Category Archives: technique

Focus Stacking With The Camera’s Help

One of the functions that my new camera has built in is a focus stacking function.  I know this is not unique to this camera but it is a first for me so I was keen to play with it.  The mode, when enabled, allows you to set how many shots you want taken and set a scale for how close the focus points will be to each other.  You then pick you initial focus point and set it off and it takes the sequence of shots incrementing the focus slightly between each one.

The resulting stack of images can then be processed in Photoshop to get the focus stacked output.  This is so much nicer than making minor focus adjustments by hand between shots.  The sequence gets created really quickly.  I also was able to do reshoots easily.  On one of the sequences, I had left it on auto ISO so it shot at a really high ISO level.  I could reshoot with the ISO set low (tripod mounting means this was not a problem) in no time at all.  (As an aside, the focus stacking algorithm actually seems to do a good job of reducing noise as well.)

I experimented with how fine a scale to use.  Initially, I was taking way too many shots with very little movement through the image so I coarsened up the scale a bit.  The nice thing was, if it didn’t go all through the range, I could just hit the shutter again and it would keep going.  Photoshop chunked through the processing pretty well.  I was shooting a few things but also experimented with some coins on my desk.  Not the most original subject but one that shows the result well unlike the other things I was shooting.  The software seemed to struggle a little on some of the coin edges so maybe a finer shoot next time or maybe I should just hand blend those bits.

Shooting After Sunset

For a while, I had been thinking about trying to do some night photography of airliners.  I had seen some good shots people had got but SeaTac does not have a lot of ambient light to illuminate aircraft flying overhead.  It would be better if there was a large public space under the approach that would provide so brightness to work with.  I was down at SeaTac to pick up a colleague and knew I would be there as the sun went down so I decided to have a go at some shots.

I used the 70-200 f/2.8 to get as much light as possible.  The sun was going down so I was going through quite the transition of lighting conditions.  Some were just twilight while other were when things were getting quite dark.  The autofocus was also struggling since the center point was being used and the underside of the jet lacked much contrast in the dark.  I still got a few usable images.  The lack of light means they aren’t too great but it was fun to try something different.  Now to find a better location!

Various Ways To Stitch A Panorama

Lightroom has three methods for stitching the panoramas together.  I tend to use one but for some shots, a different style is beneficial.  I was flipping through some shots of an HH-101 Caesar helicopter that I took at RIAT in 2019.  I also had a Danish AW101 that I had shot in pano format.  The Danish airframe had not been shot as well as it could have been and I did not have sufficient coverage.  I decided to try different versions of the stitching to see which one gave the best result.  Some result in a more natural look while others look more fish eyed.  I can also stitch in Photoshop which gives me more capability for filling in gaps but, with the tricky areas being the rotors, that wasn’t going to work well since the AI is not going to work that out.  Stitching also allows some warping to fill edge gaps but this can mess with the alignment of the main part of the image.  I tried a couple of versions and they are compared here.

Night Touchdown

I posted about some night photography I tried on jets approaching SeaTac.  After finishing that up I was heading to the terminal to pick up my colleague and I decided to go for a shot of touchdown in the dark.  This was not going to be an easy one to get since it is really pretty dark at the north end of the airport so little ambient light.  I was relying on the lights of the jet and pushing the ISO to a really high level.  It is true that the noise gets really tough in those conditions but when looking at the image at a normal size, it really is not a big deal.  Besides, it is a shot we would never have done in pre-digital days.

Go With The Long Lens

For quite a while I have been shooting almost exclusively with the 100-400mm lens while photographing aircraft.  Recently, I knew I had a couple of smaller aircraft inbound and I picked up the 500mm which hadn’t got a lot of use for a while.  While it is a fixed focal length and therefore inflexible for things getting too close, with something small, it works out fine.  When I checked out the images later, I noticed that I had a far higher keeper rate at low shutter speeds than I have got recently with the 100-400.

I decided to stick with it again on another day of shooting and had similar results.  I decided even to sacrifice the closer shots and work with the long lens to get framing I wanted further away and to then go for close ups of details when things got too large.  I was overall very happy with the results.  I think the weight of the 500mm is such that it is a lot harder to disturb it with small twitches.  The 100-400 is so much lighter, maybe it is more sensitive to my lack of smoothness.  The inertia of the big lens is a benefit.  I think I shall be using it more again going forward.  Besides, it is so sharp when you get it right!

Trouble Printing Due to Color Management

The number of emails I get each day telling me about amazing offers is substantial and they almost never survive more than a cursory glance.  However, Walgreens were doing 60% off poster prints and I had been reworking an image I had done a while back of the Bembridge lifeboat.  I had changed the titling, added a logo and repositioned the images slightly and wanted to reprint it.  The original print was done by MPix but I figured the Walgreens print was so cheap, why not give it a go.

I tried to upload the jpeg that I had exported from Lightroom but they said its dimensions were too large.  I went in to Photoshop, resized it, changed the color space to sRGB and saved as a jpeg.  This I uploaded to Walgreens without any trouble.  I should have been worried at the time that the screen thumbnail looked a little muddy but I ordered the print.  Later that day I went and got it.  Sure enough, it was dull.  (Another print I got at the same time was fine so I figured it wasn’t just their printing being poor.)

I went back to the image in Photoshop and it was set to sRGB as I expected.  Poor colors are most likely to be a color management issue.  I then went to the properties of the files in Windows Explorer and, for some reason, the color space of the Photoshop created file was not defined.  It was on me and not Walgreens.  I took the original image and exported it from Lightroom with a limit on the long edge and uploaded that one.  It looked fine this time and the resulting print – another offer came up fortunately – was exactly as I wanted.  In these comparisons, while taken with my phone, hopefully you can see how different the colors are.  The oranges are particularly harmed on the boats and even the rust dust thrown up from the slipway.  I thought I had done it right but still had an error creep in.  Lesson learned.

Mistake with a Polarizer

I have been using the polarizer a lot during the summer with my photos.  The high sun provides harsh lighting and a lot of contrast and I have been using the filter to cut down the light and to try and reduce glare from white aircraft fuselages.  It has mainly been used on my longer lens also helping to get shutter speed down to provide some motion blur in backgrounds.  However, I did put it on a wider lens when some planes were taxiing past me.

This proved to be a mistake.  It did take out some of the glare and make things a little more balanced from a contrast perspective but, when used on a wide angle lens, it did result in some unintended effects in the skies.  The polarizer effect is quite varied depending on your angle relative to the sun and this results in quite a dark sky in one part of the shot and a brighter sky in the other.  The result is an odd effect which distracts from the plane itself.  Consequently, I have avoided using this filter for these shots more recently.

New Lightroom Feature I Don’t Have Yet

I have seen announcements from Adobe about a feature that is coming soon to Lightroom which seems particularly appealing to me.  When dealing with dull and overcast conditions, I shoot quite heavily overexposed.  This gives me a lot more shadow detail to work with and also still allows me to pull back detail in the sky.  On a dull day, a couple of stops of overexposure can work quite effectively.  The Lightroom/Camera Raw editing only has a limited amount you can do with the exposure and shadows sliders so it is not ideal for this.  However, the new version of Lightroom is going to use AI to analyze the image for a subject to be selected or a sky.  What I didn’t realize was that this was already available in Photoshop.  I decided to have a play with it there to see how it works and get a feel for the way it might work in Lightroom soon.

I opened the image in Photoshop as a Smart Object.  I then created a New Smart Object Via Copy to duplicate the object.  In Select, I picked Subject and it did a pretty good job of selecting the airframe.  Some edges were a little vague but overall pretty good.  I used that selection to make a mask on the upper layer.  Then, I was able to open each Smart Object in Camera Raw and edit them each to optimize the sky or the background.  Some tweaking was occasionally required to ensure that it didn’t look like a bad superimposed job but it worked quite well.  Lightroom will have this function as a filter so I should be able to do something similar in there but we shall see when it gets released.  If it works, it could be a great addition to the editing toolset.  I wish I had known about it in Photoshop before to be honest!

UPDATE: The Lightroom update is now out and I have played with it a bit. I think it is even better than the Photoshop implmentation so I shall put together a more detailed post on how it is working out for me.

DxO PureRAW Testing

Whenever you suddenly see a bunch of YouTube videos on a similar topic, you wonder whether a company has been sending out copies of its product to people to get them talking about it.  I think this must be the case with DxO Mark since I have come across a lot of videos about their new raw convertor, PureRAW.  Having watched a couple of the videos – the technique clearly works – I was curious about the capabilities of the product.  Since they provide a 30 day free trial, I decided to give it a go.

One of the topics which seems to get people really worked up if they are too focused on the products and less on the photos you take with them is Raw conversions.  You can shoot JPEGs in camera but, if you shoot Raw, you tend to have a lot more flexibility with post processing.  (For those not in to this stuff – and I am amazed you are still reading this if that is the case – a Raw file is the data that comes off the sensor with very little processing applied.). Software developers come up with their own ways of converting this data into an image.  Camera manufacturers provide their own raw converters but they don’t share the detailed understanding with the software manufacturers so they have to create their own.

The most widespread software provider is Adobe with their Camera Raw convertor built in to Photoshop and Lightroom.  There are others with their own software and you can come across some quite heated discussions online about which is the best.  Hyperbole abounds in these discussions with anyone getting in to the debate almost always dismissing Camera Raw as terrible.  It’s clearly not terrible but it might have its limitations.

PureRAW is a convertor which doesn’t really give you much control.  Instead, it takes the Raw file, does its magic and then creates a new DNG raw file which you can them import direct in to Lightroom (if you choose – which I do) to continue to edit in much the same way you would have previously.  Watching the reviews, they seemed to suggest that for normal shots at normal ISO settings, there was not much in it.  However, for high ISO images, they showed significant differences with reduced noise, sharper images and clearer detail.  Some reviewers thought it might even be a bit oversharpened.

I figured I would try out my own experimentation with some really high ISO images.  I have some shots at ridiculously high ISO settings that I took at night or in poorly lit environments.  These seemed like a good place to start.  The workflow is not ideal – this would not be something I do for all images but only for some that seemed like they would need it – because I have to select the shot from Windows Explorer (getting there by right clicking on the image in Lightroom) and then drag in to PureRAW.  I can drag a whole bunch of shots over there before having to do anything to them.

The program will download profiles for the camera and lens combinations if it doesn’t already have them and you have to agree to this.  Not sure why it doesn’t do it automatically to be honest but I guess there is a reason.  When you have all of the shots of interest selected, you click Process and off it goes.  It isn’t terribly fast but I wasn’t dealing with a huge number of shots.  Interestingly, I took a look at Task Manager to see how much resource it was using and the processor was barely ticking over so it wasn’t stressing the machine at all.  At a later stage, for reasons I shall explain in a while, I did deactivate the use of the graphics card and things got considerably slower.

When the processing is finished, you have the option to export them to Lightroom.  It saves them in a sub folder for the original folder and they all import together.  Since I have Lightroom sort by capture time, the new files arrive alongside the original which makes comparing them pretty simple.  For the 204,000 ISO shot (an extended range ISO for that camera), things were slightly better but still really noisy.  For the 51,000 ISO shots, things actually did appear to be pretty impressive.  I have a normal profile for the camera that I use for the raw conversion and a preset for high ISO conversions and the comparison is not dramatic but it is definitely a sharper, more detailed and slightly cleaner result.

I have put pairs of shots in the post with crops in on each image to give a comparison of the output so you can judge for yourself.  Will I buy the software?  I don’t know.  It is currently $90.  That is quite a bit for software that does one thing only.  The interface with my workflow is a bit clunky and it has benefit in a relatively limited set of circumstances from what I have seen so far.

Now for some further feedback as my experimentation has progressed.  I did try the tool out on some more normal shots.  There are some minor differences from a conversion of the raw within Lightroom but they don’t seem to be significant enough to justify the investment.  I played with some shots that had very contrasty scenes and it was slightly less noisy but, again, not that big a deal.  They also felt over sharpened.

I have had some problems with the program.  After a while, I got conversions where the new DNG file was just black.  This happened on a few occasions.  I found switching to CPU only solved the issue but only after I deleted the DNGs that had been created.  Interestingly, once I went back to Auto mode, it continued to work.  A weird bug and not one unique to me apparently.  I have also had erratic results when it exports to Lightroom with it failing to do so on a number of occasions.  This is really laborious to deal with and, combined with the fact that the drag from Lightroom to PrimeRAW only works on a Mac and not on Windows, the lack of integration is really enough to put me off.

So far, I will let the trial expire.  It is a tool that is capable of some interesting improvements in more extreme situations but the integration is poor and the benefits are limited for me so, with that in mind, it just isn’t worth the expenditure.  If it made more of a difference to normal shots, I might consider it but it currently doesn’t offer enough to justify the cost or the process slowdown.

Polarizing the Overfliers

I was in a location where a couple of the departures from SEA were overflying me.  I happened to have the camera to hand (of course I did) and I had the polarizer on there at the time.  I had an Alaska Airlines 737 (what a shock from SEA) and a Hawaiian Airlines A330.  I grabbed a few shots.  The thing I like about the polarizer is cutting down on the glare from the white fuselages but they were still pretty bright.  The rest of the sky was darkened considerably and, when editing to address the white fuselages, even more dark.  I quite like the deep and moody look it gives to the shots with very little editing involved.  Both jets pulled some vapor as they came through the same area so clearly there was extra moisture in that one spot.  Maybe it was a thermal?