The "photo location ladder"

In New Zealand many weddings are outdoors, often in locations 5 minutes walk from a car park or further. Besides weddings there are many other photo opportunities that require walking and moving from place to place - along with carrying all your gear! 

My goal was to make a versatile kit which would actually include more gear but less carrying. I had tried a small hand-trolley but the hard rubber wheels made an awful sound on gravel that turned a lot of heads when I tried it the first time. It was very useful and the small wheels were really handy in preventing the handle having to rest on the ground in the muddy areas when we were shooting, but the hardness of the [small] wheels turned the metal box into a 'reverberating rumbling machine' when I wheeled it down the stone covered path and I think some people at the park thought they should head for cover due to the 'thunder' in the distance - until they saw where it was coming from. In some places I gave up and carried it on my back until we were past those trying to enjoy the serenity of the arboretum.

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One of the problems with the box I had already bought for the hand trolley was that once a few camera bags were packed in it there wasn't much space for things like tripods and light stands. I didn't really want to go getting something much bigger than that. My solution was to modify a folding ladder which could serve as a trolley and a fast-set-up light  stand at the same time. I chose an old ladder that had prevented my large toolbox from hitting the back of my head when my work van went into the side of a bus several years ago, but that's another story - here it is with the $20 set of pneumatic wheels with built in bearings for quieter [less thunderous] movement - I had to buy some longer threaded bar [$10] for the wheels because the bar that came with the kit was a little short for my project. Standing next to it is the el-cheapo ladder I originally bought but decided it didn't suit the task - but it is the exact length that can fit in the back of our Honda Stream which made it a useful measuring tool if nothing else.

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I had set the ladder up then added the wheels so they were touching the ground to add stability to the ladder, because I would definitely be climbing it in future for better better vantage points for photos - it's always good to increase your options for creativity during photoshoots. Once it is folded the wheels are still at a perfectly useful distance to keep the ladder off the ground.

It all looked tidy enough but once folded up there was nowhere really comfortable to hold it while moving from one location to another - especially when walking for a few minutes. These things are always worth testing before doing an important shoot [I have a wedding coming up in two weeks involving a 5 minute walk to the location of the ceremony, then 5 minutes back to the reception venue]. It's like going for a hike in the mountains and slipping into your backpack the day before thinking 'everything's perfect' only to find that after walking for 15 minutes something is really starting to dig into your hips or back - or the clips on the cheap backpack you smugly showed off to 'someone who paid a lot for theirs' are coming undone when you move too suddenly. Always test everything for a reasonable amount of time before using it 'in practice'! 

I found a spare attachment for our weights machine that was a duplicate and would never be needed - it had a nice "handle" on it so I cut it to suit. 

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A bit of drilling to make it fit and a few bolts in the right place and we now have a comfortable handle that gives more leverage to carry the weight.

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For those who care to know these photos were taken with a D5200 and the Tamron 17-50mm lens.

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The "pull down" bar that was modified has a rubber grip and is obviously designed for a reasonable amount of comfort while moving heavy weights making it a logical choice, even though it was realistically my only choice at the time. Nevertheless I think it turned out pretty well. 

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Ignore the fire extinguishers in the background, I sometimes photograph explosions in our microwave [before I blew it up with an airbag] so people generally either give me fire extinguishers for obvious reasons or microwave ovens to encourage me. Concentrate rather on the other attachments on the ladder that haven't been mentioned yet. As I said in the beginning I wanted it to be as functional as possible, so besides being a ladder that can get me elevated views of my subjects it is also sturdy enough to serve as an outdoor light stand - and only takes seconds to set up. The handle is the right size for a flash/umbrella clamp. Looking closely you will see that I also cut the end off the rubber handle so a light stand can also be inserted in it for more height.

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And of course since there are two sturdy sides to the ladder it makes perfect sense to make use of both. I had a cheap light stand (that is not very sturdy) as a spare, pulled off its legs and duct taped it to the other side - now it adds to the usefulness of the photo-location-ladder and a flash can be mounted one side with an umbrella on the other side for perfectly central flash positioning.

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I had initially dismissed the folding ladder as an option because the sides weren't flush - it has those "knee caps" sticking out in the middle which I thought would make mounting a box a nuisance. It turns out they are almost the perfect width to hold the box and prevent it slipping sideways! I will use stronger straps, maybe even put shelves in the box so it can be a 'cupboard' when the ladder is set up, but this is how it will look for now....

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"Patent pending"! :D

That was all done on Saturday. Monday is a public holiday and it's pouring with rain so I decided to have a look at the box I will be using. Keeping in mind that it made quite a noise on the small hand-trolley when I used it last I wanted to make it is as pleasant to work with as possible, for myself and others around me. I wheeled that contraption up the driveway and when I went over a bump there was quite a hollow metallic sound from the box - granted it is empty now but a lot of the noise came from the lid bouncing around. Then I remembered the name on its side.

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A very fitting name though I don't think it is supposed to refer to the sound it makes when being moved on a bumpy surface. Most of the problem is the lid twisting and bouncing about along with the latch jumping up and down, it clatters quite a bit.

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I decided that the easiest way to stop the bouncing was to add double-sided tape to the inside of the lid and the ridge of the box - it has a bit of a 'spring tension' and I ended up putting two layers on the inside of the lid closest to the latch.

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That solved half of the problem. The other half is the fact that the box was resting metal-on-metal against the ladder and with movement and bouncing around it is bound to slide a bit and occasionally lift and hit back against the metal rungs of the ladder. I first looked around for something to wrap around the rungs, then tried tying rope around them keeping in mind that this needs to look presentable at a wedding as well - of course it is for 'field work' and can be hidden behind a tree most of the time but the better it looks the less pressure there is to hide it.

Then I looked across at my weights equipment and saw this padded platform that I took off a declined sit-up bench I bought for $20 a while ago. It looks pretty snazzy on there. This is the part where you start thinking "How heavy is this all going to be and how much of this is 'necessary'?". I weighed the board and it is 2.5 kg. With the leverage of the ladder and the weight the wheels are taking that probably amounts to another 1kg in my hand. That's less than the weight of a 70-200mm f2.8 lens and I don't own one - shooting dx means all my lenses are lighter then a full frame kit so I'll allow myself this extra 'luxury' for now. It made a huge difference on the noise levels and it keeps the box straight, while before it was twisting with the shape of the [slightly distorted] ladder making the lid a bit harder to close. 

Another plus? In New Zealand there are a lot of park benches [plus rain] and many of them are often too wet or overgrown with fungus [sometimes bird poo] to ask a bride to comfortably sit there in her wedding dress - which means a few lost photo opportunities. This padded board, plus perhaps the little 6X4 tarp I keep in the box for emergencies, will make it possible to have the bride sitting anywhere from overgrown benches to slightly muddy fields.

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After testing out various positions to have it without sliding out I decided to add a little right angle at the base of the ladder. Initially I was wary about having the box too close to the wheels - there will be more bouncing movement at the wheels and less nearer the handle. The padded board is now providing some suspension, along with the fact that my gear will also be in padded bags in the box, which allows me to feel ok about having the box and board as close to the wheels as possible.

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I went out and bought some brand new bungy cords after taking this picture - so it will look prettier than this :) I will also have 4 bungy cords in the box in case they are needed for an emergency shelter with the tarpaulin - you never know in New Zealand when the weather might change suddenly and it is always comforting to have a back-up plan if things get nasty.

So now you will probably believe me when I say my backpack often ends up weighing 25 kg when I go hiking in the bush - but I'm prepared for anything and the extra stuff has come in useful on several occasions. As long as it all fits in the box and I can move around comfortably I'm happy. Speaking of hiking gear and backpacks the extra backpack cover I have also fits perfectly over the box which will aid in camouflage and give some peace of mind if the weather starts to look 'iffy'.

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Of course very few of the projects I start stay as they are, there's always room for improvement and fine tuning especially after their first real field test but I think I've come pretty close this time to a functional product that may only need a little tweaking.

Hmmmm, after posting this link to facebook this appeared on my feed.....

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Exposure

Exposure

When I got my first decent digital camera I would take a picture, look at the resulting image on the screen and think to myself ‘Oh, so that’s how it is supposed to look then?!’ fully believing that such an expensive camera must obviously know exactly what it is doing and would therefore give me a perfect exposure. How wrong I was, even in its most advanced modes the cameras’ metering system is only the result of a computer program, written by an imperfect human being trying to work out what the camera will be pointed at and what the main subject will be, based on many variables that are impossible to predict in absolutely every situation. Is the subject the bright mountains in the distance or the person standing in the shade of the tree? Which is more important in the final exposure? Is the person under the tree important to the photographer or just another tourist getting in the way? For that matter the photographer may have the camera on a tripod and want an image exposed perfectly for the background first and then for the subject under the tree to combine them later in editing software. Obviously some of these variables cannot be calculated by the limited electronics of a camera, or even for that matter by another human standing next to the photographer, unless he can read minds. This is one of the reasons why the hardest part of photography for most beginners is getting the correct exposure – or even understanding what is ‘correct’ exposure. 

Here is an image and its associated histogram just to show a few basics.

 

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This is what the histogram looks like. A spike on the left representing black with no detail, a spike on the right representing white with no detail, and then everything else goes in between them with darks on the left, lights on the right and mid tones in the centre. 

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Here are some more images, along with some more histogram basics, that should help to explain why it is so difficult for manufacturers to write a program to give correct exposure in all situations. Have a look at this image and the resulting histogram. On the left of the histogram we have the dark part of the image and on the right we have the light part of the image, shown as two separate ‘hills’. So what is this picture of? 

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It’s actually a sheet of white paper so everything is white to a person looking at it. But half of the paper is in sunlight and the other half is in shade. This shows that there are many situations where the camera has to make compromises while trying to achieve correct exposure. Don’t think that the histogram gets the tones the right way around according to how the picture looks on the screen, it always shows darks on the left and lights on the right

So what if we only take a picture of the area of the paper that is in the sunlight, or just in the shade? What will the exposure and histogram look like? Like this, for BOTH!

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This could be either the sunlight or the shade image, they both came out the same.

When it’s a neutral color the camera’s meter aims for ‘average gray’, somewhere near the middle. The camera does not know the difference between gray in normal light, white in shade or black in sunlight! How could it? Something to think about when trying to work out why your camera does what it does. 

So how do we get ‘correct’ exposure in an image when we have such a variety of lighting to deal with? In a later chapter ‘exposure compensation’ will be discussed which deals with correcting the exposure when the camera gets it wrong, which is actually quite often! 

What happens when we introduce a third variable to the scene, besides the shadow and sunlit areas of the paper? Let’s introduce a black lens cap in the shaded area. Compare the histogram of this image with that of the first image. Do you notice how the left peak has dropped a little, but we now have an extra spike to the very left of that? Why has this happened? Well the lens cap is now using up some of the space in the shadow area, so that original left peak has less of that particular tone to represent, but since the lens cap is even darker than the shaded paper it creates another hill on the very left, which represents black with very little detail.

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Next we add something lighter than the shadow area but not as light as the sunlit part of the paper. Can you predict where the histogram will show this? Somewhere between the left and right peak perhaps? Definitely! It now shows as a rather spread out mound between the two, because it is a more average tone. 

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Try to predict what the histogram will look like if we introduce our black lens cap to the shadow area again. Where will we see it represented on the above histogram? Obviously if it is darker than the white paper in shade it must fall to the left of the left hand peak once again. And here we have a more complete histogram! On the very left we have the spike of the black object in shade, after that we have a nice sharp hill representing the white paper in shade, then we have a shallow hill with a little peak on it representing the various tones of the leaf, and finally we have the steep hill on the right representing the white area in sunlight. Be aware that there will be some overlapping of tones between the different subjects on almost any histogram so they are not always this clear-cut to interpret. 

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A large hurdle to overcome is understanding ‘how the brain sees’ compared to how the camera sees, because often a lot of confusion is created by taking a picture and seeing that it looks nothing like how you expected it to look. Take the picture of the white paper in sunlight and shade for an example, both sides looked white to me when I looked at it on the table. It’s all about something called ‘dynamic range’. This is basically the limit of what you can see from the darkest part to the lightest part of an image.

A camera’s dynamic range is very limited compared to how our brain ‘sees’. The example that best illustrates this is when you look at a bright window and see something like this and stare at it for a while 

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It all looks pretty ‘normal’ to you until you look away and blink and you see this pattern when your eyes are closed……… 

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Why does this happen? Perhaps the simplest way to describe it is that your brain/eye combination ‘fixes’ the situation by darkening the bright areas so that the exposure looks right for the inside and outside at the same time (realistically it is caused by a chemical (rhodopsin) in the retina of your eye being depleted by the bright light), and when you turn away and blink it takes a while for it to ‘reset’ the pattern it created in the process which is why you see that shape. It involves a lot of hard work for your brain because the scene has a high dynamic range, from very dark all the way to very bright. Let’s have a look at how the camera sees this scene. When I take a photo of it I get this …..

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The camera’s sensor doesn’t have enough dynamic range to capture the dark interior of the house and the bright exterior all in one image. The window has become totally white with no detail and is therefore beyond the limits of the sensor’s dynamic range. Your brain-eye combination has a very high dynamic range, it can see the bright exterior and dark interior all in one scene. 

Now here is another image of the same scene with the exposure set correctly for the outside light.

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Now the outside detail can be seen but the inside has become totally black with no detail. Once again capturing detail inside and outside at the same time is beyond the dynamic range of the sensor – you have to choose what you want to have correctly exposed because what you can capture, all in one exposure, is limited by the dynamic range of the sensor. 

Try this: Set your camera to spot metering and find a scene like this – bright window and dark room. Turn off auto ISO, use ‘A’ mode or ‘Aperture priority’ and take a photo with the window in the centre of the frame – spot metering is only seeing the light outside. Now take another picture with the window to the side and the centre focus point of your camera on the wall inside. You will see a vast difference in the exposure – in one image the light outside the window will look right while the wall inside is close to being black, and in the other image the wall will look right while the window is white.

Now when we compare these images how much difference is there between the shutter speeds chosen by the camera? Well compare 1/5th sec to 1/250th sec. 250 divided by 5 = 50. The light outside is 50 times brighter than inside! Of course depending on conditions where you are there will be variations in this experiment so don’t think there is something wrong if you don’t see a difference of 50 X .

The initial image in this chapter is the result of combining the two images in Photoshop – it’s not nice to have to resort to editing images to get what you want but sometimes it is unavoidable. This combining of the two images results in a rather crude ‘High Dynamic Range’ or ‘HDR’ image. 

Another solution would be to use flash to light up the inside of the house while exposing correctly for the outside light. 

So what about an image where the light is even enough not to have to do this and what does the camera’s metering system aim to achieve to obtain ‘correct’ exposure?

 

Try this: put your camera in ‘P’ mode. Use centre weighted or matrix/pattern metering mode and take a picture of something in an even lighting arrangement – perhaps a dull color or simply a patch of grass or blue sky with nothing else in the image. Now check your histogram.

Side note: If anyone asks why you are using Program mode tell them ‘P’ stands for ‘Professional’ but if you reach the stage where you don’t need to use it then you tell them ‘P’ stands for ‘Panic’ because it tries to do everything for you besides turn on the flash. (That’s why it’s best to stay away from the fully automatic modes because you never know when it will pop the flash up when you don’t want it to.) 

With an even patch of dark blue sky the histogram should look something like this: Very low contrast, because there is very little difference in the tones of the scene. 

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The camera’s metering system is designed to try and produce an average gray in each scene whenever possible. When reading a histogram always bear in mind the context of the image. On the very left is ‘black with no detail’ and on the very right is ‘white with no detail’. ‘Average Gray’ does not necessarily mean the color gray but rather an average tone in any color. 

Using the same settings I took a picture of the (dry) grass in front of me. Now there’s a difference! It may not look like it but there’s a lot going on in this image all the way from black with no detail to white with no detail (The two spikes at either end) and everything in between. That’s why you have to look at the context of the image and resulting histogram. The meter may aim for an average reading and this has a hump in the middle in the same place as the image of the sky and both exposures are correct, but this one has a lot more contrast, there is information at both ends of the histogram, that’s what contrast is all about! 

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Now we move lower in the sky where there is some haze on the horizon and a greater contrast in colors, not as much as with the grass but still a lot more than previously. I used the same exposure settings as the previous images. We have some of the neutral tone blue sky near the top of the image, white clouds at the bottom which account for the high spike on the right of the histogram, and the tip of a tree and some darker looking cloud which accounts for the flat line at the very left of the histogram. 

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Now we add some more variables to the scene by once again using the same exposure so we know the different parts of that histogram will stay in the same place. Because I have gone to wide angle the original white spike is lower because the white clouds are a smaller part of the final image. Look at the picture for a while and try to work out what that spike is at the very right of the histogram. 

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Remember ‘white with no detail’? Look at the lower left of the image and the bright reflections off the white paint of the closest house. This is the tricky part of reading histograms, what do you ignore? In this case the histogram is really good for the rest of the image and the bright part of that house is not all that important to the image so the exposure is good enough for that scene. If you were to back off the exposure to show some detail in that white area the rest of the image would be under-exposed. If you print it out as it is there won’t be any detail in the white part of that house but if it’s for your own personal use and the white part of that house isn’t important to you then don’t worry about it, the rest of the image is well exposed. Either way, it would be rejected by an image library, due to that spike, but there isn’t much other option besides going back when the lighting is better or taking two different exposures and blending them later in Photoshop. Our original example shows this concept quite well.

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Look at the spike on the right, that’s the blown out highlights of the bright window or ‘white with no detail’. The hump in the middle is formed mainly from the lighter part of the brown wood of the walls and the white appliances plus the white ceiling. The left part of the histogram is the darker part of the walls and other shadows.


What about the picture where the window is correctly exposed? Let’s have a look.

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As we can see there is a large spike of ‘black with no detail’ on the left, a very small amount of ‘correct’ exposure across the middle of the frame, a small hump of ‘white with detail’ of the clouds and a small spike of ‘white with no detail’ on the right.

So which image is correctly exposed? It depends what you wanted to show and what is important in the image. If you only wanted to show what it looks like inside then the first image is ok. If you wanted to show someone how nice the weather was outside then the second image is fine. If you are taking pictures for a real estate agent to show how nice the house is inside and outside then you had better either combine the images or add flash inside with the outside correctly exposed.


And when the images are combined we have a more even histogram – not perfect by any means due to the spikes at either end but sufficient to illustrate what we are aiming for and give an idea of what the various areas of the histogram mean

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This also helps to explain why some scenes are more relaxing to look at than others. It depends how much work your brain/eye combination has to do to make a scene look right, and when the lighting is nice and even it doesn’t have to work very hard so the scene is more relaxing to look at. Like this shot of the Taranaki coast in New Zealand when the setting sun just dipped under the clouds on the horizon. The lighting is so even that contrast had to be added later, but basically the lighting of the scene was well within the limits of the sensor’s dynamic range to capture detail in everything quite easily. This makes the resulting scene easy to look at in person and in the photos, because it involves very little adjustments of your brain/eye combination to be seen easily.  

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An example of a potentially good looking scene that never had the right light and is harder to look at is this shot of a mountain at the beginning of New Zealand’s best one day walk, the Tongariro crossing. It takes a bit of work for your brain to even out the lighting in this image and even more so when you are there in real life trying to adjust your eyes for the bright sky and dark shadows. 

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Once you come to grips with the fact that the camera doesn’t capture exactly what you see due to its limitations, and learn to work around those limitations, you will be closer to capturing the images you have envisioned in your mind before pressing the shutter release. 

Preface to my ebook.

01 Preface to "Photography Masterclass"

Preface

I once read a book on how to develop a perfect memory, but I forgot what it said? For that main reason when I learn something I need to understand it fully so it sticks in my mind or I soon forget what I read. There are many other books on photography out there, some good, some not so good. Many of them skim over the basics and move on to showing off images the author has taken along with brief descriptions of how they were achieved and sometimes also deep discussions on how they would look if different settings were used. When the reader ventures out and tries to create similar images they are often disappointed and wonder what they did wrong since their images are not coming out as described in the book they just read and in their frustration they resort to buying more books and magazines and spend many hours asking questions on the photography forums, of which there are many, but still don’t   make meaningful progress. 

My thoughts are that a book on taking pictures can obviously be better explained and understood using an assortment of descriptive pictures, in steps, that lead the reader’s thoughts in the required direction so as to make the information stick in their minds. That may sound like a really basic concept but you’d be surprised how long it takes some people teaching the subject to grasp it, if ever – use pictures to explain how to take pictures. I will add that the forums are a good place to learn if you ask the right questions. This takes years for many and sometimes some never really get a full understanding of what they are trying to learn if they miss out on a really good discussion somewhere and the thread eventually gets lost in cyber-space. This book is an attempt at sharing what I have learned over the years, much of it on the forums, as well as what I have discovered through my own tests and experiments. 

First the basics will be covered, what is correct exposure? How does what the camera captures differ from ‘how our brain sees’?  How do you read histograms and use exposure compensation to correct them? What is ‘exposing to the right’ and how does it affect ‘noise’ in an image? What is the ‘Sunny 16’ rule and what practical application does it have for us today? How does flash add to the image and what tests can be done to understand this? 

Besides these basics we will also learn some ‘photography wisdom’ – tips for beginners, how to deal with ‘Photographing weddings for friends’ and perhaps what many beginners hope to have as a goal ‘Making money from photography’. I won’t mention the part about photographing explosive events because that might freak some people out. 

 

My sincere hope is that many beginners will save themselves countless hours of aimlessly shooting hundreds of images without knowing what they are supposed to be trying to achieve, or how to achieve it if they do, by giving them a deeper understanding of the basics, along with some tests they can do for themselves to further understand the subject. Hopefully this will make the whole experience much more productive and fulfilling, and more like a hobby than a frustrating battle with understanding technology. 

Nikon TTL-BL

Several yours ago I posted a blog on the subject of Nikon's "new" TTL-BL flash. I had tried to convince someone who posted a blog of how it works [based on the fact that he helped design the chip before he retired] because it didn't seem to behave like the description in the manual. He didn't want to hear what I was saying - human nature, resistance to change etc. so I did a series of tests that proved it no longer only works for back-lit situations, but rather is superior to TTL flash. After all, since it has access to lens distance info and the meter reading it should be. The fact was that during the introduction of the D200 Nikon had decided to use the technology more and programmed the camera system to lie to TTL-BL when the background was totally underexposed, telling it that the background was perfectly exposed, so it would also try to perfectly expose the subject. Previously the program had simply tried to make a subject as well lit as the background on a bright day. This meant that if the background was underexposed then the program would make the subject look the same - underexposed.

A few years later I did the same tests again to prove something to someone and found that the results differed slightly - but in exactly the same way that matrix metering behaviour had changed over the year - this lead to the conclusion that TTL-BL flash is linked to the matrix metering program of your camera.

Basically TTL-BL takes ambient exposure into account as per this graph.

 

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Here are the images from the TTL-BL vs matrix metering tests. TTL-BL in my D90, D40 and D5100 all behaved sightly differently with changes to the outer focus point, in exactly the same way that matrix metering changed between the cameras.

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I recently ready a very true comment on a blog discussing equipment something along the lines of "Try to buy a camera body and flash from the same time period, they will work better together."

Atmosphere Aerosol

I bought some atmosphere aerosol a while ago and did some video tests with it.

 

The thing with this spray is that it is nothing like a smoke bomb which creates billowing smoke that is obvious from the front. It works best when back-lit. I did a shoot for a bodybuilder on the weekend and here's a 'normal' picture with bounce flash.

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And here is another shot with the flash behind the subject and some atmosphere aerosol spray in the air. Very different results.

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So if you're looking for a smoke-bomb effect you will be disappointed but if you use it the way it is meant to be used it can make for some very interesting photos.

Tolerate Diversity

I run a group for wedding photographers and second shooters on Facebook. The members come from a wide range of backgrounds including customers who are wealthy and those of little means. I've made this post a 'sticky' a the top of the page so that hopefully people are more respectful of others from different backgrounds.

Tolerate Diversity: There are people living on less than a dollar a day and people who earn what most of us earn in a year every day. There are people who can't afford a wedding let alone a photographer and people who spend what some of us earn in a lifetime on their wedding. Then there are "photographers" who just bought " a camera that takes really nice pictures" and would be a liability as a second shooter, and photographers who charge $15 000 just to shoot a wedding [prints are extra] who most of us couldn't afford to pay to second shoot for us.
Then there is everyone in between.
So don't knock someone who wants a wedding shot for $500 or an unpaid second shooter. If it's not for you then move along, we can't all afford the best and people will get what they pay for [Actually sometimes they will get more than what some people would charge them to do because there are a lot of cowboys in this business who think they are good enough to charge but don't have a clue what they are doing].
We all have to start somewhere and when I shoot a wedding I allow a new second shooter to have their first go at wedding photography [I don't even charge them for the risk I am taking] and they get profile pictures and I usually get a few pictures to add to what I supply to the couple. I've had a few bad experiences, someone who had very shallow depth of field in most of the group photos with the bride blurred because they "didn't want to lose image quality by going over iso 200 on a Canon 7D". I had another second shooter who "had lost interest in photography" in the 3 months since asking to second shoot a wedding with me, I had to ask her to take her camera out and start shooting.
So the next time someone advertises an opportunity for a second shooter to work for free [cheaper than making them pay to learn a valuable trade] don't get all excited about the fact that you are a professional photographer who charges $4000 per wedding and would never 'work for exposure' - use your brains, the post isn't aimed at you - get off your high horse and move along.

"Shot" glass

Today I decided to try shooting some little plastic "shot" glasses. I added some food colouring to enhance the splashes.

Breaking glass balls.

I wanted to see if the cheap "glass" balls from aliexpress would give a decent 'shatter' when hit with a hammer. I set up the sound activated flash trigger in the 'batcave' under the house

In the first image I saw too much spread in the burst because the mic was about 1m away from the noise.

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I moved the mic much closer and got this.

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Then I tried to get a bounce when it smashed. In some of my breaking-light-bulb photos I found that a short sharp smack with the hammer allowing it to bounce back, got the bulb to lift when it smashed. In this case it simply didn't break.

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One more try breaking it then I've had enough - they don't break nicely - obviously cheap junk :)

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Burning vacuum cleaner

Today was a public holiday. In the morning I took out some methylated spirits and set some flowers on fire.

And in the afternoon I took an old vacuum cleaner that was getting noisy and put a potassium nitrate and sugar mix into it and set it alight. I never thought it would explode, just expected it to burn out.

And the photos - the last one looks like it has its tongue hanging out :)

A special wedding shoot.

I saw a request on a local site called Neighbourly which is like Facebook but only amongst people in your immediate neighbourhood. Linda made this post.

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I couldn't resist offering to photograph this special occasion for free, just for the privilege of being there. The celebrant Gareth Duncan was initially volunteered by his wife but was glad that she was so quick to respond and was happy to do it at no charge. A reporter turned up as well and asked for some images as soon as possible for their story on stuff.co.nz  and I sent a few small size samples but when they made their choices I forgot to edit those as well before sending them off - besides the reduced quality of the website images the lighting was not the best. Because the weather has been so hot I discussed options with the celebrant, Gareth, and we chose to move the whole party under a large tree which was actually quite dark, especially compared to the bright sunlight at the time.

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I had been pleased with the overcast weather of the morning thinking the shoot was going to be easy, only for the sun to come out in full force during the ceremony and then, once it was all over, it clouded over again with nice diffused light. That's how it goes with wedding photography, you can't choose your lighting during an outdoor ceremony which is probably why I normally prefer high speed photography. The ceremony was held at Hamilton lake in New Zealand. Originally Linda wanted to have it on the other side of the lake near a nice half-moon shaped brick bench/structure but because it was a narrow area close to the road there wasn't much space for any extra people who may turn up, so the celebrant suggested we move to the other side where there was a nice open area that could take a lot more people. 

 

We were right under this tree....

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Flash had to be kept to a minimum along with close-ups. We had been asked to be very discreet as "Micky can get upset quite quickly" so we had the 18-200mm on Lisa's D7000 and though I had the Sigma 18-35mm f1.8 on my D7200 it was mostly too wide for the situation so I resorted to the 18-140mm lens on my other D7200. No point having ultimate sharpness and quality with a wide prime in that situation while upsetting the couple. Though I know everyone says "primes give better quality" etc. but at this particular wedding where we were asked to keep our distance the zoom lenses allowed us to be discreet while also allowing the occasional wide shot without having to change lenses. I was quite happy with the results from the 18-140mm lens.

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What really impressed Linda was the fact that although Michael has a really bad memory the morning after asking her to marry him he asked if they were still going to go ahead with it, and on the morning of the wedding when we met at the car she told me that when they woke up that morning Michael said [add Scottish accent] "Today's the day!".

Normally I wouldn't dream of photographing a wedding without meeting with the couple first but Linda was concerned about making Michael feel too pressured so in line with being especially 'discreet' for a particularly sensitive situation that was all 'last minute' I had to settle for simply meeting on the day as they walked to the spot. Everything went just perfect!

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The party consisted of close family and friends but there was as much joy there, if not more so, than any other wedding I have been to.

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The ceremony went very well and there was a lot of added emotion to the occasion. From where I was standing I could see Linda mouthing the words "I love you" to Michael, several times as she stared intently into his eyes. The celebrant read Michaels vows to help him out, but to think that even in that state of not being able to speak the vows himself, he had remembered it was their [second] wedding day when he woke up that morning.

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A close friend helped Michael put the ring on Linda's finger. The tissue had helped remove some of the "liquid emotion" that was starting to trickle down Linda's face as she went through with the ceremony purely to make her husband happy.

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Just like newly-weds. [More pictures on my gallery]

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Having lively subjects always makes you want to keep taking pictures. Linda's face lit up with one emotion/expression after another, a dream to photograph. Normally when a couple are standing in the same place for a while you get 4 or 5 images then think "Not much point repeating these images" but in this case every few seconds called for a 'new' photo.

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When some of Michaels favourite Scottish music started played he was thrilled and lit up - also encouraging the guests to join in! I had left my little Nikon J1 on a tripod to record the event as a bonus but didn't have much time to monitor it so not the best quality but better than nothing I suppose.

I had taken a few pictures of their feet as a reminder - because once that music was playing quietly in the background Mick's feet wouldn't keep still - he wanted to dance! His one foot kept lifting off the ground in time with the music.

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At one stage Linda and Mick turned around and she whispered to him "That's our photographer" and he gave me the thumbs up. I actually felt like that was more than enough payment for my time and efforts, it felt so good to be appreciated by this man. And to think, it didn't cost me anything to enjoy this event!

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For video all I did was leave my little Nikon J1 on a tripod - not the most professional results but if anyone wants to see the whole 43 minutes it's here. 

There was this one moment just before we left where I was the only one standing out in the open and Linda was engaged in a discussion and Michael caught me out of the corner of his eye, as his expression changed and he slowly turned to face me directly I realised it was time to slip my camera behind my back and walk in the opposite direction. This was his day - I wanted nothing to spoil it. I must say I did find it rather amusing afterward and it reinforced in me why Linda had specifically requested that we remain discreet with the cameras during the occasion. Well that kind of rounds off my story for the day - I imagine everyone will soon be reading about Linda's side of it all the women's magazines that will be sharing her story soon :)

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All the best Linda and Michael - thanks for letting me be a part of your very special day!

 

6 Months caring for an injured praying mantis - The Mantis story!

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Softbox comparison

A cheap softbox showing the difference between no flash, the softbox behind the subject and the softbox above the subject.

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Eiffel Apocalypse

Burning the Eiffel tower with a potassium nitrate smoke bomb mix and zapping it with a 200 000 volt Marx generator.

 

Burning lens

The usual disclaimers: It was a faulty lens that took blurry pictures and wasn't worth having repaired. besides the fact that it's nobody's business if I want to burn something I own.

 

Add some potasium nitrate, sugar, outdoor torch fluid and sawdust to an old faulty lens - and make its last photography experience something to remember.

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At first the flames were small. Adding torch fluid to the smoke bomb mix helps slow the burning process down but also makes it harder to light so I pushed some matches backwards into the mix to help it start burning.

 

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I had the mix packed into both ends of the lens but it didn't burn all the way through so I ended up pulling the front of to light that separately afterwards.

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The little Nikon J1 is useful for the videos.

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War zone

Today I took some toy soldiers and a tank and shovelled some dirt into a baking tray and lit some potassium nitrate smoke bombs.

 

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The results came out ok but also showed me that there was dust on the D7000 sensor that I hadn't noticed before since I was shooting at f11 to get more depth of field with the smaller subjects and closer focusing. 

 

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The soldier didn't look so good, I needed to shave off the plastic moulding around him to make it look more real. Initially I had the scene located inside the garage, watched by Oprah, a very talkative black cat. She doesn't mind smoke and flames, she just moves a little further away when things get too smokey.

Then I took the toy tank and set it at an angle to look like it was being viewed from lower down, hopefully to make it look more real. I experimented with various settings ranging from 1/500th to 1 second to add some blur to the smoke as well.

 

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It was lost of fun and luckily the neighbours didn't call the fire department, or police for now...

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As usual with most of my shoots I had the extractor fan going to clear away the smoke :)

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Exposure

When I got my first decent digital camera I would take a picture, look at the resulting image on the screen and think to myself ‘Oh, so that’s how it is supposed to look then?!’ fully believing that such an expensive camera must obviously know exactly what it is doing and would therefore give me a perfect exposure. How wrong I was, even in its most advanced modes the cameras’ metering system is only the result of a computer program, written by an imperfect human being trying to work out what the camera will be pointed at and what the main subject will be, based on many variables that are impossible to predict in absolutely every situation. Is the subject the bright mountains in the distance or the person standing in the shade of the tree? Which is more important in the final exposure? Is the person under the tree important to the photographer or just another tourist getting in the way? For that matter the photographer may have the camera on a tripod and want an image exposed perfectly for the background first and then for the subject under the tree to combine them later in editing software. Obviously some of these variables cannot be calculated by the limited electronics of a camera, or even for that matter by another human standing next to the photographer, unless he can read minds. This is one of the reasons why the hardest part of photography for most beginners is getting the correct exposure – or even understanding what is ‘correct’ exposure. 

Here is an image and its associated histogram just to show a few basics. 

 

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This is what the histogram looks like. A spike on the left representing black with no detail, a spike on the right representing white with no detail, and then everything else goes in between them with darks on the left, lights on the right and mid tones in the centre. 

 

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Here are some more images, along with some more histogram basics, that should help to explain why it is so difficult for manufacturers to write a program to give correct exposure in all situations. Have a look at this image and the resulting histogram. On the left of the histogram we have the dark part of the image and on the right we have the light part of the image, shown as two separate ‘hills’. So what is this picture of? 

 

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It’s actually a sheet of white paper so everything is white to a person looking at it. But half of the paper is in sunlight and the other half is in shade. This shows that there are many situations where the camera has to make compromises while trying to achieve correct exposure. Don’t think that the histogram gets the tones the right way around according to how the picture looks on the screen, it always shows darks on the left and lights on the right

So what if we only take a picture of the area of the paper that is in the sunlight, or just in the shade? What will the exposure and histogram look like? Like this, for BOTH!

 

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This could be either the sunlight or the shade image, they both came out the same.

When it’s a neutral color the camera’s meter aims for ‘average gray’, somewhere near the middle. The camera does not know the difference between gray in normal light, white in shade or black in sunlight! How could it? Something to think about when trying to work out why your camera does what it does. 

So how do we get ‘correct’ exposure in an image when we have such a variety of lighting to deal with? In a later chapter ‘exposure compensation’ will be discussed which deals with correcting the exposure when the camera gets it wrong, which is actually quite often! 

What happens when we introduce a third variable to the scene, besides the shadow and sunlit areas of the paper? Let’s introduce a black lens cap in the shaded area. Compare the histogram of this image with that of the first image. Do you notice how the left peak has dropped a little, but we now have an extra spike to the very left of that? Why has this happened? Well the lens cap is now using up some of the space in the shadow area, so that original left peak has less of that particular tone to represent, but since the lens cap is even darker than the shaded paper it creates another hill on the very left, which represents black with very little detail.

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Next we add something lighter than the shadow area but not as light as the sunlit part of the paper. Can you predict where the histogram will show this? Somewhere between the left and right peak perhaps? Definitely! It now shows as a rather spread out mound between the two, because it is a more average tone. 

 

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Try to predict what the histogram will look like if we introduce our black lens cap to the shadow area again. Where will we see it represented on the above histogram? Obviously if it is darker than the white paper in shade it must fall to the left of the left hand peak once again. And here we have a more complete histogram! On the very left we have the spike of the black object in shade, after that we have a nice sharp hill representing the white paper in shade, then we have a shallow hill with a little peak on it representing the various tones of the leaf, and finally we have the steep hill on the right representing the white area in sunlight. Be aware that there will be some overlapping of tones between the different subjects on almost any histogram so they are not always this clear-cut to interpret. 

 

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A large hurdle to overcome is understanding ‘how the brain sees’ compared to how the camera sees, because often a lot of confusion is created by taking a picture and seeing that it looks nothing like how you expected it to look. Take the picture of the white paper in sunlight and shade for an example, both sides looked white to me when I looked at it on the table. It’s all about something called ‘dynamic range’. This is basically the limit of what you can see from the darkest part to the lightest part of an image.

A camera’s dynamic range is very limited compared to how our brain ‘sees’. The example that best illustrates this is when you look at a bright window and see something like this and stare at it for a while 

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It all looks pretty ‘normal’ to you until you look away and blink and you see this pattern when your eyes are closed……… 

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Why does this happen? Perhaps the simplest way to describe it is that your brain/eye combination ‘fixes’ the situation by darkening the bright areas so that the exposure looks right for the inside and outside at the same time (realistically it is caused by a chemical (rhodopsin) in the retina of your eye being depleted by the bright light), and when you turn away and blink it takes a while for it to ‘reset’ the pattern it created in the process which is why you see that shape. It involves a lot of hard work for your brain because the scene has a high dynamic range, from very dark all the way to very bright. Let’s have a look at how the camera sees this scene. When I take a photo of it I get this …..

 

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The camera’s sensor doesn’t have enough dynamic range to capture the dark interior of the house and the bright exterior all in one image. The window has become totally white with no detail and is therefore beyond the limits of the sensor’s dynamic range. Your brain-eye combination has a very high dynamic range, it can see the bright exterior and dark interior all in one scene. 

Now here is another image of the same scene with the exposure set correctly for the outside light.

 

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Now the outside detail can be seen but the inside has become totally black with no detail. Once again capturing detail inside and outside at the same time is beyond the dynamic range of the sensor – you have to choose what you want to have correctly exposed because what you can capture, all in one exposure, is limited by the dynamic range of the sensor. 

Try this: Set your camera to spot metering and find a scene like this – bright window and dark room. Turn off auto ISO, use ‘A’ mode or ‘Aperture priority’ and take a photo with the window in the centre of the frame – spot metering is only seeing the light outside. Now take another picture with the window to the side and the centre focus point of your camera on the wall inside. You will see a vast difference in the exposure – in one image the light outside the window will look right while the wall inside is close to being black, and in the other image the wall will look right while the window is white.

Now when we compare these images how much difference is there between the shutter speeds chosen by the camera? Well compare 1/5th sec to 1/250th sec. 250 divided by 5 = 50. The light outside is 50 times brighter than inside! Of course depending on conditions where you are there will be variations in this experiment so don’t think there is something wrong if you don’t see a difference of 50 X .

The initial image in this chapter is the result of combining the two images in Photoshop – it’s not nice to have to resort to editing images to get what you want but sometimes it is unavoidable. This combining of the two images results in a rather crude ‘High Dynamic Range’ or ‘HDR’ image. 

Another solution would be to use flash to light up the inside of the house while exposing correctly for the outside light. 

So what about an image where the light is even enough not to have to do this and what does the camera’s metering system aim to achieve to obtain ‘correct’ exposure?

 

Try this: put your camera in ‘P’ mode. Use centre weighted or matrix/pattern metering mode and take a picture of something in an even lighting arrangement – perhaps a dull color or simply a patch of grass or blue sky with nothing else in the image. Now check your histogram.

Side note: If anyone asks why you are using Program mode tell them ‘P’ stands for ‘Professional’ but if you reach the stage where you don’t need to use it then you tell them ‘P’ stands for ‘Panic’ because it tries to do everything for you besides turn on the flash. (That’s why it’s best to stay away from the fully automatic modes because you never know when it will pop the flash up when you don’t want it to.) 

With an even patch of dark blue sky the histogram should look something like this: Very low contrast, because there is very little difference in the tones of the scene. 

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The camera’s metering system is designed to try and produce an average gray in each scene whenever possible. When reading a histogram always bear in mind the context of the image. On the very left is ‘black with no detail’ and on the very right is ‘white with no detail’. ‘Average Gray’ does not necessarily mean the color gray but rather an average tone in any color. 

Using the same settings I took a picture of the (dry) grass in front of me. Now there’s a difference! It may not look like it but there’s a lot going on in this image all the way from black with no detail to white with no detail (The two spikes at either end) and everything in between. That’s why you have to look at the context of the image and resulting histogram. The meter may aim for an average reading and this has a hump in the middle in the same place as the image of the sky and both exposures are correct, but this one has a lot more contrast, there is information at both ends of the histogram, that’s what contrast is all about! 

 

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Now we move lower in the sky where there is some haze on the horizon and a greater contrast in colors, not as much as with the grass but still a lot more than previously. I used the same exposure settings as the previous images. We have some of the neutral tone blue sky near the top of the image, white clouds at the bottom which account for the high spike on the right of the histogram, and the tip of a tree and some darker looking cloud which accounts for the flat line at the very left of the histogram. 

 

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Now we add some more variables to the scene by once again using the same exposure so we know the different parts of that histogram will stay in the same place. Because I have gone to wide angle the original white spike is lower because the white clouds are a smaller part of the final image. Look at the picture for a while and try to work out what that spike is at the very right of the histogram. 

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Remember ‘white with no detail’? Look at the lower left of the image and the bright reflections off the white paint of the closest house. This is the tricky part of reading histograms, what do you ignore? In this case the histogram is really good for the rest of the image and the bright part of that house is not all that important to the image so the exposure is good enough for that scene. If you were to back off the exposure to show some detail in that white area the rest of the image would be under-exposed. If you print it out as it is there won’t be any detail in the white part of that house but if it’s for your own personal use and the white part of that house isn’t important to you then don’t worry about it, the rest of the image is well exposed. Either way, it would be rejected by an image library, due to that spike, but there isn’t much other option besides going back when the lighting is better or taking two different exposures and blending them later in Photoshop. Our original example shows this concept quite well.

 

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Look at the spike on the right, that’s the blown out highlights of the bright window or ‘white with no detail’. The hump in the middle is formed mainly from the lighter part of the brown wood of the walls and the white appliances plus the white ceiling. The left part of the histogram is the darker part of the walls and other shadows.


What about the picture where the window is correctly exposed? Let’s have a look.

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As we can see there is a large spike of ‘black with no detail’ on the left, a very small amount of ‘correct’ exposure across the middle of the frame, a small hump of ‘white with detail’ of the clouds and a small spike of ‘white with no detail’ on the right.

So which image is correctly exposed? It depends what you wanted to show and what is important in the image. If you only wanted to show what it looks like inside then the first image is ok. If you wanted to show someone how nice the weather was outside then the second image is fine. If you are taking pictures for a real estate agent to show how nice the house is inside and outside then you had better either combine the images or add flash inside with the outside correctly exposed.


And when the images are combined we have a more even histogram – not perfect by any means due to the spikes at either end but sufficient to illustrate what we are aiming for and give an idea of what the various areas of the histogram mean

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This also helps to explain why some scenes are more relaxing to look at than others. It depends how much work your brain/eye combination has to do to make a scene look right, and when the lighting is nice and even it doesn’t have to work very hard so the scene is more relaxing to look at. Like this shot of the Taranaki coast in New Zealand when the setting sun just dipped under the clouds on the horizon. The lighting is so even that contrast had to be added later, but basically the lighting of the scene was well within the limits of the sensor’s dynamic range to capture detail in everything quite easily. This makes the resulting scene easy to look at in person and in the photos, because it involves very little adjustments of your brain/eye combination to be seen easily.  

 

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An example of a potentially good looking scene that never had the right light and is harder to look at is this shot of a mountain at the beginning of New Zealand’s best one day walk, the Tongariro crossing. It takes a bit of work for your brain to even out the lighting in this image and even more so when you are there in real life trying to adjust your eyes for the bright sky and dark shadows. 

 

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Once you come to grips with the fact that the camera doesn’t capture exactly what you see due to its limitations, and learn to work around those limitations, you will be closer to capturing the images you have envisioned in your mind before pressing the shutter release. 

Preface to my ebook.

01 Preface

Preface

I once read a book on how to develop a perfect memory, but I forgot what it said? For that main reason when I learn something I need to understand it fully so it sticks in my mind or I soon forget what I read. There are many other books on photography out there, some good, some not so good. Many of them skim over the basics and move on to showing off images the author has taken along with brief descriptions of how they were achieved and sometimes also deep discussions on how they would look if different settings were used. When the reader ventures out and tries to create similar images they are often disappointed and wonder what they did wrong since their images are not coming out as described in the book they just read and in their frustration they resort to buying more books and magazines and spend many hours asking questions on the photography forums, of which there are many, but still don’t   make meaningful progress. 

My thoughts are that a book on taking pictures can obviously be better explained and understood using an assortment of descriptive pictures, in steps, that lead the reader’s thoughts in the required direction so as to make the information stick in their minds. That may sound like a really basic concept but you’d be surprised how long it takes some people teaching the subject to grasp it, if ever – use pictures to explain how to take pictures. I will add that the forums are a good place to learn if you ask the right questions. This takes years for many and sometimes some never really get a full understanding of what they are trying to learn if they miss out on a really good discussion somewhere and the thread eventually gets lost in cyber-space. This book is an attempt at sharing what I have learned over the years, much of it on the forums, as well as what I have discovered through my own tests and experiments. 

First the basics will be covered, what is correct exposure? How does what the camera captures differ from ‘how our brain sees’?  How do you read histograms and use exposure compensation to correct them? What is ‘exposing to the right’ and how does it affect ‘noise’ in an image? What is the ‘Sunny 16’ rule and what practical application does it have for us today? How does flash add to the image and what tests can be done to understand this? 

Besides these basics we will also learn some ‘photography wisdom’ – tips for beginners, how to deal with ‘Photographing weddings for friends’ and perhaps what many beginners hope to have as a goal ‘Making money from photography’. I won’t mention the part about photographing explosive events because that might freak some people out. 

 

My sincere hope is that many beginners will save themselves countless hours of aimlessly shooting hundreds of images without knowing what they are supposed to be trying to achieve, or how to achieve it if they do, by giving them a deeper understanding of the basics, along with some tests they can do for themselves to further understand the subject. Hopefully this will make the whole experience much more productive and fulfilling, and more like a hobby than a frustrating battle with understanding technology.