Digital Photography

 I gave some of my old cameras and lenses to a friend who was a professional photographer in the film era but lost his equipment through fire and theft and has not photographed for many years.  So this is a brief summary of what has changed.  Hopefully it will be of interest to others as well.

This article doesn’t include an introduction to Photography.  You can find one here.

Digital photography is far more accessible than film was.  It is simple and cheap if you just buy a camera with a kit lens and set it on Program mode (or use a phone), blast away, and upload JPEGs to Facebook .  But to do it seriously is both much more complex and much more expensive than it used to be.

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Carillon, Canberra 1988, Part of French contribution to Bicentennial, 5×4 film.

(Click on any image to see it in a larger size.).
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Index

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Exposure

Red crested cranes in river before dawn, Hokkaido, 2012.

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In the film days, you used a film which was a given ISO (originally called ASA) and now you can select an ISO for each shot.  But there’s more to it than that:

You can shoot JPEG or RAW (or both).  JPEG has your settings baked into the image and you degrade it if you later edit it.  Photojournalists may shoot JPEG so they can quickly deliver final images to their editor but for most people in most situations, shooting RAW is preferable.  JPEG has a limited gamut (sRGB) whereas RAW captures what the camera can (approximately LAB gamut).  This implies processing and more on that later.

Film had a rounded shoulder in its transition from highlight detail to overexposure, or from shadow detail to underexposure, but for digital, the transition is much more abrupt, so you need to be more careful about overexposure in particular.

The histogram is an invaluable aid to exposure.  It shows the tones, shadow to highlight, left to right in a box.  The shape of the histogram can vary but a line on the right edge is overexposure; a line on the left edge is underexposure.  Usually you want to avoid that but sometimes underexposure doesn’t matter and sometimes specular highlights make the right edge of the histogram irrelevant (eg live music).

In general you want to expose to the right – in other words, not have any blank space on the right of the histogram.  This is because detail captured decreases exponentially from the right of the histogram to the left.  In other words, the detail is in the highlights, not the shadows.  There’s a complication here though because the histogram on the back of the camera shows an sRGB image but as long as you’re shooting RAW you have something like an extra two-thirds of a stop of highlight detail available.  (It is a good idea to set the camera histogram to show aRGB but it still doesn’t make much difference).

You can also set the camera to bracket exposures where the contrast range may be too wide for a single exposure, and combine them later in processing if required.  Three exposures two stops apart is perhaps a good place to start for this.  I often leave the camera set for exposure bracketing when shooting landscapes on the fly because I may not pick when I actually need to bracket.  In many cases I may find it was not necessary so I delete unwanted images.  Others may prefer to be more economical in their culling and shoot single images where possible.

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Shutter

Cape Nelson 1987, Arca-Swiss 5×4″,90mm Linhof Angulon, f6.8, 4 hours, Fujichrome 50

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With film, the rule of thumb for minimum hand-held shutter speed was the reciprocal of the focal length (eg 1/100 sec  for 100mm lens).  The greater acuity of digital means you may need to add a stop or two (eg 1/200 or 1/400).  This changes again with more modern lenses and bodies with image stabilisation (vibration reduction).  It varies by individual though so the best way to understand what shutter speeds you can hand hold at is to do tests by focal length.

With DSLRs (apart from very cheap ones where this may not be available), for maximum sharpness in landscape images, you should use a tripod and lock the mirror up and use a remote release (or the self-timer).  Or even better, you can use live view which focuses directly onto the sensor with the mirror up.  (… though there are some limitations in the early implementation of this in the Nikon D3 for which this is written so that it may be advantageous to use the self-timer).

Mirrorless cameras of course do not have a mirror to flip but there can still be shutter slap to reduce sharpness.  This can be avoided by using electronic shutter except for artificial light or some cases of marked subject movement.

One of the few advantages of film was with star trails because you can hold the shutter open as long as you like (8 hours was the longest I did).  With digital cameras you are limited by battery often to 30 minutes to an hour, though with the phenomenal battery of the Nikon D3 this may be as much as 6 hours (I tested but don’t remember my findings clearly).

Nightscapes with stars in focus weren’t common in days of film (or maybe I just wasn’t aware).  For a starting point on exposure and shutter speed, refer the NPS Rule.  Phone app PhotoPills can do NPS calculations and also display where the Milky Way will be on the view through your phone.

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Filters

Lake Hume, 2006 (6×17 Film)

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There was much more use of filters in the days of film.  This included skylight filters and coloured gels (for commercial portrait photographers) to modify the colour balance of the film.  This is no longer required because you can either do it in camera or in post-processing.

UV filter are not required in most circumstances.  They don’t really protect lenses (though lens hoods do) and can accentuate flare.  The exception when they can be useful is for sea spray and desert sand storms.

Polarising filters are not much required in general landscape photography any more.  They can overpower skies and you can adjust those in post-processing.  They still have their uses though for dealing with reflections in water and for enhancing colour in forests, especially wet ones.  For DSLRs you need circular polarisers though instead of the old linear ones, though linear ones are fine for mirrorless cameras.

Apart from polarising filters, the most likely filters to use these days are neutral density filters, so you can get a daylight exposure of say five minutes for smooth clouds and water surfaces.  You may also need a dark cloth over the camera to prevent light leaks.  This can look impressive and I do it occasionally though I also find it a fashion trend tending to a bit of a cliché and generally prefer to do my long exposures without filters after dark.

When shooting black and white film, filters translated the colours in different ways.  You can still do that if you are using a Leica Monochrom or when using inbuilt filters while shooting JPEG in mono, but there is little point if you are shooting RAW.  You end up with a colour image and while you can still apply mono camera settings to it, you have much greater power for monochrome conversion in post-production.  It can be useful though sometimes to set your camera for a mono display to aid your composition even if your objective is not monochrome.

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Other Camera Operations

Bearded Dragon, Mt Ainslie, Canberra, 2019 (focus stacked)

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I have already mentioned automated exposure bracketing. 

You can also generate panoramas either hand-held (for distant panoramas) or on a tripod with varying degrees of complexity and expense for additional equipment. This requires separate exposures and overlapping by about 20%.

Another option is focus bracketing – combining multiple exposures at different point of focus to get a greater depth of focus than would be possible in a single exposure, especially but not exclusively for macro.  Stopping down to f8 or f11 helps.  On older cameras like the Nikon D3 you have to set the focus manually but many more recent models have various forms of semi-automatic focus bracketing.

All these operations require post processing, and I will cover that under the Processing section.

There is also the option for time lapse photography and video but since I have not done these I will do no more than mention them.

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Lens Calibration

Deception Island, 2011.

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DSLRs have a sensor that records the image and another sensor for autofocus.  If the two get out of whack for a particular lens and camera, the lens may be consistently front-focusing or back-focusing. 

Your camera may be able to record correction values for each lens.  This will not be the case though if you have a lower-range model and most cameras can only record one value for a zoom lens.  You determine those values with a testing utility.  I use FoCal; others may consider Lens Align simpler and cheaper.  Some people don’t bother.  It’s not an issue for mirrorless cameras (or when using live view on a DSLR).

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Tripods and Monopods

19 Twenty at the Abbey, Canberra, 2020.

Compared to the film days, tripods can now be carbon fibre as well as aluminium (or wood).  Aluminium tripods are cheaper but carbon fibre ones are the way to go where possible because they are lighter, more durable and more vigration resistant. Cheap tripods are still counter-productive but I suspect they’re not quite as rickety as they used to be.

For a detailed review of tripods and monopods, see this site.

Also here is a review of a new version of my favourite ball head, from Acratech.  Its open design makes it ideal for outdoors, beause it is easy to clean and doesn’t get grit around the ball.

 

Planning

Crested Tern, Montague Island, 2019.

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You can use applications to plan landscape excursions.  For example, The Photographer’s Ephemeris allows you to see the hours of different measures of twilight at a particular date and location, and you can even determine when the sun will peek out over a mountain at sunrise to illuminate your subject.  (The latter capacity does take time and dedication though).  I’ve already mentioned the phone application PhotoPills.

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Processing

Verraux’s Sifaka, Madagascar, 2015 (IR)

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If you are planning to shoot JPEG-only, with all the shortcomings that entails, you will still need an basic photo editor/ image database such as ACDSee Pro.

Most people will want to shoot RAW and that implies post-processing with a RAW processor and a pixel-level image editor.    In general I recommend the Adobe Photographic Plan for $14.29 per month.  This is primarily the desktop-based Lightroom Classic plus Photoshop and includes various capacities for processing on the web including on phones or iPads.  I often use FastRawViewer for the initial cull; it is quite cheap and the only way to get an accurate histogram of a RAW file.  Lightroom Classic is a very good RAW Processor, an excellent image database, very good for printing and has many other capabilities that alternatives do not.  It is also very good for very quick adjustments.

Note that image selection requires some processing including exposure correction and perhaps some cropping.  Lightroom‘s Auto Tone gives a very quick starting point.

However, I also use Capture One and often edit in that.  It is a superior editor, particularly for layers, masking and control of colours but is not as good as an image database and does not have many of the capabilities of Lightroom.  The learning curve is steeper than Lightroom though. You can buy it subscription of stand alone and it costs a little more than the Adobe Photography Plan.

Other alternatives for RAW processing are Luminar, On One Photo Pro and DxO PhotoLab.  I haven’t used any of them but according to reports I have read, Luminar and On One are not really options but DxO might be.  If you’re not subscribing to Adobe, you still need a pixel based editor which is likely to be Affinity Photo.  It is quite cheap and capable though not as powerful and Photoshop.  For example, only Photoshop has the capacity to invent missing data using content aware fill.

It requires care to make a choice of RAW processor though because if you change your mind your capability to export processed files to another application will be very limited.

I also sometimes use TK Actions which operates inside Photoshop to adjust images using luminosity masking, in other words, particular tonal ranges of an image.  This can be very powerful but is extremely complex and requires experience in Photoshop.

You can do mono conversions in Lightroom or Photoshop but Nik Silver Efex Pro is more powerful and I find Capture One is better again.

There is a variety of ways to do HDR processing which can be quite realistic, not the garish results that Photomatix used to champion.  The easiest way is in LightroomPhotoshop is a bit more accurate, especially if you have registration issues or moving objects between the frames.  There are also various manual ways to do it in Photoshop and there are various third party applications, of which I occasionally use SNS-HDR.

Panoramas you can also do in Lightroom or Photoshop.  My favourite utility is AutoPano Giga but it was bought out by GoPro and closed down, so you can’t buy it any more.  The best high-range utility is now probably PTGui though there are many other simpler ones.

You can process focus stacks in Photoshop (though not in Lightroom) and the main third party programs are Helicon Focus and Zerene Stacker which usually work better than Photoshop unless you have registration issues (eg from shooting hand-held).  I prefer Zerene Stacker as it has better editing capabilities.

I have much more detail in A RAW workflow … and Alternatives.

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Computers

Moai, Ranu Raraku, Easter Island, 2011.

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Assuming we are talking desktop computer, the main requirements for an up-to-date machine are lots of RAM (at least 16GB), adequate storage and processing on M.2 NVMe SSDs. 

Photographic monitors are important especially if you intend printing or to have images printed.  Eizo are the best, NEC nearly as good and somewhat cheaper (though Image Science no longer recommends them because NEC Australia does not guarantee against dead pixels) and some Benq monitors are good and more affordable.  All other monitors are likely to be a compromise.  Large monitors are good; 4K is not necessary.

Backup is also important.  You should have three copies of your images, including a remote copy which can be in the Cloud.

I have written a few articles on these matters:

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Printing

Aboriginal concert, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1984?, IR colour film plus sabbatier effect.

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Digital printing has greatly improved since the days of the fume room.  You don’t need to dodge and burn each print, you do that to the image before you print it and then when you get it right it’s repeatable.

(There is one minor annoyance in terminology though.  Dodging in Photoshop is making parts lighter whereas burning is making parts darker.  That’s because the early Photoshop designers were black and white printers, which is a negative to positive process.  When printing Cibachrome it was the other way round.  Dodging made parts darker whereas burning made parts brighter.  Printing from slides was a positive to positive process.  And so is digital processing, so the terminology is the wrong way around.)

There is also a great variety of papers with a wide range of effects, quite unlike the limited range for black and white let alone colour in the film era.

You don’t get good quality prints from Harvey Norman, Office Works or similar places and custom prints are not cheap.  Even if you intend to mainly get prints made by a custom printer, it may be worthwhile to also do your own, especially if you will print more than a few.  Then you will have a better understanding of preparing images for printing on different papers and after all, arguably, if you get someone else to make your prints, they aren’t entirely your own work.

I have also written a range of articles on printing:

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Comments

Pimilea Physodes, Australian National Botanic Gardens, 2020.

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Your comments are welcome. 

  • Have I missed something? 
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