The processing performed on these images is quite basic, but it takes time and effort. Some photographers would just snap JPG images and release them largely unedited, but to me, post-processing from a raw image is 60% of the finished product. The final images draw the viewer's attention to the subject and make her look as stunning as she is in real life!
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When I take photos of people, I like to do something out of the ordinary with them. Of course, I take all the standard closeup portraits on the beach etc that Okinawa is famous for, but for clients who want a little more dazzle, I'm happy to provide it.
This shot was taken for an amateur photographer who wanted a photo of him taking pictures. He was thinking about the typical "in action" shots you see of photographers holding cameras up to their eyes, but I had something else in mind. He had no idea I was going to shoot him like this until I told him to hold perfectly still and snapped this 30 second exposure. I called him over to the camera and showed him the viewfinder. "Wow!" was his response. When your clients say that word, you know you've made them happy.
The next shot was an impromptu session with three strangers who happened by at 3 AM when I was taking shots of the milky way in Onna. I asked if they wanted to model for me and they gleefully agreed. This was the result.
The subjects were lit with the flashlight app on an iPhone. For the 30 second exposure, it was almost too bright. The gazebo was lit by my my flashlight held out to the right of the camera to give it some angle. This is a single exposure. The stars are what we saw with our eyes, no Photoshop trickery. Needless to say, the three strangers were thrilled.
In a professional photo session, I'll take more standard shots too. These "out of the ordinary" shots are something I do in addition because for me, photography is more of an art than a business.
Would you like pictures like this of you and your loved ones? Send me an email at info (at mark) psgrieve dot com, or use this form. 沖縄に住んでいる人は特別な割引可能性です。
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Night shooting with long exposures involves a whole lot of photographic challenges, but when you get it right, the reward is more than worth the effort.
This picture was taken long after sunset at Cape Zanpa in Okinawa Japan. This might be one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world, so getting a truly original picture takes a bit of forethought... and ideally a full frame camera with a decent kit of lenses. Don't get me wrong. It's possible to get some very good long exposure shots with a point and shoot on manual settings, but it really helps to have a camera capable of shooting at relatively high ISO settings, a full frame sensor to collect as much light as possible and lenses like the 14mm f/2.8 prime I used to take the photo above.
This is really a simple shot. I opened the aperture to its widest setting, framed the shot, then guessed based on experience what ISO and shutter speed to use, settling on 800 and 15 seconds respectively. That worked like a charm. If it didn't, I'd just shoot again until I got it right.
I took a bunch of brackets at different ISO settings and shutter speeds to get different cloud patterns. Too short and the sky is underexposed. Too long and the cloud streaks turn into haze and the stars turn into lines. This is the shot from this series I liked best.
Post processing of this shot was a simple matter of using a brush tool in Lightroom to bring up the foreground exposure slightly, then using a gradient filter on the sky to bring up the contrast. Shooting raw, I set the while balance in post to match the color temperature of the light house so that the sky behind it would be a deep blue. I used the blue HSL slider to further increase the saturation of the sky, but only at a very conservative setting, or the stars and wispy clouds would disappear.
The next shot presented more of a post processing challenge.
This image was lit with moonlight. This is a 60 second exposure on ISO 1,000 using a 24-70mm lens at its widest setting. This (intentionally) produced an image that was overexposed by about 1.5 stops. I brought it down in Lightroom using the Exposure slider, the applied a gradient filter to the sky to increase contrast. I also used a gradient filter on the foreground to reduce exposure, since the full moon was so bright.
I also straightened this image to make the lighthouse and the monument vertical, since the distortion produced by the 24mm lens made them both lean in toward the centre. This meant that the bottom corners of the image got cut off at an angle, so to compensate, I used photoshop to fill them in using the content aware setting. The bushes and ground are the kind of patters that reproduce easily, and the corners at the bottom did not contain key information, so I don't call this "cheating."
In next image, I got to have a bit of fun.
My friend went looking for a tighter frame of the lighthouse and I decided to take a shot of him taking his shot. Luckily for me, and airplane was on approach to Naha airport to the south. On a 30 second exposure, he made it all the way out of the frame and left me with a wonderful streak across my photo. The truth is we waited for the plane to enter the frame thinking it would only make it part way across, but it was moving faster than we thought. The effect is truly dazzling!
Then my friend's wife showed up with curry for both of us and started doing yoga behind us. I suggested that she do some poses in the frame and she happily agreed. We waited for another aircraft, and this was the amazing result.
The thing every photographer needs to remember about night shooting is that the magic doesn't always happen. The clouds, the moon and the wind direction all came together to make these shots possible. Equipment is helpful, skill is important, patience is essential... and luck is indispensable!
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Let me just say straight up that speedlights are a wonderful thing. But not if you're shooting animals. When shooting a family portrait, it's always good to have the option of adding fill light, ideally from an off camera source, but most pets are intolerant of the bright, intermittent light. That means your time window for shooting portraits is somewhat narrower than if would be were you just shooting people. It also means that you have to be prepared to do a lot of work in post processing to bring out the correct exposures and skin tones.
Take this shot, photographed at Sunabebaba Beach in Okinawa. In order to be able to recover the detail in the clouds, I had to be sure not to over-expose it. However, unless I was prepared to shoot silhouettes, it was also necessary to bring out the exposure hot enough that I selectively could bring up the shadows without introducing too much noise. The trick here is to expose for the sky and shoot about one stop too hot. Since the clouds are not the main point of interest, it's okay if they're a bit blown out. The Canon 5D Mk2 I was shooting on is quite good at capturing detail in the highlights which can be brought out in Adobe Lightroom. Lightroom is also quite good at selective dodging, provided you don't try to push it too hard. The shadows were brought up about 50% with a slider, then I used a brush tool to bring up the faces. This has to be used sparingly, or about 1/5 to 1/4 of a stop. More than that and it starts to look too obvious.
In addition to bring up the shadows and pulling down the clouds, I also did some selective coloring. It was really quite a bleak day and the subtle gradations in color temperature present in the clouds just didn't come through on the sensor. I didn't use specialized software for this, partly because it's expensive and partly because the art of photography, to me, is about teasing out the beauty from within a photograph, not adding it with software. I'm not above doing that if that;s what the client wants, but I think April and her family were pretty happy with this.
Of course, not all shots are so challenging. The next one was taken directly into the sun on a hazy day. I set my exposure for the bright backlight that was present when I posed the models and started snapping. Young Aiden gave me a terrific smile, but Jet just wouldn't look at the camera. At least, not until the sun went behind a cloud. With my exposure still set for the bright light, I kept snapping, knowing the shot would be underexposed. That's okay, because it meant I wouldn't be fighting to get the detail back in the background. All I had to do was bring up the shadows and use a brush tool to accentuate the highlights from the sun behind the subject. The result is quite pleasing, if I say so myself.
This shot needed more color than the sun would give me through the clouds, so I applied a brush to the the ocean and brought the color temperature down a bit. The goal was to bring back the beautiful aqua color without going overboard. I generally like to bring out the colors using the vibrance slider, but the orange shirt started looking rather intense too soon. The way I handled that was to bring down the orange saturation slider in the HSL section. This took some of the warmth out of the photo overall, but I can live with that. The look is closer to that of a shot taken much earlier in the day, say mid afternoon as opposed to what would have been golden hour had the haze not been so thick.
These are two of 15 photos that I liked. During the shoot, I snapped more than 400. Some would say I went a bit overboard on that, but I'd rather be sitting in front of my computer fretting about how much material I have to sort through than wishing I'd shot more.
I'm so blessed to live in Okinawa, where such portraits are possible. And a big thank you to April, Kaden and Jet the golden retriever for being such awesomely photogenic subjects!
Would you like photos like this of yourself and your family? Contact me with this form or call me at the number in the footer of this page.
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We've all read magazine articles about artists, business people, politicians and other individuals of importance. Those articles are often peppered with various photos of the subjects, some action shots, some candid behind-the-scenes style photos and some portrait style headshots. Those headshots, at least the good ones, generally have a few things in common.
First of all, the subject is looking at the camera, ideally right down the lens. Second, there is a least a hint of a smile. Third, the face is slightly off centre, the body facing the opposite side of the frame. Fourth, the light source is not straight from an on-camera flash, but rather angular in some way, ideally with a strong back light to create a rim around the subject and pull him out from the background. Finally, and importantly, the subject's closest eye has to be the point of sharpest focus and the background has to be at least a little out of focus.
These things are easy to accomplish with a bit of practice. The bad news is that to get the best results, you need to invest in the right equipment. Unlike in landscape photography in which even the most basic camera - in the right hands - can take breathtakingly awesome shots, to get good headshots, at a minimum you need the right kind of sensor and the right kind of lenses. The right kind of camera is one that has a large enough sensor to allow you to 1) get creative with your depth of field and 2) capture a reasonable dynamic range. The right lenses produce sharp images and allow you to shoot at very low f-stops like f/1.8 or f/2.
The following photo was shot at Katsuren Castle in Okinawa with a Canon cropped sensor camera using an f/1.8 50mm prime lens. Lighting was provided by the sun and my assistant holding a silver reflector. Note that this photo obeys all the rules stated above. In particular, look at the sharpness of the eyes and compare this to the softness of the background. This photo worked out perfectly. It's not the sort of result you could get on a point-and-shoot or even with the standard 18-55mm kit lens that comes with the camera.
The combination of a quality DSLR, a 50mm prime lens and a photographer who knows how to use them produced results that made this client very happy.
Would you like portraits that look like this? Contact me using this form.
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One of the feelings I like portray in my photos is the passage of time. This can be accomplished in many ways, but I like to do it by shooting long exposures. This photo of a Matsuri (festival in Japanese) taken in Uruma City Okinawa is a two second exposure, just long enough to turn moving people into ghosts, while people who are stationary, are more or less frozen. Photos like this are hard to get because the composition is always in flux. You can aim the camera, but people are going to stand where they stand and walk where they walk. It takes patience, but the payoff is big when it all comes together.
What I love about this kind of photo is how the juxtaposition of static and dynamic elements conveys an association among the frozen people, separating them from crowd. When you go to a festival with friends, you walk through a sea of other people, but you barely notice them. In a sense, they are only half there. That's the feeling I intended to evoke with this photograph. How did I do?
On the technical side, the key is not to overexpose your highlights. Of course, in digital photography, you're always exposing for the highlights, but the trick here is to find the exposure that prevents halos from forming around the lights, while capturing enough detail in the shadows that you can raise the levels in post without too much noise. Other than manipulating all the basic settings and taking some lens flare out of the sky, this is not a heavily processed image. The magical contrast between moving and static people did all the work for me.
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Most of my work is in the digital realm. Owing to the nature of what I do, very few of my images get printed. I'm perfectly okay with that. I want my images to be enjoyed and it doesn't matter too much to me how people view them. That said, I love looking at my work in print. There's something deeply satisfying about seeing and even feeling your work in what some people would call the "real world."
It's also nerve wracking. It was literally with trembling fingers that I opened the box from the printer the day the postcards below arrived. I'd done my homework, read all the instructions the printing company set out online, made sure my monitor was properly calibrated, processed the images in CMYK color space, etc, etc. But you're never really sure how your work will look until you open the package and look inside. When I did that, this is what I saw...
...and I was thrilled! The colors and tones turned out exactly the way I thought they would based on my soft proofs. In some cases, even they tuned out even better. In the printed version, the gazebo in the bottom right postcard came out a bit more red than the the version you see here, but I was so happy with the sky I didn't care. The final result is great.
In the future, I'm going to look for more projects that allow me to print my work. I'm planning a series of posters, based on some of the images above. Maybe I'll even try to sell some limited edition prints.
Let's hope the NPO that commissioned the postcards as a fundraiser meets it's goals. Check out Okinawa Hands-On to find out more. You can support a great cause and send your family some of the finest images ever taken of Okinawa (no, I'm not bragging).
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I read and watch a lot on the web about how to market photography and photographic services. Some bloggers and Youtubers will try to convince you that they have the secret to selling gazillions of prints and all you need to do is take their course. These guys are mostly charlatans. Fortunately, most commentators are much more realistic about what your expectations should be when it comes to selling your work. The consistent message is: don't quit your day job.
While that's good advice for any creative professional, it's particularly important that aspiring photographers take it to heart. Why? Because there are so many photographs out there and so few buyers, most of whom have very specific tastes and are willing to spend only so much. If your business model depends on selling lots of fine art prints, get ready to starve.
That is not to say you should give up trying to sell. I haven't. The strategy I follow is to try to find specialized markets that fit the kind of photos I take, like the one below, which you've seen before if you read this blog regularly.
My point is that in order to get your work out there, it pays to think outside the box. How many copies of this poser (or a future version of it) will be sold? I have no idea. I only know that by designing posters like this, I have a way better chance of getting my work in front of people who will enjoy it than if I just tried to sell prints through conventional channels. Perhaps in a future post I'll let readers know how many sold. If all goes well, there will be a series of posters of the same design, all based on my photographs of famous Okinawan landmarks. If you are interested in buying a copy of this poster when it comes out, contact me and I'll hook you up.
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No serious photographer would consider using an entry-level DSLR as a go-to camera. This is not because showing up to a paid gig with a bottom-range camera would be "embarrassing," like some people maintain. It's because low-end cameras lack certain capabilities that make a real difference in some situations, particularly when shooting action, such as a dolphin show at Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa, Japan.
The limited functionality of one low-end camera became abundantly clear on my day trip to Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium with my wife. I took my Canon 100D and a camera bag full of lenses, hoping I'd have the chance to snag some decent pics. No clients paid me to take pictures and I have no intention of selling what I shot. However, I always like to shoot pics for my website, which is what I show people in the hopes of convincing them I'm a good photographer, so it pays to bring the best gear possible on such outings. The 100D is the best camera I can afford right now, so it had to do... and it performed admirably by the standards of a $350 body. Yet, I found myself frustrated in a couple of ways. You might not sense that by looking at some of the pics, which turned out not too bad, but what you can't see are the pictures I wanted and couldn't get (at least not without extremely good luck).
The first shortcoming was burst speed. Shooting a dolphin show is a lot like shooting sports. You wait for something to happen and when it does, you have to react quickly. You press the button, hold it down and let the camera snap as many pics as it can automatically. The 100D will do 4 frames per second. Not too shabby for a $350 camera body, but the Canon 1Dx will do 12. That means, for example, that if a 1x shooter presses the shutter button just as a dolphin exits the water and he holds it down for exactly the one second the dolphin is out of the water, he'll end up with 12 shots to choose from. The 100D shooter will have four. That's eight frames the 100D shooter is missing. It's statistically likely that the "perfect" shot - the one the client selects for her international advertising campaign - is going to be one of the missing eight rather than the four you nailed. That said, the 100D got me the shot below, which is not half bad at all. Is it worth paying 20 times the price for the 1Dx? If you're an enthusiast who doesn't make his living shooting action (or a pro who shoots mostly static subjects), no way. If you're a busy, working, well paid pro shooting on contract, emphatically yes!
The second peve with my cheap camera is buffering capacity and write speed. This is partially an SD card issue, but without doubt, better buffering on camera side would have made my life easier. More than a few times, I held the shutter button, got 8 or 10 photos, then tried to capture more, only to find that nothing happened when I pressed the button again. That's right. There I was pressing the shutter button as all kinds of amazing stuff was going on and the camera screamed at me "Hold your horses, would ya!" I missed a whole lot of action I would have caught with a camera with faster write speed and better buffering capacity.. The only reason I caught the shot below is that the dolphin held the pose for a long enough time.
The third issue is noise at higher ISO speeds. The shot of the bull shark below was taken at ISO 3,200, which on a 1Dx, or even a 5D III would not have produced a lot of noise in relative terms. The 100D did very well for a $350 body, but was noticeably grainy. A camera with better low-light capabilities would have produced a cleaner image even at ISO 6,400 or even 12,800, giving me another two stops to play with and letting me take my shutter speed up to a reasonable 320 or so. As it was, in order to avoid noise, I had to deal with camera shake, a trade-off that a (much) higher-end camera would have eliminated. The pixilation you see in this shot has more to do with web compression than camera noise, but the noise didn't help any.
If all you want to do with your photos is put them on the web and share them with your friends, an inexpensive DSLR like my Canon 100D is the way to go. If you're a pro whose time and reputation are valuable enough to justify the expense, you need tools that can keep up with you.
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I find a lot of photographers shoot panoramas just for the sake of it. Personally, if I can capture a scene on a single frame, I generally will. However, there are times when you just can't fit everything into one shot, and that's when to take a panorama.
This shot, taken over Chatan Okinawa, is an amalgamation of six separate photos, all taken with the camera vertical on a tripod, one after the other. I could get most of this into a single exposure with a wide lens (something like an 18mm in full frame terms), but wide lenses create a lot of distortion in the image and they tend to push the background way back in the picture. These can create awesome photographic effects when you want them (many of my landscape shots are taken on wide lenses), but for this photo, I wanted as much compression as I could get. So, I used my 50mm f/1.8 Canon prime and lined up the individual shots that I would later stitch together in Lightroom. This was the result.
Hooray for software that makes stitching photos together so easy. The trick is to have just enough overlap that the software can easily match up the edges. It also helps to shoot on the same stop with the same focal setting and, ideally, the same ISO. These were 20 second exposures taken in quick sequence close to dusk. Given how quickly the remaining light was fading, I'm a bit surprised that they blended so well.
The next panorama I'm going to feature here is a shot of Tomari port n Naha City, I could have taken a very nice shot in one frame, but I'd have lost some of the water and some of the sky. This was taken at the highest point of a bridge, handheld, leaning over the side. There was no way I could have shot on a tripod and, even if there was, it would have done no good since the bridge was bouncing due to heavy truck and bus traffic. It is a three shot composite, encompassing the entire field of view available from that side of the bridge (180 degrees). I shot this with the camera vertical using a 14mm lens (on an APS-C sensor this is about 22 in full-frame equivalent) to make the water as prominent as possible. A longer lens would have created too much camera shake and I would have had to shoot on a much higher ISO. Here is the result.
The distortion produced by the lens is visible, far more than it would be in a non-panorama shot, but in this case, I didn't mind, because it brought the water to the foreground. To the eye, this looks like a standard photo, not the 180 degree panorama it really is, That's what panoramas are to me, composites that transport the viewer right into the frame as if they were really there.
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I lied. Actually there were no stars at all that night, at least none that I could see thanks to all the light pollution from the city below. While that light pollution is what causes the glow that makes night shots of cities look so entrancing, it also drowns out the wonders of the night sky. Enter Adobe Photoshop. Painting stars into the night sky isn't terribly difficult, but I always thought of it as cheating. I still do, but that doesn't stop me from trying be a little artistic from time to time.
This is a three shot panorama of Kitanakagusuku, taken from a south facing balcony of the Costa Vista Hotel. It was a 30 second exposure on ISO 100. I merged the shots into panorama first, then processed by taking down the slightly overexposed highlights, bringing up the shadows (and boosting the black level slightly to squeeze as much detail out of the shadows), then used contrast and white balance sliders in a graduated filter on the sky to bring out the transition from from black above t0 yellow/orange near the horizon. The sky was nowhere near as blue to the eye as my white balance setting made it appear, but that is the beauty of shooting raw. You can adjust the white balance in post processing to suit the scene your tastes.
It's a decent panorama on it's own, since I already cheated by teasing the blue out of sky, I might as well go a bit further and add some stars. This was accomplished using a brush tool in Photoshop, set to a small diameter and using the "scatter" setting. The details would be a whole post in itself, but you can get the gist of it here on the Youtube channel of Phlearn, an absolutely phenomenal resource for Photoshop users.
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This is not a type of photo I usually take. It's not that I'm not into flowers. It's just that bouquets don't generally inspire me to pull out my camera (unless there's an insect on them). But, in the spirit of adding more flower-power to my portfolio, I figure'd I'd give it a go. What inspired me the most about this bouquet was the fact that it was given to me by my graduating students. It was a thoughtful gift that warmed my heart, so I felt the need to preserve it the way only a photograph can.
I took about 20 exposures before I decided I had one I liked. This isn't because the photographic aspect of the image were difficult to obtain. I knew I wanted a side backlight from the open window, so I positioned the bouquet accordingly. I wanted a high-key look, so I made sure to catch a pice of the window in the frame, but not so much that it whited out the little flowers that add so much texture to the arrangement. The challenge was getting the balloon to stay where I wanted it to and to face the right way. Reflections in the smooth plastic were another matter, but that's a discussion for another day. I shot on f/1.8 to narrow the depth of field (on an APS-C sensor, this delivers a slightly deeper focus than on a full frame, on which I'd likely have shot at a lower stop). Once that was figured out, all I had to do was frame it up, shoot and tweak it in Lightroom.
This is un-cropped, framed exactly as shot, using only the indirect afternoon light from the window. Long after the flowers have wilted, I'll be able to look at this picture and remember the day my wonderful students gave it to me. I love being a photographer!
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One of the wonderful things about living in Okinawa is the beautiful sunsets I get to experience almost every day. Sadly, I usually have other things to do at that time of day, but when I'm not otherwise occupied, I can hardly resist the urge to get out and shoot something. When I set out, I often have a place in mind and a frame I'd like to try to capture. Often, I don't get what I want because the sky doesn't cooperate, so I make a pledge to go back and shoot when I have the chance. Other times, I just get lucky and everything works the first time out. Last Sunday was one of those days.
I'd never gone to Maeda flats before, but having seen pictures that made me jealous, I knew it was only a matter of time. Having (almost) finished my household chores, I looked out the window around 4:30pm and saw a sky that had the makings of an outrageously beautiful sunset. Naturally, I grabbed my camera kit and headed up to Madea for the shoot. I consulted the tide tables before I went to make sure the tide would be out and I was in luck. After parking, I followed a couple of Marines down to the beach, took out my camera and started snapping.
Sunset pictures should always be shot into the sun. It's best if the sky is hot, but not so hot that detail around the sun is lost. As is standard procedure for landscape photographers, I shot lots of brackets so I knew I would have something to work with when I got back to the studio ("studio" is actually pretentious - I really just have a desk in the dining room). This was one of the first shots I snapped.
The sky is hotter than I usually shoot. I had brackets shot at a faster shutter speed, one and two stops below, but this is the one I chose, partially because I like the way the light comes blasting from the sun and partially because I like the way the people are walking, their shadows crossing the horizon. The man on the left (tiny in the frame) is fishing. The two figures to the right are a father and his young son out enjoying the incredible view. Although the photo is really about the sand in the foreground and the reflections of the sun, sky and clouds in the tidal pool, the people really give the photo a sense of happiness and peace. Cannon 100D, ISO 100, Samyany 14mm manual lens at f 16.
As the sun set lower in the sky, I positioned myself so that I could get a shot of the sun coming thought a passageway in a large rock. Stopping down the lens to f16 or lower will produce the kind of "starburst" you see below.
The trick is to expose for the sun, because if it is overexposed, you'll end up with a burned out blob instead of a glowing sunball. The number of shutter blades on the camera will influence the number of beams in the starburst. These photos were processed very differently in post. I wanted maximum detail in the sky, so I had to live with limited detail in the rock. This is okay, because any more detail and the photo would start to take on a tone-mapped HDR look, which was not what I wanted. I let he sky go orange and yellow instead of trying to bring out the blue like I did in the first pic, on the feeling that the blue would detract from the starburst, Some would criticize this photo because the sunball, the key point of interest, is in the centre of frame, To that I say that the real point of interest is the snorkelers just beside the sunball, chatting while getting ready to go out. And besides the "rule of thirds" is meant to be broken. I pity the photographer who can't free himself from the rules when they don't work for him.
Of the many shots I took at Meda flats, this next one seems to be the favourite, just because it has the fascinating texture of all the raised limestone in the middle ground, the subtle green of the algae in the foreground and the orange of the sunset combined with the blue of the sky. This is the sort of shot that would get featured on 500pix (maybe I'll upload it one day).
This is one of my favourite shots ever. I'd love to take all the credit, but the truth is, I had a lot of help. Nature gave my the beautiful sky, Canon gave (I should say sold) me the camera, Samyang made the terrific lens, Adobe produced Lightroom software and Apple manufactured the laptop I run it on. All I did was show up, point the camera and press the button.
It's cherry blossom season in Okinawa and yesterday I had the chance to shoot some photos of the trees at Meiyo University in Nago. It was a dreary, wet, cloudy day, but sometimes the flat light helps subtle colours come out more, so why not give it a shot? My plan was to get some narrow-focus shots of blossoms with water droplets on them. This was easy under the conditions and I nailed the handful of shots I was looking for in a few minutes and I was about to call it a day and get back in the car so I could go to Churaumi Aquarium with my wife.
However, as I was putting my gear away, I noticed a bee on one of the nearby blossoms. One lens change and 367 exposures later, I'd managed to nail about 30 or so usable shots of bees and blossoms. Of those 30 shots, I'd say about 10 were pretty hot and five were just stunning.
In the first, my second favourite of the series, we see a bee in profile as it extracts the nectar. The image is close and clear enough that we can see the bee's 'corbicula,' or the pollen basket on its hind legs. Shooting on a 50-250 zoom lens, I had to step back to get the blossom in focus, because, the lens fully extended, the subject was closer than the minimum distance at which the lens could focus. Focusing this close meant that even on f/5, which was wide open for the lens at this zoom setting, the depth of field was narrower than the body of the bee! At first, I missed a lot of shots because the autofocus didn't know what I wanted to be sharp. I switched to manual and managed to nail a few (including this one) but later switched back to auto and stepped back another foot or so.
The next is my favourite of the series, because it was the only one in which I caught the bee in flight and in perfect focus. All the pictures in the series were taken at the 250mm setting, f/5 at 400 ISO.
A few technical notes in closing. This is one situation in which a copped-sensor camera is better than a full frame. A full-frame camera would have a narrower depth of field for a shot with the same angle of view (i.e. framed the same way), making it harder to nail the focus (already very hard). It would have been great if I'd had a higher-end camera with better low-light performance, faster focusing and the ability to shoot more frames per second in burst mode. I was shooting in one shot mode because I my Canon Rebel 100D won't focus fast enough on this lens to make use of its 4fps. If I were a pro who regularly went on assignment for National Geographic, it might be worth investing in a 1Dx, but since I probably won't get paid a dime for these shots, I'm thrilled with what my entry-level DSLR delivered (incidentally, the 100D's 18 megapixels is a match for the 1Dx in terms of resolution).
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In this post I'll explain how I shot and processed some digital stills I took at Naminoue shrine in Naha, Okinawa. The sun was about to set when I first arrived and the light was fading quickly. While this meant I had to work quickly, it also gave me the opportunity to shoot in that very magical time just after golden hour when the light is beautifully balanced in a way it is at no other time of day (except just before sunrise). The colour temperature of the fading daylight was quite high, well above 6,000 Kelvin, whereas the tungsten bulbs illuminating the grounds were likely around 3,000 K. This could result in some awkwardly colored images, or some truly artistic mood shots. Look at what I present below and you can decide for yourself.
This is fairly straightforward shot of a boy hanging a New Year's wish inscribed on a cedar board on a rack reserved just for that purpose (the Japanese word for these wishes is 'ema'). There is something spiritual and optimistic about Japanese shrines at this time of year and I wanted to see if I could infuse the image with some of that spirit.
Choosing to focus on the inscriptions in the foreground, and shooting wide open to gather all the light I could, I let the boy, go out of focus. This suggests that it's the rack of wishes and not the boy which is the true subject of the photo. This is partly because I wasn't in a position to get his explicit permission to use his image in a commercial photograph, and partly because the story I was telling was not about him. It's the photographic equivalent of writing in passive voice.
And here is a closeup of one of the ema. The focus here is on the centre of the placard. Placing the in-focus part of the shot at what would be the left 1/3 line creates a point of interest in that critical area and dutching the shot gives in an angular sweep from bottom left to top right. To me, this kind of in-focus vs out-of-focus combination in a single shot gives a picture the little something extra that helps put it into the "professional" zone.
My third and fouth shots are of 0mikuji, or New Year's fortunes written on paper and tied to a tree or a purpose built string. In this case, I needed to make sure the focus was tack-sharp so that the text could be read. I elected to focus on the Japanese text rather than the English, first because I'm in Japan and that's the cool thing to do, but also because the Japanese text is in red and brings life to the otherwise fairly low chroma photo. Again, notice the sweep from corner to corner and the depth produced by the line as it goes off into the distance from the bottom.
My final shot is a favourite, because of all the elements in it, which all tell different but related stories. First, the omikuji in the foreground has some interesting text, which I kept in focus. Next, the branch takes us into the frame. The out-of-focus people in the background give the infuse the shot with some energy and the dutch angle gives it an edge. The bokeh through the pine needles is a nice finishing touch.
And that was New Year's at Naminoue shrine. Actually, there's more, but I'll save those for another day.
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What is the definition of a professional photographer? One who gets paid to shoot photos. That's it. The word 'professional' carries with it a lot of weight, but the reality is that the real difference between a pro and an amateur is that the pro makes (or at least tries to make) money shooting and developing pictures and the amateur just shoots for fun.
Wanna know a secret? Actually it's not a secret, but I'm surprised how many people don't know it. There are very few full-time photographers nowadays. Why aren't there more? First, because everybody has an smartphone, which means everybody is a photographer. Second, because some people, in addition to their smart phones, also have digital cameras. For less than $1,000, you can buy a camera that will shoot digital files that will make beautiful 16X10 prints. A few hundred extra and you've got a flash and all the rest of the goodies you need to get started. So, what's the point in hiring a pro when there are so many well equipped amateurs out there?
Not much, which is why there are so few full-time photographers. Now, when somebody hires a photographer, the do so because they want something special. An in-focus image, well framed and properly exposed just doesn't cut it any more. Clients today demand the kind of artistry only a person who is not only highly skilled with equipment, but knows how to deliver magical results on a consistent basis.
That idea is the key. A professional photographer is one who can deliver amazing results under just about any conditions. So, with that in mind, I present three graphs illustrating the difference in results. Each graph plots the quality of a given photograph against the photos in any given series. The first is that of a total beginner, shooting with a DSLR or advanced mirrorless camera on auto settings.
Note that most of the photos are of lower quality, because this particular beginner doesn't have a clue how to frame, focus or expose. He's letting the camera do it all. Notwithstanding that, even he manages to nail a National Geographic quality shot from time to time. The next graph is of a more experienced photographer, but someone who is not ready to turn pro, because his results are not consistent enough.
Overall, the quality of his images are much better, but even so, he only nails that National Geographic cover photo once in a while. That said, he's no beginner and some of his shots could make it into magazines or editorial publications. The next graph represents the professional.
Note that even the pro doesn't nail every shot. The proportion of National Geographic shots is much higher in his work than either of the other two, but by no means is he King Midas. If he's really a pro, he knows that not all of his shots are going to make magic, so he takes lots and lots of them, giving each one everything he's got. When it comes time to process, he doesn't bother with the mishaps (autofocus didn't get it right, his subject had a funny expression, the framing was a tad off, etc) and he devotes his time to the shots that he can show his clients. Sometimes it's a tough call, particularly in journalism, and he's got to get the most out of a mediocre shot, but - as Kenny Rogers crooned - knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep is his core skill.
So, that's the difference between an amateur and a pro. The pro delivers consistent quality and while the magic doesn't always happen, he knows when, where and how to find it. Consistency is the product of experience, so... keep shooting!
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I've seen a lot of professional photos of Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa. Most of them are great, but to my surprise, so many of them seem to have been processed in a rather lazy way. This may be because most of the pictures are for journalistic purposes and were not taken by "serious" photographers. None the less, a bit of post processing goes a long way.
Below is the standard photo of the main tank in the aquarium, the pic you see on all the advertising, which I took on my first visit there. What's the difference between my photo and others I've seen? A few minor tweaks that have a big impact.
First, this is my selection of about 20 shots, all timed so that at least one whale shark is in the shot. Unfortunately, shooting with my relatively inexpensive camera, I can't crank the ISO too high without dealing with a lot of noise, so some of them are a bit blurry (due to the movement of the fish in the tank, not camera shake, since I was using a tripod). Of the 20, about 12 turned out well. From there, it was a matter of choosing the best. I wanted a shot that featured not only the sharks, but also the rays and other fish, so I chose one that made them look the best. My next priority was to select shot in which the people were doing something interesting, like pointing or taking a picture. The woman toward the right of the frame fit the bill. In other shots, some people were pointing, which looked great, but the fish weren't as aesthetically pleasing, so elected to favour the fish. If I'd really wanted to I could have cut and pasted people from one photo and put them in the other, but that would be overkill. This is about the fish.
So, with the best picture selected, processing was simple a matter of removing lens distortion (which had the effect of making the top of the aquarium flat. I then used the angle tool in Lightroom to level the top of the aquarium with the frame. Finally, I selected a white balance that brought out the right hue of blue without overdoing it, then applied some noise reduction and sharpening.
My point? A little bit of extra work at every stage of the process (shooting, shot selection, post processing) adds up to a huge difference in the quality of a published photo.
Here's are two shots, before processing and after, of a cat I saw perched on the seawall in front of the Hilton Hotel by Hamagawa Harbour. The first is a JPG from the unprocessed raw image right off the camera (Canon 100D) and the second is after processing in Lightroom. The difference shows exactly what can be done with raw images in the the right software.
You'll notice that the photo looks almost black and white. This is because the software does not try to interpret anything from the raw file the way it would if displaying a JPG. A JPG would have been a lot more colorful because the in-camera software would have cranked up the saturation. But I son't want to let a computer tell me how my photos should look, so I develop the photos myself. The end result below took about 10 minutes in Lightroom.
To get this result, all I had to do was some basic processing. I raised the color temperature a bit to warm it up (as shot was a bit too blue). I raised the saturation on the orange and yellow sliders in the HSL section, giving the red a tiny boost too. But the warm colour didn't work well for the ocean and the sky, so I used the brush tool to lower the color temperature of those two parts of the image. I used another brush tool to raise the colour temperature on the buildings, making it look a little bit more like golden hour (the sun had just gone down and the actual scene was much darker to the eye than it appears here at ISO 800). I finished off with one final brush tool with which I brought up the exposure on the cat's face and bib. The black fur was just a bit too dark.
Oh, and I almost forgot. I used another brush tool to decrease the saturation on the cement sall in the immediate foreground. The difference is very subtle, but reducing the tiny bit color information in an element that is already gray helps the cat to stand out just a bit more, without having to crank the saturation to psychedelic levels.
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It's not every day you get to see Shakespeare performed live in Okinawa, so when I heard that a theatre troupe from Cambridge University in England was on the island to perform a play, I was thrilled. Even better that it was free admission! I arrived there at around 3:45 pm in the afternoon and, while I was waiting for others to show up, I walked around the tiny campus. Looking up at the cross at the top of the chapel, I thought Why not snap a few pics before the play starts?
So, I went back to fetch my camera and tripod from my car and started searching for a good angle. I wanted a shot up at the cross with some trees in the immediate foreground and the sky in the background. Unfortunately, this was a tough shot to get because there weren't very many trees and none of them were in exactly the right spot. To make matters worse, the sun was on the other side of the building, meaning I was shooting the face of the building that was in shadow against a bright, cloudy sky, And, to top it all off, looking at the building from square on there was a very prominent high-voltage power line to the left side of the steeple, and a massive cell tower to the right. Hardly ideal shooting conditions, but whining is for amateurs. Nobody was paying me to take these shots, but every time I go out to shoot I like to imagine that I'm on the clock and that a client is expecting me to come up with something worthy of my fee. To make a long story short, this is what I came up with.
To get this shot, I had to literally stand in a small tree. This gave me the advantage of having lots of foliage in the immediate foreground to add interest and texture to the frame, close enough that I cold keep it in reasonably soft focus, even on a wide lens at a fairly low stop. Exposure was the real challenge. The building was quite dark against the sky, as you can see from the shadow of the steeple against the clock tower to the right, and the foliage was practically a silhouette at any stop that would give me enough detail in the sky. Fortunately, I was shooting RAW, so I knew I'd have a lot of dynamic range to work with in post. All I had to do was make sure the sky wasn't so hot that I could't recover colour and detail. I had to hope that I could boost the luminance of the foliage without getting adding too much noise.
From the result, it looks like my plan succeeded. In processing, the firs thing I did was correct the exposure downward by 0.15% of a stop. This brought the steeple into the right luminance range. It's still hot relative to how it looked to the naked eye, but I'm happy with the result. Next, I reduced the highlights, which were essentially the clouds and the brightest parts of the sky, This worked wonders to restore detail. Then, I boosted the shadows (but not the blacks) to bring up the leaves (which went from very dark green to a lighter tone). I then used the colour-separated channel sliders to selectively boost the luminance of the green channel very subtly, then increased the green chroma, again very slightly. I dropped the luminance of the blue channel, stopping just before an aliasing effect became visible along the edges of the steeple. Finally, I increased the blue chroma, applied luminance noise reduction and saved the result, a highly compressed version of which you see above.
Not bad, I think. Would a client looking for a shot to put on a post card or include in a brochure aimed at prospective students be happy with this? Probably yes. But it's not the kind of sexy, stylized, eye-popping shot pro photographers like to feature on their websites. For that, I waited until the play was over, at which point I decided to try a few night shots. This is the one I liked best.
This is a 20 second exposure at ISO 100. Even if I'd have a better camera than my 10 year old Canon Rebel SLR, I wouldn't have increased the ISO by much, because I needed a long exposure to produce the wispy effect in the clouds, which were crossing the sky at quite a good clip. What I really like about this shot are the ghosts on the grass. All kinds of people were milling around, but none of them stood still for long enough to form a sharp, opaque image. In contrast to the first shot, This one was totally unprocessed except for a slight boost in the green channel to bring out the grass and a bit of noise reduction.
I drool over new cameras whenever they come out, but I think I've shown that a skilled photographer can pull off some decent shots even on a very old camera in less than perfect shooting conditions.
On a whim, my wife and I decided to drive to Yomitan and check out a famous Okinawan historical site we'd never seen before. Zakimi castle is only about a 20 minute drive from our apartment, so we thought we'd go there on the way to the farmers market. I'm glad we did, because in spite of the bright sun and haze, it gave me a chance to get a few great pics.
The first I liked was a wide shot of the upper part of the castle, facing the sea looking into the sun. It was about 3pm in the afternoon and the shadows were starting to get a bit longer, but I was able to take a picture that demonstrated the scale of the castle and show how high it was up on the hill.
The haze came close to obscuring the shore below and the backlight scenery under a strong sun looked washed out even to the naked eye, so if detail in the background was important, it was necessary to shoot hot and try to dial back the highlights in post.. This is a reason why I love shooting raw, since it allows for a lot of flexibility in post processing. The result was quite acceptable, although the horizon was far from clear and thanks to the haze, the shore came out looking quite blue. I processed the shot by boosting the blue chroma only slightly, but dialing back the blue luminance. The almost cloudless sky offered little of interest, but the ocean horizon came out alright.
The next shot was deep field, narrow focus shot, taken on an 18-55 zoom close to it's widest setting. I shot a couple of stops down from wide open (which would have been f3.5) in order to preserve enough depth of field to keep most of the leaves in the foreground in focus, while still allowing the background to become soft.
The effect is that the castle's shape, texture and gray colour make for an interesting background, while the green of the leaves stands out in contrast. I dialed back the luminance of the sky a bit, but much more fiddling would have introduced a nasty aliasing artifact, an unfortunate reality of shooting on an entry-level canon Rebel DSLR from 2006. But it's a poor craftsman that blames his tools, so rather that lament what could have been, I'll focus on how happy I am with the shot over all.
And on that happy note, I'll take my leave.
My simple blog about the art and science of photography.