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Few Tips to Improve Your Photographs Immediately

Here are few quick tips that are in no particular order.

Below your knees and above your head. Things might look more interesting from a different perspective. Lay down on the ground or get to higher grounds.

Zoom in or out with your feet once in a while. It’s not the same as rotating the zoom ring.

Observe your subject silently. But be prepared. Few more seconds just might give you something better than a boring shot.

Sneak in a candid or two or more.

Lighting plays a major role.

With and without flashers.

Human elements add to the picture.

But nature is always glorious on its own.

Sometimes you need more than one picture to capture all that glory.

Arugam Bay

Get up before sunrise.

Wait until sundown.

Focus on the eyes.

It’s okay to frame tight.

Sometimes there are frames all around us.

But backgrounds can also be interesting.

Does your picture tell a story?

Images may not be copied, printed, re-displayed on another website or otherwise disseminated without the express written permission of the photographer.
Copyright © Jayaruwan Gunathilake. All Rights Reserved.

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Singapore – 2014

It’s been a while since I posted anything in here. I don’t get to write as much as I would like to when I’m in the US. I was in Singapore about two weeks ago and managed to make some pictures. Hope you enjoy!

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f/5.6, 1/200, 300mm, ISO-800

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f/5.6, 1/80, 300mm, ISO-400

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f/8, 2 sec, 22mm, ISO-100

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f/4.5, 1/50, 112mm, ISO-800

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f/5.0, 1/250, 214mm, ISO-400

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f/5.6, 1/320, 300mm, -1EV, ISO-1600

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f/5.6, 1/250, 300mm, -1EV, ISO-400

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f/5.0, 1/100, 207mm, -1EV, ISO-1600

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f/4.5, 1/1600, 128mm, ISO-400

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f/5.6, 1/640, 300mm, ISO-400

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f/5.6, 1/250, 252mm, ISO-400

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f/8, 15 sec, 22mm, ISO-100

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f/2.8, 1/125, 50mm, ISO-400

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f/8, 1/500, 22mm, ISO-400

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Panoramic View from Peninsula Excelsior Hotel – f/8, 10mm, ISO-100

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Best of Sri Lanka 2010-2014

For today, it has been exactly four years since my trustworthy camera was ordered. After four years and almost 40,000 shots, I picked out the favorite pictures I have taken in Sri Lanka. We’ve come a long way. Hope you enjoy the pictures.

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Wattala

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Wattala

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Ratnapura

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Ratnapura

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Ratnapura

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Ratnapura

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Nuwara Eliya

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Sigiriya Rock Fortress

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Ratnapura

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Yala National Park

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Bundala National Park

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Bundala National Park

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Induruwa

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Water’s Edge

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Water’s Edge

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Ratnapura

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Bopath Falls

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Ratnapura

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Galle Fort

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Ratnapura

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Udawalawa National Park

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Ratnapura

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Ratnapura

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Ratnapura

Dambulla_3

Dambulla Golden Temple

Sigiriya_2

Sigiri Frescoes

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Ratnapura

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Polonnaruwa

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Ratnapura

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Pasikuda_1

Pasikuda

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Bundala National Park

Minneriya_2

Minneriya National Park

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Yala National Park

Pasikuda

Pasikuda

Gal Viharaya_1

Polonnaruwa Gal Viharaya

Dunhinda Falls

Dunhinda Falls

milky way

Pasikuda

Dambulla_2

Dambulla

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Yala National Park

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Water’s Edge

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Ratnapura

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Udawalawa National Park

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Bambarakanda Falls

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Near Dehena Falls

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Udawalawa National Park

Arugam Bay

Arugam Bay

Sigiriya

Sigirya

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Wattala

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Ratnapura

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Yala National Park

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I don’t remember where this is

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Galle Fort

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Galle Fort

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Salgala Monastery

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Weheragala National Park

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Salgala Monastery

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How to Create Panoramas Using Photoshop

Panoramas are fun and useful when you don’t have a super wide lens. Sometimes even a super wide lens isn’t capable of capturing the true glory of the scene that is in front of you. Making panoramas is actually a pretty easy straight forward process. Of course with most smart phones you just have to pan it and it will create a panorama for you. I still resort to my DSLR because I love my RAW files.

There are especially designed sophisticated robotic heads that will automatically take couple hundred pictures and create huge panoramas exceeding couple of gigapixels. What I’m describing here is the standard cheap method where you take seven, eight, or nine etc. pictures with your camera and stitching them together later. Due to a phenomenon called lens distortion, you can’t simply open the images in photoshop and overlap them. You have to automate the process. We’ll get to that later.

The Setup

All you actually need is a camera. However, a tripod is extremely useful. Orientation of the camera is something that is often overlooked when it comes to panoramas. Here’s the trick. If you are panning your camera horizontally, you want to have your camera in the vertical (portrait) position and vice versa. This way you capture more scenery. When you take pictures, make sure that you have at least 30% overlap between each two pictures. It is also advised that you switch your camera to manual focus in order to have the same focus throughout the panorama. Then you just click away!

The Workflow

I’m going to use 7 pictures I took recently for this demonstration and I’m using Adobe Bridge and Adobe Photoshop CS6. Once you import your pictures into Adobe Bridge, you can select them and open them using Adobe Camera RAW. Then you can do all the global adjustments on one picture and synchronize the changes with the others by selecting them and pressing “synchronize”. Enabling the lens profile corrections is always a good idea especially if you shot your pictures with a super wide lens due to high distortion. You may do local adjustments on specific pictures to remove and fix minor errors if there are any. Once you’re done with your adjustments, hit done.

Sync

Global adjustment using Camera RAW

Back in Bridge and while you still have your pictures selected, go to Tools > Photoshop > Photomerge. This will open up a dialog in photoshop. I keep all of the settings default. There is no need to turn on “Vignette Removal” if you enabled the lens profile correction earlier because it would have removed most if not all vignetting. Then hit “OK”. This is going to take some time depending on how many pictures you have and the speed of your computer. Let it run its course.

Photomerge

Photomerge dialog

Once it’s done, you will get this odd shaped panorama. You simply have to crop it into the shape you desire.

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Odd shaped panorama

Crop

Crop it out

Don’t worry too much about the sky because that empty space can be easily filled using a filter. You can try to fill the other areas using the same method but it’s either a hit or a miss depending on how many objects you have close by. The more cluttered it is the more difficult to fill. However the sky is almost always spot on. Once you’re done cropping, create a new layer on top of all the other layers. While the new layer is selected, go to Image > Apply Image. This will copy all you see in your photoshop document into the new layer. You can then remove all the other layers if you’re sure you don’t need them anymore to speed up the process. Then using the magic wand tool, select the empty space. Then go to Edit > Fill (shortcut: Shift + F5). Make sure you have “content aware” selected which is the default and hit “OK” and see the magic happens.

Content Aware

Content aware filter

Then you’re basically done. It is always a good idea to zoom in and see where the images overlapped and where you used the content aware filter to see if there are any minor distortions. If there are any, you can almost always use the healing brush to fix them and if not, you can just go through your regular workflow to further enhance your newly made panorama.

Final

Final image before the regular workflow

There are obviously other software out there to create panoramas. Canon comes with a software called PhotoStitch. It almost looks like it was made for windows 95. I’m not kidding. Also, I find it weird that it does not support their own RAW files. It only supports JPEG, TIFF and several other formats. Furthermore, you can’t enter anything below 20mm as the focal length. I tried to create the same panorama with PhotoStitch but it spat out a horrible result which I’m ashamed to post here. At least they make damn good cameras. You may be able to find some good software to do the same job but I like to stick with Photoshop for the moment.

Arugam Bay

Final product

I hope you enjoyed this post and learned something new. Please consider sharing it if you think it’s useful. Thank you.

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Road Trip – Sri Lanka

A road trip around Sri Lanka was long overdue. Specially as a photographer, travelling is one of the best things in life. Last week I had the privilege of travelling around Sri Lanka with a bunch of wonderful companions. Even though I was born and raised here, there are still so many places I haven’t been to. It’s truly extraordinary to witness the sceneries described to us through grandmother’s tales, history books, and folklore colored by our own imagination since we were toddlers. Smell of the mountains, pine trees, and wet soil, the sound of the monsoon rain, the eastern wind, white golden beaches, palm trees, tuk tuks ruling the streets, bright smiles, old remains of castles, palaces, and temples telling a tale of a once glorious civilization, an occasional self appointed tour guide trying to rip you off, exotic wildlife, lush green forests, and a heck of a lot of inside jokes were the highlights of our journey.

Here’s an important traveler’s tip if you plan to visit Sri Lanka: Approach the regular locals if you are in need of help and ignore most who approach you.

I hope you enjoy these pictures as much as I did making them. 

Map

The map. We ended up traveling around 1100 kms in 8 days. Ratnapura > Kandy > Dambulla > Sigirya > Minneriya > Polonnaruwa > Pasikuda > Arugam Bay > Badulla > Bandarawela > Horton Plains > Ratnapura.

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Dambulla Golden Temple. f/11, ISO 100, 10mm, 10 sec

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View from top of Dambulla. 8 Picture Panorama.

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Teamwork – Dambulla. f/4.5, ISO 400, 112mm, 1/160 sec

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Curiosity – Dambulla. f/4.0, ISO 800, 70mm, 1/250 sec

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Typical tourist shot – Sigiriya. f/11, ISO 100, 20mm, 1/60 sec

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Sigiriya Frescoes. f/4.5, ISO 800, 18mm, 1/100 sec

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Sigiriya. f/11, ISO 100, 10mm, 1/100 sec

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View from top of Sigiriya. 7 picture panorama.

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Minneriya National Park. f/5.6, ISO 400, 70mm, 1/2500 sec

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Minneriya National Park. f/8.0, ISO 400, 22mm, 1/1600 sec

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Minneriya National Park. f/8.0, ISO 400, 70mm, 1/1600 sec

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Polonnaruwa. f/11, ISO 400, 10mm, 1/400 sec

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa. f/11, ISO 400, 10mm, 1/640 sec

Gal Viharaya_1

Polonnaruwa Gal Viharaya. f/11, ISO 400, 15mm, 1/100 sec

Gal Viharaya

Polonnaruwa Gal Viharaya. f/8.0, ISO 400, 22mm, 1/125 sec

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Pasikuda Beach. f/11, ISO 100, 10mm, 20 sec

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Pasikuda. f/5.6, ISO 400, 300mm, 1/3200 sec

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Milky Way – Pasikuda Beach. 4 pictures stacked.

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Star Trails – Pasikuda Beach. 98 pictures.

Arugam Bay

Arugam Bay. 7 picture panorama.

Dunhinda Falls

Dunhinda Falls – Badulla. f/11, ISO 100, 10mm, 15 sec

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Horton Plains National Park. f/8.0, ISO 400, 10mm, 1/1600 sec, -1EV

Horton Plains

Horton Plains National Park. f/8.0, ISO 400, 10mm, 1/250 sec

Baker's Falls

Baker’s Falls – Horton Plains National Park. Too many water droplets on my lens. f/11, ISO 100, 10mm, 15 sec

World's End

View from the mini world’s end – Horton Plains National Park. 8 picture panorama.

Leave Nothing but Footprints. Take Nothing but Memories (and pictures).

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How to Shoot Star Trails

The night sky can be a very interesting thing to photograph, provided that you have the patience to do so. I recently started photographing the night sky even though it has been cloudy for the most part here. A couple of people already asked me how it is done. So I decided to share what I know here. Please note that there is more than one way to do this.

What You Need

  • A camera with manual controls
  • Sturdy tripod
  • Shutter release cable
  • Preferably a fast wide lens
  • Clear sky
  • A lot of time

When and Where

It goes without saying that you need a clear night sky. It is better if it’s moonless night because it’s rather difficult to see stars with moonlight. It also helps a lot if you can move to an area where the light pollution is minimal. If you’re lucky, you might just be able to see the milky way (which is an awesome thing to photograph on its own).

Shooting

Set-up your camera on the tripod and compose it to your liking. Then switch to manual mode and turn your lens focus ring to infinity (maybe about a hair less than infinity). It’s always good to take a test shot first. Use the highest aperture of your lens (lowest f number), ISO 1600 or above if your camera is good with noise processing, 30 second exposures. It is important that you’re in the continuous mode. Once all the settings are dialed in, plug in your shutter release cable and lock it in the shoot position. Then it’s just a waiting game. If you don’t have a shutter release cable, a cheap solution is to use duct tape to press the camera shutter button. If it sounds stupid, but it works, it’s not stupid. The number of pictures you need depends on how long you want your trails to be. But generally you should shoot for at least more than 30 minutes to get reasonably sized trails. One important thing is that when we shoot landscapes we generally stop down the lens to f/8 or f/11 or so but when you shoot star trails, you need to have your lens wide open because you need to be able to collect as much light as possible. Even though the depth of field is going to be rather small, it is sufficient to contain your entire subject because the stars are so far away. If you have a big foreground, you may have to take several shots with the foreground focused so that you may combine them later in photoshop.

Post Processing

I use Adobe Bridge and Photoshop CS6 for almost all of my work. Import the pictures using Bridge, select them all and open them using Camera RAW. You can do all the global adjustments and sync the settings so that all of your pictures look uniform. When you’re done, do not click on “open images”. That would start opening all of your images in different tabs in Photoshop. Just click “Done” and it’ll save all of the changes you made. Once you’re back in Bridge, select all of your pictures again and go to Tools > Photoshop > Load Files into Photoshop Layers. This is going to take some time depending on how many images you have. All of your images will load into a single photoshop document. Select all of your layers except the bottom one and set the blending mode into “Lighten”.

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Setting the blending mode

You will immediately see the trails when you do this. If you have any unnecessary trails (air plane trails etc.), you can simply use a healing brush to remove them but you need to find the appropriate layer in order to do so. If they are visible, it might be a good idea to change the blending mode of the layers one by one instead of doing all of them at the same time because then you know exactly what layer contains what. This method is going to take a lot of time but like I mentioned before, you need to have the patience to shoot star trails. If your foreground is too light, you can use a layer mask to darken it. Once you’re happy with the result, you can flatten the image and go through your regular work flow. Noise reduction is almost always a must because you’re shooting at very high ISOs.

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Canon Rebel T1i, EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-5.6 USM, Adobe Bridge, Photoshop CS6, 98 Pictures (my OCD sensors are tingling), 10mm, 30 Seconds, f/3.5, ISO 1600, Taken at Pasikuda (Sri Lanka).

End Notes

It is awesome if you have a full frame DSLR with a very fast wide lens but I shot mine with an entry level crop sensor DSLR and a relatively slow lens. So it’s not impossible. Full frame bodies are better at noise processing than crop bodies. So you can crank up the ISO without worrying too much about noise. 

There are two ways to shoot star trails. One is taking a lot of pictures and combine them later like I described. The other method is to take one long exposure shot. If you want to do that, set your shutter speed to bulb mode and let it go for as long as you want to. But if you do take multiple shots, you basically have everything you need to make a time lapse later. Plus you might be able to capture some milky way shots while you’re at it. I prefer to take multiple shots.

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Milky Way – 4 Pictures stacked, f/3.5, 30 Seconds, ISO 3200, 10mm

This is the first time lapse video I made and I have no experience what-so-ever when it comes to time lapse photography. I basically just used Lightroom to put the images together with no post processing. The reason why I put it here is to show you that it can be done. 

Hope you enjoyed this post and if you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer. Consider sharing this if you liked it. Thank you.

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Dos and Don’ts in Photography

I composed this list of Dos and Don’ts after observing/experiencing certain practices in photography. I personally am guilty of doing some of these in the past or I’m still trying to kick off an old habit. Some things in this list annoy me more than they really should, some are mildly irritating and some I really like. Always keep in mind that photography is an artistic medium and you have the complete freedom to choose how your pictures turn out. You don’t have to please anyone else but you, unless you’re getting paid and then you have to please your client. What I list here are merely suggestions. It’s up to you to decide whether you agree with them or not.

Disclaimer: This list is in no particular order. I didn’t group them into Dos and Don’ts. It should be pretty clear when you read them.

Extra memory cards

There is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t have couple of extra memory cards. They are dime a dozen these days. I think it’s good to have several memory cards than just one high capacity card because if your card get corrupted or lost or something like that (let’s be real, shit happens) you won’t be shooting until you get a new one. Plus you lose all of the pictures you haven’t downloaded so far. As of right now I carry three 8 GB cards. It’s more than enough for  what I do.

Don’t publish everything you take

My shutter count is nearing 40,000 now but I only have 287 pictures in my flickr account. Don’t be like those people who post a status “hanging out wit ma friendssssss!!!!” and 2 hours later “…. added 378 photos to the album College Freshman Yearrrrr <3 <3 <3”. It’s natural to take couple of shots of the same subject just to be sure. But nobody wants to see 50 pictures of the same subject from slightly different angles. Pick your favorite.

Develop your own style – know what type of a photographer you are

We all have other photographers we love. But copying someone else’s style completely does not help you to grow as a photographer. Being inspired or getting new ideas from other people are fine. It’s just that you can’t hope to reproduce every single thing they do. It also helps to realize what type of a photographer you are. It may take some time and you may even love several types of photography too. I personally enjoy landscape and wildlife photography. That does not mean I don’t occasionally do a portrait session though.

Shoot for yourself

Even if you’re a commercial photographer, taking some time to shoot some pictures for yourself can be very relaxing and rewarding. I don’t do commercial/professional photography (and by professional photography I mean I don’t get paid to take pictures). When you’re being paid to take pictures, you have to please your client to keep your business running. It’s fantastic if you have the complete freedom to be as creative as you want to be but sometimes you have to follow a specific set of instructions and you may not like the way pictures come out. If that’s the case, photography might soon turn into something that you have to do rather than something you want to do. Don’t let that happen to you.

Explore new areas

I know I said that it’s important to figure out what type of a photographer you are but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try out new things. I’m planning to try time lapse photography in the next couple of weeks and see how that turns out. It’s always fun to experiment.

Don’t compare “likes” or “favorites”

Likes, favorites, shares are big in social media. It’s unbelievable what some people do to get more likes and would do anything to see their pictures go viral. This does not limit to photography of course. Don’t try to compare how many likes you got on your picture and how many likes other people got. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your pictures are bad.

Ask for constructive feedback

This is one of the best ways to learn. Ask some experienced photographers what they think about your pictures. Don’t be discouraged by what they say. Some photographers hesitate to say anything bad about other’s works because some beginners take it the wrong way. Let them know that you want to hear what they really think. Give them the complete freedom and let them completely shatter your work of art into pieces (figuratively, of course). You learn so much more this way.

Leave constructive feedback

It’s important to leave constructive feedback whenever possible. It not only helps another person grow but it also helps build a better relationship with a fellow photographer. I almost always try to say what I like and don’t like about a picture rather than just saying “good shot”. Something I’ve seen recently in photography groups is that people say “nice try” and it’s usually the same person leaving that comment on all the pictures. What the heck does that even mean? For some reason “nice try, a**hole” comes to my mind. But other than that, does that mean it’s a good try but unsuccessful? It’s a good for nothing comment. Please don’t do that.

Don’t forget to say thank you and be respectful

While in most countries you can take pictures of anything you want as long as you’re in a public place, it’s a nice gesture to say thank you if you take a picture of a stranger, especially up close. If you behave disrespectfully somewhere, you might just ruin that place for all the future photographers. If someone asks you not to photograph something, try to abide by their request even if it’s in your right to take the picture. This of course depends on the situation.

Don’t wait for new gear to be “inspired”

Unfortunately, I know more than few people like this. Don’t kid yourself that you’re going to start taking amazing pictures as soon as you get that one lens you really want. Don’t fall into this trap. When you finally get that lens, they will come up with a new that you’d want. There is so much you can do with a simple camera. If you don’t believe me, ask Google to show you some pictures taken with mobile phones and compact digital cameras.

Avoid clichés (like the plague)

Clichés are rather popular among beginners, and for a good reason too. The first thing you do when you pick up your DSLR for the first time is look for subjects. Hmmm what should I take pictures of? Flowers in the garden of course. We all know flowers are pretty and it’s okay to take pictures of those. But it gets a little old very soon. Everyone does this. I did and the photographers you admire probably did it too. It is very easy to be mesmerized by the shallow depth of field your camera can produce. It is probably the first change you’re going to notice if you’ve been shooting with a point and shoot. It is much easier to achieve a shallow DoF with a DSLR. It is not limited to flowers of course. You will see tons and tons of pictures of small objects with blurry backgrounds. This is the period where the photographer thinks he or she is an amazing photographer. Don’t get stuck there. Get out of that phase as soon as possible. You will learn much more and actually will become an amazing photographer. This does not mean that you should avoid the said subjects completely. It’s a good place to start and practice your techniques. Just kind of not so good when you keep posting hundreds of similar pictures.

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I took this picture a while ago. You might have seen billions of pictures like this. There is nothing new or special about it. It’s fun but photographically worthless.

Know the right tool and the technique for the job

Different situations call for different tools. For instance, zooming in is not the same as walking closer. Sometimes it’s good to use a long lens to capture an intimate moment if you think that your presence might ruin the moment. But sometimes it’s good to walk closer to capture the details. Planning what you intend to capture ahead of time will save you a lot of time.

“Bro, this is the best camera”

It’s natural for people to ask help before they buy a camera. But why is it that there is always someone who has a definite answer for this question even before whoever asked the question explain what his or her intentions are? More often than not, the same person cannot contain the excitement and has to say “bro” after every other word. Always give unbiased advice (even if you’re a fan of a certain camera brand) and avoid the people who give you these kind of advice.

Fake lens flare, textures, and vintage filters

If there is no lens flare in your pictures, it probably doesn’t belong there either. Adding fake lens flare with photoshop looks, well, fake. It is rare to see a picture looking good with fake lens flare. Textures are very tricky. I’m not talking about taking pictures of textures but using textures as overlays. Only a very few people can actually pull this off properly. It takes a lot of practice to blend the light just right. Vintage filters are overused everywhere. Not all of your pictures have to look old. I admit, it’s fun to play with filters. I do it too. But those pictures end up in instagram not in my portfolio.

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Hey look that’s a cartoonized version of myself. Ended up in instagram.

Selective coloring

This is again one of those things that rarely works well. I have like two or maybe three pictures I used this technique. Needless to say, they didn’t turn out well. I’ve seen a lot of prom pictures especially with selective coloring. When you desaturate the image and mask out the tie and the vest and the flowers, that’s where you focus your attention on. Not the important part.

Over done HDR

It is evident that most people don’t really understand what HDR actually is. This technique demands a significant technical knowledge. Sure it stands for High Dynamic Range but that doesn’t mean they HAVE to look grunge and over saturated. If that’s intentional, it’s okay but that’s not what HDR is supposed to look like. I’m talking about the pictures with a lot of ghosting, misalignment, and still considerably over exposed. That defeats the purpose of HDR. 

Too much vignetting

All your pictures have a little bit of vignetting naturally which can easily be removed using Camera RAW. I add a very small amount of vignetting if the edges look like they are burnt out. But when you push it to the extreme it looks like you’re looking through a scope.

Not everything looks good in black and white

We use the term “black and white” very loosely. Almost all the picture we call black and white are actually grayscale pictures. B&W pictures should only contain black and white just like the name suggests. Anyway, there should be a reason for you to convert your pictures to black & white. Usually high contrast pictures look good in B&W but not all.

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This doesn’t look good in B&W. The picture itself is rather ordinary.

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This one on the other hand looks better in B&W

Don’t use the on camera flasher head-on

I’m not completely against flashers. I use a flasher too. But using the on camera flasher head on usually produce unflattering results. It’s true that sometimes you can’t help it. It’s good to take the picture than not having a picture at all. If possible, invest in an external flasher. You can get a third party flasher for very cheap and you can easily bounce the flasher off of a nearby wall or a ceiling. That would give you much better results. When you use the flasher head on, it flattens the image and you lose the sense of depth. If you have to use the on camera flasher, use a diffuser. You don’t need special diffusers. You can even use a tissue paper to diffuse the light or if you don’t want to hold a tissue paper all the time you can cut out an old film reel case to fit your on camera flasher. It works wonders.

Don’t shoot under direct sunlight

When you take pictures under direct sunlight, you get washed out colors, harsh shadows, and squinty eyes. Look for a shade when possible. I know you don’t always get to shoot during the golden hours. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take advantage of the surroundings. Using reflectors can help even out the light and prevent harsh shadows.

Pay attention to details

It’s amazing the level of details you see when you get a little closer. You don’t always have to fill your frame with the entire subject.

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Details are important

“I’ll fix it later in photoshop”

Photoshop is a very powerful tool. But that doesn’t mean you always have to rely on it. When you look through the view finder and see something out of the place, don’t think that you’re going to fix it later. It’s much easier to compose your shot differently if possible or just make the necessary adjustment. Sometimes you have to use photoshop to fix something you weren’t able to manipulate physically but not always.

Do print your pictures

I believe I said this multiple times. Print your pictures, preferably large and thank me later.

Don’t shoot too much

I don’t mean taking a lot of pictures in general. That’s a good thing. I mean taking 100 pictures of the same subject just to be sure. If you spend a little time before you click the shutter button, you will save a lot of space and time going through those pictures later. I used to take a lot of pictures. I mean a LOT. I went on a 3 day vacation couple of years ago and I took around 8000 pictures. I ended up with a handful of useful ones. Last year I travelled to Las Vegas, Arizona, and California but only took less than 500 pictures in total. Cutting back the amount of useless pictures is very important. We all take bad pictures, even the most experienced photographers do.

Noisy is better than blurry

Don’t be afraid to crank up your ISO if you don’t have enough light to take the picture. Trying to handhold a camera in very low shutter speeds almost always cause camera blur. Noise can be fixed but blurry pictures will always be blurry. I think I saw a plug-in recently that claims it can fix blurry pictures though I don’t know all the details yet.

Do carry a tripod and a remote release

You won’t even realize how much these two simple things can improve your pictures until you start using them. Tripod and a remote release open up a whole new level of creativity.

Know when to ignore technicalities

While it’s very important to know how to properly expose a picture, it’s so easy to get lost in the technical details. I’m guilty of this and I often forget what’s really important in a picture. As a result, I end up with high quality crap more often than I like to admit.

“Unedited”

I don’t know why some people tend to publish pictures with the caption “unedited”. You chose to publish it that way. Is the viewer supposed to imagine how it would look like if it was edited and stand in awe? Publishing unedited pictures is completely fine but that caption is unnecessary. It feels like the photographic equivalent of publishing a picture with the caption “I’m so ugly”.

Composition is the key

Yes, rule of thirds and rule of space. But there’s a lot more. Changing the composition even slightly can have a significant impact on the final product.

composition

These two pictures were taken merely seconds apart. Look how different they are!

Do learn to use post production software

Learning how to use post production software is vital. Instead of trying to master all the available software out there, it’s more productive to stick with one or two. They basically do the same thing in the end. They should be used as tools to further enhance your pictures rather than as a fall back to save terrible snapshots.

Never trust your LCD

Your camera LCD can be very misleading. It appears brighter and has more contrast than there really is. Instead learn how to read a histogram. That is a very powerful tool and it represents your pictures very accurately.

Bracket your shots

When in doubt, bracket your shots. This gives you a greater range to work on later. You might even be able to combine the shots later to an HDR image. Having a tripod comes in handy here.

Filters and hoods

It’s important to protect your expensive lenses. The main reason why I have filters and hoods on is for protection. As a bonus, they also prevent stray light from hitting the image sensor. When buying filters, invest in high quality filters. You can buy very cheap UV filters but they usually cause ghosting (light reflected from the lens bounces back to the filter and reflects some of that light into the image sensor).

Add movement

Waterfalls, light trails, and start trails are popular but those are not the only occasions where you can add movement to your pictures. Even a picture taken with a high shutter speed can still give you a sense of movement.

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A slow shutter speed is not always necessary to achieve a sense of movement.

Know when to accept defeat

Unfortunately not all of your pictures are going to turn out exactly how you intended. I know it can be frustrating but be satisfied with what you managed to capture rather than thinking of what you missed. You can always try tomorrow. There are many times I waited hours and hours to take pictures of something but came back empty handed. That never stopped me from trying again the next day.

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I took this picture of my baby sister when she was dancing outside. I would’ve loved to capture more of her hair but this is what I got in the moment. I could’ve asked her to pose but that would look fake.

Take a self portrait

Not #selfies. I mean a real self portrait. I personally hate to be in front of a camera. But I still managed to take some self portraits. When you’re your own subject, you get to learn a lot of things.

Watermarks and frames

I used to have a very small watermark and a frame but I gave up on them. I think they are distracting. None of the pictures I published within the last couple of years have a watermark or a frame. That’s my personal taste though.

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I didn’t really like the watermark anyway

Get high and low

Not with weed. That’s none of my business. Sometimes ordinary things seem more interesting when shot from above or below.

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Get high, if you know what I mean.

Sneak in a candid

There is no reason why you shouldn’t sneak in a candid shot or two even when you’re doing a planned portrait session. You might just be pleasantly surprised by what you get.

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Candids are the best

Ethics

Ethics in photography should be a post on its own but always keep in mind that specially when you’re photographing nature not to interfere with nature. Sure a spider web looks much more dramatic with water drops on it. If you want to take that picture, wake up early. Don’t spray water on it. You might be destroying someone’s home. Birds and other small animals make their nests somewhere predators can’t find or reach. If your actions expose those animals to their predators, I believe those pictures are worthless no matter how ‘good’ they come out. Leave nothing but footprints.

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RAW vs Jpeg – Which one is for you?

I think almost every photographer (including me) is at least a little bit guilty of telling people to shoot RAW. While learning how to shoot and process RAW is of utmost importance if you are to exploit the most out of your RAW capable camera, it may not be the best option for every situation. Let’s get straight down to business and see what these two really are.

RAW files are not really image files that can be viewed directly without a special software and the files are usually a proprietary format (the exception being Adobe’s DNG format). Canon’s RAW files have the .CR2 extension while Nikon’s RAW files have the .NEF extension. It is difficult to say how long these file formats will be supported by RAW reading/processing software. However, it’s safe to assume that whenever you buy a new camera, it will include a software to read its RAW files. The problem is that newer software may not support old RAW formats. Adobe claimed that they will always support their DNG format. So some people convert their RAW files into DNG files, which is a lossless conversion (no data lost during conversion, unlike JPEG compression). This can be easily done when you import your pictures into your computer if you’re using Adobe Bridge. Adobe also has a free DNG converter available. You can think of a RAW file as a digital negative. Thus it has to be developed (processed) in the same manner that you would develop a film negative. RAW files contain all the data captured by the image sensor which gives the photographer a wide range to work with during the development phase.

JPEG on the other hand is a universal format. You don’t need any special software to open them and they are readily available for printing straight out of the camera. They are fast and easy to handle but they lack some of the advantages that only RAW files offer. 

Screenshot 2014-07-09 14.18.33

Adobe Camera RAW 7.0 – The picture you see there is a RAW file straight out of the camera without any modifications. I sincerely apologize for cat pictures! I’m a dog person. It’s not even our cat but I digress.

Pros and Cons of Shooting RAW

  • You get all the possible data from the camera sensor.
  • If your white balance is off, it’s much easier to change it later.
  • Higher bit depth. Without going into technical details, this allows smoother transition between colors. Most DSLRs take 12 bit or 14 bit RAW whereas Jpegs are 8 bit.
  • Non destructive editing. Anything you do to a RAW file will be saved in a ‘sidecar’ .XMP file. However, when you’re editing Jpegs, you have to save an addition copy if you want to keep your original.
  • RAW files can be used as evidence. If you ever find yourself in a courtroom and need to prove that a picture belongs to you, providing the RAW file pretty much ends the argument in your favor. Let’s just hope it never comes to that.
  • Higher in dynamic range. If you shoot RAW, it’s much easier to recover underexposed or overexposed areas than shooting Jpegs. Although severely overexposed details are lost no matter what.
  • Pseudo HDR – This is where you make several different files with different exposures using a single RAW file and combining them together to achieve a better result. Of course real HDR will look better but sometimes we just don’t get the chance to bracket our shots the way we want. It’s good to have a fall back option. This is a task which could prove difficult for JPEGs to achieve.
  • Easier to battle with image noise.
  • RAW files take more space. A RAW file from a 15 MP camera would roughly take 15 MB. This of course depends on other settings like ISO etc. But with storage options being dime a dozen now, this shouldn’t pose much of a threat.
  • RAW files fill up the camera buffer faster. This may become a problem when shooting in the continuous mode. Since RAW files take more space, your camera buffer will be filled after you take a certain number of pictures. Then your camera has to stop and write those files to the memory card before you can shoot again. My camera clocks in at 9 RAW files before it needs to stop. This of course depends on the camera.
  • Requires special software to view and edit and is not suitable for printing directly. RAW files need to be processed before you do anything with them. You do need a relatively faster computer to edit RAW files since they contain a lot of data. Any modern computer should be able to handle RAW files with ease though.

Pros and Cons of Shooting JPEG

  • Smaller in size.
  • Can be printed directly.
  • No special software needed.
  • Can shoot a significantly higher number of Jpegs before it fills up the camera buffer.
  • JPEG is a universal format.
  • Camera does some processing for you.
  • Lower in dynamic range.
  • White balance data, color spacing data etc. are embedded to the JPEG. It’s difficult to correct white balance later with a JPEG than with a RAW file.
  • Some data are lost during the compression. Each time you open a jpeg and save, it goes through the compression process over and over again. It is advised that you keep the PSD file and export a jpeg whenever you need and if you want to make further changes, you can always fall back to the PSD file to prevent jpeg compression multiple times.
RAW vs JPEG

RAW vs JPEG comparison. These two were straight from the camera. On the left you can see the RAW image and on the right you can see the JPEG. It is obvious that when you compare these two images, the JPEG looks better. The camera did some processing for you. It appears a little brighter, sharper and there’s more contrast. So if you are not planning to process your pictures at all, shooting JPEG seems to be the better option. These two pictures were taken using the RAW + JPEG option which means they were taken at exactly the same time using exactly the same settings. The RAW file is 19.52MB compared to the 5.75MB JPEG. Click on the picture for a better view.

RAW vs JPEG 1

RAW vs JPEG processed comparison. The processed RAW image is on the left and the processed JPEG is on the right. Once they were loaded into Photoshop, both pictures went through exactly the same work flow. The only difference is that the RAW file was tweaked using Camera RAW before loading it into Photoshop. If you look closely, you might see a very subtle perspective difference too. This is because I applied the ‘lens correction profile’ to the RAW image. Whenever you take a picture, there is some distortion due to the lens. Shorter your focal length, higher the distortion. It can be easily corrected using Camera RAW. Since this was taken at 300mm, there is almost no distortion. You should be able to open your JPEGs using Camera RAW too but for some reason Adobe wasn’t letting me open it. I kept getting an error message. I did some research and it seems to be a common problem. While Camera RAW offers some control over your JPEGs, it won’t offer all the controls it does a RAW file. The processed RAW image is 9.53MB whereas the processed JPEG is 6.15MB. Click on the picture for a better view.

Now, after I processed the RAW files, I converted them to JPEGs to upload here. However, when you do, you lose the advantage of higher bit depth as it goes to being an 8 bit image. If you’ve noticed on the first screenshot up there, I loaded the RAW file into Photoshop as an 8 bit image (where it says Adobe RGB (1998); 8 bit; 4752 by 3168 (15.1MP); 240 ppi – you can click on this and open it as a 16 bit image) since I knew I was going to save it as a JPEG anyway. If you want to retain the higher bit depth, converting to a TIF file is the better option. Most professional printing services use TIF files (they will print JPEGs too of course). But if you’re getting your prints done in Walmart or printing them very small or both, don’t bother. So all of this depends on your needs. 

While during ideal situations where you have control over most elements (like studio lighting etc.), RAW offers little advantage over JPEGs. The further you drift away from ideal situations, and when speed and space is not a concern, shooting RAW is the best option in my personal opinion. In practice, you will be taking a lot of pictures in non ideal situations. I’m not going to go up to an angry charging elephant to hold up a gray card against it to get my white balance correct in camera. I seriously doubt he would be happy about it. I’d much rather spend an extra 30 seconds to correct my white balance during post processing. 

pseudo HDR

Here’s an example of a pseudo HDR I was talking about. On the right side you can see the original RAW file I used to make the pseudo HDR on the left. There was absolutely no way I would’ve achieved this level of details with a JPEG. I did not have a chance to bracket my shots here either as I took this shot while I was in a moving car. Click on the picture for a better view.

Which one is for you?

By now you should have realized that photography is a very subjective field since I mentioned it over and over again. Thus there is no one right or correct way to do things. Whether you will benefit from either RAW or JPEG depends on your needs. If having absolute precision is critical, RAW is the way to go. It offers a wide range of possibilities than JPEGs. This also means that you will probably have to sit and process through copious amount of RAW files. When you keep doing it, you will find easier ways, short cuts and it will significantly reduce the amount of time you spend with one RAW file. RAW is both the holy grail and the downfall of a beginner. As a beginner, you’re likely to make a lot of mistakes when shooting and that’s okay. But if you shoot RAW, much of that can be corrected during post processing. Now, this does not mean that horrible snapshots can be magically converted into world class photographs though. I know there’s a ‘get-everything-right-in-camera’ group. Sure, if you can get everything right in the camera, that is absolutely fantastic and you will get there eventually. But I personally am not there yet. So I shoot RAW. The reason why RAW could be the downfall of a beginner is because the work flow can appear overwhelming at first and even your processed RAW files may look worse than your camera processed JPEGs. But don’t be discouraged. You can only learn by doing it. A while ago, Adobe released a free version of CS2. So if you don’t want to pay a lot of money for software, that may be a good starting place. You are going to have to make a free account with Adobe to download this or you can pick it up from numerous links available throughout the internet. I’m not entirely sure what type of RAW files are supported in CS2 however.

If your pictures are only going to end up in social media and you don’t intend to make and large prints, shooting JPEGs may save you a lot of time. If you’re taking pictures for a craigslist ad, there’s no need to shoot RAW either. Some action photographers resort to JPEGs to save the camera buffer from clocking in early. Some wedding photographers shoot JPEGs just because they don’t want to sit through 2000 RAW files. An untrained eye won’t be able to tell the difference between a properly shot JPEG and a processed RAW image.

As you can see both formats are useful in their own way. I set my camera to RAW couple months after I bought it and it hasn’t been changed since. But that’s my personal choice. I prefer the range it gives me to work with. I make large prints from my pictures for exhibitions and RAW files give me exactly the controls I need over an image. Shooting RAW however doesn’t make you a ‘professional’ (whatever that means) over night.

Modern DSLRs offer the possibility of shooting RAW + JPEGs at the same time. Why don’t people use this and end the debate once and for all? Because it takes a lot more space and while it may be the best option when it comes to the range of possibilities, it can be confusing as hell at times. You will have two files with the same file name and can be difficult to organize your files etc. This is a good option if you want to compare RAW and JPEGs because it will make the both files exactly the same time using the same settings like my examples above. It also comes in handy if you want to display/print something immediately but still want the option to process them in your leisure. This is however a terrible option when shooting in the continuous mode.

What do other people think?

Ken Rockwell says why he “never shoots RAW” and Petteri Sulonen makes his point on shooting RAW. It seems like much of Ken’s examples are rather old. He mentions how his friend was filling up his 256MB card so fast because of shooting RAW. I doubt anyone is using 256MB cards anymore. You can still buy them for like $5 from Amazon but at the same time, a 16GB card is only around $10. So why would you? Like I said before, space is no longer an issue. Ken also mentions something I disagree on; “Which should you shoot? If you have to ask then just shoot JPEG”. Unfortunately most of us were not born with all the photographic knowledge. I know I was not. I learned everything I know today by talking to experienced photographers, reading, and practicing. Nonetheless, both are interesting articles and I will leave it up to you to decide which one is best for you.

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Deciphering The Camera Jargon – Part 3 – Loose Ends

This is the third and the final part of the Camera Jargon series. Hopefully, I explained most of the popular terms in such a way that a beginner can understand. I left out some of the technical details when I felt that they are not necessary to understand the concept. Some of these terms are only explained briefly and has much more to it. As I keep writing this blog, I intend to go in to details in depth.

Depth of Field

Depth of Field or DoF for short is the area of an image that appears reasonably sharp or in focus. I discussed about DoF in the previous article in brief and I mentioned how the aperture affects the DoF. There are couple of other factors contributing to the DoF. However, I think I’m going to leave out most of the technical details out in this discussion.

Aperture – No point in repeating myself. See the previous post.

Sensor Size – Have you ever noticed when you’re taking pictures with your phone or your pocket camera, everything seems to be in focus no matter what you do? Hence the increased popularity in the Instagram and its blur feature. But when you’re using a DSLR, it’s much easier to achieve a blurred background and a sharply focused subject. FYI the blurred out background is called bokeh and nobody knows how to pronounce it (or to spell it). Anyway, the DSLRs have a much larger image sensor compared to mobile phones or pocket cameras. Larger image sensors allow shallower DoFs.

Camera to Subject Distance – When you’re up close and personal to the subject, you get a shallower DoF and if you step back couple of feet, you get a deeper DoF.

Subject to Background Distance – If the distance between your subject and the background is greater, you will get a much blurred background. If the said distance is smaller, you will get a deeper DoF. Just think of a person standing right next to a wall. The wall will almost always will be in focus. But if your subject is standing out in an open field, the far away mountains will almost always will be out of focus.

Focal Length – This gets a little tricky to explain without going into technical details. Contrary to the popular belief, focal length does not contribute to DoF. But there’s a reason why I included it here. It APPEARS to have a significant impact on DoF. There is an apparent change in DoF with a long lens vs. a short lens because the length of the lens changes the perspective in the scene – longer lenses render the background larger in relationship to the subject making it seem more blurry thus creating the impression of less depth of field. This is because when you’re shooting at a very wide focal length (say 16mm), your field of view is much greater. But when you’re shooting at a telephoto length (300mm or so), you field of view gets narrower. Thus your subject occupies different fractions of your image. Tele lenses magnifies the subject and therefore, they occupy a greater portion of your image whereas in wide angles, the subject appears smaller and they only occupy a smaller portion of the image. If the subject occupies the same fraction in both scenarios, the DoF will be the same. In order to do this, you have to step back a lot when you’re shooting with the telephoto lens. But that kind of defeats the purpose of a telephoto lens, doesn’t it? So the take home message is that technically, focal length does not have an effect on DoF. However, artistically it does. Since photography is an artistic medium, I will leave it up to you to interpret this one. It has been raining in Sri Lanka like crazy for the last couple of days. I will demonstrate this with an example the first chance I get and post it here. Bare with me until then.

White Balance

I think it would be fair to say that white balancing is a way to reproduce the colors as accurately as possible. Each light source has a different temperature (or a color) associated with it. Day light, tungsten lights, candle light, fluorescent etc. has different colors. However, modern DSLRs are more than capable of doing a decent job when the available light is uniform, or you have one type of light source. When you’re using couple of different types of light sources, it gets a little tricky. Imagine you’re shooting inside a room that is lit by fluorescent bulbs and tungsten bulbs. Your pictures are likely to have an unnatural color cast on them.

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Left – White Balanced. Right – Not White Balanced.

Have you ever taken pictures, specially with a compact digital camera, inside a room and all of your pictures had an amber color to them and you wondered why? This is because your camera gets confused under these conditions unlike human eye, which does a fantastic white balancing job. Simply put, white balancing is telling your camera what white looks like, hence the name white balancing. When you tell your camera what white looks like, it automatically puts all the other colors in to their proper places and thus produces an accurate image. If you’re mathematically inclined, you can think of this as a circle centered at origin (0,0) on a XY plane. The radius is irrelevant here. Imagine that inside the circle is all the colors you need. When the camera is not properly white balanced, the circle shifts its position. So what’s supposed to look like white, does not look like white anymore. When you white balance your camera, the circle shifts back to its proper place, and you have all the natural colors again.

White Balance

If those red straight lines are our X and Y axis, the one on the left is when you have your camera properly white balanced for the situation and one on the right is when you don’t have your camera properly white balanced. Note: This does not represent all the colors your camera can produce. This image is only used to illustrate my point. I grabbed the color wheel from PemaMendez in DeviantART. Kudos to him for making it.

There are several methods to white balance properly. You can shoot RAW format and adjust your white balance later during post processing. This is what I personally do. If you shoot JPEGs, you limit your ability to properly white balance during post processing because you burn your white balancing profile into the image and doesn’t collect enough data to do it later. You can adjust it a little bit but not as much as shooting RAW. If you want to get it right in the camera, you can use something called an 18% grey card. As the name suggests, it’s simply a card that is grey. What so important about the color grey? Well grey has equal amounts of each primary color and reflects natural light and the camera can use it as a reference point. What you do is, you place the grey card against the subject you want to shoot and take a picture of the card, properly exposed, filling the entire scene. Then use this image as a reference custom white balance image. Refer to your camera manual on how to achieve this on your camera. When you do this, your camera will produce accurate colors.

Aspect Ratio

Aspect ratio describes the ration between the width and the height of an image. This is something often ignored by many people because the aspect ratio is something that is fixed. This ratio reflects the width to height ratio of your camera’s image sensor. Canon, Nikon, and Pentax have a 3 : 2 ratio whereas Olympus and Panasonic have a 4 : 3 ratio. The 3 : 2 ratio comes from the 35 mm film where the area that records the image is 36 mm wide and 24 mm tall. This becomes a very important subject when you’re going to print your pictures. If your camera’s aspect ratio is 3 : 2, you can make 2 x 3, 4 x 6, 10 x 15, 16 x 24, 20 x 30 prints or anything that matches the 3 : 2 ratio without cropping out your image. However, the problem is that most of the popular print sizes, like 5 x 7, 8 x 10, 11 x 17 don’t match with this ratio. There are some places that will make prints that matches with your ratio, so don’t fret. I don’t like to throw away pixels but most importantly, when you crop your picture, it changes the composition of the image. So when you’re out there taking pictures, and if you plan to print these pictures with anything other than the native ratio of your camera, you need to take into account the fact that you have to crop this image later. Personally, I always stick with  3 : 2 ratio because that’s what my camera gives me.

FPS

In photography, fps stands for frames per second, not first person shooters. When you look at a camera’s specifications, this number is often under continuous mode or burst mode. This mode allows you to take a series of shots by holding the shutter button. This is mainly used when taking action shots, like sports or birds in flight. This increases the chance of getting a sharp shot and later you can discard the rest of the images if you want to. Thank goodness we’re shooting digital. The fps depends on several things. Buffer, the temporary memory where the images are stored before they are transferred into the memory card. Higher the buffer, high the fps. Image processor is another factor. If your camera has a faster image processor, the fps is higher too. The megapixel count has an indirect impact on fps. Since more megapixels mean bigger file sizes, it fills up the buffer really fast and thus results in a lower fps. This is why the Nikon’s the D800, fully equipped with all the other modern features, still shoots at a very low 4 fps because it has a unnecessarily large 36.8 megapixel count.

Image Stabilization

Remember I mentioned the one over focal length rule? Now that I have discussed the effective focal length, I should say that it’s actually one over effective focal length. This rule gives you a rough idea of how much your minimum shutter speed should be to handhold your camera in order to obtain a sharp image. This is of course not a rule written in the stone and it varies from person to person. However, the Image Stabilization (IS) technology gives you the option to handhold the camera at lower shutter speeds. Usually a lens would say that it has 2 stop IS or 4 stop IS. What this means is that you can shoot either 2 or 4 stops of shutter speed lower than the regular shutter speed when handholding the camera with an image stabilized lens. There are two main ways of stabilizing images.

Lens – Based

This is accomplished by introducing gyroscopic sensors. It would move the lens elements to counter the movement of the camera due to hand shake and direct the light into the sensor. There are two gyroscopic sensors, one to detect horizontal movement and the other to detect vertical movement. Some high end lenses come with a secondary mode of image stabilizing which allows you to turn off the horizontal gyroscopic sensor. This is useful when you are panning your camera to follow a subject, like a moving car.

Sensor – Shift

In this method, the sensor is shifted to compensate for the movement of the camera. The advantage of this method is that the image is stabilized irrespective of what lens is used. The disadvantage is that the effectiveness of stabilization is limited to the movement of the sensor and that if your camera has an optical view finder (most DSLRs do) the view finder won’t be stabilized. Sensor Shift IS is also called the in body image stabilization.

IS

Effect of Image Stabilization. The left one was taken with the IS on and the right one was taken with the IS off. Both were taken using the same camera, lens, and settings. The shutter speed was 1/50th of a second at 300mm (480mm effective focal length). As you can see, the IS makes a huge difference specially when shooting in such slow shutter speeds at higher focal lengths.

Different lens manufactures like to call this feature different names.

  • Canon – Image Stabilization (IS)
  • Nikon – Vibration Reduction (VR)
  • Olympus – In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS)
  • Sony Cyber Shot – Optical Steady Shot (OSS)
  • Leica and Panasonic – MegaOIS
  • Sony – Super Steady Shot (SSS)
  • Sigma – Optical Stabilization (OS)
  • Tamron – Vibration Compensation (VC)
  • Pentax – Shake Reduction (SR)

Olympus, Sony, and Pentax uses sensor shift stabilization whereas the others use lens-based stabilization. Image stabilization only works to compensate for the camera movement. If your subject is moving, you will still get a blurry image if you don’t use a fast enough shutter speed. IS is specially useful when shooting in low light conditions where handholding the camera is necessary.  

This does not obviously conclude all of technical terms used in the wonderful world of photography but some of the most important ones. Other terms will be explained as they come along in our discussions.

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Deciphering The Camera Jargon – Part 2 (Focal Length and Lens Choices)

This is the 2nd part of the camera jargon series. Once you finally pick out your first DSLR then you are faced with another challenge. How can you possibly pick out a lens from all those lenses available to you? Which lens is right for you and what are some of the limitations that you may face? This article aims to answer some of those questions.

Focal Length

Focal length is probably the most basic description of any given lens and is usually represented in millimeters. It is horrifying to hear that some people think this is the actual length of the lens. If it was, imagine the size of a 10mm lens. While it would be so nice to have such tiny lenses, that is not the case. So what is it then? The focal length of a lens is the distance from the optical center of the lens (where light rays converges to form a sharp image when focused at infinity) to the image sensor of the camera. Without discussing physics behind this, it is easier to think of the ways certain focal length ranges affect the image. Note that the focal lengths described here are in terms of full frame cameras. The sensor size of the camera determines the effective focal length of a lens as mentioned in a previous article.

Sorry about the crappy scene. I'll update this as soon as I get the chance.

Sorry about the crappy scene. I’ll update this as soon as I get the chance. Click on the picture for a better view.

As seen in the picture, short focal lengths allow a wider viewing angle whereas longer focal lengths gives you a narrower viewing angle (Field of View – FOV) and magnifies the subject. So the focal length and FOV are inversely proportional. If you really want to know, FOV = 2 arctan (x/2f) where x is the diagonal length of the image sensor and f is the focal length. But that’s just bonus information. Strictly technically speaking, anything lower than a 50mm is considered wide angle and anything higher than 50mm is considered telephoto. However, in popular culture, this is not the case. We put lenses into several categories.

Normal Lenses – If the focal length of the lens is equal to the diagonal length of the image sensor, it is said to be a normal lens for that particular camera. For instance, a full frame sensor has a diagonal length of 43.3mm but there are no such lenses. So on full frame cameras we consider 50mm (or between 35mm – 70mm) lenses as normal lenses. Normal lens roughly gives you the same field of view as your eyes. Thus everything looks normal. These lenses are used for documentary, journalism, and street photography.

Extreme Wide Angle Lenses – Lenses with focal length less than 21mm is considered extreme wide angle. These lenses have a very large field of view. Mainly used in architecture photography, although I use a 10mm (16mm effective focal length) for landscapes.

Wide Angle Lenses – Focal length between 21mm – 35mm are considered wide angle and are used in landscape photography.

Medium Telephoto Lenses – Lenses with focal lengths between 70mm – 135mm belong to this category. Specially used for portraiture.

Telephoto and Super Telephoto Lenses – Anything between 135mm – 300mm and above are considered telephoto lenses. These are mainly for sports, birds, and wildlife photography.

Macro Lenses – This is an entirely different domain on its own. These lenses come in various focal lengths. In a very technical sense, a true macro lens has a 1:1 magnification. This means, the reflection that is created on your image sensor has the same dimensions as the actual object. For instance, if you’re focusing on a penny that has a, say 10mm, diameter. The reflection of this penny will also have a 10mm diameter. But some lenses are designated as macro lenses using a less strict definition if they achieve a reasonable magnification. The Sigma AF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 APO DG Macro is such an example. It’s not a true macro lens but it achieves a 1:2 magnification. Meaning, the diameter of the reflection of that penny would be 5mm instead 10mm if you use this lens. Macro lenses generally have a very small nearest focusing distance. So you can get very close to the subject and still focus fine. Macro photography opens up a whole new world for photographers. You can see amazing details on tiny little things. However, this requires an advanced understanding of the medium, proper equipment, patience, and adequate technical knowledge. Taking close ups and taking true macro photos are two entirely different things. Perhaps I will cover this subject in depth in a future article.

This was taken with the Sigma AF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 APO DG Macro. It's not a true macro lens. But these types of lenses are not too bad either.

This was taken with the Sigma AF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 APO DG Macro. It’s not a true macro lens. But these types of lenses are not too bad either.

Now, I should also mention that these categories are just to get an idea. This does not mean that you cannot use a 50mm lens to take portraits. In fact one of the most popular portrait lenses is the 50mm f/1.8 AKA the nifty fifty. Perhaps the reason is that it’s available for almost any brand of camera, it’s fast, light weight, considerably cheap (probably the cheapest, I know it is with Canon not sure about other brands), and still delivers amazingly high quality pictures. A must have lens for anyone, beginner and professional alike.

To illustrate the point, here are three portraits I took using three different lenses. Experiment with different focal lengths to get your desired result.

Taken with the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8, the nifty fifty.

Taken with the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8, the nifty fifty.

Taken with the Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM at 15mm. This is a self portrait, well a combination of 3 self portraits taken in my room. I had little space. So I had to use a wide angle lens to get a large field of view.

Taken with the Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM at 15mm. This is a self portrait, well a combination of 3 self portraits taken in my room. I had little space. So I had to use a wide angle lens to get a large field of view.

Taken with the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 L IS USM at 200mm

Taken with the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 L IS USM at 200mm

Inside The Lens

A lens is constructed using several lens elements, apart from the lens barrel. The main role of these lens elements is to focus the ray of light on the image sensor as accurately as possible and recreate the image in front while minimizing any distortions and aberrations. This determines the optical quality of a lens and ultimately dictates its price tag. Lens manufacturers are constantly trying to build high quality lenses using least expensive elements.

Light, however, does not behave exactly the way we want. Visible light is a very small fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum. The wavelength of visible light ranges from about 390nm to 700nm. Each wavelength refracts differently when going through different medium. This is why we see rainbows. Due to this phenomenon, when light travels through the lens, each lens element refracts each wavelength (different color) differently. This leads to false alignment of colors and results in chromatic aberration.

A ray of light being refracted in a plastic block. Image courtesy - Wikipedia

A ray of light being refracted in a plastic block. Image courtesy – Wikipedia

Chromatic aberration is just one measure of optical quality. There’s also vignetting (darkening of edges), loss of contrast, blurring, and distortion. This is why your lens is more important than your camera body. If you’re to exploit your camera to its full potential, it’s vital that you have a good piece of glass in front of it. Otherwise your high end professional DSLR won’t deliver the results you would expect. High quality lenses have various techniques to battle these problems. Therefore, they are more expensive. That is why you see lens manufacturers have several lenses covering the same focal length range. One is either optically better or faster or both than the other and is more expensive. However, it should be mentioned that lenses have come a long way since the beginning. Even the consumer grade lenses now deliver decent results. You wouldn’t notice a quality difference until you make a side by side comparison  with a professional grade lens.

See that purple line along side the tree branch? That's chromatic aberration. Click on the image for a better view.

See that purple line along side the tree branch? You’re going to have to click on the picture to see this. That’s chromatic aberration. Also note that this is a 400% crop. This picture was taken with an L grade lens. So the chromatic aberration is minimal. I had to hunt for an example.

Different lens manufacturers have their own methods to designate or identify their top quality lenses. Canon has their “L” series (luxury) with a red ring at the end of the lens barrel. Nikon has a gold ring at the end of the lens barrel. Sigma designates them as “EX” for excellence. Tokina has AT-X Pro so on and so forth. From my experience, the most noticeable difference between consumer grade and pro grade lenses is the frequency of getting sharp images. Consumer grade lenses will still give you sharp results, but not as often as a pro grade lens would. But this is just one side of the story.

Zoom vs Prime Lenses

In the good old days, there were only prime lenses. These lenses have fixed focal lengths. Therefore, the only way you can change the composition or the perspective of a picture is by moving in or out. Zoom lenses on the other hand offers a predefined focal length range. This allows you to change your composition or perspective without physically moving. Thus zoom lenses are very versatile. But there are many reasons why prime lenses are still around.

Advantages of Prime Lenses

  • Cheap – Prime lenses generally tend to be cheaper due to the fact that it has less lens elements. This does not mean that there aren’t any expensive prime lenses though.
  • Faster – I mentioned the speed several times already. So what does it mean that a lens is fast? It refers to the maximum aperture of the lens. As you already know, if a lens can open up more, it lets in more light. Thus you can use faster shutter speeds. Prime lenses are almost always faster than their zoom counterparts. Very handy in low light situations. This also makes your view finder a little brighter.
  • Weight – Prime lenses are smaller and light weight compared to many zoom lenses, again due to less lens elements.
  • Sharp Images – While cost, speed, and weight are the three main advantages of prime lenses, they tend to produce sharper images. There are less moving parts inside a prime lens (less lens elements). Therefore, it’s easier to accurately focus light which results in sharper images.
  • Bonus – Prime lenses have the potential to make you a better photographer. This is because you’re limited to one focal length and you’re forced to move around a lot to get the shot you want. This teaches you how to compose properly and forces you to think a little bit harder. Zoom lenses are likely to make people a little lazy but that’s just what I think.

Advantages of Zoom Lenses

  • Versatility – Like I said before, these give you the option to change the composition and perspective without moving. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t move though.
  • Keeping up with the subject – If you’re shooting dynamic subjects, a zoom lens is the way to go, so you can follow your subject without too much of a hassle.
  • Bang for the buck – I know I said that the prime lenses are cheaper. But if you want to constantly use several different focal lengths, you’re going to need several different prime lenses or one zoom lens. So it depends on your needs.

When zoom lenses first came into play, the optical quality was far inferior than prime lenses. However, with the advancement of technology, the gap has been narrowed significantly. Now they make remarkable zoom lenses that deliver high quality pictures to a point that an untrained eye is unable to say the difference between the two.

So, zoom or prime?

Well I think by now, you already know the answer I’m going to give. It’s up to you. I will say this though, I think everyone should have the 50mm prime. It’s inexpensive and extraordinary. That is the only prime lens I’m carrying at the moment. Give this lens a try. Then you get to experience the mesmerizing qualities of a prime lens. If you think primes are not for you, you can always sell it with very little loss.

I hope I answered some of the questions you may have had. If you still have questions or need a little more help, leave a comment and I will get back to you. Stay tuned for the next part of this series.