Photographer Shootout

PetaPixel has a throwaway piece advertised as a photographer shootout. OK, maybe not a shootout, but it’s interesting in that they take one model and have four different hugely popular photographers photograph her and put their own twist on it.

The twists really aren’t that much different at first glance; natural light outdoors. As I perused through the results I was struck by something though. All of them except one are post processing fiends. I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way, though.

The one photog’s photos that really stood out for me, though, were the ones that seemingly had the least amount of post production; those of Joey L. I mean, the dude just kills it. His shots are simple, human, somehow surprisingly meaningful given the circumstances. The others are, like one commenter hysterically yet accurately put it: “His (Joey L.) photos humanized her (at least slightly given the type of shoot) while many of the others seem to just use her as a prop for post-processing.”

Bingo!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dissing the others, hell, they have gazillions of followers on Instagram.

Exposure Triangle

Not much brings out pedantic dickheads like a discussion regarding the so called exposure triangle. Wait, did I use the term “dickheads”? Yes, I did. And I mean it. For an example of what I’m talking about go read this at PetaPixel. It’s a great article that explains the exposure triangle and how it’s a tool to demonstrate three aspects of exposure in digital photography; shutter speed, aperture size and, yes, ISO.

After reading the article, if you peruse through the comments, you’ll begin to see what I’m talking about with comments like:

There is a very good reason to hate the triangle. It not only confuses people but its pure nonsense. ISO is not part of exposure. ISO is only applied after the exposure.

Increasing ISO reduces noise in most cases

No. Changing ISO does not change sensitivity.

This guy is actually saying that ISO plays no part of exposure.

That’s just simply incorrect.

Tony Northrup chimed in as well with:

Came here to say this. Great article, but I hate the triangle metaphor. It only confuses people.

Tony Northrup sort of has a point with regards to how this guy presents the exposure triangle, but generally speaking, for people just starting with digital photography, the exposure triangle is a rock solid way of understanding how exposure works vis a vis digital photography. By the way, if you’re starting out, perusing his site would be advisable. He and his wife Chelsea do a very good job of presenting helpful information.

You can visit just about any photography forum and when the subject of ISO and exposure comes up; especially when incorporating the exposure triangle, the dickheads come out en mass to bray that ISO has NOTHING to do with exposure.

Bullshit. If you hear someone say that, disregard them. They are incorrect. They are wrong. They are being pedantic dickheads.

Hell, even Nikon’s website says otherwise:

Aperture + Shutter Speed + ISO = Exposure

The three variables that make up a photographic exposure are shutter speed (how much time it takes to make the exposure), aperture (how big the hole is that lets light through the lens, and into the camera) and ISO (how sensitive the digital image sensor or film is to light).

Now, technically speaking, ISO may not be exposure. A lot of the pedantic dickheads will point out that exposure is the amount of time and light that is allowed to make contact with the sensor. So what. For all practical purposes, in the real world, exposure results in how the image will look; darker or brighter. That is determined by aperture size, shutter speed and ISO. Period. End. Of. Story. Don’t believe me? Try the following.

Get out your camera and set it on a tripod. Adjust the settings for optimal exposure. First set your ISO for, say 400. Perhaps your optimal exposure is then 1/250 f4.5 and the ISO has been set to 400. Take the pic. Look at it. It’s probably pretty close to optimal if your in camera meter shows the little mark at 0. Now, leave everything the same, but this time drop the ISO down to 100. Look at the camera’s internal meter. You’ll see that it is now left of 0; optimal exposure. Take a pic and look at it. You’ll notice that it’s underexposed compared to the first one. Now, do the same thing, but this time bump up the ISO to, say, 1600. You’ll see that the internal meter will show the little dot way to the right, and the resulting picture will be much brighter.

Furthermore, if you set it back to optimal, you can then increase the shutter speed and you’ll notice that the little meter dot is displaying an underexposed setting. You can then bump up your ISO to get the little dot back to 0. You can even take a pic if you like and verify it. You can do the same thing with the aperture as well.

The bottom line is that exposure is comprised of three variables: Shutter speed, aperture size AND ISO in every practical sense. This is why the “triangle” is such a good way to present it. If you make an adjustment to one you HAVE to make an adjustment to one of the other two (if your goal is to be close to optimal exposure). When some pedantic dickhead brays that ISO has NOTHING to do with exposure, then don’t believe your lying eyes. Do the steps above and you’ll see otherwise.

To address the pedantic nonsense that “technically” speaking, exposure is only the amount of time and amount of light coming in contact with the sensor, lets use this metaphor:

Many decades ago, in the US, we stopped using the gold standard. What this means is that our paper and minted money is no longer backed by gold. It used to be that gold was the thing of value that the paper and minted money represented. Without it, it was just paper and metal. Since the paper and metal is no longer backed by gold, technically speaking that crisp $20 bill in my wallet has no real value. It’s simply just paper, cloth and ink. Technically speaking it has no real value.

Except it does. If I can use it to purchase goods of value it has value even if technically it’s nothing more than paper, cloth and ink.

The same applies to ISO. It absolutely plays a part in how bright or dark (among other things) your image is. For all practical purposes, that is going to be interpreted as exposure.

So, who are you going to believe, some pedantic dickhead or your lying eyes and what every digital camera manufacture says?

The exposure triangle. Learn it, know it and embrace it.

ISO Invariance

ISO invariance. What is it? Since I’m just barely beginning to scratch the surface of the whole concept of ISO invariance, I don’t feel qualified to tell go into details as to what it is. To begin to get an understanding I recommend going here. In a nutshell, ISO invariance is the concept that the quality of today’s camera sensors are beginning to approach the point in which ISO is not as important as it once was. Basically, in many cameras, you can keep it at the base ISO, under expose, and then in post bump up the exposure or shadows as needed and you won’t take a hit with noise any more than had you used the “proper” ISO to begin with.

OK, so then why does this make ISO invariance something cool? There are a couple of reasons that come to my mind: Preserving highlights and selectively brightening photos in post to effectively increase dynamic range far beyond what your camera’s sensor can do on its own while still maintaining relative control over the noise that’s introduced which pushing shadows and/or exposure. Again, I’m far, far from being an expert in ISO invariance. Hell, at this point I’ve barely got a rudimentary understanding. I’d recommend checking out the link above for sure.

What I can do is show you an example of what I’m talking about. Keep in mind that my current camera, a Nikon D5200 is only somewhat ISO invariant. If you’d like to find out how ISO invariant your camera is, this is a good place to look at. Just go there and select your camera from the list on the right. The more level the line the more ISO invariant the camera is. For example, the Nikon D5200 is fairly ISO invariant; closely on par with the D610, not as much as the D7200, and it completely smokes the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. But the Mark III smokes it in native ISO performance for sure. But that’s another topic.

Way underexposed. ISO 100, 18mm, f22, 1/60 sec

Anyway, in this photo, it was taken substantially underexposed. -2EV to be precise. I’m not sure why I did that, but I did. It makes a good photo to test ISO invariance, though:
You can see that this photo is quite underexposed. For the sky it’s not so bad because those clouds are awesome and it’s nice to keep the details without blowing out the highlights. But, if you brought up the exposure to get the sky just right, you’re still going to be pretty off in the rest of the photo; especially the shadows. So, what I did with this in Lightroom was brought up the exposure by 1 stop. That was perfect for the sky and clouds. But the rest of the pic. To address that I used the Mask tool in Lightroom to selectively bump up the exposure of the foreground by another stop; painting it in. After that, I pushed the shadows a bit–actually quite a bit. +71. The highlights I pulled -70. I then tweaked the blacks and whites to just below the clipping level.

I then moved it over to Photoshop and did some color grading with curve adjustment layers, did some noise suppression with Dfine 2 and added some contrast and detail with Topaz Clarity because, well, clouds. All of this a pretty light though. There wasn’t much noise to contend with. I also brought down the global saturation a bit as well.

This is what I came up with:

There was a ton of detail hidden in those shadows that was completely recoverable. Granted, I’m dealing with the D5200. It ain’t no Sony ar7ii or Nikon D750, but for this little crop sensor entry level camera, it’s not bad at all.

One thing that I’ll point out, though, is that even with as little noise as there is here, I think that there would be even less had I exposed ETTR, peaking the highlights and bringing it down. Sort of an opposite approach. But I suspect that there is a real risk of clipping some highlights in the clouds to the point of not being recoverable. Whereas this approach has no risk of clipped highlights. The slight noise is an acceptable trade off in my opinion.

Permits To Photograph On Public Lands

When I say permits to photograph on public lands I’m talking about federal lands. To be more specific in this instance, BLM land.

As you know, I’ve been doing my Girl In A Skirt sort of kind of project. It’s basically me taking pictures of my wife in various settings while she’s wearing a skirt. Pretty basic, huh? I started it out on a whim when we were in Arches National Park. While there early last spring we thought it would be cool to have her wearing a funky skirt and pose for some shots. It was then that the Girl In A Skirt was born. We’ve got all kinds of plans for the Girl In A Skirt. Those first few shots were very impromptu, but it got me to thinking that it sure would look cool to do some of these shots with a studio strobe. Flash makes everything better.

Plus, my wife is willing. I’m lucky. She’s tall; 5’11” and fit. It’s a perfect learning opportunity with a willing awesome model.

So, then we did some flash shots on the hill just above our house. Like this one:

Girl in a skirt on a mountain top with flash photography

ISO 100, 35mm, f14, 1/200 sec

This one’s pretty cool. Although I used a speed light it was still spur of the moment. We walked up the hill, set up the speed light and popped off some cool shots. Now, keep in mind, I have no intention of selling any photos that I’ve taken. It hasn’t been something that I’ve even thought about. Sure, if someone offered to pay me some cold hard cash to take some photos, yeah, I’d do it. But it’s not even on my radar. Well, to be entirely honest, it would be nice for someone to see enough value in what I do to pay. Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he? Frankly, I don’t think I’m good enough. Yet. I take photos because I love it.

Then we got to talking about different locations and the Bonneville Salt Flats came up. Although neither one of us had been out to the Flats before, we both instantly though, Oh, yeah. That would be cool. I did some research and checked out some photos that others had done out there. Yeah, baby. We’re heading to the Bonneville Salt Flats. I talked about that shot a bit on a previous post. I discussed how we set up a 300ws strobe, put out a gear box for my wife to sit on and cooked off some shots. They turned out pretty freakin’ good.

Girl In A Skirt

ISO 100, 50mm, f16, 1/200 sec

At least I like it.

I posted them up on my Flickr page and didn’t really think much more about it. They did get a lot of favs and views which, admittedly is cool. But that’s about it. Remember, I’m just a rank amateur using photography as one means to hang out with my wife and son.

Then in one of the comments on one of the photos, a person mentioned that I may want to look into the permitting requirements vis a vis permits to photograph on public lands. What??? A permit? Permission to take photos on public land? Surely you jest. But then I did some research on it, specifically regarding BLM land and, yes, you do in some circumstances need to purchase a permit to photograph on public lands. Was I crossing into the realm of activity that would require a permit? Looking at the BLM permitting website, and utilizing basic comprehension of the English language, it appears as though I may have done just that. I started a discussion on a photography forum and a few people poo pooed the notion, stating that permits are only required for commercial/professional photographers. But, from the website:

Casual-use activities (i.e., noncommercial activities occurring on an occasional or irregular basis that result in little or no impact to public lands) involving still photography or recreational videotaping do not require a permit.

Still Photography. Public land visitors and recreational, professional and amateur photographers do NOT need a permit to take still photographs unless they will:

  • Use models, sets or props that are not part of the site’s natural or cultural resources or administrative facilities;
  • Take place where members of the public are generally not allowed; or
  • Take place at a location where additional administrative costs are likely.

Here is how I interpret it. Did I use a model? Well, what is the definition of “model”? Well, this definition in part says:

  • a person or thing that serves as a subject for an artist, sculptor,writer, etc.
  • a person whose profession is posing for artists or photographers.

Now, granted, I’m not paying my wife. Modeling is not her profession. So, in that regard, we may well not be meeting the definition.

However, the sets or props that are not part of the site’s natural or cultural resources or administrative facilities is what has me thinking. Technically, the light stand used for the strobe and the box on which my wife sits are props as would be a tripod if I had used one; which I do occasionally.

So, a reasonable reading of the language in the permit guidelines clearly indicates that I would need to get a permit to photograph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in the manner that I did. That may not be the reality, though. Clearly, a phone call to the BLM local field office is in order which is exactly what I did. But, in the middle of the day, there was no answer. I let it ring 50 times and no answer. I’ll keep trying because I want to get clarification.

So, you may wonder what I will do if in fact I will be required to attain a permit to shoot photos in the manner I did out on the Flats.

That answer is easy. Screw them. I’ll shoot photos as I please and NOT buy a permit. If I get written up, I’ll cross that bridge, but there is no way in hell that I’m buying a permit to shoot photos of my wife for fun.

However, if, by chance, someone were to offer me money to take some cool pics of them on BLM land (I can only dream) then, yes, I would buy a permit even though being required to buy permits to photograph on public lands is, in my opinion, bullshit.

Cinematic Looking Photos

Cinematic looking photos that look as if they’re a still from an actual film are pretty cool. Kitschy? Yeah, a tad, but still cool.

If you’ve paid attention to movies you’ll notice that they seem to have a pretty unique color grading scheme; usually a kind of teal and orange pallette. In fact if you haven’t noticed it before, now that I’ve brought it to your attention, you’ll notice it enough to where it might drive you a little nuts. There are all kinds of ideas as to why films predominantly use a teal and orange color grading.

The ones that I think seem to make the most sense is that:

1) colors in the yellow/orange/red spectrum contrast nicely with colors that are in the blue/green spectrum. In my observation this is true. Complementary colors contrast nicely and add a vividness without hashing the saturation. You’ll notice that often times movies tend to be a bit desaturated yet still pop. I think it’s because of the use of complementary colors. I say often times; keep in mind that if you’re watching a Michael Bay flick, all bets are off. Everything, including the color grading seems to be turned up to 10. Anyway, human beings no matter their ethnicity tend to have skin that falls into that yellow/orange spectrum. The orange teal grading makes actors stand out.

2) this is, I think, a biggy. The orange and teal pallette tends to replicate so called golden hour lighting quite nicely and golden hour lighting pretty much rocks.

Here is a photo that I’ve sort of given the “cinematic” treatment.

Anna With A Rifle

Anna With A Rifle ISO 100, 35mm, f16, 1/125 sec

Granted, it’s not full on “cinematic” in that I’ve kept it a bit brighter than you might usually see. Actual movies tend to have the blacks and shadows crushed a bit more than my attempt. Also, perhaps the skin could have been just a touch more orange. The reason I chose this image is because I think it looks intriguing from the get-go. It looks like a slice of a bigger story; perfect for a faux movie still. By the way, this photo was taken using off camera flash; 300ws strobe camera left with a 22″ beauty dish.

For more information regarding giving your photos a full blown cinematic treatment I recommend first checking this tutorial out. It’s a great tutorial that even if you don’t want to do the cinematic thing it’s full of great information regarding curves and general color grading. Then, to add that extra cinema touch, this tutorial goes into adding the black bars to the image, and explains the aspect ratios of movies. I mean, if you’re going to go cinema, you may as well do it right.

Bonneville Salt Flats Photo Shoot Daylight Off Camera Flash

Bonneville Salt Flats Photo Shoot With Daylight Off Camera Flash

Girl In A Skirt At The Bonneville Salt Flats ISO: 100, 50mm, f16, 1/200 sec

I’ve dabbled in off camera flash for the better part of a year now and as I progress I can say that it’s completely changed how I approach photography; even when I don’t use flash, my way of thinking has completely changed. It has helped me to become more aware of light and how it affects a photo. Yeah, that seems almost rudimentary. Light is always important, but trust me, wrapping your head around off camera flash will reroute some synapses in your brain vis a vis lighting and it will be a good thing. Even when you think you don’t need to use flash (and yes, you may not NEED it) it’s beneficial.

In the photo above, taken at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah you can see that it certainly didn’t need flash, but it really added something to the shot. The sun was hitting the subject from behind at about a 35 degree angle. for the off camera flash I set up a 300ws strobe with just the 8″ reflector at camera right more or less perpendicular to the sun; just out of frame. In fact I had to clone some of the stand out. It helped immensely to lift the shadows under the hat and add a bit of a pop to the model overall. I’m happy with the shot.

My camera’s max sync speed is 1/200 second which makes it very difficult to bring down the ambient, hence the f16 aperture setting to help bring down the sky a little. Since I don’t have a neutral density filter or high speed sync capability my goal is a portrait/model/landscape shot because, well, I don’t have any choice. Since my DOF is miles deep I may as well incorporate the background into the shot. The Bonneville Salt Flats is perfect for that.

Eventually I do want to do some outdoor flash with shallow DOF so you can bet your sweet tukis that I’m going to invest in a neutral density filter. Also, I see a HSS setup in my not too distant future as well.

 

Girl In a Skirt Project Hits a Block

Girl In a Skirt Fights the wind.
ISO 200 10mm f10 1/500 sec

Continuing the Girl In a Skirt project, I’m coming across a huge challenge and it has nothing to do with anything camera related, lens related or anything technical. The hardest part is finding skirts. We bought this skirt in Moab and haven’t been able to find another anywhere. Short, mid-thigh flowing skirts are almost impossible to find anywhere. We’v traipsed allover the city trying to find something kind of like what’s in this photo, but different.

None. Nada. Zilch. Next stop, probably some second hand stores.

Girl In a Skirt

Girl In a Skirt looking at red rocks. ISO 200 10mm f9.0 1/640 sec

I’m starting a new project called Girl In a Skirt. I’m not quite sure where it’s going to lead other than it will feature, well, a girl in a skirt. But I am thinking maybe the same girl in various different skirts and locations and shot with different styles. I don’t know. But I like the idea of a unified project to give some direction in which to go. In reality it’s probably going to evolve as I go. The only thing I do know is that it will be a girl in a skirt.

This particular one was shot with my  Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM which I’m really growing to like.

Golden Hour Photography

I love so called golden hour photography. There is a period of time in which sunlight travels greater distances through the atmosphere which produces a warm, softer light. This period of time is just after sunrise and just prior to sunset. Landscape photographers love this light for not just it’s warm softer tones, but also because of the textures provided by the longer shadows caused by the directional light. The quality of light during the golden hour is great for skin tones as well. In fact I would say that it’s the best light for skin tones. Although post processing can closely replicate it, it’s still not the same. The low, directional light fills in the pores producing softer skin more naturally than skin softening techniques used in post production.

In this photo, if you look at the subject’s sunglasses, you can clearly see the sun’s position above the mountains; just over the horizon mere minutes from setting. Perfect light.

Golden hour photography

Golden Hour: ISO 100, 50mm, f5.0, 1/800 sec

This photo has very little adjustment done from the original raw file. I brought down the highlights a bit, and did some adjustments on the white and black balance. Other than those adjustments, there was nothing else. This is a huge benefit of golden hour photography.

This photo, also taken during the golden hour:

Golden hour photography sun gazing

Sun Gazing: ISO 400, 20mm, f8.0, 1/800 sec

The first thing I notice with this photo is ISO 400? What the hell was I thinking?

Anyway, this one has considerably more post processing done to it. Keep in mind that although it looks HDRish, it’s a single frame with some major tweaking of the highlights, and I bumped up the blues a bit as well as the overall vibrance and saturation, and filled in some shadows. I was trying to give it an HDRish look. But the overall warm tone in the image is a result of where the sun is in the sky. Note those longer shadows, too.

At the end of the day–pun intended–golden hour photography is certainly something that I’m going to continue working on.

Retouching Photos Frequency Separation And Taste

One of the things that I enjoy most about photography is the never ending learning curve. Sure, the curve may flatten out a bit, but it’s always there. One of the steepest curves for me is retouching photos. On the one hand all of the tools we have access to open up so many possibilities, yet on the other hand they contain so many pitfalls. For the most part, I prefer a light retouching hand; to not “over bake” a photo. But one person’s masterpiece could very possibly be another’s over baked mess.

I was talking to someone today about retouching and he claimed that he doesn’t do any retouching, preferring instead to “get it right” in the shot. That’s all fine, but if you’re shooting in raw format, some processing is going to be in order no matter what unless you want a flat, bland photo. When I mentioned that his response was that he didn’t believe that the adjustments you make to a raw image–adjusting color balance, contrast, etc–should be considered retouching. He has a point. I’ve always considered any post production work to be some form of retouching, but maybe that’s not quite correct. After all, if you set your camera to JPEG mode, you’re simply letting the camera do the post production work for you at a very basic level.

But even then, many photos can benefit from retouching if not require it. I’m talking techniques to lighten skin blemishes, balance skin tones and other things.

For example this pic is straight out of the camera, untouched accept to convert it to a JPEG:

Kid Before

Kid Before: ISO 200, 50mm, f8, 1/200 sec

This was a flash experiment using an off camera flash gun camera left. It looks fine, but like all raw files flat. Plus when I was taking the pic he was complaining about his pimples. I mean what 14 year old isn’t going to complain about their pimples, right? Also from my perspective, along with the generally flat nature of the photo, I wasn’t crazy about the background which is simply a wall painted off white. Just about everything with this pic is “right,” but it can still be better.

After messing around with the color balance in Lightroom I exported it over into Photoshop where I did some frequency separation to smooth out the skin and reduce some of the shadows under the eyes (hey, he was just home from a grueling day of school). I also did some goofy stuff with some filters to bring out the texture in the wall and warm it up–a lot–because I like the way it looks.

It turned in to this:

alekafter

Kid After: ISO 200, 50mm, f8, 1/200 sec

In hindsight, I think I could do more to reduce the shadows under the eyes, but I was concerned about it looking over baked. But even then, I think it looks much better and the blemishes I took out were the temporary ones. I didn’t do anything to change any features or his natural appearance. I am going to go back and work on those eye shadows for sure. The top, unretouched photo, aside from the flat nature of being a raw file, represents the subject as they were at that exact moment, but the retouched one represents them more accurately generally. Except the wall. The wall would never look like that, but so what? I like it better.

My goal, whether I’m always successful or not, is to produce a result that is natural looking, not over done. I’ve seen some retouching jobs that look so over baked that the subject doesn’t even look real. They look plastic. Definitely try to avoid that.

The whole frequency separation thing is pretty new to me and I’m still learning. There are a ton of resources all over the internet if you’re interested. One of the better ones is this one.