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 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.

Brown Honeyeater, Perth, Western AustraliaBrown Honeyeater, Perth, Western Australia 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

 


Cropping changes photographs more than you may think

November 04, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

In some photography circles cropping is a no-no. Some photographers take the view that a photo is made in the camera and it's the whole frame or nothing. I understand Henri Cartier-Bresson didn't crop, or maybe that's just photography folk law. 

Those of you who've read my blog know I passionately believe photographs are made in the camera, not in PhotoShop, but I'm no purist. In much the same way that Ansel Adams would meticulously work with light, shadow and contrast in his images to achieve the effect he wanted in the mind of the viewer, I (without his talent, skill or dedication) will work my images with cropping and manipulation of exposure and contrast to get the results I'm looking for. It's a tradition going back to the very beginnings of photography.

The view of the Eiffel Tower from our Parisian hotel room.The view of the Eiffel Tower from our Parisian hotel room. Why, I hear you ask, am I writing this? Well, a few weeks back my wife and I were in Paris. (Yes, I know. It's a hard life, but someone has to do it.) Our room even had a view of the Eiffel Tower!

While in our typically tiny Parisian hotel room, I spent a fair amount of time looking out our window. We were literally 50 metres from a train station - which isn't as bad as it sounds, by the way. The elevated train ran on rubber tyres and of course, the Métro is underground, so no noise from there. Anyway - the station, the intersection and the local restaurants meant there were a lot of people, and they were interesting to watch (even if I failed to get a single interesting photograph of the street scene).

So, I was looking out the window and saw that the low angled light was casting interesting shadows on the wrought ironwork outside the apartments opposite, and  naturally, I made some photographs.

The result is shown below.

Quite nice, but I felt that the partial windows on the floor below were a bit of a distraction, so I cropped the image - also shown below.

 

 

 

 

Full frame of my image of shadows in Paris.
Paris shadowsFull frame of my image of shadows in Paris.

 

The result, I was surprised to discover was a dramatically different photograph - in my opinion at least.

Cropped version of my Paris shadows in Photograph.
Paris shadows. Cropped version of my Paris shadows in Photograph.

The first photograph is about those shadows, with the roofs above in a darker part of the image. The second cropped image became a photograph of those roofs and that collection of chimney pots, with the shadows also there for those who looked at the image longer.

Yes, I know this is all terribly subjective, but assuming you share my perception, I guess the next question is: why? I suspect it's more complicated than one factor, but I think that part of the reason is our old friend, the "rule" of thirds.

This is the cropped image with vertical and horizontal "rule" lines included:

Cropped image shows "rule of thirds" lines. You will see that the roof and chimney pots are crossed by the upper horizontal line, whereas the lower line barely touches the shadows. In contrast, the full image looks thus:

Full image with "rule of thirds" lines

In the second image, the lower line lies across the ironwork, which incidentally is also the lightest part of the image. It's not surprising therefore that our eyes are down there. By contrast, the upper horizontal line skirts the roof ridge - which is in the darkest part of the image.

Ok, so what's the take away from this? It's this: in much the same way that zooming your lens does much more than just making something seem closer (or further away), cropping does more than just removing unwanted pixels. By changing the proportions of the image, we can change the subject of the image.

It's worth reviewing a cropped image before finalising it to ensure you haven't changed the nature of the image. Conversely, if you're using the whole frame, maybe a crop is what's needed to make an average shot better. (Just make sure that if you are cropping, you do it non-destructively so you can revert if the result isn't what was intended.)

Have fun.

Shane

 


One lens to do it all

October 20, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

I recently did a five week trip to Britain and Europe. As always, luggage is a problem and so on this trip I decided to take my Nikon D800 with a single lens: my 24 - 120 f/4 Nikon zoom.

In the past, I've tended to travel "heavy" on such trips: carrying most of my gear in a Kata backpack that runs to 8 or 9 kilos. The problem has been that firstly, that's a lot of weight - especially for someone in his late 60s. Secondly, the backpack is bulky and while it conforms to airline carry on dimensions (just), it's a problem when travelling on crowded public transport. (One time, it got caught in a closing Tube door in London.) Thirdly, I only used some of the gear on any trip.

My first big trip involved my Nikon D300 DX crop frame camera and because of its crop factor, I found I made about 90% of my shots using the brilliant Nikon 14 - 24 f/2.8 lens. Of course, with the D300's APS-C sensor and hence a 1.5 crop factor, that lens was effectively a 21 - 36mm lens. That's great for shooting landscapes and in cities, although it's a little short for some shots, which is why the other 10% of images were made with other lenses.

Canary Wharf station, LondonCanary Wharf station, LondonCanary Wharf station, London Nikon 300 with Nikkor 14-24 at 14mm (21mm effective)

On the full frame D800, that lens is too short for most photography - at 14mm you can get your toes in a shot if you're not careful. The 24 - 70 f/2.8 is a better option on an FX camera, but 70mm is a little short for some situations.

Cambridge streetCambridge streetCambridge street Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24 - 70 at 38mm

Enter the Nikkor 24 - 120 f/4, which is in the right focal length range for a trip, and is also stabilised - which can be helpful in low light situations. At f/4, it's a full stop slower than the 24 - 70, but since I tend to shoot at f/8 or smaller (to provide some depth of field) this wasn't an issue.

By the Seine, ParisBy the Seine, ParisBy the Seine, Paris Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-120 at 70mm

Glen Coe, ScotlandGlen Coe, ScotlandGlen Coe, Scotland Nikon D800 with 24-120 at 24mm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So I took away the one lens, and I'm happy to report that the combination worked well. Very well in fact. The focal lengths available covered almost every situation I wanted to photograph, the aperture was fine, and the stabilisation system worked very well. If you're looking for a "walking around" lens for your Nikon and you have a full-frame (FX) body, I suggest you look at the 24 - 120, which is a bargain compared with their f/2.8 range. If you're shooting Nikon crop frame, the venerable 18 - 200mm works well - I know.

Canon shooters would do well to check out the 24 - 105 Canon lens. Like the Nikon 24 - 120, it seems to be a ridiculously good lens, especially for the price. No doubt, Sony and the micro four-thirds manufacturers have equivalent lenses.

The bottom line is that one lens can do it all - or nearly all. If you're travelling for photography, obviously you'll want more than one lens. My advice would be to take a wide lens for landscapes, streetscapes and close-in work, and if you can accomodate it, a longer lens - maybe a 70 -200. You could also carry a "nifty 50" 50mm lens which weighs practically nothing, or if you have a crop frame, a 35mm might be the go. 

One thing I missed on this trip is a  tripod. Something like the Sirui T-025X would be useful, but at a pinch, even a good tabletop tripod such as a Sirui 3T-35K Table Top Tripod would be useful. (I had meant to take my Manfrotto tabletop this time but forgot!)

Mind you, a little innovation goes a long way. This image was made with the Nikon more or less level on a park bench and the lens lifted by resting the lens hood on my reading glasses' case. You do what you have to do.

Dresden.Dresden.Dresden Nikon D800 with 24-120 at 24mm ISO 5000, f/10 at 1/10 sec

 

One area where the D800 was caught out a little was ISO. The fact is that in Australia, we're used to lots of light and as such, the D800's maximum ISO 6400 isn't really needed. I usually have auto ISO engaged and limit it to 3200 to avoid noise, but on this trip, due to small apertures (for more depth of field) and limited light indoors, I had to crank the camera up to the full 6400. The fact is that the noise was quite acceptable - unless I planned to print large (which happily I don't). That said, I don't normally concern myself too much with maximum ISO performance, but this trip brought it to mind. The additional couple of stops provided by the delectable Nikon D850 raised my level of gear lust.

Mind you, I could have simply taken my flash, but I'm (a) not a fan of flash and (b) didn't expect to need it.

So there you have it. Next trip - if there is a next trip - I'll take my current Nikon body, the 24 - 120 and some kind of tripod. That will cover me for around 90% of shots and for the others? Well, I'll just have to think.

Shane