in some nice, bright, diffused light. Your 4MP compact will work wonders.

That's not quite fair either, though. Staging all of your photos isn't that fun, and you'll probably never do it. Fortunately, there are some great entry-level SLRs which provide a happy medium between price and performance.

Why buy an SLR?

The main reason to buy an SLR is for artistic control, but there are still some very good reasons to buy one and just use it in full-auto.

SLRs are built with superior image sensors. I was glad I got to learn about this, it's always been a bit of a mystery to me. In order to make a compact camera small, camera manufacturers have to use small lenses with short focal lengths. To achieve the same magnification as an SLR, they have to then use tiny image sensors. These image sensors are very small--the sensor in a digital SLR is more than 13 times larger than the one in a typical compact camera! The pixels are packed incredibly tight, and its very difficult to achieve the same level of noise performance as a larger sensor. I appreciated the discussion of this difference in this review of the top-of-the-line Canon point-and-shoot (look for the section titled "sensor").

I've always wondered, why don't they make a point-and-shoot with the same sensors as an SLR? There's your answer--there are physical constraints which prevent the smaller cameras from using the nicer sensors and achieving the same performance as the bulkier SLRs. An SLR will fundamentally give you better images with lower noise at high ISOs.

Another good reason to go with an SLR is their shooting speed. SLRs include more powerful image processors which allow the camera to take a number of shots in quick succession. This can be really helpful when you're trying to capture a moving target like a child. You can hold down the shutter release to fire off a burst of shots and hope that one of them turns out well. Or just fire away with individual shots without having to wait in-between. Point-and-shoot cameras, on the other hand, typically involve a lag of a few seconds in between shots.

Finally, you can also buy nice lenses for your SLR with large maximum apertures. These will perform better in low light, and can also give a more artistic look to your photos by creating blurred backgrounds and drawing more attention to the subject. The fixed-length 50mm lens will perform very well and is very reasonable at about $100. I should point out, though, that a large aperture with a close-up subject means an incredibly shallow depth of field, and it can be tough to keep the subject in focus!

Entry-level SLRs on the market
That's all of the background, let's look at some actual cameras.

I'm going to keep the discussion focused on Canon models here because I'm talking to my friends, and Canon's what Jess and I shoot, so that's what we'd be best able to help with. If you have a reason to go towards Nikon instead, the Nikon D3000 is a solid competitor to the Canon Rebel XS (which I recommend below) and you can't go wrong with it.

Canon has an excellent entry-level SLR called the Digital Rebel, of which there are three models: the XS ($480), XSi ($570), and T1i ($690). I'll discuss each of them in a bit.
The XS, front and back

Buying a used SLR
With the "cameras don't hold their value" point in mind, I also looked at the option of buying a used Canon 30D. The 30D is in the camera line a step above the Digital Rebel models. The 30D was released in 2006 to replace the 20D that Jess and I use. The current model in this line is the 50D, released at the end of 2008, which is about $1,000 on Amazon.

Our local camera store, Samy's Camera, has a used 30D that's in great condition for $500. Talking to the guys at Samy's, this probably isn't the right direction, though. The 30D does not come with an image-stabilized lens, and it's reasonable to expect that the sensor in the newer rebel has better noise performance than this older but more professional model. The newer rebels also have some neat features built in for preventing and cleaning sensor dust, which has been a big pain for me with our 20D.

There were only two reasons that I gathered why you'd want to go with the 30D. The 30D has a larger, sturdier, and more durable housing than the rebel. It feels more substantial and has a larger grip. I was told that it has better seals than the rebel, and it'd be the better bet if you plan to shoot in some more rugged, dirtier conditions. Also, it can capture more frames per second than the rebel, which you'd care about if you were a sports photographer :).

Canon Digital Rebel Comparison
With that aside, here's what I've learned of the rebels. They all come with an image-stabilized lens, which is excellent. The image-stabilized lenses work magic in low light, and let you get away with hand-holding the camera at much slower shutter speeds. The caveat, though, is that they only steady the camera's image and not your subject. The subject has to hold really still or their movement will turn them into a blur. So they're not much help when your baby's moving all around, but could definitely help capture him sleeping or in a rare moment of stillness.

At first glance, the differences between the three models seem like gimmicks that Canon is throwing in to try and get you to spend more. Reading some in-depth reviews, though, revealed some interesting features and improvements added to the nicer models. They each have progressively better noise performance at high ISO, plus some subtle features which may interest a more serious photographer.

Here's what I pulled out as the most interesting features for each one. I've included the link to the full review that I read if you're interested in a more in-depth look.

I'll tell you upfront that I think the XS is the best bet. I think that the higher prices for the nicer models are justified and they aren't bad buys, but, since even the base model has a solid set of features, I also think it makes the most sense to get an SLR for as little as possible, and buy another one four or five years down the road when today's "high end" features become standard.

Canon Rebel XS ($480)
  • A fully capable SLR, there's no major feature missing here
  • 10.1MP with great noise performance even at ISO1600
  • 2.5" display
  • 3.5 shots per second
  • Supports "Live View"--you can shoot using the LCD instead of the viewfinder. This seems like a neat feature for when you want to place the camera somewhere where it's impractical to get your face up to the viewfinder.
  • Here's the link to a detailed review.
Canon Rebel XSi ($557)
  • Slightly better noise performance
  • 3.0" inch display
  • 12.2 megapixels
  • 9 auto-focus points as opposed to 7 on the XS.
  • If you get pretty serious about editing you may decide to shoot in uncompressed RAW format. The XSi can shoot 3.5 frames per second RAW, but the XS can only shoot 1.5.
  • Here's a link to a detailed review.
Canon Rebel T1i ($690)
  • Significantly better noise performance, with a higher maximum ISO
  • Higher resolution 3.0 inch display
  • 15.5 megapixels
  • Shoots 1080p "full HD" video. This sounds cool, especially because you could use your nice SLR lenses to get wide angle or zoomed in shots. Apparently, though, it's pretty cumbersome and more interesting to people who want to play with artistic videography rather than shoot home videos. You can't control the aperture, which is surprising on an SLR, and the video doesn't auto-focus in the same fluid way as a simple camcorder. I wouldn't make this feature the deciding factor.
  • Here's a link to a detailed review.
Again, I think the XS represents an awesome low-cost opportunity to get your hands on an SLR, and it's not missing any major features that are going to make you want to upgrade in a year if you decide to get more serious.

Look out for the Rebel T1!
I wish we could end things there, but sadly, there's one very important thing to point out. If you look back at that Canon SLR timeline (at the bottom of the article), it seems likely that the Rebel XS is due to be replaced any month now. An internet rumor earlier this year even suggested that a "Rebel T1" would be coming out by this Christmas to replace the XS. That obviously hasn't happened, but it seems likely that it will be here in the next 6 months.

It's annoying being on a boundary like this. On the other hand, Amazon's price for the Rebel XS seems like a pretty steep discount, and it may be that it takes into account the fact that the XS has been around a while and its time is almost up. The T1 will probably sell for closer to its retail, making it a more expensive camera initially. If $480 really is a good price for the XS (and I don't know how to assert that), it seems like it might make sense get your hands on a new SLR for the lowest possible dollar amount, rather than pay more for some new features you may not need.

It's a bummer to leave things on that note of uncertainty, but I hope this gives you some good options to consider, and has you excited about purchasing an SLR! Good luck, you can't really go wrong!

I want to say thank you to:

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The 50mm Lens

At the beginning of the year, I bought my wife our 50mm f/1.8 lens for her birthday, and we've loved it! The photos of our son Logan in this post were taken by her with the 50mm lens.

50mm, 1/100 sec at f/1.8, ISO 200

If you're lucky enough to own an SLR camera, then I think you should also consider getting a fixed-length 50mm lens... and here's why.

First, a little background. 50mm is a special focal length in photography; a 50mm lens is also referred to as a "normal" lens. The reason for this is that, on a 35mm film camera, the perspective you get with a 50mm lens is the same as human vision. You can look through the viewfinder with one eye, and keep the other eye open, and you should be able to see normally.

So why did I mention a 35mm film camera? Well, 50mm isn't actually "normal" on our camera (a Canon 20D) or probably yours. The reason for this is that the sensor in most digital SLRs is not as large as 35mm film. Instead, our digital cameras use a sensor format called APS-C which is less than half the size of 35mm film.

The smaller sensor size has a magnification effect that's referred to as a "crop factor". APS-C has a crop factor of 1.6, meaning that a 50mm lens on our camera has the same field of view as a longer 80mm lens on film. To truly get a "normal" perspective on our camera, we'd need a lens with a focal length of about 31mm. Nonetheless, the 50mm lens has remained a very popular length for photographers.

50mm, 1/1250sec at f/3.2, ISO 200

Aside: Why are the sensors smaller in digital cameras?
Well, professional-level digital SLRs, such as the Canon 5D, do actually have "full frame" (35mm) sensors... and they cost more than twice as much as the next camera down. The reason for this is pretty simple--the cost of manufacturing semiconductor chips is pretty directly related to their size. You can only fit so many chips on a wafer, and larger chips means fewer chips per wafer. Creating cameras that use a smaller-sized sensor makes them affordable enough that you and I can have one.

One of the biggest advantages to a full-frame sensor is that it can have the same number of megapixels as a smaller sensor, but without having to pack them in as tightly. This makes a big difference in the noise performance of the sensor. A shot from a Canon 5D at ISO 1600 will look a lot cleaner than it does on our 20D at the same ISO. Another difference, which relates to the crop factor, is that full-frame sensors have a shallower depth-of-field for a given aperture, making it easier to achieve artistic blurred backgrounds.

Ok, so now we know why 50mm is a (historically?) significant focal length, but why would you want a fixed-length lens? Don't you want the flexibility to zoom in and out? Isn't being stuck at one focal length a huge pain?

There are actually a number of advantages to using a fixed-length lens (also called a "prime" lens) over a zoom.

A fixed-length lens is much simpler to design and construct than a zoom, and this has two important consequences. The first is that they can have much better performance than zooms. The simpler design and less lens elements means that they produce some of the sharpest images, and can have larger apertures (for low light and shallow depth-of-field) than any zoom. The second is that they can be made cheaper--much cheaper. To put it in perspective, my wife enjoys photographing people (especially our son), and would love to own the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8

That lens alone costs about $1,300. Guess how much our 50mm f/1.8 lens cost us? $90! And note the difference there in maximum aperture--the $90 50mm can let it in more light (1 1/3 stops) than the $1,300 24-70mm zoom! I'd also point out that our 50mm only weighs 4.6oz, while the 24-70mm weighs 2.7lbs. That's half-a-pound more than our camera body, and literally almost ten times as heavy as the 50mm lens. That zoom lens is a beast!

Canon 50mm f/1.8

The fixed-length of the lens may seem limiting, but it can actually have some benefits to your work. It forces you to work within a single perspective, and to move yourself around and see things from different angles in order to frame your shot. The limitation can actually help inspire creativity!

50mm, 5.0 sec at f/22, ISO 100

All-in-all, the 50mm f/1.8 lens is one of the greatest bargains in all of photography. You get an incredibly powerful creative tool at a very low price (that is, relative to the crazy expensive world of photography).

I should point out that Canon actually makes 3 different 50mm lens. Amazon currently sells the f/1.8 model for $98, the f/1.4 for $375, and the f/1.2 for a cool $1,500. One thing that you'll notice about the f/1.8 (and probably an important factor in its cost) is that the housing is made of plastic. It's noticeable and not very sexy, but the savings are worth it.


If you decide to buy a 50mm lens, you can use any of the Amazon links in this post to buy it and I'll get a little commission for it. Or you can go straight to Amazon just to spite me :). Either way, go buy one and let it inspire you!!!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Beginning Editing (A Review of Google's Picasa)

I think a lot of people are afraid of editing their photos. It's so complicated and involved--there's way too much to learn!

I wanted to step back and take a very elementary look at editing, and try to convince you that the basics of editing are not hard at all, and definitely worth your time.

To do this, I want to show you how to use Google's free and amazing image organization and editing tool, Picasa. There's no fancy software or equipment required here, just a point-and-shoot digital camera and a free tool you can find on the web. You can download Picasa for the PC here or the Mac, here.

Managing Your Photos
Talking about managing photos has always seemed boring to me, but trust me, you'll appreciate what Picasa can do here.

Picasa is a superb tool for organizing your collection of photos. Some highlights are that it allows you to create 'virtual albums' which allow you to create a collection of photos without having them all live in the same directory on your computer. Also, it automatically creates backups of the originals of your photos so that you don't have to invent your own file naming scheme for maintaining original vs. edited copies of your files.

I want focus mainly on editing here, so to get you hyped about Picasa's many other cool features, I'll just point you to a video Google has created to show off Picasa, here.

On to Editing
When Jess and I first started managing our digital photos from trips we had taken and outings with our friends, probably 6 years ago now, we used a Windows tool called Microsoft Office Picture Manager. It had an 'auto-correct' button, and we'd go through all of our photos and auto-correct them. Usually the result was great, but if it was horrible we'd just undo it and move on.

Picasa has the same feature, but with a bit of a Google spin to it, as it's labeled the "I'm feeling lucky" button.

If you're someone who likes to take and share pictures (and of course you are), but doesn't want to learn a lot about editing, just hit this button. You'll be blown away by the results on many of your photos.

Here are a few before-and-after images that have been auto-corrected by Picasa. I honestly only had to hit one button. These are snapshots we took on a trip to Italy in 2005 with a 4 megapixel Olympus point-and-shoot, so nothing fancy here!



Eventually you will come across some photos where the auto-correct seems to do more harm then good. I think the "I'm feeling lucky" button is often just the same as hitting both the "Auto Color" and "Auto Contrast" buttons that are right next to it. Typically if you feel like Picasa didn't auto-correct the image well it's because it didn't get the auto color right. Try just hitting Auto Contrast and leaving it at that.

Plunging Deeper
Ready for a little more control, eh? There's a few other simple corrections you can make.

1. Fill Light
On the basic tab, notice the "Fill Light" slider towards the bottom. This is a handy, seemingly magical tool that fixes a common problem with photos. When we take snapshots, we rarely put much effort into getting perfect, even lighting on the scene. Your eye adjusts to different lighting conditions easily, so you don't really notice when, because of the direction or source of light, your subject is actually much darker than everything around it. The result is that your subject looks too dark in the final photo. Fortunately, the fill light tool can help. Push the slider towards the right and you will see your subject lighten up, as if someone had placed a "fill light" on the ground in front of you to brighten your subject.

This picture was taken in front of the Trevi Fountain in Rome. The fountain's in full sun, but we're sitting in the shade. I auto-corrected the image then added some fill light so you could still make out our faces. Man, we look young there!



2. Saturation
Go to the Effects page and click 'Saturation'. Most photos can benefit from a bit of a saturation boost, which will give the photo's colors some more punch.

Show some restraint, though! It's easy to get carried away with saturation and end up with some electric colors that don't look natural. Watch the areas of your photo that already have bright colors. If boosting the saturation causes you to lose a lot of detail in those areas, you're going too far.

3. Contrast
Picasa doesn't include a contrast slider, but if you look at the 'Tuning' page you'll see a 'Shadows' slider which allows you to darken the shadows and a 'Highlights' slider that allows you to brighten the highlights.Giving each of these a bump can add some extra contrast to your photo.


A little bump to the shadows and highlights can add some nice contrast

Experiment on your own
Picasa has a lot of other neat features, but I don't want to overwhelm you. Just play with what you've seen here, and eventually you'll be comfortable enough to start exploring.

For those of you who are already fairly comfortable doing some basic editing, I wanted to point out a couple other tools in Picasa that I think are really neat. One is the 'Retouch' tool, which allows you to easily remove dust marks and blemishes. The other is the 'Sharpening' effect, which applies some sharpening to your photos and can really help your photos look more crisp. Both of these features are things you usually only get in more powerful editors that you have to pay for, so it's really cool that Picasa includes them. I should say, too, that Picasa implements them very well and they're very simple to use.

Picasa's tools for helping you organize and play with your photos are a good enough reason to use it alone, but it also makes editing your photos so easy that there's really no excuse for not doing it. So go download it and have some fun!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


This past Sunday was my birthday, hooray! My generous parents bought me a copy of Photomatix as a birthday present.

In a previous post, I explained the basics of HDR and played with a trial version of Photomatix which put watermarks all over the final images. Now I've got the real thing, though, and I'm ready to rock!

It's almost silly how much magic this software works.

I took this photo a couple months back in an effort to get back into photography. Even though the sky was amazing, I had a really tough time framing the fountain, the mission, and the sky. I came home that night really discouraged, but I'm glad I at least captured what I did!

Thinking back on it, what I really needed to do was to get further back so that the fountain would become a smaller part of the composition. The problem was, that fountain is right next to the street and there was a huge truck parked right behind me, so that was as far back as I was going to get. Maybe next time I'll reserve the space by parking in it :).

Thanks again, Mom and Dad, for the cool software!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Time-lapse Sunset

I think I've mentioned before that the back of our house has a great view of the sunset. The house sits on a bit of a hill, so the back end is raised pretty high off the ground, and we have a relatively clear view out to the west. Whenever I see a great sunset in the making out our back door (and they seem to happen pretty often around here), I tend to bemoan the fact that I can't be out somewhere interesting shooting it.

I've found a bit of a solution to that, though. The view isn't quite spectacular enough to make a single photo workable, but I think making a time lapse video can add just enough interest to it to make it fun.

Time-lapse Sunset, October 24, 2009 from Chris McCormick on Vimeo.

Technically, this isn't the first time I've done this. I shot another one of these over a year ago, but never really finished pulling the video together. I've learned a lot from these two attempts, and I think there are some good things that I can do to improve it for next time around.

Here's what I did to create this.

Taking the pictures
The video is composed of 159 shots each taken 10 seconds apart.

To take the shots, I setup the camera on the tripod, and hooked it up to our laptop.

Our Canon 20D came with some software called "EOS Capture" for basically controlling the camera from the laptop (for my own reference, you launch the "EOS Viewer Utility", then find EOS capture in the menu). One of the features is a sort of "intervalometer" which allows you to program it to take a certain number of shots with a certain spacing. I set it up to to take 180 shots at 10 second intervals, giving me 30 minutes. The camera battery wasn't fully charged, though, and it stopped shooting after 159. It's a bummer--you can tell from the video that there was still plenty of color left in the sky when it stopped!

As for the camera settings, I left it on aperture priority mode with an fstop of f/5.6. The lighting obviously changes as the sun goes down, so you need to use one of the camera's auto-exposure modes so that it adjusts. I chose aperture priority because I wanted to make sure that the depth of field stayed constant the whole time.

One thing I forgot about, though, was the white balance. I left it on auto white balance, which probably accounts for some of the shifts in color between different frames. Ideally, I think you'd want to have the same white balance the whole time.

I almost always shoot in RAW format, and with RAW you can go back and set the white balance after the fact. This time, though, I shot JPEG thinking that would save me a step, since the video software would likely need JPEGs. Oops!

Next time, I think I'll leave it on auto white balance, but shoot in RAW, and then go back afterward to apply the same color temperature to all of the shots.

Editing the shots
Yet another opportunity for me to rave about the merits of Adobe's Lightroom. It makes batch editing incredibly easy. You just select one of the photos, perform all of the edits you want to make--color, cropping, and all of that--then just copy those changes to all of the other photos. You select the photo you edited, click "Copy settings...", choose which types of edits you want to copy, select all of the other photos, and click "Paste settings". And that's it, it batch edits all of your photos for you. Sweet!

Knowing that this wasn't going to be much of a masterpiece, I edited the photos pretty hastily. I boosted the contrast and saturation, played with curves a bit to add more contrast to the sky, and cropped it into a 16:9 aspect ratio for HD video.

Creating the video
I was able to pull together the video in iMovie. I haven't used iMovie before, so it took me a while to figure out how to set the spacing between the jpegs. A couple notes for my own reference:
- Once the jpegs are ready, import the photos into iPhoto first, then from iPhoto to iMovie. If you go straight to iMovie, the order of the photos gets mixed up
- Set the frame rate by selecting the images and clicking the 'Inspector' button. Go to "Clip" settings and set the duration of the images.

iMovie would only let me go as high as 10 frames per second, but videos typically run at 30fps. I found that there's a powerful UNIX-based command line tool called ffmpeg which you can use to create these videos. Next time around, if my shots are looking more promising, I think I might put the effort in to using that tool to get a smoother video. The speed of the cloud movement was pretty good, so to balance out the increased framerate, I would try taking the pictures 5 seconds apart instead of 10.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Jail House

While I was out behind the Mission last weekend, I found that one of the stone ruins back there was this old jail house with no roof. It seemed like the perfect subject for a shot of the night sky.

18mm, 2 minutes at f/4.0 and ISO 800

There was some wind earlier this week that blew away all of the haze in Santa Barbara, so I jumped at the opportunity to try out this shot on a clear night.

A recent gift from my wife came in handy on this outing; she got me one of those huge 4 D-battery Maglites. It made it a little less terrifying tramping along the trail in the dark, and was really helpful for lighting up the jail house so that I could focus the lens on it.

The funny thing was, once I had crossed through the park, I realized the jail house was on the complete opposite side, and there was a road literally right behind it! Oh well, though; walking through the dark made it more exciting :)

To set this shot up, I mounted the camera on the tripod at its lowest setting, maybe 8 inches off the ground, and used the cable release. I had planned to get more of the building in the shot, but there was a big bush there blocking me from backing up anymore. The trees in the background also constrained the angle that I could shoot at if I wanted the sky in the picture, so this seemed like pretty much the only way to frame it.

It took 5 test exposures to get it right. At these shutter speeds, I was out there for a good 30 minutes just to get those 5 shots. For the final shot, I opened the lens wide at f/4.0, then set the shutter speed to 'bulb' and timed the exposure manually with a sports watch for 2 minutes.

I had done one earlier exposure at 4 minutes, but found that at that length the stars movement is pretty noticeable. "Star trails" are a pretty cool effect, but if you go that direction I think you kind of want to go all the way, so I stuck with 2 minutes and bumped the ISO instead.

I probably spent a couple hours playing with this photo to get the look right. I discovered that an important problem with taking photos of a starry sky is the camera's white balance. If you're not sure what white balance is, there's a superb article on the subject here. The problem was that the light on the building came from the headlights of passing cars, and the headlights have a much different color temperature than the light of the stars.

Camera auto-WB, 4450K

Because of the complexities here with the colors, it was tempting to just go with a monotone treatment and make this a black & white or maybe sepia image. The contrast between the cool sky and warm light on the stone was just too good to pass up, though.

There were two different approaches I could think of to resolving this white balance problem. One would be to bring the image into Photoshop, divide the building and sky into two layers, and adjust their white balance separately.

Another approach, which I decided to go with instead, was to use the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom to select just the sky.

Selecting the sky using the adjustment brush

I desaturated the sky (not completely, though) and applied a light blue color (I have to thank Jess again for helping choose just the right color of blue for this). This had the added benefit of cleaning up what I think must have been noise in the stars--the stars were all slightly different colors in the original.

I read an interesting tutorial on creating really dramatic star trails, here. I hope I get a chance to try it out!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mid-Day Shooting

Parenting sure is a wild ride! Just when you think you've adapted to life with them in it, they change and you have to adjust to a whole new set of challenges.

A few months ago Logan learned to crawl. He's easier in a lot of ways now--he doesn't cry as much, I don't feel like we change as many diapers, and he's getting funner to play with every day. BUT, he's mobile now, and requires a lot more supervision (almost constant). No more sitting him on the floor with some toys and turning your attention to something else.

It's much harder now to find free time to enjoy more 'stationary' types of relaxation like reading, editing photos, or writing blog posts. It would also be asking a lot more of Jess now for me to leave her with Logan and go out shooting. So things have been pretty quiet on the photography front for a few months now.

I was whining to Jess yesterday about how I really wanted to get back into it, but didn't know how to make it work; right now I'm really needed at home at sunrise and sunset to help get Logan up and to help put him down. But Jess raised an interesting question: can I really only shoot at sunrise or sunset? My first response was yes; the light and the adventure during those hours is a big part of what I love about photography. But, she made a good point, and I decided that for the sake of getting back into the hobby, I'd find ways to shoot during the day.

I spent some time on flickr looking for inspiration (click here for a practically endless slide show of 'interesting' photography posted to flickr in the last 7 days). Here's what I came up with.
  • You still want nice diffused light. You can find this anytime of the day if you look in shade from plants (the light is diffused by the trees) or light fabrics.
  • A cloudy day will also diffuse the light, though it means you can't count on a blue sky for your image.
  • You can take a relatively bland image, then play with different effects during processing to create something interesting.
  • You can work with the harsh light to create a high-contrast image with both very bright and very dark areas.
There's a beautiful home nearby that has this awesome "cottage in the woods" feel to it. I thought it'd be fun to snap a pic of it, good-light-be-damned, and then play with the image to enhance that fairly tale feel.

I just cropped the photo down and used a Lightroom preset called "Aged Photo" to achieve this.

Here's the un-cropped original. Cropping really helped me out here--I was having a tough time framing this photo and was feeling discouraged, but a little cropping and I think it turned out great! The white security camera sure is distracting, too, so I cloned that out.

I took this next photo on some trails behind the Santa Barbara mission.

My wife gets the credit for editing this one. She cropped it, took the shadows way down, and added a vignette.

Here's the original.

I'm glad I've found some ways to get back into photography; hopefully you'll start hearing more from me!