Planning for Photoshop™

FixitScreen02-13-2015

One of the most overused statements by photographers has to be, “I’ll fix it in Photoshop™.”

When photo editing software is used to compensate for sloppy camera settings, poor composition or incorrect lighting, the photographer must, by definition, degrade the image in order to “fix” it. Exposure adjustments, color temperature adjustments and cropping all remove pixels and, therefore, reduce detail in an image. The photographer does not deliver the best images and the client suffers with this lower quality.

To be clear, I use Photoshop and/or Lightroom on just about every image I deliver. Digital images are not in final form when captured in the camera. RAW images must be processed and some editing adjustments are also needed. But my strategy is to use any photo editing software as little as possible, and only as a last resort if needed to fix a mistake that cannot be recovered in another way (such as a re-shoot.)

Recently I took some photos of an artwork restoration project. Tom Jones owns Sierra Hills Framing in downtown Lincoln. He recently framed a large painting that had been meticulously restored and he wanted some photos of the finished product before it was delivered to the owner.

Here is the back story on this painting: The artist was Gustave Henry Mosler, who lived from 1875 – 1906. He painted this image in 1902. The painting is nearly 8′ tall and about 11′ wide. The owner discovered it stored in a barn on rural property that she had inherited. When she found it, the painting was rolled up, had several rips in the canvas and was covered in mud and dust. At first she considered discarding it without investigating, but soon realized what it was. A professional fine art restorer in Grass Valley brought the painting back to life by attaching it to a new canvas and attaching it to a stretching frame, and carefully cleaning it. Tom Jones completed the final framing work.

I first considered the best way to light the painting in order to photograph it. The surface of the canvas has several ripples and creases, and the glossy paint finish was very reflective. I determined that any lights within the family of angles would reflect on the surface. If I moved the lights more to the sides, the raking of light would bring out the rippled surface and likely reflect those as well. After looking at the painting, I decided the best solution was to photograph this item with the full intention of using Photoshop as part of the primary capture process.  I would light and shoot the painting as two separate images and blend them into one image in post production.

The most important key to blending images is to use a sturdy tripod – this provides images that register and align without any changes in perspective.  I positioned the tripod at the center of the painting, and raised it as high as it would go. I noticed that the painting was leaning at a different angle than the back of my camera, so I made a note to also adjust the perspective of the final image. I chose not to move the painting at all.

I positioned two monolights, each one high on a light stand on either side of the camera, about 10′ away from the camera. Each light had a 7″ reflector and cast a bright glare on its respective side of the image. In my test shots I could see that the placement was correct for the effect I wanted. I was getting a clean shot of each half of the image. With the lights set at equal power, I shot two frames, each with only one light firing.

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With one light firing from the left, its reflection appears in the upper quadrant of the painting, but the part I plan to use is the right half.
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The light on the right gives clear color, and very little reflection on the left half of the image. I knew had the pieces I needed to make a complete image.

Before moving anything, I also positioned Tom to one side of the painting, put a softbox on one of the lights, moved it closer to Tom and took an additional photo with him standing next to the painting. This would give me an additional frame for blending.

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The only part of this image I cared about was the section outside of the edge of the painting where Tom is standing. The softbox is visible in the upper left part of the image.

That was it for the camera – half of my capture was done. I brought the images into Photoshop and put each of them in a layer. With simple layer masking I was able to blend the two images of the painting with very little effort. An additional layer mask allowed me to include Tom in the photo, as seen below.

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The final image, the result of a planned composite of three images.

In this result, the colors of the painting are reproduced accurately and as vibrant as the original. Including Tom in the image gives the viewer immediate information about the size of this painting.

I spent about 5 minutes planning my approach. The setup time was about 10 minutes, shooting took about 5 minutes and the post production work was an additional 10 minutes.

This is a similar technique to the way I’ve made many real estate photographs, where the lighting gear is best located within the image and removed later in a blended image.

Here is another example of this technique. I wanted a tight grid light on Jen, but also wanted to include a large part of the empty room. The light needed to be fairly close to her, so I chose to shoot an image with the light stand in the image and remove it by blending two images. (These photos were taken at the old rail yard buildings in downtown Sacramento prior to reconstruction.)

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The light stand is visible in this frame.
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One ambient-light image with the light stand removed.
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The final image – no light stand visible.

When a photographer appropriately plans to use editing software as part of the image-making process, the resulting photo can be made quickly and easily, without loss of detail.

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Give me three feet or give me death

 

At 40 MPH, three feet is not a lot of room.

09-24-2013

Well, maybe there is no need for such drama.

I took this photo five years ago as a personal assignment. I wanted to illustrate how it feels to ride a bicycle on a busy city street.

The California Bicycle Coalition asked if they could use the photo as part of their campaign to pass a law requiring drivers to give bicyclists three feet of space on a roadway. Of course, I agreed.

This week Governor Jerry Brown just signed the “three-foot” legislation, Assembly Bill 1371. The bill is not heavy-handed; it has a base fine of $35. I’m also guessing that most drivers won’t change much of their behavior because of AB1371. After all, we’ve had laws on the books for decades about stopping at a stop sign, yielding right of way to pedestrians and, more recently, no texting while driving. If you look around, you’ll notice that these laws aren’t always followed by some drivers either.

At least there’s a law now.

If you’re interested in knowing how this photo was taken, it was pretty simple. I modified a shelf bracket to mount a small DSLR camera onto the rear axle of my bicycle. I used a 10-20mm lens for a very wide perspective, set the shutter speed to 1/30 second for some blur effects, and used a small radio remote to fire the camera while I navigated in traffic. After about 250 shots, I found at least one good one (above).

 

I mounted my DSLR camera to the bike frame with a modified shelf bracket and a ball head.

 

I used some safety cables to keep the camera from bouncing down the street. It never came loose.

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Fast Food – Food Photography on the Run

 

Tempura that stands on its own.

11-19-2012

I recently wrapped up a couple of editorial assignments that required lip-smacking images of food.

When I approach food photography, I lean towards large simple lighting, clean backgrounds and authentic food appearances. This last point is important to me. I don’t change the food once the chef has handed it off for two reasons: I want to show the food exactly the way it was prepared, and more importantly, I will probably eat some of it when I’m done photographing it. I certainly don’t want to dress up the food with any products that aren’t part of the original recipe. So no motor oil on the meats for me, thank you.

Since I usually get to “shoot my cake and eat it too,”  this makes me very happy.

The challenges with food photography include working carefully to light the food so it looks its best and working quickly before the appeal of the food wears off. Freshly cooked food can lose its luster quickly.

The first assignment was a photo essay of a newly-opened Sushi/Karaoke Restaurant in downtown Sacramento. Oishii Sushi Bar and Grill is a visual treat. Located on the second level at 10th & K Streets, the large bar area is lit with remote-controlled LED lights that pulsate in different colors. In addition to the bar and restaurant seating areas, Oishii offers a number of private karaoke party rooms; some rooms are small and some are very large with several large TV screens.

 

Oishii Sushi Bar and Grill features LED-lit rooms

Since I was working on location, I brought a couple of small speedlights, adjustable radio triggers, a 24″ square softbox, Continue reading “Fast Food – Food Photography on the Run”

I took a knife to a gunfight…and lived.

 

Raley Field, home of the Sacramento River Cats

07-28-2012

Figuratively speaking, of course.

I regularly shoot Sacramento River Cats baseball games for Sacramento Press. The River Cats are the MILB AAA team that feeds the Oakland A’s.

The baseball park is located at Raley Field in West Sacramento and the park has a little more than 11,000 seats, plus some lawn seating. It is a great and comfortable venue for watching baseball.

 

Pre-game ceremonies, shot with a Panasonic GH2 and Canon FD 50mm f/1.4 lens

My normal gear haul for shooting sports is two Canon 7D camera bodies and three or four lenses. The Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 (non-IS) lens is my standard sports lens, the other lenses are usually chosen when I am packing for the game, sometimes on impulse. One time, I took a telescope to a game, just for something different.

After adding extra batteries, a monopod and a water bottle, the gear pack usually weighs about 30 pounds. Fortunately I am able to set the pack on the ground most of the time I am at the game. I do like to shoot from different locations around the park, including from behind the back fence, so I do add up some mileage lugging this load around.

As I was packing for a game last week, I decided to pare down the load and travel lighter. I brought one Canon 7D body and the 70-200 lens. But for a majority of my shooting, I wanted to use the Panasonic GH2 camera with a few smaller lenses.

The GH2 is a micro four-thirds format camera which has a 16 MP sensor that is slightly smaller physically than the sensor on the 7D. The sensors in the GH2 and the 7D are pretty comparable according to some of the diagnostic websites, although the 7D does have an advantage in low light. More on that in a minute.

The entire Panasonic camera system is smaller than the Canons, so the reduction in weight (and pack space) is pretty significant. For example, a Canon 7D with a 70-200mm lens weighs in at 4.5 lbs. The GH2 with a 45-200mm lens weighs 1.25 lbs.

 

Panasonic GH2 setup (left) weighs almost 1/4 of the Canon (right)

Using the Panasonic setup did leave me with a few technical challenges. The Canon lens is two stops brighter than the Panasonic lens, so I knew I would be shooting the GH2 at a slower shutter speed. With action photography, freezing motion is a pretty big challenge. Frame rate is another. The Canon 7D will shoot at 8.5 frames per second, the GH2 lags a bit at 5 fps. And the 7D’s low light advantage would become more apparent as the evening progressed and the park shifted from daylight to stadium lights.

Side note: The GH2 has a super high speed frame rate – something like 40 frames per second. But this comes with a trade-off. In this mode, the sensor resolution drops to around 4 megapixels, and after shooting a burst of frames, the camera needs about 10-15 seconds to write the images to the card. And this is with a Class 10 card!

So how did it go? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

I left the Canon gear in the pack until later in the evening when the light levels dropped. Shooting with the GH2 was a delight. The light weight made it much more pleasant to hold without tiring out my arms (and back and shoulders muscles). It was fun to stand in the photo pits along the baselines next to the photographers with the traditional “sewer-pipe” sports lenses. The technological disadvantages I mentioned above were not an issue since I adjusted my technique to compensate. (Imagine that)

 

Action moving toward the camera is easier to capture.

To compensate for the slower shutter speed, I shot more photos at the edges of the action. For example, instead of trying to freeze the batter swinging a bat, I included photos of him approaching the plate or looking at the umpire. I also shot some of the action that was moving toward or away from the camera rather than across the frame.

 

Approaching the plate...

To compensate for a slower continuous shooting rate on the GH2, (“only” 5 frames per second!) I paid more attention to timing my shots to align with the action. An extra benefit was having fewer images to cull through later when editing the photos for submission.

These are the same techniques I used when shooting sports with a film camera. At best I could push process Tri-X film to ASA/ISO 1600 to get an acceptable image. Anything higher than that was pretty much unusable. This limited shutter speeds to something crazy low, like 1/125 second.

 

Even under the park lights, the Panasonic GH2 keeps up with the action.

With film and processing costs at stake, I used to shoot fewer images, way fewer. I was more particular about which players I would cover, and what plays I would follow. And when the action would unfold, I would pay close attention to capture the one shot at the right instant. 8 frames per second seems like laziness at times. Just spray and pray.

Waiting for the right instant can be a great alternative to spraying and praying.

The Panasonic GH2 had a couple of advantages over the Canon 7D. Using the electronic viewfinder on the GH2 is a huge improvement over the 7D. I’ve gone on in previous posts about how much I love the EVF, so I won’t repeat myself here. Even with the slight black-out of the EVF when shooting sports, it’s terrific. The GH2 also has a great AutoFocus control, right where I need it. It’s located in the thumb placement on the back of the camera and I found I used it regularly to lock focus. The best part is it works like a toggle, so I can hit it to lock and then relax my thumb until I want to change focus, then hit it again. I’ve programmed the AF button on my 7D to also control auto focus, it just requires that I hold it down continuously.

Once the light levels dropped to the lowest point, I pulled out the Canon gear and used it during the last couple of innings. It certainly does handle the low light nicely, and I didn’t mind the extra weight of the rig, since I wasn’t using it all evening.

The Canon setup handles sports in low light very nicely.

One thing I haven’t discussed is the credibility factor. I’ll admit I was a little self-conscious about not slinging around a huge camera/lens combo. This is often the sign of a “serious” sports shooter. But those little fears dropped off quickly as I found myself enjoying the process of using smaller scale gear (and much smaller cost!)  and applying some brain power to get the results I wanted.

Next time? I’ll probably do the same thing.

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The things I love about teaching photography…

Teaching digital photography classes at Learning Exchange

07-15-2012

I’ve been teaching digital photography classes at the Learning Exchange for almost three years. Over 750 people have attended my classes where we cover topics such as digital camera controls, menus, exposure, white balance, depth of field, ISO, motion blur, focal length, focus locking, sensor comparisons, composition, file management, lighting techniques, etc. etc.

As I reflect on the classes and step back and get a wider view of my experiences, I realize how lucky I am to be teaching others how to use their digital cameras. So, what’s in it for me?

Plenty.

From the questions I hear in the classes, I learn a lot about why people want to make better photographs. And this gives me hope. When I start to fear that our culture is slipping into a quick-paced, short-term-memory, social-media-driven lifestyle, someone will remind me that they really want good, long-lasting memories of their loved ones. They want to capture a special moment and save it in a way that is meaningful to them. It is very comforting to know that some of the simpler things in life, like memories, are still important to people.

I learn more and more about my own interests related to photography. Sometimes a student will ask me what I think about when I’m setting up a shot and it forces me to share some things that are quietly resting below the surface of the Obvious. And many of these things are not technical, but emotional. I am reminded why I love to carry a camera with me just about everywhere I go. The student informs and the instructor learns.

I relish a good challenge, and when I am asked to help someone figure out a problem with their camera, I enjoy sitting down with them and doing some troubleshooting. The shared moment of discovery as we sort it out adds a fun spark to the interaction.

I value the feedback I get from students. They tell me when things in a class are working and when they are not. Those comments help me improve the classes each time I teach. But the most rewarding comments are the ones that describe how they felt. I hear things like, “The instructor answered my questions without talking down to me,” or “He is very easy-going and explains technical stuff in simple terms,” or “Now I’m not afraid to use my camera.” Comments like these tell me that I’ve found a way to help others learn to explore something that, frankly, has become unnecessarily technical and confusing to enjoy.

I’ve always heard the best way to learn something is to teach it – I couldn’t agree more.

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Polarizing filters for dramatic fall colors

Left photo - no polarizing filter / Right photo taken with a polarizing filter

12-15-2011 (click on any photo to see it larger)

My last post of fall colors in my neighborhood reminded me to share some test shots I took –  I wanted to illustrate how much difference a polarizing filter can make on the colors in a landscape photograph.

The photos above were taken with the same camera, the photo on the left was taken without the polarizing filter and the one on the right was taken with the polarizing filter. The right-hand photo has more vibrant color in the leaves and the sky is a darker blue.

Why the difference? A polarizing filter removes polarized light – the degree of removal is based on the angle of the camera and the rotation of the filter. The filter is actually two filters that rotate independently. By rotating the outer filter (the inner one is firmly attached to the front of your lens) you can vary the effect. Any reflections on non-metallic objects are polarized light and the filter can reduce the reflections.

The images below show a close-up example of the differences in color saturation. The photo on the left (no polarizer) gives you an idea of the amount of reflection on the leaves. When the polarizing filter is rotated (photo on the right) the reflections are reduced and you get the true colors of the leaves.

The reflections on the leaves (left photo) diminish the colors. The polarizing filter (right photo) removes the reflections and allows the full color to show.

Sunlight is also polarized light, so when you use a polarizing filter, it can make the blue sky seem darker and more dramatic. The effect is most pronounced when you are pointing the camera about 90 degrees from the direction of the sunlight.

Another example of a darker blue sky and more vibrant colors on the leaves in the photo on the right.

Be sure to get a circular polarizing filter (most of them these days are circular). A linear polarizer won’t work well with auto-focus systems and digital sensors. A good polarizing filter can be pretty expensive ($40-$50) and if you have several lenses with different filter sizes, the best approach is to buy a filter for the largest size, and get inexpensive step-up rings to adapt the large filter to smaller lens diameters. In this way, you can use one filter on all lenses.

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Sweet Times at the Sugar Mill

The Old Sugar Mill was in operation between 1935 and 1993.

07-11-2011

I recently attended a group photoshoot sponsored by Click Monkeys, a Meetup group formed by Sacramento photographer Tim Engle. Tim arranged access for a group of 84 photographers to use the Old Sugar Mill facility in Clarksburg.

The sugar mill opened in 1935 and processed sugar beets into sugar until 1993, when it closed. For many of these years it was operated by the American Crystal Sugar Company. Coincidentally, my father worked at this factory as a mechanic in the mid-1960’s.

Parts of the Sugar Mill have been restored and it is now home to several local winery tasting rooms, a wedding and reception venue and an outdoor entertainment area.

A panoramic view of the Old Sugar Mill property.

The photo group had access to the unimproved areas of the facility. Spanning several levels, the building shows signs of abandonment and decay. Much of the processing equipment has been removed, leaving large openings in the floors. Most(!) of these openings were roped off to keep us from falling through. Debris, dust and broken windows added to the ambience of the old facility.

An old coffee/paint can – wonder how long it has been there.

It was eerily poignant to walk around the building and wonder what it was like for my dad to work there almost 50 years ago. I imagined the sights, sounds and smells of the factory equipment when it was in full operation during the “campaigns”, the busy harvest times of sugar processing.

Tim does a great job of arranging these meetups, providing numerous talented models, hair and make-up artists.

Chelsea was one of the several outstanding models at the photoshoot.

 

Photographers of all skill levels can practice their technical skills and learn about interacting with and directing models. Sometimes the models are surrounded by enthusiastic shooters, somewhat paparazzi-like. The advantages are the close proximity of many people who can answer questions and share creative ideas. The disadvantages are the way it can be a little chaotic at times, and often leads to several people taking away very similar shots.

I was mainly interested in learning more about high dynamic range (HDR) photography and I knew that a couple of the people co-hosting the event have lots of experience with HDR. I appreciated the quick-start tips I received and had some fun trying out the HDR techniques. This type of environment lends itself to HDR, with a wide range of light levels (sunlit windows and dark shadows in the same scene.)

HDR photography combines a wide range of exposure levels in one image.
This is HDR with some extreme processing, makes for a surreal look.

The digital camera cannot capture the full range of light levels in one image, so HDR involves taking several different exposures of the same scene and blending them into one image. Some HDR can be overprocessed and look pretty dreamlike, but it also has some pretty useful application in areas such as indoor architectural photography.

One of my favorite portraits is this one, taken of fellow photographer, Carl. I asked him to step in for a simple lighting experiment. I put a small strobe on a light stand and placed a gridspot over the flash and set it to fire at about 1/64 power. This gave me a very low-level, concentrated spot of light that I placed on Carl’s eyes – just enough to punch up the light a little and add some drama to the portrait.


If you want to get out with other photographers and practice, check out Meetup.com and search for a photography group in your area. These groups are a great way to learn new techniques, practice, and check out interesting settings.

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