Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A quick tip to make snowy scenes pop! And some other seasonal shots too.

Well I thought I would do a video on this, but time has been a little sparse lately so I decided to write up a post instead. Now if you're not familiar with how camera metering works then I'd recommend you check out Episode 6 which is on the topic to get you up to speed; the supplemental post has some good resource links if you'd like to learn even more.

The Setup
Have you ever looked out at a beautiful snowy landscape thinking what a wonderful photo it would make, then after taking the shot you ponder why it turned out so flat? Well, you can pretty much blame the way the camera's metering system works for this outcome.

Let's use a simple example to understand what is happening. Before us is a landscape covered mostly with snow, a cloudy (thus white) sky and some trees also mostly covered with bright white snow. To our adaptive vision, all is well and the snow is a brilliant, almost blinding, white and the shadow areas of the scene (trunks of trees and exposed rocks on the hillside) are full of many interesting minute details. But to most cameras, this scene is averaged into a boring middle gray tone with care taken not to blow out the highlights.

You happily press the shutter button to capture this moment in time, only to discover that the image looks quite noticeably darker. You then begin to pout, take a sip from your hip flask and consider if life is worth living. Ok... maybe it's not that bad.

Before moving on, here's a fun and quick experiment you can try on your own to see the metering system in action. Grab your camera and head over to your computer. Open up an application with a lot of white in it like Notepad or Microsoft Office. Point your lens at the monitor, zoom in so all you get is white in the frame and with manual focusing on, ensure the screen is not in focus (if you use autofocus then the camera might focus on the pixels on the screen; we want a diffuse white instead and that's also why we're using a monitor as the brightness is more even compared to a lit white wall for example). Use a common mode on your camera such as aperture priority without any exposure value (EV) compensation and take a picture (although this should also work with shutter priority and automatic). What you should see is a grayish image, not white!

What Can be Done and Why
As you can probably guess from the last paragraph, you can employ the EV compensation feature on your camera to over-expose the photo (the EV button is the one with the little "+/-" sign in a square). This may sound a little odd perhaps to over-expose what appears to be a very bright and white scene, but taking into consideration how the metering works, this should make sense. Over-exposing may also be the wrong terminology to use here, because you're actually adjusting the camera's values to attain a proper exposure; over-exposure generally means blowing out bright areas of a photo. Now all cameras differ to some extent so you will have to experiment a bit to discover how your machine behaves, as you may require more or less compensation. Towards the bottom of this post you'll find some photos I took so you can see how my camera (Olympus E-P2) behaved at various settings. Note that even at +1.0 EV, no highlights are blown (according to the histogram in Photoshop CS4).

Before moving on, I do wish to add that I almost always have my cameras set to center weighted metering. I have found with experience that I get fairly consistent and reasonably good results with it compared to the area or multi-metering style (which uses numerous points all over the frame). Perhaps try experimenting with both settings to see the differences you get. As for spot metering, I use that option quite rarely and usually for special cases.

But why use EV compensation? Some of you out there might be shooting RAW and are thinking that you could just pump up the exposure in an image editor; even if you're shooting JPEG you could increase the brightness. To a certain point this may be true, but software can never truly replicate what would've happened if the image was better exposed for real. And if there are very dark areas of the image present, then detail in those zones may be permanently lost... even if you're saving photos in RAW format. Black is black and you can't do much with that. I also find that more noise and graininess comes forth when using software to modify the exposure of some under-exposed images.

Another benefit to using EV compensation in such cases is that you won't need to edit your photos as much. Personally, I've always like the mindset of shooting right first, versus shooting messy and fixing later. Thus, unless you need to use RAW for whatever reason, you might be able to use the JPEGs right out of the camera with minimal after-work. Time saved is definitely a pro, whether you are doing photography for a living or just want more time for other hobbies like wood carving.

So in summary, by using that good old EV compensation button you can make images more pleasing by enhancing their contrast, improving details in shadow zones, making colors more vivid, all the while decreasing edit time. Of course in some cases there may be artistic reasons you would deliberately want to under-expose shots (heck, you can use negative EV!) and for the HDRI fanatics out there, this is hardly of much importance due to the huge dynamic range captured in several shots which are combined (if you want to know more about HDRI, check out episodes 25, 25A and 26). Lastly, not just the wintery and snowy shots benefit from a little compensation. If the scene you are shooting doesn't have a large contrast between light and dark (think landscape with a bright sky and dark ground), but instead has a more even luminance (colorful leaves on the ground; flowers against dark foliage), then increasing the EV might improve the shot, especially in regard to color (this was fairly noticeable in the shots I took of Daisy).

So I hope this simple tip improves your photos and gets you experimenting with EV compensation, especially if you haven't used it much.

Also, wherever you may be, I want to wish you and your families all the best for this season! May your celebrations be merry and filled with happiness, and all your photos come out of the camera perfect... and if they don't, then label them "art" or "abstract". :) L8r!

Photos below are linked to full size versions in my Flickr Photostream.
Logs at 0.0 EV

Logs at +0.3 EV

Logs at +0.7 EV

Logs at +1.0 EV

Pine Tree at 0.0 EV

Pine Tree at +0.3 EV

Pine Tree at +0.7 EV

Pine Tree at +1.0 EV

Daisy at 0.0 EV

Daisy at +0.7 EV

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Viewer Q&A - Camera Maintenance and Care - Supplemental Post

Well I figure I better finish up the supplemental post to my Camera Maintenance and Care viewer request video I made a few weeks ago, seeing as I'm almost ready to start making the next episode.

Overall, I believe that most people take fairly good care of their camera equipment, especially the amateur enthusiasts and pros out there. On the other hand, I do know a novice photographer who used her fingers to wipe the lens clean... I still shudder to this day.

This video was the longest I've made since I started my photography series, but it was comprised of many short segments succinctly covering many camera maintenance and care topics. In no particular order they included:

  • Replacing the camera body and lens (front and rear) caps to help prevent dust from collecting on the inner components of the camera and the exposed glass elements, respectively, and from other damage occurring (e.g. scratches on the lens; a finger accidentally entering the mirror box and poking some critical bits)
  • Cleaning the lens, mirror, electrical contacts and sensor
  • Using a lens hood to help prevent accidental bumps
  • Storing your camera safely such as in a padded camera bag in a location where it's not going to be bumped or has direct sunlight on it, excessive heat (e.g. over a heating vent), etc.
  • Tips for changing lenses to decrease chances for dirt (or rain/snow) to get into the camera body
  • Getting into the habit of always putting on the camera strap (e.g. around your neck or wrist)
  • Charging your batteries regularly, even if the camera is not being used for a while, which can help increase their lifetime

I don't want to rehash much from the episode as I think the topics are straight forward enough to grasp, but I do want to emphasize a couple of them. The first is about cleaning your lens and the importance of always beginning by blowing off any particulates from the glass such as specks of dirt or dust. For one, this may be and is usually all the cleaning your glass needs. If this action indeed corrects your dirty lens issues, then stop here. Further wiping and fiddling with the lens isn't going to help and you may end up damaging the precious coatings. Two, if you need to perform a more thorough cleaning, let's say because of a minor finger print on the optics, and you don't wipe down the lens first, then those particulates will act like sandpaper. The force of the cloth pressed against the lens will drag those fine and potentially sharp bits against the glass and with enough time the element may become scratched up. Definitely not good for image quality. And three, if things get really bad and you have no choice but to use a cleaning agent, I recommend you pay a visit to a local camera store and find a liquid cleaning solution that is safe to use on camera lenses and/or coated optics. I'd recommend one, but for all the years I've owed cameras and telescopes for, I luckily haven't had the need for such fluids. Oh, and I strongly recommend against using general window glass cleaners as these may do nice work on the inexpensive plate glass you peer through to the world outside your home, but they may seriously damage or even remove the coatings off your lenses.

As mentioned in the video, I have personally never cleaned the sensor in my dSLRs as I've simply never had the need to. There is a good link below on that topic, so if you are noticing a sensor dust problem, then feel free to check out that article, Google the topic further, or visit a professional camera place to get some advice/products from there. From my own readings it is advisable to put your camera into cleaning mode, which disables most features on the camera from working along with keeping the shutter open until you complete the operation (or your batteries run dry!), and I suggest taking a similar approach as with cleaning the lens. If you've managed to blow off the dust and that fixes your problem, then leave the sensor alone. No sense in risking permanent damage by brushing or adding cleaning solutions to the thing.

So if things settle down in the next few days, hopefully I'll be able to finish my next video. I already took the shots for it and they turned out exactly as I expected. L8r!

Web Resources
http://www.luminous-landscape.com/essays/sensor-cleaning.shtml

Monday, December 6, 2010

Daisy ponders the angles of the wooden shark

I know, I know! I'm a tad overdue in writing up that supplemental blog post to my camera maintenance and care video; soon, really, seriously, soon!

I've finally posted a couple of photos of my wooden shark, which turned out quite well; the grain is just amazing as it flows along the body. She's essentially done except for a couple of coats of varnish to protect her delicate skin. In total I think I've spent around 17 hours on this project, most of that on sanding, detail work and a little pyrography to etch the eyes, nose, gills and mouth. I'm fairly sure what my next project will be and as soon as my mind makes itself up and I have a bit of that piece going, I'll post a pic of two of it. I'll also have to start using a vice of some sort for future work though, as there were a few moments where one would have come in very handy to free up both of my hands; this was especially apparent when using the rotary tool.

Also, I couldn't help but snap a few of shots of Daisy, my cute Golden Retriever. On Facebook I wrote a couple of quick tips as reminders to accompany the photos. The first is in regard to focusing on the eyes when taking pictures of animals. This may be easier said than done as our beloved house pets don't always make good stationary models. But as with photographs of people, the eyes can covey all sorts of emotions and sharp peepers will tell a better story than blurry ones in most cases. The second tip touched upon using unusual angles. Although they don't work for every image or type of subject, on occasion it can be fun to experiment with. The "aerial" view of Daisy didn't do her justice and just flattened her furry body into the carpet (yes, I know, it's really filthy!). But by shooting her from ground level, her paws seem to reach out at you and there is much more of a dimensional quality to the image. If only my carpet was cleaner and the background more aesthetic, I would've had a really cool photo. Then again, I wouldn't have captured this fun little moment with my dog. Sometimes you just have to take the shot when you can.