Tag Archives: technique

Tricky Fifty

The nifty fifty. The classic 50mm lens of photography. The stuff of magic. The lens that can do it all. The fastest lens in your arsenal…and possibly the cheapest as well.

This lens has been proven in street photography and photojournalism. Classic photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and even the more modern Steve McCurry have been known to use this lens during much of their career.

But how does this lens fair in landscape photography? What does it take to capture landscape photos with the 50mm?

I mentioned briefly in one of my posts this particular landscape photographer who shot with film and most of his fantastic shots were made by the 50mm lens. Study his shots very closely before you continue.

Here’s one of the biggest, if not THE biggest problem faced by a landscape photographer: how to create the illusion of depth. A photograph is basically two-dimensional so how do you make it look 3D?

The issue is that the 50mm is a normal lens. It is a close approximation to how the human eye sees things. We perceive depth because we have two eyes but our cameras can only use one lens to record a photograph. Try closing one of your eyes and notice how everything looks flat. That’s how a camera sees a landscape: flat and boring. This flatness worsens as you increase your focal length. A 200mm lens for example will bring your foreground closer to your background, an effect we call lens compression. I have covered this effect in detail in my one of my old posts. And that’s why a landscape photographer would usually prefer a wide-angle lens. A 35mm lens is sometimes good enough but others want to go much wider with 24mm. Shooting with 17mm or even 14mm is quite common as all-manual third-party prime lenses are getting relatively cheap. All this, for the sake of depth; to create that separation between the foreground and the background. That 50mm just isn’t good enough.

So how do you separate the foreground from the background? You may not have much choice really. You’re lucky if your intended foreground is far enough from your background. You can try moving closer assuming that your foreground will still fit in the frame. This is actually very difficult in practice because the 50mm is quite tight. You normally will have to stand back which makes a flat scene even flatter. Bottom line is, you really can’t use this technique except in very special cases.

Next problem: depth of field. N00bs like to use the fast 50mm because it gives them that nice bokeh that they have always been longing for. It is precisely because of this very shallow DoF that landscape photography with a 50mm becomes a nightmare. At f8, the hyperfocal distance is about 35 feet which means anything from 17 feet to infinity should look sharp. Now 17 feet is quite far for a foreground. Remember our first problem with background separation? If you move closer, your foreground will be out of focus. If you step back, the scene becomes flat. Lose-lose situation. So you stop down to f11. At this aperture the hyperfocal distance is 25 feet. Still not close enough. So you stop down further to f16 just to get that foreground and background in sharp focus. But then at this aperture everything will start looking blurry because, you guessed it, diffraction starts to kick in. You will have to sacrifice sharpness with depth of field. Can you feel the frustration now?

So how do you create depth if you can’t separate the foreground from the background without getting one of them out of focus? Well there are other tools that you can use.

Use lead-in lines: http://www.slusarczyk.net/winter/0008.php. The dead tree leads you deep into the scene.

Use frames: http://www.slusarczyk.net/autumn/0150.php. See how the branches frame the main subject which is the flowing creek.

Use contrast and shadows: http://www.slusarczyk.net/autumn/0009.php. Here, the almost-black trees provide a reference point for the brighter leaves in the background. It also uses a different kind of lead-in line by using the base of the tree trunks to form a curve. Here’s another example of shadows and contrast: http://www.slusarczyk.net/winterII/0099.php. See how the silhouette of the trees become a reference point. It creates the illusion that the brighter mountains are farther. The farther the mountain, the brighter they become. Very clever.

Ok enough of the limitations. Let’s discuss where in landscape photography a 50mm might be useful.

It is easier to isolate your subject with a tighter lens. The 50mm is very good at this that is why it is a common lens for portraiture. It simplifies your composition. Simple is good.

You can use a circular polarising filter (CPL) without the fear of having your sky look uneven. Ultrawide lenses are really bad with CPLs. With UWA lenses, you will notice that half of your sky will have perfect blue but the other half is just dull and lifeless.

Your 50mm lens is perfect for panoramic stitching. Shoot in portrait orientation and take 4 to 5 shots sweeping across the scene and stitch for a nice 1×3 panoramic shot. If you shoot with a wide angle lens, you will capture a huge part of the foreground which will not blend easily when stitching. It will also make your final photo look distorted. A 50mm though will be perfect.

This post was not meant to discourage anyone from using the 50mm in landscape photography. As a matter of fact, the examples I provided here showed us that with the right subject and solid technique, the results can be amazing. You will have to think twice though before you decide to bring that lens on your next trip. It can be a good challenge to see what you can do with it.

Good luck!

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Go Find Your Own Spot

These were the words I would never forget. It was one of those photography meetups where people show (brag) their good shots. There was this particular star trails shot along a railway that really grabbed my interest. I kindly asked the photographer where it was. His reply was a very cold “I’m not telling. Go find your own spot.” I was only a beginner back then; barely two months of doing serious photography. There was no way I could have done a better shot than this very experienced guy. I learned my lesson very early. I swore I would never do the same thing to other togs.

Why are some photographers very protective of their new-found locations? I never really bothered asking them. I just think they are insecure.

Let’s suppose that every photographer would share every good spot. Does that mean every shot would look the same? Far from it! The location is only one part of the equation. A photographer has to SEE. Even if a photographer copies the shot of another photographer there are still way too many factors that would affect the image. That’s why we never trust the weatherman because there is no way we can predict what it’s gonna be like when we arrived at our destination.

Here’s my shot of the Sydney Harbour Bridge

I bet you a thousand bucks that you won’t find a shot that looks like it. Compare it with Ken Duncan’s shot from the same location:

http://www.kenduncan.com/gallery/open-edition-prints/jefferey-st-wharf-sydney-skyline-sunset-nx5567-oe-detail

His obviously looks way better than mine. He captured the same scene when the sky showed a magnificent array of colours. My shot had a different stormy mood.

It’s not just the weather. Choice of equipment matters a lot as well. Ken Duncan most likely used a 6×17 panoramic camera loaded with Velvia 50 film and a 90mm lens. I, on the other hand, used my cheap Olympus E-P1 and equally cheap and mediocre 17mm/2.8 lens. I just stitched multiple shots to arrive at my panoramic image. That’s why my shot looks wider. Our exposures would have been very different as well. Ken would have set his to about f64 which means that at ISO 50 the exposure time would be long enough to smoothen the water and produced some cloud movement. I can’t stop down my lens smaller than f8 without significantly sacrificing image quality due to diffraction. The E-P1’s native ISO of 200 would have also made my exposure time a lot quicker than his. Of course, if you are really anal, you can check the EXIF data of a shot you like and bring exactly the same set of equipment and use the same settings. But then what does that make you?

As you can see, it’s not just the location. How you react to the situation when you get there matters too. I have my own favourite locations but because of the ever-changing weather patterns, my photos look different because of how I approach the same subject. Sometimes the tide isn’t low enough that I would get rock pools. There are times when they are so low that I would get sand ripples. If the tide is high then I can do long exposure techniques to get some movement in the water. Of course there are those times when non-photographers are there and they become part of the shot.

PK5S0646-HDR wellington-jetty-rain

(These two shots were about three years apart.)

And then there’s imagination. A photographer does not have to show what’s real. Reality, most of the time, is just plain boring. What was shot and the final image could be very different from each other.

It’s not just about the shot. Sharing locations is also a very good learning process. If another photographer manages to produce a better shot than I did then that image becomes a learning tool for me. Why did I not see that angle?! That’s a clever perspective! I didn’t think it would look good in monochrome as well. That same spot actually looks better during sunset! And so on… If the other photographer’s shot looks completely uninspired then I didn’t really lose anything, right?

On a slightly different experience, I remember being at Luna Park in Sydney while I was just there strolling with my point-and-shoot camera. I haven’t even started doing real photography back then. I saw this puddle of water where there was a very nice reflection of Luna Park. That was a very memorable moment for me because a “pro” blatantly copied what I was doing. Years after, I managed to sell a few copies of that image. Not sure where the pro went with his. You can read about that experience here.

Don’t be afraid to share your favourite locations with other photographers. In fact, you might want to invite them to shoot with you next time you visit those spots. It’s all about your own vision and that’s something that nobody else can duplicate.

Happy shooting (and sharing)!

N00bism #3

Hello world! This the third post of the N00bism series. I hope that the previous articles made you think about your own approach to photography. As I have mentioned before, this series aims to discuss the common mistakes beginners, and to some extent, even experienced photographers fall into. These are the same issues that I have experienced and/or avoided and have observed in my constant interactions with photographers of different levels of expertise.

Without further ado, let me discuss “premature manual mode”.

I have already written an article about this macho manual mode, or M mode as most photographers call it. It’s ok if you shoot in “M mode only” but puhleeze, don’t brag about it. It’s not rocket science. You do not have to tell the world about it because those who actually know how to use it will find your bragging quite underwhelming or laughable.

Those of you who are just starting with this expensive hobby should avoid using M mode. Trust me. I have been there. Allow me to explain:

Firstly, you bought that very expensive camera for what? It’s expensive because it is intelligent enough to do most of the work for you. You are wasting your money if you do not put it to good use. It has full automatic mode for a reason. Even the most expensive of cameras have auto modes. Auto modes make your life easier so you can concentrate on things that matter.

For newbies, what matters most is making the shot. You can have the most perfectly exposed shot but if your composition sucks then your photo sucks. Period. Why burden yourself with the exposure when you can’t even get your horizon straight? Why fiddle with those buttons when your shot is so hopelessly cluttered? Why shoot in M when you do not even understand exposure in the first place?!!!

Do yourself a favour. Use that green square mode and learn about composition before anything else. If you can’t help touching those buttons then leave your multi-hundred dollar DSLR and use your mobile phone instead. Yes, even if the “image quality” is inferior. A clean, crisp, 36Mp crappy shot is still a crappy shot.

So when should you start using the M mode? If you think that a better exposure will improve a good shot. It follows that you know what a good shot is. It also follows that you know what exposure is. If you can’t get a good shot with your mobile phone, your DSLR won’t help either. Because a good shot does not depend on what camera you use. In fact, more complicated cameras would probably hinder you from making a good shot.

I won’t cover composition here. It’s not something that you learn by reading. Yes, there are pointers like rule of thirds. Google them.

I will skip to the topic of exposure because that’s all this crazy M mode does anyway. Sorry but I won’t even discuss the exposure triangle here. If you do not understand that concept then you should not even be thinking about M mode. There are millions of web articles that discuss it and I won’t bother repeating them.

How do you learn exposure? By understanding light. Understand that during high noon on a very clear day, you will have the greatest intensity of light that you would normally encounter. I said normally because you might want to shoot directly at the sun or capture an exploding atomic bomb. Anything else would just be varying intensities of lower magnitude. This high noon light is often called “sunny f16”. It simply means that the correct exposure for a subject under bright sunlight is f16, 1/ISO for a given ISO sensitivity. For example: f16, 1/100 at ISO 100. We usually “round off” the shutter speed to the nearest “whole stop”, which is 1/125 for the above example. An example of light with lower intensity is when your subject is hiding under a shade to avoid the harsh sunlight. In this instance, light intensity drops by at least 4 stops so your exposure would be f4, 1/125 at ISO 100. Sometimes I give it f2.8 just to be safe.

It’s not enough that you know the different light intensities. You should understand contrast as well. In the above example, if you want the subject in the shade to be properly exposed then everything outside that is lit by the sun will render as white. If you want to properly expose what’s outside then your subject will be barely visible under the shadows. In this example, no amount of screwing around with M mode will help you. The argumentative folks will probably say, yeah shoot at f8 then pull the highlights and push the shadows in Photoshop. Whatever.

You see that it’s not enough that you know shutter speed and aperture and ISO to warrant the use of M mode. Because if you do not undertand light you will end up screwing around with those knobs until your camera’s LCD tells you that you have lined up the exposure slider dead in the center. You are basically wasting your energy following what the camera is telling you. M mode has become the automatic mode for stupid people. M as in moron mode. Shoot in full auto instead.

So beginners, please learn to compose first before confusing your brain even more with M mode. And experts, there’s no need to brag about it especially if you are just lining up the sliders.

N00bism #1

In the next few blog posts I will try to cover some of the most common newbie mistakes that even a lot of experienced photographers fall into. I expect that not everyone will agree with my observations and opinions but I hope these posts will make you seriously think about what you are doing.

So numero uno (#1) in this list is ULTRA SHALLOW DEPTH OF FIELD.

Most newcomers to DSLR photography have this wild obsession on shallow depth-of- field. It’s quite understandable because point-and-shoot (P&S) cameras have very small sensors such that everything from the foreground to infinity are in focus all the time. They don’t want that anymore. Those everything-is-in-focus shots look very amateurish. They want their subjects to “pop” and look pro. It won’t be long before they learn new terminologies such as “bokeh” and “fast lens”, and start the endless craving for expensive, heavy, wide aperture telephotos.

Those who have the money are the first ones to post portrait shots where only the eyes are in focus, the nose blurry and the ears barely recognizable. Their 85/1.2 lens has made the human subject look like a puppy with ears folded back waiting for a good pat on the head. I mean, come on…why the heck did you even waste your time looking for a “nice location” for the photoshoot when the background in all your shots all look like a big blob of blurry mess?!!! You might as well cut and paste your subject into a pre-made wallpaper image. The conflicting ideas are just too funny: they want a nice location but aim to blur everything except the subject.

Look at how real pros do it. Watch them use the background to complement their subjects. Good backgrounds add context to the image. They shoot at f5.6 or f8 and some even shoot at f16. If they do have to shoot at f2.8 they would normally step all the way back to achieve enough DoF.

And it’s not just with portraiture. Macro n00bs do this as well. The lenses focus very close to their subjects and they shoot at 2.8 such that they can’t even get one eye in focus. Stop down to f16 or f22 for Pete’s sake.

I haven’t stressed this one enough but I have always thought that reliance on ultra shallow DoF is for those who can’t compose a shot.

I’m not saying that portrait shots with nice blurry background don’t look good. They do and that’s why everyone is doing it, n00bs included. Especially if you are an experienced photographer, if most, if not all, of your shots look like this then what’s separating you from all the newbies?

Think about it.

Essential Settings for Landscape Photography

20121218-202015.jpg
(An HDR image of Salamanca harbour in Tasmania)

I have been asked about what settings I use when shooting landscapes. It’s no secret but depending on the camera and lens that you use, you may have to use different configurations.

Let me start by saying that I use my Pentax K5 for most of my landscape shots because it does everything I needed it to do. My lens of choice is a cheap Sigma 17-70/2.8-4.5 which you can buy brand new for about $300. I like it’s very flexible range and the focus markings in the barrel.

Without further delay, let me go through my camera settings.

0. Always use a tripod. It will slow you down to think about proper composition. You want to get it right the first time if you can. Of course it will also allow you to shoot at low ISOs and smaller apertures. If you decide to be lazy then stop here; landscape photography isn’t for you.

1. I use aperture priority mode when shooting landscapes. It allows me to keep on shooting even when the light conditions are changing fast without the need to constantly adjust my exposure settings. The only time I use full manual mode is when I’m stitching panos or when doing exposures longer than my camera can handle (i.e. more than 30 seconds).

— Aperture priority mode does not always get the exposure right. When the luminance of the sky and land are almost the same or when there’s only a stop or two of difference between them, say, after the sun is down, I tend to do exposure compensation of +1 stop to maximize the available light (ETTR concept). I also do this during blue hour. If unsure, check your histogram.

2. Set your camera to the lowest NATIVE ISO required to make the shot. Native ISO is not thefake extended ISO values. Most cameras have ISO 100 or 200 with extended ISOs being 50 and 100 respectively. Extended ISOs use some whacky tricks inside the camera that may be detrimental to the images that you capture.

— ISO values are a bit tricky to manage and how you handle them depends on your camera. Note that noise is affected by ISO sensitivity and length of exposure. You will have to test this with your camera. Do not be afraid to shoot at a higher ISO if the scene calls for it. I have been in situations where I have pushed my camera to the limits by shooting at ISO 6400 for 30 seconds. The result was worth it:

PK5S4012-ppg

3. Know your lens’es sharpest aperture. It’s usually around f8 when shooting wide or f11 when zoomed in. The difference in aperture compensates for the focal length. At f11, APS-C sensors will start to experience softness due to diffraction but by zooming in, you force the aperture blade to open up to maintain the same f-stop thus allowing you to maximize the center of your lens without suffering from diffraction issues.

— Having said this, don’t be afraid to shoot at f16 or f22 if the scene requires it, say, you want to force a longer exposure to blur the water. If your shot is good enough, people won’t notice the insignificant blur caused by diffraction.

4. Manually focus to your hyperfocal distance. This is something that even experts tend to ignore. Most people rely on autofocus. Learn to hyperfocus because it will save you when your lens starts hunting when the light drops or when you use very dark ND filters. If your lens does not have focal distance markings then you will have to estimate. Read my tutorial on hyperfocusing here.

5. Turn off any image stabilization feature of your lens and/or camera. This means Canon IS, Nikon VR, Pentax SR, Sony SSS and so on. Image stabilization will cause blur because it will try to compensate for movement that isn’t there. This is a feature that is meant for handheld shots and is destructive when shooting on a tripod.

6. There are several choices on how to release the shutter but the best option is to use mirror lock up mode (MUP). MUP will flip the mirror up before opening the shutter curtain to avoid camera shake. Especially that sensors are getting denser, the effects of mirror shake become more noticeable. When using MUP mode, use a shutter release cable to avoid touching the camera. You will have to click the shutter twice: once to flip the mirror and then to open the shutter curtain.

— Your second option is to use the camera timer. This is handy in the absence of a shutter release cable. Set your timer to two seconds or whatever option is available for your camera. This will allow any movement in the camera to settle down after you press the shutter before taking the shot.

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The rest of the settings I will outline below are entirely optional and might be very subjective.

7. If you need to bracket, set the exposure intervals to at least 2 stops. That means -2, 0 +2 for a three-shot bracket. Anything narrower than that is kinda useless because a one-stop gap can easily be recovered from a properly exposed single RAW image.

8. Save both RAW and JPG copies of your shot. Although RAW is very flexible, JPG will save you a lot of retouching time later on. This assumes that you get it right in the camera as close as possible to your intended result. Shooting JPG benefits those who would rather spend time shooting than being in front of the computer.

20121218-202043.jpg

(JPG capture looks fantastic if you get it right in camera.)

9. That UV filter is useless unless you are shooting film. Digital sensors have built-in UV filters. UV filters will only cause unnecessary flare and prevent you from using filters that do matter like a CPL or an ND filter for example. If you really want to protect your lens, use a hood instead; it will also protect you from flare instead of causing flare.

20121218-202059.jpg
(CPL filters will give you nice saturated colors. This is straight JPG from camera.)

So that’s it. Very easy to follow settings that will hopefully make a difference to your landscape photos. Until next time.