Paul Timpa Photography Blog Photography Tutorials and Tips from Paul Timpa Photography

17Apr/09Off

"What Camera to Buy?" — A guide on choosing a D-SLR

Bora Bora, French Polynesia

Bora Bora, French Polynesia

Choosing the right camera to buy for yourself might seem like a difficult task, but is shouldn't be. Yes, there are a lot of options out there (which is a good thing), but with a little thought about your shooting style and needs, you'll be able to buy a camera and lens(es) that perfectly suit you.

Before we start, first let me say this: for the most part, the quality of the pictures is not the main difference between less expensive and more expensive cameras. More expensive cameras do not necessarily take better pictures. The primary difference between less expensive and more expensive cameras is the physical camera body and controls (knobs and buttons), as well as performance, which I'll talk about in this article. The #1 factor affecting picture quality for ANY camera is the quality of your lenses... not the camera. But we'll get to that in a moment...

So you're about to purchase your first Digital SLR camera, or are upgrading to a more advanced model. Firstly, congratulations. You're about to take your photography to a whole new level. DSLRs enable you to be creative in your pictures in a way that compact cameras and those without manual controls can't match. It may take some time to learn how to use your new DSLR, but the photos in the end will be well worth the effort.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

So where do you start as you decide what camera to buy? It's worth understanding the various "categories" of DSLRs. These categories generally apply to most camera brands. For this discussion, I'll use Canon in my examples, but they apply to Nikon and other brands as well.

For many brands, there are three main categories of cameras they produce (sometimes four, I'll explain that later). The primary categories are consumer, prosumer, and pro.

The first thing you should know is that all cameras in each of the categories take outstanding photos. Modern DSLRs are fantastic, and are getting better every day. Even the least expensive DSLR will take great pictures, and better than any compact camera could take. This is because the sensor in DSLRs is far larger than the sensor in compact cameras. The sensor is the chip that records the image (the equivalent of the piece of film in a film camera). Without getting into the technical details, just know that all other things being equal, the larger the sensor, the better the picture quality, especially in low light or at night. DSLRs have a significantly larger sensor than compacts.

So what's the difference between the consumer, prosumer, and pro cameras?

The "primary" difference between the three categories is the design of the camera body and controls, and the durability / ruggedness / weatherproofing of the body. That's not to say there aren't important differences that can affect picture quality -- there are. But the "primary" difference is the body.

Consumer-level cameras are the least expensive cameras in a brand's line, but don't be persuaded into believing they aren't great cameras. They are capable of taking extraordinary images. These cameras generally have smaller bodies, made of lighter material. In Canon's lineup, these cameras include the Rebel T2i / XSi /Xs (known in other countries as the 550D / 450D, etc.) In Nikon's line-up, we're talking about cameras like the D3100, D5000, D90, etc. The sensor in these cameras is often very similar or almost identical to the sensors used in the brand's more expensive cameras. That means they can take pictures that look pretty much exactly the same. Because the bodies are small and light, they are great for traveling. They're also good for people with smaller hands. Because they're lighter, they're less intimidating and easier to get used to for photographers transitioning from a compact camera. What they generally lack is the ruggedness of some of the more expensive cameras. The cameras in the brand's prosumer and pro line are built from heavier and more sturdy material, which makes them more suitable for challenging shooting conditions. Because the consumer cameras are smaller, they also lack some of the dedicated physical controls, knobs, and buttons that appear on other cameras, simply because there is no room on the back of the camera to put them. For instance, on the prosumer and pro lines, there is a dedicated wheel to change the shutter speed, and another dedicated wheel to change the aperture. On the consumer cameras, there is only one wheel and it is shared for both functions: the wheel controls shutter speed and you have to press and hold a separate button to use the same wheel to change the aperture. Because there are fewer dedicated controls, you often have to rely on navigating through on-screen menus to change settings. This actually appeals to many people, who are comfortable navigating menus and are used to using them from compact cameras. On the other hand, it is a slower process, and if you need to respond quickly to changing situations while you're shooting, having dedicated controls makes it easier. Because they are light, the consumer models may feel unbalanced if you buy heavier pro-grade lenses. The camera can feel a bit "front-heavy" when you use one of these lenses. There are other differences between the three categories that are separate from the body. These differences can broadly be categorized as "performance". For example, the autofocus speed and sensitivity (how easily it focuses on a subject), the number of autofocus points, the burst speed (the number of pictures that can be taken per second), and the burst depth (the number of pictures that can be taken in a row before the camera needs to "take a break" to pause and process the images it just took). In consumer cameras, for example, there might be nine autofocus points, and the camera can take pictures at three per second for a total of nine shots. The pro cameras might have as many as 45 autofocus points, and can take photos at ten per second. Cost-wise, consumer level cameras are "very generally" in the area of U.S. $500-900.

The next step up from the consumer-level cameras is the prosumer category. The prosumer category sits between the "consumer" and "pro" categories, thus the name "prosumer". In Canon's line-up, the prosumer category consists of cameras like the 60D and 7D. In Nikon's line-up, it's cameras like the D300s. This is the category that many professionals use, from wedding photographers to landscapers. The prosumer cameras are generally significantly larger and heavier than the consumer models. They are sturdier and more rugged in order to handle the knocks of professional use, and are more tightly sealed against the elements. As described earlier, their larger size allows there to be more dedicated knobs, buttons, and control wheels, allowing you to quickly change settings in the field under rapidly changing photo situations. Because they are heavier and solid, they feel well balanced with the heavier pro-grade lenses. Performance-wise, they are generally more advanced and may have advantages such as greater burst speed. For example, the consumer-level Canon Rebel XSi shoots at 3.5 fps (frames per second) for 9 consecutive RAW files while the prosumer-level Canon 50D shoots at 6.3 fps for 16 consecutive RAW files. As far as image quality, the sensors used in the prosumer models are often very similar to the consumer models, so the images are quite comparable. Cost-wise, prosumer level cameras are "very generally" in the area of U.S. $900-2000.

The next step up and "top of the line" are the pro bodies. In Canon's line-up, these are currently the 1Ds Mark III and the 1D Mark IV. In Nikon's line-up, these are the D3S and D3X. These are the brands' flagships and are built extremely ruggedly to withstand the harshest conditions a pro might encounter. They generally have integrated vertical grips so you can turn them sideways to take portraits while still having a shutter button on top (giving the camera a "square" look), and they have the biggest and heaviest bodies:

Canon 1Ds Mark III

Canon 1Ds Mark III

They also have larger sensors than the consumer and prosumer models. The 1Ds Mark III, D3S and D3X all have "full-frame" sensors that are significantly larger than the sensors in the other two categories. A "full-frame" sensor is a sensor that is the same size as a piece of 35mm film. This does make for better picture quality in these models. A discussion on the advantages (and very few) disadvantages of full-frame sensors is for another article, but just know that the image quality from these sensors is often better than that of the other categories, especially in low-light situations. FYI, the 1D Mark IV has a sensor that is "in-between" the prosumer and pro categories. Performance-wise, these pro cameras are the top of the line models. They have many focus points, are capable of many frames per second (for example 10 fps for the 1D Mark IV), and they have countless options for customization. Cost-wise, pro level cameras are generally in the area of U.S. $3500 all the way up to $7000+. Note: most of these cameras do not have a built-in pop-up flash. You will need to buy a separate flash unit that fits into the top of the camera to take flash pictures. Popular flash models for Canon cameras include the 430EX II and 580EX II. Nikon has the SB-900 among others.

There is a very important "fourth category" that is worth discussing, especially since it's recently growing exponentially in popularity. This fourth category takes the full-frame sensor from the pro bodies and places it in a prosumer-level body. (Remember that a full-frame sensor is bigger than the sensor in the prosumer and consumer bodies, and all other things being equal, takes better pictures). Canon pioneered this with the introduction of the original Canon 5D several years ago. The 5D had a body very similar to something like the 50D today, but it had the full-frame sensor taken from Canon’s top-of-the-line 1D series. It took (and still takes today) amazing photographs, but was significantly less expensive than the 1D series, and was also smaller and lighter. It was one of the most popular and well-respected cameras they produced, and countless pro’s flocked to it. Today, there are several full-frame cameras available from the various brands. Nikon has introduced the D700, which is similar to the D300 but with a full-frame sensor. Sony has the Alpha A900 and A850. Canon is now producing the 5D Mark II. These cameras feature all the benefits of a full-frame sensor (better low-light performance, less noise per megapixel, true wide-angle capability with pro-grade lenses, etc.) but in less expensive, lighter, smaller bodies. Very generally, the cost of these cameras is U.S. $2600 – 3200.

So which of these categories is best for you? That of course depends on your needs. Hopefully the descriptions above about the size, weight, body ruggedness, controls (buttons / knobs), and performance will help guide you in a direction. If not, I add some more guidance at the bottom of this note to help you choose. Except for the decision about maybe buying a model with a full-frame sensor, picture quality should be less of a factor in your decision-making than some of the other factors. Speaking of picture quality, now is a good time to cover that…

In my opinion (and that of most photographers) the quality of your lenses is the #1 most important factor in the picture quality your camera produces. If you have a limited budget (which most people do!) spend your money on quality LENSES. If you were to take a great, high-quality lens and put it on one of the new inexpensive DSLRs, you can get incredible photos. On the other hand, if you take a top-of-the-line pro body and use a low-quality, cheap lens, you will not get quality results. There is nothing more bizarre to see than a guy walking around with a $7,000 camera and a $49 lens. I can assure he’s getting $49 worth of picture quality.

So what lens or lenses to get? Well this depends on what subjects you shoot and what you like to photograph. Certainly if you’re a sports or wildlife shooter, you’re going to be more interested in telephoto lenses than wide-angles. If you’re a landscape or architectural shooter, you’re probably more interested in wide-angles than telephotos. My recommendation would be to start with one lens (maybe two) and then acquire additional lenses over time as you feel out your shooting style and determine more concretely what you really need.

Most cameras can be purchased either as “body-only” or with a lens, commonly called the “kit lens” because the lens is bundled with the body as a kit. Nowadays, the kit lenses are getting better and better, many even including high-tech features such as image stabilization. The kit lenses when purchased with the body are generally very inexpensive vs. if you purchased it separately. If you know you will use the lens that comes with the kit, then by all means, purchase the kit. If you’re just getting started and want a general purpose “walk around’ lens for a variety of subjects, the kit lens can be a good choice to start out with. With focal lengths generally from 18mm to 55mm, they provide moderately wide coverage and a little bit of telephoto reach. Sometimes you might see an “alternate kit” which has a different lens (sometimes a little higher quality or with a wider focal range), also at a discount. Here are some examples of some lens options in the “walk-around” focal range (you'd buy just one of these): let’s say you’re buying a new Canon Rebel T2i (550D). You can buy it with the included Canon 18-55mm IS lens and you'd have a great general-purpose package. If you wanted more telephoto reach but still keeping the wide-angle, you could skip the kit lens and instead buy the 17-85mm IS. If you wanted a wider aperture for low-light shooting, you could buy the 17-55mm F2.8 IS. If you didn't care as much about the wide end and wanted a longer reach, you could buy the 28-135mm IS.

Outside of the “walk-around” focal range lenses, are some of the more specialty lenses:

If you don’t want to buy many lenses but still want to cover a very wide range, or you just want one lens so you don’t have to ever change lenses, you could go with an 18-200mm lens.

For telephoto, there are many lenses in the 70-200 and 70-300 range that would be great for sports and wildlife.

Canon 70-200 F4L

Canon 70-200 F4L

Coupled with a walk-around lens like the 18-55 or 17-85, the addition of a 70-200 creates a great range of focal lengths from the wide angle at 18mm to the telephoto at 200mm.

For super-wide-angle coverage for landscapes or architecture, look to something in the 10-22mm focal range (for consumer and prosumer bodies).

Then there are the wide-aperture lenses. These are sometimes fixed focal length (non-zooming) and include lenses like Canon’s spectacular 50mm F1.8, which is extremely inexpensive but takes razor-sharp photos and is great in low-light or when you need to blur the background. It’s fantastic for portraits as well. Most people who own a Canon DSLR eventually get this lens -- it's around $100.

For Macro shooters who want to get *really* close up to flowers, insects, seashells, or anything else, there are a series of macro lenses you can look at. These are generally fixed-focal-length lenses with wide apertures. They can be found in versions at 60mm, 100mm, 180mm, etc. Keep in mind the longer the focal length, the less close you need to be to a subject, so you can avoid scaring things off if you take pictures of live subjects. On the other hand, if you want to be close to your subject so you can reach out with your hand to make adjustments to a flower petal, then a shorter-focal length might be for you. Also keep in mind that these lenses are not just good for macro. They are fantastic for portraits as the wide apertures are great for blurring backgrounds. Perhaps more importantly, because they are fixed focal length and because of their design, they are preposterously sharp. In my personal opinion, they are the sharpest of all lenses that can be purchased. Canon's 100mm F2.8 macro is so sharp that I sometimes cannot believe my eyes. I actually use mine much more for portraits than for macro.

Then there are the really specialized lenses. These include Tilt / Shift lenses and fisheyes, etc. Tilt / Shift lenses are lenses that physically tilt around and swivel while attached to the camera:

Canon 17mm Tilt / Shift lens

Canon 17mm Tilt / Shift lens

The two "main" purposes, among others, are to fix slanted buildings when taking pictures of architecture (point a camera with a regular lens upward at a skyscraper and take a picture -- you'll see it looks like a pyramid! Tilt / Shift lenses fix this). The other purpose is to control depth-of-field, allowing you to get much more of the picture in-focus front-to-back, or to limit focus, no matter what aperture you're using. Fisheyes are ultra-wide-angle and are used creatively to capture an entire scene, and often can capture a full 180 degrees around you (including your feet, so be careful!)

I want to make one important note about lenses as you start to think about what you might like to buy. There are two types of lenses: lenses that are compatible with ALL the cameras in a brand's line and lenses that are specifically made ONLY for the consumer and prosumer categories I mentioned above. In Canon's lineup, for example, any lens that has "EF" in the name will fit on every camera in Canon's lineup. However, lenses with "EF-S" (vs. "EF") will NOT fit on Canon's Pro-category cameras (the 1D-series) or full-frame category (5D) cameras. Why is this important? Because someday you may upgrade your camera and find out that your lenses don't work with the new camera. For example, if you were buying a Canon Rebel T2i or Canon 60D, you might choose to purchase the Canon 60mm EF-S Macro lens to use with it. If someday in the future you decide to upgrade your camera and purchase a Canon 5D Mark II or one of the pro cameras, your 60mm EF-S lens will not work on the new camera, and you will have to replace it. So...if you think there is any chance that you might be upgrading cameras in a few years, then keep this note in mind and make sure that whenever possible you buy EF lenses so that you "future-proof" yourself. Now, I say "whenever possible" because sometimes you don't have a choice if you have one of the consumer or prosumer cameras and you want a certain focal length -- for example, if you want a super-wide angle for your 60D, the only Canon option in the 10mm range is the Canon 10-22mm EF-S lens. For technical design reasons, they simply don't make an EF version in that zoom range. This may not be a problem at all -- when you upgrade you may choose to keep the other camera anyway and all its lenses. I did this because I love the XTi and it's great for traveling. Or...you may choose to upgrade from the consumer line (T2i) to the prosumer line (60D), in which case your EF-S lenses will still work. They only won't work on the Pro line and the 5D series. Other brands also have lenses that only work on their consumer and prosumer lines, so always ask before you buy.

Alright, so which camera should you buy... you probably just want to know the answer to that one question. Here's the short(ish) answer:

If you're stepping up from a point-and-shoot, and are interested in taking up photography as a serious hobby and getting some outstanding shots, buy something like the Canon Rebel T2i or XSi or a Nikon D5000 or D90, provided it's not too small for your hands and you don't plan on shooting in "adventurous" conditions or in the rain or dust. If you're not sure exactly what subjects you like to shoot, stick with the 18-55mm lens that comes with it, play around a little, and see how many times you wish you could go "a little wider" vs. how many times you wish you could have "zoomed in a little more." Based on the answer to that last question, you can buy your next lens at some point in the future, which will either be a wide-angle or a telephoto.

If you're stepping up from a point-and-shoot, or you already have a film or other DSLR, and your intent is to get serious about photography, maybe make some money on the side, potentially shoot a friend's wedding on occasion or some travel photography for advertisements, then you might want to move right to the prosumer-level category and get something like the Canon 60D or 7D or a Nikon D300S. These are also a wise choice if you plan on taking your camera into more adventurous conditions where it might get banged around a bit, or get a little wet. Choose your lenses carefully because you may have them for a long time, and remember, it's ultimately the quality of your lenses that affects the quality of the pictures.

If your intention is to take photography very seriously, go pro (either part-time or full-time), then you can either go with something from the prosumer line or the pro line. If you want the very best quality in really low light, get a full-frame model from the pro line (Canon 1Ds Mark III or Nikon D3S or D3X) or one of the models with a full-frame sensor in a prosumer body (Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon D700, etc). If you intend on making massive prints, then get one with a high megapixel count... the 1Ds Mark III, 5D Mark II, and D3X all have over 20 megapixels for huge prints.

Two quick comments before I start to wrap up. I've used examples from Canon and Nikon (and a little of Sony), but all the brands make outstanding cameras. For the most part, these categories, lens types, etc. all apply to Pentax, Olympus, and Sony. If you already have lenses from one of the other brands and you're looking for a new camera, or you've had good experiences with their point-and-shoots and want to stick with the brand, you can always ask a salesperson to tell you which of the Canons or Nikons is comparable so you'll know which model to look at. So if reading this, you decide that a camera "in the category" of a Canon Rebel T2i is what's for you, then just ask the salesperson to show you the Pentax equivalent of the T2i and they'll help you out.

My final comment, which by now will be very (and purposely!) repetitive: it is the lenses that determine the picture quality! Don't skimp. You will always do better buying a lesser camera and better lenses.

I've created an app for iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch which teaches you photography -- more info can be found here:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

If you have any questions or comments, please let me know, and feel free to share this article with your Facebook friends:

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Best,
Paul

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Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

14Apr/09Off

HDR Tutorial — How to take HDR Photos

Sedona, Arizona

Sedona, Arizona

High Dynamic Range photography (HDR) is becoming increasingly popular, and for good reason. It opens up a whole new set of possibilities for photographic expression, and despite that it may “seem” complicated, it’s actually pretty straightforward. This guide will help you understand what HDR is, and how to create HDR photos.

First, let’s take a moment to understand some concepts. In photography, the phrase “Dynamic Range” just refers to the range of darkness to brightness in a scene. A scene with a high dynamic range has a large range of tones from dark to bright. It is very "contrasty". For example, a scene with a flower in the shade of an old barn, with the sun behind the barn would have a high dynamic range. The area in the shade might be fairly dark while the area behind the barn that is lit by the bright sun would be very bright.  The human eye is very good at “seeing” these types of scenes correctly. Your eye adjusts quickly to the darker shaded area so that you can see the flower and it adjusts when you look at the sunlit area so that you can see details there as well. On the other hand, cameras have more difficulty with these kinds of scenes. They cannot capture the entire range of darkness to brightness the way your eye sees it.

The picture below is a finished HDR picture that shows a scene with a high dynamic range.  This is the finished product.  Later on in this tutorial I'll show you how we created this final shot, and why it would not have been possible without HDR.

Sedona, Arizona

Sedona, Arizona

Generally, when you’re presented with these types of contrasty scenes and you try to make a photograph, you have to choose which area is more important, the shadows or the highlights, and take your picture with only one exposed correctly, while the other one is not exposed correctly. For example, in our example above with the barn and the flower, if you feel the shaded area with the flower is the most important part of the scene, you expose for the shaded area, and the sunlit area will be completely overexposed and “blown out” turning into a patch of pure white with no details. If you feel the sunlit area behind the barn is most important, you would expose for that area, but then the shadow area would be underexposed, resulting in a patch of pure black with no details. The classic example of a dynamic range “situation” is the silhouette. If a person is standing in front of you with their back to the sun and you look at them, you can see their face as well as the sunset. However if you take a picture with the sunset correctly exposed, the person’s face will be completely dark in silhouette. Another photographic example is indoor photos taken during the day, when there is a window in the photo (which is also a great time to use HDR). Without HDR, if you expose so that you can see the interior of the room, the window will be just a pure white patch -- you won't be able to see what's outside at all.

HDR photography seeks to fix this problem. The goal is to be able to photograph a scene and capture all of the range of tones from very dark to very bright in one photograph. Since we already know that a camera can only capture a small range of dark-to-bright in a single photograph, then how do we get around this problem? Simple: we use more than one photograph. We photograph the same scene multiple times, each time capturing a different range of dark-to-bright, and then combine all the photos on the computer into a single photo that has all the ranges of brightness together. It may sound complicated, but it’s not, especially when you can use special software to combine the photos.
 

Let’s talk a little about the procedure to create an HDR photo. There are really just two primary steps: (1) capturing the series of photos that have all the ranges of tones from dark to bright, and (2) combining them on the computer. We’ll take them one at a time. The first step is to capture a series of photos, all of the same scene, without the camera moving while you are shooting all the shots (for this reason, most HDR shots are taken on a tripod, although if the shutter speed is fast enough, it is possible to handhold an HDR shot, but that is much less common). Each picture will contain a different range of brightness levels. So how many photos do you need and how do you know what the exposures should be? There are varying opinions on both topics, but for the majority of scenes, three photos is enough to capture the whole dynamic range. The three photos capture the dark, medium, and light tones in the scene. Occasionally I’ll shoot a fourth, and very rarely I’ll shoot a fifth, but that’s in extreme circumstances. As for the exposures, you’ll want them spaced 2 stops (or EV) apart. For example, if the middle exposure is 1/100th a second, then the other two exposures will be 1/25th second (which is two stops brighter) and 1/400th second (which is two stops darker). So how do you determine what exposures to shoot? Everyone has their own method. Here’s mine: First I set the ISO to 100. The process of combining the three photos can sometimes introduce or magnify noise in an image, so I like to start with the cleanest images possible. Shooting ISO 100 helps produce clean images. If your camera has RAW mode, I also suggest using it (see my separate note on RAW vs JPEG for more information). RAW files contain a lot more information than JPEGs, which is really important in HDR photography. Once the ISO is set to 100, I set the camera to full-manual (M) mode and I set the aperture so that it’s appropriate for the scene. The next step is to determine the exposure that will properly expose the highlights (bright areas) without them being blown out. I estimate a shutter speed and take a shot to see how the exposure looks. If there are any areas that look blown out or too bright, I set the shutter speed to a little faster and try again. Keep in mind that when you look at the shot, most of the shot will be very dark or even completely black. What you’re trying to do here is determine the shutter speed where you don’t blow out the highlights, that’s all.  The picture below, which is part of the final image, is the picture I took being careful not to blow out the highlights.  Note how the rest of the image is extremely dark.  On its own, this photo is unusable.  On the other hand, it captures the sky and all the details in the clouds without blowing anything out.

Sedona, Arizona, HDR, -2 EV
Sedona, Arizona, HDR, -2 EV

Let’s say a shutter speed of 1/400th of a second is what’s needed so that I can see detail in the clouds.  We will keep this photo as the first in the series, because it correctly captures just the clouds.

So now that we’ve established that 1/400th is the exposure that accurately captures the highlights, it’s time to take the other photos. This is pretty straightforward. Just set the shutter speed for two stops brighter and take another shot. In this case, two stops brighter is 1/100th second. Set the shutter and take the shot. Here's the middle exposure:

Sedona, Arizona, HDR, Normal EV
Sedona, Arizona, HDR, Normal EV

Note how the main rock is now pretty close to a good exposure (though still a little dark) and the brightest parts of the grasses and fence are also at a good exposure.  Also note that now we've blown out the clouds -- they are very overexposed.  We also still do not have enough detail in the shadows and darker areas -- this photo is still not bright enough.  On its own, although this picture captures some of the grass and the rock at a good exposure, it is for the most part unusable due to the blown out clouds and dark shadows.

Now we need one final shot that’s two more stops brighter. Set the shutter speed to 1/25th second and take the shot.  Here's the exposure at two stops brighter:

Sedona, Arizona, HDR, +2 EV
Sedona, Arizona, HDR, +2 EV

Note how the sky is completely and utterly blown out, the rocks are fairly overexposed, but the shadows of the fence and the darker parts of the grasses are now correctly exposed.  Like the other two shots, on its own, this shot is unusable.  However, it correctly captures the darker areas of the scene.

In most circumstances, you’ll be done here. If you look at the third shot and there are still areas that look dark and underexposed, you can take a fourth shot that’s two stops brighter still (1/6th) and so on. Once you’ve captured a series of shots that contains all the ranges of brightness from dark to bright, you’re all set and ready to move on to the next phase, which is combining the shots on the computer. But first, let’s talk a little bit about auto-exposure-bracketing.

This next paragraph talks about auto-exposure-bracketing, which is completely optional and not “necessary” for HDR, but it will make your life a bit easier. If your camera has this feature, read on. Otherwise, feel free to skip this paragraph.  Auto-bracketing is something you may already be familiar with, if your camera has this feature (many newer cameras do). It was originally designed simply as a way to ensure you cover your bases when shooting in tricky lighting situations. If you’re not sure of the correct exposure for a scene, you can set your camera to auto-bracket the shot, which means it will take three shots for you. The first time you press the shutter, the camera will take a photo at the exposure you set. Then you press the shutter again, and it will take another shot, but this time it will be a little darker than the original shot. The third time you press the shutter, it will take a shot that is a little brighter than the original. You specify how much brighter / darker, in stops, when you set up the bracketing. For instance, you can set up auto-bracketing to take three shots, one at the target exposure, and then a shot that is one-stop brighter, and a shot that is one-stop darker. This way, if it turns out that you incorrectly calculated the target exposure, you may still have a correctly exposed photograph in one of the two bracketed shots. It’s basically an insurance policy for exposure mistakes! The best part is, you can set it so that the camera takes all three shots in a row automatically. On my cameras, when I use the remote control, if the camera is set to auto-exposure-bracket, it takes all three shots in a row automatically with one button press. So you press the remote control button one time, and voila, three shots at varying brightness levels. I’m sure you can guess where this is going. It’s absolutely perfect for HDR! Especially because the shots are taken so quickly in succession. Even if there are objects moving in the frame, the three shots are taken so quickly that it may be barely noticeable. Using our previous example, this is how I would set it up. To start, you’ll want to turn off the auto-bracketing so you can determine the target exposures. Experiment with various shutter speeds to determine the shutter speed that captures the highlights accurately, as we did before, and make a mental note of it. In our previous example, it was 1/400th second. Now set the shutter speed on your camera for two-stops brighter than that shutter speed you just noted. In our case, that would be 1/100th second. Now go ahead and turn on the auto-bracketing feature, set it for +/- two stops (meaning that the camera will take one shot at the target exposure, one shot that is two stops darker, and one shot that is two stops brighter), and take the shots. It will take the first shot at 1/100th, the next shot at 1/400th, and the final shot at 1/25th. Perfect! You’ve just completely taken the correct series of shots with a single button press! Notice how it’s the same exact exposures that you had set manually above during the first example, except it’s all automatic. Fantastic. If your camera has auto-bracketing, of course I suggest you use it. If not, no worries. You can always just set the exposures manually, and unless your camera can be set to take more than three shots in a bracket (most cannot), you would need to set the exposure manually anyway if you needed a fourth of fifth shot to complete the series. You can also use auto-bracketing if you want to try to handhold an HDR shot. Set the camera to auto-bracket and then set the shooting mode to continuous (like sports mode, meaning it will continue taking multiple shots for as long as you hold down the shutter button). On my cameras, if it’s set to auto-bracket and continuous mode, holding the shutter button down will take three shots in very rapid succession at the correct exposures. If the shutter speeds are fast enough (for instance, 1/400th, 1/800th, and 1/100th), it is possible to handhold an HDR shot, but you must be sure to remain perfectly still when taking the shots so that camera doesn’t move at all in between shots.

OK, so now you have your series of shots with all the levels of brightness in the scene. What now? Now it’s time to combine them in software on the computer. There are many different software products that allow you to create an HDR image from a series of photos. In my opinion, Photomatix by HDRsoft is the best and most popular. Newer versions of Photoshop also have this feature, as well as a variety of other products. I personally use Photomatix, as do many other people. The rest of this tutorial will describe my personal process for Photomatix. Everybody’s workflow and procedure will be different, so feel free to use this as a guideline and to adapt it to your own style.

As previously mentioned, it’s best to shoot RAW files (vs. JPEGs) as they contain the most information. Some HDR software tools can create HDR files directly from the RAW files, but I like to convert my RAW files to 16-bit TIFF files and process those into the HDR image. This is because I prefer to let my dedicated RAW conversion software do the conversion, vs. the HDR software. (If this paragraph isn't clear, see my article on RAW vs JPEG for more info).

Once I have my series of 16-bit TIFF files, it’s time to start the process of creating the HDR image. I’ll go through this process on a conceptual level, rather than bogging you down with the technical details of every mouse-click and screen. This will also make it more applicable to a variety of HDR software products, but will still provide enough detail on how to do it.

Firstly, load up your HDR software. In my case, it’s Photomatix. You should see a button or menu choice that says “Create HDR image” or something to that effect, and you’ll be asked to select all the photos in the series you took. Select the three (or more) photos you took, that have all the brightness levels. After you’ve selected the series of photos and clicked OK, the computer will do some processing and soon a weird looking photo that doesn’t look quite right will appear on your screen. This is “technically speaking” an HDR image, but it’s not yet in a format that can be correctly displayed on your screen. There are so many levels of brightness in that “technically HDR” image that your computer monitor (or printer) cannot handle it. The next step is what creates the final image that looks good, and that step is to “tonemap” the image, which really just means to combine all the levels of brightness in the series of photos into a single photo that can be properly displayed on your monitor and printed. To do this, you’ll click a button that says Tonemap Image, or something to that effect, and after your computer does some more number crunching, you’ll see your photo appear on the screen for the first time with all of the levels of brightness combined properly. At this stage, the photo with appear with the saturation, brightness, etc. set at the defaults for Photomatix. It is at this point you’ll begin the process of tweaking it to make it look how you want, to put your own personal touch on it. In Photomatix, there are a variety of settings that you can set using on-screen buttons and sliders that control the brightness of the image, the saturation, and most importantly the intensity of how strong the “HDR effect” looks. This is all a matter of personal preference so I won’t get into too much detail here. In Photomatix, the most important sliders / buttons are the “Strength” slider and the “Light Smoothing” buttons which control how intense the HDR effect looks. You may have seen HDR images that have that “painted” look. The Strength and Light Smoothing settings are the two settings that most affect how much of that painted look is applied to the final image. I personally prefer a more photo-realistic look, and use HDR to capture images with the same dynamic range as my eye sees, but I can absolutely see the merits of the painted look as well. Of course the other sliders and buttons also have a huge effect, and you’ll just need to experiment to see what you like best.

Once you’ve set the sliders and buttons and adjusted the image to how you like it, the final step is to save the final image. Press the “process” button and the computer will crunch some numbers again and will create a JPEG file based on the settings you’ve chosen. Save the JPEG and you’ve successfully created an HDR image!  As an optional step, many people will load the final HDR image into Photoshop or any other image editing program to make some final tweaks to saturation, contrast, etc. I often do this myself (I use Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo).

Our final HDR image looks like this:

Sedona, Arizona
Sedona, Arizona

I find HDR to be useful in a wide variety of situations. I particularly like using it for night shots. For instance, I can use it to properly expose a night cityscape with buildings and water, while keeping the highlights from the city lights properly exposed as well. The Brooklyn Bridge image you see below is an example of this technique, and is an HDR image. If you combine the information in my previous article on Night Photography with the HDR techniques you learned here, you’ll be taking similar images in no time.

I've also created an app for iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch which teaches you photography -- more info can be found here:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

(This HDR tutorial is part of the iPhone / Android app mentioned above -- take it wherever you go!)

If you have any questions or comments, please let me know, and feel free to share this tutorial with your Facebook friends:

Share

Best,
Paul

To keep up-to-date with the latest photo additions and other topics, you can also become a fan at my Photography Facebook page at:

Paul Timpa Photography's Facebook Page

If you'd like to purchase prints or stock photography licenses for my photos (for advertising and editorial use), please visit:

http://www.timpaphotography.com/purchase

Paul offers one-on-one photography workshops in New York City, including an "Intro to Digital Photography" course.  For more information, please use the link below.

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

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Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City
Brooklyn Bridge, New York City


14Apr/09Off

Night Photography / Low-light Photography — Tips for Night Photos

Star Trails, Costa Rica

Star Trails, Costa Rica

The allure of the night shot. The sparkling lights of a city skyline, the moonlit seascape, neon signs, and star trails to traffic trails... For some (including myself) the night shot represents the epitome of fascinating, enthralling photography. Looking at these photos in awe, we cannot help but say “wow”.

Of course, one thing separates night photography from many other types. It requires a fairly significant amount of “technical” skill to get good results. It’s much easier to wind up with blurry, incorrectly exposed, or out-of-focus photos at night than it is during the day. So how do we fix that? This brief guide will show you how…

Night shots can be spectacular to look at. A properly executed night image can impress even the most jaded viewer. But one thing ruins probably 90% of night shots out there. Blur. Let’s talk about how to take sharp photos at night…

Because light levels are so low at night, longer shutter speeds are required to allow enough light into the camera to expose the image. You’ll often need shutter speeds that last several seconds. Of course any time you’re using longer shutter speeds, you’re introducing the possibility of blurry images due to camera movement. First and foremost, it’s just not possible to handhold a successful night shot. A tripod or other support must be used, even if it’s just a bench, railing, recycling bin, or tree branch. Yes, “technically” you can up the ISO to get a manageable handholding shutter speed, but I don’t recommend it. High ISOs lead to noisy images (multicolored or white speckles all over the image), loss of sharpness, and loss of detail. If you really want to take a powerful night shot, you should keep the ISO at 100, unless for some unusual reason you need ISO 200. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend going over 100.

OK, so you’ve found a great position to take your shot, and you’ve successfully balanced your camera on the back of a sleeping coyote (he’s very still). Now what? Provided the ISO is set to 100, it’s time to set the exposure…

Sunset, Costa Rica

Sunset, Costa Rica

Firstly, set your camera to full-manual mode where you manually set the aperture and shutter speed individually. Your camera’s meter doesn’t work well at night and will only cause problems and inconsistencies from shot to shot, so don’t concern yourself with it. Once in manual mode, it’s time to determine what to set for shutter speed and aperture. If we know that the longer the shutter is open, the more chance there will be of movement (resulting in blur), then we should do whatever we can to get the shortest shutter speed possible. Since we’ve already established that we’re sticking with ISO 100, that means we need to use the widest aperture that will work for the scene. Using a wide aperture (low number), more light enters the camera and you can use a faster shutter speed. Unless you have objects that are both very close to you and very far from you that all need to be in focus (which I find rarely to be the case in night photography), you can get away with fairly wide apertures such as F5.6. I’d recommend starting with an aperture of F5.6 and a shutter speed of 3 seconds. This usually provides me with a good starting point of evaluating how much light is in the scene and often results in a decent starting exposure. Look at the LCD and see if the image appears too dark or too bright. If it’s too bright, set the shutter speed to 1.5 seconds and try again. If it’s too dark, set to 6 seconds. Experiment with various settings until you arrive at a shutter speed that works for the scene. There are three main reasons why you might want to have a smaller aperture (keeping in mind that you will be lengthening the shutter speed and increasing the chance of blur). (#1) – small apertures create that “star” effect on small bright lights – if you want the stars, you’ll need an aperture of at least F8, and more likely F11 and smaller, (#2) if you have objects that are up close and also far away, and all need to be in focus, then you’ll need a small aperture to increase depth of field, and (#3) for creative purposes, for example if you want a longer shutter speed to increase the effect of traffic trails, to create a silky blur of the ocean, or to allow yourself time to do some “painting with light” (using a flashlight to manually illuminate certain areas of a scene), etc., then you may want to use a smaller aperture.

Let’s talk about focusing for a bit. The reality is, cameras really don’t autofocus all that well in the dark. You’re going to have to rely on some skill here. When you attempt to use autofocus in the dark, generally one of two things happens: either the camera focuses on the wrong object or the camera hunts around in the dark for a few seconds, it can’t find anything to focus on, and it prevents you from taking the shot. Neither one is what you want, especially if a spectacular scene is unfolding in front of you. There are really only two options. Firstly, you can set the lens to manual focus and just use your eye to focus as best you can. If you’re focusing on a far away city skyline or landscape, you can just look at the lens barrel and focus at infinity using the infinity marker on the focus ring. The second option, and the one I use most often, is a hybrid of auto and manual focus. Set the camera to use only the center focus point and turn off the other focus points. On most cameras, the center focus point is the most sensitive to light and works best in the dark. Look through the viewfinder and position the center focus point on where you want to focus. If there is a bright light near where you want to focus, use that. The brighter the object, the more easily the camera will find focus. Press the shutter button half-way to try to autofocus. You may need to give it quite a few tries for it to successfully lock on. If you successfully autofocus, immediately switch the lens to manual focus on the lens barrel. Be careful not to touch the focus ring and change focus as you’re doing this! Now compose the shot as you need to, again being careful not to touch the focus ring. Now you can take your shot without worry of the camera focusing on the wrong object, or worse, hunting in the dark unsuccessfully and never taking a shot at all.

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

If possible, I also recommend using your camera’s mirror lockup function, if it has it. This text on mirror lockup is taken from my Note on “Taking Sharp Photos”:

If your camera has a “mirror lockup” feature, you can also use this. You may know that when you click the shutter, the mirror flips out of the way so that the light can hit the sensor. The flipping of this mirror can cause the camera to shake, which is especially visible when using long lenses. By setting the mirror lockup, you are flipping up the mirror before the actual picture is taken, preventing camera shake and the resulting blur.

My final note on sharpness, and something that is perhaps one of the most common mistakes in night photography: always remember to use the self-timer or a remote control to fire the shutter. Using your finger to press the shutter will result in blurry shots. The sturdiest tripod, the most accurate focus, will not help at all if you touch the camera when trying to take the shot. I recommend getting a remote control for your camera, so you don’t have to wait 10 seconds every time you take a shot as you would if you use the self-timer, and you have more control over when it fires (for instance, if you’re trying to fire it exactly when there are no people walking in front of the camera). Remote controls are relatively inexpensive and small (easy to carry around). The one for Canon cameras is less than $25 and it’s smaller than your thumb.

A few tips on specific types of night shots:

Moon photography: The most common mistake when photographing the moon is overexposure. The moon is reflecting the sun. It is extremely bright. You must use very fast shutter speeds to avoid overexposing the moon. If you don’t see individual craters and shades of gray (meaning it just looks like a bright white circle), the image is overexposed. Set a faster shutter speed and try again.

Traffic Trails: By nature of having the shutter open for several seconds during night shots, you will almost always get traffic trails when there are roads in the photo. Set the shutter speed to longer or shorter as necessary to adjust the length of the trails (and don’t forget to adjust the aperture to match the shutter speed you’ve chosen).

Lightning Strike over East River, New York City

Lightning Strike over East River, New York City

Star Trails: If you keep the shutter open long enough, you can capture star trails. Star trails result from the rotation of the earth. Objects on the ground remain stationary, but since the earth is rotating relative to the stars, long exposures will show this rotation (see the shot at the top of this post). You’ll generally need exposures of at least a half hour to show trails (though you will see small trails in as little as a few minutes). You can either take a single shot for the entire duration (which may result in a noisy image, but is very easy to take), or you can take a few shorter shots and layer them on the computer. Set your camera to Bulb mode, and using a remote control, open the shutter, wait the appropriate amount of time (just use your watch), and close the shutter with the remote. Make sure to have something on the ground in the shot, to add interest and emphasize the motion.

Taking night shots can be incredibly exciting and result in some spectacular images. Good luck and happy shooting.

I've also created an app for iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch which teaches you photography -- more info can be found here:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

If you have any questions or comments, please let me know, and feel free to share this tutorial with your Facebook friends:

 Share

Best,
Paul

South Street Seaport, NYC

South Street Seaport, NYC

If you'd like to purchase prints or stock photography licenses for my photos (for advertising and editorial use), please visit:

http://www.timpaphotography.com/purchase

To keep up-to-date with the latest photo additions and other topics, you can also become a fan at my Photography Facebook page at:

Paul Timpa Photography's Facebook Page

I offer one-on-one photography workshops in New York City, including an "Intro to Digital Photography" course.  For more information, please use the link below.

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa