Filter Galore

Vista over the Hunter Valley, Pokolbin Mountains, Australia, 2012

We recently drove up to the Hunter Valley, a fairly renown wine growing region less than an hour’s drive away. That’s a great thing to have :-) Countless little wine estates and cellar doors to try wine at a decent enough prices. Good fun!

The tour also took us by this little lookout that offered some lovely views over the valley. Unfortunately, it was a semi-overcast day, and the first version of this shot pretty much just had a grey blob of sky at the top. The small little bits of blue sky didn’t come out at all. Thankfully I packed my polarising filter, which was the first thing I tried out. And wunderbar, it did indeed darken down the blue bits somewhat so they they could actually be identified as such.

But there still was a fairly large difference in brightness between sky and ground. So I put on the second filter I own (and that’s the only two I have): a graduated neutral density filter. It’s designed to be used with the Cokin filter system, but I pretty much only used it free-hand (so just hold the square filter by hand rather than with the filter holder). Much faster that way, and pretty much same result, if you manage to coordinate holding the camera, adjusting the filter and operating the shutter at the same time ;-)

What that filter did was bring down the brightness of the sky a fair bit, but leave the ground untouched. As the name suggests, it’s a filter which is neutral density on one side (so just makes things darker), and clear on the other, with the smooth transition (graduation) in-between so you don’t notice it that much (it’s the first filter in this list). A very handy tool to have in your photo bag!

Sprinkle a ton of “Clarity” during raw development on top and and that’s how I got these fairly dramatic skies from the fairly bland looking light grey blob the sky was at the time.

It’s all in the timing

Yep, things really are upside down Down Under, Newcastle, Australia, 2012

Kids are fun. Swings are fun. Swings (tend to) swing in a very regular, predictable way. Especially if the legs of the person on it aren’t long enough to touch the ground ;-)

Anyway, thanks to the regular motion, it’s quite easy to get the timing right to take a shot just at the right moment. In this case here, it was the point where Sophie was at the highest, so very little motion, but great “upside down” effect (as I shot upwards from very close to the ground).

It was also easy to get the focus right by just focussing once and then switching to manual to prevent the camera from re-focussing. This was crucial as I chose a very shallow depth of field in order to get those trees in the background blurred. I wanted to keep them in the frame as a dark background for bright Sophie, but blurred so they don’t distract and she “pops” out a bit more (which is also helped by the sunset light coming in almost horizontally).

But the gist here is not to take pictures of kids on swings, but generally to watch out for any regular type of motion / timing which can make your life a lot easier in finding that one “perfect” moment.

Stay clear of The Basement in Sydney [update]

The Basement in Sydney, Australia, 2012">Maceo Parker at <i>The Basement</i> in Sydney, Australia, 2012

Sorry, just have to get this rant off my chest.

To Whom it May Concern,

My name is Florian, I live in Newcastle and I went to the Maceo Parker gig last night.

While the music itself was massive (as I expected) the running of the event itself was a huge disappointment and source of frustration: As you can imagine, it is a bit of an involvement driving 2 hours (and another 2 hours back after midnight) from Newcastle, paying for petrol, parking and of course the ticket, and then only have the artist play a mere 55 minutes, without any encores, but with some audacious person asking everyone to leave as quickly as possible.

I assume we pretty much just got to see the “first half” of the gig; with another set of fans having paid for the “second half”. Which is of course a very lucrative way of going about things (I don’t believe that Maceo Parker or his band are stuck for money, so I guess it must have been your idea to sell two sets of tickets for the evening).

In any case, this was the first time I went to The Basement (I have just moved to Australia), and I was very much looking forward to it. But please rest assured that it will be my last time too. If this is how you treat your customers I can only warn people of your business ethics.


Florian Knorn

Update: To my big surprise, this wasn’t the end of it. Might have to reconsider my opinion. Check out their response:

[…] I’m sorry that you’re still feeling unhappy about the gig, and wanted to reach out to you as well – in the last month, I have taken on answering feedback that comes in from the website. Usually, it’s great, but every so often we find out that something has gone awry, and we do what we can to rectify the issue.

First up, again, let me apologise for the confusion that lead to you missing the second show. We endeavoured to do everything we could to make sure that it was a smooth experience for all involved, and I’m sorry to hear that it wasn’t a flawless process. The night in question, our online ticketing system was down, which meant that the door person was unable to check the sales manually, and had to rely on the paper print outs that were given to her as patrons entered. I imagine this is why you why you were given the information that it was first come, first served – as a disclaimer in case there were not enough tickets remaining, which we were unable to check in advance that night. To the best of my knowledge, everyone who queued made it back in, but that’s little comfort to you now, I know.

The decision to run the late night shows was actually made by neither Maceo directly, nor by The Basement, but by BluesFest, the promotor for Maceo’s tour. It was made when the first two shows sold out so quickly, proposed as a solution that might also allow those with other commitments to catch Maceo, and to give those who wanted a dancefloor experience that opportunity. The intention was truly to give more fans the chance to experience the music.

It’s the first time that we’ve tried running double shows on the same night, and it looks like we still have some fine tuning before we can look at doing it again. While I can’t rectify the experience you had on Saturday, I would truly love the chance to change your perspective of The Basement by offering you a double pass to a gig of your choice, on us. Availability withstanding, take a look at the program, and when you find something you like the look of, let me know.

While it may not have come across this way on Saturday, The Basement cares deeply about giving its patrons a unique and exceptionally high standard of experience. I hope we can show you that on your second visit.[…]

Creative sources of light

Sophie lit by an iPad, Newcastle, Australia, 2012

Sorry for the long radio silence, but as many of you may know, I’ve just moved to Newcastle, Australia. Anyway, never promise anything, but having pretty much settled now after probably 3 months of nomadic existence, I’ll try to get back into posting more regularly.

Today’s topic is relatively straightforward. Creative sources of light. If you are lucky enough to have some really bright glass and a camera that isn’t too shabby at higher ISOs (but which camera today isn’t?!), you may actually consider some digital device as light source. I’ve done this a few times already, and it usually turns out quite nice: In darkish, natural light surroundings, capture someone looking at a lit screen.

This beautifully illuminates the face, but rather locally and from a different direction than your regular on-camera flash would do. While you will typically have an issue with mixed white balances (the screen being cold, “blueish”, and the surroundings warm, “orangish”), this should not worry you. That’s just the way things are! But if it does, simply convert your image to grayscale.

As I mentioned above, you’ll usually need some “bright” lenses (i.e. with a nice, wide open aperture of ƒ/2 or below, so small ƒ-numbers) and a cranked up sensitivity (ISO setting). Then: Patience and careful focussing, as with the shallow depth of field and generally little available light for your autofocus sensor to work with you might need a few shots to get in focus what you want (classically the eyes of the subject).

If you want to take this whole idea one step further: There’s an app for that

Panorama video tutorials (7)

Here’s part 7 of my panoramic photography tutorial series over on YouTube. In this (quite lengthy) tutorial, I’ll give you a chance to get a quite “raw” look over my shoulder and see some of the stitching tricks and retouching techniques I employ to stitch more difficult panoramas (in particular, with people moving around in the image, and where the panorama has been shot handheld in a rather sloppy, imprecise way).

Flash the Heineken Cup

The Heineken Cup visits NUI Maynooth, Ireland, 2011

Just returned from an assignment today, so this one’s fresh off my camera, the flash units having barely cooled down. I was hired to take some pictures of folks from the NUI Maynooth Rugby Club together with the trophy from the Heineken Cup.

The problem: The shoot had to be fast (the university’s president only had 20 minutes for the gig and 15 odd group pictures had to be taken), the pictures obviously had to be really “nice”, but worst of all: The weather. No, it was not raining — to the contrary — the one-in-a-million thing happened… 100% pure 3pm-sunshine. Great, since the shoot was to take place on the rugby pitch (to get the NUIM post-padding in).

So there I had it: photograph people in plain sunshine. While sunshine is really pretty for landscapes, it’s not ideal at all for people. Extremely harsh shadows on people’s faces and a great deal of squinting are the main issues. There’s not much you can do about the squinting, apart from turning them as much as possible from the sun. But the harsh shadows can be alleviated with some extra gear.

That meant to charge my flash gun batteries to the max, pack two tripods and a reflector. Steffi was kind enough to woman the reflector (which made the squinting worse, but I needed all the fill light I could get). The two flash guns I have were mounted on the tripods, set to 100% power (their are GN 56 and 58) and wireless triggering. Unfortunately I don’t have radio triggers, so I had to go the much less reliable route of optical triggering. Yeah, in bright sunshine. Thankfully, the flashes did surprisingly well and they had a triggering rate of I’d say over 80%. Again, not great, but it had to do.

The setup was the following: I placed the people so that the sun is about 60° to their right; the flash guns and reflector (1m fold-up golden reflector) where set to come in at the same angle from their left, about 2m away from them, as close as possible without getting them in the shots. To get the sky as dark as possible I used a polarising filter, which also allowed me to use a fairly large aperture. But with aperture and exposure time fixed (I set it to the shortest possible value to reduce the ambient light impact on the picture) I brought the ISO up until the image was well exposed. Although the flash units were working at their highest setting, I still had to bring the ISO up to 1250. Yes, that makes the images a bit more noisy than what I would have liked, but there was not much I could do about that.

I think the end result came out quite nice, I hope the uni will be happy with it. It certainly cost me a few gray hairs…

Hidden iPhoto keyboard commands to edit layouts!

This is just to make small discovery public (I didn’t find this anywhere else). When creating books in iPhoto, you can fine tune and edit layouts by using combinations of modifier and arrow keys!

This is great news, you see, because I always used to use trial versions of Aperture to be able to customise the layout — and granted, you are much more flexible this way. But, while there are no more trial versions of Aperture, this now be be done (to some extend) in iPhoto:

First: Select the box you want to edit (it will be highlighted in blue).

Then: Press command + arrow keys to move the object around. Command + option + arrow keys will resize the box. If you add in the shift key, the step size will be much larger.

Here’s a video demonstration:

Even lenses may need a shave!

Sigma 10mm Fisheye — before and after shaving of the fixed lens hood

Why would you wilfully ruin the warranty of a lens? Well, if you’re mad into panoramic photography, that’s just the thing to do.

I’ve stuck for a good while with the Peleng 8mm, but have now upgraded to the Sigma 10mm F2.8 fisheye as I was fed up with removing the lens flares in my images. The 10mm is a very good and still relatively affordable lens compared to the Peleng (a good bit sharper and virtually immune to lens flares). Sadly, it has a fixed lens hood (as it is designed for crop sensors). That means, although the lens produces an image circle that is almost ideal for panoramic photography (on a full frame sensor), the built-in lens hood blocks crucial parts of the image circle — in particular the areas that, with the camera in portrait mode, capture the vertical up- and down areas of the image.

So, some gentleman from Germany by the name of Tobias Vollmer has made a small side business out of professionally shaving those pesky lens hoods (there are several lenses that have this “issue”). Here’s his website. For a very reasonable 50 EUR he’ll do the job — including the promise that if he accidentally ruins the lens, he’ll replace it. And, what shall I say, he did a very good job, with a very quick turn around time (less than two weeks, and that’s shipping to and from Ireland). You can see the before and after above.

I’ve also prepared two comparison shots to show you the effect of the shaving. So, while you get a 180° field of view with the lens before the shave, this only holds true for the diagonal of the image. After the shave, the 180° area is a good deal larger, but — most crucially — includes the zenith and nadir (vertical up and down). With the lens shaved, I can again get a full 360×180° pano with as little as 4 shots. Yay!

Also, since the lens is a 10mm lens I get a slightly larger final output size, and, as I said, the per-pixel quality is much better as the lens is just much sharper everywhere.

Small repro shoot

Belonging by Leanie Joubert, Maynooth, Ireland, 2011"><i>Belonging</i> by Leanie Joubert, Maynooth, Ireland, 2011

On the weekend I got asked by a good friend if I could help digitising some large format artworks.

I knew the rough basics of reproduction photography, so I jumped right into it. Looking for a lighting that is as even as possible, the simplest setup is typically two light sources 45° to the left and right of the camera’s viewing axis. Of course, since you want the lighting to be homogenous, you’d want to use two identical light sources and a perfectly symmetric setup.

The camera itself should be positioned centred and completely parallel to the subject. Since what you are trying to photograph is typically flat, it doesn’t really matter what focal length you use. Hence, if possible, use your best lens at the focal length that it is best at. Close the aperture to the best trade-off between overall sharpness and edge-to-edge sharpness. If the aperture is too large (that’s usually below ƒ/4) you might get soft corners; if in turn it is too small (usually above ƒ/11), the overall image will suffer from diffraction softness.

Here’s an image of the setup that I used, which involved two flash units that I triggered wirelessly. Since the control / trigger flash produces light in itself (and thus ruins the evenness) I used a bit of aluminium foil to block it from shining directly onto the artwork.

PS: Yes, these are nappies supporting one of the flash units. I only have one bean bag ;-)