News and Views from Dave Wilson

Archive for March, 2010

Noiseware Pro Discount Code

by on Mar.30, 2010, under Photography

The nice folks at Imagenomic have given me a discount code that will get you 15% off a purchase of Noiseware Pro or any of their other Photoshop plug-ins. Follow this link and enter “DaveWilson” in the coupon code field to receive the discount.

Once again, in the spirit of full disclosure, I would like to point out that I receive a small commission every time the code is used. I would also, however, like to point out that I am absolutely delighted with Noiseware Pro and would be recommending it regardless of this affiliation. I have not and will not endorse any product that I don’t use or with which I am not completely delighted.

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HDR For Real Estate Photography

by on Mar.29, 2010, under Photography

Most of the time, I use HDR techniques more for artistic effect than anything else. I love the hyper-textured look I can get with Photomatix and only seldom choose to process the images for a natural look (you can find a couple of “natural” example here and here). This week, however, I have been using HDR to great effect in producing images of the interior of my in-laws’ house for use by their realtor.

Although you may think that taking pictures of the interior of a light and airy home wouldn’t pose a problem, you would be wrong. Even in as light a house as this, the difference between the exposure required to see detail outside, through the windows and the exposure required to retain the detail inside the room is somewhere around 6 stops. Your camera just can’t capture that in a single shot. You can either have great exposure within the room and nasty white, blown-out rectangles for windows, or a great view of the outdoor scene and a dark foreground. In situations like this, HDR comes into its own.

Most of the shots I took of the house used 4 exposures from -4EV to +2EV in 2 stop steps. This gave enough range to capture all the required detail. I tone mapped the results with a lower setting of “strength” and “gamma” than I typically use and with a very much higher “micro-smoothing” yielding results like those you see here.

There is actually one problem here that HDR alone can’t solve. Although we cure the exposure problem, we still have a white balance issue to deal with. One of the first rules of interior photography for real-estate advertising is to ensure that all the lights are turned on. Since most lights are tungsten, you end up with a horrible mix of colour temperatures – warm, “orange” tungsten light inside the house and cooler blue sunlight shining through the windows.

Your eyes don’t worry about this and compensate beautifully but your camera, once again, fails rather miserably. Set your white balance to “tungsten” and your interiors look great but the view through the windows is an unnatural blue hue. Set your white balance to daylight and the exterior view looks wonderful but the interior is extremely orange.

To solve this problem, I produced two versions of each tone mapped images, one using RAW files white balanced for tungsten and the other white balanced for daylight (RAW files are wonderful this way – the white balance isn’t “baked in” so you can change it in Lightroom later). I pulled these two images into Photoshop on separate layers and masked them together to give a natural looking colour balance throughout, taking areas lit predominantly by daylight from the daylight image and areas lit by tungsten lights from the tungsten balanced image. The result, as you can see here, looks very natural and definitely reminds me of the room a whole lot better than any of the single exposures I shot while there.

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Cracking the HDR Noise Problem

by on Mar.26, 2010, under Computer, Photography

I’ve been doing HDR for 3 or 4 years and have spent all that time beating my head off the issue of noise in the Photomatix output. The tone mapping settings I use don’t help any since they accentuate texture and we all know that digital noise is a great example of high frequency texture. Even when I am holding back a bit on the gamma, though, the results are typically somewhat grainier than I would like. Part of the time I convince myself that this is fine and that the noise is adding to the result – grainy black and white pictures are really common and often considered artistic after all – but most of the time I end up in Photoshop mixing in chunks of one or other of the original exposures to try to cover over the splotchy mess that Photomatix turned my clear blue sky into.

During this time, I had read plenty about noise reduction software but hadn’t really bothered looking into it in any great detail since I had seen what Lightroom’s noise reduction did and it wasn’t impressive. If Adobe couldn’t make a huge difference, surely no-one else would be doing a great deal better so why spend $70 or so on yet another plug-in? As it turns out, however, I was hopelessly wrong.

I’ve spent some time this week playing with a couple of noise reduction plug-ins and am, frankly, gobsmacked at what an amazing job both of these products do at reducing image noise but, more importantly, preserving fine detail. Anyone can get rid of noise by blurring an image enough but these tools get rid of the noise AND keep all my nice sharp edges and tiny details crisp and clean. I have no idea how they manage it but it truly is a wonder to behold!

Topaz DeNoise as seen when launched from within Photoshop

Topaz DeNoise as seen when launched from within Photoshop (click for larger image)

The first tool I looked at was Topaz DeNoise. I’ve read a lot about Topaz Adjust and seen a lot of great images which use it, but had not heard quite so much about their noise reduction tool. It turned out to be a good find – clean user interface, pretty easy to use and quite a few presets for common noise reduction scenarios. Using it on some of my worst Photomatix images, it did a respectable job of cleaning up the skies without smearing the detail but it did seem to leave some rather odd low frequency artifacts behind. This may have been due to the fact that I was using it without having read the whole manual, I suppose, but in the time I spent playing with the tool, I didn’t get as good a result as I managed to get with the second package I tried.

The user interface of the Noiseware Pro Photoshop plug-in.

The user interface of the Noiseware Pro Photoshop plug-in. (click for larger image)

Noiseware from Imagenomic is a piece of software that made my jaw drop. It’s ability to remove noise and clean up an image is almost unbelievable. For HDR, where I am typically keen to remove noise from a sky without affecting other areas, it’s ability to remove noise based on particular colours is fantastic but, even without tweaking any of those sliders, I was stunned by how good a job it did of tidying up my images. I’ve included a couple of examples below showing 100% sections of a particularly noisy image (you can see the original here). I wish I had played with this software a lot earlier since I would have saved many hours masking skies in Photoshop had I known it was so impressive.

Detail before using Noiseware (click for larger version)

Detail before using Noiseware (click for larger version)

Details after using Noiseware (click for larger image)

Details after using Noiseware (click for larger image)

If you’ve been using this kind of software for a while, you’re probably laughing at me right now but, if you’re not, take some advice from a guy how has wasted a great deal of time trying to solve this problem and treat yourself to a couple of hours with one of these pieces of software. Both are available as free evaluation downloads. Like me, though, I expect you’ll have your credit card out within 5 minutes.

Edit: I was so impressed with Noiseware Pro that I asked the nice people at Imagenomic if I could offer a discount code. They were nice enough to agree and are offering 15% off the product to readers of this blog. Click here to get to the order form then use code “DaveWilson” when you are checking out to get the discount. Apparently they like my work too since they are also featuring it on their gallery page.

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Getting my (backup) Ducks in a Row

by on Mar.21, 2010, under Photography

OK, using a title like that is a pretty feeble way of working my picture of rubber ducks from the Austin Rodeo Carnival into a post but it does describe what I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the last week doing, namely sorting out my data backup strategy.

Until a couple of years ago, I had a pretty haphazard backup strategy. Important images and data were written to CDs or DVDs, saved on USB sticks or copied to another machine in the house. As my image library began to grow and as I started selling images, I realised that this would not work and that a more thorough backup policy was required.

At that point, I was changing my main work PC so the old PC became a backup server with a couple of external USB disks and a new internal drive providing the storage I needed.

All was well until I had my first hard disk failure. Thankfully, I didn’t lose any data but I did have to spend a couple of weeks reinstalling applications and getting my main PC back to its previous working configuration. At this point, it was clear that something was required to prevent this in future so I did some research and bought a license for Acronis TrueImage which allowed me to generate incremental backups of the complete hard disk image. In the event of a future disaster, I should be able to “reinstall” everything in a matter of a few hours just by restoring the image backup.

Even with this in place, I was vulnerable to the kind of catastrophy that we hope never occurs – a house fire, tornado or other calamity that would result in destruction of our home and its contents. To guard against this, I signed up with BackBlaze last year, a company offering great software which runs unobtrusively using background CPU cycles to upload your hard disk contents to secure storage on the web.

At this point, all the pieces were in place but I was concerned about local data reliability. In an ideal world, I would love never to have to deal with data loss and backup restore due to the death of a hard disk so I’ve just added another layer to my data protection by adding a Drobo as my main server drive. This unit, currently configured with 3.75TB of storage, is now my main data drive and offers the ability to swap a failed drive without loss of data. As a side effect, I can also swap smaller drives for large ones to allow upgrade without spending a lot of time shifting data around.

So now my backup strategy looks something like this:

  1. Data I’m working on stays on the laptop hard disk. It’s backed up to a local USB drive daily using Acronis TrueImage set to generate incremental backups of the whole disk. Image data is also further backed up to another USB disk during Lightroom import.
  2. Once I’m finished working on a batch of images, they are moved to the server-connected Drobo which is set to be backed up to the network using BackBlaze.
  3. The Drobo also holds an Acronis TrueImage backup of the server main disk, updated incrementally every week (on the grounds that I don’t change the disk contents anything like as frequently as the laptop). This is not currently backed up to the network since it contains no critical data and the Drobo should be safe enough to protect against the failure of the server hard disk.

The only missing piece now is to add an automated backup system for my wife’s Mac since she is currently doing manual backup copying to a network drive. Time for a bit more research…

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Panorama Fun

by on Mar.13, 2010, under Photography

Sunrise, Bryce Point

Sunrise, Bryce Point, originally uploaded by DaveWilsonPhotography.

While in Utah last month, I shot a huge number of panoramas. Most of these were because I wanted to capture a wide, narrow image – huge vistas at Zion and Bryce – but several were because I reckoned the view needed a few more megapixels to allow me to start thinking seriously about producing some really large canvases. Part of this was also because I didn’t want to have to use my horribly unsharp Sigma 10-20mm (which I am now convinced is actually faulty – anyone know if Sigma can service their lenses?) when I could use the wonderfully crisp Nikon 24-70mm and stitch two frames together to cover the same viewing angle.

Although most of the panos were shot with the 24-70mm, this was one where I used a telephoto instead. It’s comprised of 6 images arranged in two rows of three horizontal tiles and was shot with my 70-300mm to allow me to capture the great light and detail in the hoodoos on the opposite side of the Bryce Canyon amphitheatre from the Bryce Point viewpoint. The original image is about 50MP and I expect will look great as a 6ft x 2ft canvas (though I’m not sure if I will be able to afford one or not!).

A few tips when shooting panoramas:

  1. Focus on the subject then switch to manual to prevent the camera from refocusing as you shoot the tiles.
  2. Use manual exposure to prevent the camera from changing the aperture or shutter speed as you shoot each tile.
  3. Either shoot from a tripod with a swivel head or handhold and do a dry run before shooting to make sure you can twist as far as you need to to get all the shots.
  4. Overlap each image by about 30% or so to allow your stitching program some areas to work with.

For stitching, I’m using Photoshop CS4 and am absolutely amazed at what a good job it does in masking the individual tiles together. If you can find the joins in this image, you are doing a great job since I’ve been unable to find any hint of a bad edge.

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HDR Presentation – March 18th in San Marcos

by on Mar.09, 2010, under Photography

I’m honoured to have been invited to speak at the Hill Country Photography Club in San Marcos at 7pm on March 18th. I’ll be talking about HDR, starting with a very small amount of theory then moving on to workflow and a show-and-tell of some of my favourite HDR images. You can find the meeting agenda here.

I’ve not visited the Hill Country club before due to a previous Thursday evening commitment and the fact that it’s a long drive from my work but I’m very much looking forward to meeting some more of the folks whose work I have been following from afar for several years. Take a look at their site and, assuming you live in the Austin/San Marcos area, I’m willing to bet that you recognise quite a few of the images in their gallery already. If you fly through ABIA, you are certain to have seen several.

The club is happy for visitors to attend so please come along and join the fun if you are in the area.

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First Utah Art Prints Available

by on Mar.07, 2010, under Photography

I’ve just uploaded the first couple of dozen images from the Utah trip to ImageKind for sale as art prints and canvases. I’m still nowhere near finished editing so there will likely be plenty more to upload later but this gets the ball rolling, so to speak. You can find the new gallery here.

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Getting a Different Perspective

by on Mar.06, 2010, under Photography

Given that our eyes are positioned in the front of our heads and look more or less straight ahead from about 5 or 6 feet above the ground, it seems that the vast majority of photographs are taken from exactly this perspective. It’s a trap I fall into frequently so I have to remind myself to look for different perspectives and see if I can come up with unusual images by repositioning the camera away from the typical, eye-level, straight ahead line.

Look up. Look down. Get on top of something or crouch down. Get really close to your subject with a wide angle lens or shoot something from far away with a telephoto. All of these will change the perspective of a picture in one way or another and offer you the chance to create an interesting and different view of what may otherwise be a rather mundane subject.

Hey, if you’re feeling really radical, you can even tilt the camera so that it’s not parallel or perpendicular to the horizon!

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Do You Reshoot?

by on Mar.05, 2010, under Photography

At least one very well respected photographer whose blog I read claims that he never reshoots a subject he has shot before. Why take more pictures of something you already have when you could be moving on to newer and better subjects? I’m afraid my attitude is rather different.

If I have visited somewhere, taken shots and realised that under different lighting or weather conditions there are even better shots to be had, I will make an effort to return and get those images when the conditions are right. This, obviously, is a great deal easier when the location is local but I’ve also done this on vacations and can think of a few occasions when I’ve deliberately gone back to get a better version of a shot I already had (for example, consider these two shots of the tower at the Glasgow Science Centre, the first from 2005, and the second from 2009).

The image above is a great example of this. I’ve visited the Texas State History Museum many, many times (we are family members) and already have at least one shot of the building and star that I am delighted with. I did not, however, have any image which really showed off the size and drama of the Lone Star sculpture. Last Sunday, therefore, when I saw a perfect sky for HDR (you have to love deep blue with lots of high cirrus when you’re a Photomatix user) I headed back and took this and several other shots. I’m definitely of the opinion that these are my best yet of the location – what do you think? Sometimes it pays to give that old location a second look.

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