Tag Archives: underexposure

Expose To The Right (ETTR) Is Obsolete

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(Lake Moogerah — underexposed by two stops to save the highlights and exposure adjusted in Lightroom)

Expose to the right (ETTR) is a technique that became popular when digital photography started to pick up. I will not discuss the details of this technique but I’ll try to cover the basics. Before you continue make sure that you understand the concept of exposure. If you are a bit rusty on this topic then consider reading my previous article on understanding exposure.

The goal of ETTR is to maximise your sensor’s capacity to capture data. We know that every stop of exposure is equivalent to doubling the amount of captured light. So imagine if you have a glass that is half full of water, increasing the amount of water by a “stop” would mean filling the glass up to the brim. If we translate this into photography, say, using the zone system, this means that zone IX is practically half of the entire capacity of your sensel, zone VIII is a quarter, zone VII is an 1/8th and so on. That’s basically how camera sensors work. You would want to maximise the capacity of your sensels by forcing them to fill up with photons. It means that you would always want to have a zone IX otherwise you are wasting half of your data.

So why am I saying that this technique is obsolete? After all, digital capture is still digital capture. Sensels still respond linearly to incoming photons. What has changed?

Digital photography has advanced so much in the past five to eight years. In the early days, shooting beyond ISO 400 was a nightmare. I remember shooting with my Canon G10 and I would never dare shoot at ISO 400 unless I really had to. All my images at ISO 400 were just too noisy and were almost unusable. At present, point and shoot cameras can easily shoot at ISO 6400 with very acceptable results.

What does this mean? Recall that ISO has got nothing to do with exposure. Bumping up the ISO does not increase the amount of captured photons. In fact, bumping up the ISO forces your camera to underexpose. For example, if your camera has a base ISO of 100 and you are shooting in broad daylight, your exposure would go something like ISO 100, f/16, 1/125s (basic sunny 16 rule). If you increase your ISO to 200 then the exposure would go f/16 at 1/250s. At ISO 400 you have f/16 at 1/500s. Every time you bump your ISO you are forcing underexposure. That means your sensels would receive half the number of photons for every stop of increment in ISO. What I’m trying to say is that the fact that you can shoot at ISO 6400 is testament to the amazing ability of modern sensors to handle extreme underexposure. If any of these do not make any sense then please go back to that link I provided in the first paragraph. Read and understand the basic concepts of photographic exposure.

Again, every time you increase your ISO beyond the base ISO, you are forcing your camera to underexpose. Bumping up the ISO is the exact opposite of ETTR. It follows that ETTR only ever makes sense when shooting at base ISO. Performing ETTR at higher ISOs is stupid.

Let me explain that previous paragraph with examples and (stupid) counterexamples. Let’s consider shooting during an overcast day. A typical exposure at base ISO of 100 might go f/5.6 at 1/125s. Performing a stop of ETTR would mean shooting at f/5.6 at 1/60s or you can choose to maintain your shutter speed at 1/125s but shoot at f/4 instead. Look what happens when you bump the ISO to 200: the exposure would now read f/5.6 at 1/250s. If you perform a stop of ETTR at ISO 200 you get f/5.6 at 1/125s which is basically the original aperture and shutter speed combo at ISO 100. Your image might be brighter because of the increase in ISO but the truth is that you have NOT performed ETTR at all! It’s the same exposure of f/5.6 at 1/125s. If you want real ETTR at ISO 200 then you would have to shoot at f/5.6 at 1/60s (same as ISO 100 ETTR) but because of your ISO bump your final image loses dynamic range in the highlights! ETTR plus ISO bump is like taking a step forward and two steps backward. It’s stupid.

Again, with cameras capable of shooting natively at ISO 6400 and some of them even going as high as ISO 746123550123656128561249571243865 (looking at you Sony A7S) we know that modern sensors are now very very good at handling FORCED underexposure. But then the other side of the story is that modern sensors are still VERY BAD at handling OVERexposure. Once you clip your highlights there is no way you can recover that data. FACT!

Losing data is not the only problem of overexposure. When you overexpose by force, it is very difficult to judge the tones and colours just by looking at your LCD. When you ETTR, your blue skies will look bright grey, you lose the sunset colours, your shadows become dull. Of course you might be able to “fix it later in the computer” but you have practically deprived yourself the capability to properly judge how your image might look like and make decisions (i.e. adjust exposure) while you still can.

Again, let’s consider the facts:

  1. Cameras can shoot natively at high ISOs which means they can handle extreme underexposure.
  2. Cameras are very bad at handling overexposure.

Is ETTR really worth it? Shouldn’t you give your camera the best fighting chance by utilising its strengths instead of gambling with its weaknesses?

The ETTR ship has sailed. Move on.

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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.

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

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.

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.

Easy!

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.

It Has Never Been the Camera

The deeper I become involved in photography, the more I realize that equipment does not matter at all. Case in point, I have more fun photos captured with my iPhone than any of my other cameras combined.

Well actually gear does matter but not like most “photographers” would make you believe. The most important thing about equipment is that it should never get in the way of your creative vision. Also consider the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect tool. There will always be something that would tick you off and knowing the limitations is the first step in making the equipment work for you.

I would like to discuss a particular photograph wherein both the equipment and the photographer (me) were severely limited. The photograph I would like to talk about is this:


A bit of background on this shot: This photo was taken about a month after I started in photography, around May of 2009. My camera back then was a “heavy” Nikon D60 with a 18-55mm kit lens. I wish I brought that camera with me when I took this photo but instead I had my “pocket” Canon G10. Now the G10 is known for very poor low light performance because some moron in Canon engineering thought they could get away with cramming 14 megapixels into such a tiny sensor. At ISO 400 the output is so noisy that you are better off not taking the shot at all. But I did. Because I didn’t know any better. I looked at the EXIF data and it said I shot in auto mode, ISO 400, f2.8 at 1/8s. I am now very familiar with the G10 and I would say that, at that time, the camera was pushing real hard to capture the image as best as it could. It’s at its widest aperture of f2.8 and just enough shutter speed (1/8s) for the real focal length of about 6mm (28mm full frame equiv). If I remember correctly, I didn’t have a tripod. If I did then there’s no reason why I would not have used ISO 100 and get away with half a second exposure. I was a n00b but not completely dumb you know :-p

I don’t remember how I processed the photograph but there must have been some, if not too much, noise reduction applied. I probably didn’t bother correcting the white balance. After all, winter in Canberra is characterized by strong magenta tint in the sky during sunset and I have always wanted to capture that.

I would like to critic my composition as well. I used a combination of strong lead-in lines, rule of thirds in the vertical while using symmetry in the horizontal to capture the reflection. I think I framed it a bit too much to the left thus making the bridge feel like it wants to leave the view. That building visible on the left is nicely framed by the bridge and the shadows on the water. A bit underexposed for my taste but just enough so as not to blow up the highlights coming from the bridge lights that emphasize the lines leading towards the parliament house (that pointed structure at the end of the bridge). I really would like to brighten up the bridge and the building by just a few notches and tone down the bluish color cast. A touch of fill light should also improve the overall exposure without destroying the mood.

After all of that, the question remains: Why discuss this particular rookie shot? Because this rookie shot sold for $852!

So again, it’s never the gear. My expensive DLSRs have not made any significant sales yet but two of my point-and-shoot cameras have already paid up for themselves. Amazing! Granting that photo sales are subject to a huge amount of luck, people or corporations are willing to pay if they think that the photograph is worth it.

They say that the best camera is the one that’s with you. I say, the best camera is the one you can never afford. So make do with what you already have and resist the temptation to buy more gear. A lot of amateurs are getting crazy over the latest and greatest equipment and spend more time in rumours than actual photography. Stop that already.

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.