By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
In recent articles, we’ve considered various aspects of “shot discipline,” the use of careful photo technique. Now, it’s time to put it all together.
To do that, I’ll discuss some of my own photos that, initially, didn’t make the cut due to my own inattention or carelessness at the time.
I’ve always enjoyed the intensely colored fields of lupine along the Sterling Highway just south of Ninilchik. It’s not really art, of course, but it’s fun and satisfying, which is as good a justification as any. Most of us have untold megabytes of brightly lit lupine and fireweed photos, myself included, so I wanted a different take on the subject.
Backlighting has always been one of my favorite approaches, shooting so that the light source is behind your subject and illuminating it from the rear. Backlighting often brings out subtle details, tones and colors absent from the harshness of high-noon sunshine.
When I got to Ninilchik late that June evening, the sunshine was still above the horizon but the wind was fierce and the east-dipping bluff shaded the fields of flowers from direct sunshine. Those conditions created quite a few problems.
The low-angle sunshine had a very warm overall color, turning the deep green foliage yellowish-green. The shadowed areas were lit solely by the deep blue overhead sky and excessively blue as a result. Neither was particularly appealing, particularly in those images made with my camera accidentally left on an incorrect white balance setting.
I had, you see, ignored Rule No. 1, which is to always set your camera back to your expected default settings immediately after use. The prior photos were made indoors under ordinary incandescent light bulbs, for which I used the camera’s specific Tungsten white balance setting for best results. Not only did I forget to reset my camera to auto white balance when done but I also neglected to later check that it was properly set before shooting those outdoor photos under tricky lighting. As a result, the out-of-camera images had an intense and painful blue overall color.
Because I always save photo files as RAW+JPEG images, I was able to salvage the photos by later resetting each RAW file’s white balance to “auto” with Adobe Lightroom software. White balance problems with JPEG images are largely uncorrectable because the color balance of JPEG images, whether correct or not, is basically baked into the file. RAW images, on the other hand, retain all of the data initially captured by the sensor and usually have great latitude for later correction.
That correction latitude was also handy for another reason, I wanted to retain both the warm sunset colors in the bit of late evening sunshine at the top of the image while correcting the yellowish tone that weakened the strong blues and greens of the lupine flowers and foliage. Decreasing the yellowish tinge in the flowers and foliage was easy with using Lightroom’s graduating filter and its “correction brush.” Both features allow many highly localized corrections, including custom white balance, in a small area. Although I generally dislike the “flare” that results when some lenses are pointed directly into a strong light source, I found that some minor sunset flare enhanced these images, providing a diffuse glow near the top, so I left that part unchanged.
Exposure under such circumstances can be tricky due to the need to maintain reasonable detail in the bright sky as well as in the shadowed areas. Again, RAW image files provide the widest latitude for localized correction, but that’s not always sufficient if the exposure is less than optimum. Although I could have made a series of spot-metering measurements, I decided to take the quick and easy approach, using center-weighted metering and bracketing the exposure by making a series of five shots that each differed by .7 EV, later choosing the best file.
I’ve heard self-styled purists deride the entire notion of bracketing exposures but I believe that’s misplaced pride. Pros almost always bracket their exposures because they must ensure getting the shot or losing business. Most upper-tier digital cameras allow easy bracketing and I see little reason not to use that feature as “insurance.”
Focus, depth of field and subject blur were other significant problems that evening. Because of the great amount of fine detail to be captured, I made the first set of images using a 24-megapixel Pentax K-3 camera built around a relatively large APS-C sensor and Pentax’s 20- to 40-mm Limited zoom lens. That was a mistake.
The upper limit for good quality images among current-model APS-C cameras seems to be 24 megapixels. As such, it requires very careful technique and the best possible lenses. Photos of similar subjects made with my 16-megapixel Olympus E-M5 Micro Four-Thirds (M 4/3) camera and 12- to 40-mm PRO series lens turned out much better. Here’s why.
The Olympus 12- to 40-mm PRO zoom is exceptionally sharp, and nothing is more important when capturing fine detail than a really sharp lens. M 4/3 lenses tend to be sharpest between f/4 to f/5.6. APS-C lenses are typically sharpest at even smaller apertures, usually in the range of f/5.6 through f/8, particularly near the edges and corners of an image. These generally should be sharp in landscape photos like this.
I needed a fast shutter speed to freeze the wind-whipped flowers. In this instance, even 1/125 second was not fast enough to get a completely unblurred photo. As a result, many shots were ruined by slight but perceptible subject motion that blurred fine detail. Because 24-megapixel sensors start losing some image quality by ISO 800, that sensitivity setting was the highest that I could use and still retain detail and color quality.
As a result, I was limited to certain shutter speed and ISO settings and had to use a wider, brighter lens aperture, f/5, than optimum for that Pentax APS-C lens. This was not a good choice. At that nonoptimum wide lens aperture, the Pentax zoom just didn’t have the contrast, sharpness and detail that I needed, particularly at the edges and corners of the photos. There’s only so much detail that can be recovered with later software processing and in this instance, it wasn’t enough. Sigma’s 18- to 35-mm zoom would have been noticeably sharper at f/5.
Even more importantly, the longer focal length lenses required by my APS-C digital SLR camera did not have enough depth of field in this situation stretching well into the distance. Certainly, the focus depth was less than with equivalent magnification shorter focal length lenses on M 4/3 cameras.
I used a proven method of maximizing depth of field, focusing on a point at the front third of the overall picture depth, but the area in sharp focus still wasn’t adequate for a satisfying photo. Ideally, the nearest part of the subject and other near-front areas should be in sharpest focus, and that didn’t happen here. Next time, I’ll use an M 4/3 camera with a shorter focal length lens and focus near the front, allowing the background to fade into soft focus.
In the end, I took what photos I could in the wind, discarding most after later review. I later returned to that spot with my 16-megapixel Olympus E-M5 and its supersharp 12- to 40-mm PRO lens. Unfortunately, after driving 50 miles to get there, the lovely sunset glow suffusing the field of flowers failed to appear on schedule, showing that it’s important to be able to get the shot in those unscheduled perfect conditions.
Good gift buys
The Redoubt Reporter was asked by four readers to recommend digital SLR camera kits costing under $1,000 as last-minute Christmas and travel purchases.
We recommend four excellent but about-to-be-discontinued models that, used carefully, are more than adequate for professional use without breaking either the bank or your back. We suggest any of the following discounted models: Nikon D3200, D3300, D5200, D5300 with a two lens kit including the Nikon 55-200 telephoto zoom, Canon T5i, Pentax K-30 or K-50, or Olympus E-M5 with 12-50 kit lens. The Pentax and Olympus models are weather-resistant when used with a sealed kit lens like the Olympus 12-50.
Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.