News and Views from Dave Wilson

Photography

On Fear of Cropping

by on Dec.16, 2012, under Photography

Since attending the US Grand Prix, I’ve seen a huge number of photos that look rather like the following:

Michael Schumacher's Mercedes (uncropped)

Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes (uncropped)

The size of the car in the frame and the crud around it isn’t at all unusual for those of us not blessed with access to 600mm lenses and a press pass. What surprises me, though, is that so many people don’t realise that by cropping the image they can end up with something so much better. This particular shot, for example, ended up as the following after I took the knife to it:

Michael Schumacher's Mercedes

Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes

By cutting out all the extraneous rubbish from the frame, I concentrate the viewer’s eye on the car and end up with an interesting, graphical composition.

Some people will probably get worried that such an aggressive crop reduces the image resolution dramatically and that is certainly true. Given the choice between a good, low resolution shot, though, and a bad full resolution one, I’ll take the good image any day. Remember, too, that even this kind of crop from today’s DSLRs will still give you an image that is more than high enough resolution for screen display and prints up to 16 inches or so wide (this cropped image is about 3MP compared to the 12MP original).

Another concern here may be that I’ve ended up with an image that doesn’t fall neatly into any of the standard cookie-cutter aspect ratios. How can I print this on 6×4 or 10×8 paper? Obviously I can’t without leaving large white borders or cropping even more but since I’m really mostly interested in web display, I’m not too worried about whether the aspect ratio matches some paper or frame manufacturer’s idea of what shape my pictures should be. If I want a print, plenty of labs will print panoramic images in their original, non-standard aspect ratio or, if not providing truly arbitrary print sizes, will offer enough panoramic options that you can take a print with only minimal reformatting.

Here are a few more example of car shots taken at Circuit of the Americas, all of which have been pretty drastically cropped to achieve a more pleasing, panoramic composition. If you have a bunch of pictures like the top one on this post, take the knife to them and see if you like the results too.

Paul DiResta, Force India

Paul DiResta, Force India


Felipe Massa, Ferrari

Felipe Massa, Ferrari


Lewis Hamilton, McLaren

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren


Jean-Eric Vergne, Toro Rosso

Jean-Eric Vergne, Toro Rosso


Mark Webber at Circuit of the Americas

Mark Webber at Circuit of the Americas


Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing

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Photography at COTA on a General Admission Ticket

by on Nov.28, 2012, under Photography

After a week of frantic photo editing, I’m about half way through the images I shot out at Circuit of the Americas during US Grand Prix weekend last weekend so reckoned I should put together a post offering some hints and tips to anyone looking to do some motor racing photography at COTA on a general admission ticket.

A general admission ticket gives you access to the track grounds but does not provide you with a seat in any of the grandstands. This does give you the freedom to wander as you see fit but leaves you suffering from one major problem. The entire CoTA circuit is surrounded by two, 8 to 10 foot high safety fences. Whereas the grandstands are all elevated at least 8 or 10 feet above ground level, as a GA ticket holder, you are left without elevation and, as a result, must be prepared to either shoot through the fences or find ground-level vantage points allowing you to shoot over them.

Shooting through the fences doesn’t end up being a particularly easy thing to do. The fence uprights are, as you would expect, large, sturdy poles which generate nasty smears on your pictures if you are trying to pan to catch cars as they pass. If attempting to shoot head-on through the fences, the fact that the second fence is a 20 feet or so from the one you can stand next to tends to mess up any attempts to blur the mesh through shooting at wide apertures. You may have some success with this if you have a very long lens, a very wide aperture and are very close to the first fence but, from my experience, this never really worked as well as I would have liked. Given these problems, my solution was to try to find vantage points allowing me to look over the fence and shoot images of the cars as they passed. Walking the track on Friday, it was pretty apparent that these locations are few and far between but here’s my assessment of the best locations offering enough of an unobstructed view to get some sweet shots.

Before delving into the locations, though, let’s consider equipment. I shot with the D700 (full frame) body on Friday using my 70-200mm f/2.8 and a 2x teleconverter. This was pegged at the 400mm end all day and I still wasn’t close enough to fill the frame with a car from any of the locations below. On Saturday and Sunday, I switched to the D90 (crop sensor) making my 400mm effectively a 600mm and got some closer shots at the expense of slower auto-focus and slower frame rates. Even with this setup, I still find that the cars occupy no more than about 25% of the frame in the closest shots and I needed to crop the images to get good composition, either to make the car bigger in the frame or to loose the fence which appears in the bottom of many images.

The lesson here, therefore, is take the longest glass you can lay your hands on! Given the weight of this kind of lens, a monopod (which I didn’t take) would also be a good idea. Note that there is some debate over whether monopods are allowed – the public rules state that tripods are not allowed but make no mention of monopods, whereas the handbooks given to the staff on the gates explicitly disallow both items. Those same handbooks also prohibit lenses over 10 inches so I assume they were printed before CoTA revised their photography policy to allow any lens. Hopefully that revision also opened things up to allow monopods since I saw a large number of people carrying or using them at the track.

Now on to the locations. As you will see from the map below (which you can click to get a larger version), all the locations I recommend are on the south side of the track. This is partly because locations on the north would involve shooting into the sun but mostly because I couldn’t find a single place over on that side of the track where the cars were visible without a fence in the way. If you want to shoot from over there, your best option would likely be on a practice day when the grandstand gatekeepers are somewhat more forgiving and likely to let you take a wander around while the place isn’t too busy. If you are lucky enough to sweet-talk one of the ticket checkers on the Turn 15 grandstand into letting you onto the stand, there are some fabulous views from there but, to get these on a busy day, you’ll have to shell out some serious money.

The descriptions below reference markers I’ve placed on this map. Click this small image for a larger version.
Shooting locations at Circuit of the Americas

A. Turn 1

View from turn 1 looking towards turn 16

If you could find a fence-free view towards the grandstand, this would be the perfect place to shoot the start from. Unfortunately, you can’t so either live with the fence or don’t shoot the start. I watched the race from a position just at the bottom end of the block of hospitality suites (just above the main turn 1 grandstand) and from there you can get a reasonably clear shot of the cars exiting the turn. If you have a long lens, there’s an interesting shot showing the track between turn 1 and turn 2 and also turns 16/17/18 in the background.

Overall, turn 1 is a far better location to shoot fans watching the race than the race itself. I found Saturday the best day for this since it was busy without being completely mobbed. On Sunday, I couldn’t move at all so getting around and finding good fan shot positions was essentially hopeless. Shoot on Friday and Saturday then enjoy the race on Sunday.

B & C. Turns 4 & 5

I list these two areas together since there are a few places you can squeeze between the grandstands and get a bit closer to the fence between turns 3 and 6. Really, though, there’s only one good place to shoot from in this area and that’s in a large gap between the grandstands at turn 5. Here you can see over the fence pretty well and you also get the benefit of the wide red, white and blue stripes painted alongside this section of the track.

I got the majority of my best panned shots from here but beware that you are still rather far from the action. The first shot below is uncropped to give you an idea of the problem. This was shot on a full frame body with a 400mm lens. Using a crop sensor body, you would get a fair bit closer, obviously, but you’re still going to have to crop down pretty hard to get tight images of the cars.
Michael Schumacher at Turn 5 (uncropped)
Felipe Massa at Turn 5 (cropped)
Lewis Hamilton at Turn 5 (cropped)

As a place to watch the race while also offering good photography opportunities, however, I would suggest trying the next 3 stops instead.

Update 7/6/15: Reading this, I realised that a few things have changed since 2012 and this changes my impression of this area. The grandstands which were placed in this area on the first year have been absent for the last couple and this leaves what is now my absolute favourite location for panned shots unobstructed. Around turn 5 or 6, there’s a hill which you can now stand on top of and get a pretty good view of the track. If you’re walking from the turn 2 area, pass the pedestrian bridge and go another 100 yards or so and set yourself up somewhere just before the large TV crane that is usually at the corner. The elevation there gives you a great view of the stripes and I have yet to find a better location anywhere at the track for panning shots of both cars and motorcycles (and I include trackside positions here too).

D, E & F. Turn 7

There are 3 reasonably good shooting locations in the large open section between turns 7 and 10, one on either end and another in the middle. The west end (nearest the turn 6 grandstand) offers a good view as the cars head up the hill to turn 7. You’ll be shooting the backs of the cars from here but you have an unobstructed view thanks to the walkway being pretty high at this point.

Slightly further along the path, you’ll find a great place to shoot cars from the side as they head up the hill. There’s enough of the track visible without a fence here to give you pretty good panning scope and I spent quite a bit of time here.

Closer to the turn 10 grandstand end, if you walk off the path and across the highest point, you’ll find you can stand on the crest of the hill with your back to the fence at turn 7 and shoot back towards turns 5 and 6. I spent most time here because if offered a collection of interesting shots including shooting through the fence towards the backs of the cars as they crest the hill at turn 7. You can also see cars rounding turns 5 and 6. There are two large runoff areas here so it may also be a good place to see some off-track action. I gather a couple of cars spun out there during the weekend but I didn’t see this.
Wide view from the hill at Turn 7

Another feature of this location that I enjoyed was the collection of keen photographers who spent a lot of time hanging around up there. The camaraderie and conversation during quiet periods was great though I did find myself suffering pretty serious lens envy!
Nico Rosberg at Turn 7
Sebastian Vettel at Turn 7

G. Turn 10

The only place I found which would allow me close enough to the cars to completely fill the frame with the 400mm/crop sensor combination was in the open area between Turn 10 and Turn 11. Here, the track is pretty close to the path and the elevation is such that you have an unobstructed view as the cars accelerate downhill from Turn 10. The window of opportunity is fairly narrow but I managed to get a few good shots here. I liked the angle of the cars since you are seeing a partial front view rather than the direct side-on or partial rear views the other locations offered. The fact that the cars are so much closer to you, however, does make the panning a lot trickier so I found my hit rate here was pretty low with many of the images blurred.

Note that the first of these images is uncropped. It was taken using the same 400mm lens as most of the others, this time on my D90 giving me a 600mm equivalent focal length.
Daniel Ricciardo at Turn 10 (uncropped)
Nico Rosberg at Turn 10 (cropped)

H. Turn 11

I spent a lot of time on Friday and Saturday morning at Turn 11. The general admission area here is a high berm right at the apex of the hairpin bend and you have a great view of the cars coming down from turn 10, rounding turn 11 and shooting off down the long straight to turn 12. It’s the only place I found that I could get decent head-on shots of the cars without having to shoot through the fence though, even here, my 400mm didn’t pull them in as close as I would have liked, even on the D90.

If you are worried about blurring your panned shots, the cars go round turn 11 extremely slowly (by Formula 1 standards) so you are pretty likely to get sharp shots here even at lower shutter speeds. The downside to this, of course, is that the wheels are not moving as fast so you may find that the cars look rather static. If you can read “Pirelli” on the tyre walls, the car may as well be parked.

Although turn 11 was definitely a great place to spend some time, it’s pretty much hopeless during the actual race. By the time 1pm comes around, if you are standing at turn 11, looking back towards turn 10, you at staring practically directly into the sun. For a morning location and during practice sessions, though, it’s a good place to park yourself.
Mark Webber at Turn 11 (uncropped)
Fernando Alonso at Turn 11 (cropped)

Main Grandstand

I’m adding this section almost a year after F1 having attended every race that the track has hosted since then. During Friday practice and possibly on Saturday, you may find that you are able to sneak into the main grandstand even though you don’t have a ticket. This has been possible at all other events I’ve attended at CoTA this year so it’s worth a try. Go up to the second level of the grandstand and head to the north end (the left end as you look across toward the pits). From there, with a long lens, you can get a great view of the cars coming round turn 20. This is the only position on the track that I’ve found where you can get a good head-on shot in the afternoon when the light at turn 11 is in the wrong direction.

Overall

I’m reasonably happy with the photography I did during Grand Prix weekend though I was rather disappointed at the small number of fence-free locations and the fact that shooting through the fence wasn’t really feasible. As a result, I’ve come away with some good shots of single cars but nothing really creative or different (if you want to see what I mean by creative and different, check out Ralph Barrera’s amazing collection of images on the Austin American-Statesman web site or Liz Kreutz’ gorgeous monochrome set on Corbis). Next year, I’ll likely splurge to rent some really long glass and perhaps try to spend a bit more time shooting fans and facilities and less on cars. I will also likely treat myself to a ticket that comes with an actual seat since lugging all that gear around all day wasn’t to be recommended!

That said, don’t get the impression that you need to spend a fortune on really long lenses or grandstand seats. The whole experience of Formula 1 weekend is fabulous regardless of what kind of ticket you buy and whether or not you come away with publication-quality images. The atmosphere at the event is outstanding and I would strongly encourage you to give it a shot next year if you can. There will be about 120,000 others joining you for the party.

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Contemporary Photography: The Independent Lens

by on Nov.24, 2012, under Photography

Sequoia Abstract

I’m delighted and honoured to have been invited to join a 3-person exhibition at the “Gallery at the J” on in The Dell Jewish Community Center on Hart Lane in Austin. The show, “Contemporary Photography: The Independent Lens” will feature the work of Rae Dollard, Johnny Stevens and myself and runs from December 11th, 2012 through January 18th, 2013. The opening reception is at 7:30pm on December 18th and anyone interested is invited to come along.

I’ll be showing a selection of recent favourite works. The majority are printed 36″x24″ or larger on canvas although I am also including a few large, framed panoramic prints too. Here are a few of the images you will see from me.

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Pioneer Day at the Pound House

by on Oct.01, 2012, under Miscellaneous, Photography

You’ve no doubt heard me going on about what a wonderful community Dripping Springs, Texas is but, in case you somehow managed to miss it, here are a few snaps from the Pioneer Day Festival which took place a week ago at the Dr. Pound House in Founders’ Park. This is another great example of a fun community event which involved a whole bunch of local groups and organisations.
Drew in Confederate UniformWeaver and his LoomEric Playing ChequersOld-time GamesPioneer BannerBlacksmith and HelperBlacksmithHats Across The Generations

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Do As I Say, Not As I Do

by on Sep.23, 2012, under Photography

This week saw an object lesson in the merits taking your own advice. On Thursday morning, we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here in Austin as the Space Shuttle Endeavour made a low level flypast of the city on the back of the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. I found out about it at 10pm the night before as I was waiting for a flight home in Chicago but realised that I had to get downtown and see the shuttle at 7:30 the next morning (after 4 hours of sleep). To cut a very long story short, I ended up completely messing up the photographs – I got 12 well-framed, perfectly focused shots of the aircraft during the 5 or 6 seconds that it was visible from my vantage point and every one of them was 2 stops overexposed.
Shuttle Endeavour and Boeing 747 SCA over Austin (before)

The main reason for this mess was the fact that I completely failed to take the advice that I so freely give to others for situations exactly like this.

I shoot in manual mode about 90% of the time. I like the control I get in manual and, when lighting conditions are constant and I have time to shoot, chimp, tweak and reshoot, it works well. Even shooting sports, if the stadium light conditions are stable, I will generally stick in manual after taking a few test shots to judge the correct exposure. In situations where the light is changing or, more importantly, where there is a lot of uncertainty or a lack of time to get the shot, I will add more of the camera automation. Shooting people at parties, for example, I’ll normally start in Aperture Priority and use TTL flash (I would use manual flash for any setup or studio portraits). I dare say that if I ever ended up in a war zone, I would likely leave the camera in Program mode since I would have a lot of other thing to worry about than the exposure.

On Thursday morning, I was firmly in Aperture Priority territory at least as far as my advice went. The Shuttle would be coming in at an unknown height and speed, from an unknown position (yes, it was entering Austin from the east but we had no idea how far north of the river it would fly over) at an unknown time (we had a 30 minute window). I should have stuck the camera in Aperture Priority, selected f/5.6 or so for a nice fast shutter speed, and left the computer to get the exposure right for me. For some reason, though (lack of sleep?), I decide manual would be better so I took some test shots of the Capitol Dome, set the exposure and waited.

At this point, I was standing on the south lawn of the Capitol complex. I was aiming for a “Hail Mary” shot containing the top of the Capitol dome and the SCA/Shuttle combination large in the frame. This involved betting that the pair would fly slightly north of the Capitol. I had the D700 with the 28-300 pre-zoomed to give me the kind of framing I wanted assuming I could get the dome in the shot and the D90 with the 70-200 and a doubler waiting to grab some close-ups as the aircraft flew in. I assumed that they would be visible for a reasonable time and that I could change cameras and possibly even do a bit of exposure tweaking during the flyby.

All of these assumptions turned out to be wrong – the flypast was visible for about 6 seconds or so, it was lower and faster than I had expected and it was further south. On top of this and, as it turns out, the crucial difference, the light got significantly brighter between 7:20 when I set my exposure and 7:45 when the flypast took place. As a result, I had no chance to get the dome in the picture (the shuttle was behind me, the dome in front) and only got to shoot with the D90 and long lens which, given my mistake of staying in manual and not resetting the exposure, resulted in wildly overexposed images.

This seemed like a total disaster but, thankfully, Adobe Lightroom can do amazing things so here’s the image once I spent some time fixing it up. The quality is acceptable but it still leaves me embarrassed to think of what a mess I made of the encounter!
Shuttle Endeavour and Boeing 747 SCA over Austin

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“Sinister Sweetness” Launch and Book Trailer

by on Aug.28, 2012, under Family, Photography

No – I didn’t suffer a terrible accident that kept me away from the blog for a couple of months! Things in the Wilson/Loftin household have been phenomenally busy over the summer and this blog suffered as a result. Hopefully, you’ll forgive me when I show you what we’ve been up to.

As you will probably know, Nikki is a writer and her first children’s novel was published last Tuesday. As a debut author, there’s a ton of work you need to do to publicise your book and we’ve been doing it. Aside from design of a bunch of handouts (business cards, postcards and bookmarks), we also had to put together a book trailer. Since neither of us is a video expert, we decided on a still-based format which involved lots of portraits of kids eating various forms of evil candies, cakes and goodies. Two weeks of shooting, during which our front room was transformed into a photographic studio, followed by two weeks of editing and we ended up with the following little video.



Due to time constraints, we couldn’t include all the best pictures we shot in the final video so, to ensure that all the kids who came along and sat in front of my camera could see themselves at the official launch party (last Saturday at Book People in downtown Austin), I put together a simple slideshow which cycled through all the picks from the 500 or so individual portraits that we shot for the trailer.



Let us know what you think and, if you have an 8 – 12 year old child who likes scary stories, pass on the word about “The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy!”

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Gobsmacking Timelapses

by on Jul.21, 2012, under Photography

Is it just me, or is timelapse the big thing these days? I’ve seen an increasing number of rather good timelapse videos but a lot of them are beginning to look rather similar. These two, however, blew me away so I thought I would share them. I strongly encourage you to click the “Vimeo” link on the small videos below to watch them in their high resolution glory.

The first video “Within Two Worlds” was produced by Brad Goldpaint. Whereas it contains (albeit lovely examples of) some fairly standard “Milky Way rotating above mountains” clips, it also contains something I’ve not seen before – timelapse sequences including star trails. I’m having fun trying to figure out how he produced those sections.

Within Two Worlds from Goldpaint Photography on Vimeo.

The second video is built from a large collection of images shot from the International Space Station and is credited to Knate Myers, a photographer from Albuquerque. I don’t need to say any more – just watch it and be amazed.

View from the ISS at Night from Knate Myers on Vimeo.

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Why HDR Sucks

by on Jun.03, 2012, under Photography

What! Dave says HDR sucks? Are we in for some kind of major turnaround here? If you’ve read this blog for any length of time you’ll know that I’m a huge advocate for HDR so the post title can’t be coming from me, surely? You have to admit, though, that had I called it “Why a Sizeable Percentage of the Photography Community Thinks HDR Sucks”, you probably wouldn’t have clicked through that link, would you? 🙂 This post, however, puts forward my suggestions on why HDR sucks to so many seasoned photographers.

Just to keep the record straight, I most certainly don’t think that HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography sucks but I do have a pretty good idea why so many people seem to think that it does. Hopefully I can illustrate some of these reasons in this article which I’ve illustrated using embarrassing images from my past (all of these are still on Flickr – think of it as a kind of penance for me). I felt this was somewhat kinder than picking bad examples from other photographers but, if you want to see some, just wander through Flickr’s HDR group.

First of all, there will be people who hate HDR for reasons that are not covered by this article. I include in this group, the people who discount photography in general as a form of art. These people are of the opinion that all art must involve laying carbon, ink or paint onto paper or canvas by hand and, since photography doesn’t do this, it can’t be true art. To these folks, I say just move along and go back to your crayons since there’s nothing here for you.

There are another group who reject HDR and all forms of post-processing or digital manipulation of images on the grounds that the results are not “real”. This group appears to consider only single exposures valid but fail to take into account the fact that the capabilities of digital cameras are changing and improving all the time, and that the amount of processing performed on the images in-camera is increasing with every generation. As things move forward, assuming “real” is defined as the result of a single shutter click, these people will have to expand their definition of “real” to include wider and wider dynamic ranges and even in-camera HDR so they will likely change their opinions in the end. (As an aside, these people are often quite happy to include monochrome imagery in their definition of “realistic” photography. I find that rather strange.)

The majority of people who claim to hate HDR, I suspect, hate not HDR but badly applied tonemapping (the part of the HDR workflow which generates the output image that you end up seeing). HDR describes a set of techniques and not a look, but too many people fail to realise this and associate the term with funky looking images where the techniques have been applied very poorly. It’s disappointing but true that badly done HDR is extremely easy to recognise due to several commonly-made processing errors that stand out. Let’s consider a few images that exhibit these problems and which people should be encouraged to dislike. Click each to see the original on Flickr if you would like to see a larger version.

Why HDR Sucks (using my images as examples)

Excavator

Why HDR Sucks - Excavator
This image has it all – terrible tone mapping and even worse follow-up processing. I used HDR here for valid reasons – there really was a huge difference in brightness between the sky and the foreground and the camera couldn’t possibly capture all the light levels in a single exposure. In processing, however, the result turned into a classic example of how not to produce an HDR. Let’s look at the main problems:

  • The basic picture is pretty uninteresting. It’s a snap of an excavator. I did use a wide angle lens and I did shoot from a low angle to try to create an interesting perspective but the effect isn’t pronounced enough to really make this anything special. There are pictures to be had in this scene but, nowadays, I wouldn’t have shot this one.
  • The ghosting in the clouds is horrid. You’ll need to look at the high resolution version to see this but there are multiple images of each cloud in the sky. This occurred due to the time between each of the 3 exposures that comprised the original bracket used to build the image. At this point in my development, I didn’t notice this and didn’t retouch the sky to get rid of the problem. Ghosting is a problem in all HDRs where any movement occurs between the individual exposures. A good photographer will notice this and fix it before publishing the picture.
  • You can see a great example of tonal inversion in the clouds. When you push the HDR tonemapping too far, you end up finding that areas which should contain highlights turn grey. There’s a fine line between dramatic skies (which can be created really well when tonemapping) and overcooked skies like this one.
  • What was I thinking with that vignette? I suspect I was worried about the fact that I had a bunch of blown-out highlights in the sky (another indication that my tonemapping wasn’t right) and tried to fix them by merely reducing the brightness of the sky and edges by painting partly-transparent black over those areas. The result is a horribly unsubtle blob of a vignette. Yuk.

If you produce work like this, please discard it immediately or, at least, learn to recognise the processing errors and practice techniques needed to fix them. In this particular case, more subtle tonemapping parameters followed by some time in Photoshop to replace the horrid sky would likely have yielded a far more acceptable image.

Katz’s Never Kloses

Why HDR Sucks - Katz's Never Kloses
This image isn’t as unforgiveably horrid as the last one but does illustrate a problem that quite a few people have. HDR allows us to capture enormous brightness ranges in our pictures so many people (myself included) use it as an excuse to shoot directly into the sun and try to salvage a result. From my experience, this doesn’t work particularly well in most cases. Exceptions tend to be when the sun is shining through something (a tree, for example) but even then direct into-the-light shots tend to be tricky.

Take a look at the sky in this picture, for example. Have you ever seen a clear sky that shade of grey? The tonemapping choices I made to get the car looking about right caused the sky to become horribly unnatural. The fix here would have been to try different tonemapping settings or, more likely, generate a couple of versions of the image, one where the foreground looked right and one where the sky looked right then blend them in Photoshop.

Another problem in this shot is the strange variation in brightness over the front of the car. Why are the sides of the hood so much brighter than the centre? I’m not sure if that’s a tonemapping artifact (Photomatix does some really strange things to areas of the same colour that are crossed by high contrast lines – try tonemapping an image of a suspension bridge taken on a clear day if you want to see what I mean) or whether I tried to rescue the image by using some bad dodging to darken part of the car but, regardless, it’s something that should have been fixed before I thought of posting the image.

Wildflower Center Cistern Roof

Why HDR Sucks - Wildflower Center Cistern Roof
This picture illustrates another problem with many people’s HDR images. HDR makes it possible to capture an image like this where the patch of sky is probably 6 or 8 stops brighter than the interior brickwork but, given that I started with a boring composition, the result is still boring. HDR can’t make a bad composition good. It can make it different but then it’s just different and badly composed.

As I mentioned before, HDR is a set of tools not an end in itself. To generate a good HDR photograph, you need to start with a great scene and compose the image well then, if necessary, use HDR techniques to overcome any camera-related limitations if the brightness range is wider than you can capture in a single shot.

Although I don’t like this picture, there is a picture to be taken in here. If I was reshooting this, I would likely have zoomed in and generated a pattern picture with the skylight sitting on one of the thirds. Maybe I’ll try that next time I’m at the Wildflower Center.

Cowboy Boots

Why HDR Sucks - Tutorial Image - Cowboy Boots (hideous tone mapping)
I’m cheating here since this is a bad image I generated deliberately for use in my HDR tutorial. It was designed to illustrate another typical trait seen in bad HDR images. In this case, I set the “Light Smoothing” option (in Photomatix’ tonemapping dialog box) very far to the left. The result is a whacky looking, flat and generally nasty image. This is the kind of look that many people associate with HDR but, to me, it’s entirely unappealing. Just because you can make the image look weird, it doesn’t mean you have to. You can find my preferred version of this same image here in case you want to compare.

Texas House HDR

Why HDR Sucks - Texas House HDR
OK, I’ll come clean here. I don’t dislike this image much at all. I rather like the composition but I needed a picture to illustrate another enormously common problem with poorly-done HDR images. For some reason, people seem to assume that, because you are doing something creative with your digital image, you need to hype up the saturation to the point of silliness. At least in Austin HDR circles, this effect is known as “Clown Vomit” and, to me, many an otherwise good image has been destroyed by moving the saturation slider too far to the right of its neutral position. I would hope that this is not something I’ve done really badly but this particular shot is definitely a bit too saturated for my liking. Fixing this problem is easy – don’t muck with the saturation slider or, if the tonemapping has accentuated the colour rather more than you would like, pull the slider left to get things back to near normal.

This problem is most commonly seen in skies. When you are about to publish an HDR containing a blue sky, take a look outside then look back at your picture and ask yourself if you’ve ever seen a sky that colour. If it seems a bit on the over-blue side, please fix it.

Live Oaks at Fort Bend County Courthouse

Why HDR Sucks - Live Oaks at Fort Bend County Courthouse
This is a picture whose composition I like but which fails due to my laziness. The picture you see here was rushed through Photomatix and published without any final touch-up work when it definitely needed a fair bit done to it. The first, most obvious problem is the haloing in the blue sky areas. This is an enormous problem in an enormous number of published HDR images – very obvious brightness changes along high contrast edges. Typically you see it along horizon lines or along the edges of buildings where there will be an area of lighter coloured sky tracing along the dark edge. In images such as this one, however, where there are many, many high contrast edges (the boundaries between the dark branches and the bright sky) you end up with a sky that is a complete mess with the blue colour varying enormously in different areas of the picture.

Fixing this type of problem is straightforward in Photoshop (this image is the example I used in my tutorial on the Magic Blue Sky Halo Removal Method but I was just being too lazy that evening to do the job properly.

Another couple of problems are evident here. I need to fix (or, at least, reduce) the converging verticals which make the courthouse lean into the shot and I also need to clean up the front of the courthouse building itself which is suffering from a bit of tonal inversion caused by my aggressive tonemapping. Again, these are pretty easy to fix in Photoshop but I was just being lazy.

The point here is that even if you have the material to produce a great image, if you do a slapdash job of processing it, you can ruin the result. Take the time necessary to get the image right (or as right as you can make it) and only publish it when you have done as good a job as you can.

In Conclusion

I’ve spent quite a while airing my own dirty laundry but hopefully you see what I’m getting at. Pictures like these are the ones that the HDR-averse are seeing daily and which are causing them to come to the conclusion that HDR in general sucks. What they don’t realise is that the same techniques which were used so badly above are being used all over to great effect and that, because the job is done so well, you don’t actually notice the technique – you see only a spectacular image and not the tools behind it. Here are a few of mine that I hope fall into this later category. All of these use HDR and exposure blending techniques but would you immediately recognise them as HDR images?

To anyone reading this who professes to hate HDR, therefore, I would ask one thing. Please consider the image itself rather than the methods used to create it. I’ve offered several images that are, indeed, terrible and which do, as it happens, use HDR. Condemning HDR in general based on these (and other) example is, however, throwing the baby out with the bathwater since there are many, many examples of the same techniques being applied and resulting in good images.


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Make Good Art

by on May.29, 2012, under Miscellaneous, Photography

I’ve not shared anything particularly inspirational recently (not since the Ira Glass post) but I listened to this commencement address by Neil Gaiman and had to pass it along. Treat yourself to the 20 minutes it takes to listen to the whole speech then go and make good art.



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The Value of Self-Imposed Limitation

by on May.28, 2012, under Photography

This shot was taken during a wedding I attended recently where I decided in advance that I would take a single lens (50mm f/1.4) and only shoot black and white all night. I think it’s probably my favourite shot of 2012 so far.

Tiny Dancers

I’ve been following an exchange between two of my local photo buddies this week that has me thinking about the issue of artificially imposed limitations on our photography. By way of background, Alex Suarez recently held a photowalk during which the rule was that participants could shoot no more than 36 exposures. Andy “Atmtx” disagreed with this limitation but noted that he finds limiting lens use to a single prime to be a valuable exercise. Rather than summarize the whole thing, you can read Andy’s post here and Alex’s reply here. These are guys I very much respect so, rather than disagree with one or other of them, I will agree with them both (partly).

Let’s be honest – photographers these days have it really easy compared to the days of 35mm film. We’re pretty much all gear-obsessed, coddled by our camera’s automatic features, slaves to our LCD display and histograms, and trigger happy thanks to the fact that every click costs us essentially nothing. All of this combines to provide an environment in which there is a whole lot less incentive to learn. You can get decent pictures without knowing the process required to do it. Rely upon your camera to set the shutter speed and aperture. Shoot 100 bracketed shots to get one that is right. Set up your flashes using the LCD to to judge power the instant after you press the shutter.

While this is a lot of fun, it’s also somewhat dangerous since it leaves people stunted in their photographic learning. If you start with 35mm film, you have absolutely no choice but to understand the basic, critical concepts involved. Without knowing how to use a light meter, set the aperture and shutter and calculate flash power from guide numbers and distances, you just can’t get any kind of shot at all!

But if we don’t need to know this stuff now, why bother taking the time to learn it? The point here is that you DO need to know this stuff if you really want to master the craft – to get beyond the “happy accident” point to a place where you can truly control your images and create the photograph that you imagined when you pressed the shutter.

So what does this rambling have to do with self-imposed limitations, you are probably asking? One of the problems with photography these days is that the number of variables you can choose between when taking a shot is enormous. ISO, aperture, shutter speed, metering mode, lens choice, white balance, composition. All of these vie for our attention while out shooting and the time taken to make all the required choices can cause us to rush and not really think about what we are doing. By imposing limitations on the number of choices, we can spend more time concentrating on the other variables and really consider them in depth.

Andy promotes shooting with a single prime lens and I agree with him that this can be a very valuable exercise. When I first started shooting, I had no choice – all I could afford was a Minolta 50mm f/1.8 and I shot with nothing but this for a couple of years. By sticking with a single lens, you are very much more aware of your composition choices and have to physically move to frame the image the way you want. I often like to go out with my 50mm and the camera set on monochrome. This removes all colour-related variables too leaving me to focus on form, texture and geometry in the pictures. It sounds like a limitation but give it a shot and I bet you’ll enjoy it – removing some of the myriad of choices is surprisingly liberating.

Alex’s 36 frame limitation (which, I suspect was intended as a fun challenge for one particular photo walk and not something he suggests people do on normal photography outings) is another limitation that can, I reckon, act as a very useful exercise. By limiting the number of exposures you can make, you are forced to consider all composition possibilities very carefully before picking the one you like best and shooting the image. It also makes you consider the exposure a lot more – do you rely on the meter or dial in under- or over-exposure based on your judgement of the overall brightness of the scene and the areas you want to be correctly exposed? You could do this by shooting a bunch of brackets then picking the best, but knowing how to judge the scene and second-guess the meter is a vital skill and this kind of exercise promotes that.

Limiting yourself during every photography shoot is obviously not a good thing to do but, when you have some time, decide on some arbitrary limitation and spend an afternoon working within the new boundaries you have imposed – shoot everything at a wide aperture, stick to a single lens, shoot with a lens that is not the one you would normally use for a given subject (telephoto for architecture, wide angle for portraits). I bet you’ll find you learn something and enjoy the process too. You may even end up with some great shots.

After I had initially published this post, my writer wife noted that this kind of limitation is something that writers have been doing to improve their craft for centuries. By setting limits on the form or length of a piece (whether that be a 1000 word short story, iambic pentameter, haiku or even a limerick), writers and poets are forced to hone various aspects of their craft – exact word choice in the case of syllable-limited forms or the ability to edit and write concise prose for short stories. While the limitations may seem unreasonable, each serves to teach a very valuable lesson that will help improve the writer’s overall grasp of the craft and exactly the same can be said of imposing limitations in photography or any other art.

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