8 Dec 2013

Shooting an event with two cameras - first observations and learnings

I have a new photographic experience behind me. Yesterday I was shooting almost the whole day with the two cameras. Before the event, I was considering shooting with just one and change the lenses if required. More on these considerations here.
During the event it turned out that switching the lenses is not an option. There were too many interesting things happening simultaneously. Just to give an example: at the certain moment there were children playing in a gym on two fields, two different sports. A very nice opportunity to capture some team movements and take a number of nice close-ups. But since the games were of short duration and I wanted to take photos of as many children as possible, I couldn't afford swapping the lenses.

I equipped my Nikon D80 with 24-70 f/2.8 lens and my D800E with 70-200 f/2.8. Next to it I put SB-900 on each of the cameras. There was not coincidence in such choice. Since my intention was to capture lots of faces I wanted to reach maximum quality for the close-up or tightly composed photos. For the scenes with a broader angle of view I could sacrifice some quality since my intention was to take pictures of groups of scenes implying more distance to the subjects and less details in the scene.

During the day I have made some observations with respect of using two cameras:

  • It is easier to carry them than I thought. I was a bit worried about how to take care of two cameras. After all it was not such big issue. One camera (D800 with 70-200 lens) was hanging on my right arm (I use a very decent strap of OptechUSA which was sticking to my arm very well). The other camera was hanging on my neck.
  • Keeping the settings simple helps a lot. I was trying to keep the settings of both cameras as simple as possible so I didn't have to think too much about them when switching between the cameras. So I set them both to manual mode, and when I was using flashes, I set them to the TTL mode. In the lighting conditions that I had it worked very well.
  • Knowing the camera limits is very important. Different cameras have different limitations. It is very important to know the limits and not get tempted to apply settings from the camera with higher possibilities to the 'weaker' one. A good example is setting the ISO. D800E can very easy handle ISO sensitivity of 2000. When one tries to apply such ISO to D80 will get very disappointing results. I stayed with ISO of max 640 on the D80, knowing it is more or less the highest value still delivering pictures with acceptable noise level. 
  • Don't forget to synchronize the clocks of both cameras. I unfortunately forgot to do so. As a result I got quite mixed set of photos when I have stored them in Lightroom. Sure, the time offset can be corrected in the software, but it cost time. So next time I will do better.
  • Divide the load between two cameras is good for batteries. Especially the flash batteries. I didn't have to change the batteries of any flash. While shooting with one camera during a comparable event, I have to change them at least once. It is logical but the consequence is that I don't loose the time on battery change.
All with all it was an interesting experience that I will be practicing more during interactive, time-intensive events.

6 Dec 2013

Gearing up for a shooting day - a checklist

Tomorrow I will be shooting photos at the "Sinterklaas" day, organized each year at the school of my wife. As usual there is a lot of things planned for this day, happening at several locations during the day. And as usual I try to capture most of the day with my camera and make nice pictures.
This year there are four events planned: sport games for the youngest children, a meeting with book writer, information fairs for the Polish parents living in the Netherlands, a buffet serving specialties of the Polish cuisine. All in the timeframe of 3 hours.
Next to that I got an assignment to make portraits of parents that actively support organization of such events. Usually there are 6-8 people to capture. And not to forget the "Sinterklaas" walking from one class to another.
From experience I know that coming with a camera and just shooting does not deliver the best possible results. So I prepared a checklist of things that help me to organize myself for such day.

Choose the gear

Since the day will be filled with quite dynamic events, some of them organized in the places with not so great light, I choose in this case for fast, light lenses. It will be more gear to carry, but the alternative would be an universal 18-200mm, f/3.5-5.6 lens which might not work well in all situations. Next to that I will most probably shooting with 2 cameras (I will take 2 and make the final decision on location) 

Prepare lighting equipment

Normally I would just take one speedlight with me, just in case. However, to make nice portraits I will also take a softbox on a stand which should give me together with off-camera flash a nice light source. I will take the backup speedlight as well just to have a backup

Arrange enough backup for the photos

This is something I always consider before the assignment. Will it be enough to take just spare memory cards? Should I take a laptop to dump the pictures during the day? For tomorrow I will go for an option with the laptop. The reason is simple: since the sport event will be photographed, it implies a lot of shots. 

Know the agenda of the day

To move efficiently and be on time during most important moments I have noted the agenda of the day. I put everything in my smartphone so I am sure I will get notified on time about next important event.

Scout the location in advance

This is again about efficiency. For the location of tomorrow's shoot I don't need actually to do it since I know the place very well. But in all other cases I would be on location before the actual event starts to orient myself.

Take some sandwiches and water

It is not directly related to photography, but during such intensive day some nutrition is needed to keep the body energized. 

25 Nov 2013

Newest Adobe deal for Photographers (valid till 2nd December 2013) - take or leave it?

Adobe has a limited time offer, called Adobe Photoshop Photography Program (valid till 2nd December 2013), which offers a bundle of Photoshop CC and Lightroom via a Creative Cloud (CC) monthly subscription of 9.99$ (in Europe it is priced 12.29EUR per month). There was (and is still ongoing) a lot of discussion on Internet about the new business model of Adobe. I am not going to discuss pros and cons of such model. Instead I am going to present some considerations taking different user categories into account.

New users

For someone that does not have Photoshop and Lightroom it is probably a good deal. For 120$ (147.5EUR) per year one gets those two packets. CS6 and Lightroom 5 bundle if bought separately, would cost 848$ (699 and 149 for Photoshop and Lightroom, respectively). So the subscription price would exceed the purchase costs of the standalone version after 7 years. This of course under assumption that the subscription price remains the same.
The added value is that the upgrades of the software are included in the subscription price of the Creative Cloud. And in the period of 7 years one can expect 2-3 release updates of both products.
So for the newcomers it is in my opinion the interesting option.

Existing users

If someone (like me) has purchased Photoshop CS6 and Lightroom, then the benefits of such deal are not so obvious. Let's face it: Photoshop CS6 is very extended package and most photographers don't even need the updates (there are people still using CS2 and CS3 with a great success and pleasure). And update of Lightroom will be available as a standalone application for 79$. 
So for the sake of switching to CC I would not take this deal. 
But there is one more aspect that makes it interesting for at least some of us.

Users using two different OS platforms (Windows and Mac)

If someone has both a Windows and a Mac machine and wants to use Photoshop and Lightroom on both platforms, then he/she should seriously consider the offer from Adobe, in my opinion. Why? Because the licensing model of Photoshop (prior the CC version) does not allow to use the same license for two machines equipped with two different operating systems. In this case Adobe offers either purchase of two licenses (which means 699$ extra) or the so called platform swap. But platform swap is not an option since the usage of software is limited to one machine.

For the CC version the situation is different: one can install the software on two computers, disregard the operating system they run. More on that in this discussion thread.
So for 120$ per year one gets the software running on both platforms. For me this is a deal maker.

23 Nov 2013

onOne Perfect Photo Suite 8 - what isn't addressed in this release

onOne Software has announced the new version of their Perfect Photo Suite software.
The new features are quite exciting, but I was also interested in the performance of the software. In this post I describe my findings with respect to the performance of the version 8.
I am not going to repeat what is new in this version, I think it is best to check the official announcement of the product on the onOne webpage.
The software will be published on 26th November 2013. In the meantime there is a public beta 3 release available for download.
I took the opportunity and tested the beta version for a while. I was in particular interested in the performance of the newest version. The version 7.5 is not fully usable on my setup when I process the high resolution images.
So what is my setup? It is Windows 7 64-bit OS running on Intel i5 Quad core CPU, running at 2,66GHz and having 6MB RAM on board. Sure, not the most powerful machine, but also not the weakest one.
The problem is that I work with the images having resolution of 36 megapixels. Such images on my computer in onOne software are very challenging to process when I try to use the tools like masking brush or masking bug; the software becomes slow and hardly responsive after several brush strokes. And using perfect brush simply freezes the application for a longer time (2-3 minutes).
So when version 8 was announced, I was hoping that the performance would be better.
Unfortunately, it is not the case. It looks actually the same as in 7.5. Which is a pity.
On a positive side: the new tool, called the Perfect Eraser, works reasonably good and remains responsive despite the complexity of the drawn shape.
Note, that the situation I have described is quite specific (most probably not everyone works with 36 mpix images). And version 8 is the step forward when one looks at the new features and overall improvements. But if someone considers purchasing the new version in order to boost the performance, he might be disappointed.

By the way, I learned to deal with my issues by combining the usage of onOne with Photoshop. Whenever I need accurate mask, I create it in Photoshop and from there I run the onOne. Not the perfect solution, but it works. 

17 Nov 2013

Sometimes the most difficult in photography is to pick up the camera and go outside

There are periods when I am less active with my photography. It comes because of the busy times at work, other activities, bad weather and many other more or less important factors. But there are also the moments when I think there are not enough interesting topics to take photos (or I cannot photograph them in an interesting way). I think it overcomes many people that do creative hobby. Finding a remedy for such 'mental block' is the personal process and can in some cases take time. Sometimes, however, finding the passion back can be very simple. What works for me is just to take a camera and go outside, despite the weather conditions, other pending activities and day to day pressures. Like yesterday. It was a cold, foggy, grey, autumn day. I was struggling what to do: my camera was just back from the reparation, I'd like to test it very much. But on the other hand such day didn't promise a lot with respect to photography. Anyway, I took the challenge. I drove to a park nearby and started shooting.

After few minutes the fear of not finding interesting locations was completely gone. I actually couldn't stop shooting, despite bad weather and rather bad light.

After 2 hours of this photowalk my enthusiasm for photography was fully restored. 
And, after coming home, the warm coffee was delicious...

26 Oct 2013

9 tips for efficient and safe photography during holidays

It has been a while since my last post, but I had a very good reason for it. I have spent together with my wife great holidays in the USA. We were travelling through South Western USA for three weeks, admiring magnificent landscapes and the nature of this area. During preparations and actual trip I have collected (or learned hard way, more on that later) some simple, yet efficient tips on how to organize a photo equipment, shooting sessions, preparing for unexpected situations, etc.

1. Take a tripod with you 

Doesn't matter which camera you have, using tripod is invaluable especially when shooting in early morning and early evening. Tripod makes possible to use longer exposure times while using low ISO values and small apertures. It results in turn in more sharp pictures. If one plans to create HDR images in post processing, tripod is actually a must have. 

2. Never, ever leave your photo camera on a tripod unattended

This is a lesson I have learned rather hard way. After a shooting session of the Horseshoe Bend in the morning I put my camera (mounted on the tripod) aside and walked several steps to get my bag. At this moment a sudden blast of wind put my camera down, which hit the rocky ground. After all I had a lot of luck, since camera and lens were operational, so I could make use of the set. But the autofocus system was at least partially damaged (only a few out of 51 autofocus points were working correctly). So the camera needed to be repaired after the holidays. Which brings me to next 2 tips.

3. Get your equipment insured

There are different forms of financial insurance. Either you can buy a separate insurance for the camera body (or even lenses), or choose a travel insurance which covers the photo equipment. In case of theft or damage it will save a lot of money. Since my camera is still in reparation, I don't know how much the reparation will cost. But since I have insured my equipment, I don't bother that much.

4. Bring a reserve photo set with you

If something really bad happens with the camera you still want to be able to take the photos, don't you? That is why it is very convenient to have a backup. During my holidays I had actually 3 cameras with me: 2 DSLRs and one compact camera. Next to that I had 11-16, 24-70, 70-200 mm lenses and as a backup the 18-200 mm lens with me 'just in case'. The 2nd DSLR body and 18-200mm lens I have hardly used, but at least I was prepared for unexpected.

5. Scout the place to visit in advance

By scouting I mean actually studying the locations to be visited before the trip, via Internet. Use Google Maps, Street View, discussion forums, travel blogs, and of course books. This is necessary, in my opinion, for two reasons: first, a holiday travel is packed with a lot of places and activities and typically planned to see as much as possible. And it means that the time spent on location has to be used optimally. Second, scouting location in advance increases the chance of finding an unique place to photograph that is not noticed in the first instance by the rest of the crowd. Sure, if it is a really iconic spot, it will probably be photographed by some other people, but still it is worth looking for it.

6. Start your visit in a local gift or post card shop

Sounds maybe strange, but visiting a local post card shop will give some inspirations on what to photograph. It can be invaluable especially in the less known places where you don't even have an idea how it would look like. To give an example: we have been confronted with the U.S. government shutdown during our holidays, so most of the iconic places located in National Parks were unaccessible for us. The first closed park on our way was Arches. While looking for alternatives we have seen a postcard of Corona Arch, being located outside the park, so available to public. So we knew immediately where to go the next day and what to photograph.

7. Talk to the "locals"

One one hand people living at the place have the knowledge that they absorbed over the years. They can tell about the places in their neighbourhood a lot of interesting stuff. On the other hand they have the most actual information about the location; something that often obsoletes the information in travel guides, or even on Internet. Many of them are also hobby or even professional photographers and (at least it is my experience so far) they eagerly share their experiences. 

8. Have your equipment prepared for the next shot

This is important in the situations when the equipment is twisted a lot: lenses are changed frequently, filters are placed, camera settings are manipulated. So, suppose you are photographing a close-up of the beautiful granite mountain with 70-200 mm lens, to reduce the reflections you have placed a polarizing filter in front of your lens, set your camera in bracketing mode to capture different exposures. Then you are done, pack the camera back in the bag, move on. Few kilometers further you have a different scenery, changing very quickly. You grab the camera to capture the moment, and... oh, filter has to be dismounted, bracketing switched off. Seconds are elapsed, scene is gone.
To deal with that I have developed a discipline to always bring my camera and lens to a kind of 'default' state after I am done with a certain composition or location. So after shooting I take some time to put the filters back in the bag, restore camera settings to those that I use as a starting point. With some cameras it can be done very quickly. Default settings and setup cause that I don't need to think about a starting point while preparing for next shot and reduce the time needed for adjustments. 

9. Plan your day with photography in mind

To take a nice photo you have to be on location when the light is nice. Being ready for shooting at sunrise or at sunset increases the chances for good lighting. Which means that it is good to know the times of local sunrise or sunset. Those two periods of the day definitely determined our daily rhythm during this holidays. Another aspect worth close observation is weather. Clouds during the day can create beautiful, interesting scenery and lighting conditions. So checking weather reports for an area to be visited is also my habit during the photo travel.

24 Sep 2013

Preparing of a photo trip - make photo bag inventory

Going for a holidays where photography will be substantial part of it is exciting. It should be. On the other hand it is important (at least to me) that the excitement makes at the certain moment some place for the cool-headed preparation of the trip. It should be moment before holidays when one decides which camera body (or bodies), which lenses and accessories to take. It can be sometimes tough choice, limited by the size of carried baggage, its weight, comfort of travel on one side and the type of planned photography on the other. Making choices is probably a topic of another blog post.
It doesn't matter how big (or small) your photo bag would be, it is always very good idea to know what you carry. Why? Think about some scenarios:
- You get robbed. Exact description of stolen goods to the police and your insurance company will simplify the procedures,
- In all excitement you simply lose some accessoires. Knowing the types of it helps to find replacement quickly,
- Having everything organized in and outside your bag will help to make a critical decision about necessity of all kind of equipment.

Visual inventory

One of the most efficient methods of making an inventory is lay all equipment on a table and take a photo of it. I do it in two steps: first I take a photo of all equipment I have, then I remove the parts that I leave at home. An example of such photos could look something like this (parts of the images are blurred purposely):
Full equipment inventory 
Bag equipment inventory
Before taking the photo I group the items logically (keeping lenses separate from bodies, cleaning accessories in the separate group, cables clustered together, etc.)

Textual inventory

Even the best photo is not good enough in case of theft or damage. You'll need also a list of serial numbers of the lenses, bodies, speedlights and other valuable items that you carry. So next to the visual inventory I also make a spreadsheet containing names of the item, its serial number, insurance information (if any), additional information on warranty issuer and some photo numbers, if applicable.

Inventory storage

Since inventory is made "just in case" of unexpected things happen, it is important to store it properly and safely. I store both carbon and digital copies of them in several places:
- I take carbon copies with me when travelling. It is stored together with other travel documents. Another copy is stored at home,
- I make several digital copies: one is stored on my laptop, another on the external hard drive, yet another in my "cloud service" (I use Google drive for this purpose).

16 Sep 2013

Experimenting and understanding polarizing filter

This post will not be about physical basics of polarized light or polarization in general. For this information look at other places on Internet, like: Wikipedia, Physics Classroom or tons of other sources.
Instead, I will try to explain when polarized light in combination with a polarizing filter can be efficiently used for photography. But knowing at least some physics is helpful for proper understanding and usage of polarized light.

Some physical background

The most important to understand is to realize that polarizing filter is able to regulate amount of polarized light which reaches the camera's lens, and consequently, the sensor. To regulate the amount of polarized light reaching the sensor one have to rotate the filter until the requested effect is achieved. 
Unpolarized light reaching the lens will be slightly reduced (due to the imperfectness of filter), but the effect will be the same for the whole scene, disregard the filter orientation.
Natural light generated by sun is unpolarized. Artificial light sources also produce unpolarized light.
So, the first question to answer is how the polarized light is created? There are two (sometimes three) important sources of such light for photographers:
- reflection of light
- scattering of light
- refraction of light
In other words with polarizing filter, one can regulate amount of reflected, scattered (or refracted) light reaching the camera's sensor. 
The problem is that it is too generic to make practical use of it. Not all kinds of reflection or scattering will create polarized light, hence an environment where polarizing filter could be applicable. Let's start by showing the situations where using of polarizing filter doesn't make sense at all.

Reflections - when a polarizing filter does not have effect

First of all, light reflected perpendicularly from the reflecting surface is not polarized. According to polarization physics, reflected perpendicular light is not polarized. So in the scenario shown in the picture below using polarizing filter will not work:

For the demonstration purposes I was photographing the interior of a room from outside, standing in front of the window. My silhouette (and the trees in the background) can be seen as a source of light. Since it is perpendicular to the reflecting surface (the window), the reflected light is not polarized and the filter will not have any effect.
Another case are the reflections from the metallic surfaces. Metal surfaces don't polarize light.

Maximize effect of polarizing filter

Another extreme is the situation when the reflected light is fully polarized. In such case we can use the filter to its full extent. It has been discovered by Scottish scientist, David Brewster, that for a given light reflected from non metallic, transparent surface, there is an angle of incidence that results in perfectly polarized reflected light. This angle, called Brewster's angle is dependent on the reflecting material.
For glass it is 53.6 degrees, for water 53.1 degrees.
Let's see what it means from the photographer's point of view:

When one places the camera as on the picture above and composes to have the central object in the middle of the scene, this object will be most visible. The other will be covered (at least partially) by reflected light. A more practical example. First, the pool has been photographed without polarizing filter. It reflects basically everything:

Now with the polarizing filter set to maximally reduce reflections.
 Note that the leaves in the pool (at the bottom and in the middle) became visible and reflection in this area is eliminated almost completely. However at the edges of the pool I still have the reflected clouds and trees. It is because the reflected light outside the Brewster angle is only partially polarized, hence partially eliminated by the filter.

This simple experiment shows another important aspect of using the polarizing filter. Typically, when using in landscape photography its effects will be limited to some elements of the scene only. 

Which surfaces cause polarization?

In general, all non-metalic surfaces reflecting light introduce some degree of polarization. So organic substances (leaves, wood, mushrooms, etc.) will 'produce' polarized light:
Scene photographed without polarizing filter
Scene with polarizing filter
Without polarizing filter
With polarizing filter
Note that using polarizing filter can result in more saturated colors.

Another source of polarization - scattered light

The light travelling through atmosphere gets scattered by the molecules the atmosphere consists of. Effect of scattering manifests to us in blue color of the sky during the day. It turns out that light scattered through atmosphere is also partially polarized. Which means we can reduce its amount by the polarizing filter. It results in the darker sky in the picture (and is by the way a 'selling feature' of many filter manufacturers):

First picture was taken without the filter, the other with it, set to maximum effect. The difference in the sky is obvious.
But 'darkening the sky' is just one application. We can see the polarizing filter in such scene as a 'compressor' of the scene dynamic range. Since sky gets darker, the exposure can be adjusted to let darker elements (like the trees in the above scene) to 'pop up':
The photo above was taken with polarizing filter set for maximal effect for the sky, but the exposure has been increased by 3 stops. Both trees are much lighter and sky has still pleasant, blue color. I lost some details in the clouds on the left side, but the contrast between the sky and the trees is reduced.

Final notes

Polarizing filter requires some practice. But knowing the physical basics of its work helps to master it quickly by avoiding unnecessary experiments. Here short summary:
- Light perpendicular to the reflecting surface is not polarized. So polarizing filter will not help there,
- There is a family of angles for the reflected light (around 53 degrees for water and glass), where the effect of polarizing filter is the strongest,
- For landscape photography the effect of filter will me most often local, limited to some elements of the scene,
- Due to the technical limitations polarizing filters reduce the light for the whole scene. Depending on the filter type the reduction varies between 1 and 3 stops.
- Polarizing filter can be used for 'darkening the sky' but also to compress the dynamic range of the scene involving the sky. 

18 Aug 2013

Lightroom 5? No, thank you (at least for now)

A while ago the Lightroom 5 has been released by Adobe. Since it is my application of choice for my photography workflow I wanted to test the new version. It contains quite some nice features that would make the post-processing even more efficient and better, just to mention the most important to me:
- True healing brush (not only spot removal tool),
- Circular mask,
- Image skew correction tool

With the new versions of any software product one needs to be a bit cautious: it might not be the best software the developers were intend to deliver. That is why we have "minor" version upgrades over time of almost each software package nowadays.
So I downloaded the trial and started playing with it. Actually, since it was time of my family portrait assignment, I decided to use the new version for postprocessing them.

Unfortunately, Lightroom 5 does not deliver a quality I got used to it with this product. There is an obvious regression at two areas: stability and performance.
With Lightroom 5 I experienced crashing of the application during regular activities: something I have never seen in previous versions (Lightroom 3 and Lightroom 4). Luckily the results of my work were never lost, but it slowed down the processing a lot.

Then the performance: using spot removal tool or healing brush tool was practically impossible in my hardware configuration. I was unable to move the brush smoothly over the photo, effects of applying the brush were visible on the photo only after several seconds after the movement - really not workable scenario.

I admit, my hardware (Windows 7 64-bit, quad core i5 processor with 6MB RAM) and photos that I take (36 MPixels) are challenging for efficient processing, but Lightroom 4 is a lot faster and more stable than the new product of Adobe!

So I decided not to purchase the newest version. I'll wait till they address performance issues. Final note: I am not alone having such experience, check out this blog.

3 Aug 2013

Landscape photography - my approach to increase the chances for a successful session

In the previous post I have written about my not so successful approach to photograph a specific landscape. It gave me some food for thoughts about the more systematic approach to the landscape photography that would increase my chances of taking a good picture (or pictures) during the session.
Here some of my findings so far, that have worked during my last two sessions and I will keep using them in the future.

Choose the theme, scout for a location

I found out that pre-selecting the theme in advance helps a lot to keep on focused during the whole process. For instance, for my last two sessions I took the river as a main theme. It limited my location scouting area to the banks of the rivers I wanted to photograph. But why is the scouting important at all? Isn't it just enough to select a point on a map, go there and try to take a shot? In my opinion, it does not work because it introduces too many uncertain factors during the actual shooting resulting in less time spent on actual photographing and composing the pictures.

I start scouting by determining a time of the day of the session. For instance, knowing it will be in the early morning I can start looking for a right place being in a radius of, say, 1 hour car driving. Once I know the approximate location, I start studying the maps of the area to determine the following aspects:
- is the terrain accessible for walking?
- how far from the location can I park the car?
- what would be a location of the sun at the location?
While first two questions are more technical, the third one requires some kind of pre-visualisation of the scenery I'd like to photograph. I wanted to take some photos where the sun would be directly visible on the picture, together with a river and its banks and a deep perspective. And I wanted to take photos at dawn. It determined the orientation of the river in the approximate direction of  east-west. 
To make it more accurate, I also checked the azimuth of the rising sun at the planned day of the session. To determine the azimuth of sun I use a smartphone application called Astroid which is simple to use and accurate (other applications, like Sundroid would also do the job). 
Having all those factors in mind I started studying the maps (by using Google Maps) looking for the proper location:
Don't forget to check if the Street View mode is available for a given location. It can give you a lot of information about the terrain.

Be on time, have a reserve location (plan "B")

It doesn't matter how well one prepares the location, the actual situation can be unattractive and disappointing for shooting. So it was in this case. On location I have found really flat, boring landscape:
Since I have planned my trip to be on location about 45 minutes before dawn, I had some time to take a corrective action. I knew by studying the maps that a few kilometers further there is another place with different landscape. So I took a quick decision to get into my car and go there. And there I have found the good spot:

Look around, think about future sessions

After the main shooting was done, I have taken a small round-trip ride in the neighbourhood of the location looking for the interesting places. And I have found enough places to plan another assignment:

Take notes after shooting

After successful session I take notes describing the places photographed, conditions on location, conditions in which a photo has been taken. I do it on the day of shooting, after coming home, while the memory is fresh and full of details.

31 Jul 2013

Sometimes ideas just don't work. Or: good landscape photo starts with a good landscape

Every now and then I give a small photo assignments to myself, just to practice the technique or explore new areas of photography. One of my latest "challenges" was to photograph a lonely tree that would be good enough to be added to my portfolio. Why such theme? Well, it is a nice and can be used in practice, for instance to create a postcard.
Since I didn't have much time to do extensive preparations, I took a walk in my neighbourhood to find a candidate scene. It looked good enough to give it a try.
Few days later I organized a small session. The general scenery looked like on the photo below:
There were at least few problems with this photo: first of all the tree wasn't 'lonely'. Second, there is a lot of unnecessary noise in the background (like power lines). To make it more interesting I've first tried to incorporate more sky, making it more dramatic by using a polarizing filter.
Was it better? Not really. Now I have even less interesting picture than before. Last try was to go back to the first idea but take the photo from a bit lower angle of view:
Mhmm. Slightly better, but not something that I really wanted.
Then the moment of reflection came: It does not really matter what I would do, the scene I was trying to achieve was not the scene I envisioned: the tree was not 'lonely enough' to compose the picture.
So I packed my gear and went home. 
Disappointing, but one the other hand I took important lesson: good (great) landscape picture starts with the great landscape. 

9 Jul 2013

First communion session part 4: summary and lessons learned

 This is the last entry of the series of posts (part 1, part 2 and part 3) about my first organized photo session. In a couple of days I'll hand the printed album over to my "customers". So it is time to look back and take some final notes.
First of all it was a lot of fun. Not only for me, but also for the photographed family. It was also the assignment that learned me a lot of new things and gave insights on how to make it better in the future.

What to keep

  • The proposed timeline of the whole process was right (roughly 1 week from the session the photos were available on the Internet for review, 2 weeks from the session photos were chosen for the album, after 3 weeks the album layout was discussed and finalized, after 4 weeks the album was sent from the printing office). Note that I did the whole assignment in my free time. Full time photo professionals work (as they have to) much faster.
  • Communication with the photographed people. I think they appreciated it much and we could organize everything very efficient and in a good atmosphere. 
  • Planning and scouting the photo location in advance. I will be doing it in the future since it gives me more confidence. Besides knowing the location enables me to operate more professionally since I can concentrate on photographing and not on which scenery will emerge behind next corner.
  • Planning the session flow in advance.
  • Selection of the high quality printer and its materials. Solid, paper album made out of high quality paper just feels right. Blurb simply delivered good stuff.

What to improve (lessons learned)

  • Variation of scenes could be better. I have chosen 6 different locations and I thought it would be enough. But during post processing I realized that it would be better to have 2-3 more. On the other hand the session took roughly 1 hour, so we spent 10 minutes per scene on average, which  means that the tempo was quite high. Probably the session could e longer to capture more locations.
  • Watch depth of field (DOF). I have quite some shots where the DOF was not enough, so I didn't have all persons sharp in the picture. This is something to improve and keep in mind that adjusting the aperture is necessary.
  • Work more on posing. Give more direction. I had quite some shots where people look in very different directions, leading to photos that are not appealing. To improve it some more direction would be necessary from my side (just letting people know where I am and that I am about to take a photo). On the other hand a balance must be kept between posing and natural look. I don't have clear answer how to achieve it. Next time I will try to direct people a little bit more (well, in amusing and funny way).

  • Take more photos. It is slightly related to the previous bullet and is probably the only way of capturing the right moment when arranging the posing is not possible or practical. It works well with children that are active and very mobile.
  • Don't spend too much time on something that does not work. I has some scenes in my mind and I wanted to try them all. But not all of them were working. It is tempting to pursue own vision, but if it does not work, just skip it and move on. After all, photographed people are not professional models and are supposed to have fun and good time during the session. How to judge if the concept works? It is difficult to generalize, but for me it was enough to look regularly at the participants and see how they react on my proposals and how do they interact with me.
I am looking forward for the next assignment. Let's hope it will come soon.

2 Jul 2013

First communion session part 3: Post-processing and printing preparation

This is third article about photographing of first communion. In previous posts I wrote about different aspects of preparation and actual shooting.
In this part I will share some thoughts about my approach to post processing and I'll show some techniques that I have used.

Make the candidate photos available for selection as soon as possible

I have shared the photos with my client very soon after the session. Purposely. The idea was to let the family enjoy the photos and to start making a final selection at the moment when the session is still fresh in the memory of participants. And it payed off. I got a number of good questions about some photos that I initially skipped from the selection. They were technically not very good, but were liked by the participants. 
It is worth noting how the photos were shared. I have used my account on 500px for this purpose. I just created a set, uploaded the photos, protected the set with a password and shared with the client. 

Having short time for processing of the photos forced me to make some tradeoffs during image post-processing. There is simply no time for advanced processing. And at this moment I learned how important is to get photos "right in the camera". The less cropping, retouching, exposure compensation required, the less time is spent behind the computer's monitor.

Communicate about expected number of pictures to be selected

From the beginning I have specified the number of pictures I would like to have in the final paper album. I have chosen initially this number to be 1/5 of the published photos. It was a good compromise between a final price and the content of the album. Another purpose of the limitation was of a more psychological nature. I wanted the family to choose the best photos. Since the number was limited, they was forced to think and choose the really best photos. 
To be honest I am not sure if it is the right approach when dealing with a real customer, but in this case it worked.
Later on I got a request to add some more photos, since they liked them a lot. Of course, I agreed.

Think about album's composition. Let review it.

At the end there will be a paper version of an album, and it would be nice if the album is built as a book telling a story. So the composition is as important as when taking a single photo. In this case the story is relatively simple: preparation for the ceremony, sceneries in church with a communion reception as a climax, then a number of family portraits after the ceremony.
I have shared my thoughts and initial versions of the album with my wife, who has a very good eye for compositions consisting of more pictures. It helped me a lot to make right choices of the images on the album pages.

Plan a review meeting with the customer

When album was ready in a digital form, I made an appointment with mother of the girl to show her the work and the final proposal. We identified some mistakes in the selection of the photos (just wrong numbers of the photos), agreed to add two pages to the album with two important photos, finalized the agreement on the actual price. I think that it was important for both parties: for her to increase confidence, for me to confirm that the job was done right.

Technicalities. Tools used. Techniques applied

For album creation I have used Adobe Lightroom 5.0, Nik Software suite, onOne Software 7.5 (and Photoshop). My choice was driven by the fact that Lightroom is my photo collection organizer of choice. Nik Software I have used primarily for its RAW presharpener tool (which is in my opinion way better than Lightroom's sharpen tool) and Viveza tool which allows for selective applying simple image adjustments (color cast, exposure, contrast) to the parts of the image. I have used onOne software to improve the portraits photos with their Perfect Portrait tool. This tool performs a really nice job in whitening the eyes and mouth and has a very nice algorithm to correct the skin tone.
Every now and then I used some presets of Color Efex Pro 4 (Nik) and Perfect Effects Pro 4 (onOne) to quickly achieve cool effects offered by the presets implemented by those applications.
Using the plugins I have noticed that it is more comfortable to work with them via Photoshop than directly in Lightroom. So I opened the image to be edited in Photoshop, then I applied tools that I wanted to use and finally saved the modified .PSD file. I found it more comfortable because of fact that Nik and onOne integrates with Photoshop by using layers (each tool application adds a new layer). Which gives extra possibilities since I can apply layer masks, layer effects and all other goodies of Photoshop.

Finally the book. I decided to use Blurb for printing, because of their good quality and integration with Lightroom. I found however the possibilities of book editing in Lightroom (even in version 5.0) somewhat limited: positioning of texts on the page is quite limited, it is not possible (at least to my best knowledge) to create frames in the Book module of Lightroom. I had to use external applications to provide a frame to a photo. It delayed the whole production process for sure. Let's hope it will get better in future versions of Lightroom.

In the last part of this cycle I will describe some learnings I have taken from the whole process.

16 Jun 2013

First communion session: part 2 - taking pictures

After some preparations the actual session finally took place on a sunny and windy afternoon in one of the parks in The Hague. I will not write in this post about all technical aspects of the shooting, because there are people who already did it and they did it, in my opinion, very well (Photography Life, Cliff Mautner, just to mention some of my inspiration sources). Instead I'd like to share some observations that are rather specific to the interaction with other people (especially children) during the session.

Avoid "programmed smile mode"

Children (and adults, by the way too) are nowadays trained to smile as soon as they see a camera pointing at them. Smiling is of course a very nice and desired gesture, but sometimes it takes kind of a programmed form, which makes the portrait looking not so natural. Two pictures below illustrate this.

On the first photo the girl took the 'directed' smile. Cute, but it is not her gesture. 2nd photo looks much more better because of her smile is just natural. 
How to avoid this phenomenon? I don't have enough experience to give here a generic advice, but during this session I applied a few things:
  • I gave the children (and their family) some time to get familiar with the fact that I was in front of them, pointing with a big lens. After a quarter or so they paid less attention to me, giving me the chance to take natural-looking shots,
  • I was joking a lot. It helped,
  • During the session I gave children some simple assignments, so they could focus on something else than posing only. For example, I have asked the little brother to find a flower for her sister (more on that later).

Stick to the plan but be ready for unexpected all the time

During preparations I have assumed 5-6 different locations and several different configurations of photographed people. In any case to have enough material to create a paper album which would be appealing and interesting for the readers.
So the plan consisted of:

  • Portraits of the girl (alone)
  • Portraits of the girl (with her brother, mother, father),
  • Family portrait (with parents and grand parents),
  • Photos with sacral attributes associated with first communion
Since I had just one hour, I had to watch the time and operate sometimes rather quickly. Nevertheless taking pictures was not continuous. We moved from place to place, I discussed the ideas with participants, etc. And many interesting photos I took exactly during such break. There were moments that children start to play with each other, but also the parents didn't pay much attention to me behaving more natural:

Direct the show but let participants play

As I predicted, the participants expected from me that I would direct them during the session and tell what they have to do, how to pose and what will be the next steps. Which is fine, but on the other hand I think it is important not to 'over direct' everything, since at the end everyone wants to look natural on the photo. In this case the task was easy, since children were involved. And they don't let anybody to direct their behavior (at least not for the long time). So I was able to get some pictures expressing true emotions. For instance, I asked little brother of the girl to give her a flower. He actually liked the idea very much and long after the 'flower scene' was finished, he was bringing her other stuff as well, giving everyone a lot of fun:

Observe interactions, make use of it

During the session I have discovered that the girl likes her cousin very much. They apparently had a good time playing together. So I decided to take an additional session with those two children.  Whether they will be chosen to the album, I don't know, but to me they are my favourite shots of the session:

7 Jun 2013

First communion session: part 1. The preparations.

Couple of weeks ago I was flattered by a request of my acquaintance who asked me to take 'a few' pictures of her daughter, who would receive her first communion these days. The euphoria however was diminished quite quickly, as soon as I realized how serious the assignment actually would be. First communion in the catholic church is one of the most important sacraments and in some countries (like Poland) it is a big celebration for a child and his/her family. So I need to do a good job as photographer.
Another issue for me is that I am not so acquainted with all the nuances behind this ceremony and the day of communion. Sure, it takes place in church, children are dressed nice and tidy, but what are the sacral attributes used nowadays during the ceremony? What is important for parents?
Finally I took the request, but I knew that I had to make quite some preparations and precautions to make the session a success.

Talk to parents, discuss the expectations

This is actually most important part of the preparation. I have talked to the mother several times to discuss the time of shooting, expectations (of her and of mine), to share initial ideas.
I believe it helps both sides. Her, because she can do some preparations and me because I can shape the expectations to some extent and check whether my ideas would match hers.
For example, I discussed already my initial plan of the session:
- Duration of 1 hour,
- Start at 7:00 p.m.
- Four parts: portraits of a girl, session with parents, session with the rest of family, session with sacral attributes.

Get inspired - look at others' work

However it may sound lame (we photographers are creative people, aren't we?) looking at the portfolios of people making money by taking photos helped me a lot. As I stated already, in Poland the first communion is a big thing, hence big business. So there was enough blogs and websites to go through and see what people actually sell to their customers. Next to getting some ideas it is good to check what are the trends and what the customers perceive as appealing.
Other quite good source of good photos was 500px.com.
And for gathering the shots that were interesting to me I have used a Pinterest page.

Find the patterns, learn from them

Knowing what the event is about and how people act during such day (e.g. how are they dressed) makes possible to start searching for something similar and again learn from those experiences. To me first communion event resembles in many aspects the wedding ceremony:
- there is a strong emphasize on a main person being dressed like little bride,
- there is a compulsory shooting part involving the family (parents, grandparents, pete parents, etc.),
Obviously there are differences as well. Most apparently, the attention is directed to a child most of the time.
So the pattern to look for would be something between wedding photography and children and family portraiture.
So it is worth some exploration of techniques that can be used in such situations. Therefore I use materials on kelbytraining.com  and discussion forums on nikonians.org. Kelbytraining is a collection of video courses showing different kinds of techniques, tricks and tips used by different (very good) photographers. It is not free but it is worth money you spent in my opinion.

Choose and scout the location

Since there will be several people involved, there should be kind of direction given to them during the session. And the director will be in this case, well, me. So having a location explored a bit in advance helps. I want to avoid the moments of hesitation where nobody knows what to do next and where to walk. For sure those moments will probably come (I don't want and cannot plan everything), but I would like to minimize them and let them, especially in the beginning of the shooting.

Get acquainted with the people being photographed

Here I was lucky twice: I know the girl and her parents and I was able to see some photos of the family on Facebook. This gave my basic idea (or sometimes a couple of questions) about the personalities of people. For example I noticed that the little brother of a girl was not present on the photos published. Doesn't he like to be photographed? Or had just not a good day? After some talk to the mother I know that he was just not in the mood on this day but he loves to pose for the photos. Another example: I saw that the grandfather of the girl looks very seriously on all pictures. So it will be a challenge to cheer him up a bit during the session. Whether I will succeed I don't know, but at least I am aware of the challenge.

4 Jun 2013

A simple tip that may help to get sharper photos (applicable for at least some Nikon cameras)

I was looking for a while for the technique that would make my photos sharper. Since I have switched my gear to Nikon D800E I have noticed that in some situations the sharpness of my pictures was not satisfactory. Initially it could be explained (in some cases) by left focus point issue, but after readjusting of the autofocus system by the Nikon service, I was still sometimes struggling with getting sharp pictures, especially in the AF-C autofocus mode.
I started analysing the possible reasons of the problem. One of the things that came to my mind was the technique that I use quite often, namely locking of the autofocus and recomposing the picture. In the AF-S mode the behavior of camera is simple: it focuses, lock the focus while the shutter release button is pressed half-way and then one can recompose the picture by moving the camera.
In AF-C the situation is slightly different. The D800E manual states on p. 91 that in AF-C mode camera focuses continuously while shutter release button is pressed half way. So simple half-press shutter release and recompose technique will not work (when one moves the camera to recompose, the gear will adjust the focus to a new situation).
To lock the focus in this mode one needs to press and hold the AE-L/AF-L button. I have tried it but found not very comfortable and convenient.
It is more convenient method to lock the focus in the AF-C (and in AF-S) mode. Use the AF-ON button to lock the focus instead of pressing the shutter release button half way.
How does it work? Quite simple, actually. To focus, press the AF-ON button. Camera and the lens will set up the focus to get the image sharp. If you release the AF-ON button, the focus will remain locked on the position where the focus was gained. So using this button decouples the autofocus action from the shutter release button. While for the AF-S mode it does not matter so much, for AF-C it allows to lock the focus just by using single button (AF-ON), instead AE-L/AF-L and shutter release.
When I started using this technique I was a bit skeptical since I was worried about learning a new habit to lock the focus by pressing something different than shutter release button. But it turned to be an easy and quick adaptation and now I get completely used to use it.
How does it help to get the sharper pictures? First of all, while recomposing in the AF-C mode the sequence of buttons to press is simpler: AF-ON press, AF-ON release, (recompose), shutter release.
Second (this may be my subjective feeling), I think that by using a thumb to press AF-ON button, I enforce more stable camera holding. So even if I track the objects photographed in the AF-C mode to have them constantly in focus, by using the AF-ON button I embrace the camera with my right hand in such way that it remains more steady.

To set up the AF-ON button for locking the focus, some settings need  to be adjusted.

Technicalities - how to setup AF-ON to lock the focus.

Initially the D800E is set in such a way that the AF-ON button locks the focus exactly the same as pressing the shutter release button half-way. To achieve the behavior described above one need to block the focus lock by sutter release button.
To do so set the Autofocus->AF activation option (a4) to AF-ON only (OFF) in the Custom Setting Menu.
In my menu navigation notation:

MENU, ,,, 3x,, AF-ON Only, Ok

 If you have the Nikon MB-D12 battery grip and want to setup the AF-ON button to lock focus, use the option Controls->Assign MB-D12 AF-ON option (f13) to AF-ON in the Custom Setting Menu:
MENU, ,,, 5AF-ON, Ok

Don't forget to set those settings for all custom menus where you plan to use them.

The updated version of the D800 settings cheat sheet can be found here.

Note that AF-ON button is available on the other Nikon cameras as well so this technique does not apply only for D800. Check your manual for the details on how to set it up in case of your camera.