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Don’t Touch That Dial!

The colors in 2006 were a bit “lack-luster”
Copyright Andy Richards 2006

Lately I have seen photos frequently posted that show significant overuse of the “saturation adjusment. I have certainly been guilty of this myself. We shoot a scene that seems magically colorful to us, but when we first see it on our computer screen, it just doesn’t “get there.” If you shoot raw, that is pretty normal. Most images need post-processing. So our first thought is often to use that slider adjustment in our post-processing software (and every software has it); the saturation slider. And 99% of the time that is a mistake! I see a disconcerting trend of overuse of the saturation slider (even among some of my “pro” acquaintances).  My friend, Al Utzig will be chuckling as he reads this. His most frequent critique of my imagery early on was that they seemed over saturated to him. Maybe. I have certainly made much less use of the saturation tools in my post-processing as I – and my software – have become more “seasoned”

Recently, I see a disconcerting trend of overuse of the saturation slider

Like any discussion, we should be sure we are talking about the same thing. A general definition of “saturation” says that “saturation is the state or process that occurs when no more of something can be absorbed, combined with, or added.” When speaking in terms of color and photography, “saturation” generally refers not to the actual color or its accuracy (“hue”), but rather to the intensity of the color. This is important. If you are trying to correct a color, more (or less) saturation won’t really do that (although it might help to improve the color’s appearance in some cases).

What I have learned over the years ….. is that what we are really seeking often has nothing to do with saturation

The problem with the saturation slider (and every software will have its own internal algorithms for this) is that it generally does just what the definition says. It adds (or subtracts) to the intensity of color. Unfortunately, the result is often counterproductive. The saturation slider is indiscriminate (it saturates all color), and too often, a boost in saturation results in a color cast over the entire image. For example, I have seen one Facebook poster recently who is boosting the saturation in fall foliage images and getting a reddish color cast over the entire image. And in most cases, it also generally results in the detail in the photo deteriorating. Try it. Find one of your images and magnify it enough on screen to see the detail, and then move the slider back and forth. The more aggressive you are with it, the more you will see the details go mushy. In many currently posted images it is obvious that the slider has been overused, as the picture looks unreal on our screens. The colors are intensean often, Just not believable.

It is a very real temptation to “goose” the colors to make them as brilliant as we wished they were. Using the saturation slider here boosts the foliage, but at the expense of a red “pall” over the remainder of the image
Copyright Andy Richards 2006

Of course, there may sometimes be reasons to boost saturation. You might actually be striving for unreality. Another is that the saturation on a projected computer screen is always more intense than when a print is made. I often push things a bit before sending them to the printer, to get as close as I can to the color I liked on screen. But even then, you must be very careful not to introduce a color cast effecting the entire image. There are generally better ways to “boost” the appearance of the image.

Here is a slightly more “selective” move, using only the red channel saturation slider. It is slightly better, but still creates a red color cast which can really be seen on the silos and the white house
Copyright Andy Richards 2006

The thing about photographic imagery is that it can often be very difficult to duplicate the “reality” that your eyes saw. For one thing, I believe that each of our eyes see color differently. But it is also the case that the attributes we see in a “good” photograph are often more based on appearance, than reality. Things like contrast, brightness, saturation and even sharpness, all influence the appearance of color. But when it comes to color, something that I have learned over the years using post-processing software is that what we are seeking often has nothing to do with saturation. I think it is important to add here, that I shoot and save all my images as raw files.  Without getting into the should or should-nots, I think nature images (the most common culprit of saturation slider overuse) will always benefit from starting with a raw file. The first step in making the captured image look the way you want it will always be done in the raw converter, and that is very powerful stuff.

Color was slightly better in 2010
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

Even if the image does call for increased saturation, a number of pixel gurus have referred to the saturation slider as a “blunt instrument.” I almost never touch it, except occasionally to de-saturate an image, or parts of it. There are other, better ways to achieve the color we saw in our mind’s eye. Often, getting color “right” is a matter of contrast adjustment rather than saturation. Contrast can be adjusted throughout the image, or perhaps a better approach; locally. I do use the contrast slider in ACR (but not usually later in Photoshop). There are numerous ways to adjust contrast locally, including the tried and true “curves” tool, used with layers (of course it can be used globally on the image – that will be a judgment you will make).

It is still important to resist the temptation to “overdo” with the saturation slider, creating a red color cast on parts of the photo (barn roof), as well as deteriorating already soft detail in the distant foliage
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

I have also found that a brightness change to an image can sometimes make the colors appear to “pop” more. Again this can be accomplished globally, or using an adjustment layer, or a plugin like NIK Viveza 2.

The Saturation Slider is indiscriminate

There is also a relatively new tool: the vibrance tool (Photoshop has it; other software may call it something different). This tool is a slightly “smarter” tool than the saturation slider, as it targets more muted colors to add saturation to them, while leaving already saturated colors alone. But again remember that the tool is action more or less “globally” on the image and that may be letting the computer make your decisions for you. I often add just a small amount of vibrance in ACR (5-15%), combined with small moves of the contrast slider.

The Burton Hill Farm is a favorite image of mine. There is so much going on in this image. I used Viveza 2 to selectively DE-saturate the clouds to take a bluish color cast out of them
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

There are some very sophisticated techniques which require digging under the hood a bit, like working with “luminosity masks” – essentially specialized layers and layer masks, (Tony Kuyper has a set of pre-programmed layers of you are interested). Some years back, I learned a technique espoused by Dan Margulis (his book is a wonderful textbook, but not for the faint of heart. It is technical and it is expensive). It involves moving your image into the LAB colorspace and making some opposite curves adjustments. It really is more of a selective contrast adjustment, but really works wonders to bring out the “snap” in a color photographs. These techniques require some effort. You will have a learning curve, and generally will spend some time on each image in more complex post-processing. Lots of folks would rather go out and shoot and have very little post processing and ease of use instead of having to become a software expert.

There is still a temptation to “goose” the reds with the red slider. But the result is not productive, with oversaturated, mushy reds in the distance and again, a color cast overall
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

This sentiment probably stimulated the many products available today as plugins to existing software. One of the first of these was the NIK plugins. Originally its own company, it was at one time purchased by Google, and for a period was actually free to download and use. Google eventually apparently abandoned it, and it was ultimately sold to the DXo folks, who now offer the package for $69.00. I use it on almost every image I post-process and for me that seems like a reasonable price. They say it is new and improved, but I cannot see any difference, and am still using my originally purchased package. So far, it integrates with Photoshop CC.

The Nik product that is most relevant to this discussion is called Viveza 2. It is all about local adjustments the easy way. They have found a way to locally adjust images using circles on screen and a slider. It is not going to be as particular as using luminosity masks, but for me, for all but the most problematic of images, it works very well. Caution: Viveza does have a saturation slider! Again, I rarely touch it. The sliders I find most useful are the brightness slider, the contrast slider, and sometimes the shadows slider. I have found that in an image that does not need additional color correction (because hue, not saturation is off), that these three sliders – applied locally to areas of the photograph, do everything necessary to render a colorful, vibrant, and realistic result.

This is an example of an image where I “pushed” the sharpening and color contrast in the LAB colorspace. It looks “crispy” on screen, but the natural smoothing process of inkjet printing made this work for a sharp print
Copyright Andy Richards 1997

Indeed, after I owned and learned this software for a while, I found myself going back to old images and completely re-working them. And I discovered that I was, indeed, guilty of SSO (saturation slider overuse). 🙂 . I like the re-worked images much better. If you look at some of your images critically, you might just agree with me.

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Make Your Social Media Photos Better – Part III (Focus on what you are doing)

Here the subject of the photo is the stream of water and it needs to be in focus. But there are lots of other “moving parts” in the image for the focusing sensor to pay attention to, so you have to make sure you are focusing on the water

Too many images posted on Social Media are soft, or often even downright blurry. While sometimes some softness is desirable, that should only be done intentionally and I am sure the majority of those soft images I see are not intended. As new photographers, one of the primary fundamental things we learn is that an image must be in sharp focus.

Sharp focus is one of the harder things to get right with a smartphone camera

Like the exposure issues in Part II, this is one of the harder things to get right with a smartphone camera. Modern “dedicated” cameras which are, after all, specifically designed to make pictures and do not have to do all the other work a smartphone does, have lots of controls. Most of them are user configurable. The “camera” (really just software) that comes standard with most smartphones has very limited capability to user-configure (though I am told the newest iPhone and Galaxy S9 have begun to add some of these things).  So, again, this is going to be easier with an third-party camera app, if possible.

You can see the water here is soft. The camera’s focusing sensor was “fooled” (really it was probably the user that was fooled) by focusing on the rock in front of the stream of water and let the water go blurry

As I noted in Part II, smartphone cameras are “all-automatic.” This means the software is attempting to do all the things you need to do to capture a digital image.  This means it has to determine proper exposure and focus for you. The focusing system is similar to the light-metering system, in that they both use a measuring device.  In the case of focus, the measurement is the distance from the sensor to the subject. That information is used to tell the camera lens to focus. Knowing that “subjects” often move, most camera manufacturers’ software by default, continually measures and refocuses. Some do better than others. It is possible that the moment you click the shutter does not exactly coincide with when the lens actually makes the capture and save. This may mean that the subject has moved in the meantime and the focus point has changed. This is not likely to happen often, as the camera apps just keep getting better at this. Most of the newest cameras also offer an algorithm called “face recognition.” It is designed to pick out a face or faces in the image area and purposely focus on them. Of course, the problem with this is when you have multiple faces in different places in the image (especially from back to front). Like any technological device, it is important for the user to understand what it is measuring, so you can control that aspect.

Like any technological device, it is important for the user to understand what it is measuring, so you can control that aspect

But there is another, perhaps less obvious concern, and this is most likely to be the culprit. Note that I have used the word “subject” several times above. To understand what is happening with the focusing system, we have to first know what we mean by “subject.” For our purposes here, I will define the “subject” as “that part of the image that you want to be in focus.” I know: the whole thing dummy, right? 🙂 . Digital images, as well as hard copy print images are essentially one-dimensional. The subject matter of our photographs is almost always 3-dimensional; often with substantial depth. The camera lens is not physically capable of rendering the entire depth of the scene in sharp focus. So we have to choose which part(s) we want to really be in focus.

Again, this is accomplished with the measuring tool in the camera. If we do not know where in the frame it is pointing, we will have to resort to our best judgment of the very small screen of our smartphone, often in poor light. The app I am using has the ability to turn on the little small rectangular bracket superimposed on the screen; and to move it around. Moving it around is a nice feature for composition. We will discuss that in Part IV. But the most important thing is to know that you must place the bracket on the part of the photo you want to be sharp (remember that you may also have this bracket set for measuring exposure, as we discuss in part II). When people are in the photo, that should be a face (and if possible, even someone’s eye).

One other thing to understand. Because the lens cannot make everything in the image sharp, it will become selectively more blurry as things move away from the focus point. The “back” (background) of a scene is more susceptible to blur than the front in most cases where smartphone lenses are involved. So if you are taking that sunset shot you want to try to set your focus point on the horizon, rather than a close object in the front (foreground) of the image (for the photographers out there, I appreciate that I am over-simplifying this, but again, this is mainly addressing smartphone snapshots).

Try experimenting with this and you will hopefully begin to see that you do have some control over the sharpness of the image. I think this will make your images better (at least – sharper 🙂 ).

Make Your Social Media Photos Better – Part II (“Through the Glass Darkly”)

In Part I, I talked about crooked horizons; by far most prominent fault of images posted on Social Media. Hopefully, we helped to fix that problem in Part 1 and you have gone back and straightened all your tilted images, restoring the water to the earth’s oceans and lakes. 🙂 . And, hopefully, as you will see, although it is the most common problem, the tilting horizon is also the most easily remedied. Parts II and III, probably the next most common faults, are also the most difficult to get right.  We will talk about exposure in this installment. I often see posts – usually of people – that are so dark that you can barely see the subject. The answer seems obvious: not enough light.  Sometimes that is true, but that is not always the reason.

Although it is the most common problem, the tilting horizon is also the most easily remedied

Nikon F100
Tokina 300 mm
Kodak E100SW
Exposure Data not recorded
Birds, Vol. 2

Getting exposure right is more difficult; but it is possible with an understanding of how your phone decides to expose an image

The human eye is (so far), by far, the most incredible and technologically advanced lens available. Coupled with our brain, it is able to register and “capture” an amazing range of light from very dark to very bright. In contrast (pun intended), even the most advanced camera sensor (the little chip in your smartphone that records photographic images) can only record a fraction of this range of light that our eye sees. This limitation is sometimes referred to as “latitude.” Because of this limited latitude, all cameras have a very difficult time recording images that have both very bright areas and dark shadowed areas (the difference is sometimes referred to as “contrast”). The typical example is a shot of someone in a sunny environment, where parts of the photo are very dark, even on a bright sunny day.  Our “fix” is going to be surprising to many of you.  The bird in the photo above is a good example. It was shot on a very sunny day, confusing the camera meter and underexposing the dark bird. Note that you cannot see the eye of the bird that is in the shadow.  What causes this underexposure?

Severely underexposed image with bright background

Smartphone cameras are mostly “automatic.” They are programmed to make choices that advanced photographers with dedicated cameras know how to make for themselves. The programming is pretty good, but it can, and often is, fooled by tricky light conditions. Understanding why and how this happens will help you make better images, even in an all-automatic smartphone.  Cameras have a measuring device (meter) that measures the light and “suggests” to the camera the proper exposure for that light. This works well when the light is even. But in contrasty lighting, the meter can be confused. Sometimes it will “average” the different light sources (dedicated digital cameras have metering algorithms that do this very well). But all too often, I see images where the meter chose one light intensity over the other, to the detriment of the image. Knowing where this meter is pointing will be very helpful in fixing this problem. My dedicated cameras all have user moveable brackets for where the meter is pointing in the image.  Most native smartphone cameras do not. A little “quick and dirty” Google research did not turn up anything useful about knowing where that is on the native phone camera, so you are probably going to have to result to a little trial and error here.  Watch the screen as you move the camera around for changes in lightness and darkness. While it begins to sound like a repetitive advertisement, I am again going to suggest you look for a new camera app for your camera if your native app doesn’t already allow you to user adjust the metering point.  Most apps mimic the dedicated digital cameras, and show a little rectangle that appears on-screen when you are ready to shoot.  That rectangle tells us where the light is being metered.  It is best if this is movable about the image. If we are pointing it to (or even near) a very bright part of the image, it will tell the camera that it needs to lower the exposure.  The problem is, the exposure gets lowered for then entire picture, leaving shadow areas too dark. The image of the sailboat above is contrived, to illustrate the problem (I couldn’t find an illustrative photo in my archives, so I exaggerated the darkening that occurs when exposure goes awry). The area were the sailor is pointing is under a canopy and in shade. The water and sky are bright overcast mid-day conditions. I often see an image nearly this bad. It is this way in most instances because the camera’s meter is pointing at the bright sky and telling the software to expose for it.  It thinks that if it exposes the shadow properly, the sky will be blown out to a bright, featureless white.

There is a surprise “fix” for sunny day exposures; Turn On Your Flash!

Now, here is the fix.  If we want to get good (not totally blown out) exposure in the brightest parts of the image, so we generally are going to meter near that brighter area.  Without some help, the dark areas will be too dark.  In this case, the subject is really the sailor and it is him we want to have properly exposed. We need to choose the proverbial “lesser of evils” and let the sky go more toward white.  I know, it  seems odd that this can happen on a sunny day.  The second image is better, by metering more toward the subject (perhaps on the darker colored water – not the whitecaps). But it is still in shadow.

There is a surprise fix for sunny day exposures:  turn on your flash!  Again many, if not most smartphone cameras allow for some choices, and if there is a “fill in flash” option, choose that one. The flash is not strong enough to affect the sky and water in the background, but it does light the person in the foreground (again, I simulated what a fill in flash exposure would do with this image).  The camera will, pretty intelligently, light the dark areas without overly affecting the bright areas. Obviously, it should go without saying that you can also use this flash feature when there is not enough light overall. Again, having an app that allows specific placement of the metering area will be useful here, both to get the differences in lighting covered, but also hopefully to tell you when you simply do not have enough light for a good exposure.

Fill in Light

There are limitations to flash (on every camera, not just smartphones).  Have you ever noticed spectators in the “nosebleed” section of a concert venue or sports stadium, popping flash images.?  Their flash is doing nothing for them except draining their phone battery. Flash is a wonderful addition, but it doesn’t reach very far.  It is only going to light up images that are very close to you.

Photographing the Michigan U.P.; Update – Iron Mountain Area

Fumee Falls
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

As I noted in my recent blog about my quick U.P. trip this fall, I did have an opportunity to scout two new areas.  The first was the Escanaba Area, and particularly, the Garden and Stonington Peninsulas, which I covered in the previous blog.  My plan was to to shoot as much as possible around the good light, but if the weather was uncooperative, to make the approximately 1 hour drive to Iron Mountain, Michigan.  Perhaps unfortunately, the weather was not very cooperative all weekend.

Fumee Falls
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Perhaps best known these days for its provenance for nationally noted sports coaches, Iron Mountain’s welcome sign boasts of being “the “proud hometown of Tom Izzo and Steve Mariucci.” But it certainly is also world-renowned for its namesake.  At one time, Iron Mountain held one of the largest iron ore producing and processing resources in the world.  There is still a mine there, which can be toured.  While I am not sure I would consider the area a photographer’s destination, a day trip would probably be filled with opportunities.  The color in Iron Mountain was still nice, but well past “peak” when I was there in the second week of October. Escanaba is approximately 50 miles further west (from Escanaba) on U.S. 2. Being inland and at a higher elevation, this area’s probable normal “peak” is late September to early October.

Fumee Falls
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

The area is blessed with some nice natural phenomena, including rivers, waterfalls, rocky foothills, and lakes.  Just east, and outside of town, there is a roadside stop for Fumee Falls.  Fumee is perhaps the most accessible of the numerous waterfalls in the Michigan U.P.  This was my first trip to these falls.  There are two drops visible from the roadside, with a small, photogenic footbridge across the stream at the bottom of the second and larger drop.  Many years of visitor traffic has resulted in significant erosion of the original falls area, and today, viewing is restricted to the boardwalks which border the falls.  While this perhaps limits the photographer’s access, it hopefully preserves the falls for the future.  Although the light was terrible, I was able to make a couple “record images.”

Lake Antoine
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Just to the Northeast of the downtown area, is a nice small lake, Lake Antoine.  The northern 1/2 of the city of Iron Mountain borders the west endo of the lake. There is a significant residential presence around the west side of the lake.  On the east end, is Antoine Park, a public beach, picnic and boat launch.  I found a small memorial park with a fishing pier on the way to the lake, and make a couple images.    Antione Lake Road loops around the lake and crosses U.S. 2 both to the east of and to the north of town.

Understory; Fumee Recreation Area
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

About 4 miiles east of downtown is the small community of Quinnesec.  In about 2 1/4 miles, you will come to County Road 10 (a/k/a “Upper Pine Creek Road), which goes north, to The Fumee Recreation Area. The entrance is marked, but it is a rustic sign, about 1 mile north of U.S. 2.  There is a parking lot and no motorized travel is allowed beyond. There are two lakes, “Little Fumee Lake,” and “Big Fumee Lake.”  The recreation area has several trails around both lakes, with a total of about 8 miles of trails, which are used by walkers, runners, bicyclists and horseback riders.  I walked the short trail around “Little Fumee.”  Again, the light was awful, but I could see the possibility of some nice imagery.

Fumee Recreation Area
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

On the county road in to the recreation area, I also found some nice farm scenery.  The shot here is on what appears to be a private road, called “Baclack Road.”

Farm near Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

 

Preferred Post – Processing Software?

Crystal Beach Twilight
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Recently, I have been trying to branch out and explore some new, or at least rarely visited, territory.  For me, this usually involves reading:  both on the internet and books on particular topics.  In the past months, I have read about B&W, painting images and converting photographic images, flash photography, and more recently, night photography.

Almost everything I read has at least a short section on post-processing.  Because our world has become digital, it is, at the very least a “necessary evil.”  But some of us find it to be a huge positive to our photography, and even enjoy playing around with it.

I would appreciate if readers would respond here and let me know what their “go-to” software for image editing is, and why?

What I see in virtually every text and article though, is the inevitable reference to either Adobe Light Room, Photoshop (which has become a generic reference in many cases to all things digitally manipulated), or both.  It is understandable that Photoshop was the original image editing program, but over the many years since it was first introduced, there have certainly been a number of other programs designed with photographic image-editing in mind.  I have recently experimented with some of these offerings, including, most notably, On1‘s all-in-one, stand-alone, photo-editing software competitor to Photoshop (though I have not used any of them enough to have any judgment about them, there is an impressive lineup, including Capture One, Corel, DxO, ACDsee, and numerous others (interestingly, they all compare themselves against the Adobe “benchmarks” – Photoshop and Light Room – and often mention that you can work in and out of the Adobe programs, “seemlessly.” I gave On1 a pretty thorough test drive over a couple weeks.  Ultimately, I could not get the software to play well with my HP Desktop or my Microsoft Surface 3 and they graciously refunded my purchase.  It was an impressive program at what appears to be a lower price point than Photoshop.  I am currently subscribed to the Adobe Cloud solution; Photoshop CC and Lightroom Classic CC and whether the price point is actually significantly lower may well depend on how often these stand-alone programs need to be updated and at what cost.

In a recent post, I spoke about keeping up with the newest iteration of Photoshop, and concluded that it would remain my “go-to” software for all phases of image editing, for the time being.  The books all seem to suggest that most photographers are either using Light Room, Photoshop, or both.  The then go on and say that the image-editing process is pretty much the same.

Having come from earlier versions of Photoshop that predate Light Room, I never embraced its image-editing capabilities.  Early on, I felt that it still had too much missing from my workflow, and the Photoshop Adobe Raw Converter (ACR), now essentially the same conversion “engine” in both Light Room and ACR, seemed more capable in its early days.  By the time Light Room “caught up” to Photoshop, I was thoroughly entrenched.  I appreciate that Light Room was really developed specifically for photographers, and many who came to digital image-editing later than I did, probably started with Light Room.  There is little doubt in my mind that it is an easier learning curve, and its design is perhaps more logical to photographers.  But that is a little like saying that the metric system is a little more logical than the “English” system to a 62-year-old who has used the latter system all his life.  🙂  I am sure it is more logical.  But that doesn’t make changing my thinking to it a breeze.  So I pretty much stay with Photoshop (and use Light Room as an expensive cataloging tool).  That may change.  But for now, it still does a few things that Light Room doesn’t.  And Lightroom integrates well with it.

The point of this rambling blog is really to try to satisfy my own curiosity.  I would appreciate if readers would respond and let me know what their “go-to” software for image editing is, and why?

Oh, and by the way, I haven’t lost all interest in the “doing” phase of photography.  Not much shooting lately, but a little:  mostly experimentation.  The image here was taken a couple nights ago near my Florida home.  We often have spectacular sunsets here on the gulf.  But this night it was more subdued.  I made this image after sunset during twilight, and used my newest toy, a remote flash trigger, to walk over near the vegetation in the foreground and light it up with the flash.  I am a long way down on the learning curve for using lighting with my Sony system.  Nikon made it so easy.

Now, Fall rapidly approaches, and I suspect the excitement to get out will build.

Twilight; Sunrise or Sunset?

Sailboat; Naraganset Bay Sunset
Newport, Rhode Island
Copyright Andy Richards 2016

Sunrise, sunset; Sunrise, sunset; Swiftly flow the days …”, voices the chorus of men from Fiddler On The Roof.  I am not sure it has any relevance, but whenever this topic comes to mind, I cannot help but conjure this earworm.

Otter Cliff Sunrise
Otter Beach, Acadia NP
Bar Harbor, ME
Copyright Andy Richards 2009

Something I read recently got me thinking about this topic (and, since it has been more than a month since I last was motivated to blog, it seemed like suddenly – finally – there was a subject to write about, on which I have experience, an opinion, and perhaps some gems of wisdom). As I did some quick and dirty internet research, I was a bit nonplussed to find that it was not my own original thought.  But I will go on anyway. 🙂

Horseshoe Lake Sunrise
Huron NF, Glennie, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2008

Photography topics and opinions can be a rather polarizing subject (see what I did there? ) 🙂 . Canon vs. Nikon.  People vs. landscape.  Digital vs. Film.  Handheld vs. tripod.  Long vs. short lens. And of course:  sunset vs. sunrise.  Like the other debates, I find it a bit humorous that anyone would bite on the “which is better” question. And while we may have a preference, the true answer is obvious enough:  both.  And aptly, the title intro: “Twilight” also means both.

Inside Passage, AK Sunrise
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

It is, of course, conventional that the “best” time to photograph is during the so-called “golden hours” which occur shortly after sunrise and last for perhaps and hour and begin again, perhaps an hour or 2 before sunset. I used quotes around best, purposely.  I am not sure there is a single best time to shoot and in my world – more often than not – it is “when you can.” Indeed there are wonderful illustrative photos supporting the merits of shooting before and after the sunrise and sunset.  But here, I am talking about shooting the sunrise and sunset themselves.  Or at the very least, subjects directly bathed in it. Like so many of my images shot in rapidly developing conditions, some are of that “f8 and be there” variety, and others are planned and even re-shot.  The sailboat on Narragansett Bay is the former. I was photographing a lighthouse when the image began to develop and I had to just react quickly to make this image. The Otter Cliff shot, on the other hand, was the product of planning – before I left Michigan, and on several mornings while in Acadia National Park.  It was also shot, and re-shot, trying to achieve the optimal sunrise. Both seem to have worked for me. But there is always a component of planning for any photography. Here are some thoughts on that preparation – mental and practical.

Little Stony Man Sunset
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Copyright Andy Richards 2007

Practical Considerations:  There are multiple considerations for why you might want to shoot a sunrise, sunset, or both. On a practical level, there are considerations of subject and location.  Some locations obviously are affected by their orientation. Whether your subject faces east or west may factor into the decision of which time of day is best. In order to be ready to catch a sunrise shot (or shots), it is really necessary to be on location before the sun actually rises. This may mean hiking in to a location in the darkness.  It most certainly means scouting the location in daylight, and making some calculations about where the sun will be when you make the actual image. Software programs like the Photographers’ Ephemeris, can be an invaluable tool for this planning.

Soo Locks Sunrise
St. Mary’s River
Copyright Andy Richards 2005

Distractions are another important practical issue. It may well be that this phenomena is the single biggest reason why I have many more early morning images than sunsets. The main distraction is family and friends (and it may be more correct to point out that a photographer, if she is not careful, may be the distraction). This is particularly an issue during vacations and travel. My wife and I, and occasionally friends and family, enjoy travel. In recent years, we have traveled to a few parts of the world, and we certainly look forward to more of the same. But sunrise and sunset shooting presents a challenge in these circumstances. It is the rare non-photographer friend or family member who has the patience to accompany a serious photographer to shoot. Sunrise means early rising, which often makes for a long day. Sunsets invariably occur at the dinner/cocktail hours of the afternoon or evening.  For many of us, family and friend social time is important (perhaps more so than photography). My wife is not an early riser, so I have found that I can sneak away for some early morning shooting without disrupting the day plan much of the time. Sunsets are harder.  I have come to the conclusion that sometimes, I just need to go off by myself (or with a like-minded companion) on a “dedicated” photo excursion. I guess it is all about balance.

Clearwater Sunset
Clearwater, FL
Copyright Andy Richards 2016

Aesthetic Considerations:  Aesthetics will always influence this decision. For example, I mentioned orientation above. This factor is also influenced by your desired lighting (i.e., backlighting, side, or front lighting). Perhaps one of the most significant aesthetic considerations involves compositional elements. For many years, I have sought “pure” landscape locations (“pure” meaning primarily to me: no people in the frame). These days, it seems that all the good locations are populated by tourists and other “viewers.” The vast majority of them are not serious photographers and it can often be a near-frustrating challenge to make a desired composition without someone in your frame.  With only a few exceptions, sunrises do not pose this problem. Only the unique “tourist” is out at that time of day.  Indeed, I have found that, even in my travel shooting in populated areas, that early mornings are the most productive for people-free imagery. As I have grown older, perhaps wiser, and more tolerant (my wife might disagree with this last characterization 🙂 ), I have concluded that there is often some merit in including people in imagery.

Aix-en-Provence, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

Photographic Considerations:  As I researched this aspect of the “sunrise/sunset” dichotomy, I learned – not surprisingly – that atmospheric conditions influence the photographic result. Sunrises generally have the characteristic of being clearer, cooler air. This is partly due to climatic conditions (is is usually cooler at sunrise than at sunset), and partly due to ambient influences (natural and man-made).  This often results in a lighter, photographically “cooler” and more contrasty image. The natural conditions are also more like to produce fog and mist – often low and dramatic.  A  significant exception to this may be the “marine layer” which is found along the northern west coast, where fog can be found almost any time of the day. But generalizations often trap us. The Horseshoe Lake image (one of my most successful sales images) was made during sunrise behind a cloud which produced a very diffuse, pastel light – in spite of the fact that the blue tint seems cooler (the blue tint is a characteristic of the film I used that morning – Fuji Velvia – in that kind of light condition). Likewise, cloudy conditions in the early morning produced a pastel-like light for the Alaska Inside Passage image. The sunrise image of the Bridge behind the Soo Locks perhaps exhibits more, the characteristics noted here. The morning was crystal clear, making conditions right for the sunstar image produce by the very small aperture, shooting directly toward the sun.

Sunset, Florida Gulf
Honeymoon Island SP
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

Sunsets, in addition to being generally physically warmer, also occur after there has been a day-long accumulation of airborne pollutants and wind-blown particles. Predictably, this often produces a more diffuse, softer, darker image. This sometimes results in surprising colors and it is rare that there aren’t variations from day to day. In my new home base on the Florida Gulf Coast, I hope for partly cloudy conditions as the sunset draws near, as that promises often spectacular colored skies, which are both pastel and brilliant at the same time. It is also sometimes the case that building storm conditions can produce dramatic conditions, especially when backlit by the setting sun.

Sunset over Cruise Ship
Carribean
Copyright Andy Richards 2013

What was interesting to me from my research was the science of all of this. Not really the technical side, but what it produces. I think I probably got the most insight from a painter’s website. The advice there and elsewhere to painters was fascinating. For sunrises, painters were advised that the clear skies of dawn yield more brilliant reds and oranges, and their palate should include yellow, bright orange, pink and blue, and emphasize the contrasts using dark blue on the sky and yellow on the horizon.  For sunsets, they are advised to use warm and dark saturated reds, oranges, magentas and purples.

Sunrise, Hateras National Seashore, Hateras, NC copyright Andy Richards

Personal considerations:  Some years back, I made a quick trip back to Vermont in late summer, to attend a funeral. On Sunday morning, I was invited to go to church with family members and friends.  I politely declined. I wanted some contemplative time, and I had packed some gear.  Instead, I left my motel room in the predawn light, in to photograph a waterfall I had been to many times in my youth, but never photographed. Arriving there just after sunrise, I climbed down a steep pathway and was rewarded with this beautiful waterfall and exclusive occupancy of the area.  Except for the pounding water, there were no other sounds and no other hint of humanity. My family and friends were in church, but I am certain that I was with God!

Cool (32 degree) temperatures following a very wet period created wonderful steam and colorful morning cloud conditions on this pond near Barton, Vermont
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

I have, in years since, often experienced this feeling of awe, being alone, or nearly alone as the world comes awake. It is a soul -cleansing experience for me. I know for others, getting up that early and mustering out is not a pleasant or desired experience. Ironically, that is good for me. As I get older, I understand the reluctance to rise that early 🙂 .

This shot involved a pre-sunrise, 20 minute hike down a very steep mountain trail on a Sunday morning.
I’d rather be here than in church any day!
Copyright Andy Richards 2008

I do appreciate though, after a long, good day, being there to watch the suns last rays of the day.

Sunset; Crystal Beach Pier
Crystal Beach, FL
Copyright Andy Richards 2017

Book Review: “Outdoor Flash Photography,” by John Gerlach and Barbara Eddy

Suggested

What this book is in great need of, in my opinion, is experienced, professional, objective, editing

Catching Up …..

Wow.  My last post was at the beginning of May, 2 full months ago. I guess I have fallen into one of those “lulls.” Nothing new and notable on the shooting front, and nothing much unique to say.

Over the winter, I played around with B&W and “painting.” I read several books on those subjects, and reviewed a couple of them. More recently, something got me realizing that I needed to renew my acquaintance with supplemental and artificial light; and particularly, flash – the stroboscopic variety.

New Gear and Flash …..

Several years ago, I made a monumental (for me, anyway) change in my “gear.” Having been “married” to Nikon for nearly 40 years, I made a complete changeover to Sony mirrorless cameras. The primary reason for my changeover was not creative or technical. It was convenience; and in particular, size and weight. Along the way, I discovered some creative and technical advantages. These are not really attributable to brand, but to “new” and to features. Every manufacturer seems to have certain areas they do better than anyone else. If only I could build my own ala carte camera.

One thing Nikon did better than anyone else (in my view) and Sony seems to do worse than anyone else (again, in my view) is flash. I got spoiled with Nikon’s creative flash system. You see, flash involves math, and there is very little about math that is either appealing or comes naturally to me :-). Nikon took the math out of it and let me not have to “think” about it. Maybe that wasn’t such a good thing.

A detractor for many of us is cost. Brand-dedicated flash units are ungodly expensive. As much as a good lens. And sometimes you want to use multiple units – as much, or more than the camera!  And, flash units are complex, and befuddling: right?

I have absolutely no doubt that the authors of this book are consummate, professional photographers and workshop leaders, and that they really, really know their craft – in particular – the ins and outs of everything “flash.”

During my 40+ years of shooting, I have shot 98% natural light. I have, for sure, used flash (I even remember those big, blue, “lightbulbs” that bayoneted into a reflector on my Asahiflex, popped once and ejected – hot!). But I think it is time for me to start expanding my shooting, to include supplemental lighting.

So, I started reading. Always my go-to. And I learned that there are less expensive, after-market units out there (some good/some not so good).  Sure, they have compromises. My friend, Kerry Leibowitz, once said to me in an e-mail exchange, “everything about photography is a compromise. .. Everything.” So I am good with that. For 1/4 the cost (or less), I was able to find a Sony-compatible flash to play with.  Maybe I will review it at some point (after I understand more about it 🙂 ).

There is a lot out there to read. I am a book person. Hence, the review. But before I do, let me recommend the website, strobist. There is a huge amount of information, free for the reader, here. I have just begun to dig into it, but some would say it is all you need.  Me? I am still a book guy. I like to read and highlight and flag, and go back from time to time. I already had Bryan Peterson’s “Understanding Flash Photography,” so I started there (I highly recommend two other Peterson books: “Understanding Exposure” and “Learning to See Creatively“).

There is some really good material.  But you you really have to work for it.  And to me, that is off-putting, particularly in an “instructional book.” With some work, this book could be made into a pithy, useful, field guide that someone like me just might carry around with him. But not in its current version

So, The Book …..

Wanting to dig deeper, I started researching on Amazon. I have long known of John Gerlach, and his workshops, and the bulk of the reviews liked his book “Outdoor Flash Photography.” I had read some of his other books over the years, and was familiar with him, as he originally lived in my “backyard;” the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. As many readers know, I have spent some time up there and my “Photographing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” is a guide to many of the wonderful shooting opportunities there. So I bought the book.

“Suggested” …..

This book is in my “suggested” category (meaning, I don’t necessarily believe every shooter should have or read this, but I have it, or have owned it, and found some useful material there). But what makes this a “suggested” book rather than a “recommended” book is largely editorial style, unfortunately. There is some really good material in there.  But you you really have to work for it.  And to me, that is off-putting, particularly in an “instructional book.” With some work, this book could be made into a pithy, useful, field guide that someone like me just might carry around with him. But not in its current version.

As I looked at the different offerings, and the editorial reviews, I was struck at how often the description said something like, “demystifies” flash, or “contains unique material, not found anywhere else.” This book suggests that there is something unique about “outdoor flash photography,” and that there is no other resource out there that covers these topics.  But my research and experience demonstrates otherwise. To be sure, many, if not most of the resources out there have a heavy concentration on portraiture and even sometimes studio lighting techniques. But my conclusion is that there are some basic lighting principles that really apply to photography in general, and they are not that unique from genre to genre.

I would have no hesitancy to sign up for, and attend one of their workshops

Need For Objective Professional Editing

Readers here know I am good at digression.  But I want to say something here, to put my “critical” (“Critical: expressing or involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a work ….“) comments in context.  I have absolutely no doubt that the authors of this book are consummate, professional photographers and workshop leaders, and that they really, really know their craft – in particular – the ins and outs of everything “flash.”  And you only need to go to their website to see that their imagery is first class, and their workshops well-attended and widely praised.  I had the fortune of bumping into one of their workshops a couple years ago, while shooting fall colors and researching locations for my own Photographing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and introduced myself to John.  He is a very nice man, with an undoubted bank of technical and locational knowledge.  One thing that really impressed me:  neither he nor Barbara had cameras in-hand.  It was their workshop and they were there to be a resource to the attendees.  I would have no hesitancy to sign up for, and attend one of their workshops!  I also studied nearly everything their own “mentors” (the late, Larry West, and John Shaw – both former Michigan residents themselves ) wrote and know the authors’ pedigree is estimable. Knowing this, I was mildly disappointed in this product.

What I was looking for was more of a hands-on, practical, experience-based text. How is “outdoor flash photography” different from “flash photography?” This book partially hits that mark, but it is a difficult path to get there! What the book is in great need of, in my opinion, is experienced, professional, objective editing. The term I would use to describe the current text is: “rambling.”

I would describe the author’s (while both John and Barbara are listed as authors, it is clearly primarily written in John’s voice) style as conversational.  Too conversational. It feels like maybe a day in the field, or in the lecture facility with John speaking. This style probably works well in person (he is said to be engaging and entertaining).  It doesn’t work in written form. As anyone reading here knows, I am all for an informal written presentation. But in written communication (especially instruction), there needs to be a certain level of formality, structure and organization. This book lacks that structure – in a way that makes it difficult to stay with it. Here are some specifics:

Style – The “conversational” style, as noted above, is off-putting. Sentences throughout the book are replete with misplaced modifiers, which I suspect is a matter of conversational usage, but is jarring when repeatedly read. This doesn’t affect the technical presentation of information, but it certainly makes it less effective. The frequent attempts at humor fall flat. Again, they probably work well as one-liners in an oral presentation, but they come across as borderline lame in a more formal, written text.

And words and phrases……..  I have always been a firm believer that good, strong writing and clear communication means simple, direct writing. It is good to vary word choice from time to time to make the writing less repetitive and more interesting (I use a Thesaurus frequently, when I feel that I have been repeating a single word too much). But the use of “big” words, or flowery phrases does not automatically make writing better or more interesting. Sometimes it is just best to say the word that applies in common usage – direct and simple. I have to believe that an objective, professional editor would eliminate the majority of these issues, and create a more straightforward, informative and readable text.

Relevance – Too often, the author wanders “off the reservation,” getting into totally irrelevant commentary which, while perhaps anecdotally interesting, takes us away from the subject matter of the book – flash photography. While some of it may have nominal relevance, a quick reference to it and “move on,” would be, in my view, much more effective. There is too much “Cannon vs. Nikon” philosophy, for example (I appreciate that these authors each use one of these systems, as do perhaps the majority of their audience, and surely there is some relevance to how these makers handle flash issues – but again, “just the facts ma’am” and then move on would be a good thing here). 🙂

Organization – The book is divided into 14 chapters. Respectfully, I do not believe there are 14 separate chapters of material here. I am not sure about publishing requirements and standards, never having personally done more than my own eBooks (which may not be models of clarity either). I have written enough to know that organization is not always an easy path, and there are always choices about how, where and when to present materials. But I truly believe this book could be condensed down to no more than 5 chapters. What we instead find here is a lot of needless (and I think, confusing) repetition.  In an effort to distinguish terminology and techniques, the author ends up repeating the same materials under different topics. The implication is that there is something different, and yet, there really isn’t (a great example is the segue from “fill flash,” “main flash” and “balanced flash.” After 3 long, repetitive chapters, it really boils down (and is implied, in my reading, by the book) that they are not really different categories. They are just applications of the flash fundamental that every flash exposure is composed of two exposures, one being the ambient light exposure and the other being the flash exposure. The rest is just understanding the relationships of the light sources, and how the technology in the units and cameras handle it.

There are many Positives …..

Having been critical, I have to say there are many positives to take away from this book. It is why I “suggest” it. I believe it is worth the work to slog through it and try to distill the very good information that is in there. I will go back and re-read, and take personal notes on this information and hopefully add it to my own kind of “field guide.” Here are some items I think are worthwhile information/tips from my first reading of the book:

  • The author gives one of the better explanations of how the strobe flash works, including flash duration, that I have read.
  • There are a couple comments regarding the use of flash when shooting waterfalls that I had not previously considered – particularly the ability to “freeze” water droplets while maintaining the “silky” look of the main waterfall in the image.  You can be sure I am going to experiment with that.
  • While most experienced users are aware of this, his explanation of how TTL in the flash unit relates to automatic and manual control of the camera was helpful.  He re-inforces why those of us who rely on “automatic” modes, because we don’t know better (or in my case, because we have become lazy), don’t get the results we expect.
  • There are some helpful tips on the placement of flash (particularly in close subjects) to maximize color and texture.

I could see it being transformed from an “eh” book, to one I would put on my “must own” list

The Takeaway …..

The paperback cost just under $27.00.  Today, that is a rather modest cost for a full, published, hard copy book. So I certainly didn’t feel put off or cheated by the purchase. And there was enough in it for me to keep it rather then send it back. But it would not go on my list of “must own under any circumstances” books.

What I think might be a dynamite re-work of this book would be to have some heavy editing, drilling down to the relevant, useful information in the book, perhaps adding some more practical and experiential information, into a shorter and perhaps smaller format (think “field guide”). I could see it being transformed from an “eh” book, to one I would put on my “must own” list.

Suggested