Archive for July 2015

Friday Foto Talk: Noise, ISO and Your Camera   11 comments

A clear, quiet morning at Bench Lake, Mt. Rainier National Park. 30 mm., 1/60 sec. @ f/11, ISO 320, handheld.

Camera makers have been providing ever higher quality images, with lower noise at higher ISOs.  No, I’ve not become a cheerleader for big corporations.  But this little factoid is true nonetheless.  By the way, a rule of thumb:  the larger the sensor in your camera, the less noise you’ll have when shooting at high ISO.  It’s one reason that cameras with full-frame sensors have become so popular.  Size isn’t the only thing affecting noise, but it’s an important factor.

Besides sensor size, camera makers have been improving noise performance across the board, even on crop-frame sensors.  It’s especially true with high ISOs, but noise has also improved for very long exposures.  My last post focused on ways you can shoot without a tripod, the easiest way being to simply raise ISO.  This post will cover some tips on balancing noise and ISO with your exposure needs.

A hoary marmot is getting ready to chow down on some lupine high up on Mt. Rainier, Washington.  100 mm., 1/500 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 500, handheld.

A hoary marmot is getting ready to chow down on some lupine high up on Mt. Rainier, Washington. 100 mm., 1/500 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 500, handheld.

The Oregon Coast Range.   135 mm., 0.8 sec. @ f/9, ISO 100, tripod.

The Oregon Coast Range. 135 mm., 0.8 sec. @ f/9, ISO 100, tripod.

Don’t fixate on how high ISO can be set on your particular camera model.  That’s pretty well meaningless.  Just because you can set your ISO over 25,000 doesn’t mean you’ll be able to shoot a decent picture at anywhere near that ISO.  Think of the max ISO advertised for a given camera as a general guide to ISO performance.  Real-world shooting is the only way to see how high the ISO can be set for a given situation, and still allow a fairly sharp image to be captured with low levels of noise.

So Heres a TIP:  Fairly soon after buying a new camera, learn how high you can raise ISO and still capture an image with manageable amounts of noise.  Manageable noise is noise that you can handle with the software you have.  Lightroom does a very good job with noise, but there are plug-ins (like the great Topaz DeNoise) that can reduce or even eliminate high levels of noise.  It’s going to take some practice with both your camera and your software.

I got a kayak!  Here it is 1st time on saltwater on a bay at the Oregon Coast.  Handheld shot.

I got a kayak! Here it is 1st time on saltwater on a bay at the Oregon Coast. Handheld shot with polarizer.

While you’re figuring out what that ISO ‘tipping point’ is, remember these two caveats:

  • Caveat 1:  As I’ve mentioned in several prior posts, the longer your focal length, the faster your shutter speed needs to be for sharp pictures.  This also means, assuming you’re off-tripod, that you’ll need to raise ISO more for shots with longer focal lengths.  Obviously you’ll need to raise ISO more for dimly lighted subjects as well.
  • Caveat 2:  This one is more subtle and refers to the shadowed or dark areas in your image.  If you anticipate later filling (brightening) those areas on the computer, you will have increased noise in those areas (but not so much in brighter areas). The more brightening you need to do in post-processing, the more noise you’ll need to handle.  But it’s area-specific.
Precious rain, Oregon.  100 mm. macro lens, 1/40 sec. @ f/13, ISO 400, tripod.  ISO raised for faster shutter b/c of breeze.

Precious rain, Oregon. 100 mm. macro lens, 1/40 sec. @ f/13, ISO 400, tripod.

This guy l ives along Coldwater Lake, Mt. St. Helens.  100 mm. macro, 1/40 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1250, hand-held.

This little guy lives along Coldwater Lake, Mt. St. Helens. 100 mm. macro, 1/40 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1250, hand-held & braced against a rock.

This relationship between the variable brightness of your scene and noise means, in effect, that you can get away with raising ISO more for overall higher-key (brighter) images that have fairly even illumination than you can for lower-key (darker) images that have a lot of dynamic range (contrasting illumination) across the frame.  Of course, if you anticipate leaving shadowed areas fairly dark, you don’t have to worry so much about noise; it won’t be visible.  That was true for the dark face of that marmot above, for example.

This leads inevitably to the differences among different camera makers.  The big two, Canon and Nikon, have been competing in both the low-noise/high ISO arena and the resolution (megapixel) arena.  Meantime, Sony has been working a lot on dynamic range, along with (more recently) ISO/noise.  I could say a lot more about this but it won’t really help you take better pictures, so I won’t.  Remember, this is not the blog for specific gear recommendations.

A  monkey flower at Mt. Rainier.  100 mm. macro, 1/250 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 1250, hand-held & small breeze.

A monkey flower at Mt. Rainier. 100 mm. macro, 1/250 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 1250, hand-held & small breeze.

The important thing is to use the camera you have in your hands to its limits.  Don’t hold back.  Practice with it in the dark, on moving platforms (boats, etc.), in situations where it really isn’t made to produce perfect photos.  It’s not your job to exactly match your gear’s supposed capabilities, and it’s senseless to wish for something with more megapixels, or more dynamic range.  Rather it’s your job to stretch the capabilities of your gear.  If you really work at this, you’ll invariably miss on a lot of shots.  But those you hit on will shine!

Have a wonderful weekend, and happy shooting!

Back home!  Sunset in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.  50 mm., 6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50, tripod.

Back home! Sunset in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon. 50 mm., 6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50, tripod.

 

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Friday Foto Talk: Shooting without a Tripod   19 comments

Along the Little Missouri River, North Dakota

Along the Little Missouri River, North Dakota.  Shot hand-held, 29 mm., 1/125 sec. @ f/11, ISO 250.

 

It’s Friday, yippee!  That means it’s time for Friday Foto Talk.  I’ve been out camping a lot lately so have been skipping weeks here and there.  This is the conclusion to my little series on tripod use (or non-use).    Check out the other three posts in the series.

Do you find yourself without a tripod and wish you had brought one?  Well, that’s what this post is about.  The idea of a tripod is to stabilize the camera (I know, Captain Obvious strikes again).  A good solid tripod is just the best way to stabilize a camera; it’s not the only way.

In dim light, and without a tripod (or flash), you essentially have just two choices (three if you count not shooting at all).  First, you can raise the ISO high enough that your shutter speed is fast enough to hand-hold the camera.  Or second, you can find some other way to stabilize the camera, keeping the ISO low and allowing you to blur motion (for example water).  The rest of the post is about how to put these two options into practice.

A baby grouse in North Cascades National Park, Washington.  Hand-held 100 mm., 1/160 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 400, cropped.

A baby grouse in North Cascades National Park, Washington. Only had my 100 mm. macro lens, hand-held: 1/160 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 400, cropped.

The first plan works pretty well in many situations, depending on the type of camera you have.  Of course, anytime you raise ISO, you need to think about noise.  Next post I’ll do a follow-up that goes into the issue of noise, ISO and you.

So you’re raising ISO and shooting unencumbered by a tripod.  This is the time to practice your hand-holding technique.  No, not that hand-holding technique.  I’m assuming you can decide on your own whether to link fingers with your girl or go with the standard palm grasp.

  • Elbows braced against the body, relaxed upright body, with legs slightly spread forming 2/3 of a tripod.  Even better, if possible make it a full tripod by bracing your hips and upper body against a tree or fence.
  • If you’re thinking of shooting from a low point of view, why not go all the way and lay on your belly with elbows forming a natural tripod.  There’s a reason marksmen choose this position for very long shots.
  • Relaxed but firm grip on the camera, other hand cradling the lens palms up.
  • Slow easy breathing, and a gentle squeeze of the shutter.  Some sort of roll the index finger across the shutter button.  Just don’t jab at it.
A bluebell, Olympic Mtns., WA.  Hand-held, 200 mm. w/Canon 500D close-up filter, 1/320 sec. @ f/9, ISO 200.

A bluebell, Olympic Mtns., WA. Hand-held, 200 mm. w/Canon 500D close-up filter, 1/320 sec. @ f/9, ISO 200.

Foggy Hurricane Ridge, Washington, this is a selfie!  Tripod, 100 mm., 1/13 sec. @ f/9, ISO 100.

Foggy Hurricane Ridge, Washington, this is a selfie! Tripod, 100 mm., 1/13 sec. @ f/9, ISO 100.

Say you don’t want to raise ISO and want to go with the second option.  For example, you’re after a smooth-blur waterfall, with sharp rocks and trees, and you don’t have a tripod.  Or you’re in the city and you want to blur the scurrying about of pedestrians or car tail-lights and keep all the surroundings sharp.

Here’s the basic procedure:

  • Set the camera up just as if it was on a tripod: shutter delay, mirror lockup, low ISO, maybe even a polarizer or neutral density filter.
  • Find a flat place to place the camera: a log, a rock, railing, or just the ground.  How high does the camera need to be?  Prop the lens up with a scarf, hat, stone or stick, anything you can find.

Be careful!  If it’s an elevated platform – rock outcrop over a river, stone wall over pavement, or a railing on a bridge – keep the strap around your neck.  Remember your camera is NOT secure when you’re doing this.

  • Either set the camera directly on your chosen pedestal or lay something in between as a cushion (see below).
  • It’s hard to keep the pedestal out of your shot (especially a wide-angle), so you may need to do some finagling to get clearance beneath and beside the lens.  I use LiveView in these situations, checking for out of focus blobs in the very-near foreground, adjusting as necessary.
  • I usually set the camera on my pack or on soft clothing, but a small bean bag is perfect for this.  You can buy them at camera outlets.  They actually have plastic pellets not beans (which absorb water), and so are light and easy to throw in your pack.
  • Finally, you’re ready to shoot as long an exposure as light will allow, with no tripod!
Barred owl, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic N.P., WA.  Tripod, 200 mm., 1.6 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 200.

Barred owl, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic N.P., WA. Tripod, 200 mm., 1.6 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 200.

If you practice the above techniques, you won’t allow the lack of a tripod lead to blurry photos.  You’ll move closer to becoming a complete photographer (who is, after all, a problem solver).  I’m not saying you should sell your tripod.  Just let each situation dictate whether you use a tripod or not.

Get out shooting this weekend, and, for at least one day, forget your tripod.  Practice your hand-held technique.  For each lens (and focal length) you use, find the minimum shutter speed required for a sharp picture, and in dim conditions practice raising ISO to various levels.  Find interesting places to place the camera, keeping ISO low and shooting long exposures without a tripod.  Happy shooting!

Sunset at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in SW Washington.  Hand-held, 30 mm., 1/40 sec. @ f/11, ISO 400.

Sunset at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in SW Washington. Hand-held, 30 mm., 1/40 sec. @ f/11, ISO 400.

 

Wordless Wednesday: Tipsoo Lake   4 comments

Single-Image Sunday: Fog over the Trees   11 comments

Subalpine firs filter fog atop Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, Washington

Subalpine firs filter fog atop Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, Washington

I missed Friday Foto Talk, out camping.  The conclusion to my series on tripods will post this coming Friday.  In the meantime, here’s an image from a great time I had last week in Olympic National Park.  It was taken hand-held, no tripod.

An unusual display of fog and weather greeted me when I arrived on top of Hurricane Ridge on Washington’s northern Olympic Peninsula.  It had rained the previous couple days, though not hard, and a transition to drier weather was taking place.  The fog and low clouds that had formed over the coast of the Strait of Juan de Fuca started rising and dissipating as the air cooled toward sunset.

The stately subalpine firs that dominate the forest near tree-line on Hurricane Ridge not only were filtering the fog as it rose up the steep slopes, they seemed to be adding their own moisture (via transpiration) to the mix too.  The result was really beautiful as viewed through the low rays of the sun to the west.

As I hiked to the top of Hurricane Hill, the quick-moving fog several times enveloped me, causing me to stop and look around in wonder at the dreamy atmosphere.  I’ll post some more shots in a future post.  I was distracted so many times I barely made it to the top for sunset.  It was a memorable evening.

Friday Foto Talk: Tripods and When to Use Them   14 comments

Good morning Glacier Park!  While a tripod wasn’t really necessary here, it allowed me to lower the ISO.  50 mm., 1/25 sec. @ f/9, ISO 50

Let’s continue with tripods.  Not what to buy, that’s not so interesting.  This series is about when and how to use them.  Check out the other posts.

I’ve found many people don’t use tripods when they should, causing blurry pictures from camera movement.  But I’ve also seen plenty of people using them when they’re not needed.  Believe it or not the answer to “when do I use a tripod?” is not “always”.  Each situation is different, a truism in photography if there ever was one.

Whether or not to use a tripod is a question often ignored in photography education.  I think it’s because so many workshop leaders & teachers don’t consider things from a learning photographer’s perspective.  Back before we got serious about our photos, when we were shooting casual snapshots, we never used a tripod.  Now we hear and read that one is always necessary for quality images.  I’m here to call bull on that, and I hope this series is giving you reason to believe that there are no hard and fast rules.

Boats spend the night at Deception Pass, Whidbey Island on Puget Sound, Washington. I used a tripod because of the low light of dawn.  50 mm., 1/4 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50.

Boats spend the night at Deception Pass, Whidbey Island on Puget Sound, Washington. I used a tripod because of the low light of dawn. 50 mm., 1/4 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50.

Are you someone who doesn’t use it enough?  Or are you never without your tripod?  Only you know which end of the spectrum you’re on.  All I’m saying is to consider both the pros and the cons of using a tripod for each situation (see Part I), and don’t over-react and swing over to the other end of the spectrum.

There are, of course, those occasions when a tripod is at the least very helpful and at most plain necessary for a sharp image.  For example, if the light is low and/or you’re using a small aperture for depth of field, definitely use a tripod.  That’s why you paid good money for one.  But other times they are just in the way.  Isn’t it better, when possible, to be free to move around quick and easy?  If it’s bright and you don’t need it, or if seconds count, hand-held is the way to go.

Last Sunday I gave an example of when using a tripod for a landscape image might not be a good idea.  Now let’s look at a couple more examples.  As usual, my focus here is on landscape and nature photography, but the advice certainly applies to other types, especially street/architecture.

EXAMPLE 1: A SHORT HIKE

I got the shot below last week in the northern Idaho panhandle.   I was looking for a nice place to swim.  We’ve been having an intense heat wave in the western U.S.  I found a short hike along a stream named Myrtle Creek.  It was mid-morning and very bright out, so I didn’t anticipate any good photo opportunities (my main goal being full bodily immersion).  But I grabbed my camera with the wide-angle lens.  At the last minute, despite wanting to go light with no pack, I grabbed my tripod.

An idyllic waterfall and swimming hole: Idaho panhandle near Bonner's Ferry.  16 mm., 1.3 sec. @ f/13, ISO 50.

An idyllic waterfall and swimming hole: Idaho panhandle near Bonner’s Ferry. 16 mm., 1.3 sec. @ f/13, ISO 50.

If I’m going a short distance, I tend to just bring the tripod; if I don’t use it, no harm.  If I’m on a longer walk or hike, and especially if I have other heavier gear, I think about whether I will really need it.  If I don’t foresee using my tripod much, I may allow weight to be the deciding factor.  But I try never to allow weight to over-rule photographic considerations.

The 1+ mile trail ended at creekside.  I heard a falls, so waded carefully downstream, hopping slick rocks.   After some scrambling where the tripod was a hindrance, I came upon the waterfall from above.  I was glad I had the tripod.  The falls was mostly in shade, allowing a nice little motion-blur picture.  I also had my circular polarizer, which helped to bring out the colors of the rocks and vegetation.  After shooting I dove into the deep aquamarine pool at the base of the falls.  Heaven!

Bonus shot, from the top of the Idaho waterfall showing the swimming hole at its base.  It was  some 15 feet deep and bracing!

EXAMPLE 2:  MACRO OPPORTUNITY

This crops up when you least expect it.  You’re in nice bright light, away from your tripod hiking or exploring somewhere, and you were wise enough to have your macro lens (or extension tubes or close-up filter) in your backpack.  But you saw no reason to take a tripod.  I did this recently in North Cascades National Park.  It was a daytime hike and, as usual for this park, very steep!  So no tripod.

But as usually happens in cases like this, I ran into beautiful fields of flowers, got bit by the macro bug, and was forced to make do without a tripod.  Although macro is possible without a tripod, using one sure makes life easier.  Your chances of blurring a macro picture are greatly increased when you don’t stabilize your camera.

I used my backpack for some of the shots, but positioning for macro is such a precise thing that no tripod usually means hand-holding your shots.  Raising ISO and laying on my belly with elbows forming a triangular support, I shot in burst mode (a rarity for me) in order to increase my chances.  I was pretty happy to get this picture of the beautiful tiny bell-like flowers that were in bloom all over the subalpine meadow I hiked to.

Little white bells blooming in the subalpine of North Cascades National Park, Washington.  

Thanks for tuning in.  Next week I’ll conclude the series by considering those times when you left your tripod behind but run into shutter speeds which are slow enough to cause blurring.  That is, we’ll look at tricks for how to get sharp images when you’re caught without a tripod.  Have a wonderful weekend!

Rarely do I post a mid-day landscape, but this meadow high in the North Cascades was just too beautiful regardless of the harsh light.

 

 

 

 

Single-Image Sunday: Storm over the Sierra   19 comments

An April snowstorm knocks on the door of the Sierra Nevada in California.

An April snowstorm knocks on the door of the Sierra Nevada in California.

I’ve been covering tripod use on Friday Foto Talk lately.  Since I missed this past Friday, I thought I’d relate something that happened this past spring along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada in California.  It’s an example of when using a tripod might cause you to miss a great shot.

A storm was trying to force its way over the mountains from the west.  It was a strong, dramatic front, carrying snow as it turned out.  The snowstorm, once it made its way over, forced me to abandon any hope of making it to Mono Lake, which I had hoped to reach by sunset that evening.

Most of the Sierra were covered in clouds, the sky dominated by grays.  But I could see the potential if I could just catch a break in the clouds, so I kept my head on a swivel as I drove.

Sure enough, I looked back over my shoulder and saw a field with cows grazing, the clouds beyond showing signs of breaking.  After a quick U-turn, I approached the meadow and saw the mountains starting to emerge.  But it looked to be a small & brief window, the kind that closes up as fast as it appears.

Instead of getting the tripod out and taking the extra half-minute to mount my camera and extend the tripod legs, I opted instead to make haste.  As I was whipping off the highway & parking on the shoulder, I decided which lens I would need, mounted it, and beat feet to a viewpoint I spied some 50 yards away.

Just as I got in position the scene came together.  I spun the ISO a bit higher so my shutter speed was fast enough to avoid blurring, held the camera as still as I could, and took the shot.  Seconds later the clouds covered the peaks again and the light dimmed.  I didn’t know if I had gotten anything decent; the mountains never revealed themselves fully.  But I knew I liked the composition.

I was happy when I looked at the picture later on.  I knew I had an image that communicated the drama of the approaching storm, a drama I had been feeling that entire afternoon.  Not really knowing what I want to shoot, but having a feel, in the back of my mind, for what I want to communicate, that’s often my goal.  For me it’s one of the most fun ways to do photography.

It could have worked out so I had plenty of time, and I would’ve felt dumb for not grabbing my tripod and getting a slightly better quality image.  But you never quite know for sure.  You need to make quick decisions while driving or hiking (even running) into position.  One is which lens you’ll use, and the other is whether to risk the extra moment to use your tripod.  The idea behind photography in my opinion is to get the shot.  It’s not to make each of your images technically perfect.

Have a great week!  And to my fellow Americans, happy Independence Day!

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