Posts Published in June 2009

Silhouette Photographs at Dusk

Dusk is a really interesting time to take photographs, when the sun begins to turn the sky reddish orange. If you use the faint light in the horizon as a backdrop, you can get really interesting silhouette photographs of people and landscapes.

All you need to do is expose based on the sky. If you have a point and shoot, just aim at the sky, hold down the shutter halfway to lock the exposure based on the sky, and then recompose the shot.

Here’s a scene where I exposed based on the subjects in the foreground. Since the difference between the foreground and the sky is so great, properly exposing the foreground causes the sky to be completely blown out.

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Exposing based on the sky produces this look:

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My favorite from this particular evening:

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To capture motion without significant blur, you’ll need to use a somewhat fast shutter speed. In this case the shutter speed was 1/50 of a second, but there was still some blur (look at some of the feet).

That’s it though. It’s pretty simple. Good luck.


A photograph like this involving a basketball player dunking on a hoop would be pretty epic.

If you can think of any other scenarios or activities that would create cool silhouette photographs, leave a comment!

10 Tips for Shooting Protests

Going to school in Berkeley, California, there always seems to be something people are protesting. A few times the past couple years, I took the time to run to some of the demonstrations downtown, and found that they’re always rich opportunities for interesting photographs.

There’s going to be a protest at Union Square in San Francisco tonight at 6pm regarding the election in Iran, so I thought I’d share a few tips for shooting from my experiences.

1. Get In Close

Unlike ordinary street photography, you don’t need to be very cautious about sticking your camera directly in someone’s face, since it’s exactly what most people at the protests are asking for!

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I remember seeing one of my buddies taking portraits of people at a demonstrate with his camera only a foot or two from the face of one of the protesters. There aren’t too many other opportunities where so many strangers will let you be so intrusive with your camera.

2. Capture Emotion

There’s going to be all sorts of different emotions on display at a demonstration. People shouting, laughing, cheering, etc… Go to where the action is and try to capture it.

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3. Shoot a Lot

Since everything is happening so quickly, it’s difficult to capture exactly the pose or expression you’re looking for. Get into position and take numerous frames (use a continuous shooting mode if you have one). You’ll probably end up with a lot of junk and a few gems.

4. Bring Enough Memory

One of the mistakes I made once was bringing a single memory card and nothing else. When I filled up the card, there was still photos to be shot, and I ended up having to go back and delete photos to make more room. Don’t let this happen to you! Bring extra cards and a laptop to empty your cards onto if they get full.

5. Look for Memorable Scenes

People do all sorts of interesting things at protests that make for eye-catching photographs.

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The woman above wasn’t actually posing for a picture but was simply playing with the dog… From the way it’s captured though, it seems like they’re making a political statement, right?

6. Capture Two Things at Once

Look for angles that allow you to tell a story in both the foreground and the background.

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In the photograph above, the arms in the foreground and sign in the background both contribute to the story being told.

7. Look for Signs

People will probably bring some pretty interesting signs, and capturing them will help you tell the story of what’s going on.

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8. Show Numbers

In addition to getting in close and capturing details and emotions, it’s also good to step back and show the context of what you’re photographing. Two good ways to show the crowd are from getting up high or shooting down a line of people. A wide angle lens would help for a view from above.

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9. Capture Conflict

Protests often include counter-protesters, and conflicts between the two sides (and with the police) make for interesting photo opportunities.

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10. Shoot Raw

If you have the option to shoot RAW, do it. It will give you much more flexibility in fixing mistakes you make later on down the road. There’s a huge difference in how much you can salvage and fix between RAW and JPEG, so if you have the ability and memory card space to shoot RAW, you definitely won’t regret it.


This list was obviously not comprehensive, but just some things I picked up through shooting protests in Berkeley. If you have any other tips or suggestions (or disagreement), please leave a comment!

Interview with Kathleen Connally of A Walk Through Durham Township

Kathleen Connally is the photographer behind A Walk Through Durham Township, Pennsylvania, a photoblog that has been chosen as “Photoblog of the Year”, “Best American Photoblog”, and “Best Landscape Photography” by numerous publications.

Portraits taken by Ajit Anthony Prem.


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PetaPixel: Can you tell me a little about yourself and your background?

Kathleen Connally: I’ve lived in a 230-year old house in Bucks County, Pennylvania, for the last ten years, and have focused my camera on tiny Durham Township during that time. My photoblog is a love letter to where I live. I include my son, my neighbors, nieces and nephews in the photos, too, in my attempt to document this space, this place in time, through my eyes.

I work as a photographer when I’m not busy caring for my home and my son, who is eight years old. I really enjoy commercial and editorial photography and try to fit as much in as possible to pay the bills. But I also volunteer as a Penn State Master Gardener, as an advocate for preserving open space in Pennsylvania, as a Cub Scout leader, a Little League bench coach, a member of the township’s Environmental Advisory Council.

I’m also an artist-in-residence at the James A. Michener Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where I teach about contemporary landscape photography, and I teach on a variety of photographic topics at various other locations including high schools, universities, etc.

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PP: How did you first get into photography?

KC: I got my first camera, a Polaroid Land camera, for a Christmas gift when I was seven years old. I’ve had a camera in my hands ever since! Something “clicked” (pun intended) as soon as I started taking my first photos – I knew I was doing what I was meant to be doing.

As a kid, I stole my dad’s AGFA, as well as his 8mm movie camera and projector until I got my first 35mm (Pentax K1000, of course) when I was 15. I took a darkroom course in high school and ended up developing my own film for a long time, which I loved. Up until the early 2000s, I shot mostly Ektachrome but plenty of B&W, too. In 2003 I got my first digital camera, realized I could experiment without limit, and pretty much put the film cameras to rest as I developed my education (empirically) in digital technology.

I still shoot film on occasion – actually purchased my dream film camera, a Hasselblad 503cw a couple of years ago with the proceeds from a big commercial job – so I still love (lerve) film, but I am equally in love with digital now, too, because I can so easily handle it and turn it around.

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PP: What was the digital camera you got in 2003?

KC: I got a little Canon Elph Powershot. I carried it in my pocket literally everywhere I went and probably shot 100,000 images on that thing before I started using my first DSLR, the Nikon D100.

PP: How much traffic does your photoblog receive?

KC: Somewhere in the region of 2 to 3 million visitors a year but I’ve stopped keeping track at this point so I can focus on things that are more meaningful, like the photography!

PP: Wow. How much email do you receive from your fans?

KC: I have never stopped to count but it’s enough that I can’t answer it all and do my other work, haha. I wish I could. When students email, I give them priority, because I want to encourage them.

I’m not sure I’d call it ‘fan mail’, though – many times it’s just questions about gear, settings, etc., or a request to look at a portfolio. I’d call it ‘curiousity mail’ instead.

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PP: What are some of the most common questions or comments you receive?

KC: Common questions include “Do you hold classes?” or “What lens/camera, etc., do you recommend?” Comments run the gamut from enjoying that I’ve focused my camera on one area, that the photos remind them of when they grew up, that it’s been fun to watch my progress with digital photography, that my models are pretty or handsome (haha), or wondering whether Durham Township is more beautiful than other areas of the world and that they’d like to visit one day. Also, I hear “I just spent an hour of my work time at your site.” Haha. The best ones are when people tell me they have a new appreciation for open space, for farming, for nature, etc., and they understand why it’s important to protect those things. (That’s my ultimate goal with this project.)

There are too many to list but those come to the top of my head. A quick read through my site’s Guestbook will give you a good idea of what I get.

PP: Tell me about your workflow.

KC: Pretty simple workflow. I have RAID drives, I also back up to a separate external drive once a week. So everything is triple backed up as soon as it’s out of the camera. I use Adobe Bridge to manage the files, Adobe Photoshop CS4 to apply very basic adjustments to RAW files (I shoot RAW+JPEG). Image files are sorted into folders labeled by year, month, day and some tag such as “CORNFIELD_MORNING_FOG”. I keep separate WORK folders arranged the same way to separate the original digital negatives from the files I’ve made adjustments.

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PP: What equipment do you currently use?

PP: I use two Canon 5Ds, a Canon 5D Mark II, a Canon EOS 3 film camera and a whole bunch of L-series lenses on all of them. I also use a Hasselblad 503cw film camera and am hoping to get a digital back for it one day. I also use a bunch of old toy cameras (Holga, Diana, etc.) and pretty much anything fun I can get my hands on at a junk sale or thrift store, although I don’t usually share those photos on-line. Just a time issue or I would – scanning, etc., takes more time than I have right now. For commercial jobs I usually rent a Canon 1Ds Mark II or Mark III and whatever L-series lenses I need for the work.

PP: What’s your favorite lens?

KC: Canon 50mm f/1.2L or Canon 85mm f/1.2L. They’re both as dreamy as can be.

PP: What’s the least favorite lens that you own?

KC: Hmmm… don’t have a least favorite or I would get rid of it.

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PP: Why are you a Canonite and not a Nikonian?

KC: My first DSLR was a Nikon D100, which was fantastic at the time, but then Canon came out with the 5D right at the time I needed to upgrade. (I actually wore out the Nikon D100.) When I heard the Canon 5D was full-frame, I got one of the first ones off the assembly line! It’s still one of my workhorses! Anyway, that’s the main reason I switched. Nothing to do with brand loyalty, really, or caring about being a “Canonite” or “Nikonian.” They’re both great companies with great products; Canon just had what I needed when I needed it, so I invested with them. Good timing on their part, haha.

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PP: What would you say is the one thing you’ve learned that has had the biggest positive impact on your photographs?

KC: Do you mean technically or spiritually?

PP: Both.

KC: Technically, I’ve learned that you must be intimate with the gear you’re using, and you must put it to test in every conceivable environment. You have to know what every button does and what the result will be from pushing it. You cannot skimp on educating yourself about every aspect of your gear, and you cannot skimp on practicing. 100% immersion gives you the results you want, eventually.

Spiritually, I’ve learned that you have to BE where you are. You’ve got to live in the moment, go with the flow and that’s when the most amazing photographs are taken. You can’t direct anything, you have no control over anything, you cannot stage a great photograph. Life hands you great photographs when you respect that you’re not the one in control of them! When you try to control the result you don’t have access to your creative side, to the very well-informed right brain which gives you insanely beautiful ideas and messages. Those only come when you’re at peace with your surroundings, yourself.

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PP: How about regarding post-processing?

KC: When I first got into digital technology, I started out post-processing my images like crazy. This helped me learn the yin/yang relationship there. By pushing it to the limit, by learning every single knob & dial in Photoshop, I also learned how to do the best work with the least amount of post-processing. When I look at my early digital work it makes me scream and run for the hills, haha, but I also know the lessons I learned by doing that, and how it educated me. So right now I have no desire and very little need to post-process my images. I’ve practiced so relentlessly with my camera – in my given environment, but certainly not everywhere – that I can turn an image around from camera to a finished work in just a few minutes. I apply only the adjustments that I used to apply to my B&W work in a darkroom – contrast, tone, etc., with the curves adjustment tool. I like to think of myself as a processor, not a post-processor now. My goal is to do almost everything in-camera, including handling the exposure and composition to the point that Photoshop is irrelevant. That doesn’t always work but I am motivated to work toward it. I hate sitting in front of a monitor if I can be outside shooting!

PP: Who is your favorite historical photographer?

KC: Heavens, that’s like asking what my favorite film is. Not possible to name one person, but I can rattle off a good list: Alfred Stieglitz, Carleton Watkins, Robert Doisneau, Lartigue, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Lee Friedlander, Eggleston… I could keep going but I’ll stop for now. I love too many of them!

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PP: Who are some of your favorite photobloggers?

KC: Joes NYC, Istoica, Fourteen Places to Eat, Myopicus, and Chromogenic.

PP: If you could see one person interviewed on PetaPixel, who would it be?

KC: Joe Holmes, Joe’s NYC.

PP: Is there anything else you would like to say to PetaPixel’s readers?

KC: If you want to be a good photographer, or a great photographer, or even just a working photographer, STOP listening to ANYONE who tells you it’s not possible, that the field is too full, that the benchmarks are too high now, etc. Listen to YOURSELF. Do you love photography? Do you have something to say with it? Then do it. No whining about not getting paid. If you love it, do it because you love it, not because you’re waiting on a paycheck. Do it and make it public. Show your work. If you’re TRULY passionate about it, and you practice, hone your skills and your message, get yourself out there – you will get work. Remember the Woody Allen saying, too – 80% of life is just showing up. SHOW UP! If you ever need a pep talk, email me – I tell that to everyone – because I truly believe that EVERYONE has an important voice. Everyone also needs encouragement now and then.

Ghandi once said something like ‘Be the change you want to see in this world.’ Your voice and your talent are important to this world.

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Regarding PetaPixel’s Posting Schedule

Hey everyone.

Just so you know, content will be posted to PetaPixel primarily from Monday through Friday of each week. Occassionally something might be posted on Saturday, but generally new entries will not go up on weekends. Hope to see you back here tomorrow! I have some pretty awesome interviews and other neat stuff lined up.

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HDR Software Giveaway

Update: This giveaway has now ended. The winners have been randomly selected and are posted here. Thanks to everyone who entered this first contest!


Something I hope to do regularly on PetaPixel is give away gear, accessories, and software to my readers. Today I’m giving away seven (7) free licenses to Unified Color’s HDR PhotoStudio, each worth $149.99.

If you don’t know what HDR is, check out the Wikipedia article on it or take a look at the HDR Flickr group. Here are some sample images showing you what you can do with the software:

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To enter this contest, all you need to do is answer the following question:

What is your favorite camera or lens?

There are two ways you can tell us your answer (feel free to use both methods to increase your chances, but one entry per channel please):

  1. Leave a comment on this post
  2. Send @petapixel a tweet on Twitter. Please hashtag the tweet with #photography

Winners will be announced in a week on the evening of June 20th, 2009.

Good luck!

Post-processing of a Graduation Photo

A few weeks ago, I was taking photographs of my friend Tommy at his Berkeley graduation using a Canon 40D and the 24mm f/2.8. I had originally purchased the 24mm as part of a package and was planning on selling it off, but decided to keep it after being shocked by its quality and versatility. Anyhow, here’s an unprocessed photograph of my friends Tommy and Jacob I took right after the graduation:

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It was a pretty cloudy day, which was definitely a plus in terms of lighting. I shot the photo wide open at f/2.8, which blurred the background enough to bring out the subjects, but not too much in order to keep the campanile recognizable. In terms of framing, I positioned myself so that

  1. The subjects obey the rule of thirds.
  2. The campanile is framed by the Hass School of Business gate.

Finally, in terms of timing, I waiting until the balloons floated to a visible position above the subjects, since the slight wind was blowing them around.

Now, opening the image in Adobe Camera Raw, I made the following post-processing decisions:

White Balance: Increased temperature from 4950 to 5450 (you can hold shift and press the right arrow key) to bring some warmth back into the scene, since it’s pretty cool. Left the tint unchanged at -2. Hover over the image to compare:

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Exposure: Left unchanged, since the photo was exposed pretty well.

Recovery, Fill Light, and Blacks: Now, pressing ‘U’ and ‘O’ to turn on shadow and highlight clipping warning (respectively), we see the following:

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Camera Raw (You can do these things in Lightroom and Aperture too, of course) overlays the image in certain places with blue and red pixels to indicate where shadows and highlights are clipped (where information is lost). The three values we use to try and recover as much of this lost information as we can are “recovery”, “fill light”, and “blacks”. Holding Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac OS) while dragging recovery or blacks will temporarily replace the actual image with a black background, allowing you to see the clipped pixels more clearly.

First, we slide recovery over to 16. I notice that after 16, there isn’t much more detail being recovered no matter how much more I increase the value. Setting recovery to too high of a value results in a muddy looking photograph.

To recover shadow details, we add a little fill light by setting it to 10. This removes most of the black clipping pixels. We can then recover most of the rest by dropping the blacks value down a few points to 2.

What results is an image with more detail, but less contrast. Hover over it to compare:

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Notice how the dark shadows became a little lighter, the sky became a little more blue, and the overall difference between dark and light areas became less pronounced.

Contrast, Clarity, Vibrance, Sharpness, and Vignetting: To get back the contrast we lost in the process of recovering detail, I move the contrast slider over to the right until it looks right. In this case, I set it at 80. The clarity value can make things like the campanile and edges of the building more defined. I slide it up to 25. Vibrance I increase by 15 to make things a little more colorful. Finally, I sharpen the photo a little and add some lens vignetting to make the subjects stand out more.

Here is the final photograph. Hover over it to compare it to the original, unprocessed version:

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If you have questions, suggestions, or other remarks, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you.

Interview with Justin Ouellette of Chromogenic

Justin Ouellette is the photoblogger behind Chromogenic.


PetaPixel: Tell me about yourself

Justin Ouellette: I’m a designer, originally from Portland, OR and now living in Chinatown, New York. I’ve been doing photography for about 10 years, and mostly work with film. In the last couple years I’ve been doing more web design. My biggest project last year was Muxtape, a site for making & sharing personal mixes. Photographically I like working with people and bands. I’m mostly interested in intersections between music, photography and technology.

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PP: How did you first get into photography?

JO: I was lucky enough to go to a high school that offered photography, and also had an amazing instructor. It was just before digital started becoming something more than a novelty and we learned everything in The Old Way, developing our own film and making filter charts in a darkroom. I never stopped after that. The internet was already an incredible resource and fueled an insatiable appetite to learn everything I could about photography.

PP: What was your first camera?

JO: Pentax ME and 50mm f/1.8

PP: What do you use now?

JO: Hasselblad 500C/M mostly, also an Olympus Stylus Epic and Canon EOS-1N. I’ve experimented with a lot of cameras over the years but I think the Hasselblad is going to stay with me for the long haul.

PP: So you mostly shoot medium-format now?

JO: Yeah, I see the world in squares these days. I still enjoy the honesty of 35mm, though.

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PP: Could you briefly explain to PetaPixel readers what medium-format is, and what you feel the biggest pros and cons are?

JO: Medium format is a film size that’s much larger than 35mm but still small enough that it can come on rolls and be used with cameras that have more convenient operation than the typical large format setup, which uses single-exposure sheets 4×5″ and up. It usually means much higher quality images at the expense of having a huge choice of lenses and automatic niceties and accessories, like a light meter. It’s also a bit harder to scan and print, but not as hard as large format.

Subjectively, medium format negatives are much richer and more painterly, and the physics of light passing through a larger piece of glass and striking a larger surface make for images that feel distinctly different. I also like that the sometimes-awkward nature of the larger gear forces you into a more methodical process; if nothing else you’re forced to think more about each exposure and take them more seriously. It comes through in the final result.

PP: When did you start Chromogenic?

JO: 2003

PP: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned through years of maintaining the photoblog?

JO: I’ve learned a lot about organizing and editing my own work, which I’ve concluded is half the skill of photography. I’ve also learned that telling the stories of our lives through pictures is something that taps deeply into human nature, and a photoblog is just one way to do it.

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PP: Can you briefly describe your workflow?

JO: I develop black and white film in my bathroom, and color film I take to a lab around the corner. Either way I wind up with a long strip that I cut into threes and scan on a Nikon 9000. Usually I’ll do a quick preview of every frame (12 per roll), then go back and do a 4000dpi “for real” scan with anti-newton glass for the ones I like. From there I’ve got a neutral 81 megapixel TIFF in AdobeRGB which I color-correct in Photoshop. I use curves and try to make as natural adjustments as I can, and my final step is flattening, resizing, a little unsharp mask, and saving an sRGB jpeg.

PP: What’s the most common question you’re asked regarding Chromogenic or photography?

JO: Camera and/or film recommendations are a common question. It’s hard to answer because it’s a very personal preference, there’s no best film or camera. I try to encourage people to experiment and go with what feels right.

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PP: What do you think is the most valuable piece of advice you could give an aspiring photographer?

JO: Try everything once.

PP: Is there any one thing you’ve learned that has benefited your work the most?

JO: I’ve learned a lot of things over the years, but the importance of editing definitely sticks out for me. It can be tremendously hard to choose one good image of out dozens of similar variations, but the impact of presenting a single, cohesive frame can’t be understated.

PP: Who are your favorite photobloggers?

JO: Todd Gross (quarlo.com) is an all-time favorite, I also like Eliot Shepard (slower.net), Yamasaki Ko-ji (uwaa.org), Peter Baker (treemeat.com), and many others. I’ve been enjoying ckck.tumblr.com lately as well.

PP: If you could see one person interviewed on PetaPixel, who would it be?

JO: Bruce Gilden.

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PP: What is the favorite photograph you’ve taken, and why?

JO: I don’t have an all-time favorite, there are definitely some photos that stand out to me as representative for certain eras of my life, though. I think any photographer’s personal favorites have more to do with unspoken connections they may have with them; I know the photos that mean the most to me probably won’t for someone on the outside.

PP: What’s your favorite kind of photography?

JO: I love photos of people. I don’t know a word for it but my favorite kind of photography is the kind that tells a story in a single frame and feels simultaneously effortless and perfectly focused. It can be a true story or not, its plausibility is more important. It can happen equally on the street or in a studio.

PP: Does the fact that you shoot with a Hasselblad make taking photographs of strangers on the street easier?

JO: It can be a conversation piece (especially in New York where you see a lot of interesting cameras about town), but taking photos of strangers on the street isn’t a big part of what I do. Some people are brilliant at it, for me it’s hard enough to capture the people I know.

PP: What has been your biggest mistake so far in your photographic journey?

JO: I always feel like I could devote more time to it. Missed opportunities are the biggest mistakes. Overall though, photography for me is a lot about trial and error and that means making lots of little mistakes over time.

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PP: Do you have any tips on how a photographer or photoblogger should publicize their work and build a readership?

JO: Build it and they will come. There’s no magic formula to publicizing yourself, focus on doing quality work and the rest will fall into place. Connecting with the rest of photoblogging community doesn’t hurt, either (most people looking at photoblogs are photographers themselves).

PP: Do you have any other advice you would like to share with PetaPixel readers?

JO: Try every weird technique, try all the films, try things outside your comfort zone. It’s easy to get hung up on the “right way” to do things, but it’s important to remember that photography is a highly personal pursuit and there’s really no rules. Exposing a little piece of your individuality will make you a far more successful photographer than any amount of dry, technical prowess.

Water Balloons Popping

Felt like experimenting a little today, and started out shooting low depth of field photographs of flying insects. One thing led to another, and before I knew it I was taking photographs of water balloons popping (Don’t ask me how). Here’s what I used:

  • String – To hang the water balloon from
  • Binder clip – To fasten the water balloon to the string
  • Canon 40D – You just need a camera where you can control shutter speed. 6.5 frames per second doesn’t hurt either.
  • Tripod – To free up my hands
  • Remote shutter release – So I could stand away from the camera
  • Water balloons

setup

A flash may or may not be necessary depending on your lighting conditions. Since I was outdoors during the day (didn’t want to pop water balloons indoors), I ended up not needing the flash that I brought along.

Now, I also needed something to pop the balloons with. Using a knife or a needle might work, but I chose to use a pneumatic air rifle so I could pop the balloons from behind my camera.

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I shot in manual mode, since I didn’t want exposure to vary from picture to picture.

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I set aperture to somewhere between f/4.5 and f/5.6 for enough depth of field to keep much of the water sphere sharp, while blurring the background enough to have it not be distracting. For shutter speed, I tried to stay above 1/2000 of a second to freeze the water, though I sometimes had to drop down to around 1/1000 to expose correctly when clouds passed overhead. This produced a little more motion blur, as you’ll see in a bit. To properly expose at these settings without using the flash, I had to push my ISO up to 800 or 1600. I also set my lens to manual focus and my drive mode to high-speed continuous shooting (6.5 fps).

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Now after adjusting everything properly (i.e. making sure exposure and focus were correct), I picked up the remote with my left hand, and the air gun with my right. As I continuously snapped photos at 6.5 shots per second with my left hand, I aimed at the balloon and pulled the trigger with my right.

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Aside from this basic technique, everything else was left to chance. At least one or two frames from each attempt was decent, and using a binder clip saved me time by allowing me to just clip the balloon up each time rather than tie it.

Here are some of the photos I ended up with:

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There you have it. Photographs of water balloons popping. As a side note, you can also do some other pretty interesting stuff with the same setup (though this photo would have been a lot neater if it was a little boy or girl blowing):

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Open in Camera Raw Grayed Out

I was working with Adobe Bridge today, when I came across a file that I couldn’t open in Adobe Camera Raw (though I knew it could be opened). The menu item “Open in Camera Raw…” was also grayed out, as seen here:

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The solution was to purge the cache via Tools->Cache->Purge Cache For Folder FOLDERNAME. Voila! The menu item was no longer grayed out, and the shortcut (Ctrl+R) began working.

Thought I’d mention it in case any of you run into the same problem…

Underexposing vs. Overexposing

One of the things I became very aware of during a recent road trip to Oregon is how much easier it is to salvage an underexposed photograph versus an overexposed one. When you overexpose a photograph and “blow out” the highlights in the image, those areas that were blown out to white are unsalvageable, whereas much more detail could have been preserved in areas of the photograph that appear to be pure black but are not (though noise results from salvaging these areas). An implication of this is that when taking portraits of people in strong sunlight outdoors, it’s much safer to underexpose and leave with a muddy looking photograph, than to overexpose and blow out detail in faces.

Of course, ideally you’d like to correctly expose a photograph, but if you need to guess, you should be conservative by underexposing. Here are a series of photographs that examines under and over exposure. The scene is half brightly lit, and half in the shadows. They were shot in RAW with a Canon 40D and a 24mm f/1.8 using evaluative metering and ISO 100. Aperture was set on f/5.6.

Properly exposed

As determined by the camera’s evaluative metering (shutter speed 1/160). The half in the shadows is not completely black, while the half under direct sunlight isn’t completely blown out either.

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First, we look at how the salvageable the image is when you underexpose it to various degrees.

1-stop under-exposed

Each of these photographs is corrected in Adobe camera raw by compensating for the under or over exposure. Hover over each one to view the uncorrected and incorrectly exposed photographs:

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2-stops under-exposed

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3-stops under-exposed

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4-stops under-exposed

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Notice how we were still able to recover a good amount of the underexposed brighter half of the scene, even though virtually all of the shadow area was lost to black. Also, notice how we’ve managed to preserve the colors of the leaves.

Now lets compare the results above with attempts to recover overexposed photographs:

1-stop over-exposed

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2-stops over-exposed

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3-stops over-exposed

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4-stops over-exposed

img_1410

Conclusion

From this experiment, we’ve found that we were able to salvage a somewhat acceptable photograph from an image that was under-exposed by four stops. On the other hand, a photo that was over-exposed by four stops was pretty much unsalvageable, as both detail and color were lost in the blown out areas.

The moral of the story is: when in doubt, under-expose.