Tag Archives: histogram

Why I Shoot Film

It may seem strange to most photographers today why anyone would shoot with film when digital is so much more convenient. The quality of digital images has already surpassed 35mm film and, with the release of Nikon’s D800, may finally surpass that of medium format film as well. These are valid arguments but they do not stop me from shooting film and here’s why …

The main reason I shoot film is to preserve my most memorable experiences. Memorable does not necessarily mean best. Family travel photos won’t win awards but they are very important. By shooting film, I get three copies, in three different media, of the photos that mean a lot to me: the film strips, the prints and the film scans. Film has very long archival life. Same goes with cheap Fuji archival paper. I still have the negative strips and prints of my childhood years. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for digital images. After losing 95Gb worth of data when my hard disk crashed, I became paranoid and started investing in external drives. My important digital photos now have triplicate copies in separate disks. Yesterday I managed to chat my with friend whose house got broken into a few weeks ago. All his disks got stolen. He did have backup copies online but they were encrypted and the encryption key was in one of the disks that got stolen 😦 Really bad luck. Thieves will never run away with your film. OK, that’s a bit of an extreme case of bad luck but it need not go that far for you to lose access to your photos. I still have lots of photos stored in one of my IDE drives but modern computers do not have IDE controllers anymore. They all use SATA. Of course I can still recover them if I have to but that’s not the point. Digital technology moves too fast that storage becomes obsolete in just a few years. CD/DVD drives are now becoming useless as you might have noticed in laptops. Digital storage technology is like a dog trying to chase its own tail. You have to keep up or lose everything.

Shooting film does not make you a better photographer. Anyone who says so is just being boastful. Anyone who advises a beginner to shoot film to become better needs a serious reality check. It will force you to think a hundred times before clicking and that’s about it. Your skill won’t magically improve in an instant. The quality of your film shots are a good indication though of how far you have progressed in your photography. It shows that you can capture your vision in a single take without the need to chimp on an LCD screen. I have far greater percentage of keeper shots in film than my digital captures not because film made me better. I didn’t magically improve after 36 frames in a canister, but rather, I was just being conservative. It’s just human nature that if something seems inexpensive then we tend to abuse it and that translates into our digital photos quite clearly.

In terms of image quality, digital photos are superior. Digital images are very clean, almost grainless in low ISOs shots. Nearly perfect. However, that is just one aspect of image quality. There is another aspect where I think film is better and that’s character. It’s quite difficult to describe it. It has got something to do with the way film renders images. Here’s a bit of an experiment: Go through your childhood photos or any photo captured with film. Now go to Facebook where you find thousands of the same ordinary snaps of you and your friends. Do you notice how lifeless the digital images look? They look dull and boring. Film, on the other hand, has so much life in them. This is why I use film to capture family travel photos. I don’t care if the photos weren’t properly composed because they still look fantastic. Lomography is not just the hype that “elite” photographers poke fun at. Aside from being fun and care free, true Lomography photos have this character that digital lacks. I’m not just referring to the wild colors of cross-processed shots but every single one of them. Here’s another experiment: Do you know that you can buy the infamous Holga lens for whatever digital camera you have? It’s just $20. It was meant to let digital photographers enjoy the Holga without spending a fortune on film. The general feedback I have read was that “the lens is terrible”. Sorry but I think it’s not the lens but rather the medium. Digital is already dull and boring without the help of filters and photoshop and when you attach a crappy lens, image quality (whatever that is) goes south pretty quickly. Real Holga shots though have won several international awards even with their quirky exposure, bad vignette and softness.

I have only recently captured with slide film. To be exact, I have just finished my 72nd frame of Kodak E100VS. My reaction? WOW!!! How could I have missed this?! Every single frame looks stunning. The colors are so vibrant. There is so much depth that the photos look three dimensional. I’m sold! You’ve got to see it for yourself. Scanning slide film won’t cut it. I think that’s almost blasphemous. Scanning is no better than capturing the photo with a DSLR. So I bought five more rolls of slide film, this time another discontinued emulsion, the Kodak EBX. Not only that, I got myself a Mamiya 645 Pro TL and five rolls of Fuji Provia 100F. The camera is still in transit from the US as I’m writing this and could not wait to shoot with it.

Reciprocity failure of film is both a problem and a blessing. A problem because it could introduce weird color shifts in long exposures (10 seconds or longer). A blessing because it means you can do very very long exposures without introducing more noise or completely ruining the shot with ugly blown highlights. Think of star trails. You could literally expose film for hours. Try that with digital 😉 Film behaves quite differently. The exposure response is not linear but tends to flatten at the extreme shadows and highlights. What this means is that film will not have that ugly clipping that happens to incorrectly exposed digital shots. I have overexposed negative film by three stops and still managed to get acceptable results. Don’t even try it with digital. The obvious advantage is that if you shoot in difficult lighting conditions, say in snow, it is easier to push two stops higher and be assured that your highlights are in control.

Film is not for everyone. It is quite expensive, especially the cost of developing. Some photographers develop their own shots to save money and that’s next in my todo list. I hope film stays forever but who are we kidding. For the mean time, I’ll just keep on shooting with it while the cost is not yet very prohibitive.


Don’t Push Too Hard

Let us be realistic. Photography is a difficult art to master. Not only are we limited by individual skills, we are also limited by time, subject and tools. It’s not like music where the only limitation is in the musician. In photography knowing when to stop is very important.

Time. We only have 24 hours in a day. Unless you are a paid pro, you will have to juggle photography with your day job. It really pains me when I see a beautiful sunset outside of my office window. I feel bad watching a glorious sunrise inside an airport terminal. You just have to let it pass and hope that you’ll be at the right time and place “next time”.

Subject. How many times have you wished you could move a tree or a huge rock even just a tiny bit for the perfect composition? Or bring a mountain closer? Or move the sun a few inches to the right for symmetry? Or wish the model was taller, skinnier, etc…? Painters are lucky because they could create and arrange their subjects however they want, the trade-off of course is we get to finish our work in a fraction of a second what would take them days or months to complete theirs.

Tools. Among artists, photographers are one of the most ill-equiped. Cameras that can’t capture the dynamic range of a scene. Lenses that are too heavy and too slow. You name it. And yet photographers have the most expensive tools. A photographer spends so much time and money circumventing tool limitations. A good musician or painter seldom complains about his tools but a good photographer simply learns NOT to bother at all.

Your lens isn’t sharp, so shoot at smaller apertures. It is not fast enough, so use a tripod or choose a different subject. Camera sensor is too noisy, then shoot when there is enough light or convert to black and white and use grain to spice up the photo.

I find it funny that people complain about sharpness and shallow depth of field when their shots are not even properly composed.

My point is, there will always be severe tool limitations. Realize that you just have to do something else instead of complaining. You can’t shoot sports or go birding with your 18-55mm f4-5.6 kit lens. Those who do, carry bazookas. Concentrate instead on what you can do with whatever tool you have. Find inspiration. Look for photos that you like that were captured using a similar set of lenses and see if you can come up with a better photo. If you can’t even take a decent shot with your kit then no camera or lens can make you capture better pictures.

Inspiration. That is the best cure against gear acquisition syndrome.

So stop complaining, go out and do wonders with your camera.

Macho Manual Mode

Some photographers take pride in shooting purely in full manual mode. Anything less than M is not good enough for them. They feel superior to those who shoot in any other mode. I would like to clarify why I am against shooting in full manual especially if you are new to photography.

But first, let’s enumerate those few instances when you probably should shoot in M mode. Flash photography is one, for the reason that your camera would not be able to shoot faster than your sync speed which is typically 1/250s. Which means shooting in A mode would likely result in overexposure. Another instance is when stitching panoramas where you need to make sure that each frame would have the same exposure. Concert photography is also a good candidate because usually only the performers are properly lit while the rest of the stage is dark and the lighting effects are constantly changing. Your camera’s meter will go insane if you point it at the stage. Of course there are other instances when you might want to shoot in manual mode but those are rare occasions.

Now for those who shoot in M mode ONLY, let me guess how they are doing it. Point the camera, check the meter reading then line up the exposure slider. That’s really funny. If you are just lining up the sliders everytime you change your view, why the heck would you shoot in M mode?! Shoot in Auto, you know, that thing with the green square 🙂

Sorry, but again, if you can’t even set the proper exposure without checking the exposure slider then you have no reason to shoot in full manual. You will wear out your thumb wheel or your thumb, whichever comes first, really quick 🙂 Real macho photographers know the correct exposure just by looking at the scene. Real macho photographers know not to trust the camera meter. Matching the sliders is a joke.

What’s worse than shooting in M mode? Shooting in shutter priority mode or S mode. It usually means that the “photographer” does not understand depth of field, or worse, proper exposure.

So what’s the best mode? Yes, aperture priority mode or A mode. You have depth of field control and the camera can safely choose a wide range of shutter speeds between 1/8000s up to 30s. Compare with S mode where the camera can only choose between f1.8 to f22 and so much worse if you have a kit lens. Assuming that the ISO is constant, A mode is so much more flexible for the camera (18 stops for A vs 7 stops for S). And that is why S mode is a joke.

Now we know that the camera’s meter is not always correct. Do we have to use manual mode then? Nope, not yet. We have two arsenals at our disposal: 1) exposure locking, and 2) exposure compensation.

Let’s look at exposure locking first. Some cameras have dedicated buttons labeled AEL, for auto exposure lock. If yours doesn’t have it, the half click method should work. You basically point your camera directly on a neutral-colored object that is in the same focal distance to your intended subject, half click or press AEL, recompose then shoot. If you can’t find a neutral object, you could always meter off the back of your hand or a green leaf then press AEL while those that use the half click method will have to manually focus on their subject when they recompose.

Now let’s cover exposure compensation. Most cameras have a dedicated button labeled +/-. If yours doesn’t, throw it away because that means the camera is so dumb and the engineers are dumber. If your camera has two knobs, you could assign one of them to do exposure compensation. Exposure compensation usually has a visual slider that goes from -2 to +2. What this means is that if the camera meter reading is 1/250 at your chosen aperture and you compensate by +1 then the shutter drops to 1/125, -1 would be 1/500, +2 is 1/60 and so on. Cameras differ in the compensation steps. Some do it in steps of 1/3 stops and some in 1/2 stops.

Note to Nikon users: Nikon engineers failed in elementary math. They STILL think that the number line goes positive to the left and negative to the right. Smarter people change this behaviour in a setting hidden deep somewhere in the complicated menu. Be careful.

Here’s an example: Suppose you are taking photos at the beach. The camera will think that the scene is too bright and will underexpose and render the white sand as grey. Press +/- and set your exposure compensation to +1 or even +1.3 or +1.5, then shoot. You only have to do this once and can leave it at that setting for the entire shoot at the beach.

Another example: Candle light dinner date with your girlfriend in an expensive restaurant. You want to take a photo of her pretty face. Unfortunately the camera thinks it’s too dark and will overexpose and destroy the mood. Dial exposure comp to -1 then shoot.


What’s the moral of the story? Not shooting in manual mode does not make you a lesser photographer. Don’t let the macho togs fool you into thinking that they are better. Watch how they do it and if they are just lining up the sliders then they are no better than those who shoot in Auto mode. Understanding exposure makes you a better photographer. Master aperture priority mode and use exposure compensation. It’s so much faster and it does make you think about proper exposure.

Go out and shoot in A mode and don’t forget to use that +/- button. You’ll thank me for saving your right thumb.

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?

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

HDR Tutorial Part 1: Introduction

HDR or High Dynamic Range, is probably one of the most hyped aspect of digital photography at present. It is also one of the most abused technique. If you are reading this then you probably already know something about HDR. This tutorial will be broken down into several parts and will attempt to provide techniques of proper HDR photography. If you expect wacky, cartoonish photos in this tutorial then sorry to disappoint you but you will have to look elsewhere. Please visit my Flickr HDR gallery for examples of my work. Some of them are my early HDR attempts so you will find wacky photos in there as well.

Why HDR? There are countless “reasons” as to why someone would want to use this technique. Here’s some of mine:

  1. No camera is good enough to record what our eyes can see. Our eyes are way better than any camera sensor in terms of capturing levels of light intensity. It can record about 40 stops while the best cameras can only do about 11 to 12 stops. So really, to capture a high contrast scene you would need at least 5 shots of different exposures with a bit of overlap.
  2. There are ways to overcome the limitations of #1 and that’s with the help of filters. A GND filter for example will allow you to properly expose the foreground and sky. GND filters though are good only if you have an unobstructed horizon. To be honest, I don’t use any filters except for the standard UV filter that I use to “protect” my cheap lens.
  3. I want to add some “punch” to my photos if the lighting condition is a bit flat.

When should you NOT use HDR? I always consider the following:

  1. If I can capture the entire dynamic range of a scene with a single shot then I won’t even bother with HDR, granting that my main subject is properly exposed. Beaches are easy subjects because the reflectance of sand is almost equal that of the bright sky. As long as the main subject isn’t under a shade then a single exposure might do the trick. I find single exposure shots so much cleaner than those made with HDR. I’m sure others would argue about this.
  2. Portrait shots. If the subject isn’t properly exposed then you have bigger problems. Learn to use flash or reflectors. This is the best site to read about proper lighting techniques: http://www.strobist.blogspot.com/.

So the basic goal of HDR is proper exposure of your subject. The goal may also extend to the proper exposure of the entire scene. The latter is usually what most people aim for. So we define what it means by correct exposure. In simple terms:

  1. The main subject has the correct color rendition. If it is white then it should appear white, if it is dark then it should appear dark. Simple as it seems, this is one of the most overlooked aspect of photography. White clouds or snow that look gray, a red flower that appears washed out and so on. Even with advanced matrix metering systems, correct exposure compensation is essential.
  2. There are no deep shadows or blown up highlights. This is very difficult to achieve in high contrast scenes and this problem will be our main focus in this tutorial.

Let’s talk about tools.

A good tripod is essential especially for landscape shots. Use the camera’s timer or cable to trigger the shutter release to minimze shake. If a tripod is not available make sure that your shutter speed is fast enough. Rule of thumb is 1/f, where f is the focal length. For example, if you are shooting wide at 28mm then shutter speed should be 1/30s or faster. For me, this shutter speed is still tricky for handheld shots even with image stabilized lenses.

A camera with auto exposure bracketing (AEB) would be very nice although not necessary. AEB will automatically take 3 or more shots with variable shutter speeds in succession in a single press of the shutter. I like how my Canon 40D allows me to couple AEB with the timer.

HDR software. My tool of choice is Photomatix. Another excellent tool is EasyHDR. There are others that you can download for free. I will list some of the tools at the end of this tutorial.

Photo editing software. Nothing beats Photoshop but it’s not the only tool. Paintshop Pro is very good. The free open source tool called GIMP is also very capable although it’s still limited to 8-bit colors.

Now we discuss the real stuff, HDR photography.

Just to illustrate how limited the dynamic range of a camera sensor is, go inside a house and take random shots but make sure that the entire frame includes an open window or door. Preview your shot in your camera’s LCD and you will probably notice that most of whatever is outside that window is just pure white (photo #1). If the image does show what’s outside the window, almost anything inside the house will probably be hidden in deep shadows (photo #2).  The issue is that the scene has high contrast. Outside the house is very bright compared to what’s inside. No known camera sensor could handle this at all. Normally, we would be throwing away both shots. This is the problem that HDR attempts to address.

With HDR, we could still salvage that scene by using both the same “useless” shots shown above. In HDR photography, multiple shots of different exposures are merged into one.

I would like to discuss this tutorial as scientifically as possible which means we need to understand how to read the histogram of our shots. A histogram is a graph of (light) intensity distribution as recorded in the image. Allow me to explain: the histogram has left and right borders. To the extreme left is pure black or dark or deep shadows. To the extreme right is pure white or blown up highlights. You guessed it, the middle is grey. This means a properly exposed shot of a white sheet of paper would show points to the extreme right of the graph and nothing on the left. A properly exposed shot of a black cloth would be the opposite. Photo #1, above, would therefore have a histogram that is biased to the right while photo #2 will have lots of points to the extreme left. Our goal is to make sure that NONE of the image “points” or pixels lie in either extreme left or right. Everything has to be within the middle of our graph. A scene that has good exposure would be represented by a histogram that approximates a bell-like curve. Therefore, we need to always check our histogram. Make sure that you understand this part as it is very crucial to proper HDR technique.

Now let’s concentrate on how to take the shots that we need for HDR. Set your camera to aperture priority mode or full manual mode. Select your desired aperture value. For landscape shots, this is usually set to f8, f11, or f16. Then, take multiple shots of different exposures by varying the shutter speed. The first shot is what we call our EV0. This is the normal shot that the camera meter sets the shutter speed into if you are in aperture priority mode. In manual mode, this is the shutter speed that best exposes the scene. Let’s say our EV0 is f11 at 1/125. Look at the histogram display of this image in your camera. The graph will probably have lots of points to the extreme right and/or extreme left. If it doesn’t, then you are lucky because life would be so much easier. For those unlucky souls, we would need to expose for the shadows and highlights. In aperture priority mode use exposure compensation to adjust the shutter speed. Depending on the scene, you would normally compensate at -1 and +1 or -2 and +2. The compensated shots are your EV-1, EV+1, or EV-2, EV+2, respectively. In full manual mode, you will have to set the shutter speed by halving or doubling the values. So we have, EV0 at 1/125, EV-1 at 1/250, EV-2 at 1/500, EV+1 at 1/60 and EV+2 at 1/30. By the way, always shoot with RAW image quality otherwise you will also have to manually set your white balance. RAW allows you to change the white balance later which you can not do easily with JPEG shots.

What we have done basically was to make sure that any deep shadows in EV0 are correctly exposed by the EV+ shots and any blown up highlights are correctly exposed by the EV- shots. In the photos shown above, photo #1 is EV+ and photo #2 is EV-.

The procedure above sounds complicated to some people. That is why if you are serious about HDR photography, you will need to invest in a camera that does AEB. With AEB you just set your aperture then click and hold your shutter once and the camera automatically captures EV0, EV- and EV+ for you. Easy.

Now imagine if we can choose specific parts of the EV- and EV+ shots so that we don’t have deep shadows and no blown up highlights in our final image. This process is called tone mapping. You can actually do this manually using layering techniques in Photoshop but it is very tedious. A better way is to use an HDR software which will automatically merge all shots and perform advanced tone mapping for us. This is what I will cover in part 2 of this tutorial. We will look into merging our photos using Photomatix. Stay tuned and happy shooting!