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BEHIND THE LENS – Hummingbirds at Sunset (or not)

 

I absolutely love backlight on any subject. Even hummingbirds, with their stunning colors, can make great subjects for backlit photos. Nonetheless, there are two big problems when trying to shoot tropical hummingbirds with backlight. First, they are found in the forest so the sun doesn’t really penetrate in great beams that provide that dreamy rim light we all love. And second, it’s usually cloudy, particularly right at sunset when the magic happens!

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green-crowned brilliants at sunset

Green-crowned Brilliants at Gesneriad flower, Costa Rica

Canon 5D, Tamron 80-200 mm zoom lens, tripod, cable release, 3 flashes, sunset background, orange gels on flashes, f/14, 1/200th, ISO 500


About 7 years ago, I decided to try to make my own sunset hummingbird shots by applying some pretty heavy variations to my standard multiple-flash hummingbird setups. Since I hadn’t been able to shoot hummingbirds this way with natural light, I tried to simulate what I thought hummingbirds would look like at sunset. The image above was the result, and I was pretty happy with it. The colors look right, and the rim light is good, though perhaps just a bit uneven.

Thought I liked the result, I was busy shooting other subjects and largely abandoned the multi-flash sunset technique until I went to Ecuador 3 years ago. I had a different sunset background but applied basically the same strategy, placing colored gels over my flashes to warm up the light. Just for fun, I decided to add a fourth flash (also with a colored gel) to give just a touch of fill to the front of the hummingbirds. Below are a few of the results from that brief session.


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Buff-tailed Coronets at native Canna flower, Ecuador

Canon 5DIII, Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 L IS zoom, Induro tripod and ballhead, cable release, 4 flashes, f/13, 1200th, ISO 400

booted racket-tails fight at a Canna flower in Ecuador

Booted Racket-tails at native Canna flower, Ecuador Canon 5DIII, Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 L IS zoom, Induro tripod and ballhead, cable release, 4 flashes, f/13, 1200th, ISO 400
Booted Racket-tails at native Canna flower, Ecuador

Canon 5DIII, Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 L IS zoom, Induro tripod and ballhead, cable release, 4 flashes, f/13, 1200th, ISO 400


Violet-tailed Sylph at native Canna flower, Ecuador Canon 5DIII, Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 L IS zoom, Induro tripod and ballhead, cable release, 4 flashes, f/13, 1200th, ISO 400


Recently, I had the chance to photograph perched hummingbirds right as the sun set in the highlands of Costa Rica. There was only about a 5 minute window to shoot with this amazing light. I set my exposure by spot-metering the background for the three shots below. I was working in manual exposure mode, so I made sure that the meter read about 2/3 stops darker than middle-tone. That would give me rich colors in the sky and would also protect highlights from blowing out if I was lucky enough to catch a shot with the birds’ wings out.

Magnificent hummingbirds as sun sets over cloud forest, Costa Rica  Canon 7DII, Sigma 150-600 mm f/5-6.3 Contemporary zoom lens, handheld, f/6.3, 1/400th, ISO 400


Magnificent hummingbird as sun sets over cloud forest, Costa Rica

Canon 7DII, Sigma 150-600 mm f/5-6.3 Contemporary zoom lens, handheld, f/6.3, 1/400th, ISO 400


Magnificent hummingbirds immediately before sun sets over cloud forest, Costa Rica.  Canon 1Dx, Canon 600 mm f/4 lens, tripod, f/5.6, 1/6400th, ISO 100


I was very happy with these images and was also pleased to see that my earlier sunset simulations were pretty good imitations of the real deal 🙂 I hope you’ve enjoyed this little post. Next time you see the sun setting, get out there and shoot some gorgeous backlight!
TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING SUNSET HUMMINGBIRDS WITH FLASH

Use colored gels on your flashes
If using frontal flash as fill, keep the dosage low. The backlight should be stronger!
Think about lines for composition
TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING SUNSET HUMMINGBIRDS WITH NATURAL LIGHT

Use a tripod (even I took 2 of the shots above handheld, a tripod would have made my life easier!)
Pre-focus on a predicted spot
Keep it simple but still look for compositional lines
Choose shutter speed to freeze or blur wings to taste
Shoot in burst mode
Use a lens hood
Be careful with your eyes!
Before sun hits the horizon, include only your subject with backlight
When the sun hits the horizon, start to include it in your picture

 


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About the author Gregory Basco

Like many nature photographers, I started my career doing something else. A political scientist by training, my research focused on the politics of the environment in Latin America. I researched environmental politics and ecotourism in Costa Rica and worked here for a number of years as a conservation professional, having first come to the country in 1992 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I now dedicate myself full-time to my own photography and my Costa Rica photo tour company. I work out of my home office in Costa Rica’s central highlands, where I live with my wife, twin boys, our dogs and cats, and various hummingbirds and songbirds that visit our backyard feeders. Visit Greg’s galleries, store, and workshops at Deep Green Photography.

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TECHNIQUE – How I Photographed a Giant Earthworm!

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A couple of years ago, a photo of a giant earthworm discovered by scientists in eastern Ecuador went viral and stirred up a lot of debate about whether the photos were fake. They’re not.

Yes, you diehard fans of hyperthyroidal nematodes, giant earthworms exist! I had heard of them but had no idea they were this big until my photo tour group (which I was leading with help from my good friends Lucas Bustamante and Frank Pichardo) and I encountered one near Wild Sumaco Lodge in the Eastern Andes in Ecuador. We think it is probably a specimen of the rare Mariodrilus crassus but it may well be a new species.

We arrived to the lodge to two surprises which, fortuitously, led to our finding the giant earthworm. First, it was raining heavily throughout our drive to Sumaco. Second, upon arrival we found that a tree near the lodge had toppled onto the power lines, and the flaming tree trunk blocked our access to the lodge. Put together, those two things — pouring rain and flaming trees — were kind of a bummer. But, as we waited in our tour bus for the electric company to arrive to remove the tree, the rain let up, and we decided to take a little walk down the dirt road. Just like at your house, earthworms emerge after a good rain, and it’s no different in Ecuador except that the earthworms can grow to nearly 5 feet long! The one we found was only 2.5 feet long, so it must be a youngster.

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That’s Frank accessorizing. Earth tones are always a good choice — stylish, dude!

We immediately came upon a giant earthworm crossing the road and, after initially being a bit shocked (if earthworms are this big, what might the local wasps look like?!), we decided to grab a bucket (family-size mayo from the lodge restaurant) and keep a specimen to photograph later that afternoon. The rain let up, the power company removed the burning tree, and we checked in with all of our gear and our new buddy in a bucket.

Great, but how does one make an interesting photo of a big earthworm which is, after all, simply an oversized digestive tract capable of locomotion? We decided the way to go was to place the animal in its normal forest floor environment but tweaked to our liking. Cecropia trees are common rainforest trees, and the leaves are about a foot and half in diameter. A quickly constructed forest floor littered with Cecropia leaves would give an authentic sense of the giant earthworm’s habitat and also some sense of scale.

3_gb_1460472458624That’s Lucas wrangling our earthworm. Lucas was pretty cooperative as was the worm!

We decided to work with a wide angle lens and light the scene with two radio-controlled flashes, diffused with softboxes. I took some test shots with flash as both main light and fill and worked quickly as my goal was to get a couple of shots for myself while getting the lighting dialed in for the workshop clients. In 10 minutes we had our set, our earthworm model (I think of him as the Derek Zoolander of giant earthworms as he posed quite well but didn’t seem very intelligent), and our lighting. The clients came next, and they all got great shots of an unexpected subject!

Our client Sheldon got some really nice shots of our earthworm model.

Our client Sheldon got some really nice shots of our earthworm model.

In the end, we were pretty happy to have worked up some good shots of a bizarre but difficult subject and to have a provided a great surprise for our group. And what was it like handling this squirmy behemoth? Imagine picking up a slimy, oversized gummy worm, intermittently coated with rusty knight’s armor. Strange but not too bad 🙂
5_gb_1460472682481This was my favorite of the quick shots I took. I worked handheld, lying on the ground with the Canon 5DsR, the Canon 16-35 mm f/4 L IS lens, circular polarizer, Phottix radio transmitter, f/8, 1/100, ISO 640. All the light was from our diffused flashes, and I was quite pleased with the natural look we achieved.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and learned a little bit about improvisational studio techniques in the field. By the way, as soon as we wrapped our shoot, the giant earthworm was returned safely where we found him and is living happily ever after eating all manner of detritus on the rainforest floor near the Sumaco volcano in Ecuador.

MY ECUADOR WORKSHOP FOR 2017 IS ALREADY SOLD OUT. BUT, I HAVE SOME GREAT THINGS PLANNED FOR 2018, INCLUDING TWO NEW PLACES. IF YOU’RE INTERESTED IN JOINING ME IN ECUADOR IN 2018, PLEASE CONTACT ME!


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About the author Gregory Basco
Like many nature photographers, I started my career doing something else. A political scientist by training, my research focused on the politics of the environment in Latin America. I researched environmental politics and ecotourism in Costa Rica and worked here for a number of years as a conservation professional, having first come to the country in 1992 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I now dedicate myself full-time to my own photography and my Costa Rica photo tour company. I work out of my home office in Costa Rica’s central highlands, where I live with my wife, twin boys, our dogs and cats, and various hummingbirds and songbirds that visit our backyard feeders. Visit Greg’s galleries, store, and workshops at Deep Green Photography.

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BEHIND THE LENS – Lizard King

I’ll confess right off that I really love this image as I think I succeeded in making something nice and dramatic out of an animal that is not especially pretty and doesn’t really do much, the green iguana (Iguana iguana). In Costa Rica, there’s a pretty well-known restaurant where wild green iguanas hang out in the trees over a meandering river, and I stop there with many of my workshop groups as it’s a great place to get eye level with these interesting creatures. Plus the place has great ice cream cones!

iguana king

Green iguanas (Iguana iguana) often hang out together, dozing and eating leaves (they’re vegetarians). I liked the way these guys were stacked up, and when I saw one iguana begin to become active, I quickly shot at a wide open aperture with a telephoto lens for shallow depth of field as the “iguana king” surveyed his little domain 🙂

Here’s the thought process I went through while taking this photo.

First, in terms of gear, my 300 mm with a max. aperture of f2.8 was a great choice for me here because it allows for the shallow depth of field look that I love and it gives me a fast shutter speed when handholding. In this case, one sometimes stands on a bridge over the river while pineapple-laden trucks roll past. Your tripod might well end up as a bipod or monopod if you’re not careful!

Second, I needed to consider which camera to use. At the time of this picture, I had a full-frame Canon 5D and 1.6x sensor 40D. The latter body would give me more effective magnification at a given working distance but a small sensor body offers two disadvantages in this situation. First, larger sensors offer less depth-of-field (see here for a fantastic, thorough explanation of this phenomenon). Plus the image quality of the full-frame body is always nicer than that of a 1.6x sensor body in my opinion. The 40D did have better autofocus but in this situation, fast autofocus wasn’t an issue. So, 5D it was.

Third, I had my flash mounted. Did I want to use it? When I came upon this scene, I knew I’d want to shoot through some foreground iguanas. When shooting through a foreground object, flash tends to light it up, and that’s not what I wanted here. Fortunately, I had nice bright overcast light to work with, which was perfect.

Fourth, what about my settings? I knew I wanted to use f2.8 to get the shallowest possible depth of field for that dreamy deep forest look. Plus a fast aperture would help to get me a decent shutter speed. I decided that 1/200 was good enough as my lens has pretty good image stabilization, and I was able to rest my elbows on the bridge’s guardrail. That put me at ISO 320, which was just fine. I could have gone up more in ISO but even with the good high ISO performance of the full-frame 5D, I decided that it was better to keep the decent shutter speed I have and be able to produce an image with lower noise. The shutter speed/ISO noise tradeoff is always an important issue to consider.

Fifth, the composition here was key. There were a lot of iguanas! I walked around a bit until I saw this iguana lifting his head a bit while the others napped. I composed carefully to have the out of focus iguanas all contribute to making the main iguana really pop out, and I made sure to have the main iguana’s eye right by one of the thirds of the frame (the power points — see below). Composing according to the rule of thirds is not an ironclad rule, but I thought it would work well for this situation.

Sixth, to meter the scene, I decided to work in aperture priority and evaluative metering mode. Most of the tones in the scene were darker than the face of the main iguana. So, I knew that I would have to apply a bit of negative exposure compensation, in this case, -1/3 stop did the trick.

Seventh, from there I simply selected the autofocus point closest to the iguana’s eye and used that to autofocus. I have my autofocus on one of the back buttons of my camera, totally decoupled from the shutter button. Thus I was able to lock focus and recompose before snapping the shutter.

Lizard Photography

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and the thought process behind the image. Successful nature photography is all about previsualizing an image (even when shooting action or capturing a fleeting moment), analyzing the tradeoffs that your previsualized image entails, and then making choices. Hopefully this little article will give you some ideas for the next time that you’re out in the field photographing.


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About the author Gregory Basco
Like many nature photographers, I started my career doing something else. A political scientist by training, my research focused on the politics of the environment in Latin America. I researched environmental politics and ecotourism in Costa Rica and worked here for a number of years as a conservation professional, having first come to the country in 1992 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I now dedicate myself full-time to my own photography and my Costa Rica photo tour company. I work out of my home office in Costa Rica’s central highlands, where I live with my wife, twin boys, our dogs and cats, and various hummingbirds and songbirds that visit our backyard feeders. Visit Greg’s galleries, store, and workshops at Deep Green Photography.

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TECHNIQUE – Top 5 Tips for Quality Image Files (part 5)

SET YOUR WHITE BALANCE IN-CAMERA

This is one piece of advice that most pro nature photographers won’t give you because RAW files do offer you the ability to change white balance in the computer without degrading the image. There are three reasons that I urge you to set your desired white balance in the field, two of which are perhaps a bit capricious but one that has technical importance.

Before I get to the reasons, let’s take a quick look at what white balance means. Every kind of light has a color temperature, which is actually expressed in degrees Kelvin. The light outside on a sunny day is somewhere around 5000 to 5500 degrees Kelvin. For our purposes, we can consider this to be a neutral light. A tungsten light bulb, on the other hand, has a color temperature of around 3000 degrees Kelvin. This is a relatively “warm” light. The light on a cloudy day, especially at higher elevations will have a higher color temperature, say somewhere between 6000 and 7000 degrees Kelvin. This is cool light.

Back in the film days, most films were daylight-balanced, meaning that they were set to record things at a sunny day white balance. Thus, if you used this film to photograph a wedding hall lit by tungsten light bulbs, the resulting images would have an orange color cast. This can be a nice look but if photographers didn’t want it, they would use a blue filter over the lens to increase the color temperature of the light entering through the lens, thus resulting in a more neutral-looking image. By the same token, nature photographers shooting landscapes on a cloudy day in the mountains would often use a warming filter. These amber/orange-colored filters made the cool, bluish light warmer, resulting in a more natural-looking image.

Today’s DSLR cameras handle these issues through the use of white balance settings. You’ll notice that there are a number of presets for tungsten, flourescent, daylight, cloudy, and flash (among others). These presets simply tell the camera to record a given scene at the color temperature that corresponds to each preset’s value. So, daylight white balance on most cameras will be around 5500 degrees Kelvin, cloudy around 6500 Kelvin, and tungsten around 3000 Kelvin. So, if you shoot a daylight beach scene using the tungsten white balance setting, you can get a bluish, moonlit kind of look. Alternatively, you can punch up the colors of a rather cool and anemic sunset by setting your camera on cloudy white balance to bring out more yellows and reds. Of course, you can also set the color temperature manually on most cameras. So, if one of the presets doesn’t work, you can set the camera to record at 2200 Kelvin or 5700 or 9800 — anywhere between 0 and 10,000.

Many people, even many pro photographers (!), use auto white balance, in which the camera tries to evaluate the light and make the best judgement on color temperature. I never use auto white balance for nature as it nearly invariably gives an unattractive bluish/gray look. Others are fans of custom white balance but setting a custom white balance is a cumbersome chore and is best suited, in my opinion, to studio work.

white balanceAbove is a comparison of how different white balance settings affected my image of a chestnut- mandibled toucan. My original choice was daylight, which I still think is the best. Cloudy is too warm for this scene, and tungsten obviously is absurdly cool. Auto white balance, which is how many people shoot, doesn’t look bad but it’s too gray and cool. Daylight brings the muted green colors of the background and the bright yellow colors on the toucan the closest to how the scene actually was when I took the picture.

Still, auto white balance did a respectable job and, as we’ve been discussing, having shot in RAW would mean that I easily could adjust the white balance in post-processing. So, why worry about setting the white balance in-camera? Why not just use auto as it’s one thing we don’t have to worry about in the field? Here are my three reason for why I think it’s important to set your preferred white balance in-camera.

First, I consider it one of those things that keeps you in the zone as you’re photographing. I’m much more satisfied with my effort if I’ve considered every photographic variable in the field. Not convinced?

Second, I just don’t enjoy looking at auto white balance images on my screen. They look strange, and I have a hard time evaluating if I’m getting what I want. Better, but not quite?

Ok, here’s the third and most important reason. You’re shooting RAW. You know how to interpret your histogram. And you’re exposing to the right. You’re doing everything to get the maximum possible image file quality. The problem is that the histogram is derived from a JPEG. That’s right, even though you’re shooting in RAW format, your camera needs to interpret that data into something you can see, which is the little image on the screen on the back of the camera.

This little image is a processed JPEG that takes into account things such as white balance. The histogram is derived from this little processed JPEG, which means that if you shoot in auto white balance even though you know that’s not the look you’re going to want, the histogram is not accurate. You may be clipping highlights or blocking up shadows sooner or later than what the RAW data show because you are evaluating an auto white balance JPEG.

Let’s take a look at the figure below. This is my toucan shot, with my preferred daylight white balance on the left and auto white balance on the right. The difference is subtle but you can see that auto white balance is actually showing us a brighter histogram. Most values are shifted slightly to the right. This is especially apparent when we consider blown highlights, which is crucial because in this image I wanted to push my exposure as far to the right as possible in order to bring out feather detail in the toucan’s black feathers.

Pay attention to the tuft of white feathers just above the toucan’s tail. Do you notice the bright red areas? Those aren’t on the toucan but rather are blown highlight indicators from Lightroom. I have just a couple of blown spots in the daylight white balance version but quite a bit in the auto white balance version. Though I want to bring out feather detail in the blacks, I’m also very concerned about blowing out the whites.

white balanceHad I evaluated the auto white balance histogram in the field, I would have thought “Man, the whites are really starting to blow out. I’d better back off a bit on my exposure.” That would have been a mistake because I wanted the colors that daylight white balance would produce and by evaluating that histogram, I can see that I’m fine — a couple of slightly blown highlights in those white feathers but nothing that can’t be

dealt with in Lightroom. Had I backed off on my exposure as the auto white balance histogram was indicating to me, I would have blocked up the dark tones a bit, robbing me of some fine feather detail in the black feathers. I would have ended up lightening the black a bit in post-processing, and this probably would have introduced some noise.

Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Perhaps, but remember that it’s a competitive world out there, and I want to make sure that I produce the cleanest files possible so that the images I send to magazines are as good as they can be. And I want my fine art prints to be beautiful and full of detail. In a competitive business, every edge that you can give yourself counts. Many photo buyers are quite discerning, and I want them to know that I’m going the extra mile.

By the way, not only does the little JPEG on the back of your camera (and the resulting histogram) take into account white balance but also variables related to picture style. Setting picture style to Vivid in Nikon or Landscape in Canon tends to produce snappy, saturated files that look great on the back of your camera. But if you have sharpening (which increases edge contrast), contrast, and saturation set high, you might think that you are clipping highlights or shadows when in fact the RAW data (which don’t have a white balance or picture style encoded in them) have more latitude than what the histogram is showing you. That’s why most pro nature photographers will have their picture style setting set to neutral or faithful so that their histograms are more representative of the RAW image data.


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About the author Gregory Basco
Like many nature photographers, I started my career doing something else. A political scientist by training, my research focused on the politics of the environment in Latin America. I researched environmental politics and ecotourism in Costa Rica and worked here for a number of years as a conservation professional, having first come to the country in 1992 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I now dedicate myself full-time to my own photography and my Costa Rica photo tour company. I work out of my home office in Costa Rica’s central highlands, where I live with my wife, twin boys, our dogs and cats, and various hummingbirds and songbirds that visit our backyard feeders. Visit Greg’s galleries, store, and workshops at Deep Green Photography.

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TECHNIQUE – Top 5 Tips for Quality Image Files (part 4)

USE ABODE RGB COLOR SPACE

In a digital photography workflow, a principal axiom is that you can start with more and get less but you can never start with less and get more. (It’s not really a famous axiom; I just made it up.) A prime example is taking a tiny 72 dpi JPEG and trying to blow it up to print a poster. It’s not going to work.

Another area where this rule applies is with color spaces. A color space refers for our purposes to a system for representing colors in a numerical form. Adobe RGB and sRGB are the most common color spaces used by today’s DSLR cameras.

adobe RGBThe figure above, which is borrowed from the Eizo website (Eizo makes what are probably the best monitors out there but you’ll pay for it), shows how these two color spaces relate to the broader color space that encompasses all of the colors and tones that the human eye can discern. You’ll notice immediately that Adobe RGB is a wider color space or gamut than sRGB, particularly for greens and some shades of blue. By setting your camera to capture your RAW files in Adobe RGB space, you’ll be taking advantage of more color information than if you shot in sRGB. As with the next two parameters I discuss in

the following sections, choosing the best setting in-camera will allow you to accurately judge your histogram.

Note that the choice of in-camera color space (again, as with the following two sections below) when shooting RAW does not affect the actual RAW data. If you use Adobe Camera RAW, either in Lightroom or Photoshop, a color space is not truly applied to a file until you convert it to say a TIFF, a PSD, or a JPEG. If you use your camera’s own software (e.g., Capture NX for Nikon, or DPP for Canon), the choice of in- camera color space will be read directly and used as the basis for your photo processing.

Just remember, Adobe RGB is the best choice for in-camera setting when shooting RAW for two reasons. You’ll have a more accurate histogram and you avoid any potential for being fooled into working with less information in post-processing.

So, does this mean that sRGB is always to be avoided?. On the contrary, whenever you convert an image to a JPEG for use on the web or for a presentation, you’ll be outputting the file as sRGB because this is the color space that best corresponds to the screens on most modern electronic devices. Files sent to the web with an Adobe RGB color profile embedded won’t look as good. I save files destined for print (magazines, large prints, etc.) in Pro Photo RGB (an even wider gamut than Adobe RGB) and files destined for electronic distribution in sRGB color space.

 

 


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About the author Gregory Basco
Like many nature photographers, I started my career doing something else. A political scientist by training, my research focused on the politics of the environment in Latin America. I researched environmental politics and ecotourism in Costa Rica and worked here for a number of years as a conservation professional, having first come to the country in 1992 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I now dedicate myself full-time to my own photography and my Costa Rica photo tour company. I work out of my home office in Costa Rica’s central highlands, where I live with my wife, twin boys, our dogs and cats, and various hummingbirds and songbirds that visit our backyard feeders. Visit Greg’s galleries, store, and workshops at Deep Green Photography.

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TECHNIQUE – Top 5 Tips for Quality Image Files (part 3)

EXPOSE TO THE RIGHT

Exposing to the right is a practice that many people don’t follow precisely because RAW files do stand up so well to post-processing. But shooting RAW doesn’t give us an excuse to be sloppy, and exposing to the right is important for two reasons. The first is simple. If you underexpose an image and then have to pull out shadow detail from the darker areas of an image, you’re going to be introducing noise. But darkening slightly overexposed areas will not give you a loss in quality. This is true because of the second reason.

This second reason is even more compelling but requires a bit more explanation. DSLR cameras in general have about five stops of dynamic range. Recall from above that a 12-bit RAW file has 4,096 possible tonal values in each color channel. If we array the stops of dynamic range along our monochromatic or luminance histogram, we’ll notice that each stop (from left to right) contains two times more information than the previous stop. And notice also that most of the possible color values are in the brightest areas. That is, our camera can capture only a relatively few dark tonal values and lots of bright tonal values.

photo exposureAs the figure above illustrates clearly, fully half of the tonal values are in the brightest fifth of the histogram. So, if you don’t have at least some pixels heading out into that rightmost fifth of the histogram, you’re wasting half of the potential tonal information that your camera can capture!

Exposing to the right does not mean overexposing to the extreme though. It simply means that you should expose your image so that the brightest tones in your scene display out into the right fifth of the histogram. If you want detail in the whitest or brightest parts of the scene, however, you need to take care to take them just to the edge of the histogram but not over.

Take the image of a Montezuma oropendola below. This is one of the tougher birds in Costa Rica to expose properly because of the white skin on the face and the black feathers around the head and neck. Underexpose this one, and you’ll have no feather detail in the blacks. Overexpose too far, and the white skin will be blown out white with no detail at all.

Below is a screen shot of my untouched RAW file and the resulting histogram. Notice that there is some space on the left edge of the histogram. This means that the dark feathers are not pure black. And notice that the brightest pixels go right out to the right edge but not past. This means that I made the image as bright as I could in order to capture feather detail in the blacks but without blowing out the white skin. You’ll note also that there is a large amount of pixels clustered toward the middle right of the histogram. This is the background, which is represented by brighter than average mid-tones. The background in this shot was distant forest but there was some fog moving through, which meant that the background was indeed a bright but fairly dull green.

photo exposureIn terms of exposing to the right, there is a caveat that applies especially to the rainforest, where light is usually scarce. Let’s say that I’m shooting a monkey that’s moving around a bit. I have my lens
aperture set wide open, I’m getting only 1/60 of a second, and I’m already at ISO 3200. That is, I’m doing everything possible to get just barely enough light for a sharp image. I take a shot and check my histogram and find that I really should be pushing my exposure one stop to the right to get good detail in the monkey’s dark fur. I have a bit of a dilemma now — how to get that extra stop of light.

I can’t open up my aperture any further; it’s already wide open. If I adjust my shutter speed to let in one stop more light, I drop to 1/30. I think that’s going to make it hard to get a sharp image in this situation, and it’s also placing me into the territory where mirror vibration becomes a concern. So, I don’t want to take my shutter speed any slower. I could take my ISO from 3200 to 6400 but, even though my Mark IV is quite good at high ISOs, I’m not enamored of 6400. So, this is a case where not exposing to the right and brightening the exposure in post-processing may actually be a better or at least equally valid choice. I want a sharp image so I need that shutter speed. And going to ISO 6400 will introduce noise, perhaps just
about as much as taking the image at ISO 3200 and brightening it by one stop in post-processing.

This, of course, is a fairly extreme situation but it’s worth noting because there are some potential tradeoffs involved when exposing to the right. Still, it’s a good habit to have and will help you to get the cleanest image files possible in the vast majority of shooting situations.


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About the author Gregory Basco
Like many nature photographers, I started my career doing something else. A political scientist by training, my research focused on the politics of the environment in Latin America. I researched environmental politics and ecotourism in Costa Rica and worked here for a number of years as a conservation professional, having first come to the country in 1992 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I now dedicate myself full-time to my own photography and my Costa Rica photo tour company. I work out of my home office in Costa Rica’s central highlands, where I live with my wife, twin boys, our dogs and cats, and various hummingbirds and songbirds that visit our backyard feeders. Visit Greg’s galleries, store, and workshops at Deep Green Photography.

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TECHNIQUE – Top 5 Tips for Quality Image Files (part 2)

 

histogram

Cloud forest vegetation, Costa Rica

KNOW YOUR HISTOGRAM

If you don’t use your histogram, you’re putting yourself at risk of underutilizing the information that your fancy DSLR camera (which truly is an amazing machine!) can capture. The histogram allows you to ensure that you’re getting as much tonal information as possible in your images, and it also allows you to focus on capturing the detail you want for certain important parts of any scene. As discussed above, the amount of information in RAW files does allow for a fair amount of post-processing without degrading the image too much. Nonetheless, getting the best exposure possible in-camera is going to mean a better final image, and you’ll also be more satisfied with your effort when you get it right.

The histogram is a big help in this regard but many people seem mystified by it. It’s actually quite simple. The histogram is basically a bar graph in which the x-axis represents the total range of tonal values in a given image from 0 to 255. That is, even in color images, there are 256 possible shades of monochromatic tonalities or luminance values, from pure black (0) to pure white (255). The y-axis indicates the number of pixels having a specific luminance value.

You’ll also see color histograms but most professional nature photographers will tell you that they don’t use these very much if at all. The only time I use them is to check the red channel in a scarlet macaw or maybe the blue in a specific flower or a hummingbird like the violet sabrewing. The consensus among the other pro nature photographers that I know, however, seems to be to master the use of the monochromatic/luminance histogram. Indeed, I have my camera set to display only this histogram by default.

histogramOne often hears that a classic bell-curve is a “good” histogram. Nothing could be further from the truth, and as an aside I think the obsession with having no bright highlights and no dark shadows has led in part to the current HDR craze (that’s a story for another post though!). That said, there are many images for which a bell-curve will indeed be a great histogram.

In the nesting toucan image above, for instance, you can see that the majority of the luminance values are clustered in the center of the x-axis. This makes sense because there are a lot of middle-toned greens
and earth tones in the image. At the tails of the graph (the left and right edges), there are many fewer pixels with extreme dark or light luminance values. And indeed, the values stop just before the left and right edges of the histogram, meaning that I have detail in the darkest and brightest parts of the image.

histogramAs this glass frog image shows, however, there is no one “good” histogram. The correct or optimum histogram will vary depending on the image. Glass frogs are nocturnal so the black background, in addition to being graphically pleasing for this image, is perfectly natural. It gives a very different histogram than the more classic toucan image above but one that is equally correct.

Note that there is a big spike of values pushed up against the left side of the histogram. This means that there are quite a lot of woefully underexposed, pure black areas. I wanted the background to be black, and so it is. You’ll also notice that there are varying luminance values represented by the dark greens and lighter greens in the image but that, importantly, there are no pixels at the right edge of the histogram. Again, this is fine for this image as there are no values that are white or even close to it. Had I put a flash on the leaves in the background in order to make the background green, the histogram would indeed have been closer to a bell-curve. That’s not what I wanted for this image though

histogramAbove is another example of a non-traditional histogram but one that is entirely correct for this image. Note here that there is a big spike that bumps up against the right edge of the histogram. This means
that there are lots of overexposed highlights; in fact, a spike this big and this close to the edge means that these values are pure white and that they contain no recoverable detail. If I had wanted this image to be a silhouette of bird and tree against a cloudy sky, I would be in big trouble because the whites are blown. Of course, that wasn’t the intention here so the overexposed whites are just fine.

 


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About the author Gregory Basco
Like many nature photographers, I started my career doing something else. A political scientist by training, my research focused on the politics of the environment in Latin America. I researched environmental politics and ecotourism in Costa Rica and worked here for a number of years as a conservation professional, having first come to the country in 1992 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I now dedicate myself full-time to my own photography and my Costa Rica photo tour company. I work out of my home office in Costa Rica’s central highlands, where I live with my wife, twin boys, our dogs and cats, and various hummingbirds and songbirds that visit our backyard feeders. Visit Greg’s galleries, store, and workshops at Deep Green Photography.

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TECHNIQUE – Top 5 Tips for Quality Image Files (part 1)

Active crater of Poas Volcano, Costa Rica

Active crater of Poas Volcano, Costa Rica

If you’re looking to take your photography to the next level, maybe even becoming a part-time or full-time pro or perhaps selling some prints, I think there are five things that you should be doing in-camera to ensure that you take advantage of the image quality that your camera has to offer. So, without further adieu, here are my top 5 ways to get great image files.

SHOOT RAW

You don’t have to shoot in RAW; JPEGs are quite capable of producing good images. If you’re a hobbyist and want to produce pictures ready to print and share, get out there and shoot some great pictures in JPEG. But if you’re looking to take your nature photography to the professional level, RAW is for you. Why? JPEG files don’t make use of the vast majority of the information that modern DSLR cameras are capable of capturing; RAW files do and that translates ultimately into more control over image optimization and higher-quality large prints.

Here’s how it works. Each pixel on your camera’s sensor consists of three color channels — red, green, and blue. JPEGs are 8 bit files, which means that 8 bits of binary information (1s or 0s) are possible for each color channel. Raising 2 to the 8th power (for each channel, either a 1 or a 0 is possible 8 times) gives 256 possible combinations for each color channel. Since there are three colors, we take 256 to the 3rd power (red, green, and blue), which yields a total of around 16.7 million possible color values in a JPEG image. Doesn’t sound too bad, right?

But now let’s look at RAW files. Most cameras these days capture RAW files with 12 bits. Using the same math as above, we have 12 possible binary outcomes for each color channel. So, 2 to the 12th power is 4,096. If we take those 4,096 possible tonalities for each color channel and look at all of the possible color values for the three color channels combined, we can take 4,096 to the 3rd power. This yields over 68 billion color possibilities. So, a RAW file has over 4,000 times as much potential color value information as a JPEG file. Put another way, if you shoot JPEG, you’re only using about 2.5% of the possible color information that your camera is capable of recording!

In addition, JPEG files are compressed in a lossy fashion, which means that some of the relatively limited information captured in the first place is thrown away to keep file size smaller. So, on top of the fact that JPEG files start with less information than RAW files, they then throw away some of that information during the compression process. Do note that RAW files also are compressed but using mathematical algorithms that are lossless, meaning that no image data are thrown away in compression in order to reduce file size.

Since JPEG files offer less information for editing in the computer, you’ll most likely want to have the images come out of the camera with saturation and sharpening already applied. Unfortunately, you may or may not like how your camera handles this “post-processing.” Most pros want to be in control of how their images look when they go on the web, for fine art printing, or for a magazine or coffee table book. RAW files take advantage of your camera’s sophisticated image capture capabilities and allow you to stay in control of optimizing your images in the computer.

Posterization is a common symptom when processing a JPEG file of a picture with a colorful sky. Because such skies, especially if the sun is in the frame, exhibit a myriad of very subtle tonal gradations, making changes with limited information can result in image degradation. Because a JPEG file contains much less information than a RAW file, processing it can turn these subtle gradations into abrupt transitions. By way of example, take a look at the comparison below of a sunset image I took in the mountains where I live in Costa Rica. I needed to bring down the highlights and up the saturation in the sky a bit. Processing the RAW file was no problem. When I processed a JPEG version of the RAW file (remember the JPEG has much less color information and is being processed in an 8-bit environment), however, posterization started to become evident. And when I processed a 16 color GIF version of the file, well, let’s just say that only Seurat would be happy with the result! The lesson, the more information you start with, the better your final result.

processed raw                              Processed RAW file

3_processed raw_1435011443455Processed RAW file, zoomed in

presentation_templateProcessed JPEG file

5_processed zoom_JPEG-closeupProcessed JPEG file, zoomed in

presentation_templateProcessed GIF file

processed raw photo

Processed GIF file, zoomed in

In addition, RAW files, with their vastly greater information, also give better results when upsampling a file beyond your camera’s native sensor resolution, a necessary practice for selling large fine art prints or doing a gallery exhibit. By way of example, I shot the cloud forest image above with a Canon 20D, an 8 megapixel camera. I was able to work from the RAW file and upsize it for printing at 30 x 45 inches for my gallery exhibit at the Missouri Botanical Garden in the US a couple of years ago. This is fairly extreme upsizing, but the image looked great in the exhibit hall.


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About the author Gregory Basco
Like many nature photographers, I started my career doing something else. A political scientist by training, my research focused on the politics of the environment in Latin America. I researched environmental politics and ecotourism in Costa Rica and worked here for a number of years as a conservation professional, having first come to the country in 1992 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I now dedicate myself full-time to my own photography and my Costa Rica photo tour company. I work out of my home office in Costa Rica’s central highlands, where I live with my wife, twin boys, our dogs and cats, and various hummingbirds and songbirds that visit our backyard feeders. Visit Greg’s galleries, store, and workshops at Deep Green Photography.

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GEAR – Custom flash drives!

flash drive

I was contacted the other day by the extremely nice people at USB Memory Direct about making some custom USB drives with my logo. I’d seen such drives before and had actually been thinking about making some as a way for people to remember my name and website. T-shirts and hats are great, but I like something different yet functional for PR purposes. When USB Memory Direct offered to send me a shipment of 25 customized drives for free, how could I say no?

When I went to the USB Memory Direct website, it took me quite a while to settle on a style. They had so many cool shapes and finishes from modern to quirky to rustic. I ended up choosing one of the wooden styles, which I thought looked super cool and expressed a great contrast between high-tech gadgetry and materials from the earth. To make things better, they had some that were made with bamboo, a pretty sustainable way to provide for our wood-like needs as bamboo grows rapidly and regrows in the same spot. Trying to select sustainable options when possible always sits well with nature photographers.

photography

Besides looking cool, they work great. Though USB Memory Direct offers only USB 2.0 drives, I think an 8 GB (or even smaller) USB 2.0 drive is just fine as a promo piece. I have a couple of larger drives I’ll use for photos and software programs, but a smaller drive that’s not quite blazing fast is just fine to have in your laptop or tablet sleeve for everyday files and sharing. Oh, the magnetic snap between cap and main unit is wonderful as it keeps you from losing the cap.

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I liked the sample batch so much that I’ll be ordering a larger supply that I can hand out to clients and when I present at photo conferences.

Thanks to my son Josh Basco for taking the product pics. We set the USB drive up on my home office desk and did the lighting solely with one small flashlight – a pretty fun and easy way to do some quick product photography.

CHECK OUT THE FULL SELECTION OF DRIVES AT USB MEMORY DIRECT.


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About the author Gregory Basco
Like many nature photographers, I started my career doing something else. A political scientist by training, my research focused on the politics of the environment in Latin America. I researched environmental politics and ecotourism in Costa Rica and worked here for a number of years as a conservation professional, having first come to the country in 1992 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I now dedicate myself full-time to my own photography and my Costa Rica photo tour company. I work out of my home office in Costa Rica’s central highlands, where I live with my wife, twin boys, our dogs and cats, and various hummingbirds and songbirds that visit our backyard feeders.  Visit Greg’s galleries, store, and workshops at Deep Green Photography.

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GEAR – Is it hard to take sharp pictures with the Canon 5Ds R?

canon rebelNOTE: THE CANON 5DS AND 5DS R ARE FUNCTIONALLY THE SAME. I HAVE THE 5DS R AND REFER TO IT THROUGHOUT THIS POST, BUT ALL OF THE INFORMATION HERE WOULD HOLD FOR THE 5DS AS WELL.

I recently bought the new Canon 5Ds R camera primarily to take advantage of its 50 megapixel sensor for landscape photography. Nonetheless, I’ve found myself using it more and more even with my telephoto lens. Why? Because I really like the ability to change between full-frame, 1.3x, and 1.6x modes on the fly (I set the little multi-function button next to the shutter button to change between crop modes). When shooting wildlife or birds, I’m normally scrambling to take teleconverters on and off as I frame more loosely or more tightly. With the new body I have the benefit of switching between the different crop modes on the fly and without even lifting my eye from the viewfinder while at the same time composing in-camera, a challenge I enjoy and an important part of photography in my opinion.

Nonetheless, when using the Canon 5Ds R for this type of photography, one reads a number of online complaints about the camera. I’ll agree with one but will take issue with the other two, sharing here a photo of a black guan I took in a Costa Rican cloud forest the other day to back up my issue with those two complaints.

The first complaint is that the frame rate is slow, and the large files can quickly fill up the camera’s buffer. I agree with this and, when I’m shooting action such as a bird in flight, I’ll usually grab my 7DII. I don’t think anyone would ever claim that the 5Ds R was made for action shooting. But, for portraits of animals and birds, these two drawbacks are not a big issue at all for the 5Ds R.

The second complaint (actually it’s more of a consideration than a complaint) about the camera is that it is harder to obtain sharp images because of the increased pixel density. The excellent resolution of the sensor means that poor technique will be exposed and magnified, rendering images less sharp. Some reviewers recommend that users may need 2 to 3 extra stops of shutter speed over what they normally would be used to for getting sharp pictures. While I understand the logic behind this, I simply haven’t found this to be the case with the new camera.

The third complaint relates to high ISO. “The new camera only goes to ISO 6400 (expandable to 12,800) while the (insert camera model here) goes up to 52,800!” The important thing about ISO is, of course, how a camera performs at the ISO values that we actually use. No one expects to get a publishable shot out of ISO 52,800 so whether the 5Ds R goes there or not is a moot point. I’ve found that, in keeping with a number of other reviews, I’ll shoot the new 5Ds R just as I shot the 5DIII — going to ISO 3200 without too much thought if I need to and even going to ISO 6400 if I have to. When viewing a 5Ds R image at 100%, there can at first glance appear to be more noise than say the Canon 5D III. But upon downsizing the 5Ds R file for print or web, the difference disappears. And of course, upsizing a 5D III or 7D II to make a big print would also cancel any initial noise advantage that the sensors with less resolution might have originally enjoyed. A Canon 5Ds R file will print at very nearly 20 x 30 inches at 300 ppi without any upsizing!

By way of example, I took a photo of the turkey-like Black Guan at the very end of a rainy day last week in a Costa Rican cloud forest. To test whether I really needed more shutter speed to get a sharp picture, I shot handheld and at a very slow shutter speed for handholding a 300 mm f/2.8 lens — 1/100th of a second. I also shot wide open at f/2.8 so I really had to nail my focus. Finally, I cranked the ISO up to 2000, which is a pretty high value when you’re working in very low light. (Taking ISOs way up in good light is not a valid test in my mind because you’re still dealing with lots of photons!)

To sum up, this situation had all the ingredients to make the attempt to get a sharp picture a total failure on the new Canon 5Ds R. I used the Canon 5Ds R and the Canon 300 mm f/2.8 L IS Version I lens and shot handheld. My settings were f/2.8, ISO 2000, 1/100th of a second, single point autofocus over the bird’s eye, and manual mode with spot metering. I exposed a little on the dark side in order to keep the bright patch of skin near the bird’s beak from blowing out. Let’s see how I did!
deep green photography

This is my RAW file straight out of the camera. I shot and composed in the 1.3 crop mode on the 5Ds R, meaning my compositional choice would give me a 30.5 megapixel (6768×4512) image. Sweet! On my exposure, I’m just barely losing detail in some of the dark feathers at the bottom right edge of the screen, and I’m fine with that as it gives a vignetting effect that keeps the viewer’s eye going to the bird’s face.

3_1442859356780
As an aside, here is the full-frame image from the same file. Even though I shot in the 5Ds R’s 1.3 mode, the camera keeps the complete 50 MP RAW file. Lightroom picks up the crop mode information so when I import the file in Lightroom, it shows up with my in-camera framing as above. But, if I ever wanted to choose an alternate crop, I have the file from the entire full-frame sensor at the ready.

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Here’s an extreme closeup extracted from my file. Is it the sharpest picture I’ve ever taken? Of course not. But, is it acceptably sharp, especially given the conditions and my settings? I think so, and more importantly for the purposes of this post, I feel that it is about what I would have expected to get under the same conditions with the Canon 1D Mark IV, the Canon 7DII, or the Canon 5DIII.

Continue reading 


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About the author Gregory Basco:
Like many nature photographers, I started my career doing something else. A political scientist by training, my research focused on the politics of the environment in Latin America. I researched environmental politics and ecotourism in Costa Rica and worked here for a number of years as a conservation professional, having first come to the country in 1992 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I now dedicate myself full-time to my own photography and my Costa Rica photo tour company. I work out of my home office in Costa Rica’s central highlands, where I live with my wife, twin boys, our dogs and cats, and various hummingbirds and songbirds that visit our backyard feeders.

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