Post-Processing Photos

postprocessing
Some people erroneously assume that when you click the shutter the camera records *exactly* what you see with your eyes. Some then conclude that any post-processing you do, other than cropping and leveling, is turning the photo into something it wasn’t’. In other words, you created a somewhat false image.

What a camera “sees” still has to be interpreted and processed. The final image stored to the memory card has already be “post-processed” – just inside the camera. Some of the in-camera, post-processing is influenced by settings you have control over but some isn’t. Camera manufacturers have their well-guarded algorithms for doing this processing. Objective testing can show subtle differences in color and sharpness between different cameras while shooting the same image, with the same settings and lighting. Our own human vision is similar. Due to the curvature of the lenses in our eyes, images projected on our retina are upside down. Our brain inverts them so what we “see” is right side up. Our vision system is really more like recording video as our eyes keep adjusting to the light as we look over a scene. A still photo, though, is just one moment in time. Without some post-processing the images captured by cameras won’t match what our eyes saw.

There is also something called “RAW mode” available in high-end cameras. When a digital camera takes a picture, the sensor records the characteristics of the light hitting it. An analog to digital conversion is done and a “raw” image is produced. The camera’s sensor then does a little post-processing on that raw image then converts it into a jpeg and writes that jpeg to the memory card. Jpeg is a file format for storing photos on computers. To convert that raw image into a jpeg some compression has to be done to keep the file from being too big. This results in some loss of data. The conversion algorithm tries to intelligently eliminate data but some information you might want is lost. The alternative is to configure the camera to write the “raw” image to the memory card (most also offer the ability to write both the raw and the jpeg to the memory card). Once the raw image is uploaded to the computer it can be edited as can the jpeg. The raw image, however, is uncompressed and contains more information than the jpeg does. This allows for better editing and the ability to correct for more problems. Things like white balance (the color of the light) can be far better adjusted in the raw image than in a jpeg. Editing in raw mode gives the photographer more control over the image. He or she gets to make critical decisions instead of leaving it up to the camera. Often times the raw image looks a little less polished than the jpeg if you set the camera to produce both. That is only because the camera started with the raw image and adjusted it to produce the jpeg. Until you do the same the raw image make not look as good. Shooting in raw mode takes up more space on the memory card and computer and takes more time since you have to post-process the file but can yield superior results.

Naturally there is a point in post-processing where the photographer has the option to make artistic changes. These are intentional departures from what the scene really looked like. It might involve lightening some dark areas, saturating colors for more pop, selectively sharpening or blurring areas, etc. In some cases you could be changing the scene but still producing one that could occur under different lighting conditions. In other cases you could produce an unnatural scene but maybe a dazzling, idealized one. There are no black and white rules about what changes to make. If the photos is going to be used in a travel guide or brochure about a location then you generally want it to be realistic. Same with photos of people or animals. For other uses, though, it’s perfectly fine to create an artistic rendering of the scene. As long as you don’t intentionally deceive someone into thinking an altered scene was 100% accurate. There may have been a distracting telephone pole you removed and a dull sky you livened up. Such changes are not major modifications to what that scene might look like. I’ve had people ask if some of my photos were “worked on” because they look a little too good to them. Often times I really didn’t do that much beyond improving the contrast. In the end, though, does it matter? If you really like it then who cares? We all admire artwork that was artificial or art inspired by real scenes but modified like what an impressionist painter might do. As they say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Some photographers act like making *any* artificial changes to a scene is wrong. I say it depends on your use of the photo and whether or not accurate reproduction is required.

If every photographer just went with the exact image in the camera we would not see some of the amazing photos we have and there would be a lot less variety and less artistry. I say “viva la difference”!

Shooting the Northern Lights

northern light
If you are ever fortunate enough to photograph the Northern Lights, there are some specific settings you use. First you need a tripod and preferably a lens that can use an aperture of 2.8 or lower. You should try to position yourself somewhere where you can get a foreground element in the photo. You should consider slightly lighting your foreground element or taking a shot of the foreground that will expose it more then shoot the lights without moving the camera but now set with the ideal Northern Lights settings.

For the best shots, put your lens at f/2.8, ISO 3200, and set your white balance at 34oo Kelvin. You need to focus on a distant object then set the lens on manual focus. Tape it down if you have to but visual note where the line on the focus scale on the lens is. You may have to focus while it is still light out. Setting the lens on infinity will not necessarily give you the right focus.

What is White Balance

whitebalance
There are many sources of light in our world. The sun, incandescent lights, tungsten lights, fluorescent, fire or candle light, light filtered through various materials, etc. Our atmosphere affects the color of light coming from space. We expect white to be white when we look at pictures. A bride in a grayish dress won’t look right. Same if her dress is tinted green, blue, or some other color. More so than other colors we want to see white correct and if its not correct it is very noticeable.

White balance is a camera setting intended to help the camera compensate for the color or tint of the light so that any white objects in fact look white. If the source of light tends to make things look a little green the proper white balance setting will remove that green cast.

All cameras have an auto white balance setting. On this setting the camera analyzes the light and makes its best guess at what type of compensation to apply. Usually it does a good job but not always. Many cameras offer a number of presets you can choose from if you want to set it yourself or experiment and see which setting looks best. You will find presets like “sunny”, “cloudy”, “shade”, etc. In addition higher-end cameras also have a mode where you can set the color temperature in degrees Kelvin. If you look at the chart above, you can see the Kelvin settings for the various presets. Setting it manually allows you to choose values that land between presets and might yield better results.

Shooting in RAW mode allows you greater flexibility in adjusting the white balance of the photo during post-processing. If you shoot jpeg’s you won’t have as much flexibility. This is one reason many professionals shoot in RAW mode (RAW mode is a camera setting that instructs the camera to output the photo with very little processing by the camera whereas the default is jpeg in which the camera does do some post-processing then condenses the image before writing it out to the memory card).

While the goal of white balance is getting the whites white, it can be used to intentionally change the color cast in a photo. Setting the white balance on “cloudy” when taking pictures on a sunny day can have the effect of warming the colors. If you have obviously white images in the scene you might not like the effect but if it’s an outdoor scene with no obvious white elements it can look great.

I recently was in Norway shooting the Northern Lights. One night all I saw with my naked eyes with a dim white-ish blob in the sky. I set the white balance on my camera to 3400K and did a 4 second exposure at ISO 3200 and that white blob turned to brilliant green! I wasn’t introducing a green tint. The cones in our eyes are responsible for our night vision. Faint colors are rendered as black white to our brains. Cameras have the advantage of being able to collect more light through higher ISO settings and or longer shutter times. This and the sensor’s ability to detect a wider range of light enable it to see these aurora lights better than our eyes. Setting the correct white balance also helps the aurora colors to pop. The next night the Northern Lights were much more active and strong. I could see the green waves with my naked eyes. Still the camera showed them even better. The camera was able to “see” more than my eyes could. I would have captured them on auto white balance but not as well as using 3400K.

Photographing the Moon

moon
Taking a good photo of the moon is always very satisfying. In this note I am going to share some tips and basics I’ve learned over the years.

If you’re going to shoot the moon, it’s best to have a telephoto lens so you can zoom in on it. I like a 70-200mm lens at 200mm or my 100-400mm lens at 400mm. The more you can zoom in the less cropping you will have to do later and that will help with the clarity. You should have your camera on a tripod and use a remote release or your camera’s self-time to avoid any shake although you won’t necessarily be shooting at low shutter speeds.

Depending on the size of the moon and how zoomed in you are, getting the focus tack sharp can be tricky. Your camera’s auto-focus may have a hard time locking in the the moon. I usually manually focus but then take some practice pics and zoom in on the camera replay and see if I need to fine tune my focusing.

The moon is actually quite bright which makes sense as it’s being lit by the sun. So while it may be quite dark out, you will need a faster shutter speed to keep the moon from being too bright. In the accompanying photo (cutoff from the original), I shot with a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second, at ISO 400, and f/11. I took this shot at sunset so the sky was not totally dark. You can pretty much shoot the money any time of day you can see it. I chose f/11 because that is a good setting for getting maximum sharpness. Somewhere around f/8 to f/11 is the sharpest on most lenses. I wanted a faster shutter speed to aim in clarity. With those two settings, I needed ISO 400 to get properly exposed.

The original shot actually had a deep blue sky around the moon, not the black you see here. Some of that was the time of day (sunset vs pitch dark) and the brightness of the moon. I changed the blue to black in the color controls of Adobe Lightroom. I felt that was authentic to how the moon looks in the black of space. I used the adjustment brush in Lightroom to remove noise from the blue areas before I turned the blue into black. I was careful not to brush over the moon itself. I used the clarity slider to better define the craters and did a little sharpening and contrast adjustment but very little.

That’s it. Since the moon is so bright, if there are clouds or some other elements of the sky you want to capture in the photo, you may have to take two shots (on a tripod not moving the camera in between). One exposed for the moon and one exposed for the sky and then combine them in Photoshop or a similar tool. There might be too much contrast in light between the two to find one exposure that works for both.

That shot was taken with a Canon 5Dsr with the Canon 100-400mm lens.

Buying Gear

gear
I often get asked to give advise on buying a camera or other photo gear. I will give some general advice and beyond that you will have to do your own research as the answer depends a lot on your needs, skill level, budget, and philosophy.
There are several camera makers. Canon, Nikon, and Sony are generally the top brands at least in consumer cameras and professional cameras. There are some great professional cameras made by other manufacturers worth considering at the professional level. Still, most pros shoot Canon or Nikon with Sony gaining ground slowly.

There are many review sites out there and it’s worth doing some googling to see what they say. One of the best is dpreview.com. They aren’t perfect but do a good job and have extensive forums where you can post questions and get responses from people all over the world. It’s a good place to start.

When it comes time to purchase, I highly recommend going with a reputable seller. You will sometimes see a camera of interest listed for an unexpectedly low price. Beware. Those are usually scams or you are getting a camera with no warranty. Some scams will sell you the camera for cheap but then batteries, lenses, etc, are all really marked up. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is. That’s not to say there aren’t deals out there but be sure before you buy. Make sure you know exactly what you are paying for, what their return policy is, and what warranty you get. I have purchased gear from Amazon, B & H Photo, Adorama, Manfrotto, Samy’s Camera, and a site called greentoe.com. That’s not to say those are the only good stores but they are trustworthy. Costco and Best Buy can also be trusted if they have what you are looking for. If you shop eBay, just do your homework. Read the fine print and message the seller if you are not sure.

Greentoe is interesting. It’s a site where you can bid on camera equipment and other electronics. They represent a lot of different sellers from small shops on up. They way it works is you first check that they carry the item you want then you do some price shopping online to see what the going price is. Back on greentoe.com, you bid what you want to pay. Kind of like Priceline for electronics. Once you bid, they contact their sellers to see if anyone will except your bid. If someone does, you get told who the seller is and you pay. You can back out at that point if you want. Sometimes you may get a counteroffer. A seller may not want to sell for your bid but might counter a little higher. Up to you if you except their counter or keep waiting. Usually most bids are good for a week but that is a choice you make when bidding. If no one accepts your bid, you can increase it and try again or give up. I recently bought a Canon EF 28mm-70mm f/2.8 L USM II lens from them. The going price is $1599 (Amazon for example). I bid $1350 and got it. It is the real lens, full warranty, etc. The seller shipped it via their Amazon store so it arrived via UPS in an Amazon box. Your success may vary. Depends on how in demand an item is. As always, do your homework.

The details matter. You may find several versions of a lens that is compatible with your camera. Canon, for example, sometimes offers an f/2.8 version of some lenses and an f/4.0 version. Both are good lenses. The f/2.8 version is more expensive due to it’s larger aperture. Great for low light and better blurring of the background (bokeh) when desired. Companies like Tamron, Sigma, and Carl Zeiss make lenses for major brands. Make sure when you compare, you are doing an apples-to-apples comparison. Generally, the bigger the aperture the lens supports (remember the lower the f-number the bigger the aperture), the more expensive it’s going to be. Top quality lenses suffer less from distortion and something call chromatic aberration. Cheaper zoom lenses sometimes are less sharp at the extremes. Sites like DPReview, and others, often do comparisons. Just be sure of what you are getting and what the pros and cons are. Don’t just look at price!

Always feel free to ask someone you know, who knows about camera gear, for help. Some of this gear is expensive so you want to make wise purchase decisions. It’s really not that hard if you do a little research.

Backup and Storage of Photos

storage

There is nothing worse than losing years’ worth of photos due to a hard disk crash, a fire, a flood, or simply losing track of them. I’ve known people who have lost years’ worth of photos because the laptop drive they were on has gone bad or they can no longer login to their laptop. While there are services that can retrieve data off of hard disks (even damaged ones), the cost is very high. Better to not lose them in the first place.


How much trouble and cost you go through to secure them, depends on how much value you place on them. Beyond any monetary value, there is undoubtedly sentimental value among your photos.

What backup strategy you employ depends in part on the size of your collection. If you don’t have a large number of photos and/or they are not very big size-wise, a thumb drive might do the job. Many phone manufactures now provide cloud backup. You can set up your phone to automatically back up photos to a cloud drive or something like Dropbox which is essentially a cloud service.

Those solutions are fine for a limited number of photos but as your collection grows, cloud or thumb drive backup will no longer work or be slow and costly. I now have nearly 10 TB (terabytes) of source and final photos. To have all that backed up to the cloud would be very expensive. I use a mixture of backup strategies that I am constantly refining.

I mostly use NAS drives (network-attached storage). These are enclosures containing disk drives that sit on my home network. The enclosure, and it’s software, allow these disk drives to appear as network drives to my PC. It’s nice because I can access them from a device in my house and even remotely if I want. Since they are not attached to anyone device, no failure on that device will take them down. I also employ RAID so that data is spread across hard disks and often duplicated such that the loss of one drive would not lose the data.

After I finish a photo session or return from a trip, the first thing I do is to import my photos into Adobe Lightroom. This puts a copy of the files onto one of my NAS drives in what I label a SRC (source) folder. In my case, these are RAW files (although they could be JPEGs) if I was not shooting in RAW mode. In Lightroom, they belong to a catalog. That catalog is stored on an SSD (Solid State Drive) on my PC. Think of SSD as a large thumb drive. There are no moving parts like a hard disk has. This makes them faster and more reliable but more expensive and not available in really large sizes. I do this to speed up my editing. The Lightroom catalog is essentially a database that stores information about the changes I am making to the files. The original files, out on the NAS drive, remain untouched. This way I can always go back to them and start over. At some point, I want to do something with select photos. Post them, email them, print them, etc. To do that I must export them from Lightroom. When you perform an export from Lightroom, the program makes a copy of the original file in memory and uses the information in the database to modify the copy according to the changes you made. This modified copy is then written out to the destination of your choice. Another NAS drive in my case.

At this point, I have 3 separate things. I have the original files from the camera out on a NAS drive. I have a record of the editing changes I made in a Lightroom database on my SSD. Finally, I have an exported file that is the combination of the original file and the changes recorded in the database. These 3 things are kept on different drives (but could be kept on one or two drives if I wanted to). The two NAS drives have RAID so the data is better protected from errors. I also have a program running on my PC that backs up all three of these to separate NAS drives. Now my liability is spread across many drives.

I do have some cloud storage and I use this to backup select folders from my exported files. It’s too costly to backup everything there so I pick the most important files. In a perfect world, I would have everything backed up to the cloud or have some portable drives I made copies to and then stored in a safety deposit box. In the event of a fire, I could still lose nearly everything except those few files I keep in the cloud.

I have some portable options I use to backup files when I travel. One is a handheld drive I insert the memory cards from the camera into and it has an internal drive it stores them to. I also have a small SSD drive I can attach to my laptop to make backups to. Just enough to make a copy until I get home. I also own a lot of memory cards and they are numbered. On a trip, I save each memory card after it is full and put an empty one in. That way I still have a copy of everything on those memory cards should something happen to my backups.

If you just take pictures with your phone, using automatic backup to the cloud from your phone is the best solution. What I do is more complex and costly but I have a TON of pictures. For the techies out there, I have about 40 TB of storage at home.
If you get nothing else from this article, just keep in mind that accidents do happen and you don’t want to lose those precious memories. There are lots of easy ways to backup your photos. Don’t get caught without backups!

Common Photography Mistakes: Under exposed (dark) people against a bright background

When photographing people outdoors it often happens that the background is very bright. For example, you may stop during a hike to take a picture of the group. The group is in the foreground and the background is a bright sunny landscape. Worse is taking a picture of a single individual in this setting.

If you are an auto the camera is going to be overly influenced by all that bright background and set the exposure to capture that properly exposed. That will have the effect of making the people in the foreground too dark. The problem is the major contrast between the bright background and the shaded people in the foreground.

One solution is to expose for the people. You can do this by walking closer to the people so they take up most of the picture. Press the shutter button down half way and hold (or use exposure lock if your camera has it). Step back (still holding the shutter button down half way) and compose the photo. Now take the picture. The people should now be property exposed but the background will be overexposed (too bright). You can’t have it both ways.

Actually you can if you use a flash. We normally think of using a flash indoors or in the dark but this is a perfect time to use a flash. The flash can throw some light on the people while allowing you to still expose the background properly. Now you have the best of both. If you don’t have a flash with you then you have two other choices. You could put the people in the sun. They might have to fight the urge to squint but if they and the background are brightly lit then the camera can expose for both. The second option is to move the people into the shade and not have a bright background.

One other solution is to use HDR (High Dynamic Range). Some newer cameras have HDR as a built-in option. You can also use software to create HDR. What is HDR? When you look at a scene, especially outdoors, your eyes will distinguish several different ranges of light. Some parts of the scene might be in bright sun, some in dark shadows, others in various other shades of light. Our eyes can distinguish more ranges of light than cameras can. When you have a scene with a large dynamic range of light it is impossible to capture it all in one shot. With HDR you take multiple shots each optimized for a particular range of light. To do this you usually need to be on a tripod. If the camera has an HDR function built-in simply activate it, compose the scene (hopefully on a tripod), and hit the shutter button. The camera will then take 2 or 3 quick shots of the scene varying the shutter speed on each shot. If you do it manually you start with a shutter speed to properly expose one range of light then snap the photo. Then you change the shutter speed to properly expose a different shade of light and take another picture. Usually you take 3 or more. You can then later combine these photos in software to create a composite HDR image. The software gives you lots of control over how the composite image will look. Adobe Photoshop has HDR processing built-in. Other popular programs include Photomatix and Nik HDR Pro.

More on this to come…

Common Photography Mistakes: Crooked Horizon

Many landscape photos have a horizon. It could be where the ocean meets the sky, a distant shoreline, or even horizontal or vertical lines of buildings. Unless you want to intentionally slant the photo for artistic effect you should always have horizons level. If not you can correct a crooked horizon in software. On some wide angle shots vertical lines will slant. That is a problem with perspective and can also be addressed in software although sometimes it is too much to totally correct. The best approach is to look for important vertical and/or horizontal lines in your scene and make sure they are level before you snap the photo.

Photographing Fireworks

Image

Photographing fireworks is not as difficult as you might think. It is very much like night photography in general. First you need a tripod as you will not be able to handhold with the shutter speeds needed. I recommend shooting at a sharp f-stop like f/11. Trying to capture a single burst is tricky which is why I typically set my shutter speed for 1-10 seconds. One second will probably get me one burst whereas 10 will get me multiple which can look pretty cool. I underexpose as I want a dark sky to make the fireworks stand out.

I keep shooting away capturing multiple exposures. Better to throw a bunch out later than to end up with 2 that are no good. I post-process and paint black over any smoke and darken the sky. I then saturate the colors a tad if needed.

Don’t forget a shutter release to keep your hands off the camera to avoid shake. I start with a short (1 second) shot to see how my settings are and adjust accordingly. Then I fire away until the show is done. I keep my ISO as low as possible and make sure I have noise reduction turned on.

You will need to experiment and it might take you a few times to get it right but once you do you will love it!