Friday, January 29, 2010

Winter's Back!

Winter's back with a vengeance. Boy, I wish I could go to Photoshop World in Orlando. If I were a full-time photographer, I would. Oh well. Check out my "Weather Bug" screen shot

They aren't kidding with the little igloo graphic! Not only is it -20°C but check out the winds: out of the North at 20kph. I wonder what the wind chill is at! I looked out the window at a brilliant tangerine sunset. The sky is crystal clear, as it usually is when it’s this cold. I thought of going out to take a shot or two… for about 3 seconds. I think I’ll stick near the fire. Now tonight, I might be up for some star time exposures… or not given how cold it is.
PS: it's now 9:45pm and the weather bug says -24°C and winds 26kph from the Northwest. Forget the star shots!
PPS: it's Saturday morning at 8:45am and I just added the weather bug image on the right. No words required.
I’m decidedly uninspired. I go through that from time to time as I’m sure almost everyone does. I’m up North and when I look out the window or go out for a walk, it’s the same-old, same-old. Although I seldom venture out without a camera, there isn’t a lot out there that begs to be photographed. It can be argued that every snow-capped fencepost or icicle presents a photographic challenge, but I’m not seeing them these past few days.

Still, I shot a few “camera motion” type forest scenes, my axe lying on a pile of freshly cut kindling, a dripping icicle…

I did get one image that I liked last week. I went for a drive to the Minden Wildwater Preserve where I shot kayakers in the summer and got this shot of the fast flowing water as it cut a path through the ice. I did do a little colour manipulation, to increase the visual contrast between the tree and the monochromatic winter scene.

I got the following image a couple of days ago. It was actually quite warm out and I was trying to capture the impression of the dangerous ice conditions. I wasn't successful. However I started playing with this picture and kind of liked the results.

I want you to know that this picture never saw Photoshop! It was entirely done in Lightroom which is about to become my main topic of discussion for a while.
By the way, Apple just announced their iPad. I hear there’s going to be a high end version with 64Gb of memory. Rumour has it it will be dubbed the “Maxi-Pad”. Sorry. Had to.

There are a few other small topics I’d like to share before I dive into the main subject of this post.

Snapshots vs. composed images

You don’t always have the time – or want to make the effort – to compose your images. Or do you? Certainly, if you practice enough, if you’re familiar with your equipment and if you have an understanding of the ‘rules’ of photography (even if you don’t follow them all the time), even your snapshots will be reasonably good. If you’re a sports photographer or a journalist, your only chance of success is to be able to capture images instantaneously without a lot of forethought or preplanning. Or is it?

Well maybe not. I’ve recently been looking at some sports pictures and trying to analyse them a bit. Last year, I attended a couple of presentations by Richard Lautens of the Toronto Star and he talked about all the pre-planning that went into some of his images: choosing the best vantage point, prefocusing, being aware of backgrounds, etc. But what I’m talking about is that spur-of-the-moment opportunity, stuff that happens without warning.

Here’s one that was ALMOST successful but in the end, was not because of inattention to detail. The grader came by and plowed in my driveway. A followup tractor cleared my neighbour’s place, but not mine, so I ran out to try to grab him on the way back and ask him to do mine too. He had been intending to all along but needed to do mine from the other direction so was going to catch it on the way back. I thought the bright yellow tractor would make a dandy shot, so I ran back into the house to grab the camera. I knew I had only a few seconds, but the wrong lens was on the camera! I mounted the 24-120, ran out the door and fired off a quick shot or two.

So what's wrong with this picture? I’ve talked before about using your eyes and not missing things. I did it again: notice the wind chimes and bird feeder in the foreground that ruined the shot. One step to the right and it would have been so much better. This is laziness. This is ‘knowing’ in my mind that I can fix all kinds of stuff in PhotoShop so I’m not careful and I ignore a lot of things.

So I’m posting a not-very-good image in the hope that you’ll get the message. Use your eyes. Look at your picture BEFORE you trigger the shutter.

I did a little better with this next shot. It is cropped slightly, to get rid of a tree on the right and excessive foreground. I can clone out the telephone pole and wires on the left (I didn’t crop them out because the back of the tractor would have been too close to the frame edge). I took several shots, this was the best because the building was not entirely obscured and the tractor was in the right “rule of thirds” location in the image. That’s what I mean: I actually thought of that as I composed the picture. And it worked (in my humble opinion).

Here’s one more “Snapshot” that ALMOST works. Not terrible, but not great. Here, I should have moved the bowl to the right a bit and zoomed out to include more space at the bottom. And shot from a different camera angle instead of straight down. I did not take the time to mount the external flash or the Gary Fong diffuser for a purely selfish reason! My dinner was hot and I was hungry! Letting it cool and microwaving it would have ruined it, so I chose my stomach first! Shot using the horrible on-camera flash.

Home made Pad Thai. Completely from scratch, except for the sauce that came out of a bottle. And the rice noodles that I should have separated a bit more. I do have some talents…
Speaking of Gary Fong, he should be paying me for this.
I have to say, that Gary Fong diffuser is probably the best $50 that I ever spent. Every time I use it, I’m impressed. I tried something a little different yesterday with some success!

You know what it is, right? It’s a piece of plastic that looks like a Tupperware bowl and fits on your flash. I’ve written about it before or you can go here to read about it and even see a little video. You can buy it lots of places, the best one of which is B&H Photo in New York. Choose which one fits your flash, then go here to buy it.

Up to now, whenever I’ve used it, I’ve gotten really even, really soft light. I don’t know exactly why the results were different last weekend— well I do, but I didn’t expect it. Here’s my setup.

The subject was seated in that chair, I was standing off to the left outside the frame of this picture and I had the subject turn his or her head to look over their left shoulder at the camera. This gives some depth to the picture and changes the dynamic. Having the subject totally square to the camera makes for a horrible image. The flash was controlled by the “Commander” mode in my D300 (most of the DSLRs will do this). The on-camera flash triggers the other one and in this case, I set the popup flash so that its light was NOT captured in the image. In other words, the only light was from the SB-600 flash and the diffuser.

The shadow on the left side of the subject’s face was fairly deep because there was nothing on their left to reflect light. Some light bounced down from the ceiling to define the hair (or lack thereof!). That’s OK – another one of those ‘rules’ is there can be as much as a 3:1 ratio between the amount of light on the two sides. But if I hadn't been so lazy, I should have brought a reflector disk with me. I will next time.The higher the ratio, the more dramatic the image but for an ID shot, I’m pushing the limits here. Notice the nice skin texture (click the pictures to blow them up). Great for guys but not so good for girls! So I went back and reduced the clarity in Lightroom on the girl’s picture. Here’s another version where I really cranked that slider down so you can see its effect better. I wouldn't normally make it so extreme, but this demonstrates how it works.

The black guy was a real problem. His skin was MUCH darker than it even appears in the picture, and I COULD NOT get a good exposure. I had to adjust it in LR and PS to make it acceptable. Again I had to reduce the clarity to get rid of the hard reflections . More importantly, the reduced light on his left side didn’t get any of the detail on that side of his face. I added a graduated filter to bring that side up substantially. It’s really quite easy in Lightroom! Compare the following picture with the one above.

OK. Now for the main feature. I’ll wait right here while you go make some popcorn.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2
The Lightroom articles will all be in this colour. So if you're not interested in LR,
you can simply skip over it. Go ahead, I dare you!
First this disclaimer: “I am not now, nor have I ever been a member of the communist party.” Oh wait, wrong Blog. Seems to me that quote would be lost on anyone much younger than I am. Of course you could Google it… What I really want to say is that I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, an expert. But I figured that by sharing my learning experience with you, you might get a fresh insight.

There are a million different ways to do things. Adobe Lightroom is just one of them but its approach to the management of photo files and the workflow of a photographer is elegant. The problem is, like Photoshop (PS), it’s such a deep program, it has endless little alleys and pathways to explore and a steep learning curve if you want to use it right.

I don’t have formal training. Not as a photographer, not as computer nerd, not as a writer, or an artist. Hell, I ran a graphic design company for years, doing graphics and layouts and pre-press, without ever taking a course or anything. And a photo studio. I learned FORTRAN in college, then taught myself about 6 other computer languages. I learned PS by muddling through it on my own, by watching what other people accomplished. I’m one of those people who needs to understand WHY you do something, the WHAT just comes. As a former formally trained mathematician and theoretical physicist, that’s how I learned – I’d derive things from basic principles so I had a pretty good understanding of what was behind the math. I was pretty good at that and I have deep regrets that I didn’t pursue it

So why am I telling you this? Why am I sharing the secrets of my soul? Because that’s how I’m learning LR as well. I figure that knowing WHY you do something is the easiest way to learn HOW to do it. So when Jim helped me set up LR on my new computer and gave me a 20-minute tutorial on how to make it work, I went home and started playing with it on my own (I had fiddled with it before so I had a basic idea what it was about). I very quickly realized that I couldn’t learn to use it properly in a vacuum – and if you didn’t set it up right, you were never going to get the benefit of what LR’s designers had in mind when they created it, then refined it

Scott Kelby, the President of NAPP, has a great teaching style. I’ve read more than one book and article of his (he regularly contributes to Photoshop User magazine which, as I’ve said several times before, is VERY worth subscribing to, click here). So I bought his book, “The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2 Book for Digital Photographers” and I read it cover to cover. He also explains WHY. The only objection I really have to his approach is his heavy reliance on keyboard shortcuts, which I can’t remember even when I turn to the next page, never mind a day later! “Press ctrl-alt-shift-delete while holding down the right mouse button with your nose and like magic, the icicles will fall off your roof” {Scott, at least include a reference page in your books listing the shortcuts!}. LR has lots and lots of little trick things in it, flippy triangles to click and switches to turn off and panels filled with scrubby sliders. Scott’s a detail guy – he’ll say, “reduce the clarity to 61% then increase the saturation by 9%...” but you have to understand he’s just telling you exactly what he did for THAT image and you’re not expected to remember the exact numbers, just the concepts.

I’m rambling. I’d say “to make a long story short…” but it’s way too late for that! I’m planning to write up my LR learning curve. I’ll break it up into a series of articles and try to make it sequential so you can follow it. I’m directing these articles toward those people who would also like to start using LR, and to those who are already using it but are not convinced that they are doing it right and would enjoy picking up a few tips here and there. I’ll differentiate it from the rest of the Blog so that you can skip the LR tutorials if you’re not interested.

Again, this is just a view of my experiences learning the program on my own, and some of the pitfalls I’ve avoided (and fallen into!). I’m not going to explain HOW to do stuff – pick up Kelby’s book or learn by playing with it. I’m going to try to get the concepts across, the WHY.

Another way you can learn how, and again some of why, is to spend some time with Jim Camelford. I spent an hour on the phone with him the other day and came away understanding a lot more about LR. He’s teaching LR to small groups of people, even 1 on 1, and he’ll go anywhere in the world to teach you. He’s really good at it. Contact him at

There are 3 things in LR that have convinced me to switch. I’ll tell you what they are, and they may convince you that you should too. Or not. Then I’ll talk to you one at a time about those 3 things. It’s going to take me a while to do that, so you can either browse the sections until they’re all finished or just take me at my word and dive right in. It’s up to you.

Here are the 3 things that I found that LR does really well (among many others):

1. Organizing your photos. LR makes it possible – actually easy – to organize and later find your pictures. You can save your favourites, dump the rejects, mark and group them by subject and function and any other way you can think of, and you can do all this quickly with a minimum of effort. If you think this is trivial, you’re wrong.

2. You can edit your pictures one at a time or in batches, much faster and easier than porting over into PS and all of your edits are non-destructive and reversible. And elegant. Sure, there’s some stuff you have to go to PS to do, but you can do that and come back to LR with ONE MOUSECLICK.

3. You can output pictures for dedicated purposes with virtually one click of the mouse. For instance, I gathered the pictures I want to enter in the next club competition, then exported them to a folder called ‘xport rhcc competitions’. I resized the images to the club’s specifications, got rid of the watermark, sharpened them for viewing onscreen, renamed them and took the metadata with them all in one shot. And if I have to do it again tomorrow, it’s now ONE MOUSECLICK. Oh and if I want to print these pictures, or upload them to my SmugMug site or even create a Flash web gallery page, once I’ve set it up it’s ONE MOUSECLICK. Oh, and I did the same thing with the pictures in this Blog.

OK, now you decide. We’ll get started next time.