Shooting a frog close-up

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We have awesome neighbors. They do lots of cool stuff with their kids like digging up fossils in a quarry, visiting historical and scientific museums and conducting science experiments at home like growing crystals. Their newest project are frogs. They caught some tadpoles from a pond and watched them hatch and transform into frogs in a small aquarium at home. When I learned about that project the 105mm macro lens magically flew onto my D800 and the aquarium traveled from their home to mine for an intense shoot-out.

I placed the aquarium on a table, surrounding it with black canvas from my studio. As a light source I used an SB-700 with a Lumiquest Softbox III attached to spread the light over a wider area. This one is my favorite shot from the session:

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Getting decent pictures was very difficult. First of all, the glass of the aquarium was very dirty due to water splashes the frogs created over time. Secondly, aquarium glass is not optical glass, so some quality loss due to an additional layer of glass was inevitable. Third: The frogs clanged to the glass, staring outside the aquarium as if they had the urge to flee. So the walls of the aquarium would always be in the picture like in this one:

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The best results were obtained when the light came from above as shown in the first two images (I hope the little fellas were not too scared by the photonic bombardment). But also light flashed in from the side could produce somewhat presentable results:

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In post the contrast and clarity sliders were my best friends. It is amazing how much detail and, er, clarity these parameters give to your image. The milky haze of the aquarium glass could be reduced (see also this post from a shooting in the zoo for a similar situation). Stains on the aquarium walls or stuff floating in the water could easily be cloned away.

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With more time and patience and better preparation (thoroughly cleaning the aquarium for example) even more impressive pictures could have been taken. If I had waited long enough the frogs would have climbed the wooden branches floating in the water at some point giving a beautiful subject. But I had only one evening and, being restless and impatient AND not wanting to toast the frogs with my flash, I did not go further.

Finally, for your information, there were two frogs in the aquarium. The one you see above was developed completely, the second one was at an intermediate stage between a tadpole and a frog. He seemed to make fun of my photographic attempts by clinging to a lower corner of the aquarium the-whole-damn-time throughout the shooting. This way I had no chance to shoot him against a nice background. Again, the image is for your information to see how a half-finished frog looks like :-)20140731-Tadpole-001

Recap: Cleaning your sensor

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Today I noticed that the sensor of my D610 has quite some dust on it. Usually you don’t see the specks but in darker areas the dust suddenly gets visible. A good method for checking the sensor’s cleanness is to shoot something with not too much texture and underexpose violently. In well-lit images the dust seems to be “overridden” by the brightness of the surrounding pixels, but once the image gets darker the dust becomes visible. I chose to shoot the sky and manually underexpose by five stops, the maximum my camera will allow. This is what I saw (click image for a larger version):

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Notice the accumulation of dust particles in the upper left corner of the frame. Now there are several methods to clean your sensor, I already wrote about that in the past, click here if you would like to read the post. Since I was lazy (and still a little anxious to use sensor swabs and cleaning agent) I decided to use just a rocket blower. I removed the lens and entered live view mode to expose the sensor. Yes, there is a dedicated function to expose the sensor for cleaning, but did I mention I am a lazy bum ? I pointed the camera downward in order to let heavier particles fall out after they have been blown off the sensor and started squeezing the rocket blower (short, strong bursts). After that I took another image and see what happened:

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Whopeeee, some spots vanished. But dust seems to be quite pesky as many particles were still on the sensor. So I used the rocket blower a second time and took an image:

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And a third time…

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And most of the spots are gone. There are still plenty of them, but, being lazy, lalala you know the rest, I left it like that.

It’s a very quick and easy method to remove dust from your sensor and comparatively safe (just try not to ram the rocket blower tip into the sensor). It is not a dust-free solution as the rocket blower might as well blow new dust onto the sensor, but it is a very good method for cleaning the sensor on the go.

Fireworks photography

Today’s post is about fireworks. As many readers come from the US I know you recently had huge fireworks on the 4th of July, but you still might get some inspiration on how to shoot fireworks for next year’s celebrations.

I went to a festival here in Hanover, the “Kleines Fest im großen Garten” which roughly translates to “Small festival in the big garden”. It is a wonderful event set in the Herrenhausen gardens, which used to be the royal gardens of the Hanover dynasty. About thirty small stages are erected throughout the park for comedians, magicians, performers, musicians and artists. Actors dressed as fantastic magical creatures roam the park and create a unique, dreamlike atmosphere.

The day was topped with fireworks and that is where today’s photography topic kicks in. I set up my tripod at a pool with a nice view on some festival tents. I went directly to the basin rim in order not to have another person getting in front of me. Since the place where I stood was not too crowded there was no danger of being pushed into the water. I used the Nikon D610 with the 24-70 mm f2.8. The 14-24 mm would have been better, but I already carried two heavy lenses that day and could not take another one, so I had to work with 24 mm.

The camera settings in short:

  • manual mode
  • 10 sec, f13, ISO 100 (I set 10 sec, ISO 100 and made some test shots before the fireworks started to find an aperture that worked in the fading daylight)
  • don’t forget to turn Auto-ISO off if you use it
  • focus set to infinity, autofocus off

This way I had absolute control over the camera  settings, fully manual. I did not use a remote control but pressed the shutter button gently each time to avoid camera shake. I tried to time my shots with the explosions, but that is more of a guessing game than a technique. If you look closely you can see a faint trail of the firework bombs which ascend and try to guess the moment they will explode. But honestly, most of the time I just pressed the shutter as soon as a 10 sec exposure was finished.

Keep an eye on the framing. Try to keep a part of the horizon in the frame to have a reference for the eye to see the size of the fireworks. I was lucky to have such a beautiful scenery with the reflecting pool and the tents. During the fireworks I changed the framing several times after checking the image on the display. Thanks to a ballhead on my tripod this could be done very quickly (note: the two portrait images in the gallery are crops of landscape shots).

And, last but not least, don’t forget to appreciate the fireworks ! Take your time during the exposure to look upwards and experience the light, the colors, the magic. You might also not die if you don’t take pictures for one or two minutes to allow the sensation of the fireworks to sink in ;-)

Avoiding closed eyes in flash photography

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There are people whose eyes are closed or half-closed on every single picture when they are photographed using a flash. Getting a decent portrait of such a person is difficult. Today I want to explain the background to that circumstance and show two ways of avoiding closed eyes.

Blinking is a natural reflex. The average human blinks every 4-6 seconds with a duration of around 300-400 ms per blink (source: wikipedia). You automatically do it so that your eyes won’t dry out. It is also a protection reflex against foreign object or intense light. It is that protection reflex, in combination with TTL mode, that ruins your photos.

What happens in TTL mode
In TTL mode the flash fires a short test burst (pre-flash). The reflected light enters the lens and is measured (thus the name TTL: “Through the lens”). Now the camera knows the flash power A of the pre-flash and the amount of reflected light B which is captured by the camera. By using that ratio the camera can determine how strong the main burst must be in order to get a decent exposure. Now the main burst fires and the image is taken. The whole process is so quick that you don’t see the two flashes, you perceive it as being one flash. But actually there is a short timespan between the test burst and the main burst.

Why the subject has its eyes closed
The pre-flash has been fired. The subject’s brain detects the flash and triggers the protection reflex. The subject blinks, but at the same time the camera has finished calculating the required flash power and takes the exposure. The shutter opens, the main flash fires while the subject has its eyes closed and the result is a dorky image.

Now you might say “But blinking is a very quick process, so why is it a problem ?”. Take a look at the numbers. Let’s say your exposure with flash is 1/250 s, which equals to 4 ms. Blinking takes roughly a hundred times longer, 300 or 400 ms.

How to avoid closed eyes
First of all, don’t tell such a person to “keep the eyes open”. They can’t control it, that is why it is called a reflex. The person will blink, no matter what you tell them.
What you have to do is to find a way to bypass the pre-flash. Here are two ways to do that:

20140712-M-MODE-0011.) Go manual. Set your flash to M mode and start shooting. This way the pre-flash is eliminated because you manually adjust the flash power. The person will still blink, but the blinking will occur after the image has been taken. It takes the human brain some time to detect the light and send the blink-command back to your eyes. In most cases the delay is long enough to take an image and not have the subject blink on it. But going to manual is more of a workaround than a real solution. Also manual might not be very convenient when you are in a situation which requires constant adjustments of the flash output levels. So here is another method.

2.) Separate pre-flash and main flash. To achieve this  you have to customize the function of the “AE-L AF-L” (Auto Exposure Lock, Auto Focus Lock) button to lock the flash value. The button is usually located at the back of your camera, next to the viewfinder. And usually it does exactly that – lock the autofocus, the exposure or both of them. But it can also be configured to lock the flash value. The setting (at Nikon cameras) is called “FV lock” (“flash value”). In the gallery below I illustrated how to configure the button (again, example Nikon).

Once the AE-L AF-L button is pressed the pre-flash is fired (subject will blink) and the camera measures and saves the values. Keep the button pressed until after you have hit the shutter button. When you press the shutter button the main flash fires and the image is taken. Your subject will blink again, but since there is no pre-flash this time the subject will not have enough time to blink during the exposure.

 

The Tamron 150-600 mm telezoom lens

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The Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD telezoom lens is quite new on the market and seems to sell like hot cakes. The lens is a telezoom ranging from 150 mm to 600 mm, which is absolutely amazing. I ordered mine on June 9th and the package was delivered on July 03rd. Currently Amazon lists the Nikon version to be out of stock. The most important specs in short:

  • type: 150-600m f/5-6.3 full frame telezoom lens
  • autofocus: ultrasonic motors
  • image stabilizer
  • internal focussing system
  • filter size: 95 mm
  • weight: 1.951 g
  • length retracted without hood: 257 mm
  • length fully extended and with hood: 438 mm
  • price: 1.199 € (July 2014)

Let me show you how that monster looks like:

The lens barrel is made out of a sturdy plastic material which makes a high-quality impression. When I first read “plastic barrel” I was sceptic but trust me – the lens does not feel cheap. The mounting bracket on the other hand is made of metal, which is necessary to support the weight of the lens. Even with “only” using plastic the lens weighs 1.951 g, I don’t want to think about the weight if they had used metal for the lens barrel instead. The switches also seem to be robust, the sliding action during zooming is accompanied by a quiet hissing as the materials slide against each other. With the lens hood attached and the barrel fully extended the lens nearly sports a whooping 44 cm, which is, well, look at the images.

To give you an impression of the zoom let me show you my favorite subject – the moon. There was a nice half moon and I shot a sequence of images at different focal lengths. Note I did not use a tripod but rested both elbows on the window ledge. The image stabilizer (VC – vibration control in Tamron-speak) was turned on.

It is incredible how much detail one can see at 600 mm. Here is another test shot. The camera is pointed towards the clear sky, handheld, image stabilizer on.

The plane looks hazy but keep in mind that it is approx. 11 km away from the camera. But those were only test shots. The next day I went to the zoo to give the Tamron a good test run. To make life easier I used a carbon monopod to support camera and lens during shooting. A monopod is a very good investment once you have such a heavy load to carry. Shooting with the Tamron was big fun. The ability to zoom in very closely gave me the opportunity to get some interesting animal portraits. The huge focal range leaves much freedom when you are composing your shot. The autofocus is very fast, which also lots of fun.

The lens is very sharp. I was amazed how much detail even at high focal lengths is captured. Some reviews I read about the lens prior to buying claimed that at the long end the sharpness would suffer. But take a look at the 100 % crops I made. The sharpness even at 600 mm is totally what I would call very good. If you are a pixel peeper you might cry out loud now, but keep in mind that most images one takes will be published at a lower resolution than they have been taken with. So any minute unsharpness which might be present will be “diluted” in the process of downscaling the RAW file to a JPG (That argument alone helped me to suppress my sharpness fetish and not listen to the pixel peeper demon inside me).

I’ll stop blabbering about the lens for now, look at the images and see for yourself (Note: All images were mage using a monopod for extra stability)

20140705-Tamron-carrying-001A tip about carrying lens, camera and monopod around. I used the method shown in the image on the right, which I found very convenient. I grabbed the lens at the mounting bracket, which has grooves for your fingers. The monopod points upwards. This way you have a firm grip on the camera and the monopod is out of the way. The only disadvantage is that you need space to flip the whole setup around. If that is not given you should rest the camera on your shoulder, so that the monopod is pointing downwards at any given time.

Bottom line: The Tamron 150-600 mm is a formidable telezoom. It is well built, very sharp and has a fast and very silent focussing system. Shooting with that lens is big fun. The price/performance ratio is unbeatable, other lenses in that focal range are much more expensive. I think the Tamron will find its way into the lens collection of many nature and animal photographers.

Apple ceases development of Aperture and iPhoto

Apple has announced that with the development of OS X Yosemite they will focus on the new Photos app and cease development of Aperture and iPhoto. That is not good news. With Aperture and iPhoto Apple had two very powerful tools for managing and processing images. iPhoto is targeted towards “normal” users while Aperture is a professional workflow software for photographers and also the only real rival (in terms of market share) of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

In OS X Yosemite the Photos app will be the substitute for both. Without knowing the exact feature list of Photos one can tell that it is likely that the software will be a mix between its two predecessors. More functions than in iPhoto, less than in Aperture (that’s my guess). But however this may come out at the end, the main competitor for Lightroom will phase out of the market. Adobe has already announced that they will offer a migration tool for people who want to switch to Lightroom.

That means less competition for Adobe. Less pressure on the development of Lightroom. And finally, less pressure on the price. Now Adobe is more or less free to set a price for Lightroom. At the moment you have to rent the software together with Photoshop CC for 9,99 USD a month (or 12,99 EUR because Europeans love to get ripped off :-( ). With Aperture gone there might be less development on the software, but more development on the price tag.

Let’s hope Apple’s new Photos app will be a real killer.

How to give feedback

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In 2010 I wrote about a shoot I made using a Range 2000 film camera. The Range 2000 is the embodiment of point-and-shoot: Fixed aperture, fixed focal length, fixed focus, fixed shutter speed. I shared some of the images from that film roll on the blog.

Now I received an email from a reader. He bought a Range 2000 on eBay and, while waiting for the camera to arrive, searched for the topic on the net and found my website. Long story short – He really liked the images and wrote a very kind email in which he explained exactly that to me. No other inquiry, just the feedback.

Why am I blogging about that email ?

Besides from totally making my day that email is a textbook example on how positive feedback can (and should) be given. There are several aspects which make that feedback stand out from other comments I received.
(Note: The rules below are valid in nearly any context, not only photography. Also they do not only apply for positive, but also negative feedback. Also keep in mind that I am reflecting on my personal opinion here).

  1. The medium. He chose to contact me via email although there is a comment box below the post. I appreciate that a lot. Why ? Every medium requires a different amount of effort. Think about wishing somebody a Happy Birthday for example. Writing on the Facebook wall is done very quickly, just a few keystrokes (“Happy Bday”). Writing an email takes more time. A phone call takes even more time. And think about sending a (physical) birthday card…
    Don’t get me wrong. Every single one of these ways to wish a Happy Birthday is wonderful and valuable. But some ways are just a little more because they require more effort.
  2. Giving a reason for the praise. Besides from telling me he liked the images he also gave reasons for that. He mentioned the framing, the choice of subjects and how that relates to the medium of b/w film photography.
    Telling people WHY you like something will make your feedback stand out from 99% of the internet. Scroll through Flickr for example and look at the comments. Most comments go like “beautiful”, “wonderful pic” or “awesome”. That’s cool. But you can be different. Say what you like (or don’t like). This is more valuable because it shows that you took some time to think about the images and have some dedicated thoughts you would like to share. Again, more effort.
  3. A personal reference. In that email he made a personal remark which underlines the uniqueness of his feedback. He told me that looking at the Range 2000 images in the gallery re-sparked his enthusiasm for photography which he believed had vanished. That one makes me very proud, nothing to add here.

These three simple things can make your feedback even better and increase the impact your words will have on the addressee. The points above apply to positive feedback, in which case the writer just wanted to underline that he is fond of the images. But in most cases feedback also contains elements which are supposed to help the addressee improve his/her work. In photography terms this is a photo critique. The rules are simple and are often called a “feedback sandwich”:

  • Say what you like about the images
  • Then say what could have been made better
  • Close with a positive remark.

I won’t give any examples here but link to a photo critique from US-based photographer Jared Polin, who runs the site froknowsphoto.com. Jared is a hyperactive YouTuber and produces several videos per week. He often does what he dubbed a “rapid fire critique”, where he goes through a certain set of images and feedbacks the photographers. His videos are a good example on how a photo critique (feedback) can look like (even if he does not like an image he feedbacks in a way which is constructive and honest).

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