The expression of feelings

We all strive for perfection in our photography. We are looking for the best camera our money can buy, fast & sharp lenses, post-processing software, etc., in an effort to create the “perfect” image and we tend to forget that imperfection has its own beauty. I can’t remember who said it, but the problem with digital photography is perfection. Stock agencies are full with what I call “plastic” images; images that have no flaws. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not against stock images (they are products of great imagination, high knowledge and expertise), but most of them lack soul. The only “problem” is that they don’t have any problem, they are just perfect and impress the viewer’s eyes.

Stand back a little bit and try to bring in mind an old photograph you have seen. An old, maybe B&W photograph, with a lot of grain, low dynamic range and soft focus. Can you describe your feelings? It’s not perfect at all, but it has uniqueness. It speaks to your soul because it moves beyond the boundaries of technicalities and freely focuses on the message it wants to communicate. It’s all about that message; nothing more, nothing less.

The above image was taken with a “lensbaby control freak”. It’s a cheap manual tilt-and-shift kind of lens. It looks and feels like a toy. It’s image quality has nothing to do with my expensive Nikkor 2.8 lenses and the results you get are inconsistent. It’s been a while since the last time I photographed something with enthusiasm. I got tired with sharp lenses, fast autofocus systems, advance metering, photoshop, etc. There are times when I want to express my inner, to put just a 50mm lens on my camera, to meter and focus manually, to see the word with different eyes; my eyes. Dreams aren’t sharp; they don’t even have a distinct subject. Photography is like poetry; it’s about exclusion, it’s about creating your own words, it’s about the expression of feelings. Why do we tend to forget this, I don’t know …

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Photographing Kids (capturing the moment)

Kids are innocent and deliver genuine expressions, but that comes with a cost; they won’t pose or stand still for long periods of time as they get bored quickly. It’s important to have in mind that kids love to play, and try to make the photoshoot look as pleasant as possible. Here are some tips:

1. Make you settings before you place kids in the scene: e.g. use a gray card to meter, or some other person, decide about the aperture, speed, ISO and filters you are going to use, etc. Don’t get the kids involve at this stage, because until you are finished with your settings, they will get bored.

2. Give them time: Don’t rush things out. Kids need their time; they eat frequently and sleep more frequently (!), but when they finish their nap they wake up with very good mood and energy.

3. Make photoshoot a game: give them candies (ask parents’ permission), play with them, ask them silly questions, have toys with you that make stupid sounds and make them laugh.

4. Use a wide aperture & focus on the eyes: A common practice when shooting portraits is to use a wide aperture to throw the disturbing background out of focus. You can use an extreme aperture like f1.4, which will throw everything except the focus point out of focus, but as long as you keep the eyes sharp, you have a winner. Always focus on the eyes; you have to have a very good excuse for not to. It’s also a good practice to use a telephoto lens which compresses facial characteristics and gives a flattering look to the portraits.

5. Choose a neutral picture control: Don’t use vivid or any other picture control setting that delivers high contrast and saturated colors; skin tones have to look natural.

6. Capture the moment: At the end of the day the photos that will stand out will be the ones that manage to capture the moment (an innocent expression, a true laugh, love). Be ready for them when they show up, because they will; don’t spend time looking at the LCD screen at the back side of your camera; instead look at the action while happening. As a professional photographer you were hired to get these moments, not for taking snapshots.

7. Post-processing: When shooting in RAW you have great control in post-processing, while maintaining the highest image quality. Fix any white-balance and color issues, smooth skin tones and remove any unpleasant blemishes, apply sharpening to the eyes, but be careful so that your images don’t look unnatural; you don’t want skin to look like plastic and the eyes look glassy. Also try converting some of the images to black & white (Don’t just use the default settings, as they will result in a gray image. Black & white images that catch the eye have strong contrast and “extreme” blacks and highlights). Be aware that not all images are suitable for black & white, but when it works, it gives a documentary feeling.

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Using White Balance creatively

On the article Great Color starts from WB I talked about the things you can do to get a correct WB. But sometimes “correct” is subjective and WB is a subject of personal taste and creativity. Sometimes we want to achieve a totally correct WB, so that colors are reproduced accurately. Some other times we may want our pictures to have a “wrong” WB, in order to communicate a certain feeling.

The image above is a composition of 2 copies of the same image with different WB settings applied to each of them; a custom WB was applied in ACR to bring out the soft saturated qualities of the blue sea and sky, but this caused a blue cast on the white surface of the boat. The problem is, although our eyes don’t perceive the sea and sky as problematic, they do with certain colors such as white, which is a well-known color. In other words, white has to be white, if it doesn’t, something is going wrong. So I made a second copy of the image and applied a “correct” WB. Then I opened both copies in Photoshop and composite so that the white surface of the boat is the copy with the “correct” WB and the rest of the image is the copy with the custom WB. The result is a more creative approach to a rather ordinary image.

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Shooting food & sweets

Here are some small tips for shooting food & sweets:

1. Shoot from a low angle: by shooting from above it makes your images look like snapshots.

2. Use a macro lens which reveals detail and texture and allows for small working distances (the above shots were taken with a Nikkor 105mm 2.8 macro lens, except the image of the hotel hall which was taken with a Nikkor 14-24mm 2.8 wide-angle lens).

3. Overexpose by 2/3 or even a full stop from what the camera’s meter indicates, according to the subject. As a result, your subjects will look fresh and delicious.

4. Use a swallow depth-of-field. Your images will look more pleasing and professional, but please note that if you are using a macro lens you have to close down (to f8 or f11) in order to get a sufficient depth-of-field. If you are working handheld and using a wide aperture (e.g. 2.8) it’s very easy to get out-of-focus images.

5. Use directional light with off-camera flashes, softboxes/ umbrellas and reflectors. If you have to use on-camera flash, point its head to the ceiling (The above shots were taken at a recent wedding. I didn’t have the opportunity and time to use off-camera flash, so I used an on-camera SB900).

6. In post-processing, use strong contrast, to make colors come to life.

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Shooting a family

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Exposure Metering


This article is the last one in a series of articles covering the subject of photographic exposure.
If you haven’t read Elements of Photographic Exposure and Exposure Modes, it’s a good time to do so now before moving on. In the above articles we talked about the factors that form the exposure (aperture, shutter speed, ISO) and the camera’s exposure modes (the programs that allow the photographer to take exposure control; Program Priority, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual Priority). So, in order to keep things simple, lets summarize all the above. Depending on the scene you are photographing and your artistic vision, you choose an exposure mode:
· Program Priority if you are in a harry: You let the camera set aperture and shutter speed based on what it things is best. You control the ISO.
· Aperture Priority if depth-of-filed is important: You set the aperture and ISO and the camera sets the shutter speed.
· Shutter Priority if motion is important: you set shutter speed and ISO and the camera sets aperture.
· Manual Priority: you have total control over the exposure by setting aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
As you might though so far, a piece of information is missing from the above decision workflow; how does your camera, or you, decide which the appropriate exposure is? Well, modern cameras have a build-in exposure meter which evaluates the scene and provide you (and your camera) with information about exposure.
The problem
Modern cameras have come a long way and they are becoming cleverer as time passes by, but still they are not perfect. There are some “tricky” situations that can fool your camera’s exposure meter. Even worsted, your camera can’t make artistic decisions. So how do cameras determine which exposure is right and which exposure is wrong? Well here’s the trick: your camera makes the assumption that the world is middle gray! (if you like the more technical term, middle gray is a subject with 18% reflectance). Please note: we are not talking about the actual color gray here, but the reflectance (tonality) of the subject.
Middle gray looks like this:
The problem is that not all subjects have an average reflectance. Some subjects are either darker or brighter than average:
So let’s say you are photographing a black subject (e.g. a black jaguar – it happens all the time right? !) – . If you let your camera make the exposure decision, it will overexpose your black jaguar and turn it into a gray jaguar. Or, you are photographing a white subject (e.g. snow). Your camera will underexpose the snow and turn it into gray.
So, what did the manufacturers were thinking when developing those meters? Well, as with most situations in life, you have to start with an assumption and build on that. On the other hand, if you sum the reflectance of an average scene, you come up with a mean that is middle gray.
Metering Methods
Nikon cameras have 3 metering methods for determining exposure:
· Spot metering: it targets 1,5% of the frame, where your focus point resigns.
· Center-weighted metering: it measures the entire frame but emphasizes on the middle area of the frame (exposure decisions are based 75% on the central area and 25% on the outer area).
· Matrix metering: It measures the entire frame. This method is becoming more complex as the technology moves forward. Older camera models were measuring the entire frame and gave a little emphasis on the area that is behind the selected focus point. Modern camera bodies take into account a lot more factors; lens focus distance, highlights, skin tones, color, etc and compare the scene with an image database in order to make their exposure decision. Newer camera models are cleverer than old ones and have a tendency to do the right thing. However, they are not 100% accurate yet.
What to do (the easy method)
If you are photographing a subject and you do not agree with your cameras’ exposure decisions, you can use exposure compensation to override your cameras’ decision. Use “-“ if your subject is darker than average, use “+” if your subject is brighter than average.
What to do (the accurate method)
1.            Set your camera to Manual Priority Mode and to Spot Metering Method.
2.            Set your ISO accordingly, depending on the situation and your lens aperture (if depth-of-field is     important), or shutter speed (if motion is important).
3.            Point your active focus point on a subject:
(a)          If the subject is middle gray, zero out the harsh mark of the metering bar (by adjusting accordingly ISO, Aperture or Shutter Speed):
(b)         If the subject is completely white, put the harsh mark of the metering bar to +2 (e.g. if you are photographing a wedding, you can set the bride’s wedding dress to +2) .
(c)           If the subject is completely black, put the harsh mark of the metering bar to -2 (e.g. if you are photographing a wedding and the groom is a wearing a black suit, you should set the back suit to -1,5 in order to retain detail).
Note: Blue skies, light green and red in nature have an average reflectance. Yellow color is +1 stop, while brown and dark blue colors are -1 stop. Caucasian tone skin is +1 stop, while darker skin tones may fall under average reflectance.
Tip: A good practice is to start using a dedicated gray card in the scenes you are photographing. Zero out the harsh mark of the metering bar on the card and then observe where the other tones in the scene fell. In no time you will gain a lot of experience and the card will no longer be useful to you!
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HDR – part1

The problem with today’s digital sensors
Digital photography has gone a long way in the last decade. Today’s digital cameras offer amazing capabilities and exceptional image quality that it was difficult to even imagine a few years ago. Digital has change everything; darkrooms have become “Lightrooms”, film has become 64 GB flash disks (take as much shots as you want; it’s free!), new and intelligent matrix metering systems, extraordinary ISO capabilities (at a rotate of a wheel, not by changing films all the time), new lenses with CPU, 10 fps, digital printing (a lap at home), etc, the list is endless. However, there is one major problem; the restricted dynamic range (or latitude).   The problem is due to the linear nature of sensors, meaning that digital has no tolerance to metering mistakes; highlights are blown very easily. A modern DSLR has about 10 – 11 stops of dynamic range at the base ISO (the range is being decreasing as ISO values are becoming higher), meaning that the sensor is able to record 10-11 stops of image data from dark to bright values:
e.g. in the following image, we have pixels that are either completely dark or completely white (no detail). The histogram shows the distribution of these tones:
If we try to photograph a scene with a greatest dynamic range (contrast) than our camera’s dynamic range, the results are rather disappointing:
(a)          If we meter for the highlights (sky), darker subjects (tree, ground) get underexposed.
(b)          If we meter for the darker subjects, brighter subjects get blow out.
(C)          If we take a an overall reading, we end up with compromise results.
“Traditional” Solutions
1.            Use light (flash, reflectors, softboxes) to illuminate darker subjects.
2.            Use filters (ND graduate, polarizer) to darken the highlights.
3.            Use Fill light & Recovery (camera raw) and Selective Adjustments in Photoshop, to darken the highlights and brighten the dark tones.
4.            Use Dodging & Burning in Photoshop, to darken the highlights and brighten the dark tones.
5.            Use Exposure Blending in Photoshop (blend different exposures in separate layers and selectively erase certain areas).
6.            Contrast Masking in Photoshop.
7.            New Technologies, like Nikon D-lightening.
8.            You can photograph during the “blue hour” of the day, where the sky and the ground have the same amount of brightness.
! Use the above methods with caution, as they may result in contrast loss!
Coming next: the HDR methodology.
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