Author Archives: John

GEAR

I admit it:  I own quite a lot of camera gear.  Currently four camera bodies, well over a dozen lenses, a whole selection of tripods and heads, and camera bags filling an entire closet just by themselves.  It’s not that I’ve got Gear Acquisition Syndrome…I certainly don’t purchase lenses and cameras just because new lenses and cameras become available.  I would rather put the money into travel and time in the field.

I don’t haul around all my gear, which is a problem I’ve seen with some photographers attending workshops and tours.  They have so much stuff with them that they spend more time deciding what to use than time actually spent taking photos.

Even though I like camera gear I’m not emotionally attached to it.  I don’t keep stuff I don’t use.  And I don’t believe the rational that “well, I might use this sometime so I had better keep it.”  If I can’t rationally justify actual usage of the equipment, then it’s gone.

So why do I have so much stuff?  (Off topic comment:  anyone else remember the George Carlin “Stuff” routine?)  As a professional photographer I shoot all sorts of nature subjects, from mountains to mosquitoes.  Subject matter dictates camera and lens choices.  A few months ago I was is southern California for the “superbloom.”  As I write this I have about a week before I leave for the Pantanal in Brazil, which will be basically a long lens critter session.  I drove to California, so I could load my truck with whatever gear I though I might need.  Getting to the Pantanal entails three long flights and two all-too-lengthy airport layovers for a total of 30 hours nonstop travel time from my house.  I had five lenses with me in California, and will be hauling four lenses to Brazil.  But the only significant bit of equipment common to both shoots:  a D850 body.  I will add the battery pack — not needed for California flowers — in order to increase the frame rate for bird and mammal action in the Pantanal.  I’ll even have a different tripod and head, and a different camera pack, rather than what I used in California.  Horses for courses, as the saying goes.

I wouldn’t expect an auto mechanic to have only one wrench, or a surgeon to have only one scalpel.  Cameras and lenses (and tripods and tripod heads and filters and all the other things) are just tools.  You pick the right tool for the right job and for the right results.

Notice the last three words as they are the important ones:  the right results.  If you are satisfied with what you get from your cell phone camera, then by all means use your cell phone.  If you’re pleased with images from your 28-400mm lens, then go right ahead.  If you like what you get from your M4/3 or other format, great.

While I want to remain competitive in the professional market, most of all I want to please myself.  I’m happy with my gear, and happy with the results.

TILT/SHIFT OR FOCUS STACKING

I’ve received several emails asking about the differences between focus stacking and shooting with a tilt/shift lens.  Here’s the short answer: these are two very distinct techniques.  Focus stacking is a means of gaining sharp depth of focus (more near-to-far sharpness in the photo) while shooting at prime apertures.  Focus stacking can be done using any lens.  On the other hand, a tilt/shift lens is a specialized fixed focal length lens that permits changing where the plane of focus is positioned.  Nikon, for example, offers 19mm, 24mm, 45mm, and 85mm tilt/shift lenses.

To do focus stacking you take several images with your camera mounted on a tripod, all at the exact same exposure, but at different focus distances into the frame.  These shots must then be combined using software (my choice is Helicon Focus as it has a RAW IN – DNG OUT mode).  You’re basically getting a lot more depth of field, a lot more of the scene in focus, without resorting to small apertures and the resulting diffraction problems.  But, as always, there is a catch…or I should say, several catches.  The first is subject movement from frame to frame.  Software can fix some minor movement problems, but try photographing on a windy day and you’ll end up with a blurry stack.  Another problem happens when you have one frame with a close in-focus object positioned against a distant out-of-focus background, which has to stack with the reverse, the close object now out-of-focus but with an in-focus background.  The resulting stacked image often shows an obvious halo around that close object.  Focus stacking works best where there is a smooth transition of the subject you want sharp in the final composite image.  Just in passing, both Helicon Focus and Zerene Stacker, the two most popular focus stacking software programs, yield much better results that does Photoshop’s “auto-align, auto-blend” option.

Tilt/shift lenses do not give you more depth of field.  As I said above, they allow you to reposition the plane of focus.  And they are expensive.  Nikon’s 19mm, while a superb lens, is about the same price at a D850 body.  But using tilts means you can fight the wind, to get the shot in one frame rather than trying to put together several frames.  Use a tilt to position the plane of focus across a field of flowers, and a medium aperture works to cover the entire scene.  There is no software option that duplicates what a tilt movement does in a single frame.  As to shift — sliding the lens left-right or up-down — this effect can be accomplished in software by warping or distorting an image, but with the result of stretched pixels and the need to crop off part of the original image capture.  No big deal if you keep the resulting image small but certainly noticeable in a large print.  Tilt/shift lenses also allow you to use both tilt and shift simultaneously; the newer t/s lenses allow these movements to be in the same axis or at 90 degrees to each other.  As always, what’s best depends on your style of shooting, your subject matter (architectural work almost demands using a shift to avoid keystoning),  and what you want to do with your images.

My quick advice is to stick with focus stacking, or at least until you can verbalize a concrete reason to purchase a tilt/shift lens.  However, if you have GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) and some expendable income I can easily imagine a tilt/shift lens in your future.

Superbloom

As was well reported, southern California experienced a “superbloom” this year.  I drove down from my home in Oregon and spent just over a week photographing at two locations relatively close together: the Carizzo Plain National Monument, and a site just north of the California Poppy Reserve.  And yes indeed, the flowers were a spectacular sight.  I wanted to work locations that were not overrun with “petal peepers” (as one of the news reports named the thousands who visited certain spots) and my choices worked out well.  Neither location offered nearby motels, but having a truck camper let me stay on-site and be out both early and late.

The biggest problem I had was weather.  More specifically, windy conditions.  This was especially true at my poppy site.  The fact that a wind farm is located right next to the Reserve was certainly an indicator of what to expect.  Focus stacking for depth of field was impossible due to the wind, but having tilt/shift lenses saved me.  Using the tilt feature I could reposition the plane of focus on the flowers for near-to-far focus while still working at an optimum aperture and a low ISO.  Tilts to the rescue!

Here’s a shot from my poppy site, taken with the Nikon 24mm T/S lens.

 

 

LIGHTROOM AND DUST SPOTS (AGAIN)

Back in January 2014 I wrote a blog piece about Lightroom’s “Visualize Spots” feature, which had just been introduced with the then-new Lightroom 5.  Well, here we are five years later and at Lightroom Classic CC version 8.2.  I recently finished teaching a workshop and was somewhat shocked that over half the attendees — regular Lightroom users — did not know about Visualize Spots.  So to repeat myself….  Visualize Spots does exactly as its name suggests; it shows you all the dust spots on your image, including many that you might otherwise miss.

In the Develop module, select the Spot Tool.  It’s the second tool from the left in the Develop tool bar (the keyboard shortcut for the Spot Tool is Q).

Look at the bottom left, just below your image, and you will find the Visualize Spots checkbox.  Click on this, your image changes to black and white, and all those dust bunnies show up.  Move the Visualize spots slider to increase or decrease the sensitivity, and start spotting.

You can change the size of the Spot Tool by using the scroll wheel on your mouse.  You can change the feathering of the tool by holding down the Shift key while using the scroll wheel.

And now a neat little trick: set your image view at 100%, or 1:1, and navigate to the upper left corner of your image.  Use Page Down (Windows: PgDn on a full-size keyboard; Mac (and most Windows laptops): Function + down arrow) to move the area shown on screen by exactly one screen view.  When you get to the bottom of the image, do Page Down again, and the screen view moves over and up to the top.  Keep doing Page Down until you’re covered the entire image.  This little trick means you’ll never miss any section of the image.

FOCUS PEAKING WITH T/S LENSES

The Nikon D850 offers “focus peaking” in Live View with manual focus lenses, or AF lenses used in the manual focus mode.  “Focus peaking” overlays a colored highlight on the Live View image to indicate areas that are in focus.  Rotate the focusing ring on your lens to change focus and you’ll see the colored overlay move across the Live View image.  Great…except that most of the time I do not use manual focus with my lenses, as I stick with AF.

But my Nikon Tilt/Shift (T/S) lenses do not have autofocus; they are manual focus only.  And T/S lenses are notoriously difficult to focus when tilt is used, as this movement changes where the plane of focus lies.  As you add tilt, the plane of focus is no longer parallel to the camera back, but angles away from the camera, changing the near/far relationship.  In landscape work you’re generally tilting away from the camera, then stopping down the lens to cover depth of field on either side of the plane of focus.  Hitting the right amount of tilt can be tricky, tricky, tricky.  Ah, focus peaking to the rescue.

Here’s how to use focus peaking in Live View with a T/S lens.

  •  Select a color for the overlay in Custom Setting d8.  Chose from red, yellow, blue, or white.  Personally I like the red option.
  • Turn on Live View, then tap the button and scroll up or down until you find PEAK.  Select this and then chose one of the options in the peaking level menu: 1 (low sensitivity), 2 (standard), or 3 (high sensitivity).  The higher the setting, the greater the depth shown as being in focus.  I would suggest setting 1.
  •  Determine the near and far points in your image where you want the plane of focus to lie.
  •  With no tilt applied, focus on your chosen near point and the peaking color appears.
  •  Do not refocus, but slowly apply the tilt movement until your selected far point comes into focus and is highlighted with the peaking color.
  •  Without changing the tilt amount, refocus on the near point until it is highlighted.
  • Without refocusing, slowly apply the tilt movement in the opposite direction than you did before.  In other words, you are “de-tilting” the lens.  You will hit a point where both near and far areas will show the peaking color.

That’s it!  You might have to tweak the final focus just a tiny bit, but using focus peaking as an aid makes hitting the correct amount of tilt a lot easier.

PHOTOSHOP CUSTOM MENUS

I was recently doing a Lightroom/Photoshop processing demo and got asked about the appearance of the menus in my version of Photoshop.  How come some of the menu choices shown on my laptop were highlighted with different colors?  And how come the menus on the attendees’ computers had more choices than I had?  The answer was simple:  I had customized the menu choices for my particular needs.

Photoshop has seemingly a million options in each of its menus, but having so many choices can easily become overwhelming and daunting.  Just how many of these choices do you actually use?  I bet there are a lot of options that you never use, especially since Photoshop was not designed specifically for us photographers.  Why not hide the items you don’t need, and highlight the select ones you use the most?  You can easily do this by using the custom menu editor.  How do you access this special option?  Sure enough, it’s one of those many (but often overlooked) menu items.  In Photoshop click on Edit and look down at the bottom of the drop down list.

Click on Menus to open the custom menu editor, and make sure it is set for Application Menus.  Click the triangle in front of File, Edit, Image, Layer, etc., and you will see all the menu items under that particular header.  Click on the color option to add or change the highlight color for each item.  Click on the eyeball, the visibility icon, to show or hide each item.

 

Note the second line at the bottom:  “Show All Menu Items” will be appended to the bottom of a menu that contains hidden items.”  Those hidden items are, of course, the very ones you turned off by clicking the eyeball icon.

When you’re done, click save or save as.

You can see that I saved my choices as “John’s Menu.”  You can switch back to the original Photoshop version at any time by selecting “Photoshop Defaults” in the “Set” drop down.  You can make as many custom menus as you want, although I don’t know why one would do this.  To delete a custom menu, select it in “Set” and then click the trash icon.

SPOONBILLS

So what else have I been photographing this year?  In March I made a trip to Florida to work on select bird species.  I had not been to Florida since 2006, when I was using a Nikon D2x.  Spoonbills were one of the subjects I wanted.  I got to spend five shooting days at a nesting colony.  Here’s just a taste of the results, all taken with my Nikon D5 and Nikon 600mm lens.

Summer/Winter

It’s been a hot summer where I live in Oregon.  Too hot as far as I’m concerned.  I’m not a fan of really warm weather, much preferring the “fleece pullover needed” sort of days.  When I read a recent email calling me to task for not posting any images for quite a while…well, I looked back at what I’ve done photographically so far this year.  Perhaps looking at some winter photos will help me cool off.

In late January I made a trip to Bryce Canyon National Park, specifically hoping to time my trip with a snow storm predicted for the higher elevations in southern Utah.  I was hoping to get images of fresh white snow on the red Bryce formations, well knowing that such conditions wouldn’t last long.  I got lucky and made it to Bryce just as the snow was about to hit, and photographed at Bryce for the next six days.  Opening my Lightroom catalog and reviewing images taken on that trip certainly makes me feel better (it’s in the upper 90s here today!).

Of course I took a lot of overviews of the Bryce amphitheater, but I was drawn to the trees clinging to the canyon rim.

 

A winter morning at Bryce Canyon.

 

Tree on Bryce Canyon rim

 

Tree on Bryce Canyon rim

 

Tree on Bryce Canyon rim

NIKON D850 LENS PROFILE PROBLEM?

Recently I was doing some night sky photos using my D850 and the Nikon 20mm f/1.8.  When I looked at the shots in Lightroom I noticed something odd: in the darker areas, especially toward the corners of the frame, a series of faint concentric rings were visible, apparently emanating from the center of the image.  I did not have any sort of filter on the lens, so this could not be some sort of interference pattern.  What was happening?

I started doing a lot of testing.  I finally discovered that these “rings” would disappear if I unchecked the “lens profile correction” in the Lens Corrections tab in Lightroom’s Develop module.

Was this a bad lens profile or what?  I considered some options:

  • I first noticed this while working on my laptop which has a high resolution 4K screen.  Was this just a monitor artifact?  I opened the same files on my desktop computer which has a much larger, but slightly lower res monitor.  Nope, the circles were still there when “lens correction profile” was on.
  • Was this only a factor of high ISO in dim light?  I needed some control shots, done in dim light.  With my camera firmly mounted on a tripod I snapped a series of images inside my garage with the garage door closed and the overhead lights turned off.  I kept the lens at f/2 and went from ISO 100 to ISO 12800 in one stop intervals, with shutter speeds from 30 seconds up to 1/4 second.  The rings were still visible in all the images when I turned on the “correction profile.”
  • What about shooting in more “normal” lighting conditions?  I went outside and shot a series looking down my street, at different exposure values and different ISOs.  I could not see any problem in the images when the profile was on or off.
  • What about aperture settings in dim light?  Back to the garage and another series of frames, this time done at ISO 6400 and apertures from f/2 to f/11.  No change, turn the profile on and the rings were still there in all the shots.
  • What this a problem with the 20mm?  What about other wide angle lenses?  More shots in the garage, this time with my Nikon 14-24mm.  As soon as the lens profile was applied in Lightroom I could see the rings, although fainter.  I also tested the only other wide angle lens I own, the Nikon 16-35mm, and the rings were back.  Again, if I unchecked “lens profile correction” the rings disappeared.
  • What about the lack of an anti-aliasing filter on a high-res body?  I no longer own a D800E or a D810.  I didn’t own the 20mm f/1.8 back when I had those cameras, but I did have night sky shots taken with the 14-24mm.  I pulled those up, looked at them carefully, and flipped the profile correction on and off.  No rings no matter if the correction was on or off.

What on earth was going on here?  Was this a problem specific to the D850?

Now totally frustrated, I looked at my Develop settings in Lightroom.  If sure would be great to be able to use those lens profile corrections to solve the distortion and vignetting problems that all wide angle lenses have.  I discovered that if I set the sharpening Amount slider to zero the rings disappeared, but in my normal RAW file workflow I generally do want to apply some sharpening.  Back at the Lens Profile tab, I left the “profile correction” on, but pulled the sliders for Distortion and Vignetting at the bottom of that tab to zero, effectively negating the profile.  Sure enough, the rings disappeared.  But wait…how about separating those two sliders, adjusting one but not the other?  The culprit seemed to be the Distortion slider.  I could have the Vignetting slider all the way to the right, as high as possible, but the moment I moved the Distortion slider from the zero position the rings started to show.

As I stated earlier, I’ve only seen this in very low light shots, and haven’t tried any tests with longer focal lengths.  Has anyone else shooting with a D850 seen similar results?  Right now I’m thinking that when I’m processing images taken with the D850 in very low light I will leave lens profile correction turned on, but pull that Distortion slider to the far left before slowly moving it to the right.

Nikon MB-D18

So what’s an MB-D18?  To use Nikon nomenclature, it’s the “multi-power battery pack” for the D850 camera.  It’s the add-on grip that lets the D850 hit 9 frames/second (versus the 7 fps the camera alone tops out at).  Well, 9 fps if you also add a battery from a D4 or D5 camera and the special BL-5 battery chamber cover needed to mount that battery into the MB-D18.  Of course you’ll also need a charger for that battery.  Wowza — this adds about $1000 out of pocket to get two more frames per second.  So is it worth the expense?

The answer is simple and is the same exact answer I give to all photographic questions:  it all depends.

Let me stop right here and make one statement:  if I could only have one camera right now to photograph landscapes and wildlife and everything else, my choice would be a D850.  Is it a great landscape camera?  The best I’ve ever used.  Is it a great wildlife camera?  While it’s a good wildlife camera, I do think the D5 is a better choice for someone who is a wildlife specialist.  But like I said, if I could only have one camera, then give me a D850.

So back to the MB-D18.  Adding it does make shooting vertical compositions a lot easier, but at the same time it bulks up the size of the camera quite a bit.  Plus the total weight of the camera increases a lot depending on which “multi-power” source you use.  Two battery trays come standard with the MB-D18, one for an additional EN-EL 15 battery (the same as used in the camera body itself), and one for eight AAs.  Neither of these change the frame rate; the camera still tops out at the default 7 fps.  You’re simple adding additional power time to the camera.  In my opinion you can just leave that AA tray in the box.  But you should have an extra EN-EL 15 battery no matter what, and adding the second one in the grip really extends shooting time.

Landscape photographers certainly don’t need a faster frame rate, but having an additional battery in place, along with the one in the camera body, might help occasionally.  I can think of several scenarios:  extended time lapse shooting, hours of star trail photography, and severe cold weather work.  I was in Jasper National Park in February when it was minus 30° F.  It was difficult enough at that temperature to change a lens let alone a camera battery.  As a side note, the D850 worked perfectly at 30 below, no problems.  My own ability to function, or even semi-function, was the problem.

It’s that 9 fps option that really adds expense, so the nitty gritty question is whether you really need 9 fps or not.  When photographing wildlife every frame counts, so the answer might be “yes” if wildlife plays an important part in your photographic plans.  So, yes, I did purchase an MB-D18 along with a BL-5 battery cover.  But then I already have a D5, an extra EN-EL 18a battery for the D5, and the D5 charger, so the additional expense was not as much as it might have been.  Here’s a little money saving story:  I like having a second charger to leave in the camper I have on my truck, but the $370 for another MH-26a (the charger that comes with the D5) put me off.  A couple of quick phone calls to dealers and I found a used MH-26 (the charger that originally came with the D4 bodies) for a whopping $44.  Now that’s more like it.

So, do you really need 9 fps?  If so, go for it.  If not, take that $1000 you saved and spend it on a photo trip.