Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Bert at Hayward Lake; a little flash can make a big difference.

Top:  No flash.   Bottom:  Camera's built in flash used.
Yesterday, my friend Bert and I enjoyed a walk along part of the Railway Trail which parallels part of Hayward Lake.  It was a lovely day, complete with blue skies and no wind.  With the exception of a tumble I took into some blackberry bushes, we had a great time.

I photographed my friend while enjoying the quiet of the shoreline.  The sun was just off to the left of the camera; you can see how Bert's face is partly in shadow.  I had my camera set to manual exposure mode, and was using a polarizer filter to help bring out the colour of the leaves and sky.  I took two photographs.  One without the built-in flash and one with it. 

With the harsh lighting producing strong shadows, I decided to take two photographs.  The first was an exposure without using fill flash, the second used the camera's built-in flash to soften the dark areas on my subject.  I often will take two shots of something, a before and after picture of sorts, where I will change one camera setting between shots.  It can be focal length, aperture or shutter speed, flash, or perhaps ISO.  Investigating the differences afterwards helps me understand the nature of photography.

No flash was used in the top image.  You can see the dark shadows present on the face, shirt, and jacket.  I popped up the camera's flash for the second photo.  It filled the scene nicely, rendering the face, shirt, and jacket with less shadow.  Using flash in this way is called fill-flash, and it can make an enormous difference in way an image looks.

Built-in flashes are, by their very nature, weak.  They often will not have enough power to properly illuminate a subject that is too far away, shot using a small aperture, or diminished because of flash or lens filtering (such as a diffuser or a polarizer filter).  Even so, they often will make a small difference; enough to have a significant impact as in the situation above.  I used a wide angle lens (28 mm on a full frame camera) so I was relatively close to my buddy.  The aperture was as wide open as I could get it as my shutter speed was set to 1/200th of a second, the camera's flash-synch speed.  These helped to make the flash somewhat viable, even though it was not quite powerful enough.

Next time you are out shooting in the sun, try popping up your flash when shooting portraits.  If you are using your built-in unit, be sure to:
   - pop up the flash
   - use shutter priority
   - set the ISO to 100 if possible
   - turn the command dial to get the highest shutter speed possible (1/200 or 1/250 usually)
   - make sure any hat you are wearing does not push the flash down a bit as it might not actuate
   - use a wide angle setting
   - be sure you are modestly close to your subject (4 - 6 feet)
   - try not to shoot in a strong backlit situation (sun not visible in viewfinder)

Take a couple of shots, one with and one without the flash.  Then look at your images.  Enlarge them to see details on faces.  Was there a difference?  Congratulations, you just used fill flash successfully!

Friday, September 27, 2019

Changing perspective - how to make small look big.

A Resort in Golden, BC; left - 16 mm close to stairs.  right - 35 mm away from stairs.
You can alter the relationship between the foreground, subject, and background of a scene by changing the focal length of the lens and your position relative to the foreground.  A good example of this is in the pair of shots above.  I used an ultra-wide lens on my full frame camera for the left shot.  I set it to 16 mm (which is equivalent to about 11 mm on an aps-c sensor camera).  I also was very close to the stairs, in fact only a foot away or so.  Wide-angle lenses, especially ultra-wides, cause distortion and make the foreground look larger relative to the background.

In order to capture the image on the right, I backed up quite a distance (about 15 feet or so) and zoomed in.  With the focal length now at 35 mm the foreground was considerably smaller than before, and the background seemed to magically grow in size.  In order to fully understand the effect, notice that the bottom stair in both shots is the same.  There are four steps on the left and four on the right.  These are the same stairs.  They look so different because of the change in focal length and position.

Although brand-name full-frame ultra-wide lenses are expensive, third party ultra wides for aps-c sensor cameras are very reasonably priced.  For example, Nikon's 16 - 35 mm ultra-wide lens for full frame cameras runs around $1,500 while Sigma's 10 - 20 mm for aps-c sensor cameras costs around $530.  The Sigma lens has a relative focal length (compared to a full-frame camera) of 15-30 mm, so the Sigma lens provides a very similar field of view to the Nikon, with a tiny bit more at the long end.  However, for the economically minded, the Sigma lens represents a savings of 65% and is also much smaller and lighter.

One of the big questions to ask yourself in acquiring such a lens is, "How much will I use it?"  Spending a small fortune on an awesome lens may not be justified if it is going to sit at home in your camera bag most of the time.  Although I love brand name lenses and have never been disappointed, their cost is often prohibitive.  I get around this by buying them used, although there is a risk in that.

You will find an ultra-wide angle lens will be a welcome addition to your arsenal.  It is an especially great lens for landscapes and architecture shots.  I love how you can manipulate foreground and background relationships.

Thanks for reading.   www.ericspix.com

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Fill flash on the trail.

Paul during a hike at Minnekhada.  Left no flash, right fill flash added.
I have spoken about the benefits of fill flash before, but its value is so often forgone that it is well worth repeating.  Flash can make an enormous difference in many situations, even if the camera isn't suggesting its use.  In full auto mode, the camera will often pop the flash up when a low light situation is detected.  In other modes you may see a sign inside the viewfinder or on the LCD screen indicating that flash is warranted.  In automatic modes the flash is directly controlled by the camera and often cannot be suppressed or raised in contrary situations.  This is one of the reasons I so strongly suggest learning to use semi-automatic modes like aperture or shutter priority.  I often use manual mode as it provides even more control.

The trick with using flash though is very much dependent on the nature of the existing lighting, the camera, and the settings it is at.  It can be all very technical, but we can look at this from a more simplified perspective.  Shaded areas (such as the situation above), open areas on cloudy days, and indoors are all times when using your built-in flash can make a difference.  Brighter environments often benefit from a more powerful external flash, especially in cameras with a flash synch speed.

The second thing is to be closer to your subject rather than farther away.  Generally, this means keeping focal lengths.  A wide angle or mild telephoto setting will work better than zooming in more because it allows lower apertures to be used and deeps the flash-to-subject distance within the working distance of the flash.

Keep the aperture low.  Smaller apertures means the flash has to work harder; since built-in flashes have a relatively low amount of power ("brightness"), the lower the aperture number the easier it is for the flash to light something up.

Increasing ISO can improve flash distance, but it will only work with electronic shutter cameras, especially in bright situations.  In dim circumstances, a higher ISO will always allow your flash to go further.  As it gets brighter, especially with mechanical shutter cameras (DSLRs), increasing ISO has no effect.  An external flash is the only way to go in these cases.

Using a flash to fill a scene is easy.  Pop the flash up and take a picture.  If the flash won't come up, you will have to switch to a mode where it is allowed.  Portrait mode often works.  I will often take two pictures as you see above.  One with flash and one without.  Sometimes the flash makes no difference - so what is there to lose?  Other times though it makes a huge difference.  Aren't you glad you tried?

Thanks for reading.   www.ericspix.com

Monday, September 23, 2019

Telephoto lenses and backgrounds.

Tiger lily; same flower but shot from slightly different positions.
Focal length relates to the power or magnification of the lens.  A "normal" lens makes the foreground and background appear to be the same relative sizes.  A wide angle lens distorts the foreground and makes it look larger relative to the background than it does to your eyes (aka normally).  A telephoto lens makes the background larger relative to the foreground; it "compresses" the scene and makes it appear that the background is closer than what it actually is. 

It is this compression that I am talking about today.  As you zoom your lens in to magnify a subject you will notice that the background becomes progressively smaller.  You are enlarging both the subject and the background.  If you magnify the image by a factor of 2x the background decreases in its area by a factor of 4x (square of the magnification).  This had the advantage of being able to zoom in as much as you want and to control how much of the background you see.  More zooming means less background.  The tradeoff here though is that you have to be farther away from your subject because zooming in increases its size.

The beauty of this relationship is that, with increased magnification, you have greater control of what is behind your subject.  In the above photos of a tiger lily, I was back quite a distance and was using a relative focal length of 600 mm to magnify the subject.  That focal length also minimized the size of the background.  The nice thing here is that it was easy to pick what I wanted it to look like.  A small movement on my part produced a great relative movement of the background and allowed me to go from a mixed white and green background (right) to a fully green one (left). 

A property of zooming in has to do with depth of field; more focal length means less depth of field at any given aperture.  In a situation where an out of focus background is desired a longer focal length will be preferred.  If you want lots of background and depth of field stay with a wide angle setting on your camera.  You will not be able to affect the nature of the background though without major changes in position.  If you want a small area in the background that is blurred zoom in.  Small changes in your position will produce a major change to what is happening behind the subject.

Thanks for reading.   www.ericspix.com

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The benefits of RAW.

The Highway 7 bridge between Mission and Abbotsford
Sometimes my images just come out all wrong.  In the above photo, I had unintentionally underexposed the photograph.  The top shot is how the unprocessed raw image.  You can tell by looking at the histogram (top right) that it is underexposed because the graph is pressed up against the left side while the right side has no data at all.  If you look at the slider controls below the histogram, they are all set to "0".  This means no changes have been made to the file.

The lower image is the same as the top one, but the slider controls have been altered.  The histogram now has a nice balance across the whole graph, and no end is empty or has data bars jumping off.  The image is clearly better.  Raw images are very flexible when it comes to altering an exposure.  This is because there is data present which would normally be lost when shooting jpegs.  This isn't to say that you cannot make changes on jpeg files, it is just that you will lose details in shadow and highlight areas which raw files will retain.

This doesn't mean that exposure doesn't matter.  You always want to do the best job you can in making an image.  Each error in making the image affects the final outcome, even if there is a certain amount of latitude.  Noise, fine detail distinction, and contrast are all adversely altered. 

The disadvantages of a raw file over the ubiquitous jpeg are many.  Raw images are larger, require post processing, and often are not readable without the correct software.  Raw files created by newer cameras may not be supported in older software, meaning that you will have to rely on conversion software such as Adobe's DNG Converter to access them.  All these issues pale in comparison though to their benefits.

Raw files give the user much greater control in colour balance, sharpening, and selecting the correct amount of image correction on a picture by picture basis instead of having to alter these values in camera.  There are fewer artifacts due to the lack of compression.  I especially love the greater latitude as mentioned above.

Keep in mind that not all raw files are the same.  I have found that compacts sporting raw capability do not measure up to the image quality produced by larger sensor cameras.  In general, it can be said that larger sensor raw images are superior to similar pictures created by smaller sensor cameras.  This is especially true once you drop below a 2:1 crop factor.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

A shift in perspective in Chehalis

The St. Helens Apartments, Chehalis

Yesterday we went into the small town of Chehalis, Washington.  It is quite quaint and there are lots of old buildings which have been kept up.  I particularly liked the St. Helens Apartments, which has an antiquated outside fire escape.  The most interesting feature of the building though is its irregular quadrilateral shape, with one end being very narrow and the other end is quite wide.

The image on the left was my original shot.  Without a PC (perspective control) lens it is almost impossible to capture a tall building without showing significant signs of perspective.  Perspective is the appearance of objects getting smaller as they get further from you.  We see it all the time in stretches of railway or road as they move away from us, becoming little more than a hairline in the far distance.  Buildings suffer from this form of distortion because we are much closer to the bottom than the top.  In the shot above, I am also closer to the left side than the right side, and so the image suffers from perspective along two planes.

I used Photoshop to correct the distortion by evoking the perspective editing tool.  This helped me compensate for the vertical change in perspective.  I used the distort editing tool afterward to give the building its apparent height, as I find changing perspective usually gives the image a squashed appearance.  Lastly, to compensate for the left to right change in perspective, I employed the use of the skew editing tool.  Together the changes produce the image you see on the right.

Although the left image is what my eye saw, it is the right one which I saw in my mind’s eye – the way it should look if perspective was not an issue.  Of course, I played with white balance, contrast, exposure, curves, and a few other tools to get the shot just the way I wanted it.  This is precisely why I shoot in RAW mode; it gives me the greatest post editing potential without compromising the image significantly.

Thanks for reading.   www.ericspix.com

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Bromeliads and Bros - a sense of scale.

My friend, Charles, posing by a tree covered with bromeliads.
Bromeliads are fascinating plants.  There are somewhere between 1500 to 3500 species, depending on which website you want to believe, and they range from the very small to the incredibly large at over 33 feet tall.  While we were in New Zealand we were thrilled to see numerous bromeliads growing, always on trees.  Not all bromeliads live on trees; pineapples grow in the soil of course.

The bromeliads we encountered are epiphytes.  These symbiotic plants form a commercialistic relationship with their hosts, neither hurting or harming them.  The bromeliads use the tree only as a substrate - a place to anchor themselves - and do not parasitize the tree in any manner.  As an epiphyte, the bromeliad obtains its nutrients from rainwater, the air, and organic matter which happens to fall upon it. 

We came across a remarkable collection of these tree-loving epiphytes perched on a tree overhanging a marine lagoon.  I took two shots, one with my friend and one without.  The shot with my friend gives a sense of scale to the plants, while the one without leaves you guessing as to how large they actually are.  I also like the fact that the left image is more personal and meaningful in nature while the right one could have been dug up on a google search. 

When you are out taking pictures, consider shooting scenery or evidence at to your location both with and without someone in them.  I could have a photograph of bromeliads, which would become more and more meaningless over time, or a shot of my "bro" with the bromeliads, which would maintain its value.  The great thing about both shots is that you can use each for something different, depending on what your exact needs are or will eventually be.

Thanks for reading.   www.ericspix.com