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Is Digital Capture Too Easy?

Do We Take Digital Capture For Granted?

In the “My Story” page on this Blog, I suggest that it would be a wonderful exercise for “new” photographers to begin with a truly all-manual camera and color transparency (“slide”) film.  Perhaps there are readers here who don’t even know what that is (or was).


For many photographers – particularly nature and outdoor photographers – a process called color transparency film, became the medium of choice

The “brave new world that digital “capture” has given us has also done a pretty good job of hiding the technical aspects behind the curtain (no pun intended).  To understand that statement probably requires a little trip down memory lane.  The original idea, of course was chemical reaction caused by exposure to light (hence, “exposure”) light on a medium. The reaction caused the chemical to change color (or at least contrast).  While there were some prior experiments, the first “permanent” photographic image was probably the Daguerrotype, in the 18th Century.  Over time, the chemical medium of choice became silver nitrate crystals, suspended in an gel-type emulsion which we called “film.”  A series of red, green and blue layers were later added to the process, to create “color” images.  Compared to the vivid color we see on our computer screens today, early color film was rather subdued.

Black and white, and later, “color reversal” films were designed to create a “negative” image.  The negative image was developed in a chemical bath process in the darkroom.  Then, a second process was used to expose photographic paper (coated with a silver crystal emulsion of its own) to yield a “positive” image.

I believe there is a learning “take-away” from the color transparency film story

For many photographers – particularly nature and outdoor photographers – a process called color transparency film, became the medium of choice.  The color transparency was designed primarily to be projected onto a screen by shining a light through it.  It was also possible to create prints for personal use and for publishing with these images.  In its early stages, this process was confined to a very complex development process, that required very expensive equipment.  Perhaps the first and most famous was the vaunted “Kodachrome.”  Later, processes were created that would allow a less expensive, more routine form of development of the film.  The draw of the color transparency was its detail and realism.


Color transparency film is rarely used anymore, primarily because of the modern digital sensor.  Film had certain limitations, including relatively low ISO ratings (particularly in relationship to grain).  While the film industry made wonderful advances – particularly during the 1990’s, the arrival of digital sensors turned the photographic industry on its “ear.”  Suddenly, we could have a variable ISO “film” in our cameras.  And the quality of digital sensors has continued to get better and better, allowing for a relatively grain-free image at previously unheard of ISO ratings in the tens of thousands (compared to perhaps 200 ISO in a color transparency film).

If digital is so good, why do we care about all this?  Aside from the fact that history is interesting to some of us, I believe there is a learning “take-away” from the color transparency film story.

Our eyes are amazing biotechnical wonders.  Those familiar with cameras that allow user input, are perhaps familiar with the established system used to characterize the amount of light allowed to “expose” the medium (whether film or digital sensor), known as “f stops.”  Scientists say that the eye is altogether capable of seeing a range of up to 30 stops (though, at any given time, depending on lighting conditions, the useful range is perhaps closer to 10 stops).  Neither film nor digital sensors are capable of that much range (though digital technology will probably get there one day).  Because of this limited range, what we are able to record and present is much more limited that what our eye can actually see.  The magnitude of this range is known as “exposure latitude.”

Our eyes are amazing biotechnical wonders

Without getting into a detailed analysis of the various and relative exposure latitudes of different films and digital sensors, knowing these limitations is instructive.  As a general rule, B&W film had greater latitude than color negative film (perhaps comparable to the best digital sensors).  But color transparency film had nearly zero practical latitude.  When shooting slides, I would often under or over expose by 1/3 stop.  Any more than that and the image exposure just began to deteriorate.  So how is that useful?  It forces us to be thoughtful and careful about our exposure techniques.  I learned early on that I could be a bit sloppy when using negative film and still get acceptable exposure.  With slide film there is no margin for error.

But if other media is more “forgiving,” why does this all matter?  Well, what you can see in the darkroom is that there is a lot more you can coax out of a well exposed negative than a poorly exposed one.  And sometimes that is the difference between “acceptable” and “desired” results.  Using color transparency film was an in-your-face demonstration of how critical correct exposure is.  I have always thought of my digital sensor recordings as “digital negatives.”  And, much like the physical film “negatives” the quality of the “digital negative” critically impacts what you are able to do with it in post processing.  Getting correct exposure will yield desired results!

This image, made on Fuji Velvia; the most colorful and saturated film of the day, even with digital “enhancement” shows the more subdued colors and contrast ranges of transparencies

Of course, the comparison between film and digital is not exact.  There is a “science” to correct exposure with a digital image, and the response to exposure latitude is mathematically different.  Enough so that different and new techniques evolved for exposure judgement.  This technique, know as ETTR (or “Expose To The Right”), recognizes use of the graphic, “Histogram” for judging exposure.  I explain this exposure theory and technique in The Perfect Histogram, posted here in 2010.  While again, not an “apples-to-apples” comparison, there are many parallels to shooting with transparency film and optimal use of the digital sensor.

So, to my original question, do we take digital sensors for granted?  I believe many of us do, by not doing the “homework” involved to understand how these marvelous tools do their work.  The “cover” image was taken with my Smart Phone (the ill-conceived Blackberry Priv – Blackberry’s last ditch stand and attempt to compete in the Android world).  My first digital camera had a sub-2 megapixel sensor and produced, small, rather low-quality images.  Today’s smart phone cameras rival nearly any other small-sensor camera out there.  Most of them do not have the ability for significant user technical input, but the ability of the software to “do it for us” yields some impressive and often acceptable results.  But I will stick to my more sophisticated equipment and my knowledge of it, to obtain desired results.  And if you want a “tough lesson” learning experience, grab an old manual SLR camera and a roll of Kodachrome 25 and make some images!

I am experimenting with a beta version of WordPress’ new “Gutenberg” editor, which uses “blocks” of information.  Like anything new, there is a learning curve.  And bugs.  I like the ability to customize backgrounds, and to insert multiple images as “galleries” instead of just a single image at a time.  I am not sure I like the captioning,  I like that they have added drop caps (my prior solution was to make just the first letter in a bolder, larger font).  I do not like the in-your-face, hugeness of the drop caps.  I hope the final version gives us some more adjustability.  Likewise, I would like the ability to use font colors in the blockquotes, and vary the fonts within the text boxes.  Time will tell, but I apologize for any “wonkyness” here.

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My Thoughts on the Newly Announced Sony a7II

Nobody would seriously argue that the last 10 years haven’t brought about quantum changes in the way we view photography. In 2004, we talked about “the digital revolution” and many serious photographers speculated about whether digital could ever someday equal and even surpass the large and even medium format film capture of the day.

That ship has definitively sailed. In the mid-late ’90’s I bought my first electronic, “automatic” SLR camera (does anybody remember the Nikon N6006?). It was, at the time, a modern marvel, which did some things electronically, that had previously been something mechanical camera body owners “wished” for. Indeed, while I never owned one, Minolta had an even more advanced “computer” electronic camera back then that could be “programmed” to do things. But they shot film. And the beauty and simplicity of it what that back in those days I was able to carry former (all mechanical) Nikon “flagship” model F and the N6006 and essentially shoot the same medium; interchange more or less the same lenses; and achieve more or less the same end-result. And, amazingly, the venerable old F held a value similar – if not in excess of – the N6006.

The Digital Revolution has passed

The revolution has passed us. And any of us who didn’t realize that are probably already in the grave. In the past 2 years, the question has been whether smaller, more compact outfits can play in the same sandbox with the king of the hill, the so-called “full-frame” DSLR. The DSLR crowd has the advantage of the pedigreed lens array that has – more or less – been being manufactured and improved upon during the entire period where digital has been clawing its way to the top.

B the primary difference between now and years back is that today things move much faster. New offerings and “innovation” comes yearly, instead of multiple-yearly; and obsolescence occurs much more rapidly. Just prior to 2010 Sony began to offer an APS sensor “point & shoot” style camera that featured interchangeable lenses. Competitors were also doing it, but not with the APS sensor, which made the Sony offerings — in my view – ground-breaking. In 2011, the Sony NEX-7 came out and was a “pro” (or at least very serious amateur) offering. Shortly following, in 2012, they introduced the more affordable and in some ways, more DSLR shooter friendly, NEX-6. And I “bit.” As an “ocassional” camera and a backup to my more “serious” Nikon D800 DSLR, it was a pretty fun and pretty impressive little tool (indeed, I still carry and shoot it regularly).

But the real “impresser” was the 2013 Full Frame a7 and a7r offerings. I now own an a7, and an assortment of lenses. And here we are, not even a full year from the advent of the a7 series, and Sony has now announced the a7II (available to be “pre-sold” on B&H’s website). New offerings always make us wonder. Should we be “upgrading”? Have we “missed the boat” by not waiting? What are we missing now?

I am not “feeling” it

I have had a theory about new offerings of any kind. You have to jump on somewhere, and then you have to ride what you jumped on to until you get your money’s worth out of it. I am not always a “practice what I preach kind of a guy, but generally, I believe that. So if you already have one of these mirrorless wonders, here are some thoughts.

The a7II announcement, of course, had me wondering what was new and better about it. So I made some comparisons. The a7 and a7r are essentially identical, except for the pixel density and the a7r’s lack of electronic front curtain shutter capability. What the a7II adds – for a still photography shooter – is a faster AF and 5-axis in-body image stabilization.

I am not “feeling it.” “But,” you say: “5-axis IS!” Wow. That sounds awfully cool. I have a 24-70 and a 70-200. Both are already “IS” (Sony’s version is OSS). I also have some shorter, faster glass. Do I need “IS” for that? I also own a tripod. So while the in-body “IS” sounds exciting on paper, I am wondering if it is truly and “advancement?”

Faster AF. Hmmn. I use this camera for primarily still subjects: Landscape, architecture, a fair amount of “travel” shooting. While the target occasionally moves a bit, lets face it, folks, these are generally very cooperative subjects. The AF on my a7 is pretty estimable and certainly sufficient for my needs. Knowledgeable and experienced shooters readily recognize that this is not a sports shooter’s tool.

I will admit that I have not embraced these still cameras as a video tool (I have friends who have an are totally smitten with them as videography tools). I understand that Sony has addressed some of the videographers’ “wish list” items in the a7II. But that still, in my view, makes this new “toy” a rather special purpose item.

And there are some negatives. First, this camera is selling at a price point $400 higher than the first iteration a7 (some might actually view this as a positive. The a7 debuted at the higher price point and has now been reduced – so much so that Sony will probably have to price-protect its retail sellers for the a7 sales going forward). The new version is also nearly 1/3 pound heavier and slightly larger than the original a7. While this won’t be a deal-breaker, it may actually be counter-intuitive.

There are opportunities and risks as a result

My sole reason for making the switch was to try to obtain a smaller, lighter, more portable “kit” for my photography. There was absolutely nothing wrong with my Nikon gear – except for its size and weight. And as prior blogs suggest, changing up to Sony involved a compromise. So why in the world would I make the shift to Sony, and then let them “creep” me back to my DSLR-sized roots? Almost seems like bait and switch to me. So, no – Sony, I think I’ll stay with the current model until you persuade me there is a real reason for change!

There are some opportunities – and risks – out there as a result of this.   I don’t really understand Sony’s marketing strategy here.  Since he says it better and more thoroughly than I could, I recommend a perusal of Thom Hogan’s “Sans Mirror” site for his take on this issue.  It will not surprise me to see the first-generation a7 series prices drop significantly in the used market. This will open up some opportunities for folks looking to get into the a7 “full frame” market at reasonable prices. At the same time, owner beware. The known issues besetting the a7r (shutter slap) is very likely to be addressed when the a7rII comes out. This might make your a7r a bit of a “brick” when it comes to resale. Just sayin’.

It will not surprise me to see the a7 series prices drop significantly on the used market

My Early Impressions of the Sony A7r

This “review,” like all of my equipment reviews, is not intended to be a technical review, or to compete with or go head to head with the more serious reviewers, like dpreview.com. I strongly recommend that you read those sites when doing your purchasing “due diligence,” as well as reviewer comments on selling sites such as B&H and Amazon (taking them, of course, with a grain of salt and in the context the reviewer presents). My reviews are more of a pragmatic, hands on take on my personal use. It might be useful to read my blurb here on the blog about the intent of my reviews. It will also be informative to understand my general photography approach. I have friends who shoot sports, wildlife, birds, etc. Much of what I say here will probably not apply, so read within context.

Dublin City Center Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70 ISO 200; f8 copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Dublin City Center
Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70
ISO 200; f8
copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Last year, I made a momentous decision, trading in my impressive, Nikon D7000 (which I carried as a second – and it most served the function of “bag ballast” more than that of a primary tool), for a Sony NEX-6 “mirrorless” camera (see, “My Review of the Sony NEX-6“).

The draw, as noted in the blog, was the SLR-like performance and quality, in a very portable package.  The biggest negative in the SLR world (in my view) is lugging large, heavy pieces of equipment around.  The NEX camera and lenses substantially alleviate this issue. The tradeoff is the potential for loss in image quality and and possibly versatility. But we often get all wound up in “gear” and artificial “definitions” and “standards” of quality. All items of photographic equipment, are tools and they only need to be able to accomplish the purpose intended. Making a compelling image, in the end, is more critical than creating the highest possible (technical) image quality. I think this point is important to put the following into perspective.

In spite of the above observation, there is nothing as “sexy” as a quality-built tool. When I moved into the NEX-6 territory, I began experimenting with a couple of the Zeiss-branded fixed focal length lenses. All I could say was “wow.” And with the combination of the very convenient and small 16-50mm zoom lens and the relatively small, Zeiss f1.8 fixed lenses, the photographic possibilities were exciting – and all in a very small package.

However, the NEX series uses an “APS” size sensor and I had been “spoiled” (or maybe better said: “influenced”) by the “full-size” sensor of the D800.

CITY CENTER DUBLIN, IRELAND 04192014000045

Dublin City Center Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70 ISO 200; f4 copyright 2014 Andy Richards

So when Sony announced the “full frame” A7/A7r series, many of us who had embraced the mirrorless concept anxiously awaited their release. I took delivery of my A7r, shortly after the first of the year along with the Sony-Zeiss 35mm f2.8 lens. Shortly after that, I also received the Sony-Zeiss 24-70 f4 zoom lens. The draw of the A7 series, in my view, is its “full frame” sensor (with the A7r sensor being essentially the equivalent of the Nikon D800e’s industry leading full frame sensor).

It is not an “apples to apples” comparison

Why not just own the D800e? For me, a primary consideration is that the A7r body is much smaller and lighter. When packing gear for travel, and even when walking around with the camera hanging from your neck, this weighs heavily (pun intended). The A7r and similar lens combinations are also less expensive (though it is a relative comparison). Thus, if it were an “apples to apples” comparison, the Sony vs. the DSLR would be compelling. Unfortunately, it is not such a comparison. The Zeiss Lens is 2 stops slower than the Nikkor. But the cost differential is $1,000. So a significant question is whether the 2 stops are worth the $1,000. For me the “jury” is still out on that. The primary advantage of the 2 extra stops has traditionally been the ability to make images in lower light situations. Now that digital sensors have progressed to the point where the image quality is really quite good at higher ISO settings, this may have become less of an advantage.

Kylemore Abbey Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70 copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Kylemore Abbey
Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70
copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The second notable advantage is the ability to render images with nice “bokeh” (out of focus backgrounds). It seems clear that the 2 stops continue to make a difference here. However, with the f1.8 fixed lenses, I am finding less need for the longer zooms to produce that kind of imagery. So the comparison is difficult.

I took a serious “plunge” when the A7 was announced, and sold all my Nikon Gear. The replacement was to be the A7r, the Sony Zeiss 24-70 f4 zoom and the Sony “pro” 70-200 f4 zoom. As of this writing, I am still waiting on release and delivery of the 70-200. But after carrying the A7r/Zeiss 24-70 combination in the field, I am not sure I would advise doing what I did, if you already own a high-end DSLR and “pro” lens combination. Don’t get me wrong. I am not regretting my decision. For me, the portability and “packability” of the smaller combo, is huge.

I am not ready to say recommend a complete changeover from existing DSLR Gear

The Sony A7r

We recently returned from a week in Ireland, and I had several opportunities to shoot with the A7r and the 24-70; all handheld. During the week, I selectively used this combination when more “serious” landscape opportunities presented themselves. I used a variety of ISO ranges, largely because of the handheld situation. We were on a tour and many of the locations and the short durations of our stays, did not lend themselves to the use of a tripod.  Also, unfortunately, as we were on a bus tour, I did not arrive at most of the locations during ideal lighting conditions.  Most of images show that weakness.

CLIFFS OF MOHR THE BURREN, IRELAND 04222014000036

Cliffs of Moher Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70 ISO 320; f8 copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Controls

I found the controls and menu system on my NEX-6 a bit clunky, and missed the versatility of the controls of my Nikon D800. The good news is that the A7 series is much more “DSLR-like” in the controls and setup, and I have been able to set up the A7r essentially the same way I had my Nikons set up. One thing I have grown accustomed to – really missed on the NEX – and is “back” on the A7, is the ability to set the auto-focus so that the shutter button does not activate it, but it is activated by a separate button on the back. The A7 allows this. The menu system is logically set up and very easy to use and find things. There are several customizable buttons on the camera back. I have been able to set it up to switch between ISO settings, move the AF bracket, and change shutter speed and aperture very easily. There are also “user 1 and 2” settings on the camera dial, as well as a dedicated exposure compensation dial. The only thing I haven’t been able to figure out how to do is set the AF so it works with the shutter button in one mode and not in the other. Most of the time, it is not an issue, but occasionally, you want to hand your camera to someone to take a photo and you have to explain to them that the focus button is on the back.

Feel and Handling

The A7r is nominally, but noticeably larger than the NEX series bodies. But is is also noticeably smaller than even the next nearest neighbor DSLR (and palpably smaller than the D700/800 Nikon Series), it feels good in myhands. With the 35mm Sony-Zeiss f2.8 attached, it is still pleasingly small and low-profile.

The Sony-Zeiss 24-70 f4 attached, yields a different story.  It is larger than I had hoped (in my pre-arrival imagination). When added to the A7, while still smaller and substantially lighter than the DSLR with the 24-70 f2.8 attached, it is still a fairly large combination. Reality comes home to roost. It is currently impossible to design a relatively fast (constant f4) zoom lens with coverage for a “full frame” sensor, in a very small package (the lens is nearly 4 inches long and 2 3/4 inches in circumference). Thus, while ½ (or less) the size of the 35mm equivalent, and probably about 1/3 of the weight, it is still a chunk, and is a full 2 stops slower.  I expect the 70-200 will be about the size of the current “consumer” extended zooms available for the “mainline” DSLRs today.  The positive is that its size still makes it very “packable.” The negative is that it is still large enough to be almost awkward to carry around.

Finally, I have read about the issue of  “shutter slap,” which apparently shows itself at certain “medium” shutter speeds; but generally only with long lenses which are mounted on a tripod with an auxiliary foot. This concern is apparently restricted to the A7r (and not the A7).  I haven’t had an opportunity to use longer lenses, tripod mounted yet, but did try to shoot all my handheld shots at relatively fast shutter speeds.  Based on my early results, when using the 24-70 and fixed lenses, I plan to go back to my traditional shutter speed and aperture combinations.  I noted an unusually large number of images shot here at higher ISO than I think necessary (primarily to attain higher shutter speeds).

The Zeiss 24-70 is small enough to be packable, but still large enough to be almost awkward to carry handheld

Sony-Zeiss 24-70 f4 lens

The “Zeiss” design and manufacture is estimable. The image quality appears very good and the build of the lens also solid. I did not experience “zoom creep” once during the week. The zoom and manual focus mechanism is well damped and very responsive. The auto focus was very adequate in my view. And, using the widest aperture at the longer range of the focal length produced reasonably nice out of focus background bokeh. The lens produces images of the quality one would expect from a quality lens manufacturer. I am not sure it has the “look and feel” that was so obvious with the f1.8 lenses they produced for use with the NEX and Fuji cameras, however. I need more time and experience with this lens before I can make a final judgment.

Dublin City Center Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70 ISO 200; f4 copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Dublin City Center
Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70
ISO 200; f4
copyright 2014 Andy Richards

By comparison, the NEX-6 with the 16-50 lens attached is very much more portable, and as such, much more enjoyable to carry around. For 80 of the “walk around” shooting I did, it was preferable, just because it was so small and light. With a maximum aperture of f5.6 at the long end (the 16-50 on the NEX APS sensor, is roughly the equivalent of the 24-70), the bokeh developed is not as nice and clearly not as pronounced. One additional observation involves the use of filters on the Zeiss 24-70 lens. I shot with a standard B&W polarizer and there was significant vignetting at the widest lens setting. I have ordered the slim version of the filter.

Conclusions

It may well be that my assumptions and conclusions about the APS vs. “full frame” sensor are overblown.  I have been “wowed” by the images I have been able to make with the NEX-6 with the Sony-Zeiss 24 f1.8 attached, and even with the Sony-branded 50mm f1.8 fixed lens.  They have yielded 13 x 19 inch prints from my Epson printer from which I cannot distinguish shots taken by my Nikon D800.  I am comfortable that I could go much larger than that without any noticeable degradation.  It may well be that only serious pixel-peepers will really discern a difference.  And I am not convinced that the difference really “matters.”  That being the case, I am almost wondering if the APS sized mirrorless cameras aren’t already “enough” for all but the most die-hard image makers, or for special purpose uses?  The “NEX” nomenclature has now been abandonned by Sony, in favor of simply their “Alpha” branding.  So the “upgrade” to the NEX-6 is now known as the Alpha a6000 (but it is the same body, with some significant upgrades, including 24mp).

On balance, I will probably continue to carry the NEX-6 for a daily use, a hand-held, walking around, and travel rig.  For the time being, I will use the A7r as I traditionally did, to shoot from a tripod in more dedicated landscape situations, or when Image Quality is an absolute critical issue (e.g., in low light conditions). Given these conclusions, I am not sure it is yet time to say this combination clearly equals or beats a DSLR setup. Said differently,  If you already own a DSLR and quality lenses, I would probably not recommend a switch from a DSLR.  There are many compromises.

On the other hand, if you are not already “invested” in DSLR equipment, it may well be worth the look, given the relative equality of image quality, the reduced size, weight and cost, and the general direction the industry is moving.  I especially think this it true for those of you who are “general” photographers who like to carry a camera, shoot a variety of subjects and conditions, travel, and shoot handheld.  Like every other equipment choice, the key is what your personal wants and needs are.  For me, the “portability” for packing and travel was worth the risk and as noted above, I do not regret my own decision.  These days, I use a much smaller tripod and the entire “rig” fits in my medium small, messenger style carry on back, for airline travel.

Clonmacnoise Monastic Site;  Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70 ISO 640; f8 copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Clonmacnoise Monastic Site
Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70
ISO 640; f8
copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Nobody is seriously going to suggest that these mirrorless combinations will go head to head with a DSLR in any kind of “action” photography (particularly sports and wildlife). For these endeavors, at this point, they are not ready for proverbial “prime time.” But as a landscape, travel, portrait and general photography they are pretty impressive rigs.

The Perfect Histogram

"High Key" Exposure of Auke Bay, Alaska

I know.  Its been done.  Beaten to death, in fact.  But remember my “mission” for my tutorials.  I have some friends who have asked me to try to translate this stuff into plain English.  My tutorials will never be a substitue for the in-depth, detailed and knowledgeable work already out there.  And, maybe I will even add a point of view or insights that some writers have missed or even in some instances, mislead about the usefulness of the histogram tool.

Now that I have you reading at least this far, I’ll admit, there is no such thing.  I read many comments and texts extolling the virtues of the histogram tool on the DSLR camera back; as well as the “blinkies” (blinking white highlights indicator).  Often, the commentator warns that if there are “any” blinkies, you must dial exposure back until they disappear, and if there is any part of the histogram which spikes and pushes up against either end of the graph, dial exposure up or down until the histogram stays tamely between the goalposts.

To which I say, not so fast!  The histogram and the blinking highlights indicator are tools.  As such there is no “do-all tool.”  Nor is there a set of hard and fast rules which govern the absolute use of the tools.

So What Does a Histogram Do For Me?

It might surprise some digital photographers that the word histogram is not some new digital photography concept.  A histogram is a frequency distribution chart.  The histogram we use on the back of modern DSLR cameras and in software programs like PhotoShop, is a graphical depiction of the distribution of pixels from black to white, with pure blacks represented at the far left side of the graph and pure whites at the far right.  This might lead one to conclude that the “perfect histogram” would always be represented by a symmetrical shaped, such as the histogram shown here.

But in many cases, they would be wrong.

The histogram measures the relative number of pixels at each level of brightness.  So it stands to reason that a properly exposed image that has lots of bright tones in it (for example a snow scene, a water scene with lots of specular highlights, or a “high key” fashion image) will naturally display more of the histogram shape to the right.  Likewise, a night shot, or shot with a lot of dark tones would shift the bulk of the histogram to the left.  A neutral toned image should come closer to the bell curve.  The Histogram for the photo of Auke Bay looks very different, and it should, as the vast majority of pixels are very light tones:

Histogram of Auke Bay Image above

Until recently, the histogram on the back of most cameras only showed us its measurement of the B&W pixels in an image.  That was/is o.k.  In exposure, what we are trying to measure is the relative brightness in an image (or its luminance).  Newer cameras have overlays of red, green and blue.  For our purposes here, we will ignore them (though you should know that the same principles apply, so that if any of them “spike” at either extreme, the histogram is suggesting that the pixels in that color have been “clipped”).

I use the word “suggest” for a reason.

The histogram and the blinking highlights indicator are imprecise measuring tools.  There are at least two important reasons for that.

First, there area times when the image should have portions that these tools will indicate are overexposed.  For example, there are, at times, images that have specular highlights an/or very bright whites that should be pure white.  In this case, the properly exposed image may actually have some small amount of “clipping” (blinking highlights and a very narrow spike at the right extreme of the graph).

In my earlier tutorial, “Getting Exposure Right” I said that photographer should not be fooled into thinking that the light meter in a camera can “think” for her.  The histogram is similar in that regard.  While it differs in that it can measure the overall image exposure before, during and after the fact, it is the same principle.  The photographer must know the overall characteristics of the image and exposure he seeks.  Only by accomplishing that, can the value of the histogram (and the “blinkies”) be appreciated as the very powerful tool that it is.

The second reason applies to raw images (and I hope you are shooting raw images).  The histogram on current DSLR cameras is created, on-the-fly, by the same in-camera software that renders a jpeg image (if you shoot jpeg).  As I opined in “Why You Should Shoot Raw” it doesn’t make sense to go to the expense of a multi-thousand dollar camera, an expensive computer and sophisticated rendering software such as Photoshop, and then let rather unsophisticated in-camera software render your images (“cook” them) in such a way that you have very little ability to “develop” them yourself.  But that is just what the in-camera jpg algorithm does.

It is the in-camera created jpg that the histogram (and the blinking highlights indicator) is measuring; not the raw image.

And, notably, this jpeg-based histogram is not the same histogram you get in Photoshop, ACR, Lightroom, or any other post processing software’s adjustments menu!  So it is very important to understand that your particular histogram my not completely accurately measure what your sensor is able to capture in a raw image.  Like the exposure meter, it is worth doing some testing in a controlled lighting and image environment, taking note of it and making the appropriate adjustment or interpretation in the field.

Your Mileage May Vary.

I have found that on some cameras (true of my D200 –seemingly less so of my D700, which is perhaps a function of the camera companies just getting better and better at interpreting, measuring and presenting what the end result will be), I can push the image beyond the blinkies and spike and still get a very acceptable “default” histogram when I open it in ACR. As we like to say on forums, YMMV.

So What Am I supposed To Do With The Histogram?

Within these limitations it is important to understand the guidelines.  The left and right extremes represent the limits between which the histogram should normally reside.  If spikes upward at either end (left or right sides), the histogram is suggesting that the respective black or white points are being clipped.  Another way of saying this is that the spike and beyond represents areas in the photo in which all detail has been lost in the dark areas, and/or all detail has been lost in the whites (“blocked up shadows” or “blown highlights”).  Importantly, these are guidelines; not rules to be slavishly adhered to.

Histogram of "Underexposed" Image

Histogram of "Overexposed" Image

Now that we know the limitations of the tool and how it works, we can use the histogram to make arguably better judgments about exposure.  But remember, they are just that; judgments.  Once you understand how the tool works and what the information it gives us means, it just makes sense that the histogram for a shot with mostly darker tones would show substantially more information to the left of the histogram:

Split Rock Histogram

Split Rock Lighthouse

 

 

 

 

 

Prior to the advent of this tool most of us only had the light meter and our knowledge of it and of exposure techniques as tools to be used prior to making the exposure.  While in most cases, accomplished photographers knew how to meter and judge correctly and rarely worried about the end result.  In cases where tricky lighting or other conditions prevailed, photographers often either bracketed a series of images to cover any overlap from measurement to reality, or in some cases, took Polaroid shots that could be “instantly” developed and analyzed.  And in the end, you still didn’t really know until you got the developed images back from the processor.

In my view, the time and effort required to get to that point was clearly greater than it is with the modern DSLR and the histogram.  Today (especially when capturing raw images), we can let the camera’s automatic metering make the exposure and check the histogram, adjust and then take another exposure.  And newer cameras with so-called “live view” lcd panels can actually display a “real-time” histogram, which can be used as an additional measuring tool.

I am not suggesting that the histogram be a substitute for knowing how to properly expose, and pre-thinking your shots.

You still need to understand the principles of good exposure before you can use any tool to make well-exposed images, in my view.  And, my “shoot first and ask questions (well, check the histogram) later” approach will not work if you are shooting action or in rapidly changing light conditions (although in an action scenario, such as sports, or in a situation where you are anticipating future action, you can take a test exposure and get the adjusting done before the action starts in many cases).  But for my routine landscape imagery, it is a method that works just fine.  Except in rare or unusual cases, I rarely use the spot metering function on my camera, and never have used (in my recent memory) the weighted average function.  I set it to the “matrix” (honeycomb pattern) meter, take the exposure, and check the histogram.  For good measure I also check the blinking highlights indicator, just to get more information.  In certain lighting situations, I know my particular camera may meter at a certain exposure solution, but I need to adjust the exposure compensation by 1/3 or 2/3 stop.

Raw Shooters: Expose To The Right

One last point; relevant if you shoot raw images, but not so much if you shoot jpeg.  See my previous tutorial, “Expose Right To Expose Correctly,” for an explanation about why it is important to favor, or bias the right side of the histogram in exposing raw images.  In short, the vast majority of information is captured in the highest EV of capture (twice the amount of the entire rest of the perhaps 5 EV range).  Thus, the sensor can capture more important information in the highlights.  It is important not to leave any gaps on the right side of the histogram, and if the photographer must choose or make judgments, the right side should be favored.

For a really in-depth, illustrated tutorial on Histograms, see The Luminous Landscape here.

Epson Stylus Photo R1900 Review

For some time now, I have been considering an “upgrade” to my Epson Photo Sylus 1280 printer.  In December, I purchased a refurbished Epson R1900 Inkjet Printer.

Why did I buy this Product?

Since my fascination with photography began in the early 1970’s, I have coveted a color darkroom.   I was a typical college student with more debt than I should have had, and the cost of purchasing color darkroom equipment was out of the question.  I had all I could do to pay for film and development.  When I graduated from Law School in 1986, I soon found myself with a house payment, children, and payoff of college debt.  By the time I was finally able to purchase darkroom equipment, traditional chemical darkrooms had become essentially obsolete.  The Digital age had dawned.  And suddenly, I already had the color “darkroom” I had always wanted — and maybe more!  A computer and some software gave me access, for the first time ever, to my own ability to “work”  and make my own color prints.

My taste leans (always has) to a traditional photographic paper look and to color.  When photo-quality inkjet printers first came out, they were usually either dye-based, or dye-sublimation type printers.  Their biggest weakness was their lack of longevity.  I still have a print I made on an early Epson Photo Stylus Printer that faded.  When I removed the print from behind the mat, I was astounded at the amount of fading.

Before long, pigment based inks were being touted as having much better print life.  But they just didn’t have the traditional photographic look many of us wanted.  Indeed, the early ones didn’t print well on glossy substrates at all.  While over time, this improved, at the time I purchased the 1280, there were still some issues.  The R1800 had come out, but was reputed to have some issues on glossy prints, including “bronzing.”  I opted for a used 1280 because I wanted to print on glossy photo paper.  The 1280 is a dye based printer and prints very well on glossy papers, but still has the fade/longevity problem.  Over time, Epson (as have the other manufacturers) developed better papers.  I took to printing on their Lustre Paper, which has greater print longevity when matched with the 1280 Epson inks.

The 1280 was not without its warts.  There are no individual ink carts for the color inks.  Just a color cart and a black and white cart.  The color matching capability, even with a calibrated system, is dicey.  I found that a fair amount of trial and error was necessary to get good color results.  Epson does not offer paper specific profiles for the newer papers.  I tried a custom profile and did not feel that the result was better than taking my chances with Epson’s “canned” profile for the Epson Premium Glossy paper (which was recommended even for the Lustre papers).

I had some photographs made to hang in a gallery back in 2007.  The only way the owner would hang them for sale was for me to have them printed with “archival” ink (his definition was pigment based ink like the R1800).  These experiences convinced me it was time to look seriously at a change.

Cost and Availability

Epson advertises the R1900, new, for $550.  From time to time, they offer rebates which can reduce the price to as low as $400.  My refurbished unit was around $350.  These printers are available at Epson authorized retailers and authorized on-line retailers.  They can also be found on eBay (but I wasn’t able to find any selling for less than the refurbished price).  Because of a known issue with ink cart recognition (more later), I opted to purchase directly from Epson. For those who still prefer dye-based ink printer systems, the R1400 is the upgrade of the 1280, and uses longer print-life Claria, dye-based ink.  The R1400 sells for around $200.  The least expensive “photo quality” printer Epson sells is limited to 8 1/2 inch wide paper and sells for just under $100.

The 1280 (discontinued), R1400, R1800 (discontinued), R1900 and R2880 are all capable of 13 inch wide papers and print up to 13 x 19 inches.  Some of them accept roll papers for longer than 19 inches.  the R1900 is roll paper capable.  Epson also has its “Professional Imaging” series of (currently) 8 different printers which range from just over $1,000 to as much as $30,000.

Setup, Operation, and Technical Stuff

In the case of the Epson R1900, I was disappointed find very little conclusive useful information available to enable me to make a final decision.  Consumer Reports didn’t review it.  I did find a comprehensive technical review on Photo-i.  The review gives a detailed idea of how the Printer will render colors, and how it works.  For technical specifications and information, I highly recommend you read Vincent’s review.

Amazon, and some other retail seller sites revealed consumer review comments.  As I have suggested on the Gear Reviews page, these sites illustrate that there is a “love it” or “hate it” tenor to those reviews.  So, my question still unanswered, ultimately, I did what any self-respecting, red-blooded American guy would do.  I took a flyer and bought it!

Do an internet search for information on the R1900, you will learn that the printer has a significant problem!  It is temperamental about how it reads and accepts Epson’s individually-chipped ink carts. Each cart has a computer chip embedded which the printer reads for its on-screen ink level monitor.  Reviews suggested that consumers were having problems getting some of these printers to to work at all.  Many consumers have simply given up on this model and replaced it with something different.  My subsequent conversations with Espon service revealed that they were aware of the problem and it was with the ink cart chips and not the printer.  However, there seems to be experiential evidence that it may be some of both.

My problem was that I have become “married” to the Epson System.  Inkjet Printer inks are generally matched to papers produced by the manufacturer.  There have been great strides made in the past years by third party manufacturers of paper and of inks to make them compatible.  But I have found very good results using Epson’s Premium Luster and Premium Glossy Papers, and to change to another manufacturer meant searching, experimenting with and finding new paper(s).  I wasn’t sure I was up to the task (plus, I had a number of sheets of rather expensive, 13 x 19 inch Epson paper).

For those patient enough to bear with Epson, I believe the reward is worth it.  I purchased a refurbished unit directly from Epson.  To my disappointment, my first unit did just as advertised by the negative consumer reviews.  It simply refused to recognize one of the ink carts (orange in my case).  I ran through all of Epson’s trouble-shooting suggestions to no avail.  I ultimately, called them.  They sent me a couple new orange ink carts.  I tried them both, to no success.  Eventually, Epson shipped me another unit.  This one fired up and I was in business!

A couple of points about how Epson handles this are worth mentioning.  First, it is my understanding that if the unit you receive doesn’t work, they will only ship you a refurbished unit to replace it.  While I think this as an unwise and short-sighted business practice, my workaround was to purchase a refurb in the first place (I have had good success with refurbished and gently used products in the past and there was a small savings in doing so).  They shipped the replacement unit along with a Federal Express ground shipping label.  If you ship from a place of business, they will pick up.  That part went without a hitch.  I received the replacement unit and had it operational before I had to ship the old unit back.  Other than my time, it didn’t cost me anything to do this exchange.  They do, however, put a “hold” on your charge card for the cost of the printer until they receive the old one back.  They also instruct you to remove all the ink carts from the defective unit and keep them (a small repayment for your inconvenience). They indicate (contrary to their literature) that they can be re-used for a period of time.

Is it worth all this hassle?  Maybe.  I had the time and patience to work with Epson and wait for the new unit to arrive.  It made a difference of about a week and I was able to easily do that.  Epson was courteous and prompt in taking steps to satisfy me.

But What about the Prints?

The result, once you get the printer running, is in my view well worth the journey.  I re-calibrated my monitor to have a “fresh start.”  I pulled out a sheet of Epson Premium Glossy paper and made my first print, using the “printer manages color” settings with the Epson “canned” profile for Premium Glossy paper.  I was very pleasantly surprised.  The print came out with very nice color and the glossy finish was superior even to my 1280 prints on glossy paper.  One of the innovations to the R1900 is its extra cart which contains a “gloss optimizer.”  While this appears to have the advertised effect, be forewarned that it gets used a nearly twice the rate as the other inks (at least according to the ink monitor).

The R1900 also has an couple of additional new colors (orange and a second blue, as well as separate black inks for glossy and mat finishes), with 7 ink carts in all.  I am hoping that the separate color carts will make the printer less expensive to operate overall.  The R1900 uses Epson’s Ultrachrome, pigment based inks, which are dry to the touch by the time the print is finished printing!  And because of the newer print head technology, smaller pigment particle size and overall technology in the printer, there is no visible sign of bronzing and metamerism is not noticeable.  I have now made a number of prints of different nature subjects and have yet to have one of them vary unacceptably in color from what I expect based on what I see on the monitor (of course, experienced printers know, you simply cannot exactly duplicate the color and look illustrate on an electronic monitor with ink on paper).  I had so much fun printing that I ran out of paper and am awaiting a shipment.  I made one monotone print and though I am satisfied with it, I do primarily color work.  I understand that the considerably more expensive, R2800, with even more ink color variations, makes superior Black and White Images.

Admitting I was still printing with the 1280 probably dates me.  But one other major pleasant surprise was the speed of printing.  I would usually start the 1280 printing and then walk away, to come back 15 – 20 minutes later.  The R1900 takes just a few minutes to make a 13 x 19 print.  I have read that for those who already own the R1800, the benefit may not be enough.  We can be sure that the major inkjet photo printer manufacturers will continue to innovate and there will likely be a successor to the R1800 – 1900 “family” that will do even more.

I am a hobbyist photographer/printer who does not make hundreds of prints for sale or other distribution.  I make the occasional sale and also prints for my own enjoyment and this printer is a very good choice and fit for these uses.  I recommend this unit for the advanced hobbyist photographer/printer.  If you need to make a significant number of retail prints for sale or distribution, you may want to consider one of Epson’s Professional Imagining” series (R3800 – GS6000), which range in size from 17 to 64 inches wide and in price from $1,200 to $30,000.

Get Real

bakersfield_pond2Last month I had the good fortune to attend one of John Shaw’s 2-day seminars on digital photography and technique. It was a very thought-provoking 2 days for me. As an aside, for a static type experience, I would highly recommend it on the “bang for the buck” scale. John was very open to questions during the seminar (an in some cases, very patient with some of the questions/questioners).

One exchange resonated with me. When asked his opinion about a certain film’s closeness to “realistic color,” his instant retort was: “I could care less!”

With all the debates (on line and off) about realism and manipulation in the digital age, this one hit home for me. Some years back, an instructor in a photo class made the comment that serious photographers do not “take” photographs–we “make” them. I couldn’t agree more with both of these teachers.

I understand there is a place for “reality” in photojournalism and perhaps in scientific photography. But I also appreciate how perception and the limitations of the equipment and media make any absolute “reality” difficult if not impossible.

My own vision is to create what looks good to me from the scene or subject before me. I am not suggesting that we take a blank page in Photoshop and make things up. But colors, composition, cropping and perspective, and yes, even the judicious “photoshopping” (the verb) of an image is perfectly acceptable in my opinion in “making” the image I want the viewer to “see.”

I don’t see this as inconsistent with integrity. Most of my work leans toward “art” and I am not representing otherwise. Are my photos “manipulated?” Yes. Does that bother me? Not in the least.