Category Archives: Behind the picture

Cliffs of Rhossili Bay

Rhossili_millerThis panorama posed a few challenges. Shooting directly into the Sun is difficult in any case but I bracketed several shots to try to preserve detail both in the sky as well as the sea. The lens coatings have controlled the flare with only a small loss of the sharpness. I also had to be careful not to fall into the water when taking shots all around. Shadows are more difficult to control. Shots from different positions are used to cover up occluded areas. These were inserted directly into the panorama project. I timed my a shot to capture the fisherman casting his line.

Lincoln Cathedral and Tripods

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Taken handheld, NEX-7 with 35mm/1.8 ISO100 F3.5 1/20th. This was a grab shot. If I had not been on my way somewhere, I’d have taken the time to set up my tripod and use a smaller aperture and perhaps bracketed exposures. I was fortunate that the image stabilisation kept the image sharp, and that the NEX-7 sensor has excellent dynamic range so is able to capture the highlights in the stain glass as well as the shadow detail.

I had the pleasure of visiting Lincoln Cathedral over the weekend and was very pleasantly surprised by their very photographer friendly attitude towards tripods. When I asked the guide whether they were allowed the response was, “of course”. There were no restrictions and I spent quite some time taking panoramas of various parts of the building.

However, I was the only person to be using a tripod. There were many taking handheld shots with a myriad of cameras ranging from phones, compact cameras, a few mirrorless and quite a few DSLRs. The lighting could be best described as subdued so I cannot image their photos were able to do justice to the magnificent architecture. Unfortunately the weather outside was overcast so I did not bother to gather external shots, that will have to wait for a return visit when the weather is better.

There are so many beautiful places and buildings with photography restrictions, tripod bans being a particularly significant one. Whether it is due to a perceived commercial threat  from professional photographers, or overly paranoid health and safety grounds, such bans are counterproductive by discouraging the very enthusiasts who will promote the sights with quality imagery around the web. The experience from Lincoln is that there were absolutely no issues with tripods getting in the way. Commonsense is really all that is needed to prevent them being a problem. Much as I espouse tripod use for getting better photographs, the majority of photographers will not use them.

So I heartily recommend Lincoln Cathedral as a wonderful place to visit, even if you are not a photographer. They deserve your support for their enlightened policy towards photography. You should also try to catch Evensong to sample the wonderful acoustic.

Self-walking Dog

DSC06525-1One of my photographic inspirations is Elliot Erwitt, a street photographer who has a penchant for taking dog photos. I didn’t really understand the attraction until I started noticing our 4 legged companions on the street, often being dragged along, or dragging along their owners. The photo at the top of this post is one of those fortunate images coming at the end of a generally unsuccessful outing.

Sometimes nothing really clicks: the light is too flat, the faces too glum, you see the same poses or cliches and just can’t capture anything worth keeping. At this point it may be time to try something new, a different perspective, different subjects, or a change of modus operandi. My usual subject matter is that of people engaged in interesting activities or expressions, the look of joy shared between a couple, the conjunction of characters, or simply a story of the everyday. None of that was working one lunch break, I couldn’t seem to break the spell of dreary photos so I decided to cut my losses and head back to the office.

It was then I spotted coming towards me two dogs with their owner. One was being lead on a leash, the other had the leash in its mouth and was dutifully pacing besides the other two. I quickly made sure my settings were suitable for a moving subject in overcast light (wide aperture and high ISO) lowered my camera to knee level and shot several photos as they continued towards me. It was the last shot, framing just the lone dog that is shown.

I forced myself to keep on walking and only half a street away did I allow myself to review the shots. With trepidation I magnified the image and a feeling of relief flowed through me as I saw that it was adequately sharp and in focus. It made my day.

The Power of Raw

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Original image, default curves in Lightroom. Shadows crushed to black but I have exposed to retain highlights.

If your camera can shoot “RAW” photos instead of JPG, use it. I won’t go into the arguments people have against shooting RAW, I think the best way to make the case is through an example. To the left is a shot at sunset taken under a bridge. It’s not a particularly great photo either technically or artistically, but I hope illustrates the degree of control you have when shooting RAW.

This is as it would have come out of the camera if shot in JPG (I used the default settings in Lightroom to simulate this). There is extreme contrast, ranging from the setting sun, the back-lit buildings and barge, and the ground in shadow. The colours are muted compared with what I had experienced watching the sun go down. Setting the white balance is always tricky at sunset or sunrise as the sun itself is strongly filtered to give warm light, whereas the rest of the sky gives a blue cast.

I exposed the shot so that the sunset would not be overblown. I used a low ISO, medium aperture and a wide angle lens to capture the scene. I made sure than there was little camera shake in the captured shot. If I’d exposed for the shadows, the sunset and sky would have been blown out. It would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to recover that amount of overexposure, especially from a digital capture. However, the dynamic range of my camera is sufficiently high that I should be able to dig out the detail in the shadows from this shot.

DSC05923After importing the RAW file into Lightroom, I cropped, straightened, and adjusted the image using the exposure, black and white points, highlight and shadow recovery sliders. I also played around with the whitebalance until I obtained a result that I was happy with. There’s no one “correct” whitebalance in this situation, I simply chose one which balances the blues in the sky and water with the reds and oranges of the setting sun. You can play around with warmer or cooler images to get the impression you desire. The end result of my adjustments is a “neutral” image, one that has detail at both ends of the brightness range and which does not look too unnatural. Even such a normal looking image would have been difficult to produce using film.

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Final adjusted image with added punch. You may prefer a more tasteful result, perhaps more along the lines of the “neutral” version.

To give the image a bit more “punch”, you can adjust the contrast, clarity and vibrance. The highlight and shadows may need a bit of extra recovery, I prefer to retain some detail rather than crushing the blacks or totally blowing out the highlights. I don’t claim that the final result conforms to good taste but is certainly more eyecatching (or eyesearing) than the original photo.

This range of post-capture adjustment is due to shooting RAW. I was able to leverage the information captured by the sensor in a single frame and in Lightroom process it to my needs. Even if you do not perform such extreme modifications to the image, the ability to extract shadows and highlights, together with whitebalance is invaluable. It is all about giving you options for the final image.

Sunset over the Fairy Lochs

Here is another photo from the Highlands. This was take after I had done some spherical panoramas around and in the Loch. Here, you can see both a propeller and a radial piston engine belonging to the B-24 Liberator bomber which crashed here in 1945. There is a memorial to the crew next to the Loch. For this shot, I used the NEX-7 with the LA-EA1 to mount a 16-50mm/2.8 A-mount lens. I set the exposure to f/8 and ISO to 100. Using LiveView, it was easy to make sure I exposed for the sunset so as to not blow out the highlights. It also made manually focussing the lens very easy. As the sun was setting fast, I had to quickly work my way around the Loch in order get some alternate viewpoints and perspectives. I think this one shows the view of the Loch the best.

Editor’s Pick at 360Cities

I have been lucky enough to have several of my panoramas selected as an Editor’s Pick at 360cities.net. The latest was one I took last year and only got around to assembling recently. I had made a similar panorama at the time but it didn’t make it as an Editor’s Pick.

This pano was challenging because of the lighting. The fountains would change colour very frequently. Add  in the movement of the crowd, it meant that I had to double the amount of shots to take in order to make sure I would have a seamless result. Instead of 4 shots in the horizontal plane, I took 8. I also took 2 of the zenith as the colour was changing. As each exposure was 30 seconds plus the same again for dark frame subtraction, this meant standing around for some time. I managed to find a spot in the middle of the fountain where I wouldn’t be hit with any water.

I timed my shots to capture the variety of colours lighting up the fountain. These were blended together in Hugin using masks. The final result was then exported as an equirectangular pano for upload, but I also played around with the Little Planet project you can see above.

Sunset over Shieldaig

I was returning from a hike to the Fairy Lochs with the sun rapidly descending towards the horizon. Some distant cloud cover prevented a truly magnificent sunset but the colours in the sky which remained were still impressive. I have very little time to set up my tripod, make sure my SAL 16-50mm/2.8 lenses was mounted properly onto the NEX-7 via a LA-EA1 adapter, and to set out to find a suitable spot to capture the scene. Luckily there is a beach next to the Shieldaig hotel which was at low tide at the time. I quickly set up the tripod, composed the capture both the sky and beach, and focussed manually, very easy to do using zoomed liveview. I took a few bracketed shots to make sure that I did not blow the sky, using both the live and post-shot histogram. I finally retreated under an onslaught of midges.

After importing the file into Lightroom, I was keen to see just how much detail I had managed to retain in a single frame, from the setting sun to the dimly lit beach. Cranking up the highlight and shadow recovery sliders, I was pleased to see that I could bring out detail both in the sky and the ground without too much trouble. A bit of clarity and vibrance completed the treatment of the photo. Some licence has been taken with the interpretation of the colours, but this more faithfully represents the impression of being there rather than actual photometric values.

Fontaine Saint-Michel

I’ve been going over my back catalogue of unstitched panoramas. These are mostly one which I didn’t have time to assemble at the time, or were lesser priority than other ones. However, this one was challenging to stitch due to the combination of lots of moving objects and the need to take a bracketed exposure for the sky, and I have waited nearly three years before attempting it. My post-process has improved and the tools I use have also advanced which means that I can now more easily assemble difficult panoramas.

The panorama was taken on a visit to Paris in July 2009. It was a lovely summer’s day, sunny but not too hot. The sunset was not going to be too spectacular so I decided to wander around to soak up the ambiance. The Fontaine Saint-Michel is a noted meeting spot for young and old. It had a lively atmosphere so I hung around and set up my tripod. The people near me didn’t seem to have a problem with it so I quickly took a series of shots, especially trying to capture the moving people and allow me latitude during assembly.

I knew at the time that it would be tricky to blend together the shots without cutting people in half. I had many other panoramas to stitch from the trip and I concentrated on the low lying fruit. Waiting three years to attempt this has paid dividends. The masking tools in Hugin and the RAW development in Lightroom 4 have improved immensely. With lots of masking, I was able to assemble a near seamless panorama, and the highlight recovery tool was able to bring down the highlights which helped blend bracketed exposures. Enfuse was then used to exposure fuse three renderings of the scene to adaptively compress the dynamic range into something which looks naturalistic.

I was able to assemble all the elements within Hugin itself without the need to use Photoshop to blend layers, clone or mask elements after stitching. I did my usual post-processing in Picture Windows Pro 6, levels, curves, large-radius sharpening, detail sharpening, and a few colour tweaks.

Singapore Marina Bay

I’m slowly going through photos which I took during a recent visit to Singapore. The Marina Bay area is quite colourful at night when the CBD and the new casino development are lit up. Night panoramas can be quite challenging, especially when coupled with lots of people moving around. The hot conditions also increases the dark current of digital sensors meaning that dark frame subtraction is a must on long exposures. It can take several minutes, maybe half an hour to get the photos for a single pano depending on how many shots are required to avoid people being cut in half.

The Merlion is an icon of Singapore, the one on Marina Bay shooting a geyser of water from its mouth a crowded tourist sport. This pano also surveys the bay with Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino opposite. Tourists and locals soak up the balmy evening air.

Outdoor Model Shoot

A funny thing happened on the way to the shoot. Apparently, you have to get a certificate of permission to do any sort of model shoot in the Necropolis. I was informed by the groundsman and after some discussion, I was eventually let off for this time only and allowed to continue as long as I didn’t have any recognisable writings on headstones or monuments in the shots. I actually wanted to take advantage of the view and backdrop so in the end it wasn’t a big deal but I have had a lot of trouble finding out exactly who to contact should I want to do a future shoot in the Necropolis so any hints appreciated.

Anyway, the afternoon was bright though hazy. The sun was shining down but veiled with a thin layer of cloud. I still needed to bring down the ambient exposure by using an ND4 and used ISO50, 1/250th, and around f/4 to f/5.6 depending on the exact flash output and balance against daylight.

I placed the flash against the sun to allow the ambient light to partially fill in the shadows. I also used a reflector on a stand and arm to bounce the flash onto the back of the model. I used the sunfire surface to add some warmth and to match the sun.

I used a Bowens Gemini 400 flash powered by a Travelpak and the small battery. This gave around 300 shots at about half to three-quarter power on average. I mounted an octobox with both diffusers (probably could have gotten away with just the outer panel). I tried to place the flash as close as I could to the model to get a soft light, though at the cost of less even illumination. A strip light could have been a better choice had I had one.

I shot with the 16-50mm/2.8 and a Cokin P filter holder. This combination does vignette at the wide end so I had to either zoom in a bit or crop in the post-production to get rid of the mechanical vignetting. To be perverse, I added in artificial vignetting to accentuate the tunnel effect.

After the flash had finally run out of juice, it was time to do some available light portraits. The lay of cloud had thickened up a bit and though still partially sunny, the light was soft. I retreated to the shade to get an even more diffuse light.

I didn’t need the ND4 so I could take off the Cokin filter holder. I switched to the Tamron 70-200mm/2.8 so I could back up a bit and zoom in from a farther perspective. I positioned the model a bit away from the background so I could blur it out. In post-production, I added a bit of contrast and highlight adjustment to make the model separate from the background even more.

It was very handy to have a helping hand with the equipment. Even though the Bowens kit is “portable”, it’s not something you want to have to lug with you for very far. Together with all the extra bits and bobs (octobox, reflector, stands etc.), any help is appreciated.

Thanks to Sarah for modelling and to Francis for assisting despite a bad leg.