RAW vs JPG: Lesson Learned the Hard Way

Sometimes we learn our lessons the hard way. I consider this post to be about the best picture I never got. Oh, I got the shot alright, but I shot it in JPG instead of RAW, and it just didn’t capture the colors the way a RAW would have. Even after merging multiple exposures and saving out to a TIF. A few months ago I decided to ditch Lightroom and Photoshop to give MyLio and another image editor a try. Since MyLio doesn’t support my Fuji RAW files yet, I decided to give JPG a shot.

This was the dream shot. I love long exposures in the magic hour. I had got up at an ungodly hour to be on Koki beach in time for sunrise. Once I took the capture, I knew it was the shot of a lifetime. Then came post, and I ended up with some ugly banding in the sky. Below you’ll see the original on the left. Look at the rock and you’ll see it. After hours of trying to fix this I realized there was nothing I could do with my semi-rudimentary Photoshop skills, so I ended up replacing the sky with a sunset I captured in Santorini.

See Your Photos On a Map

Every picture you take with your smart phone is automatically tagged with information about where the picture was taken. Wouldn’t it be great if your camera did that too?

The photo above is a map from Lightroom that shows where all my photos were taken, yet very few of them were taken with a smart phone. None of them were taken with a camera that automatically tags them. The vast majority were taken with a DSLR, then paired up with geographic data from my smart phone using an app.

How they work:

  1. Make sure your camera and smart phone are set to the exact same date and time.
    Start the app.
  2. Walk around and take pictures while your phone is in your pocket, recording where you wander.
  3. Merge the data later.
  4. There are dozens of apps that will allow you to do this fairly easily. I’ve experimented with a handful of them, and they’ve all done a great job. They all vary a bit. They all have different in-app options available, and most handle the merging in several different ways. The app I’ve chosen isn’t necessarily the best, by any means. It’s just the one that clicked for me. The app is called Geotagr.
    Once I’m done recording and back at my computer, I put my photos in a shared folder on my computer, then use the app to connect to that folder and tag them. Once that’s done I import them into Lightroom and my photos will show up on the Map feature in Lightroom, as well as on the Places selections on my iPhone and iPad.

Are Vintage Filters the Devil?

Since the introduction of Instagram, the Web has been flooded with millions of photos, taken with good cameras, only to have effects applied to them to make them look old and weathered. The fad was popularized by Instagram, and there are now dozens (if not hundreds) of apps designed to apply these types of filters to your photos. Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? Most people seem very opinionated on the subject. Everyone seems to either love or hate it. My personal opinion falls somewhere in the middle. First and foremost, let me address the opinion I hear too often from accomplished photographers: That of “why would you take a good photo and intentionally turn it into a bad one?” This, in my opinion, simply doesn’t happen as often as they would have you believe. A good shot (one that’s balanced, well-composed, properly exposed, has a clearly-defined subject, etc.) typically isn’t going to be turned into a “bad photo” when a filter is applied to it, as those underlying elements will still exist. I say “typically” because some people do go way too far with them.
On the flip side, a bad photo with a filter applied to it won’t be magically transformed into a good one either. There was a brief moment in time when these looks were unique enough that they distracted the user from noticing the photo was bad, but that moment passed a long time ago.

So do these effects have a place in good photography or not? In my opinion, they absolutely do, and it comes down to context.

Think about the things you see in homes. Have you ever seen new furniture or hardwood floors that are treated to look old and weathered? Of course! They even come from the factory that way. And how did it look? It may or may not be your personal preference, but it’s hard to dismiss it as a completely invalid design style. It has it’s place, even if you think that place should be restricted to a mountain cabin. Now think about that fancy new space age washer and dryer you just bought. How would those look if you scraped and dinged them up to look old? I don’t even need to answer that one.

When you think about applying that vintage filter to a photo you just took, think about the home decorating scenarios above. A shot of an old stage coach at a historical site out west is probably a better subject for a vintage photo filter than the architectural shot you took of the newest uber-modern building downtown.

Then again, art is art. It’s 100% subjective, and you should do what makes you happy. Just do it intentionally, and not blindly. Sort of like the old saying that says “you should know the rules before you break them”.

Exposure Stacking

I learned a new technique this weekend. Well, not new, but new to me. It’s called exposure stacking. It’s a method of combining several exposures into a single image. Why? Read on! I wanted to go for a silky-smooth water effect with a neutral density filter that allowed me to keep the shutter open for several seconds. The problem with just shooting this way straight up is that there are other things in the scene moving and I didn’t want those things blurred by motion.

So for each of these shots I took two exposures. A quick one and a long one. I combined them into Photoshop layers and erased all but the water from the long exposure, so the quick exposure signed through on the rest of the image. I’m pretty pleased with the results I got. I hope you like them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

DIY Variable Neutral Density Filter

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Neutral density filters are what dreams are made of. Okay, maybe that’s pushing it, but they are often what long, flowing dreamy waterfall photos are made of. To get that soft water effect on your photos, you need to get the shutter to stay open for a while. At least a second. Sometimes up to 10 seconds, depending on the speed of the water and the effect you’re going for. Waterfalls are far from the only use for this technique, but it’s what many people think of when they think of long exposure photography.

The problem with simply programming your camera to leave the shutter speed open longer is that, on bright days, you let too much light in and your pictures come out overexposed. Enter the neutral density filter, which (in simple terms) is just a dark piece of glass that screws onto the end of your lens, making the scene darker so you can leave your camera’s shutter open longer.

The problem with using standard ND filters is that they come in fixed degrees of darkness. So you either need to buy (and probably carry) several different filters of different degrees of darkness. That’s why I’ve always preferred variable neutral density filters. These are dual-glass filters that you can rotate to gain access various degrees of darkness, even hitting all the points in between full stops.

The problem with variable neutral density filters is that they’re still somewhat of a novelty, therefore tend to be very expensive and difficult to find in less common sizes. For example, I searched and searched for one that would fit my little Olympus lenses and could only find one… And it got bad reviews. So what did I do? I made my own!

All you need is 2 circular polarizing filters and a small screwdriver. Take the glass out of one and flip it over, then screw the two together, putting the flipped one furthest from the camera body. Travis L. Patterson has an excellent video on his Vimeo channel of how this is done:

DIY Variable-ND filter from Travis L. Patterson Media on Vimeo.

Making Magic With the Golden Hour

Generally considered the best times of the day to take outdoor photographs, the Golden Hour refers to the first and last hour of daylight. The quality of the light is just fantastic. Very few hard shadows, and the light has a wonderful, warm glow to it. It’s particularly good for shooting landscapes and architecture. I got this shot at the very beginning of the evening Golden Hour in Athens.

So, how do you know when what time the Golden Hour starts? Well, there’s an app for that! As usual, I’m sure there are several apps for that. The one I use is called Magic Hour (iPhone / Android). Simply open the app and it will tell you when the next Golden Hour begins and ends based on your current location. It also includes the sunset or sunrise time (depending on which is coming up next).

I frequently use this app to time my visit to key spots I want to shoot from. Here’s another Golden Hour shot I got of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

Using an app like Magic Hour is a lot easier and more reliable than trying to time your visit by guessing what time the sun will go down.