Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I got a present

Originally uploaded by Dalantech.
This image was selected as the Juza Nature Photo of the Week -thanks Juza! :)

Juza is one of the top nature photographers on the web and his work is widely respected. Bookmark his site, Juza Nature Photography -lots of valuable information there! Although our shooing styles are radically different (Juza uses a tripod and teleconverters and I shoot hand held) there's no doubt that he knows what he's doing when you see his images...

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Post Processing

I’ve been putting this blog entry off for quite a while because the way that I post process images might not work for some of you. I spend a lot of time trying to get everything right before I press the shutter release, so the amount of time I spend on any single image once I get it on the computer is low. I also hate post processing –I’m a network engineer who spends all day with computers. So I want to limit the amount of work I have to do on one when I get home…

But how I post process is a frequent question, and it’s too long of a post to include with a simple FAQ (another post that I need to do ;) so I’m going to explain how I post process and hopefully you can walk away with something that you can use.

I started off in the Elements 6 RAW editor with the following defaults (click on the image to get to larger versions):


Then I opened the image making no changes in RAW. Instead I want to process the photo using an HDR plug-in so I’ll do most of my editing there (plus I like the way this shot looks right out of the camera). The first thing I did in the Elements 6 main editor is run NoiseWare Professional to strip out the sensor noise. The I ran DCE Tools ReDynaMix with the following settings:


When you first open an image in ReDynaMix it’s going to look “over processed” and the first thing I do is decrease the dynamic light strength. Also for this image I dropped the color saturation down a little as well. Don’t forget to adjust the Image Smoothing –it will take out a lot of noise induced by the HDR processing. I don't aways use ReDynaMix but I like the effect it had on this shot. If I didn't use it I'd do more editing in RAW and adjust midtone contrast in the main Elements editor window (Enhance/ Adjust Lighting / Shadows/Highlights).

Next I adjust levels (Enhance / Adjust Lighting / Levels), and one of the first things in the levels editor that I do is set a black point. Follow the link and take a good look at that tutorial. Sometimes all you have to do in levels to make an image really look good is just set a black point. In Elements it's really simple. Click on the highlights slider (the triangle at the far right of the histogram display) and slide it to the left until you are left with just the darkest pixels. Make a mental note of where they are (it helps to magnify the image so you can see the dark pixels better). Then click on the reset button to get the histogram back to where it was before you moved the slider. Now click on the left most eye dropper (it's for setting the black pixels) and click on the darkest pixels in the image. I've circled the area that I chose for this shot:

Setting a Black Point

Before you close out the levels editor adjust the middle point of the histogram above and below 1.0 and watch how your image changes. Sliding the midpoint to the left will make the image lighter and sliding it to the right will make it darker. I changed the mid point to 1.05 just to lighten it up a little.

I then went to Enhance/ Adjust Lighting / Shadows/Highlights and lightened shadows by 3%. You want to be careful here, since small changes will have a big effect and if you push the settings here you can add a lot of noise and banding to an image. Also under the Enhance menu I selected Auto Sharpen. I never use Unsharp Mask because although everyone says you need to sharpen digital images no one can agree on how much. The auto sharpen option will sharpen an image without over sharpening –and it’s fast.

The last thing I do is rub out dust spots with the Spot Healing brush, add my copy right to the Meta data that’s saved with the image file (use the File / File Info option) and then save the image as a high quality JPG. Less than two minutes per image and I get results like this:

Miner Bee Portrait

I'm sure there is a better way to do it, but post processing this way works for someone like me who is "Photoshop challenged" ;)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

HDR Macro

I’ve been looking at High Dynamic Range (HDR) images for quite a while and I really like the effect –quite a few of my contacts on Flickr use HDR in their post processing. I’ve played with a few HDR programs but couldn’t find one that I liked until recently. Either they were too much of a pain to use, too expensive, or too time consuming for someone like me who hates to spend a lot of time in post processing. But I finally found a plug-in that works with Photoshop Elements that I like thanks to Haeretik made by DCE Tools called ReDynaMix HDR. It’s easy to use, compatible with Elements version 6, and the registered version is only $16 USD (you can try it before you buy it). Before I get into the nuts and bolts about how I’ve been using it I want to give you a disclaimer…

HDR processing will not make a crappy photo look good –it will just make a crappy HDR image. You still need to nail the composition, focus, and lighting. As with any other post processing technique you should never use HDR as a crutch to compensate for your mistakes. Get it right before you press the shutter release and everything that you do in post processing will be easier.

It’s very easy to go overboard with HDR processing and end up with a shot that looks like it was computer generated instead of taken with a camera. Some of the best HDR images that I’ve seen don’t look like HDR images.

Now for the nuts and bolts. Here is an image that I processed without using ReDynaMix HDR:

After the Rain series 1-3

Not bad, but it just doesn’t “pop”. If I had any real skill at post processing it would probably be a lot better, but I’m a network engineer and after a long day at work the last thing I want to do is spend hours in post. Another issue with this shot is all that yellow -the petals act like a colored reflector and change the quality of the light that I'm getting with the flash. The only way to avoid it is to stop shooting bees, and that's not gonna happen ;)

For the HDR version I opened the image in Elements 6 and in the RAW editor I made no changes since HDR processing is where I want to do the serious editing –another reason why it’s best to get it right with the shutter release. In the main editor I ran NoiseWare to pull out sensor noise since sending a “clean” image to ReDynaMix will reduce the amount of “surface smoothing” that I have to do (more on that later).

Now open the ReDynaMix plug-in. You’ll see a lot of options and an image that, chances are, looks “over processed”. There are two things that I do at this point to bring the shot to a level that I want. The first is to reduce the Dynamic Light Strength –by default it’s going to be set to 0.6 and, IMHO, it’s too high. Drop it down slowly and notice how the preview changes (you’ll have to release the slider to see the preview update). For this example I set it to .25 but the level that you use will depend on the image and the effect that you are looking for.

The next thing that I do is adjust the Surface Smoothness. The HDR process adds a lot of noise to an image (that’s why I ran NoiseWare before ReDynaMix) and Surface Smoothing is a way to clean up the grain –but be careful here. You don’t want to go overboard with the setting since you could end up over sharpening the image so the higher you set it the less you’ll want to sharpen your photo later. I never use anything more than the Auto Sharpen option in Elements so over sharpening isn’t a problem. Those of you who use Unsharp Mask may want to experiment with a balance between Surface Smoothing and USM. Also allowing for some “grain” can be a good thing depending on how you want the final image to look.

There are a lot of other options in ReDynaMix, and I encourage you to experiment with them. But for my images Dynamic Light Strength and Surface Smoothing have the most effect. Once I changed those two settings (and reduced the Color Saturation) I clicked on Process. Then I adjusted the levels (just set a black point) and used the Auto Sharpen option under the Enhance menu. Rub out dust spots with the Spot Healing Tool and save the image as a high quality JPG and here is the result:


Much better color and contrast and as an added bonus the time I spent in post processing was still less than two minutes :)

Footnote: The last image in this post was chosen as the Juza Nature Photo of the Week -thanks Juza!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Q&A Part 1

I've been getting a few emails (mostly at my Flickr account) with questions about macro photography. From time to time I'm going to post them here in the hopes that regular readers of my blog will see them and I won't get asked the same questions too many times ;)

"Love your macros, just some questions, how come your pictures in macro are so close to the subject like the bees, what lens do you have? as I don't seem to able to get as close as that.

is the lens very close to the subject?
or are using macro filter or extension tubes"

Add to it this question:

"hey, it s me again, i came across your photos on flickr and i m looking for advice, i have nikon and 1:1 macro lenses and i would like to get higher zoom, should i buy extension tube?how do u take your beautiful macro photos?

best greetings


For more than a year now I've been shooting macro exclusively with the Canon MPE-65mm macro lens. It is a macro only lens (no infinity focus) that can go from life size to five times life size magnification with just the turn of a ring (looks like a zoom ring). The distance from the front of the lens to the subject (the working distance) at life size is four inches and it drops to 1.6 inches at 5x. There is no Nikon equivalent (I get that question a lot too).

I'm going to post a couple of questions about the MPE-65mm and then answer them all at once. First question:

"I bought a the Canon 100mm 2.8 macro a while ago to give macro a go and was a little disappointed when the shots wasn't as close as I wanted it to be, (when I saw your pics it sparked my interest again so wanna give it another go) so my question is what I do to improve this?

1) get accessories (what would you recommend) for my current 100mm macro and then maybe get a MPE-65 further down the line when my skills improve.
2) or just buy a new toy MPE-65 :)"

Second question:

"My wife really wants a macro lens and she loves the pictures the Canon MPE65 takes. She never shot macro but is pretty good with a camera. Is this lens way to hard to learn with? I have been told to get her the 100mm but she really likes the MPE65."

Third question:

"I was considering buying the Canon 100mm Macro lens... then i found your photo stream !!! ... (oh dear thats now up'd my budget by a fair few hundred ! )

I am now thinking of purchasing the MPE-65 for use on a 400D..."

I had some of the same questions when I first got into macro and the advice that I got is what I'm giving to you now: Get some experience shooting at life size (or above life size with extension tubes, a teleconverter, or a close-up filter like the 500D) before you get the MPE-65mm macro lens. The MPE-65mm is like no other lens:

1) There is no infinity focus so it can be used for macro only.

2) The working distance starts at 4" from the front of the lens and it drops to 1.6" at 5x.

3) No auto focus -not that it would do you any good anyway. The depth of field is so shallow, even at F11, that the camera wouldn't be able to put the area of sharp focus where you need it to be.

4) The focus lock indicators in the view finder do not work -on any camera that the MPE-65mm lens is attached to.

So the learning curve with the MPE-65mm lens is VERY HIGH. I'm not saying that you can't pick it up as your first macro lens -you might be a natural with it. But I know a lot of people who jumped right into macro with the MPE-65mm and after a few weeks of frustration they sold the lens...

"I am very new at photography so I am saking for a bit of advise.

What would be a good macro to buy if I had all the money in the world???

What would be the best afford for someone with no money ??"

My answer is the same for both questions: Get a macro lens in the 100mm range and practice shooting at life size. If you like it then add some extension tubes, a teleconverter, and /or a close-up lens like the 500D (just don't use a 500D and a teleconverter at the same time -the image quality is poor). Then if you really like shooting above life then pick up the MPE-65mm.

I get a lot of questions about the flashes that I use and how I diffuse them. Let me say that the way that I shoot macro is just one of many -I don't think anyone is an authority on any photographic discipline. So if you have a standard camera flash then you can use it to shoot macro. I think a dedicated flash like the MR-14EX is easier to use, and even the MT-24EX is great once you learn how to diffuse it and get the quality of light that you want. But your speedlights or a 430EX, 580EX, etc. will work just fine -all you have to do is diffuse it and get it close to the subject (so the flash duration will be short). You don't have to get a dedicated macro flash -but it is more convenient to have one. Experiment and see what looks good to you -part of developing your own style ;)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Sunny 16 Rule for Macro part II

This post is just an example of using the Sunny 16 Rule for Macro. I was shooting this bee while the sun was behind some moderate cloud cover. The temperature was in the low teens Celsius (that’s low 50s Fahrenheit for those of you who are metrically impaired ;) and the bee’s metabolism dropped since it didn’t have the sun to help keep it warm. Shooting at ISO 200 gave me this exposure:

Bee in a Cup #2

Notice that there is some green in the background, but not much. It’s pretty much a flash only shot –not enough natural light to help expose anything in the scene. But then the sun came out, and I knew that I could change to ISO 400 and get the natural light to expose the background for me and that’s what I did for this next shot:

Bee in a Cup #1

Identical scenes with the same camera settings for aperture (F11) and shutter (1/250) but with a higher ISO and more natural light in the second image –the background is completely illuminated by the sun and not the flash. I could have changed the Fstop to 8 and left the ISO at 200, but I didn’t want to give up any depth of field.

Very easy to do and the final image doesn’t look like a flash shot because the background is exposed…

Monday, April 7, 2008

Comfort Zone

Three Seconds
Originally uploaded by Dalantech.
From time to time I learn new things about the critters that I photograph and I’ll blog about them. Recently I’ve come to realize that insects have a comfort zone.

Many of you just said “Duh!”… :)

But I’m not talking about the comfort zone that you have in your head, where insects tolerate you up to a certain point and then fly off (usually happens at less than a meter). What I’m referring to is an area that’s even closer –very close. Tickle the subject on the chin kinda close. I don’t know if they reach a point where they just don’t care, or if I’m so large in their field of view that they can’t resolve me as anything other than a part of the background. But there is this zone, and it’s different from species to species, where I can get really close and the critter doesn’t seem to notice. As long as I don’t make any sudden moves, or back up to make any adjustments on the camera, I can sit and take images for as long as I want (or until it finishes feeding on a flower and decides to move on).

The hard part is getting into that comfort zone.

The key to a feeding insect, like the solitary bee I’ve included in this shot, is to wait until it starts feeding and then move in. If you approach it too soon then it will just take off, but don’t wait too long or it will finish feeding and move on anyway. Timing, and practice, but it can be done.

Also keep in mind that some insects, when they notice you, will freeze. I think it may be that some predators key off of movement, so they are hard wired to sit still. Again don’t make any sudden moves, and if you back off even the slightest to adjust the camera the insect will be gone.

So be patient, and look for those comfort zones…