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.
Thanks for reading!
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!
Thanks for reading.
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.
This photo of the famous lighthouse at Cape Zanpa in Yomitan ranks as one of my favourite photographs of all time. Here, I show the raw file before and after processing and explain how I got from one to the other.
I took the picture on Jan 2nd when I drove up to Cape Zanpa on a whim when the clouds looked interesting. By the time I got there, the sky had clouded over and I thought I was going to be disappointed, but when I got to the spot I wanted to shoot from, I found that the clouds and mild haze presented an opportunity. There wasn't a lot of color in the sky, but I knew I could tease out all the subtle hues in Lightroom. The real problem was going to be the contrast. Shooting right into the sun and including it in the shot meant that I had to expose for the sky to prevent the details in the clouds from blowing out, so I took a bunch of exposure brackets, all on the same f-stop, so I could make a composite if I really had to, The problem was, I was standing at the very edge of the cliff, so using a tripod was out of the question, making HRD (high dynamic range) a difficult proposition.
The raw photo below was shot on my Canon 100D at f/5.6, 1/640 shutter at ISO 100. I can't say enough good about this cheap little camera (best bang for the buck of any DSLR, as far as I'm concerned, especially if you already own a bunch of EF glass).
Not exactly an award-winning shot as is, but you can see it's got the makings of a great photo. See how there is lots of detail in the clouds? See the faint colours in the sky? Notice the subtle halo around the sun? See how, as dark as it is, there is still detail in the cliff wall?
To handle the extreme contrast, I brought up the shadows as far as the software would let me, and the detail in the cliff came out right away. I found a white balance setting that worked, brought up the clarity and saturation, then went to work on the clouds. Some photographers would have you buy expensive software that adds colour to the sky, but in this case, there is no need. I just used a brush tool and brought up the saturation selectively, in addition to dodging exposure in a few places. I used a graduated filter to reduce the contrast in the sky... and that was about all. I output from Lightroom into Photoshop the applied a brightness setting (which appears to work differently than the one in Lightroom). This was my end result.
Pixel peepers will note that there is a war going on between the noise reduction I applied to clean up the sky and the sharpening I applied to keep the rest nice and crisp. I used a mask on the Lightroom sharpen tool and applied sharpening only to the major outlines. If you look very closely at the cliffs, you'll see that the texture looks a bit unnatural. But so what? I didn't shoot this for a bunch of trolls who like to find fault with pictures they could never take from their mothers' basements!
The thing to keep in mind is that the colours in the photo are all natural. I added no colours what so ever (following the policy of National Geographic, the photos in which are among the best in the world). I just brought out what was there with saturation and colour temperature tools.
Thanks for reading!
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.
Thanks for reading!
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.