Tag Archives: compression

Welcome to My Playground


This is the title that I gave to the photograph which I posted in Flickr. I chose the word playground to portray fun and joy. For me, fun should always come first in photography.

But what does it take to capture such a simple photograph?

The main ingredient is light. Photography, afterall, means painting with light. Not just light intensity or brightness but the quality of light as well. In landscape photography, there are two choices: dawn or dusk. Anything in between is just a variation of the word CRAP. Dawn and dusk have different qualities of light. When you are in the east coast and facing east, dawn will give you a warm orange light while dusk gives a cooler magenta glow. If you are in the west, it’s the opposite. Depending on your location or the time of year, you can have both at the same time. The photo below was taken at dawn as well but notice the magenta tint:


Shooting at dawn has several advantages compared to dusk. People are generally too lazy to wake up early which means you have the entire spot all to yourself. No distractions. For those who have day jobs it means you can still shoot during weekdays especially during summer where a typical session ends around 5:30AM. You’ll be home before the rest of your household is awake.

Dusk sessions have advantages as well. You can shoot longer even up until blue hour kicks in and get nice long exposures. Cityscapes look fantastic when artificial lights turn on.

Anyway, let’s concentrate on the first photo. I woke up at around 3:30AM to prepare myself. My friend’s house is still a 20-minute drive to my place where we agreed to meet. While waiting for him, I started putting on my ski gear because it was just 6 degrees outside. I checked the weather report again to make sure that our target location is free of any weather disturbances. If we suspect heavy clouds then we may need to divert to Cedar Creek instead to capture the waterfalls. The day before, I already knew the tide pattern so Point Halloran was the perfect spot. The tide will be high enough to give us some reflections but low enough such that the small boats won’t move. Timing should be perfect. If the tide comes in too quick before sunrise then our plans are ruined.

My friend arrived around 4:20AM. That’s the advantage of shooting in winter. The sun rises at 6:30AM so we didn’t have to wake up that early. During summer we usually start driving at 3:00 AM for a 5:00AM sunrise. Anyway, we left for Point Halloran and arrived at around 5:45AM. Being on location 45 minutes before sunrise is just right. One hour would be ideal so that you can scout the area. Because we were “late”, we had to rush and start shooting whatever subject we could find.

Let’s talk about equipment. A tripod is essential. Don’t leave home without it. A torch is very handy so you can find your way in the dark. I also brought my gummy boots because I know that the location is quite muddy. My trusty Pentax K5 is fully charged with the initial ISO set to 200 and configured to capture RAW plus JPG. I only have one lens: a cheap Sigma 17-70 which you could buy brand new for a little over $300. I had a cheap 0.9 GND filter attached to a knock-off filter holder. Don’t bother using a UV filter; it’s the most useless accessory you could buy for your lens. Use a proper lens cover instead and a lens hood if you are concerned about scratching your lens. Now that I have enumerated my gear, the point is that ANY camera and kit lens will do. There is absolutely no need for expensive gear in landscape photography.

So what did actually happen when I captured this moment? I was taking photos of a boat that was docked along the muddy shore. I was shooting wide at 17mm, aperture set to f16 and manually focused to 7 feet with exposure compensation set to +1. I was about to change position when I saw my friend about 20 meters away taking photos along the edge of the water. I immediately recognized the photo opportunity. I quickly opened my aperture to f11 and zoomed in to 70mm which was the longest my lens could go. It was just long enough to get a nice compression. I also had to raise my tripod to avoid his silhouette from merging with the horizon. I immediately thought about my composition. I had him positioned on the left third of the frame with the silhouette of the shoreline going from the bottom of the frame towards the horizon. The horizon was placed high enough but also making sure that my friend’s reflection is positioned nicely along the lower third of the frame. I then set my camera to autofocus and shifted the focus sensor to point at my friend. This was the quickest way to focus at infinity. Unlike older lenses that lock into infinity, modern (crippled) lenses don’t do this. Instead they focus past infinity and completely ruin your shot. Knowing that it’s going to be a silhouette shot, I dialed exposure compensation down to -0.5 to make the colors pop and darken the darkest blacks. I did one last peek to check my shutter speed and noticed that it wasn’t fast enough. So I shouted at him “Wag kang gumalaw!”, which is Filipino for “Don’t move!”. I pressed the shutter and my timer automatically started the 2-second countdown. Just before the timer expired, the camera flipped the mirror into a lock up position before finally opening the shutter curtain to capture the image. All of these happened in about 15-20 seconds. I chimped to confirm that the camera did what it was supposed to do and told my friend that he can continue whatever he was doing…after thanking him of course for being a cooperative model 🙂

I would like to emphasize the importance of an inexpensive kit lens here. Had I used an ultrawide lens, I would not have been able to capture this shot. Those distant mountains would have disappeared in an ultrawide lens and the horizon would have merged with my subject unless I shot from a very high position. If I brought a prime lens, I may had to swap lenses thus totally missing the opportunity or walked very slowly in the mud towards or away from the subject just to frame him correctly. Your kit lens is good enough for just about anything.

We started packing up at around 7AM with several keepers safely stored in our cameras.

Post processing is easy when you have done the difficult part of capturing the moment. A simple curves adjustment to enhance the contrast was enough. I did not crop at all. This is how it showed up in the LCD. I softened the image a bit to avoid halos along the edges of high contrast portions of the image. This halo effect is an artifact of digital capture. All my digital cameras do this. If you want to avoid this artifact, shoot film.

What do I like about this shot? I like the silhouette figures. The silhouette of the shoreline added depth to an otherwise flattened image that was brought about by the mid telephoto zoom. The main subject of course is shown here in a position typical of landscape photographers; bent over holding a leash to make sure that their cameras don’t run away. The mix of warm colors and cool blue foreground was a welcome surprise. I liked it a lot so I put my stamp of approval on the lower right portion of the frame 🙂

Allow me to summarize this post:

1. Light is everything.
2. Shoot at dawn/sunrise or dusk/sunset. Anything in between is crap unless you have something very special in the frame.
3. Preparation will consume most of your time.
4. You have to think fast and react just as fast. Which means …
5. Know your camera. Pick one that does not get in the way. You should be able to operate it even in complete darkness.
6. You do not need expensive equipment for landscape photography.
7. Laziness will get you nowhere.

For lessons on lens compression and zoom factor please refer to my previous tutorials:

Understanding your lens

Zoom factor

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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.