Wind-blown grassesWind-blown grassesDry grass blowing in the wind near Canberra.
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Welcome to Miscellaneous thoughts of a photographer.

As the name implies, it's a series of posts on various thoughts, ideas and discoveries I've made as a photographer. I hope you find it useful - and more importantly - interesting.

Please feel free to leave comments!

Shane Baker
Perth, WA.

 

 

A new tripod - the Sirui W2204

June 13, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

I've been looking around for a new tripod for a while now. The fact is that I already had three: an old Manfrotto, a relatively newer Manfrotto and an Induro. The Induro was definitely the most rigid of the three and also has the twist locks I prefer, but with the Acratech ball head, it was heavy. It also can gunk up a bit with dirt on occasions and was just a little short.

So, having convinced myself that it was not GAS (gear acquisition syndrome), but a genuine need, I'd been scanning reviews and come across the Chinese Sirui brand. A few months back I needed (there's that word again) a ball head to replace a Manfrotto unit which didn't really handle the weight of my Nikon gear. I bought a Sirui, and I've been impressed with its design and quality. One more tick for Sirui.

I was also interested in carbon fibre, rather than aluminium. Those in the know said that apart from being a little lighter than metal, it was also more rigid and less prone to vibration. Further googling turned up several reviews speaking highly of Sirui and some singing the praises of the waterproof W-2204. It looked good but wasn't cheap, so the plan stayed on hold.

Sirui W-2204 in various modes.

Then, a few weeks back, Perth retailer Camera Electronic had a Sirui 30% off sale, and I decided to take the plunge.

I'm happy I did.

Firstly, it's taller than my other tripods – too tall for me on the flat (even with the centre column retracted), but that will work on downhill slopes. It feels lighter than it actually is, the legs slide in and out very smoothly, and it's very, very stable. Other plusses are that is folds down very small, it comes with a tool kit (four more allen keys!), replaceable feet or spikes and a proper bag. I haven't tried its waterproofness yet, but it seems to cope well with Perth's ever-present sand.

Oh, and due to cunning design, one of the legs screws off and can be used as a monopod!

The bottom line? I like the design and the quality of the Sirui. The Induro is now my back-up tripod and the Manfrottos will go on the market.

If you need a new tripod, check out the Sirui line.

Shane Baker
shanebakerphotos@iinet.net.au

 


Controlling depth of field

April 21, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

One of the steps in changing from someone who "takes snaps" to one who makes photographs is to create images which guide the viewer to the subject.  There are a number of things you can do in this regard, but one is to learn to control depth of field (DoF).

Depth of field (also sometimes called depth of focus) is the depth of the area in focus. For example, while you would typically want deep depth of field in a landscape shot (just about from your toes to the horizon), in a portrait, you may want the background to be pleasantly blurry, and you can achieve that with a shallow DoF.

Sheila

Of course, this isn't always the case. For environmental portraits, where you may wish the subject's location or workplace to be clearly in view, you would set up for deep depth of field. 

Claude in his workshop

Four factors generally dictate depth of field, and ordinarily, only three of these can be controlled by you:

  • Aperture - the size of the opening in the lens which lets in light. The smaller the aperture (and the higher the f number) then the greater the depth of field. So f/16 will give a greater DoF than f/2.8.
  • Focal length of the lens - whether the lens is "long", say 200mm or "wide", say 24mm or somewhere in the middle.
  • The distance to the item. Generally, the closer the object, the more shallow is the DoF.
  • Sensor size - which cannot be controlled. The smaller the size of sensor, the deeper the DoF. So (for example) with all other things being equal, due to its tiny sensor size, the depth of field on your phone's camera will be deeper than say a full-frame DSLR.

So let's look at some examples - and this is a simple exercise which you could do at home.

Firstly, let's look at the effects of aperture. In these two shots, both the focus point and the focal length of the lens is unchanged. The top image was shot at f/4, while the second image was shot at f/16. You will see that the DoF is much deeper in the second image than the first, which is as one would expect as the smaller the aperture (ie: the higher the f-number), then the deeper the DoF.

Image shot at 50mm and f/4Image shot at 50mm and f/4

Image shot at 50mm and f/16Image shot at 50mm and f/16

Now lets look at the effect of focal length. The second pair of shots was made with the aperture set at f/8. In the first, the lens was zoomed out to 120mm, while in the second, it was set to a wide 24mm.

Image shot at f/8 and a focal length of 120mm.Image shot at f/8 and a focal length of 120mm.

Image shot at f/8 and a focal length of 24mm.Image shot at f/8 and a focal length of 24mm. Note that the shot made with the long 120mm has much more shallow DoF than the image made at 24mm. This is despite the camera being much closer to the subject in the second shot, where you would expect DoF to be more shallow!

So, choosing an appropriate aperture or focal length or carefully choosing where to focus (or all three) will help control depth of field, and guide your viewer's eyes to the key parts of the image.

Ok, so much for test shots. Let's look at some actual photographs and examine how they were created. First, this image of a street in Cambridge:

Cambridge street.Cambridge street. f/11 at 38mm focal length. This was shot with a fairly wide 38mm focal length and with an aperture of f/11. The focus point would have been around that black object on the right, to ensure the maximum area in focus.

Both the focal length and the aperture contributed to its deep DoF.

Next, let's look at this image of terns on Montague Island. The settings were f/16 at 200mm:

Terns with chick on Montague Island.Terns with chick on Montague Island. f/16 and 200mm. I used a small aperture (f/16), so why was the DoF so shallow? Two reasons: the long focal length of 200mm had a lot to do with it, and the fairly close focus also reduced DoF. If I'd got up close and shot this at say 50mm, that grass and those birds would be quite sharp - but that's not what I wanted.

Finally, let's look at this image of dry grass. I wanted the grass at the front to be sharp, but with a rapid fall-off of sharpness so that the background was quite blurry.

Dry grass seeds, Australian Capital Territory.Dry grass seeds, Australian Capital Territory. f/5.6 at 36mm In this image, and despite the focal length being shortish at 36mm, the combination of a reasonably wide f/5.6 and more importantly, the lens being close to the focal point on the nearest grass created the pleasingly shallow depth of field I was looking for.

So that's it - control the aperture of your lens, select where you wish to focus and chose the right focal length of your lens, and you can decide what's in focus - and hence, what viewer looks at in your photographs.

If this isn't all that clear, you can google for other examples, or even better - try different combinations with your own camera. Practice makes perfect!

Happy shooting

Shane Baker
shanebakerphotos@iinet.net.au

 

 

 


A new camera body, "The Beast" and bird photography

March 21, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

It's been a while since I posted a blog (November 2017 in fact), so I thought I might tell you what I've been doing photographically speaking.

Back in August, I shared my gear lust about the then-recently announced Nikon D850. I wanted one - but not at any price, and given the combination of little discounting due to demand for the camera and the "Australia tax" prices we Antipodeans are required to pay, I couldn't justify buying one then. Between Christmas and New Year, Camera Pro in Brisbane offered the D850 at a price I haven't seen before (or since). I stumped up the cash and waited - and waited and waited.

Finally, Camera Pro (who had kept me in the loop all through the process) sent an email: it was on the way - and the next day, the courier handed me a big package.

What to do with it? Of course, the first shot I made was one of my wife - as is now traditional with new cameras in our house. But what next? Well, last year I bought The Beast - a Nikkor 200 - 500mm f/5.6 lens with the particular intention of trying my hand at bird photography. I'd tried using my extremely good Nikkor 70 - 200, but even with the 1.7x extender, I wasn't getting close enough. A 500mm lens would do the trick! (New gear solves all your problems, doesn't it???)

Of course, every solution has its downsides. The Beast weighs 2090g, which with the body, gets the kit up to around 3kgs. Doesn't sound much does it - say, three litres of milk. But try holding that out in front of your face for a couple of minutes and see how you you go.

Then there was the question of whether to stalk birds or sit quietly and wait. I'm not a "sit quietly" type of 'tog, but more experienced bird photographers than me seemed to think it was the way.

Anyway ... by trying to photograph birds at home, in nearby parks and occasionally, travelling to bush areas around Perth, my technique improved a little. In fact, I had a couple of successes - like this image of a Nankeen Night Heron.

Nankeen Night-Heron, Lake Joondalup, Western Australia.
To be fair to the bird, in much the same way that Lee Marvin attributed half of his Academy Award to a horse, had I won a prize with this shot, at least half would be due to an unusually cooperative bird!

What's this got to do with the D850, I hear you ask? Well my point is that the heron shot was made with the long lens and my old faithful D800. As I noted last year, there's nothing wrong with a five year old body.

So why did I buy the D850? A few reasons. Firstly, it's a new sensor and while that in the D800 is brilliant, technology has moved on over five years. Not only do they have lower noise at high ISO, and greater latitude (the ability to deal with bright highlights and dark, dark shadows), but Nikon had stopped putting antialiasing filters (AA) on their SLRs. Taking away a filter which is there to fuzz up your images has to produce sharper images.

What's more, Nikon had put their top of the range 151 point focussing system into the D850, which would help - especially when photographing fast moving objects like birds - and grand children.

What was the potential downside? Well ... cost. I've never spent that amount on a camera body, although I suspect that my first digital SLR, the Nikon D70 may have cost that much in real terms. The camera sports an even bigger sensor than the 36M D800: nearly 46 megapixels. That requires a lot of storage - especially when you're trying to back up to the cloud using Australia's third world internet connections.

Finally. I've always said the D800 was a great camera - but unforgiving. When I first moved from my 12M crop frame D300 to the D800, I thought there was a problem with the camera. After analysis, I realised the problem wasn't with the camera, but with my technique. As good as the D300 was (and is), it was allowing me to get away with some sloppy technique whereas the much higher resolution of the 800 didn't. The D850 takes that a step further and with 46M and no AA filter, I could expect to need to refine my process further.

I was correct on all counts. The D850 is a great, great camera; an instant classic in fact, but it's not for everyone. It's expensive, heavy and demanding.

But if you're willing to persevere, it can produce images like this.

The Brown Honeyeater is a small, incredibly active little bird - and with the D850, I was able to nail that image. The focussing system also helps with objects moving in the sky:

Australian Pelicans in formation at Penguin island, Western Australia.Australian Pelicans in formation at Penguin island, Western Australia. However, today I saw a spider in my garden. I wondered what my ordinary, every day, non-macro Nikkor 24 - 120 lens could do on the D850 with such a small object - especially one that was moving back and forth in a strongish breeze. This is the initial image.

Full frame image of spider made with Nikon D850 and the Nikkor 24 - 120mm lens.Full frame image of spider made with Nikon D850 and the Nikkor 24 - 120mm lens.

Pretty good. Then I zoomed in - and to give you an idea of how much detail is in that image, this is the area showing just the spider. Look at that detail!

Crop in to spider on the earlier image.Crop in to spider on the earlier image.

 

I stress that this was made with a lens that has no claim to doing close-up work, but it's a good honest piece of glass. Combined with the resolution of the D850, I can do ultra-crops like this.

Does that mean I don't need my macro lens? Of course not - but it does show the incredible resolving power of this camera.

I'm very happy with my purchase and I honestly believe the D850 is helping me be a better photographer and make better images. But it's a camera that demands respect.

Happy shooting.


Shane Baker
shanebakerphotos@iinet.net.au

 


RAW provides you with more options in your photography

November 16, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

There's a minor debate on YouTube at the moment (mid November 2017) about RAW versus JPEG, so naturally, I feel the need to "have my two bob's worth".

In March 2016, I wrote a blog in praise of raw, in which I said:

Put simply (very simply in fact), a raw file is an unprocessed record of the light falling on your sensor. It carries information about what your camera thought the exposure and colour balance should be, but because all the data are still there, you can adjust as far as the file will allow. A JPEG on the other hand is produced when your camera looks at the raw data, decides things like exposure and colour balance - and then writes what's needed to the file - and disposes of the rest. That's why formats like JPEG (and GIF) are called "lossy". And that's why raw files are big (in this case, 35 meg) and JPEGs are relatively small (2 meg): the raw file still has all the original information. (There are other differences like bit depth, but we needn't worry about that.)

JPEGs have their place. You wouldn't want to send a photo of your kid's party to your family in raw format. What's more, some cameras (like Fuji for example) do a brilliant job of producing JPEG images. But if you make a mess of your exposure as I did, or you are shooting difficult subjects such as sunsets (high contrast) or in low light, you want all the data your camera can give you to make adjustments.

There are two main reasons to shoot JPEG. Firstly, they're smaller than RAW. The following table will illustrate what I mean. I created JPEGs two different ways. I took an existing RAW file, opened it in Affinity Photo and exported it as highest and second highest quality. Next, I shot four images with with my Nikon D800 using the same settings, but saving as RAW, "fine JPEG", "normal" and "basic". This is what happened:

File sizes for RAW and JPEG (in megabytes)

Source RAW Fine JPEG Normal JPEG Basic JPEG Affinity Photo
JPEG Conversion
Highest Quality
Affinity Photo
JPEG Conversion
High Quality
Nikon D800 51.7 15.0 8.5 4.2 - -
Affinity Photo Conversion 50.2 - - - 38.0 7.5
JPEG size saving - 71% 84% 92% 24% 85%

As you can see, there are substantial savings in file size by using JPEGs instead of RAW, but that comes at a price. I'll come back to that.

The other reason is convenience. Just as in the days of film, when we took our colour film to the local lab rather than spending an evening (or two) in our darkroom, JPEGs offer a "ready to use" image file. And just like those postcard prints from the minilab, most will be useable - but some won't.

Which brings me back to my point. A week ago, I wandered into an old (by Western Australian measures) churchyard near Perth and made this image. This is a JPEG (yes, we use JPEGs for this sort of thing) of my unprocessed RAW file:

The image before processing.The image before processing. Not very exciting is it? Added to which, there are areas in the top left and middle right that are over-exposed and rather distracting.

This is what it looked like after processing in Capture One:

The image of the graveyard after processing and converting to monochrome in Capture One.
The image of the graveyard after processing and converting to monochrome in Capture One. ​I'm happy with that image. I think the black and white works for the subject material, there's a good balance, and the image is quite sharp from foreground to background.

For the record, these are the steps I took:

  • Levels - with Capture One's "Auto" setting
  • Highlights adjusted to 50
  • Clarity: 30
  • Sharpening: 200 (from the default 180)
  • Vignette: -1 stop
  • Local adjustments for those bright areas - done by eye
  • Conversion to B&W using the "Panchromatic 4" setting
  • A sight S-curve adjustment
  • Contrast at 9

This is the result when I tried almost identical steps on the highest quality JPEG:

Adjusted JPEG image Adjusted JPEG image Not so good. I would go so far as to say that the edited JPEG file is unusable, whereas I'm happy for people to see the RAW conversion.

While editing, it was noticeable that I simply didn't have the same latitude when brushing in local adjustments in those overly bright areas. The results were lumpy and the image tended to go grey, looking like fog, rather than simply darkening as happened when working with the RAW image. This is hardly surprising as (getting geeky) JPEG files are 8-bit, whereas my RAW files are 14-bit. What does that mean? Well, every point in the JPEG has 256 levels of colour, whereas the RAW file has 16,384 levels. More detail, more information in every pixel increases your options when editing!

It's true that the JPEG file is smaller than the RAW, but it gets that way by losing data - and we need that data for adjustments and fine tuning. 

On the other hand, how big a deal is file size these days? 64G SD cards, good for over 1,000 images on most cameras, can be bought for as little as AUD45. Faster cards are more expensive, but whether you even need that depends on your camera and how you shoot. External hard drives that can store 20,000 or more RAW files can be had for less than AUD100. 

Size just isn't an issue any more!

Processing might be. The fact is that a RAW file needs processing; a JPEG doesn't. That said, I likened RAW and JPEG to darkroom and minilab earlier, but it's not really like that, is it? We can do in software in a few moments what would have taken hours in a wet darkroom. A few days ago, I played with Apple's Photos app and tried its auto function. The results were surprisingly good - and I still had the option to tweak the settings. The same is true of Capture One, which is hardly a consumer product. Its auto button does a good job, if you're in a hurry or just can't be bothered. I imagine it's true of your software as well.

So if you're not using RAW, give it a try. If you're on a Mac, you already have a very good photo editor and if you're not, try one of the 30 day trials offered by most photo editing software developers.

You even have a safety option: I think you'll find that if you're nervous about RAW, your camera will allow you to capture RAW and JPEGs at the same time! There you go: a plan with no flaws!

Give it a try. Once you've sampled the flexibility and latitude provide by RAW, I'll be surprised if you go back to JPEGs.

Shane