Category Archives: Commentary

COMPARISON

I recently ran across a blog post where a photographer was complaining about how much “space” his Nikon D810 files consumed, and how “costly” this space was.  Really?  I’m not exactly sure what this photographer meant, but let me take a slightly tongue-in-cheek look at “space” and “cost” today, compared to the same in the film days.

I store my digital files on hard drives.  I just checked the B&H website and a 4TB Western Digital external AC powered USB3 drive is currently priced at $119.  A 4TB drive will hold roughly 90000 D810 RAW files.  Assuming that files are processed, I’ll cut that number in half as the drive’s capacity for final images.  So, 45000 images fit on a drive that is roughly 6.5 x 5.5 x 2 inches.

Back in the film days my slide storage solution involved standard office four drawer file cabinets.  Each drawer could hold about 5000 slides in archival 20-slide pages, groups of 10 pages dropped into a single hanging file folder.  So one cabinet = 20000 slides.  Let’s cram a few more pages into each drawer, and say that 45000 slides could fit into two file cabinets.

OK, two four drawer file cabinets:  $200 (about $100 each back then, quite a bit more today).

100+ hanging file folders per cabinet:  $40 or so.

45000 slides held in 20-slide pages means 2250 pages.  B&H still sells these, currently $7 for a pack of 25.  I’ll knock this down to $5, so $450 for pages.

Add in the cost of film and processing:  45000 slides @ 36 shots per roll = about 1250 rolls of film, and at a ballpark figure of $10 per roll total cost that’s an additional $12500.

Total expense:  somewhere around $13300.

Those two file cabinets take up a goodly space:  52 x 30 x 22 inches when placed adjoining.

So…$119 and 71.5 cubic inches versus $13300 and 34320 cubic inches.  And I’m not even going to mention the difference in weight between one external hard drive and two fully loaded file cabinets.

END OF AN ERA

After a lot of procrastination, I’ve started sorting through about 25 years of old film images.  I haven’t shot one frame of film in over ten years now (I don’t even own a film camera anymore).  To be honest, it’s an extremely rare day when I have any reason to search for a film image…so a major housekeeping project has finally begun: I’m getting rid of as much of my film archive as possible.

I have seven four-drawer file cabinets crammed full of 35mm slides stored in 20-slide archival pages, ten pages to a hanging folder.  These are sorted into broad categories, such as birds, mammals, national parks, autumn color, etc.  I’ll be going through each section and pulling the shots I think worth keeping.  In the film days we all shot and kept duplicates of the exact same image, as multiple originals were needed to send out to magazines, books, calendars, and other possible publications.  Even having just started on this project, I’m amazed at what I kept way back when.  Yes, there are some good images, but there is also a lot of stuff that should have been ditched back at the time.  As I look through the files, I keep saying to myself “If this is what you kept, just how bad were the images you threw away?”

While the bulk of my film work was done with 35mm Nikons, I also used a Fuji 6x17cm panoramic camera for several years, and two 6x7cm medium format cameras, a Pentax 67 and a Horseman roll film view camera.  OK, there’s another whole file cabinet full of mounted images.

I’m hoping to get all this down to one file cabinet filled only with “keepers,” although that might take several passes through the files.  All the tossed film is going to a professional shredding place.

But I still have all the peripheral stuff: slide pages, labels, mounts, protective sleeves, and several large light tables.  Plus slide projectors and slide trays.  Anyone want this stuff?

Just a start: a wastebasket full of mounted 6x17cm panoramic images.

LARRY WEST

I just got back from an extended trip to learn that Larry West died on December 15.  Larry was an exceptional photographer, a great naturalist, and a good friend.  He was an enormously helpful to me at the very start of my career, and was indeed extremely generous with information, advice, and encouragement to a whole generation of nature photographers.  In the mid-1970s he and I started offering week-long photography workshops in Michigan which, to my knowledge, were about the first field workshops anywhere in the US specializing in nature photography.  After my work took me in a different direction, he continued these workshops on his own.  He also authored a series of well-received “How to Photograph” books.   Larry’s presence will be missed by many.

TECH TALK: LIGHTROOM/PHOTOSHOP

This post is going to be a bit techie.  OK, don’t say I didn’t warn you up front.

I was surfing the Web recently and ran across a blog post by a well know photographer who does not use Lightroom.  One major point made in the post was the question of why would anyone use Lightroom at all (aside from its cataloging feature) since Lightroom shows percentages for R, G, and B values,  Yes, mouse over an image in Lightroom’s Develop module and the readout is indeed in percentages.  Other RAW file converters show numerical values of 0 to 255 for each of the color channels.  Doesn’t this make using one of those converters better than working with Lightroom?

Most RAW conversion software makes you select a color space.  For example, let’s consider Adobe Camera Raw (ACR).  ACR is a separate program, accessible from Photoshop or from Bridge (which you now have to download from Adobe, rather than it being automatically included with Photoshop).  Bridge is a browser, the same as Window’s Explorer or Mac’s Finder, while Photoshop is a pixel editor.  ACR is a separate in-between software program.  When you open a RAW file in ACR, it needs a color space to use.   In simplistic terms, a color space is a group of colors out of all possible colors.  Remember when you were a kid and your parents bought you a box of crayons?  There were different boxes available, holding just 8 crayons up to 64 crayons.  Yep, more crayons, more possible colors.  No matter how you worked with the 8 crayons, you could never have the possible options and mixtures that the big 64 crayon box held.  It had a larger color space.  The basic digital color spaces are sRGB, Adobe RGB, and ProPhoto RGB.  Think of these as small, medium, and large.  Open an image in ACR, and immediately below the image window is a clickable link:

Note that the default is sRGB, the “small” color space.  Click on this link, and Workflow Options opens where you can select the color space and bit depth you want.

Whatever you select, make this your RGB working space over in Photoshop’s Color Settings (you might notice that the default in Photoshop is also sRGB).  Personally I use ProPhoto RGB in both ACR and Photoshop.

OK, so we finally get to where Lightroom differs from other converters.  You ever notice that Lightroom does not offer a choice of color spaces?  Internally it uses a variety of ProPhoto RGB.   But Lightroom differs from those other converters because it is a parametric editor.  OK, so what’s that?  In simple terms, it sums up processing instructions, which are not applied to an image until that image is either converted or exported through that instruction set into an actual editable file format.  Open an image from Lightroom into Photoshop, and it is no longer a RAW file.  A file in Photoshop can’t be saved out as a RAW file, but only in a standard graphics file format.

Well, at last we’re back to the question about those R,G, and B percentages.  Because Lightroom does not assign a color space, it cannot show numerical RGB values, since those numerical values depend on the color space in use.  Open a RAW image into some other converter besides Lightroom, mouse over the image, and read the RGB values for any one spot.  Now switch to a different color space.  The RGB readouts for that same spot will be different.  You have to specify a color space to talk about RGB numerical values.  Do I really care about this one way or the other?  No, not at all.  Photography is a visual art, not a bunch of numbers.  Use a quality calibrated monitor, look at the image, and adjust to taste.

In that same blog post I mentioned it was implied that not using Photoshop was a big mistake.  Well, I partially agree.  Photoshop does allow workflow options, such as layer masking and luminosity selections, that no RAW file converter currently allows.  But wait, this is not an either/or question.  It’s not a choice of Lightroom or Photoshop no more than it is of DPP or Photoshop, or of Nikon Capture or Photoshop.  Personally I find Lightroom’s user interface incredibly easy to use, plus I use the database feature to catalog all my image files.  But I also want Photoshop for fine-tuning images.  For me it’s a combination of Lightroom and Photoshop (and a calibrated monitor).

Scanner Part Two

I’m rather shocked that my previous scanner post has generated so many emails (42 have landed in my mailbox so far).  To answer everyone at once:

As far as I know, there are almost no dedicated 35mm film scanners currently made, but then I have no reason to keep up on the scanner market.  I’m not looking for a new scanner, and I don’t pay attention to what is out there.  I bought my Nikon Coolscan 4000 back in 2001, and it still works just fine for my purposes.  If for some reason I need a higher res digital file from a transparency, I ship the film out to have a drum scan made.  And  no, I don’ t want to sell my Nikon scanner.

I’m not in the market for different scanner software.  Yes, I know about SilverFast and VueScan, but I see no reason to purchase additional software when I’m satisfied with the results I get with NikonScan.  This is especially true since I make very few scans per year.

I’m not scanning my entire film archive, nor do I have any intention of doing so.  I only make a scan, or send out for one, when I have a very specific need (which is not nearly as often as you might expect).  Indeed, why would I even want to scan all my old transparencies?  Assume that I have 200,000 images (not such a big number, since I’ve been photographing professionally for almost 45 years now!).  Total time it takes to make one scan (pull image, remove dust, make scan, replace film, enter resulting digital file into database with caption info, etc.): about two minutes under the very best of conditions (not including any Photoshop time needed on the resulting file).  OK, 200,000 images @ 2 minutes/image = 400,000 minutes, or just over 833 days straight, working 8 hours per day with no breaks.  No thanks.

And…I actually already have thumbnail images of all my slides.  The slide itself is a thumbnail.  Hold up the slide, look at it.

New Camera…Cannot Open RAW Files

Almost every time a new Nikon camera is introduced, I receive the same email: “I just bought the newest Nikon, but I cannot open the RAW files in either Lightroom or Photoshop.  These programs worked perfectly with my old camera.  Is my new camera defective?”

This past week alone I got five such emails concerning the D750.

When you purchase any camera you should check with Adobe as to which camera bodies are currently supported, given the versions of the Adobe software you own.  Go to this web site:  http://helpx.adobe.com/creative-suite/kb/camera-raw-plug-supported-cameras.html.

The other email I constantly receive is: “I have Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS4, but cannot open the RAW files from the new Nikon I just purchased.”

Well, your new Nikon did not even exist when those old versions of software were created.  Your options are to either upgrade the software (in my opinion the better option as newer versions of software generally offer more), or see if you can use the free Adobe DNG converter with your new camera.  Find out here:  http://helpx.adobe.com/photoshop/camera-raw.html#dng.

You might discover you need to upgrade your computer.  Another typical email I get: “I’m using Windows XP, but Lightroom 5 won’t work.”  Really?  Look at the operating system requirements for Lightroom 5:  Windows 7 with Service Pack 1 or newer.  XP is, in computer terms, ancient history.

So now I’m waiting for another email to arrive: “I use a typewriter, but I can’t seem to load Microsoft Word.”

I have no idea how to answer that.

More or Less

How much of a subject should be included in the image?  That’s always a compositional question: exactly where should you position the edge of the frame?  When shooting with a fixed focal length lens, you really don’t have a choice unless you can physically change your location.  If you’re using a zoom lens, you have an almost unlimited choice.  Of course, no matter the lens you could always crop the image afterwards, but all cropping is lossy and personally I hate to throw away data.

So just how much, or how little, needs to be included?  Consider these two images.  Your thoughts?  Is the roller too small in the frame, the elephant too tight?  What do you think?

 

Lilac-breasted roller.

Elephant.

 

RUN A TEST

I was recently in a photographic situation where high ISO was required.  I was shooting with a group, and I was asked as to the highest usable ISO.  My answer:  it  depends on several factors.

  1. Every camera has different high ISO liabilities.  What does your camera do?
  2. How much noise is acceptable to you?
  3. What are you going to do with your images?  Downsizing a file removes noise, so you can get away with a lot if all you’re going to do with the image is posting it to the Web.  Making large prints, however, is another matter.

I suggested that everyone run one simple test.  Mount the camera on a tripod, and shoot the exact same scene, changing the ISO by one stop between frames.  Since ISO values work in straight numerical doubles, this means simply doubling the ISO number every time: 400, 800, 1600, 3200, etc.  Open the resulting images, and decide for yourself what is acceptable. It doesn’t matter in the least what you actually photograph, as this is only a test.  Subject matter is no big deal.  You just need to know how far you can push the ISO and still get acceptable results.

Easy, right?  The next day we were, as expected, in the same situation where higher ISOs were needed.  I asked the group how many of them had run my suggested test, since we had known exactly what we were going to be photographing on the new day.  The answer: no one, none, nobody.

Folks, you gotta take some responsibility here.  You really need to run some tests, and testing some basic concepts is not difficult to do.  Just shoot some comparison frames.  Test IS/VR on and off, at both fast and slow shutter speeds.  Test for the lowest shutter speed you can handhold and get acceptable results.  Test long exposure noise reduction on and off.  Test TTL fill flash settings.  Don’t believe anything you read on the Web — including what I say — until you’re tested with your equipment, and your reasons for photographing, and your criteria for what is “good.”

An ISO test is so simple.  And once you’re shot those frames, you now have them to use in testing noise reduction methods.  Lightroom noise reduction only?  Noise reduction software (since free trial versions are available)?

Like I said, it doesn’t matter what you photograph.  Here’s a 1:1 crop from a shot I took in my garage.  Great image, huh?  But it would work fine as an ISO test.  And speaking of which, just what ISO was used?  Hint:  the camera was my Nikon D4.

 

1:1 crop of ISO test photo.

MAKING CHANGES

In a recent discussion with three other photographers, I commented that I’m constantly changing how my cameras function, depending on my subject matter at any one particular moment.  I was rather surprised when the others responded that they never did this.  All three said the only change their ever made was to the ISO in use.

To be honest, I was rather shocked.  Was I really the odd man out here?

So what changes do I make?  (Some of my answers are specific to my Nikons.)

ISO.  I certainly do change the ISO, especially when I need a faster shutter speed.  At times I turn on Auto-ISO, where the camera sets whatever ISO is needed to maintain my selected shutter speed/aperture combination.

MOTOR DRIVE RATE.  I use the fastest frame rate for critter work, single frame advance for everything else.

MIRROR LOCKUP.  “No” for moving subjects, “yes” for everything else.

METERING PATTERN.  Matrix (evaluative) most of the time, Spot for precise areas.

LCD BRIGHTNESS.  In bright sunlight, viewing the LCD is difficult.  I set the brightness as high as possible in that condition (which makes the LCD much easier to view) and lower the brightness when I’m not in bright sunlight.

THE IN-CAMERA TIME AND DATE.  I rename my files when I download, using YYMMDD at the beginning of the file name, which automatically organizes my files chronologically.  I change date and time as I travel, so that all the files match my itinerary.

EXPOSURE DELAY.  I use a remote release whenever possible, but often use the 3-second delay mode for totally static subjects (where I’m not trying to time lulls in the wind or other movement).

EXPOSURE MODE.  While most of the time I use Aperture Priority, I change to Manual exposure when I want to maintain a given exposure value.  For example, consider a dark bison in winter snow.  If the light is not changing, there is one correct exposure value.  But a fairly wide shot would be mostly white snow, while a tight shot would be mostly dark bison.  Any autoexposure mode would change the exposure depending on how much of the frame was light-toned or dark-toned, but manual exposure would be consistent.

CROP MODE ON MY D800E.  Full frame most of the time; 1.2X crop when I know I will be cropping a bit in post-processing (the smaller file size also gives a slightly faster frame rate, while making the buffer clear a tad quicker).

AF MODE.  I use single point AF for landscapes and static subjects (although generally I’ll also manually tweak focus).  For moving subjects, I almost always use 3D focus tracking, which automatically shifts the primary focus point to follow the movement of the subject.  This is my favorite action AF mode, as I can concentrate on composition and don’t have to keep an AF point centered on the subject.  If I switch from 3D AF, it’s to 21 point AF.  In this mode I have to select the primary AF point, which works best when I know exactly which way the subject will be moving across the frame.  I can’t imagine myself using the same AF mode for all my work.

So what do you do?

Adobe Creative Cloud

If you’re a Photoshop user, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the Adobe announcement that from now on all new versions of Photoshop will be by subscription only.  You download the software, and it resides on your computer, but if you don’t pay the subscription fee the software deactivates.  Potentially this means that you might not be able to access your images.   Subscribe for a while, save a master layered image, and only by paying the subscription fee can you get back in to work with that layered file.  Yes, it’s on your computer, but of no use.  In short, it seems to me you have two choices:  (1) pay the subscription fee, and keep paying it forever, even with price increases; or (2) stick with PS CS6, the current version which you can purchase outright.  The problem with (2) is what happens if you buy a new camera, not supported by CS6, or get a new computer with a new operating system on which CS6 will not run?  You could keep your current gear, but I for one am certainly not at the point of saying that the cameras and computers I presently own are my final cameras and computers.

Adobe has different pricing schemes, and for those who use multiple Adobe products the cost per month makes some sense.  But I don’t.  I use Photoshop, and occasionally InDesign, and the latter is an older version which I have no plans to upgrade.

Like many, I’m not happy about Adobe’s decision.

But…there is a small glimmer of hope, especially if you’re a Lightroom user.  Lightroom was designed specifically for photographers, while Photoshop was not.  Here’s a long forum piece which in my opinion is well worth a read:

http://www.luminous-landscape.com/forum/index.php?topic=78240.0

In case you don’t know the players, Thomas Knoll is the original creator of Photoshop, Eric Chan is the chief engineer on Adobe Camera Raw, and Jeff Schewe is a photographer/developer closely connected to Adobe.