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Preview: Light to Bits

Light to Bits

Photography in a digital world.

Updated: 2014-10-04T23:11:16.248-04:00




(image) Fireworks, originally uploaded by Edward Faulkner.

On Hampton Beach in New Hampshire.

When shooting fireworks I'm always interested in not just the sky, but the interesting light you get on the people on the ground.

This shot is a composite of four photos, all handheld.

Whale Tail


(image) Whale Tail, originally uploaded by Edward Faulkner.

This wasn't edited. The gradient at bottom is actually the out-of-focus handrail.

After the Fireworks


(image) Smoke Cloud, originally uploaded by Edward Faulkner.

Mountain Hut


(image) Mountain Hut, originally uploaded by Edward Faulkner.

Japanese Garden at Villa Melzi


This came out of my list of photos from Italy that needed further editing. In this case I had a very high-contrast scene and needed two exposures to cover it all.

Eileen moved from one exposure to the next, but a careful blend gives a pretty acceptable result, unless you zoom in very close.

Aligned with Hugin, blended with Gimp.

Trekking in the Dolomites


I'm just back from two weeks in northern Italy. Here are three shots from the most beautiful day of the trip, while hiking in the Dolomites.




When you're fortunate enough to have a day like this, it's hard not to get fantastic shots. Which is why rule number one is: be prepared. You don't want to be without a working camera. I'm fanatical about packing light for backpacking, but the SLR with both a long and a wide lens was high enough priority to come along, despite the significant weight. And I'm quite glad I brought the two lenses, because on this particular morning my wide lens had a big ugly condensation spot right in the middle. It eventually cured itself, but without a second lens I would have missed all of these shots.

Wild Animals


Our recent vacation in New Hampshire yielded a bounty of animal sightings. My favorite was this fox, who followed us down the trail on a high ridge north of Mt Adams:

The light was very low, so I had auto-ISO enabled and it selected ISO 1600 -- a very high sensitivity, with added graininess and noise. Thankfully my Nikon does a pretty good job at ISO 1600. This is a shot you couldn't really get with a smaller digital camera, because the sensor is just too small.

He or she stuck around surprisingly long, and I was firing in bursts the whole time. These two shots were the best poses that managed to come out sharp.

Next, we have the most famous megafauna of the north, the moose:

The shot was taken from the door of a moose tour bus:

The moose is lit with several spotlights. Apparently the lights don't scare them away. While it was nice to see one so close, it was more exciting to run into one out in the woods earlier that evening: (image)

Alas, I was only carrying the point-and-shoot, and not my big zoom. But I didn't need a zoom for this critter: (image)

Sweet, sweet colors!


Two exposures, very poorly aligned. But with colors like this, it hardly matters.

By the Bay


By the Bay, originally uploaded by Edward Faulkner
Waiting for the ferry in Sausalito, as the fog rolls over the hills. Three exposures, handheld, blended manually using Gimp.

Down by the River


Singing, originally uploaded by Edward Faulkner
Pictures of birds standing around are boring. But pictures of birds doing birdy things are fun! Of course with goslings it's hard to go wrong. What's cuter than a baby goose? Ten baby geese.

It's Not the Camera


Lots of people seem to think that you need a great camera (whatever that is) to take a great photo. This is completely false. Fancier cameras can make photography faster and more convenient, but beyond that there's little relationship between the quality of the photo and the expense of the camera. I just saw this shot on Flickr Explore, it was taken with a $25 Holga:

Zeb's commentary also explains better than I can why you shouldn't get obsessed with high-tech gear. Also see Your Camera Doesn't Matter by Ken Rockwell.

I am ready for spring.


Winter can be beautiful, but my favorite season is always which ever one is coming next. And here's some evidence that it's coming:

I took this photo several weeks ago now, so that might be the very first robin of spring. Birds are tough to photograph -- you need either a giant lens, or patience and luck. This is a very tight crop, which is why the quality is not great.

Making Things Glow


Frostglow, originally uploaded by Edward Faulkner

Many things look much more interesting when light is shining through them instead of bouncing off of them. Frost and leaves are both good examples of this, so put them together and you get a pretty nice glowing photo. Compare with a shot of the same leaf from the other side, which I think is boring:


Anything with a fuzzy edge can benefit from some backlighting. Especially furry animals (or furry humans):

Making the Best of Difficult Light


Grandma, originally uploaded by Edward Faulkner

My grandma, 87 years old and doing great!

Indoor candids like this photo can be a challenge. It's usually too dark, and the various lights in the room are often different colors. If you use an on-camera flash, it makes people look like deer in headlights, and you're likely to get red-eye too. Save the pop-up flash for bright outdoor shots, where it can fill in harsh shadows.

I took this photo with only ambient light, at ISO 1600. One of the big advantages of a digital SLR over a smaller point-and-shoot is that the sensor is larger, so it can capture more light. Small cameras usually only work well up to about ISO 400, which wouldn't have been enough for this shot.

The exposure was 1/25th of a second at a zoom of 50mm. This is within the realm where camera shake can blur your shot, but I'm using a stabilized lens (Nikon 18-200mm VR) that actively cancels out vibrations. You still need to catch the subject sitting still, because at shutter speeds this low any motion will be blurred.

The various incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs in the room made it hard to get the color right. I compensated in GIMP. An alternative would be to shoot in RAW format and choose a white-balance at your leisure. At the very least, you can improve your indoor shots by picking the white balance setting in your camera that best describes the room, usually "incandescent" (aka "tungsten") or "fluorescent".

The background was cluttered, so I blurred and darkened it. You can get a nice naturally blurred background by shooting with a wide aperture, but the distance between the subject and the background is too short in this case to get a strong blur, so I blurred it further in software. I also brightened some shadows around the eyes. Eyes are critical in any portrait, because everyone's attention is naturally drawn to other people's eyes. Portrait photographers go to great lengths to get perfect highlights in the eyes.

Exposure Blending (using only free software)


February Dawn, originally uploaded by Edward Faulkner I took this shot Saturday morning. The colors in the sky appear exactly as they came off the camera, no trickery necessary. But they only lasted for about a minute. Timing, again, is everything! The dynamic range in a scene like this is too big to capture with a single exposure. You either capture the beautiful sky and leave the land dark, or capture the land and wash out the sky. Before digital came along, you would have had to mess with graduated neutral density filters to balance the light and dark parts. But now we can do it in software. Entirely free software, in fact. What you see before you is actually a blend of two shots, both taken hand-held. Here are the two originals (mouse over to see the difference... if you're reading on Facebook or via RSS, come here to see it): Notice that the images don't line up exactly. You could avoid this problem by using a sturdy tripod and taking care not to bump the camera between shots, but we can also solve this problem with software. First I used autopano-sift to identify control points. Control points are features that appear in both images. Then I loaded the images and control points into Hugin, where I added a few more control points by hand (experimentation proved that they were necessary for a good fit). Here's the set of control points I used: Hugin can also correct lens distortion effects. Notice how the skyscraper on the left (Tang Hall -- I used to live there) seems to lean to the left, while the skyscrapers in the distance are leaning slightly to the right. We can fix this by adding horizontal and vertical control points that tell Hugin which lines need to be straight. Then you tell Hugin to go and it sits and ponders for awhile, ultimately producing two new images that line up nicely, and with the distortion mostly corrected (mouse over to compare): Next I opened the images in GIMP and put each on its own layer, the light one on top of the dark. I created a layer mask for the lighter image and painted on it to mask out the parts of the light image that were too light, allowing the better colors on the layer below to shine through (mouse over to see the difference): Then I added another layer, set its mode to "Dodge", and painted over the foreground using paintbrush and gradient tools to bring more detail out of the shadows. I probably could have skipped this step if I had exposed the bright image even brighter at the start. I also desaturated a slight blue cast out of the snow. Finally, I had to crop it down to make it rectangular again, and I used the clone tool on the upper left corner to fill in a little extra space, giving my crop more room. Exposure blending allows you to produce images beyond the capabilities of your camera. To see some outstanding examples, check out DanielKHC's Digital Blending set on Flickr.[...]

#1 Tip: More Color


If you do only one thing to make your photos better, make it this: capture bold colors. Color is the first thing most people notice. Here are some basic tips for getting better colors.

Turn up your camera's saturation, or boost saturation in software later. This step alone can really make your snapshots stand out. To see what increased saturation looks like, move your mouse over this image (this effect doesn't work if you're reading on Facebook or RSS, come visit my blog directly):


Is it "cheating" to push the colors like this? Shouldn't we try to show the world exactly as it really is? No, this is a misunderstanding of how photography really works. Taking a photo always involves subjective interpretation. No photo can literally show exactly what you saw, instead you need to decide what experience you're trying to convey to the viewer.

Find colorful subjects. Learn to look for particularly bright colors, or particularly appealing combinations of many colors.


Shoot when the light itself is colorful, like late afternoon or early morning. This adds both color and contrast, since the sun is low and there are interesting shadows everywhere.


And finally, learn to get the correct exposure. If part of your scene is too bright or too dark, it won't have good color. I listed this last because it's not a quick tip -- it's an invitation to dive deeper into photography.



(image) Sushi, originally uploaded by Edward Faulkner

I love photos with long perspective. A wide-angle lens can make this kind of scene more extreme, but the effect works just fine without one. This shot was taken on a Casio point and shoot. All you need to do is find a long subject and get up nice and close to one end of it.

The tricky part is managing focus and depth of field to keep both the near and far parts of the subject sharp. In this case the nearest plates are too soft. This photo (and the previous post) would probably have both benefited from focusing at hyperfocal distance. More on that later.

And yes, sushi in Japan is definitely better than sushi in the US.

Dealing with Flat Light


The overcast sky and snowy ground on this particular morning resulted in very flat, diffuse light. It can be difficult to take dramatic photos when there are no hard shadows or highlights. In this shot the falling snow gives a slightly dreamy quality. I boosted the contrast after converting to black and white. There wasn't much color to begin with, so this shot is all about contrast and symmetry.

If I had a "do over" on this one, I would adjust the focus to try to keep the lower left sharp. Ideally I'd also prefer the composition better if I were standing further to the right, but that would require a boat. :-)

Another way to deal with flat light it to take portraits instead, because the lack of harsh shadows is flattering.

Pulling Detail out of the Shadows


(image) Footbridge, originally uploaded by Edward Faulkner.

Here's another example of what you can get if you wait for just the right light. Timing is everything. I waited until the light of the sky was within a reasonable range of the lights on and around the bridge.

There wasn't much artificial light available in the foreground, so it came out a little too dark. Thankfully modern digital SLRs have a lot of sensitivity down at the dark end of their dynamic range, so you can extract a lot of detail after the fact.

I used GIMP to dodge the dark foreground, which brings the details out of the shadows. The term "dodge" (and its opposite, "burn") comes from the days of film photography, when you had to mask out parts of your print while it was in an enlarger. It's much easier to do in software, though the terminology may be unnecessarily confusing. Just think "dodge equals lighten" and "burn equals darken".

In this specific case, I opened the image in GIMP, added a new layer, set the new layer's type to "Dodge", and painted on the new layer with various gray brushes until I had the effect I wanted. Using a separate layer makes it easier to make adjustments if you change your mind, because your original image is still untouched on the layer underneath.

Shooting at Dusk


(image) Esplanade Evening, originally uploaded by Edward Faulkner.

A couple weeks ago I walked out on the Longfellow Bridge to take advantage of the light around dusk. On any nice day you're likely to meet a few other photographers, because there are some great views. As I arrived I talked to a guy who was packing up his camera, saying that there wasn't any interesting sky today. The sun had indeed already set, and the color was nice but not spectacular. As he left I just chuckled to myself, knowing that some of the best opportunities hadn't even happened yet.

I prefer to shoot about 30 minutes after sunset, when the light in the sky has faded just enough to match the brightness of the city lights. The key is managing dynamic range: no camera can see as wide a range of light and dark as your eyes can see. If I took this shot five minutes earlier, I would have been forced to choose between overexposing the sky and underexposing the city.

This was a 10 second exposure, which helps give a smooth glassy look to the water.