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Photo Friday: Quiet and Still

photography columbia basin
The area near the Columbia River Basin in central Washington is very dry and arid, a high desert type of climate. Here sage brush flourishes and large treeless tracts are the norm. Above the Frenchman Coulee on a beautiful February twilight I waited as the sun dipped below the horizon and watched as the area was bathed in purple and magenta hues. I was content to simply sit and capture the scene as the light dwindled into nothingness.


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MEET THE AUTHOR

While growing up, Derrald’s parents took him on several trips across the United States to numerous national parks. It was on these trips that Derrald grew a love for the outdoors which we wished to explore and share with others. Photography was a natural result, an endeavor that Derrald began at a young age and continued to explore in years to come.

While pursuing a Bachelors degree at Creighton University, he enrolled in all of the photography courses. With these courses he learned the fundamentals of chemical darkrooms, light, balance, and exposure. After college he continued to explore the art and develop his own technique and style and choose to focus on nature and scenic photography as his primary subjects, although he is not hesitant to point the lens at anything.

Amongst the images of majestic mountains and the crashing waves of the ocean, one can find photographs of the prairies, lakes, and wetlands of the American Great Plains and Midwest. Some of these images are the artist’s favorites as they show the expansive heartland of the United States and the subtle beauty of the area surrounding his home. Through the right balance of subject, composition, and light, Derrald strives to transport the viewer into the composition.

Derrald has won numerous awards and exhibited in several solo and group shows regionally. His work has also appeared in several regional and national magazines, calendars, websites, and postcards. He continues to live and work in Omaha with his family.

Visit Derrald’s website Journey Of Light Photography  to read his other articles. His images may be ordered from his store.

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The Power Of Light

Piper1_BV2U2017-Version-2I recently posted the above image on FB and it became one of my top 20 images posted. Let’s be serious, it is a portrait of a buffalo. There are so many images that have required huge amounts of effort, uncomfortable accommodations, beans and rice, long drives, sand storms, harsh rains, impossible muddy roads, and yet it was a photo of a Buffalo that the crowd went wild over? This is the perfect proof that the reaction was not about the subject, but instead to the light and the emotion it created.

When we first pick up the camera, we are told there is good light and bad light. We go on thinking this for years as we click away. However, there are all different types of light, all day long, that can be a creative tool for the photographer who understands how to use it. While we cannot control the natural light source, we can learn how to manipulate the light through creative camera settings and simple tools. Light on a subject is one of the most powerful tools we have to convey drama, mystique, and emotion. The use of light in a photograph can be the deciding factor between an amazing image and boring or terrible one.

Learning to use natural light should be a prerequisite for all photographers before spending a lot of money purchasing expensive flash and lighting gear. When I first picked up the camera, workshops teaching dramatic natural light either did not exist or there were so few, I did not know of them. This is what inspired me to create Spirit-N-Light workshops. It was through my tribal photography that I started to study how other photographers in other genres such as fashion photographers and commercial photographers used light. Slowly, I taught myself how to use flash and off-camera flash, which was thrilling. This is what ultimately elevated my wildlife photography, as I was no longer satisfied with “over the shoulder light”, and I was constantly seeking out dramatic light.

Pushing to use available natural light to create drama, mystique, and emotion in my wildlife photography subsequently made using natural light the most powerful tool in all my photography. I became increasingly frustrated with lighting equipment failures and the slower set up process. I found using natural light to be much more powerful and freeing. It also creates more engaging photographs with my subjects than when you have flashes going off. In hindsight, it would have been much easier to learn how, when, and why to use an artificial light source if I had had a solid grasp on how to use natural light first.

The concept that I like to get across during the Spirit-N-light workshops is that it is a given that your subject is exotic. If you have picked up the camera and are ready to click, I am assuming you are excited about your subject and it is exotic to you, whether it is a rock or a lion. So, forget about your subject and ask yourself, “what is the light and how does it impact my subject?” Even a rather plain subject in dramatic lighting, such as a buffalo, will always make for a more dynamic image than a great subject in bad or flat light. Once you understand the power of light you will notice it everywhere in your everyday life and it will broaden your creative horizons.


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Piper Mackay is a world, wildlife and cultural photographer, based in Long Beach, California. She believes compelling visual images help to protect what is right in the world. Her work takes her to very remote locations, living cross culturally in the villages and environments that she is documenting.

Her work is heavily concentrated on the African continent, a land she fell in love with when she first touched foot on it’s rich red soil. Her passion for the natural world has grown into a lifelong commitment to inspire others to explore, respect and preserve the beauty of our fragile planet.

She believes compelling work comes when you invest time, living the stories you are trying to tell. It is important to interact and gain the trust of those whose stories you are telling, especially when sensitive and complicated. The world has enough images of poverty, pain and disaster, much more needful is imagery that reveals the beauty and dignity of the communities that are, except by their geography and circumstances, very similar to our own. Powerful images help shape the view of the world and play an important role in disseminating how cultures and wildlife are coping with the rapid changes happening in the developing world.

Piper’s images have been displayed at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, The Museum of History and industry, and The Art Wolfe gallery, as well as local galleries. Her work has been featured in Nature and travel publication through representation of several photo agencies, including Rangefinder, Nature’s Best, Birders, and the World Wildlife Fund. She is an independent photographer and available for assignment work.

Her prior career in the fashion industry, where she was deeply involved with combing color and texture, has greatly enhanced her approach to the unique look and feel of each culture and photographic subject. This also gave her a strong background in business and marketing. Please visit Piper’s website at www.pipermackayphotography.com.

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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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Photo Friday: Through the Night

Niobrara State ParkDuring my last trip to Niobrara State Park I spent two nights photographing the stars. On the first night I setup on the footbridge near the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri River. It was completely dark as there was no moon, a perfect night to capture the stars and do some light painting. When the shutter was open I carefully used my flashlight on the steel beams and across the deserted bridge. When the shutter was off all I could see was the stars and the lights of Niobrara in the distance. The only sound was the slushing of the water beneath the bridge. That was until I was startled by the rustling of bushes behind me! I turned around with my flashlight and saw nothing and decided I was quite done. I packed up and hurried back up the trail to my warm cabin.


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MEET THE AUTHOR

While growing up, Derrald’s parents took him on several trips across the United States to numerous national parks. It was on these trips that Derrald grew a love for the outdoors which we wished to explore and share with others. Photography was a natural result, an endeavor that Derrald began at a young age and continued to explore in years to come.

While pursuing a Bachelors degree at Creighton University, he enrolled in all of the photography courses. With these courses he learned the fundamentals of chemical darkrooms, light, balance, and exposure. After college he continued to explore the art and develop his own technique and style and choose to focus on nature and scenic photography as his primary subjects, although he is not hesitant to point the lens at anything.

Amongst the images of majestic mountains and the crashing waves of the ocean, one can find photographs of the prairies, lakes, and wetlands of the American Great Plains and Midwest. Some of these images are the artist’s favorites as they show the expansive heartland of the United States and the subtle beauty of the area surrounding his home. Through the right balance of subject, composition, and light, Derrald strives to transport the viewer into the composition.

Derrald has won numerous awards and exhibited in several solo and group shows regionally. His work has also appeared in several regional and national magazines, calendars, websites, and postcards. He continues to live and work in Omaha with his family.

Visit Derrald’s website Journey Of Light Photography to read his other articles. His images may be ordered from his store.

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Artistic Vision Beyond the Obvious

artistic vision
FAR
too often we get too caught up in the excitement of our subject to take a step back, take a deep breath, and allow our own artistic vision to flow. We arrive at an exciting destination and switch from artistic vision to, “getting the shot”. We travel half way around the world dreaming of the unique images that we are going to create, but when we arrive, we panic; we cling to safety and shoot what is in front of us in fear of “missing the shot”. Staying safe ensures we will come home with images to show and share; proof that we have been to some remote, exotic location.

When we first pick up a camera, we are so excited by the possibilities that we are happy just learning the buttons, dials, focusing and exposure. We use the camera as a tool to seek out the exotic, snapping away, and are thrilled when we take a technically acceptable image; it’s in focus, the exposure is good, and nothing is clipped out of the frame. This is an important part of learning the craft, but we end up stagnating in this learning phase for way too long. Every time we get back from a location, we begin to wonder why our images aren’t more exciting. They are from a different place in the world, but technically they seem to be the same. The faces are different, the background is different, the animals are different, but the style is still boring and lifeless.

Whether it is a portrait of a lion or a portrait of a person, STOP CLICKING!! There are times when I still take that quick grab shot to satisfy the nagging need of, “getting the shot”; a habit that is hard to break, but it is a quick one or two clicks and then I quickly move on. Most times, when editing my images, I delete the “safe shot”, as it has no emotion, no connection, or creative expression. It is only a snap shot of something I found extraordinary or exciting in that very moment.

I am constantly striving for motion and emotion in a still photograph. This generally means I am breaking all the rules by manipulating my camera settings to over expose, under expose, or to create movement using slower shutter speeds. This also means that I risk deleting 99% of what I shoot; in turn, possibly “missing the shot”, but who is “the shot” for? Learning to trust your artistic vision, letting go and thinking quickly all come when you have confidence in your process because you quit caring about what others think. When you become so completely immersed in what stirs your soul that you lose yourself in the artistic process, your photographs will become artistic beyond the obvious.
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In this image I slowed my shutter to 1/50 and focused on the still subjects. The edge of the river dropped off. The wildebeest would pause until the build up from the back pushed them forward catapulting them into the river. The slow motion of wildebeest falling into the water puts movement into the image.

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Dust is always one of my favorite moody elements; add light, a slower shutter speed of 125 for a softer focus and the movement of the elements and you have an artistic painterly image.

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This is a pan-blur technique. I slowed my shutter to 1/30, focused on my front subjects, held down the shutter while panning with the moving herd.

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In the migratory herds, the zebra tend to be calm and still, while the wildebeest are are nervous and constantly moving. Similar to the fist image, I slowed my shutter to 1/20, focused on the still zebras, and the moving wildebeest in front are blurred by their motion.

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When elegant herds are on the move they surround the babies to protect them. I chose to go in really tight, focusing on and framing the young elephant, and slowing the shutter just enough to blur the motion of the faster moving older elephants.

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I have not been in the Mara just after the big rains. In some area’s the grasses were as tall as my Land Rover. Although it was challenging, I love the creative aspect of all the tall grasses. As the light was getting bright and I was heading back to camp, I came across these two Dik-Dik’s standing very still. They are usually very shy and run off quickly.  I made the creative choice to use a slow shutter speed so the blowing grasses would blurr and to over expose the image, creating this artistic look.

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There was beautiful light at sunrise, I could have easily captured the technically perfect shot with golden light on this lion, but I chose to do the opposite. I position myself for backlighting and underexposed by -1.67.

Nevada Wier recently wrote a great article about techniques that help you to make unique and personal images. Learning, developing and grasping these techniques before you travel half way around the world will give you the confidence to take artistic risks. You can grab your camera and hit the streets to practice or take a creative workshop. Personally, I am more inspired by surrounding myself with other passionate photographers feeding off each other’s creativity, rather than going out solo practicing tips I have read about. This is one of the reasons I love teaching the spirit-n-Light Creative workshops. Although I am there helping photographers with their creative process, I always come away inspired by their images, passion, and ideas.


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Piper Mackay is a world, wildlife and cultural photographer, based in Long Beach, California. She believes compelling visual images help to protect what is right in the world. Her work takes her to very remote locations, living cross culturally in the villages and environments that she is documenting.

Her work is heavily concentrated on the African continent, a land she fell in love with when she first touched foot on it’s rich red soil. Her passion for the natural world has grown into a lifelong commitment to inspire others to explore, respect and preserve the beauty of our fragile planet.

She believes compelling work comes when you invest time, living the stories you are trying to tell. It is important to interact and gain the trust of those whose stories you are telling, especially when sensitive and complicated. The world has enough images of poverty, pain and disaster, much more needful is imagery that reveals the beauty and dignity of the communities that are, except by their geography and circumstances, very similar to our own. Powerful images help shape the view of the world and play an important role in disseminating how cultures and wildlife are coping with the rapid changes happening in the developing world.

Piper’s images have been displayed at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, The Museum of History and industry, and The Art Wolfe gallery, as well as local galleries. Her work has been featured in Nature and travel publication through representation of several photo agencies, including Rangefinder, Nature’s Best, Birders, and the World Wildlife Fund. She is an independent photographer and available for assignment work.

Her prior career in the fashion industry, where she was deeply involved with combing color and texture, has greatly enhanced her approach to the unique look and feel of each culture and photographic subject. This also gave her a strong background in business and marketing. Please visit Piper’s website at www.pipermackayphotography.com.

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Living with Lions

africa safari

A gentle wind blows across the plains as prides of lions lie in the shade of the acacias, waiting patiently in anticipation. At any moment now, a dust cloud will gather over the horizon, as thousands of wildebeest thunder through the tall grasses of the Maasai Mara; marking the arrival of the Great Migration. During migration season, the Maasai Mara is arguably the greatest wildlife photography experience in the world.

I am currently in the Maasai Mara, at Little Mara Bush Camp, which is my home for the next three weeks. This is a fascinating time to be in the Mara. The grasses are the highest of the year, providing tremendous opportunities to capture artistic and unique photographs. I am slow to click the shutter, as my focus is on creating interesting and powerful images through the use of dramatic lighting, slower shutter speeds, creative exposures and different white balance choices. Each morning starts before sunrise, quickly fading into the heat of the day without seeing another vehicle. It has a feel of a private reserve; the calm before the storm.

I have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours photographing in this reserve over the past decade. What’s so different about these three weeks is that I am driving my own Land Rover. I must admit, it takes the experience to entirely new heights. I feel even more connected to the wildlife and this extraordinary place; no longer a visitor, but a feeling of belonging. Over these three weeks, I will be maneuvering over rough roads, crossing through rivers with rocky boulder bottoms, and sliding through the wet swampy black cotton soil, covering as much of the Mara as possible. Some of the most important skills for a wildlife photographer to have are to intimately know a location, understand the animal territories and behavior, and to build strong personal relationships in the area.

I wish to not only improve my own skills as an African wildlife photographer, but to specialize my guiding skills for those joining me on safaris.

Africa truly awakens your soul, as it did mine, on my first safari eleven years ago. I will savor these three weeks and immerse myself fully into every moment. As always, it will be hard to leave, even if only for a short time. I will return in August and September to lead my annual safarisKenya Wildlife Safari and Great Migration Safari, during the height of the migration season. No matter how much time I spend in the Maasai Mara, it is never enough; it never gets old. Most all who have been here would also agree.

You know you are truly alive
when you are living among lions.
Karen Blixen – Out of Africa

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Piper Mackay is a world, wildlife and cultural photographer, based in Long Beach, California. She believes compelling visual images help to protect what is right in the world. Her work takes her to very remote locations, living cross culturally in the villages and environments that she is documenting.

Her work is heavily concentrated on the African continent, a land she fell in love with when she first touched foot on it’s rich red soil. Her passion for the natural world has grown into a lifelong commitment to inspire others to explore, respect and preserve the beauty of our fragile planet.

She believes compelling work comes when you invest time, living the stories you are trying to tell. It is important to interact and gain the trust of those whose stories you are telling, especially when sensitive and complicated. The world has enough images of poverty, pain and disaster, much more needful is imagery that reveals the beauty and dignity of the communities that are, except by their geography and circumstances, very similar to our own. Powerful images help shape the view of the world and play an important role in disseminating how cultures and wildlife are coping with the rapid changes happening in the developing world.

Piper’s images have been displayed at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, The Museum of History and industry, and The Art Wolfe gallery, as well as local galleries. Her work has been featured in Nature and travel publication through representation of several photo agencies, including Rangefinder, Nature’s Best, Birders, and the World Wildlife Fund. She is an independent photographer and available for assignment work.

Her prior career in the fashion industry, where she was deeply involved with combing color and texture, has greatly enhanced her approach to the unique look and feel of each culture and photographic subject. This also gave her a strong background in business and marketing. Please visit Piper’s website at www.pipermackayphotography.com.

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