Month: October 2012

My Photoshop Skills are Obsolete

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This image shot on a 5D was enhanced in a mater of minutes using Viveza. The same results in Photoshop would have taken far longer.

For a long time now I have been a user and enthusiast for Photoshop. I am however a strong advocate of making photography light weight in all respects and that includes post processing images. I don’t want to be sat behind a computer for hours on end when I could be out taking pictures. No, my life and time are far too valuable for that and this was one of the drivers for me switching to Lightroom. I had reasoned that Lightroom could give me similar results to Photoshop but perhaps, from everything I had read, much faster.

Well, Lightroom is faster, especially where you want to apply the same adjustments to a group of images. It also makes finding an image a breeze and I wouldn’t be without it now. It is not however a replacement for Photoshop and I find that images adjusted in Lightroom still need some extra “polishing” in Photoshop in order to reach their best. It’s not therefore the huge timesaver I had hoped for.

What has caught me completely unawares however is a Photoshop plug-in from Nik Software called Viveza. It’s a very simple application to use and is accessed from within Photoshop but also integrates with Lightroom. What this plug-in gives me is the ability to make key adjustments to my images whilst targeting specific areas. For example I can edit the blue in a sky whilst leaving the ground and clouds unchanged. Yes I could do this in Photoshop but it would take some delicate selections to ensure I did this with a seamless blend, all of which takes time. With Viveza it takes just minutes, looks completely natural and requires much less skill than with Photoshop.

Having now used Viveza for a couple of months through Lightroom I am finding I do less and less in Photoshop. In fact, it’s got to the stage now where I think I can achieve better results with Viveza than I can using Photoshop. My Photoshop skills, painfully built up over years, now seem largely obsolete.

Panoramic Photography with Lightweight Cameras

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6 images from a GF1. Shot in RAW and stitched in Photoshop. Technology is amazing.

Recently I realised there was a feature I was missing from the Sony NEX camera that I sold last year. This is the sweep panoramic where you simply sweep the camera horizontally or vertically to produce a panoramic when taking the shot. I thought this was a great feature and one that I could have used when shooting the Ribblehead Viaduct in an earlier blog. My friend who had an iPhone with him at the time had this feature and I now discover I have something similar on my Samsung phone.

To be fair, the Sony Sweep Panoramic dealt fine with large detail but if something had lots of small detail like rocks in a landscape, it didn’t always work well (again, covered in an earlier blog). Additionally if you didn’t move smoothly or in a straight line you could get some strange results. It complained when you moved too fast or too slow. Worse still, if the subject or you were moving, well you probably needed to forget it. I’m actually starting to wonder why I miss it so much!

Now, some of the cameras I use also have a Panoramic Assist mode, for example where they show a faint version of the previous picture overlaid on the camera LCD to help you line up. Again this isn’t perfect and I find it slow to use which means it might not be suitable for many situations where you need to act quickly. The only real solution to this is a true panoramic camera such as my Xpan but then I am back to shooting film which I don’t always want to do.

If you are a RAW shooter and you want the best quality possible, you will need to shoot individual images and then stitch them in software. That’s exactly what I did with the image you see above. This is a series of 6 images shot in RAW using a GF1. I shot the images from a moving boat when passing this particular island and the angle of coverage is about 160 degrees. Quite an extreme set of circumstances to shoot panoramic and one where speed was the key.

If you are wondering how I lined up 6 images so quickly (the boat was travelling quite fast), I used the cameras gridlines. On all my cameras I have the gridlines turned on that divide the screen horizontally and vertically into 3rds. I make a mental note as I shoot of where the vertical grid line is on one side so that I can move the camera to align the vertical line on the other side when shooting the next image in the sequence. This ensures I overlap my images about a third which is ideal for putting through stitching software such as Photoshop’s “photomerge” function. The horizontal gridlines also allow me to judge easily if I have moved the camera up or down.

This takes a little bit of practice but shoot around 20 such sequences and you can become incredibly quick. The image above is 10” x 36”, shot in RAW and could be printed at double this size with some interpolation. The stitching is spot on and there were no telltale joins. I could never have achieved this with any other method

Excellent Lightweight Travel Tripod

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This image was taken on a 5D MKII. This is not a light weight camera but the Tripod was the lightest I have used. Read on to find out more.

My recent Light weight photography has been a little unusual in that it has required me to use a tripod. Ordinarily I can get away without a tripod as I can shoot with a wider aperture because of the GX1’s greater depth of field. In fact I recently mentioned that I had trouble slowing the GX1’s shutter speed to blur water motion and ended up buying a 4 stop Neutral Density filter.

Now I’m sure if you have been involved in photography for more than a few months you will have purchased a tripod. I will also push my luck and suggest that the tripod falls into one of two broad categories:

  1. The all in one tripod which is very lightweight, has a head attached that can’t be removed and tends to be cheap. These are the typical first tripods people tend to buy often because they can’t see the value in a more expensive make. They also tend to break easily but before they break they are incredibly frustrating to use. I will refer to these as amateur tripods purely to distinguish them from my description of the next category.
  2. The professional class of tripod will be quite different from the above. It will comprise a separate head and legs for which there are a number of different designs and manufacturers. The head will tend to have a quick release plate for fast attachment or removal of cameras. These tripods are far more sturdy and reliable as well as being easy to use. A good one will last years and will probably set you back quite a bit of money.

Any serious photographer will I’m sure gravitate towards the second professional class of tripod. The only problem is that these seem to be larger tripods that are HEAVY. Sure you can get carbon fibre tripods if you have deep pockets and by the time you have attached a head they are still HEAVY. Worst of all, if you want to travel with your tripod most are too large to fit in your case as well as being too HEAVY.

About a year back I came across a solution to the problems of size and weight that surprised me. The tripod legs were made by Velbon (it’s a Rexi L) and the head is made by Manfrotto (it’s a 3 way pan Magnesium alloy). Paired together these weigh less than most carbon fibre legs. More astonishing still is that the tripod legs are about 30cm when collapsed yet extend to be a full sized tripod – this is also my ideal travel tripod. And did I forget to tell you about the very reasonable price for this kit. I paid less for the legs and head on Amazon than I did for my full sized Manfrotto legs (which aren’t even carbon fibre).

What really surprised me however is that Velbon was the manufacturer. You see they tend to make a lot of tripod that fall in the amateur class but the Rexi L is completely different. This clever size trick is achieved by having multiple section legs which often makes tripods unstable. No so the Rexi L which is very steady and supports my 5D no problem. My friend who also has one of these uses it with his Medium Format kit.

Recently I had cause to use my Manfrotto 055 side by side with the Velbon Rexi and I was shocked to find the Velbon was steadier, easier to use and I preferred it. In the end I left the Manfrotto in the car and just used the Velbon. So if your current tripod is too large or just too heavy take a look at the Velbon Rexi L. The links to Amazon are shown below.
Velbon Ultra Rexi L Travel Tripod

Manfrotto 460MG 3-Way Magnesium Head

Micro 4/3 or LX5 Infrared

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This image shot on a Sony NEX5 has been converted in software to give the appearance of being shot in infrared

As I mentioned in some of my recent posts I have just been up to Whitby with a friend. These trips are great as we talk about all things photography including quite often the new equipment we would like. It was during one of these discussions that I had to admit I would really like an infrared camera. In the past I might have sought to purchase an old DSLR and have this converted but that wouldn’t fit with my new lightweight approach.

After a lot of consideration and debate I think I have two choices. The first would be to purchase and convert an LX5 whilst the other would be converting a micro 4/3 camera. To be honest, I would love to have an infrared LX5; the lens is excellent and the camera fits in my pocket. What puts me off is that I have heard the LX5 suffers from hot spots under some conditions. I would hate to have an otherwise great image ruined by this so I am loathed to go down this route.

Realistically then it’s probably down to a choice of which micro 4/3 camera to purchase and convert. If I chose the GF1 I would worry about the age of the camera and the cost of the conversion in the UK is about twice the cost of the camera. Alternatively the cost of a new GX1 is now down to £315 after £50 cash back. This seems to be amazing value for money but I still need to find a conversion service that has a good reputation.

Now if you are reading this and wondering why I am not doing my Infrared conversion in software, it’s because it’s very difficult to create a realistic effect without introducing a lot of artefacts around edges in the image. It’s very difficult to get just the right look and to be honest I would rather have a converted camera that I can snap away with.

You will hear more about this in the future as I have convinced myself I need an infrared camera.

Sony NEX5 Sweep Panorama

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This interior of a shopping centre in Milan was shot using the Sweep Panorama of the Sony NEX-5

I have discussed on this blog in the past how I sold my NEX5 because I wasn’t happy with either the range or quality of the lenses. These factors were very important to me so I’m not saying the NEX5 is a bad camera. Quite the opposite in fact and there is one feature in particular that I deeply miss and that is the Sweep Panorama.

This is the ability to shoot a panoramic picture by simply releasing the shutter and moving the camera slowly and smoothly in a given direction. The camera takes images in quick succession and then stitches them into one long panoramic image in camera to produce a final JPG. If you have never used this feature I can assure you it is very addictive and makes shooting panoramic much easier than shooting and stitching multiple images in software. What has suddenly made me nostalgic for this feature was my recent trip to Whitby where my friend was using his new Sony camera and I would regularly hear the tell tale clicking shutter of the sweep panoramic.

With this in mind I decided to review some of my old sweep panoramic images such as the one shown above. Now whilst I am raving about the sweep panoramic there are a few limitations you need to be aware of – at least in the NEX5 at the time I was using it.

Firstly you need to set up the camera with the direction of sweep. Is it left to right, bottom to top or the reverse of one of these? This can take time and sometimes you don’t have the camera ready at just the moment you need it.

Moving subjects can be difficult to capture. Imaging you are standing on a beach and photographing a wave coming in. The wave will have moved slightly between each shot and the stitching usually couldn’t deal with this.

Moving elements in the scene pose a real problem for the Sweep Panorama

Finally there was the problem with stitching fine details which was magnified further when using a wide angle lens. Take a look at the sample below which shows this problem.

The in camera stitching also struggles with fine detail. Take a look at the figures on the wall closely and also the right hand window. None of these quite align properly.

This can of course be overcome with some work in Photoshop however I would rather avoid this and have a finished image where possible.

On a final positive note, the Sweep Panoramic seemed to overcome the problem with soft corners (although this may be due to in camera cropping).

For now then I will still have to lust after the sweep panoramic mode and continue to stitch my images in software.

Taking My Own Advice

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Flowing water and rock shot on a 5D MKII. This isn’t a Light Weight camera

I had an interesting weekend, making a photography trip to Whitby with a friend. Initially we went to shoot the coastal scenery but by 11:30 the sun had become so harsh in the clear blue sky that all attempts at Landscape Photography were thwarted. At this point we sat down, had a coffee and decided to switch our attention to nearby woodland where we knew there was a waterfall.

On arrival we could see the main fall some 80 feet below our path and down an inaccessible cliff. We knew that the falls must be accessible though as we had seen some pictures of it shot from the river. Walking along the path we found a trail that lead down to the river and then a further footpath leading back along the river to the falls. Neither of these paths was easy to walk as the one down to the river was extremely steep and muddy and it took all our efforts to stay upright. The path along the river was even worse, being very deep with mud that came over the top of your boots. Hopping between branches of fallen trees, rocks and tufts of grass was all we could do.

As we made our wall to the falls we came across a large tree that had fallen across the river, blocking it and a steady stream of water was cascading over it. This is the image you see above and it was shot on a Canon 5D MKII. The reason I tell you all this is that despite having my faithful and very light GX1 kit with me I insisted on taking the 5D. I also took a full set of Lee filters, a very large tripod and a large bag filled with all sorts of accessories that I didn’t need.

The result is a nice image but also a hard fall against some rocks as the weight of my bag caused me to slip, overbalance and graze my right hand quite badly. I feel confident I would have avoided this and still have achieved the shot had I left everything behind except for my lightweight kit. I need to listen to my own advice.

LX5 RAW File Quality

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Click to access the detail in this full sized image from the LX5.

I think I have commented before that I like to review the web logs for my site to see what searches people used to find me. Well I am seeing quite a lot of people searching for details about the quality of the RAW files for the LX5. When I see searches such as this which I haven’t particularly addressed I feel I must provide an answer so here goes.

The first thing that occurs to me is the vast number of variables that go into something like RAW file quality. There is the dynamic range, signal to noise ratio, etc. etc. etc. and my head hurts so I stop thinking about it. It then occurs to me that people really can’t be all that interested in the technicalities or they would just go and look up the LX5 on the DXO Marks web site and feel disappointed. No, what I think people are really looking for is some sort of real world indication about how good a camera the LX5 is when you shoot in RAW format and this actually encompasses lost of factors such as the sensor, the lens, post production etc.

Now this is a little difficult for me to comment on as I am biased, thinking the LX5 is a phenomenal camera. So I am going to do something a little out of the ordinary and show you an image shot in RAW format, converted and saved as a JPG and provide the RAW file for you to download and play around with. I’m also going to point out a few of the things that impress me about the images captured on my LX5 in RAW along the way. And just to be absolutely clear, this isn’t what I would class as being a good image, just an example of a RAW file and since I took this my understanding of how to get more performance out of the LX5 has improved.

The first thing I will point out is that there is quite a lot of latitude in the RAW files in terms of exposure. I usually overexpose my images slightly but I didn’t bother with this one. If you are loading the RAW file you will find you need to increase the exposure slightly. I also didn’t bother using a ND Graduated filter which I would normally use for shots such as this but the scene seemed to have reasonable contrast levels so I didn’t bother.

Now for my favourite part, the detail and sharpness. Look at the foreground stone wall and the grass to see how well defined it is at 100%. Now look at the distant hills and you can see the rock in the rock face at 100%. Finally take a look at the detail in the barbed wire. This is impressive stuff from such as small camera.

The final acid test is if you scaled this image you would be able to print it at A3+ size without a problem. You would need to sharpen it but it would produce a very crisp detailed print. I suspect you would probably get away with printing it even larger.

I won’t go on much more other than to say make sure you click on the image above to see it at 100% (it’s about 7Mb) and download the RAW file (about 12Mb in DNG format) to play about yourself.

The Achilles Heel of the Micro 4/3

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The Ribblehead Viaduct in the Yorkshire Dales. The images captured on a Panasonic Lumix GX1 with an Olympus 9-18mm lens. The images were merged to create the panoramic in Photoshop and converted to B&W using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.

Yes you read the title of the blog correctly; there is a weakness with my GX1 and no doubt other Micro 4/3 cameras also. Take a look at the image above to see if you can spot it. I shot this yesterday in the Yorkshire Dales when out photographing waterfalls with a friend. The intention was to visit a few locations starting at Keld which has loads of falls and then work our way south visiting other falls on route. This is one of the best shots of the day with my GX1.

Now the eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed this photograph is not of a Waterfall and that’s because of the weakness I mentioned. I simply couldn’t slow the shutter speed sufficiently to emphasise the movement in the images. Let’s discuss an example.

There was quite a lot of water coming over the falls as it has been wet recently (I’m sure those of you based in the UK will know what I mean) so the speed of the water was quite fast. This is good news for me as it means the shutter speeds are not quite as slow as you might otherwise need. I still however needed to slow the camera down to between 0.3 and 0.8 seconds to create the desired effect.

The base ISO on the GX1 is 160 and there is no way (at least that I can find) to expand this down to perhaps 80 or even 50 (I hope Panasonic are listening because I’m sure they could do this with a firmware upgrade). At the same time I want to shoot with my lenses in their optimal range for sharpness of f/5.6 to f/7.1. When trying to do this however I was finding that even in relatively shaded areas I was just freezing the water.

I did try closing my aperture down to f/13.0 with a couple of ND filters on the front of the lens whilst holding a polarizer in front and it worked to some degree. It still wasn’t great and there was a reflection on the polariser that can be seen on some images.

My 5D MKII on the other hand was set to ISO50 with a lens at f/14.0 and a polarizing filter attached. This was giving me nice long exposures that I could control. Here is an example of one of the shots so at least you can see how nice the locations were.

One of the many waterfalls near to Keld in the Yorkshire Dales. This image was captured on my Canon 5D MKII. It is a single RAW file which was processed in Lightroom and then converted to B&W using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.

I think therefore that I need to add a further accessory to the list of essentials for this camera and that is a variable ND screw in filter. Oh, and if you are wondering what the image at the top of the blog is, it’s the Ribblehead Viaduct which carries the rail line.

Lightroom Lens Correction for Micro 4/3

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The Lens Correction module in Lightroom can automatically correct common distortion problems. These are typically evident in wide angle architecture shots such as this one of New York Grand Central Terminal shot with a Panasonic Lumix LX5.

This is just going to be a short blog today but I’m sure it’s going to answer a question quite a few Lightroom users have. If you shoot in RAW format then you will be using a RAW converter to convert your images to a picture format such as TIFF or JPG. This is one of the common uses for Lightroom which has the excellent “Develop” module (see my Lenscraft website for free membership and tutorials). One of the features of this module is that you can load in lens calibrations for your camera which will apply an adjustment to correct any lens distortion.

It is possible to create your own lens profiles using a lens calibration chart and some free software that can be downloaded from the Adobe website but this is quite tricky and time consuming. Adobe has therefore taken the approach of shipping Lightroom with some standard Camera and Lens profiles that can be selected. These generally correct the major distortions such as Barrelling and Pin cushioning. There are then further manual adjustments you can make to tweak your image. If however you are a Panasonic or Olympus Micro 4/3 user you might have wondered why these cameras are missing from the lens calibration menu.

The answer is simple, Adobe has built the profile correction into the software and it is automatically applied without needing to select the camera and lens. When I first read this I was a little sceptical but I managed to hunt down the confirmation on the Adobe web site with the answer coming from one of their senior engineers.

So all you Micro 4/3 Lightroom users out there, if you are still not happy all the lens distortion has been removed, turn to the manual adjustment sliders. If of course you have a compatible lens calibration chart, the software from Adobe and a lot of time and patience you could always create your own.

LX5 Essential Accessories

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Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Shot with an LX5 and processed in Lightroom with Nik Dfine and Silver Efex Pro 2

I don’t normally like carrying too many accessories for my photography because they can be a bit of a double edged sword. On one hand they help you do things that wouldn’t otherwise be possible but on the other they add size, weight and can hinder your work. There are some accessories however that I do consider essential for the LX5:

  1. Screen protector – I don’t think this one takes much explaining other than to say the rear screen can scratch easily. I use a 3 inch thin plastic screen protector that was made for a mobile phone as they are cheap and do a great job.
  2. JJC lens cap – Where the LX5 lens meets the camera body there is a threaded ring. Unscrew this ring and you can screw on the JJC replacement lens cap. The lens cap is never removed but as you switch on the camera the lens extends through the lens cap which splits into three. When the lens retracts the lens cap closes to cover it again. This has protected my lens on countless occasions and also reduces lens cleaning. This is a great accessory for street photography.
  3. Filter Tube – In the previous point I explained how the filter cap could screw to the lens of the camera. The filter tube follows the same approach and screws to the camera with the lens extending inside the tube. The other end of the tube is threaded and can accept a filter ring to which you can then attach filters. For Landscape Photography the ability to attach an filters such as an ND Graduate is essential. The only downside is that you can only attach either the lens cap or the filter tube but not both together.
  4. My final accessory is really optional and is noise reduction software. If you are keeping below ISO400 with the LX5 and not printing larger than A3, you probably don’t need this but as the ISO creeps up it can become essential. Even if you use only low ISO settings you may be a bit of a perfectionist as I am (I often clean images even from my 5D MkII to remove noise because I am that fussy). I actually use 2 software packages for noise reduction at present, Nik Dfine and Topaz DeNoise. DeNoise is probably the best to my mind but you might have your own preference.

On a final point of interest, many photographers would consider the LX5 to be an accessory for their main camera. If you are one of these people think again and try a day out with just the LX5 and a couple of accessories.