Monday, August 5, 2013

How To Get Maximum Image Quality From Any Digital Camera: Part 1

The LCD screen gives all shooting information at a glance.
 About "How To Get Maximum Image Quality From Any Digital Camera"

"How To Get Maximum Image Quality From Any Digital Camera" is a three part series. In Part 1 we will look at setting up the camera body, using the built in menu settings, to get as much information into each image file as the camera is capable of capturing. Part 2 looks at how our choice of lens and lens settings affect image quality. Shooting technique and camera handling make up Part 3 of this series.

What Is Maximum Image Quality?

My definition of maximum image quality is the file that will allow the largest possible photographic quality print from any given camera and lens combination. This will vary from camera to camera and from lens to lens. It might mean a 8"x12" or 13"x19" print from a 6 megapixel sensor or a 16"x24" or 24"x36" print from a 12-18 megapixel camera. Maximum image quality requires capturing the maximum amount and maximum quality of visual information possible for each camera and lens when the shutter is tripped. Getting the most information into each camera image file involves a combination of camera capture settings, lens settings and shooting techniques to take best advantage of both.

The Most Important Camera Settings For Best Quality

*File Recording Format
File recording quality/format screen

All DSLR's and many compact "point & shoot" cameras offer the choice to save image files as either .jpg or RAW format files. For maximum image quality, choose the RAW file format. This file type saves all of the information recorded by the image sensor in the camera. It offers greater bit depth than .jpg files(often 12, 14 or 16 bit depth instead of 8 for .jpg). RAW files also offer more and less destructive options for optimizing the image, similar to "developing" a film image, than are available for .jpg files. After "developing" in a RAW file editor such as Adobe Camera RAW or whatever came packaged with your camera, save the files in the native software format or as .tif files to retain maximum bit depth and information content. Be sure to also save the original RAW file to retain the option of going back at a later time to "develop" it in a different way.

*Color Recording Format
Color recording format/color space screen
Most cameras offer a variety of formats for recording the color information in a photo file. When available, AdobeRGB has the largest usable amount of color information and should be used. The next best option is usually standard RGB format, with a few other options having smaller and more restricted color spaces sometimes offered.

*Show The Exposure Histogram
Histogram screen set to display Red, Green & Blue histograms
All digital cameras offer the choice to show an exposure histogram on the LCD display on the back of the camera body. If possible, choose the histogram that shows individual graphs for red, blue and green. On these graphs, most exposure is on the right and least exposure is on the left. Try to keep each frame within the boundaries of the graph to avoid black areas with no detail and blank white areas. Frames without a full range should be biased as much as possible towards the right, as more exposure equals more information.

*About Image Stabilization

Image stabilization is turned OFF when on a tripod
Some camera systems have image stabilization built into the camera body in the form of a moveable sensor. Other camera systems incorporate image stabilization into individual lenses. Either way, if you mount your camera on a solid tripod the stabilization feature should be turned off. Stabilization should always be turned on whenever hand-holding the camera: all of the current types of image stabilization work quite well and there is no reason to ignore it when there is any possibility of camera movement during an exposure.

*ISO Speed

The lowest possible ISO speed should always be set for any exposure unless there are special reasons(such as wanting a noisy/grainy look) to use a higher speed. When the camera is tripod mounted this means an ISO that gives a shutter speed just fast enough to stop any subject movement during exposure. For hand-held work, the shutter speed must be fast enough to eliminate both camera and subject movement during exposure. Slower ISO speeds equate to more detail and sharpness and less noise/grain. This is especially true for smaller sensors in compact "point & shoot" cameras. Even in the very latest cameras, files shot at ISO 800 cannot equal the resolution and detail of files shot at ISO 200.

Following the above recommendations for  camera set-up will ensure that your camera is giving you the best photo files it is capable of producing. Of course there will be times when a faster per-second frame rate is needed and .jpg files are necessary or when ISO 1600 is the only possible way to get the shot. I am certainly not saying don't do that and miss the shot, just understand that those files may not be of the same quality and will not print to as large a size. This is especially true if major color correction or other types of editing need to done on the file. Greater bit depth allows more image manipulation without ill effect on the file.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Get Close With Extension Tubes

Lenses focus more closely by moving elements further from the image sensor or film. Extension tubes are hollow tubes that move the whole lens farther away from the image sensor or film. This allows the lens to focus much more closely, increasing the magnification. Most extension tubes also have the electrical and/or mechanical connections to allow the lens to auto-focus and auto-expose.
This photo was taken with a Canon 55-250mm kit lens set at 200mm and closest focus.

Most lenses will focus to a magnification of between 1/10 to 1/4 life size at their closest focus setting. The formula for extension is that when a lens is focused at infinity, extension equal to the focal length of the lens will produce a life sized image on the sensor or film(this assumes a full-frame sensor, magnification will be higher for APS sized sensors). Thus, 50mm of extension tubes behind a 50mm lens focused at infinity will produce a life sized image.
Canon 55-25-mm at 200mm with 12mm extension tube between camera and lens.
Advantages of using extension tubes for close focus work:
     *Extension tubes sets are much cheaper than any dedicated macro lens
     *They are lightweight and smaller than most macro lenses
     *Tubes work with any lens that you already own
     *Extension tubes add no interference to the optical path and require little extra exposure
     *They do not change the apparent focal length of the lens used with them
     *Tubes allow a choice of working distance when used with a zoom lens

Canon 55-250mm at 200 with 20mm extension tube
Cons of extension tubes:
     *Lenses mounted on extension tubes will no longer focus to infinity
     *Lenses have a very limited focusing distance range when using extension tubes
     *Camera can feel awkward and unbalanced even on a tripod because the lens is physically extended away from the camera body.
     *Extension tubes will not work with very short focal length lenses because the focus point is placed behind the front lens element.
     *Some extension tubes might limit auto-focus and auto-exposure/metering pattern options.
     *Tubes are much less convenient to use and less versatile than a dedicated macro lens.
55-250mm lens at 200mm with 36mm extension tube
General advice for close focus work:
     *Just like with telephoto lenses, camera shake and subject motion are both magnified along with subject magnification. Either fast shutter speeds in combination with image stabilization or a sturdy tripod are required to get sharp images. I much prefer tripods, manual focus, small apertures, low ISO's and slow shutter speeds for maximum image quality.
     *A good ball head on the tripod makes setting up the shot and locking down a front-heavy camera much easier. To me, nothing is more frustrating than continually needing to readjust the camera because the head is not heavy enough and the frame keeps creeping down between or during exposures. Having to loosen and tighten several different knobs or levers to make a simple framing adjustment seems wasteful when a ball head is so much easier and faster.
     *My personal experience has been that 50mm and 85mm prime lenses both make great macro lenses when used in combination with extension tubes. This is especially true for APS sensor DSLR's.
55-250mm lens at 200mm with 48mm extension
It can be less than convenient to have to remove a lens from the camera, attach an extension tube and then re-attach the lens in order to get a macro shot. If the next shot is a heron 30 feet away, the whole process needs to be reversed. If the selected tube does not get you close enough, another tube must be added for more extension. This can be a slow and awkward process in the field, especially when working on the beach or in a swamp with no place to set things down.
55-250mm lens at 200mm with 56mm extension
Mostly I still choose to carry a set of three(12mm, 20mm and 36mm) extension tubes over a dedicated macro lens. I don't do a huge amount of macro work and the trade-offs are worth it to me. I know my lenses, both primes and zooms, and how they will "see" with a given amount of extension. When needed I can go larger than life size, which hardly any dedicated macro lenses can do.
55-250mm lens at 200mm with 68mm extension
If you want to try true macro photography but have a limited budget, extension tubes will allow you to get your toes wet without breaking the bank. If macro is something that you absolutely fall in love with you can always purchase a dedicated lens later. But you might also be able to do everything you want to do with extension tubes.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Flower Photography

Red Rose 4
 Flowers are the subject of an on-going personal photography project, one that has gone on for many years now and will probably never end(I hope). I photograph flowers just because: just because I find them beautiful and interesting, just because there are so many different shapes and colors and sizes, just because they are found in so many places, just because they continue challenge my photographic skills and creativity, just because I feel like have yet to capture the perfect likeness or "essence" of a flower.
Water Lily
Sometimes I am driven to try to get the perfect likeness of a particular flower. Just how does this blossom look to me right now? What attracted me to it? Why did I want to photograph it? Can I answer those questions with one photo? Will someone looking at that photo "get" it? These are the questions that really drive me photographically.
White Lily
 Sometimes it is the graphic qualities of a flower that attract me. I want to capture and share the wonderful design, the lines and shape, the color and contrast. Texture and shading can make compelling photos by themselves and flowers are able to supply plenty of both.
Bottle Brush Tree Bloom
Photographing flowers can be a very soothing, peaceful and meditative experience. Is it possible to convey to the viewer this sense of calm and awe, of being in the presence of the source of life? This is why I think most photographers feel such a sense of urgency about conservation issues and the need to preserve nature.
Datura Blossom

Flowers can simply be things of abstract beauty. This can be the most difficult aspect of all to capture with a camera. But it sure is fun to keep trying. To me, this is trying to capture the true wonder of nature and of how we are just a small piece of the whole picture.
So I keep taking photos of flowers. I keep trying new approaches, new techniques, different focal length lenses and different lighting. I just can't seem to help it. Maybe some day I will be fully satisfied with my result. I do not think it will be anytime soon.
Red Rose 4 Black & White

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Importance of Being Regular - Photographically

Clearwater, FL Main Library Building

I have found that one of the most important things I do for my photography is to make sure I use my camera regularly. I try very hard to make at least a few exposures every day including a little bit of experimentation to stretch into new territory. This process breaks through creative blocks, ensures increasing familiarity with equipment, ingrains the habit of simply using a camera and promotes subconscious learning about what works and what does not work. Writing every day serves the same purposes for me.
Public Lighting, Leepa Rattner Museum of Art, Tarpon Springs, FL
Using a camera regularly also promotes the process of being a photographer as opposed to being a snap shot taker. Someone who calls themselves a writer but doesn't write anything daily or even weekly is not really a writer to most people. Anyone calling themselves painters that have one painting on the wall from five years ago and has not touched a brush for months cannot be considered a painter but is in reality an occasional dabbler. "Musicians" who never performs or even practices is only kidding themselves and others.
There are two main lines of thought on creativity: the first is that creativity is transient and we need to wait for ideas to strike before acting on them; the second is that creativity is always there and part of the process. I am very strongly in the second camp.
Osceola St. Public Lighting, Clearwater, FL
If I just doodle around doing other things because I don't happen to feel inspired to make photographs or am not feeling especially creative, nothing happens. If I get out a camera and lens and start taking photos, my mind-set changes just because I am doing the activity. Making a photo of a fence shadow on a wall will make me want to try another with both the shadow and the fence itself in the frame. I might then think that shooting from ground level with a wider lens and including a little sky in the frame will be more interesting. The next frame could then be just a small section of the shadow for a more minimalist/graphic look. This is where creativity almost always really comes from-the process, the actual doing. The process works the same way with writing for me. I have to sit down at the keyboard and start writing something, even if I don't know what I will write when I sit down, and it all builds from there into a finished piece.
Clearwater Marina, FL
If you just wait for inspiration to strike or creativity to fall on you from the sky, nothing gets done. If you start making photos or writing or painting, inspiration and creativity will join you. Sometimes it take them a while to find you but they almost always show up eventually. Even on the rare occasions when they do not appear you at least have gotten something done.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Rectilinear Fisheye Lens

Hazy Morning In A Hot Air Balloon
 The rectilinear fisheye lens produces a very distinctive look with radical barrel distortion increasing towards the edges of the frame. Seeing nearly everything in front of the camera, a fisheye lens is irreplaceable when space is tight you just have to get everything into the shot. With bulging front elements, it is impossible to use normal screw in filters on a fisheye, though some accept rear mounted filters.
Power Tower
Until just a few years ago, full frame or rectilinear fisheye lenses were rare and expensive, made only by the major camera manufacturers. Today almost every lens maker has a fisheye in their product line, including a few fisheye zooms, and prices have dropped. Shorter fisheyes have also become available for use just on APS sensored camera bodies.
Very Close Alligator With 8mm Fisheye Lens
I recently purchased a Rokinon brand 8mm f3.5 fisheye for use on my Canon APS sensored DSLR. With this combination the lens sees about 170 degrees. It is manual focus and manual f-stop only, a small price to pay for the savings over Canon's 8mm fisheye.
Lines in the top of the frame will bulge up.
Focusing a fisheye lens can be difficult. There is so much in the frame that it is hard to tell where the focus point is. Most of the time I simply set the lens in the f8 to f16 range, set an approximate focus using the distance scale on the lens and depend on the gigantic depth-of-field of the short focal length. This lens also seems to be sharpest in that f-stop range.
Lines in the bottom of the frame will bulge down.
It is absolutely mandatory to pay close attention to the edges of the frame when shooting with a fisheye lens. There is such a wide field of view that it is very easy to include feet, fingers, tripod legs and the like in the frame. When shooting hand-held I tend to lean slightly forward and make sure my elbows are tucked into my chest and my fingers are tightly on the camera body.
Large subjects can be captured from quite close with a fisheye lens.
Great care must also be taken to keep contrast within the frame under control. Again, so much is included in the frame that it is difficult not to have both blacks and whites outside the sensor's range when shooting outdoors. When using a tripod, multiple exposures and HDR processing is a possible solution. When shooting handheld it is a matter of careful framing to try as much as possible to exclude blown out highlights or blocked up shadows from the frame.
Certainly not all subjects are suitable for fisheye photography. When you come upon the right subject, however, there is just nothing else like that distinctive fisheye look.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Photographing The Essence Of Tree

Fig Tree
 Photography excels at representation: at capturing faithfully whatever is in front of the lens. This sort of representation is a very western artistic view. But faithful representations do not always capture the essence or soul of the subject. Trying to capture what a tree means without resorting to a true likeness of a tree is a very zen, or eastern, artistic view. Photography is a meditative activity for me and sometimes I like to photograph with an eastern artistic approach.
Forest Dream
I have been working on a series of photographs for the past several years attempting to capture the essence of "tree". In centuries past this would have been done with a hair brush and ink in the sumi-e tradition. Using a camera for this sort of work requires thinking outside the usual photographic box and utilizing new avenues of creativity. This project has reinvigorated my other photography, as well.
Oak Tree Motion
Several approaches proved fruitful for me with sometimes unexpected and always interesting results. I tried changing the focus during long exposures. For a few subjects I liked multiple exposures with a slight change of focal length for each exposure the best. I tried both linear and rotational camera motion during the exposure. The camera was mounted on a flexible iron rod and tapped just before the shutter was tripped to induce vibration.
Oak Tree Motion 5
The end results, as with most of photography, depended on the specific subject. After taking this approach for a while, I am getting much better at predicting which technique to use for particular subjects to produce a certain "look". Final results are still somewhat unpredictable and the project will be continued. Next will be repeating much of this work in black and white to remove even more realism from these shots.
Foggy Tree
I like to use projects like this one to challenge the way I think of and use my equipment. I usually like to use the sharpest lenses with the best possible color fidelity to show what things truly look like. But do any of those technical specifications matter when what you want to show is how something feels or what something means rather than how it looks.
Lensbaby Tree

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Making "Honeymoon Island Footprints"

Honeymoon Island, Florida is a 2,800 acre barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Dunedin. The entire island is a state park and is connected to the mainland by a paved causeway. The park gets about 900,000 visitors every year but going mid-week can net an all-alone hike on the nearly four miles of sand beach.

This particular Monday afternoon there were just a few cars in the parking area and I had seen no signs of other people for more than a mile. Then there was a line of barefoot tracks just above the water line. The footprints ran for about 60 feet and stopped as suddenly as they began.
Honeymoon Island Footprints
 It was nearly high tide, there were clouds a few miles out over the Gulf and waves breaking white just off the beach. The sun was just low enough and the footprints just deep enough for defining shadows and the clear blue sky was giving great color to the water. Time for a photo!

I set up my tripod and ball head low and just on the edge of the water to create converging lines with the beach and white of the breakers. I also wanted to emphasize the first print so it would lead the eye into the distance. The humidity was high, creating a slight haze, so I knew I would want a polarizing filter to make the distant clouds more distinct and darken the blue of the sky slightly.

Using a Sony Alpha 100 APS-sensor DSLR, I chose my Minolta 16-35mm f3.5G zoom. The 18mm setting fit everything into the frame and f16 at the hyperfocal distance supplied the required depth-of-field. Being a bright day, i used ISO 80 and after fine tuning the polarizer the shutter speed worked out to 1/80 second. A remote shutter release tripped the shutter.

Twenty frames were exposed to make sure I had choices. I wanted distinct foam close to the foreground footprint and plenty of white along the breaker line off the beach. It was breezy and I also wanted sharp foliage in the upper right.

The RAW file was processed in Adobe Camera RAW and saved as a 16-bit .psd file. Slight adjustments were then made to curves and individual color saturation on separate layers. The file was then flattened and slightly up-sized for a 13"x19" print. The original flattened file was also changed to 8-bit, down-sized to 1,000 pixels horizontal and saved as a .jpg for web use.

I continued my hike to the northern tip of the island and back again to the car. I never did see anyone who could have made the short stretch of prints in the sand. On the return trek they had been washed away.  

Friday, July 19, 2013

Photographing Dolphins on Florida's Gulf Coast

Florida Gulf Coast Dolphin
Dolphins are common along Florida's gulf Coast all year but don't often swim close enough to shore for good photo opportunities. They can often be seen from the beach surfacing for air and sometimes jumping. Several times I have had them swim within 20-30 feet of me when swimming only 200-300 feet out from the beach. But for the best photographs it is best to be on a boat.
Florida Dolphin

Nearly every town with a marina in the greater Tampa Bay area has several boats that specialize in dolphin sightings. They are always a good bet and seldom fail to find dolphins willing to play in the boat's wake for a little while. Dolphins are intelligent and curious and will often jump quite close to the boat in order to get a good look the people aboard.
Dolphins Jumping In Tandem

I have gotten my best dolphin photos using a wide to short telephoto zoom lens at a medium aperture and an ISO setting high enough to maintain 1/500 second shutter speed or faster. Image stabilization is a huge help on a moving boat with a moving subject. The best location is the stern(rear) of the boat as the dolphins usually like to play in the wake waves.

Calm, sunny days are the best for good dolphin photography. There is not as much boat motion from waves and wind when it is calm. Bright sun seems less harsh at sea as the water surface acts like a huge fill reflector. Direct sun also tends to bring out more color in the water. Cloudy days are less contrasty but the water tends to look dull grey or black.
Breaching Florida Dolphin

To avoid transferring boat vibration to the camera during exposure, don't brace anything above the waist against the boat. I try to stand with feet slightly spread and well planted and brace a knee or thigh against some solid part of the boat. I then brace both elbows against my upper body and keep the camera tightly against my face.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Photographing Florida Fungi

Mighty Mushroom
I have a long interest in fungi and fungi photography. Some of them are edible and very nutritious and some of them are deadly. They range in size from microscopic yeasts and molds to giant fruiting bodies weighing many pounds. Invisible to us most of the time, they occasionally send our fruiting bodies for the world to see and to spread their spores.

Brown Wood Mushrooms

Fungi are their own kingdom distinct from plants, animals and bacteria but most closely related to animals. Chitin, the same material as insect exoskeletons, makes their cell walls rigid, unlike plants which use cellulose for this purpose.
Yellow Mold
Fungi require carbon compounds from living organisms for their metabolism. They actually live inside their food and grow by extending hyphae, very thin thread-like structures. An interconnected network of hyphae looks like a ball of limp yarn and is called a mycelium.
Blue Parasol Mushrooms
Fungi actually move, growing into new areas of food and dying off in the depleted areas. When ready to reproduce they send forth fruiting bodies to produce spores. All of the photos illustrating this post are of fruiting bodies. The mycelium are generally underground or inside wood or fruit.
Before Dawn

 Because fungi have a very large surface area and relatively small volume they are very efficient at extracting necessary nutrients from the environment. Fungi are decomposers and play an important role in the world-wide carbon cycle and in recycling organic nutrients.
Shelf Mushroom
As with most living things on earth, no one knows how many species of fungi there are but 80,000 are known to science. I do know that many of them live in Florida and can be found almost everywhere. Just go for a walk in any park, wooded area or swamp and look carefully.
White Wood Mushroom
I have seen both grey squirrels and racoons eating mushrooms in the wild. I have never seen any bird eat a fungi or any kind.
White Wood Fungi
Many people think of flowers as beautiful and many photographers concentrate on flowers, foliage and wildlife when they think of nature. I think that fungi can be just as beautiful and often more challenging to photograph.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Anhinghas in Florida

Florida Male Anhingha Warming In The Sun
Anhinghas, also called snake birds, are found throughout the state of Florida near water. Both sexes have black body feathers and white trim on the wings, as shown on the male above. Females have buff colored heads and upper necks, as shown below.
Female Anhingha
  This bird cannot waterproof its feathers, making it less buoyant and easier to dive. They fan their large tail feathers when swimming slowly underwater, leading to the "water turkey" name. This also means they chill faster than cormorants or ducks and they will often be seen with wings spread to warm in the sun.
Anhingha Chicks On Nest
Anhinghas are monogamous and both parents help raise and feed the chicks. Males develop a head crest and turquoise eye patch during mating season. Chicks hatch bald and soon grow pale tan down. They will remain on the nest until nearly adult-sized, continuously begging the parents for food.

Male Anhingha During Spring Mating Season

 Fish eaters, anhingas capture their food by spearing it on their sharp beaks. They then work the fish loose from the beak and toss it around until correctly positioned to swallow head first. This may be done in the water or on a perch above the water.

Anhingha With Small Catfish
Anhinghas are strong flyers and may go quite high. They often alternate between beating wings and short glides. They are not fast swimmers, seeking to surprise their prey among heavy weeds and other underwater cover. Still, shallow water provides the preferred hunting habitat.
Male Anhingha Warming At Sunrise