Month: June 2011

Histogram(arama)!

If every picture tells a story, then the histogram kind of serves as the synopsis to that story. The histogram is that funky-looking graph thingy that you see when you press the info or disp button on your camera (or when you press up on the navigation pad, in the case of Nikon users) when reviewing your pictures. The histogram is a graph that visually shows you the exposure of any given image and can be used to verify that you got a well exposed shot. This can come in quite handy when you are out shooting in bright sunlight (which isn’t the best idea, remember) because the screen on the back of your camera becomes harder to see, making it extremely difficult to tell if you got a proper exposure. Enter the Histogram (Oooooohhhhh. Sounds like a Bruce Lee movie filmed in The Matrix). Because the histogram is easier to see on the back of your camera, you can use it to get a gauge of how well (or poorly) exposed an image is. Here is the lowdown on histograms…

Funky-looking graph thingy.

The histogram is a visual representation of the tonal range of your image, from absolute black (left) to absolute white (right) with shades of gray in between. The vertical peaks that you see in the histogram represent how many pixels have that specific gray value. How high these peaks get is really of no concern, as long as you don’t push the high peaks of the histogram flush up to the right, or to the left. Many people will say that you shouldn’t have any portion of the graph pushed up against either side, but oftentimes this is impossible. Reflections, for instance, will often push a small portion of the histogram up against the right, which is only natural, as they are usually pure white. The same goes for the dark side (Luuuuke…), if there is a bright light source (again, if you are shooting in the middle of the day) it will often cause shadows to go completely black. The question you have to ask yourself is, “Is that an integral part of the picture?” In other words, are people even going to notice that part of the background, underneath those bushes, has gone completely black? Likely not. That being said, if you are taking a picture of a bride on her wedding day, and even a portion of the histogram is pushed up against the right side, you probably want to verify that it isn’t her dress that has “blown out” (a term often used to describe overexposure).

Now, just like every rule, there are exceptions. Let’s use the scenario of a full moon with dark sky around it as an example. When looking at the histogram for something like that, you would want to see a good portion pushed up against the left hand side of the histogram, because the sky around the moon would, and should, be pure black.

Using your histogram, as well as the other information that can be brought up with it on your camera, can be a great learning tool, so learn to use it to its full potential.

Reflecting on Reflectors

A really easy and inexpensive way to get nice, natural looking Portrait or Macro shots is to use a reflector to bounce or diffuse light. Whether the light is natural (sun, or even sun diffused by clouds) or artificial (flashes, strobes, etc.) a reflector can add diffusion or dimension to your photo. The most common type of reflector is the 5-in-1 reflector that has White/Gold/Black/Silver/Translucent sides. They come in many sizes, but the most common are usually in the 40″-42″ inch range. These fold up nice and small for portability, usually about 1/4 the size of the fully expanded reflector. Now, why would you need a reflector with 5 different colours, you ask? (you did ask, right? Please tell me I’m not hearing the voices again!) Well, here is a quick breakdown for you:

  • White: To reflect your light source on to your subject with the most natural results. The white surface will take on some the colour of your source, which helps it to blend in. This is most commonly used when you want to fill in the opposite side of your subject. Use the white to bounce light and fill in unwanted shadows.
  • Gold: The gold side of the reflector helps add a punch of warmth to your subject. This can come in handy when used on a bright, sunny midday portrait, because the colour temperature tends to have a blue tint to it, so the gold works to add warmth.
  • Black: Really? Black? Yup. Black helps to draw light away from your subject to help enhance shadows. It can also be used to block or direct light from a flash or strobe that you don’t want to spill everywhere. This is often referred to as a Gobo.
  • Silver: The Silver side is like the Gold side, only it’s, ummmm… Silver. What I’m trying to say is that the Silver side produces a punch of brightness, like the Gold side, but instead of giving you warmth, it provides a cooler, albeit, harsher reflection on to your subject.
  • Translucent: The translucent center of a 5-in-1 reflector comes in really handy if you need to diffuse light. A good example of this would be when taking Macro pictures in the middle of the day. Simply position the reflector between your light source (in this case, the sun) and your subject, and Voila! Diffused sunlight. Now, doing this would require one or more of the following: Extreme dexterity; an assistant to hold the reflector while you take the picture; a reflector stand to hold the reflector in place (what I used in the example below); or a tripod and a remote release for your camera so you can set everything up and hold the reflector yourself. Actually, a tripod should be used in all of these scenarios. An absolute necessity with macro photos.

Here is an example of what the translucent center of a 5-in-1 reflector can do:

Direct Sunlight - No Reflector/Diffusion - Notice the harsh shadows and blue-ish tint?

Now with the diffusion panel of the reflector placed above the flowers to diffuse the sunlight. Shadows be gone!

Quite a difference, no? Being able to shape and diffuse light is paramount in photography. Reflectors were created for just that reason. So the next time mother nature hands you weather lemons (what?), say thank you (it’s the polite thing to do), then grab your reflector and shape the light.

1/3rd is the Word

There is a magic number in photography (what’s up with this guy and magic?). More specifically, there is a magic fraction in photography, and that number/fraction is 1/3 (one-third). It’s quite amazing how often this number comes up in the world of picture taking. Let’s explore some of the places it comes into play…

The Rule of Thirds. Use it!

First off, and probably the most important, is the “Rule of Thirds”. The rule of thirds is, for all intents and purposes, the cornerstone of a good photograph. Basically, it states that your subject should never be placed in the center of your frame, nor should your horizon be placed right across the middle of the frame. Use the tic-tac-toe looking grid above as a visual representation of the rule of thirds. When you take a picture, you should place your subject along one of the lines in that grid. Alternatively, if it is a small subject, or there is a specific point of interest, like an eye in a close-up portrait, you should place it where those lines intersect (the red dots). If we are talking about a landscape photo, you would place your horizon along one of the horizontal lines, depending on whether you want to accentuate, or draw attention to, the sky or the foreground. It’s a pretty simple concept that will take your photography to the next level.

The next place we find the magic number is in the increments of our shutter speed and aperture. By default, our cameras increase and decrease our exposure values in 1/3 stops. This can be changed on most cameras to increase/decrease in 1/2 stops as well, which is how the aperture used to be marked on lenses with an aperture ring.

Lastly, our magic number has a significant influence when focusing. Wherever you place your focus in a picture, you will have 1/3 in front and 2/3 behind that point in focus. This comes into play in most pictures we take, however it is probably most noticeable when taking landscape pictures. A common misnomer in landscape photography is where you should focus to ensure your picture is sharp from foreground to background. Most people assume that they should either focus on the farthest point in the picture (the horizon, for instance), or halfway into the picture. The correct answer here is (yup, you guessed it) 1/3 of the way into your picture to ensure sharpness all the way through.

Sunny Imposition

There is an epidemic spreading among many upstart photographers, my friends. An epidemic of sunny proportions. Huh? Well, you see, many people new to photography have a tendency to see the sun shining and say to themselves “It’s beautiful out there, nice and sunny. I’m gonna go take some pictures!” (insert sound of game show buzzer here). Wrong answer! Now, I’m not saying you can’t get good results on a sunny day, but your burdening yourself with a sizable handicap before you even get out the door. This sounds crazy, I know, but trust me, bright, midday sun and photography do not a good match make. Let me explain…

Midday sun has a very harsh quality because the sun is at its smallest in the middle of the day, and a small light source produces very harsh shadows, particularly when placed directly overhead. Couple this with the fact that the sun is also at its coolest colour value (roughly 5500 kelvin) in the middle of the day, which tends to take on a cool blue tone as opposed to a nice flattering warm tone, and this equates to a photographic nightmare. Now, there are ways to combat this, namely by adding a circular polarizer to your lens (think of this as sunglasses for your lens). But lets explore another way to help you get better pictures during the day…

Wait for a cloudy day. Yup. You heard me. The reason I say this is that the clouds act as a natural diffuser for the sun, giving you ample light, but spreading it out evenly, eliminating the harshness of direct sunlight. Here’s a real life scenario to help bring it on home… Why do we put lamp shades on lamps? Because they match the decor? No, it’s there to diffuse the light produced by the bulb (again, a very small light source) and spread it around the room. Clouds do the same thing for us outdoors. This results in nice, even lighting that takes on a more saturated look, as opposed to the washed out nastiness of direct sun. Don’t believe me? Have someone stand beside a lamp with the shade on. Now take that shade off and have a look at the difference. Pow! Shadows. Harsh shadows.

I understand why photographers want to go out and shoot when the sun is out and the birds are signing. I really do. So if you prefer to stay a fair-weather shooter, here’s a tip for you… If you don’t have a circular polarizer (as mentioned above), shoot in ManualĀ  or Aperture Priority mode and set your Aperture to f16. This is know as the “Sunny 16” rule. It gives you a great starting point for shooting in direct sunlight.

No Fear Flash

Uh oh! I think I made it angry.

"scary light-maker-thingy"

Many new (not to mention existing) DSLR owners seem to be afraid of flash for some strange reason (other than the cost). Regardless of why, people often overlook the importance, and sometimes, necessity, of a good flash. An external one, that is. Not the built-in, harsh, direct, nastiness that I un-affectionately refer to as “the ugly maker.” Even more overlook the importance of learning how to use their flash properly, and to its full potential. That is why some of my favorite classes to teach are the School of Imaging‘s Flash Series workshops. To help ease your worried mind if you have been toying with the idea of adding a flash to your photographic arsenal, below is the number one reason not to fear the flash…

The great thing about modern flash systems is that they all make use of TTL Metering… Wait! Where are you going? Let me explain… TTL Metering makes these scary light-maker-thingys a heck of a lot easier to use. TTL stands for “Through The Lens” Metering, which, when boiled down to its essentials, means that when you take a picture, the flash emits a pre-flash that bounces off your subject and gets read back, you guessed it, through the lens, into the camera. Still with me? Good. The camera then tells the flash how much power to put out in order to get the right exposure. It’s like magic. Seriously. I’m still mystified by it. This pre-flash happens so fast that it often isn’t even noticeable and more often than not, gives you the proper exposure. You may have to override the flash in certain situations, but those scenarios are for future posts, or better yet, come take a Flash Workshop at the School of Imaging. (<- shameless self-promotion to keep me employed)

The moral of this post? Gone are the days of having to earn multiple degrees in Mathematics, Geophysics, Biophysics, Optics and Patience, in order to use a flash (although that last one could still come in handy.) Just throw it on your camera, set it to TTL, and shoot away. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised just how easy it is.

Note: Most manufacturers name their TTL systems slightly different from one another (Pentax:P-TTL | Canon E-TTL | Nikon iTTL, etc.), likely just to make it sound like they have something to offer that the others don’t or simply to give brand-loyal consumers something to argue about (“Yeah, well, my Nikon has iTTL! You know what the i stands for? Intelligent!). Don’t be confused by this. They all do roughly the same thing. Magic.

Night HDR

A lot can be said about HDR Photography, good and bad. If done properly, it can elevate an image from ordinary to extraordinary. The problem is, too many photographers get caught up in what is considered “the HDR look”. IMHO, a good HDR image shouldn’t really stand out as an HDR image at all. It shouldn’t jump out and slap you in the face and scream “I’m HDR, Beeatch!” Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and I have seen some fantastic images that employ the often heavy-handed use of HDR. However, technically speaking, HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, which means that your image has good tonal value throughout, from shadow detail to highlights.

Take the following image for example (click for a sharper look):This was taken on a tripod with a 1/8 of a second Shutter Speed @ f16 (to get everything sharp from foreground to background) with exposure compensation set to -0.7. Not bad, right?

But now let’s compare it to the image below (again, click for a sharper look):Compare the sky in these two images and buildings at the bottom of the CN Tower. This image is a combination of 5 different bracketed images (-2.0 | -1.0 | 0 | +1.0 | +2.0) that I then blended/enfused using a great donationware plug-in for Adobe Lightroom called LR/Enfuse. Doesn’t look like your typical HDR shot, does it? But the tonal range is there, giving it a nice subtle punch that you wouldn’t be able to get with a single shot.

I find that this style of HDR suits my taste more than the heavy-handed style that is prevalent right now. But hey, that’s just my two cents. Besides, I’m too cheap to fork out the $99 for Photomatix (arguable the most popular HDR Software on the market today).

Firmware First!

To kick things off here at the new Big Stretch Photography Blog, I’m going to talk about the importance of your camera’s firmware, something that most amateur photographers that I teach have no clue about. So, what’s Firmware, you might rightfully ask? Well, it’s basically your camera’s Operating System. No camera is perfect (I look forward to your angry comments/emails), so as bugs are discovered in almost all camera models (not literally, but they can be just as annoying) the manufacturer will release a software, or firmware update to correct for said bugs. But they don’t stop at simply fixing issues. Via your camera’s firmware, they can also add features and functionality to your camera. For instance, with the second firmware release for one of my cameras, the Pentax K5, the manufacturer actually increased my FPS (frames per second) when shooting in RAW from 7 to 8 FPS. Tres cool, no?

When it comes to checking which firmware version is currently loaded on your camera, every manufacturer does it a little differently, so check your camera manual’s index or table of contents for the word firmware to see where you can find it on your camera. Once you’ve found out which version is currently loaded on your camera, a quick google search like: “Canon (your model) firmware” should result in a direct link to the manufacturer’s website right up near the top of the results. I strongly recommend downloading it from the manufacturer’s official website. Others may offer it for download, but it’s better to be safe than sorry, IMHO. You need only download the latest version of the firmware, as that will have all previous updates integrated into it. Once you download and unzip it, there will be a “read me” file included that will guide you through the process of updating your camera’s firmware. Again, this varies among manufacturers. Just make sure you have a fully charged battery in your camera before you start. The update usually doesn’t take long, but if your battery dies during the update process you could end up with a very expensive paperweight, and we certainly don’t want that.

It’s actually quite easy to do, and you never know, something that might have been annoying you about your camera may have simply been a bug… A bug that has since been fixed, via firmware.