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On Ken Rockwell

Why oh why would I even write about Ken Rockwell?

He is easily one of the most hated in the industry. That’s why.

If you haven’t read or heard about him then you are one of the lucky few. It probably means you are out there shooting instead of lurking in forums and hurling shit at other “photographers”. Some forums even have strict rules of “no KR discussions”. Some “togs” are very quick to tell n00bs not to read Ken Rockwell.

But WHY?!

Here’s my own conclusion based on common observation: Those who hate him are primarily jealous gear heads who can’t stand the blunt opinions of KR.

Hey, Rockwell isn’t perfect and some of his views are kinda outrageous. Consider his opinion on not using tripods for example. I’m not sure if he is just masochistic but I will bet my unused Nikon D700 that I can take better photos than him if we go on a one-on-one photoshoot contest on the same location as long as he doesn’t use a tripod. I can guarantee that I will have more keepers and more interesting shots than him. Does that make me a Rockwell hater? Far from it. Have a read on his other articles especially those that tackle composition and FARTing and why your gear does not matter. Every newbie should read them. If you visited Rockwells page and totally missed his excellent tutorials then there is no denying that you are a gear whore. Yes, Rockwell is a gear head. What differentiates him from other gear heads is that the guy can shoot. Compare him with FroKnowsFoto or Kai of DigitalRev (if you don’t know them then consider yourself lucky for the second time). Compare him with those “photographers” who hate him. If you don’t believe me then check out his gallery at 1x.com. Now try submitting your own shots to that group and see if you can even get one image approved by their expert curators. Gear whores, on the other hand, think that Rockwell can’t shoot. Guess what, he owns everyone’s dream gear. So if you think that he can’t shoot then truly gear does not matter if you suck at photography. So touche. Every gear whore who hates him is shooting himself on the foot. Gear heads hate him because they can’t beat him. Rockwell is everything a gear whore wants to become but can’t. Rockwell can buy any gear he wants yesterday. Heck he could probably get any camera before they are even released. I said BUY. Not borrow. Kai or Fro don’t even own the gear they “review”. Rockwell BUYS his gear. He buys them and make very blunt reviews about them. Fan boys will kill anyone who makes blunt criticisms about their chosen brand. That’s why they hate him. Gear whores feel like Rockwell just told them that their mothers are ugly. They feel that it’s cool and that it makes them more credible if they hate Rockwell. They can’t accept the fact that after they upgraded to the latest and greatest camera and acquired the holy trinity of lenses their photos still suck. Rockwell was right after all!!!

I’m not saying that Rockwell is God but some say he is the Chuck Norris of photography. If you have not read about that then consider yourself unlucky. It’s easily one of the funniest posts I have read.

I’m not saying you should believe whatever Rockwell says but he is more credible than any other “photography” magazine when it comes to gear reviews. It’s quite funny because there won’t be Rockwell haters if they did not visit his website frequently. How could you hate someone at first glance? You have got to be a frequent visitor to develop a hatred for the guy. These same gear whores keep coming back for more! And rightly so. Rockwell is easily one of the most honest reviewers out there unlike magazines who are scared to say something bad for fear of being abandoned by gear manufacturers.

So you really hate Rockwell? Then I would like to see your photo gallery.

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Upgrades

Q: What is more shocking than the release of the iPad 4?

A: The thousands of angry iPad 3 owners.

Unbelievable! Why would somebody get angry at Apple for releasing the iPad 4 within just six months of the iPad 3’s release? Will the iPad 4 suddenly render the iPad 3 a useless paperweight? Heck, my old iPad 2 still works like the day I bought it. What has the world become?!

I have several theories but my best guess is that the iPad 3 does not really mean anything to these owners. The gadget has absolutely NO VALUE to them. It’s just bling.

An item of value is something that you will keep and use until it breaks or until you have outgrown it. It’s not just the Apple iDiots but “photographers” are on the same spectrum of gear whoring. A new camera suddenly renders the old one unusable and so an upgrade is a must. Unfortunately, there is no stopping this insanity. It will only get worse.

My First Roll of Slide Film

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After Kodak announced the discontinuation of several transparency films, I decided to try some of them before they finally become just part of photography’s history. The photos that I’m showing here were captured using my beloved Nikon FM3A and Kodak E100VS slide film.

I was quite uncomfortable at first, knowing that slide film is probably the most unforgiving medium. It has a very narrow dynamic range of about 4-5 stops. It means that I had to carefully choose what I shoot. Before tripping the shutter I had to evaluate the light as best as I could and make sure that I am properly judging the meter reading from my camera. In the shot above, the exposure needle of my FM3A was almost pointing at 1/15s. I thought that it must have been tricked by the shadow areas. My goal was to capture the sunlight hitting the buildings and bridge so I was careful not to blow up the highlights. I decided to expose one stop lower at 1/30s and this is what I got. I really like the warm light hitting the top of the bridge against the storm clouds in the background. When I composed the shot I had panoramic cropping in mind so I made sure that the important parts are all framed right in the middle. I wanted to use the whole frame but in order to capture the building and the bridge I had to shoot wide and aim higher. Wide and high introduced so much distortion that the buildings seem to lean over to the center of the frame. My only option was to shoot wide but frame it in such a way that the horizon was almost in the middle, a mortal sin in composition unless you have a reason to do so. In this case, the reason was my goal of doing a 1×2 panoramic format and I think I have succeeded in doing that.

I wish I could let everyone see the actual frames on film. The colours are so intense and there’s depth that it looks three-dimensional. I used my cheap Epson V500 scanner to digital the film and to be honest, I think it just ruined the image. I guess slide film is meant to be viewed in a slide projector.

I am very happy with the results and would definitely buy more of this stuff before the world runs out of them. Of the 36 frames, I got more than 10 keepers and I think that says a lot about how film forces you to think a hundred times before clicking the shutter. There’s no reason you couldn’t do the same with digital photography but there’s always the temptation of deleting the bad ones or fixing it later in post or storage is cheap arguments.

Before I sign off, here’s more of my slide film captures:

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RAW vs JPG

At the risk of beating a dead horse, I would like to discuss this sensitive matter. I have always shot in RAW ever since I started doing serious photography. Editing a 14-bit RAW file is so much more flexible than tweaking an 8-bit JPG. Not only that, I used to edit and store my images in AdobeRGB format to maximize color gamut. Flexibility was everything.

It was only during this past year or so that I have started investing on (cheap) filters. Since I do mostly landscape, GND, ND and CPL filters have become essential tools in my photography. I used to do a lot of HDR to extract details in the shadows and highlights until my taste drastically changed. Shadows have now become part of my composition instead of being a hindrance to creating a pleasing photograph. I’m not just referring to silhouettes but contrast in general. A huge part of this is because I have learned to appreciate and distinguish the quality of light and how it interacts with the landscape. I used to shoot from 5AM to 10AM when I was just a beginner but now, a 5AM to 6AM session for a 5:30AM sunrise is enough. I quickly realized that photos taken 30 minutes after sunrise have a very low keeper rate unless I am dealing with fantastic extreme weather conditions.

The challenge for me has always been to get it right as much as possible when I trip the shutter. I spend a lot of time adjusting the exposure, combining filters and chimping the LCD to confirm that my histogram is where I want it to be. I wake up two hours before sunrise just to arrive at a location which I have already reasearched beforehand for weather patterns and tide movement. I shoot sunsets until an hour after the sun has disappeared on the horizon. All of these just to get the ideal light conditions and colors.

Yesterday, I had a very frustrating experience. I drove for 3 hours to a planned location to shoot autumn colors. It wasn’t perfect but I managed to get some fantastic light and warm colors. The shots I took were crisp and punchy and the histograms were ideal. Driving back home for another 3 hours I immediately transferred my files to my Mac, believing that I have captured something that was worth $50 in fuel and half a day that I have lost forever. Reality hit me in the nuts when my photo editing software presented me with lifeless photographs. The colors were not only dull but they were wrong. The contrast, gone. The crisp and punchy photos are nowhere to be found. I spent hours tweaking the RAW files to reproduce what I captured, what I saw in the LCD. All of that effort ended in frustration.

The moment of realization. I spent a huge amount of effort getting it right during capture only to throw away all of that and redo everything in the computer!!! That, to me, is insane! Wasted time…lots of it.

The second moment of realization for me was that I’m not good at photo editing at all. I am better off spending more time taking photos than being in front of a computer. I should have known this a long time ago. The photos you see in my Flickr gallery are edited but I do not spend more than 10 minutes for each one of them. You can watch how I work in my two-minute photo editing video. That represents the bulk of my editing workflow. If a shot does not look right after a few minutes of contrast and color adjustments, it just becomes a worthless junk of ones and zeros.

I am far from being a good photographer but I am worse as a photo retoucher. From being an HDR addict to becoming re-acquainted with film, it is quite obvious where my priorities are.

As a consequence of yesterday’s experience, I have decided to shoot in JPG for a month and see if I’m gonna miss anything. If my productivity does not improve, I’ll go back to shooting RAW or maybe shoot RAW+JPG if I can afford to waste more disk space. I have been asked why not strive to improve my editing skills instead of giving up? I am not giving up on improving my computer skills but at this point, I believe that I am better off spending my time improving my photography skills instead. When I become pro, there would always be someone else who can do the editing for me 😉 I would like to be proven wrong but my personal experience tells me I’m heading in the right direction.

Choosing the Dark Side

Canon vs Nikon. They never end. Lucky Sony, Olympus, Pentax and other underdogs for not having to deal with the stupid arguments. But this post isn’t about brand wars.

Expose to the right (ETTR) is a common advice in digital photography. It simply means, try to make sure that you expose your shot with bias towards the right end of the histogram. Make it as bright as practically possible without blowing out the highlights. If you understand how digital photos are stored, this makes sense. You want to maximize every bit of those 12-14 bits.

There is danger in blindly following this advice since the linear profile of digital camera sensors is not very forgiving. Once you clip past a certain limit, no data is stored in the photograph. This is characterized by blown highlights. Unfortunately, it is a lot easier to blow the highlights than lose the shadows.
There is something I discovered just a few months ago that I would like to share with you: It is better to underexpose than expose to the right. Not just underexpose but severely underexpose especially if the dynamic range of the scene is too wide.
Have a look at this photo because I quite pushed the camera beyond its limits when I took the shot:


Very dark isn’t it? The exposure was ISO 400, f8, 30 seconds after +2.5 stops of exposure compensation from the metered reading. That’s pushing the sensor a bit too much. I could have opened up to f5.6 but my cheap lens is very soft at that aperture. Going ISO 800, on the other hand, will only introduce more noise.
Now have a look at the same photo after post processing:


That’s a world of difference! I just pushed the exposure by +1.35 stops and then pulled some of the shadows with fill light. I have managed to extract details in the shadows while preserving the highlights. There’s more: peep all you want but there is barely a trace of luminance or chroma noise even after brightening the shadows. Amazing!!!

The photo was captured with a Pentax K5. It’s really amazing how modern sensors have improved. I would expect the same performance in the Nikon D7000 and Sony A55 because all of them use the same Sony sensor (surprise?!!!).

This is not the only instance where I managed to salvage a seemingly hopeless exposure. I do a lot of HDR work when the scene is too contrasty and I normally bracket at -2,0,+2. Many times, I was able to scrap the HDR because I was able to extract enough information from the -2 frame. Single exposure shots are still way cleaner than HDR so I always try to pull the shadows if I can.

Experiment with your own camera and see how much you can extract from a severely underexposed image. Make sure you shoot RAW.

So who’s coming with me to the dark side?

Edit:
My new iPad blogging software ruined the original post. Lesson for me: sticking to one buggy software is sometimes better than switching software.

The Photographer Test

Are you a real photographer? Take the test to find out.

The scoring is as follows: a = 1, b = 2, c = 3, d = 4 (duh?!)

1. How many cameras do you have?
a) 1
b) 2
c) 3
d) too many

2. How many different brands of cameras do you have?
a) 1
b) 2
c) 3
d) I have a museum in my house.

3. How many types of cameras do you have?
a) just a point-and-shoot
b) P&S and DSLR
c) P&S, DSLR, MILC
d) P&S, (D)SLR, MILC, RF, MF, LF, etc…

4. How did you manage to buy your camera(s)?
a) salary bonus
b) after 3 years of having instant noodles for lunch
c) spread the cost using 5 credit cards
d) sold a kidney

5. Did your partner approve of the purchase?
a) after buying her favorite bag
b) after I got admitted in the hospital for too much MSG in my system
c) after she discovered the huge bill
d) partner left after she discovered it wasn’t just the kidney

6. How big/heavy is/are your camera(s)?
a) fits in a small shoulder bag
b) requires a medium size backpack
c) the airline won’t let me board with them
d) I have regular sessions with my chiropractor

7. My fastest camera’s frame rate is…
a) I can never capture a jump shot
b) between 3-5 fps
c) 5+ fps
d) I slow down my clicking when the shutter jams like a typewriter.

8. How many lenses do you have?
a) just a single kit lens
b) one good lens and a 50mm are a must
c) the holy trinity of lenses
d) the holy trinity for two different brands and more

9. What is your fastest lens?
a) options b, c and d don’t make any sense
b) 4.0
c) 1.8 or 1.4
d) 1.2 or faster

10. How fast is your fastest zoom/telephoto lens?
a) options b, c and d still don’t make any sense
b) 5.6
c) 2.8 baby!!!
d) my 800/4 is slow 😦

11. What color is your favorite lens?
a) colorful
b) plain black
c) white with red ring / black with gold ring
d) desert camo

12. Any filters?
a) my camera has several art filters
b) UV is glued since day one
c) UV, CPL, (G)ND
d) do fingerprints count?

13. How many batteries do you have?
a) a lot!!! it needs 4 AA
b) one for each camera
c) each camera has a grip
d) several cameras have grips, some of them built-in. Very handy when my car fails to start.

14. Favorite metering mode:
a) duh?!
b) matrix
c) spot
d) sunny 16

15. Favorite shooting mode:
a) portrait mode
b) aperture priority
c) full manual FTW!
d) bulb mode. I use ND filters if it’s too bright.

16. Favorite focusing mode:
a) face detect
b) auto focus
c) manual focus
d) I move with my feet

17. Favorite photo editing software
a) my camera can upload straight to Facebook
b) Aperture or Lightroom
c) Photoshop
d) any hex editor will do

18. How about HDRs?
a) retouching any photo is evil
b) HDR is awesome!!!
c) no thanks, filters will do
d) I can stay in one spot until the second coming just waiting for the perfect light conditions.

19. Any brand loyalty?
a) whoever has the most megapixels
b) I’m a brand X fanboy
c) I’m an ambassador for brand X
d) The cameras that fail my tests are rebranded as CaNikon.

20. Where can we see your photos?
a) add me as a friend in Facebook
b) I post test charts in forums
c) My photos are in 1x.com
d) NatGeo’s website redirects its photo gallery to my Android phone that’s running Apache.

So how did you go? Compare your score to the rankings below:

19 and below:
Dumb as a baboon. You skipped a few items. Do it again.

20 – 30:
A true beginner. Please read my other blog posts 🙂

31 – 69:
Measurebator. Nuff said.

70 – 79:
Amateur photographer. We want links to your photo galleries and schedules of your exhibits.

80 (and above):
A true master photographer soon to become the likes of Adams and Cartier-Bresson.

Making vs Taking Photographs

How many times have you been asked if you edited or retouched your nice photograph? And how many of those who asked probably thought you were cheating because you did so? Well this post is for them and probably for you as well. Allow me to explain why I’m doing what I’m doing.

There is a big difference between taking a photograph and MAKING a photograph. The former ends when you click the shutter. The latter involves so much more.

Taking a photograph is like playing backyard basketball with your friends. Making a photograph is like being the captain ball during a championship match crafting your best plan of action during the dying seconds.

Taking a photograph is like going to a McDonalds drive through. Making a photograph is like being in the finals of Masterchef.

See the difference?

Allow me to explain further and take the McDonalds drive through as an example. Sure, you have choices of what food to get but you do not have control over who made the burger or what ingredients they put in there. Personally, I don’t like mustard in my burger but I like the Big Mac. Getting into the finals of Masterchef means using all your skills in crafting the best meal possible for the judges. Yes, you can use all the advanced cookware but they are just tools. It’s the final output, your masterpiece, that the judges will get to taste. Would they ask what oven or frying pan was used or whether you used your armpit to mold the dough? The method does not matter at all. The output is everything.

The same is true in photography. If you think that your job is done after tripping the shutter then you are basically just accepting what the Canon or Nikon engineers think is the best JPEG output. The truth is you have just cheated on yourself. The camera could not possibly capture all the light intensities and colors that the eyes see. Don’t be disheartened if that magnificent sunset sky background became a pale crap of gray color when you took a snap of your girlfriend. It wasn’t your fault. A big part of that failure is the camera’s inherent limitation. That’s why casual shooters rarely get photos that are worth keeping. They do not understand the limitations of their equipment. They think they are hopeless photographers when in fact, it’s the camera that isn’t capable of capturing what they saw. Even modern cameras with advanced metering systems and automatic everything could not match the human eye and brain combo.

Even during the film days, photographers carefully chose their film. Velvia for landscape, Portra for weddings. Because films have different characteristics. The landscape photographer Ansell Adams spent countless hours in the darkroom tweaking his black and white negatives to achieve the prints that made him famous.

Tweaking makes a good photograph great. Tweaking can’t make a poorly captured image great. Maybe better but not something you could hang on a wall. There are photographers who can take nice photos straight from the camera but to settle for nice is being shortsighted.

Not all tweaked photographs are nice. There are those who overcook their photos and make them look like clown vomit. They make a nice shot look terrible.

If a photo looks great then it is great. Do you really care how it was made? And if you do, can you accept the fact that it wasn’t what you expected? If you can’t, then don’t ask. Just enjoy the masterpiece. If you are genuinely interested then open up your mind and start learning how to make a photograph.