Category Archives: Retouching

Shooting In JPEG

Ask any experienced photographer and, aside from a very few (Ken Rockwell comes to mind), they will always tell you to shoot in RAW instead of JPEG. That is actually good advice but it’s not for everyone.

To make full use of raw files, you are expected to be reasonably good at post processing. Depending on how much time you have in your hands, learning how to shoot and how to process your images at the same time will definitely slow you down. Beginners in photography are better off spending more time shooting instead of sitting in front of a computer. I would advise them to shoot in JPEG instead because it does not require much processing.

To give an example, I will use one of my recent shots which I took using my Sony NEX6. I shot in RAW+JPG mode just for comparison. I know that the light is going to be tricky for this night shot and that I may have to push the shadows in post later on. I intentionally underexposed the image because it was a night shot afterall. Leaving the camera by itself to judge the exposure will render the image much brighter than intended and will ruin the mood. It was a beautiful twilight and the sky had a wonderful display of colours. I wanted to capture the fantastic magenta so I set the white balance to daylight otherwise the camera will think that there is too much red in the scene and it would shift the balance towards green.

Here is the JPEG image as captured straight from the camera:

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I’m quite happy with the composition. The camera has done a good job of capturing what I saw that time. Twilight is typically a low contrast situation. You could choose to increase the contrast in camera but doing so will only bury the scene in deeper shadows. Bottomline is, reality is quite dull and boring. The raw file is even worse: contrast is very low, colours are dull, there is too much barrel distortion from the kit lens and then there’s vignetting.

I went through my shots for that day just to see if there is something worth processing. There wasn’t much to go through anyway. For every hour of shooting I normally produce between 20 to 30 frames. I think before I shoot and if I like what I see in the LCD I would take 2 or 3 more of the same angle for safety. I tried processing some of the raw files in Lightroom but I could not come up with something that I liked so after a few minutes I decided to turn off my computer.

The day after, I got bored so I opened my iPad and decided to try processing my shots in Snapseed. It is a very simple app. Every beginner should install it. In just 5 minutes I managed to transform the JPEG image above into this:

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The difference is obvious but subtle. It’s practically just a few contrast adjustments, a gentle shadow push and a bit of sharpening. I also cropped the image a tiny bit to remove that white mark on the ground that can be seen on the lower left portion of the original shot.

The point is that if you start with a good image, a JPEG capture is all you will ever need. You do not need to perform heavy post processing that a JPEG file might not be able to handle. Thing is, if you have to spend hours tweaking a raw image then it probably means that you spent too little time thinking about the shot.

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Some Thoughts on HDR

When I started doing serious photography around mid of 2009, HDR was kind of the latest craze. My reaction when I first saw HDR images was one of amazement. I never expected photographs to be so vibrant and detailed. HDR images looked surreal I just had to try making one myself.

Looking back, I have now understood why I was bewitched by those out-of-this-world photographs. There were several reasons I can think of:

1. I have never seen fine art photographs. Paintings, yes but never photographs. I blame my art subjects because they never discussed photography as an art form.

2. I was used to taking snapshots with film cameras. I did own several point-and-shoot digital cameras but they were there just to record personal experiences.

3. I have never attempted to retouch my photos. I thought that if my photos sucked then maybe I just don’t know how to capture them.

4. I didn’t understand the art of photography. I did not understand light and exposure. I didn’t think about composition.

I thank HDR for making me appreciate fine art photography. Without it, I probably would have continued being just a casual shooter.

Fast forward to the present, I can say that I have been exposed to all sorts of fine art photographs and have learned to appreciate most of them. I now have a bit of understanding on the role of light, even its absence, in creating pleasing photographs. I still struggle with composition and sometimes it is quite frustrating when I come back from a photoshoot with barely any keepers.

So what has this got to do with HDR?

I have realized that the best photographs are the simple ones. The lesser the clutter, the better they are. Most of the time.

So again, what has this got to do with HDR?

A photograph, ideally, must have a single subject. Everything in the frame must contribute to that single message. I once read in a book that before you click the shutter, SIMPLIFY first. You know that a photograph is finished when there is nothing more that you can remove from the frame.

Here lies the problem with a lot of HDR images: they show details all over the frame even in the shadow areas. The argument behind these HDR images is that the photographer wanted to recreate the dynamic range of human vision; there are details everywhere. No blown highlights, no black shadows. (Taken to the extreme, the resulting image becomes flat and lacks contrast. To counter this massive drop in overall contrast, some photographers mindlessly increase local contrast to create details. The result of which is the haloing effect.)

This, I believe, is a result of failing to understand how humans SEE. Humans have very narrow field of focus. If you stretch your arms out and spread your fingers, you could not focus on both your thumb and pinky. Your eyes actually roam around very quickly, gathering details along the way and the brain assembles all the separate data into a cohesive whole. There is no confusion.

Compare this to a frame of photograph where the eye is focused only on a relatively small area. If there are details all throughout the frame, the brain gets confused because the entire view is now crammed into such a small space. By presenting details in both highlights and shadow areas, the brain could no longer concentrate on one subject. This makes the photograph overly complicated and cluttered.

Basic rules of composition, if you believe that there is such a thing, tell you to arrange the elements in a frame in such a way that the main subject becomes the center of attention. Every other element in that frame must not contest the significance of the main subject. The brightest area of the frame catches the eye first so usually this is where you position your subject. By unnecessarily showing details in the shadow areas, you force the viewer to divert his attention away from the subject.

Another example is the basic composition technique of using frames: e.g. a tree in the foreground that frames a house which is the main subject. This “frame” is supposed to force the viewer to concentrate on the house. Improper use of HDR will show details on the tree thus diverting the eye from the house.

HDR is not a bad technique. Sometimes, it is even necessary. It is the improper use of HDR that makes weak photographs. I’m not referring to cartoonish HDRs (they are a completely different level of bad photos) but even “realistic” HDRs can be harmful to your art. Just be careful.

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.