Photography: Wonderful Confusion

“How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.”  – Niels Bohr

I love  learning new facts about Nature. Obviously it is far to complex to be fully known or understood. In spite of this, I tend to drift into an illusion that all the important scientific facts are already known. Then, something new is discovered.  Recently five  new animal species were  found in  the rainforest of New Guinea. What? All these years of scientists and explorers poking around and researching, and they have not yet found all of the animal species here on earth.? Wow! That’s cool!

Several years ago two new species of  microorganisms were found near the top of a volcano in South America. Their respiration utilizes sulfur. That is unique. The respiration of all other plants and animals involves oxygen, carbon dioxide and water. No one knew that sulfur could be a basic component of respiration. Men have walked on the moon. Lots of facts are known  about black holes and  quarks. Yet we had not known all the types of respiration of earth organisms.  That’s cool!.

My personal  “find” yesterday was something new to me (No, not a new species).  It was a beautiful flower of which  I had never heard (Celosia).  I looked at it admiringly. Is this whole thing a flower? Or is much of it tiny modified leaves? A bracken? Hairs? Modified spines?  Or is it some type of fern?  Oh, wait! Those are the flowers, tiny and few. I still don’t understand what these brilliant spires are. But at least I know where its flowers are. How cool!

Some may ask what this has to do with photography. For me, photography is about becoming more aware. It is a matter of developing an “in the moment” awareness of, not only the things that I know and expect; but, even more importantly, an openness to the unknown and unexpected. What is even better, I get to touch it with my hand or study it with my eyes and photograph it with my heart. This is great! What a wonderful confusion!

I used to believe that I should know all the answers. Now I am content just to be alert and aware; just to know some of the questions.

I welcome comments and suggestions.

I am available at NaturePhotoRehab.com assisting clients to transform their photos into works of art that they are either proud to give as gifts or to hang on their own wall for inspiration.

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Photography – Becoming a Professional

Listen to the Exhortation of the Dawn! Look to this Day! For it is Life, the very Life of Life. In its brief course lie all the Verities and Realities of your Existence.  – Kalidasa

A frequent question in photography groups is “What does it take to become a professional photographer?” That is best answered with a question in return. “Do you realize that a professional shoots what is interesting to another person or company, when that person wants it done”? Gone are the days of shooting what interests you, and when you are in the mood.

However, a condensed list of requirements follows:

1) strong marketing skills (and lots of time and energy to utilize them).

2)  Professional equipment (expensive!) and willingness to forgo all of the other things that could have been purchased.

3) Excellent technique (and the time and money necessary to achieve it)

4) Five years, more or less.  However, I do know of an account executive in New York who abruptly quit his job and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico to support himself as a photographer. He does not recommend this approach for most people, although he did succeed.

5) Shoot what you love. Learn to effectively convey your feelings to other people through your images. The owner of a stock photography agency told me that he thinks these are primary keys to success.

Becoming a professional photographer has always been a long and rigorous journey because of the amount of competition.  With the advent of quality, affordable digital camera and lenses, it has become 1,000 times more difficult than it was 20 years ago.

However the principle determinants of financial success remain the same.

1) Frequent attendance of workshops put on by successful professional photographers who are also effective teachers

3) Ongoing mentoring by a successful, established photographer

4) Practice honing one’s skills by shooting and processing . In one survey, the average number of photographs taken and edited per day by the better professionals was 40.

5) Study for development of new skills for both photography its self and for processing.

6) Find a niche. I know of one lady in Taos, New Mexico who has supported herself and her family for years by shooting only cooked food dishes for restaurants, magazines, etc. She has only one camera and only one lens. Her “studio” is her kitchen. A more complex, and probably more practical, niche could be some combination of tilt-shift lenses, focus stacking, high dynamic range (HDR), panoramas, mosaics and composites of photographs and illustrations.

Although 5 years of dedicated work is a rough rule of thumb, the time can be greatly shortened by attending a school such as Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, California. At Brooks, a typical single week’s schedule is likely to include 3-5 projects. Each project includes, planning, arranging for props, models, lighting and specialty equipment, shooting, processing, printing and presentation.  It’s rigorous, but upon graduation, many are offered (low-level) jobs.

When starting out, a professional photographer’s jobs are likely to be mundane and income meager. One might be shooting for a seed catalog or for K-mart junk mail or an oil refinery. For many years Ansell Adams supported himself by shooting dams and bridges for a railroad company. Induced Chaos Photography (inducedchaos.com) points out, correctly, that professionals must consistently produce high quality results day in and day out, regardless of how they are feeling or whether they are interested in the subject of the shoot.

Having effective marketing skills is essential for developing an income stream. Many people take classes in marketing. Early in one’s career, it is common to spend more time on marketing than on the photography itself.

Peter Lik is a dramatic example of the importance of marketing. Peter is a self-taught landscape photographer.   He used a panoramic film camera and perfect technique with which he generated wonderful nature photographs. His work was distinctive because film panorama landscapes were rare. Peter was an adventurer and individualist with no interest in marketing. As a result, his income was so low that he lived out of his car for 35 years. Several years ago he teamed up with a high-powered marketing firm. Currently he has over 14 galleries, each selling (huge) framed enlargements for $ 8,000 to $15,000. (His most expensive photograph is a multi-paneled mural the size of a large wall. It sells for $ 50,000. Last year he began a successful reality TV series (The Weather Channel-TWC) entitled From the Edge with Peter Lik. Wow! That demonstrates the power of marketing when your product is high quality.

In conclusion, the best advice for the budding professional photographer is “Follow your heart, but don’t give up your day job”.

I hope this will be helpful to someone. I welcome comments, criticism and suggestions for future blog topics.

I am available at NaturePhotoRehab.com assisting clients in transforming their nature photos into works of art that they are proud to give as gifts or to hang on their own wall for inspiration.

©2012 J. Michael Harroun  NaturePhotoRehab.com

Photography – Realistic Goals

garys red/wht 1“No road is too long for him who advances slowly and does not hurry, and no attainment is beyond his reach who equips himself with patience to achieve it.”     – Jean de La Bruyere

When a professional photographer goes on a shoot for a client, there is always an expectation of quality results. That is, after all, what the client is paying for. However, personal shooting is, for me, a very different matter. For this, I have two minimal goals and two maximal goals. My minimal goals are: 1) Do not damage or lose the equipment; 2) Relax and slow down enough to notice and appreciate some of the intricacies of the nature around me.  This appreciation provides me with feelings of wholeness and connection to the incredibly complex world of delicate balances that we call nature.

You may have noticed that neither of these personal shooting goals mentions anything about photographs. There is good reason for that, which is illustrated by an experience that I had yesterday.

I went with a photography group to a large botanical garden.  There were thousands of plants and at least 40 different kinds of flowers. The level of photographic skill in the group varied from beginner to professional. At the outset, most of the beginners, and some intermediate level members, rushed off to get photos of as many beautiful plants and flowers as possible.

I began consciously slowing down, preparing to reach my goal of appreciating and connecting with the flowers. I noticed that the sun was bright and fairly high in the sky. The flowers were, for the most part, at least partially in direct sunlight (which causes photos with washed out colors and dark shadows). When I found a flower with good lighting, the background was in direct sunlight (which is highly distracting in a photograph, drawing the viewer’s attention away from the subject). Some flowers were in dark shade (which allows good photographs of shape and color, but gives a flat appearance with no “life” or texture). Changing perspective on many plants was limited by the garden rules (stay on the paths, but do not block them or hinder the movement of other people). Add to that a frequent breeze, and conditions were not conducive to high quality close-up flower photos.

I decided to just spend time with the flowers while watching for a change in conditions. I spent at least 10 min with each flower variety that appealed to me. There were great colors, textures and shapes. I enjoyed them and developed exhilaration that is my goal #2. I experimented with the reflector and diffusing screen that I had, but could not control the lighting. No problem, it was practice and I was feeling fine.

Considering that I was in a large botanic garden, there were thousands of excellent photographic opportunities surrounding me. There were plenty of opportunities to take photos of variegated leaves, bamboo stands, ferns, actually thousands of plants. But I was in the mood for the flowers and their brilliant colors, velvety textures, sheen of sunlight, complicated shapes and wonderful smells. I took some practice shots and shots just to keep me slowed down and attentive. None of these were of a quality to enlarge and frame. I reviewed them, as I review every shot that I take, to see if I can learn something from it. However, all of this mornings images were then deleted. No photos… and I felt fine.

When I think back to that experience, I have satisfying memories. I am glad that I was there. I had met both of my first two goals: 1) don’t damage or lose any equipment and 2) slow down and develop a fulfilling connection with nature. My feelings awe, awareness and “aliveness” made the day worthwhile.

On the other hand, I think back to other photographers in our group who were hurrying around to get macro shots of many flowers. Some of them will arrive home with a lot of images.  However, considering the conditions, many of their macro shots are likely to be of poor quality. Some will be disappointed with their photographic abilities. It is worth remembering that sometimes the conditions are just not conducive to quality images, especially macro work. Sometimes it is just better to just have a pleasant walk.

The two goals that I have referred to thus far are my “minimal goals”. I have two additional goals that are more challenging. These I call my “maximal goals”: 1) to create photos that generate within me feelings similar to the feelings I had when the images were captured and 2) to create images that cause other people to get similar feelings to those that I had when shooting. This happens less often than my recreating feeling within myself. But when it does occur, I am filled with pleasure for being able to share the feelings of wonder and connection to the universe. This is my ultimate photographic goal. I reach it gradually more often. That lets me know that I am traveling down the correct path in this journey toward bliss.

Successful photography is the result of a surprisingly long period of practice, learning, practice, mistakes and disappointments and (you guessed it) practice. Be patient with yourself. Remember to enjoy the moments along the way.

I hope this post has been helpful to someone. I welcome comments, criticism and suggestions for future blog posts.

Through my website, NaturePhotoRehab.com, I assist clients to transform their nature photos into impressive works of art that they are proud to give as gifts or to hang on their own wall for inspiration. Specifically I provide photo retouching, complex processing and enhancements, enlargements, prints up to 12 x 18 inches and framing.

©2012 J. Michael Harroun

Sharper Photographic Images – Part 1

“A Flower is a Leaf gone Mad with Love.”  – Goethe (thanks coastingnz for correcting my quote)

A flower’s delicacy, color, texture smell and shape generate in me, as in many of us, feelings of wonder, awe, connectedness, elation and even spirituality. That is the major reason that I photograph flowers so much. The more distinct and sharp the details of the image, or at least of the  area of  primary importance, the more effective it is in rekindling the emotions we were experiencing when we took them. A brilliant, sharp enlargement of a dahlia or hibiscus (or myriad of other flowers) hanging on the wall can quickly lift my spirits.

One of the most common photographic issues that people have is a lack of sharpness. Sharpness (along with color and composition) is a major determinant of the viewer’s perception of an image as “reality”. To help with this I put together a list of recommendations for maximizing photographic sharpness. Please don’t let the length of this list be intimidating. Adding proper handheld technique, a tripod and just one additional item from this list, will greatly improve the sharpness of most photographer’s images.

Lens sharpness: An image can be no sharper than the lens’s maximal capability. Lenses that come with a camera are usually not particularly sharp. The more expensive the lens, the greater its sharpness.  Companies usually have at least 3 levels of lens quality and sharpness. Inexpensive lenses have inadequate sharpness. The most expensive lenses are beyond the financially capacity of many of us. The mid-level is usually a good balance between quality and affordability.

Macro lenses: some lenses, called macro lenses, are designed exclusively for close-up and macro work. For this they provide excellent sharpness. However, they will not provide adequate focus at a distance. They are just not designed for that.

Clean lens surface: Substances on the surface of a lens (fingerprints, smudge, droplets) obviously scatter some light, producing blurry areas of a photo. Obviously cleaning these off will improve the sharpness of your images. However, I am frequently surprised by the amount of fine powdery dirt, sea breeze haze or smog grime that is on my cleaning cloth when the lens surface appears to be clean to begin with. Therefore frequent lens surface cleaning is recommended. However, lens cleaning needs to be done carefully to avoid scratching the lens itself.This is best done by first blowing off debris with an air bulb or canned air (Don’t blow on the lens. That will leave lots of tiny droplets of saliva which further impair a lens’s sharpness).  Second, use a lens cleaner made for your specific type of lens and , either lens tissue, or clean microfiber cloth. It’s important for everything that is used to clean the lens be very clean itself.

The camera sensor: An image’s sharpness is limited by the sensor’s capabilities. Sharpness is dependent on pixel size and number, efficiency of tiny lenses over the top of the pixels and quality of in camera processing of data. Some independent labs, such as dpreview.com, provide trust-able information about specific cameras. A sensor does not have to be large to be very sharp. Some smaller cameras have excellent sensors. However, essentially all current generation DSLR’s provide excellent sharpness. It’s important to note that sharpness decreases as enlargement size increases. If you want only 4 inch by 6 inch prints, essentially any digital camera, except for phones cameras and web cams, can give excellent results.

The most common cause of unsharp (soft) images is motion of the camera while the shutter is open. This is called “camera shake”.  It is common when the camera is being hand-held. An imperceptible movement of the hand while the shutter is open is all that it takes to blur a photo. Here are some ways to eliminate camera movement.

1) A hand-held camera technique that a lot of pros use is to take in a breath, let it out slowly and at the end of the exhalation, squeeze (don’t jerk) down on the shutter release button.

2)      The best method to eliminate camera movement is to mount your camera on a tripod. I use a tripod almost all the time. It’s somewhat inconvenient at first, but the quality of the images will soar. A far more convenient, but not as effective, alternative is a monopod. This is basically a metal or plastic stick that your camera is attached to at its top. It is light weight and most collapse down like a car antenna to 12 inch length when not in use. (Most expand to at least 5 ft tall when extended.)

3)  When using a tripod, also use a shutter release cord or remote control so that you are not touching the camera when the shutter is open.

4)  When using a tripod, also use the mirror lock-up option (DSLR’s only). DSLR cameras have a mirror that slaps up to the top of the camera internally  immediately before the shutter opens. This causes an internal vibration which can slightly blur your images, particularly during close-up and macro work. This “mirror slap” is remedied by operating in “mirror lock-up” mode and using a cable shutter release or remote control. Mirror lock-up is a setting that is usually hidden in the menu of custom functions. I suggest checking your camera’s instruction manual to find it. (Not all DSLR’s offer the “mirror lock-up” mode.) When this option is activated, the first press of the shutter release cable raises the mirror up and away from the sensor. The mirror stays up until your second press of the shutter release, which activates the shutter. If there is a pause of 3 seconds between raising the mirror and opening the shutter, usually both the internal vibration and any tripod or lens vibration, from having touched the focusing rail or camera, will also be avoided. Camera’s with full size (35mm) sensors, heavy camera/lens combinations or economy tripods may need a longer delay. (luxborealis recommends a 5 second delay between mirror-up and shutter release in order to accommodate all camera/lens/tripod combinations. The vast majority of my work is done with tripod, mirror lock-up and cable shutter release.

5)  Many cameras, or their lenses, have a built-in mechanism to counteract small camera movements. Canon calls theirs “image stabilization”. Nikon calls their “vibration reduction”. Other brands have their own names for this feature. This feature is excellent at counteracting small camera movements, but cannot compensate for large movements. If your equipment has this feature, use it whenever the shooting with the camera hand-held.  It is important to remember that these mechanisms require at least one second with the shutter button one half of the way down, in order to take its measurements and start working. If the shutter is quickly pressed all the way down, these stabilization mechanisms may not work. It is best to combine this image stabilization feature with the hand-held technique noted in #1 above. (If you are using a tripod, this feature does no good. So you can turn it off. It just wastes your battery.)

6)  Another effective approach for sharper images is shortening the amount of time that the shutter is open.

  • Most cameras have a shooting mode called “sports” or “action”. In this mode, the camera will try to pick a shutter speed of about 1/250 sec. in order to “freeze” the motion of a moving subject. The camera then adjusts the aperture size and ISO speed to get a correct exposure. It is usually very effective, even without bright light. This program or shooting mode is usually indicated by a tiny picture of a sports figure on the program/shooting mode wheel or menu.
  • Cameras without a specific sports/action program, often have an option in the shooting menu called “sharper” or “more sharp”. This has a similar, although usually not as strong, effect as a sports program/mode.
  • Another way to create a fast shutter speed is to use the “shutter priority” program/mode. This allows you to set the shutter speed and ISO manually. Then the camera chooses the appropriate aperture. Shutter priority works well when your subject is in bright light. But there’s a large limitation. In low light, the camera may choose a large enough aperture that the background and foreground are blurred even though the subject is in focus. If you want sharp subject, background and foreground in dim light, increase the ISO until you get an aperture of f/11. What shutter speed to choose? If the subject is stationary and your hand-holding technique is good, a shutter speed or 1/60 sec or higher works well. If you are using an image stabilization option, the shutter speed could go slower by 1-2 stops.  A person walking will generally be sharp at a shutter speed of 1/125 sec or higher. A person running will be sharp with a shutter speed of 1/250 sec or higher. With most image stabilization options, you can go 2-3 stops slower with excellent result.  However, when in the  “sport” or “action” mode, your camera  will make the ISO adjustment for you.

Here are some camera settings that help to increase sharpness. They are usually in a shooting/recording menu.

  1. File size/resolution: Choose the largest numbers that your camera offers.
  2. File format or file type. There are three file types/formats of which to be aware. The first is jpg (pronounced jay-peg). Most cameras offer this option. When using this format, the shooting/recording menu usually offers at least 3 levels of sharpness. Choose the highest level for maximal sharpness. The major drawback to jpg files is that they lose a little detail and sharpness each time the file is opened. The remedy is to change your jpg files to a tiff file format as soon as the images are in your computer. Tiff files do not lose any data when opened repeatedly. The third file format of importance is called a “raw” file, although it is not available in all cameras. “Raw” means that the recorded information is not processed within your camera (as are jpg files). Canon calls their raw file CR2. Nikon calls theirs NEF. Other companies have their own initials.   Raw files are analogous to the photographic negative from film days. Any changes that are made to a raw file with editing software, can be erased, giving you back the original image. Raw files are inherently not very sharp. However, excellent sharpness is achieved by processing them in your computer with editing software that allows you to add sharpness to it. This can be done either with the software that came with your camera or with the “raw converter” in Photoshop, Photoshop Elements or an equivalent. If you have Photoshop Elements’ Raw Converter and do not know how much sharpening to add, try sharpening amount 40, radius 1 and detail 60. At the same time, you can decrease noise which acts like haze. You might try (for Photoshop Elements Raw Converter)  luminance noise reduction of 40 and color noise reduction of 20. These settings will probable not overdo it. But the nice thing is that your original image information is always there to adjust differently if you wish to.

I hope that this will be useful information for someone. In my next blog post I will go over additional ways to get sharp images.

Comments, suggestions and even criticisms are welcome.

I am available at NaturePhotoRehab.com assisting clients to transform their nature images into works of art that they will be proud to either hang on their own wall or give as a gift. I offer photo retouching, complex processing and enhancements, enlargements, prints up to 12in x 18in and framing.

J. Michael Harroun(c)2012

Expanded depth of focus: Philosophy

dahl red c stamens cropped shp copyrt“Keep close to Nature’s heart. Break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. ” John Muir

One limitation of film photography is that only a portion of the subject or scene is precisely in focus. One of the marvels of digital photography is its ability to allow portions of multiple images to composite into a final image that is more fully in focus and more life-like. Expanded depth of focus is such a technique. After taking multiple similar images with the depth of focus being the only variable, only the precisely focused portions of each photo are combined into a final image in which everything, or at least as much as is wanted, is crisply in focus.

My blog post from July 16 is an introduction to this technique. Here, I describe the some of the attitudes and states of mind that I have found highly effective for happiness and success with this type of photography. I welcome others comments, suggestions and additional thoughts.

Appreciating the moment is, for me, the key to happiness with all of my photography. I usually hurry around oblivious to the details of the miraculous nature around me. Photography not only allows, but requires, me to slow down and pay attention to the details of my surroundings. The more aware I am of the sun, breeze, colors, textures, shapes, sounds and smells around me, the more I feel  alive and connected  to  the magic that is nature.  Having achieved that feeling of fulfillment, getting usable results from my shoot is just like the sprinkles on the frosting of the cake. I’m serious about this. One day I spent 2 ½ hours shooting multiple series of freshly cut hibiscus. I realized that I may not have waited long enough for the pistils and stamens to have fully regained their original shape. I knew that any further change of shape during the shooting of each series would produce enough change of position on the sensor to render it unusable for a composite. However, I was feeling alive and connected to my surroundings. I ended up throwing out 150 frames, having only the last series usable. But I truly felt only happiness and satisfaction regarding my morning’s shooting experience.

 The two goals: When I begin each shoot, I have only two goals in mind. The first is not to damage any of my equipment. The second is to be alert and aware of the incredible intricacy that is nature. 

 Mountain climber’s deliberateness:  When moving around the camera, tripod, focusing rail and lens, it is easy to bump one of these. This is particularly likely when unlocking, adjusting and relocking the focusing rail or when leaning forward-looking for small movement of the subject due to wind. It is easy to bump some part of the equipment. A light bump may move the tripod imperceptibly, but enough to change the position of your subject on the sensor, making the remainder of the series unusable. Also, when manipulating the focusing rail, I often simultaneously support the camera with my other hand, particularly when the focusing rail is extended or when the camera is in a vertical position. If I touch the lens’s focusing ring/collar even lightly, the focus of the remainder of the series is likely to be way off. To avoid trouble, movements must be thoughtful and deliberate. I have a picture in my mind of a mountain or rock climber, half way up a steep granite cliff. On a single outing, the climber makes thousands of decisions regarding hand or foot placement or weight shifts.  It takes only one mistake out of the thousands of decisions to produce a slip, a slide or even a serious fall. The climber must be continually alert, thoughtful and deliberate in order to succeed. Similarly, it takes only one large mistake out of hundreds of decisions to render a set of images unusable for a successful composite. (Luckily, however, few people have sustained serious injury as a result of a mistake while shooting images for expanded depth of focus.)  I call this mountain climbers deliberateness. It has decreased my errors greatly.

 Patience is crucial, particularly for outdoor shooting. It’s possible for the smallest movement of air to move some part of a. This can also occur indoors due to air circulation and ventilation ducts. If I’m impatient and accept frames that might have movement, I usually end up without enough good frames for a good composite. I must be willing to wait until I’m certain that there is no movement of the subject or anything touching any portion of the support of the subject. Here I am referring to movement of a nearby flower, leaf or stem which is in contact with my flower, its leaf or stem. This can mean, at times, taking 35 min to shoot 45 frames. If I take of shot that I think might have had movement, I delete that frame and . It’s not worth the risk of sacrificing the whole series.   

Hurrying usually wastes my time. Although I get quicker results, often these results are unusable for successful composites.  

 Start small and gradually enlarge your subject.  I started with and recommend using smallish subjects initially. For instance, a pansy, rose bud or small geranium is going to be less complicated and, initially, more likely to succeed than a large iris or rhododendron.

 Start too close and end to deep. In order not to accidentally miss the point of closest focus, I recommend starting with an initial frame which has its focus 1-3 focal increments closer to you than the subject.Although not as important to the success of the composite, I also recommend going deeper than the deepest area of focus that you want. It’s always better to take some unnecessary shots, than to come away with 90% of a great series. Since you are there and all set up, this takes only a little time. I consider it cheap insurance.   

  My website for nature image retouching, processing, enlargements and framing is NaturePhotoRehab.com. I specialize in transforming people’s dull and listless images into dramatic works of art that a person is proud to hang on their wall or give as a gift.

 I hope that some of this has been useful to someone. I welcome individual comments and questions.

Expanded depth of focus: Trouble Shooting

sml purp pr c grn (c)“Let the beauty we love become the good we do.”  -Rumi

This is the second in a series of blogs about the photographic technique called expanded depth of focus. For this, multiple digital photos are  taken of the same subject, all identical expect for the area of sharp focus. Then, by computer processing,all the different areas of crisp focus are combined into a single image which is entirely in focus. This allows images to appear more life-like. It is one of the marvals of digital photography that cannot be duplicated with film images.

If you are unfamiliar with this photographic technique, but somewhat interested, please check out my blog post from July 16, which is an introduction to the topic. If you are knowledgeable about this topic, but have no interest in trouble shooting yet, please go to my next post entitled “Philosophy”.

Now I will address the individual who has tried this photographic technique  unsuccessfully. I am referring to those who are saying, “I did everything right, so what went wrong?”  

Being aware: Fully 95% of my unusable series are due to an error of mine that I did not recognize at the time. I overlooked a problem that, if recognized, could have been corrected at the time it occurred. I know this, because as I get more experience and become more aware, I get a much greater percentage of excellent results.

I will be assuming that you used the proper equipment and technique as briefly noted in my post of July 19 (Table of Contents). Some, not all, of my assumptions are that you:

  • used a camera with enough megapixels and file size and file format to give sharp focus for the amount of enlargement required for your computer screen and your planned print size.
  • utilized a lossless file format. Raw images are best.
  • used a focusing rail
  • used mirror lock-up mode for DSLR’s
  • used a shutter release cord or remote control if mirror lock-up is needed
  • used small enough increments between focal planes that the areas of sharp focus overlap. This is critically important, because areas of focus must overlap. Thus the increment of advancement of the focusing rail between frames would be, at most, 1/3 of the lens’s depth for that distance from the subject. Specificly, if a  macro lens is 10 inches from the subject, the depth of sharp focus may be only 3 millimeters (about 1/8 inch) deep. Therefore the increment of advancement of the focusing rail will need to be no greater than 1 millimeter (1/24 inch). However when 3 feet from the subject, this same lens may exhibit a depth of field of 48 mm (2 inches). In this case the correct increment would be, at most, 16mm (0.7 in). To determine your lens’s characterist, take an image of a ruler end on. Take images at the lens’s closest focal distance, then double the distance and double it again. The measurements do not need to be precise. On your computer, evaluate how many sixteenths of an inch are in crisp focus. one third of that distance is the largerst increment between frames that will give good results.
  • been meticulous to avoid any movement of the subject by air movement or change in the shape of the flower due to heat change.
  • used editing software that allowed you to compare and confirm focus and location precisely among frames
  • used sophisticated software for generating your composite
  • were knowledgeable and adept in the use of your software

  Trouble shooting is an expansive topic. Here I will cover only some of the more sneaky problems.

 Tripod

  • Tripod feet can settle into soft ground or leaves, changing the camera position.
  • If tripod was bumped, it may not have returned exactly to its original position.
  • If all of the tripod leg locks/collars was not fully tightened. A leg can shorten, changing the camera position.
  • If the tripod legs were not splayed all the way to their stop, they can spread causing a change in camera position. This is most often a problem when shooting from a low enough angle that the legs needed to be spread wider than usual.If your camera position is low enough to the ground, the center post can touch the ground, allowing the tripod to  rock.

 Camera

If the camera is not fully tightened to the focusing rail, it can slightly twist/torque. This is most likely when shooting in a vertical orientation. That happened to me this morning. I noticed & corrected before any harm had occurred.

Tripod head and focusing rail.

Similarly, if either of these is not firmly secured, they can twist/torque, shifting the position of the camera

Aperture

If the aperture was more than 1 stop away from f/8, the sharpness will be less than the camera /lens is capable of producing. For most lenses, f/8 usually provides the best combination of sharpness & depth of focus. I know that landscape depth of field is considered best at f/16 or a smaller diameter. This does not apply here. I will go into detail about this in 2-3 more blogs from now entitled “Aperture”.

Exposure problems

1) Viewfinder of a DSLR camera, if not covered/capped, will let in light that changes the exposure. This is particularly a problem when direct sunlight falls on the viewfinder.

2) Focusing rail, if not locked with fine/precise lock at each incremental focal distance will change subject location too much. Additionally, if focusing rail was not firmly tightened onto the tripod head, it can twist causing movement of the subject

3)Soft, unsharp images

  • File size too small. In the shooting menu, set file size to the biggest numbers that is offered.
  • Too little data or date loss. This is a problem with jpg images. Shooting in RAW format is recommended for many reasons.
  • Stray light: There may have been bright light impinging upon the lens at a sharp angle.  A lens hood prevents most of this. Check with the company that made your lens for the specific one to use. Some cannot be used for macro work because they cast a shadow upon your subject. A polarizing filter is highly recommended when shooting outdoors and when shooting shiny, wet or alive objects indoors. Besides enhancing colors and decreasing reflections, it usually blocks stray light and can take the place of a lens hood. However, I shoot outdoors with reflectors producing very bright light impinging upon the surface of the polarizing filter from multiple directions. For these conditions, I think that a lens hood and a polarizing filter give the best results. Besides enhancing colors and decreasing reflections, it often can take the place of a lens hood. However, I shoot outdoors with reflectors producing  bright light coming from many directions. I find that a lens hood and a polarizing filter seem to give the best results.

 Lens

  •  Lens distortion is particularly a problem when your subject enlarged or “bloomed” out near the edge of the frame.  That presents bizarre data from this area to your stacking software. However, the central portion of the frames will probably give good results. Some editing software can remove lens distortion. I have experience only with Canon’s Digital Photo Professional software. It will remove the distortion of some Canon lenses, but it’s time consuming and this does not guarantee that it will give good stacking results.
  • Focusing ring/collar was touched when reaching for the camera or focusing rail. This can happen even when there’s no noticeable movement of the focusing collar. I have to be careful about this because I steady the camera with my left hand while changing the position of the focusing rail with my right hand.

Subject moved

  • Change of support structure: If a flower is getting even the slightest support from one of its petals or leaves (or a petal, leaf or stem of an adjacent flower) any subtle change of its shape can allow a shift in your subject’s position.  This is more likely if there is an intermittent breeze or if I potted plant has recently been moved.
  • Similarly, if a petal, leaf or stem of your subject flower is in contact with petal, leaf or stem of an adjacent flower, then any movement from a breeze can move your subject flower. If there are lots of leaves touching, movement of any portion of the plant can move your subject. To prevent this, wait until there is no movement of any part of the entire plant before shooting. The more complex the interactions among the plant parts and the stronger the wind, the more likely it is that your subject will not return fully to its original position. Although this is true, I shoot outdoors all the time and find this problem to be rare unless the intermittent wind is quite strong.
  • Flowers frequently change shape during a shoot if they were freshly cut or if they were recently moved from shade to direct sun or vice versa. I find this less of a problem if a cut flower has only the bottom ½ inch of the stem in the water.

Because there are so many possible problems, I recommend shooting two series of everything when beginning to get experience with this technique. Start the set up for the second series of images from the very beginning, just as though it was the first series.

I hope this has been useful information for someone. You are welcome to ask me about particular issues that you would like help with.

If anyone would like assistance with processing of their photos, please check out my web site at NaturePhotoRehab.com

Expanded depth of focus photography: “Table of Contents”

Lg purp pr shp (c)“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”   Vincent van Gogh

This is my second blog post regarding the expanded depth of field/focus photographic technique. If you are unfamiliar with this technique, please check out my post from July 16, 2012 entitled Expanded depth of field / focus stacking: Introduction. This current installment is an brief overview of the subject, essentially providing a “Table of Contents” for the remainder of this series.

Experience is the best teacher.  Don’t expect to achieve your signature magazine cover shot on the first day. (Although it could happen)

Attitude: If I’m irritable or angry, I usually made mistakes that worsen my mood. Some days it’s better to just do the laundry.

Mountain climber’s state of mind:  I try to maintain an attitude that I call the mountain climber’s state of mind. A mountain or rock climber might make one or two thousand decisions regarding placement of the hands and feet and shifts of weight during a climb. It takes only one mistake out of the thousands to produce a slip, a slide or even a fall that can ruin that entire climbing experience. Similarly, it takes only one mistake out of hundreds of decisions to render a set of images unusable for a successful composite.  Remembering the mountain climber causes me to work very deliberately, move a little slower than usual and maintain awareness of the moment. This produces far fewer mistakes and many more inspiring results than I used to get. Luckily, however, few people have sustained serious injury as a result of a mistake while shooting images for expanded depth of field processing.

Being thorough: The goal is not to create some tack sharp images. The goal is to get at least one entire, coordinated series of tack sharp images with minimal change of position on the sensor. If a few are blurry and unusable, it could render the whole set useless. By remaining aware, mistakes or even possible mistakes can be recognized when they occur. Then the potentially bad image can be deleted and re-shot.

1. Equipment:

  • Camera with manual focus and manual exposure. If your camera has a movable mirror, it’s essential that you have & use the mirror lock-up option. Apart from these details, your camera does not need to be particularly sophisticated.
  • Sturdy tripod with feet on a solid surface
  • Focusing rail: This is essential for close up & macro.
  • Cable shutter release (or remote): This is essential
  • Loupe for screen is useful for outdoor work, but not essential. Hoodman brand has a good one, but expensive.
  • Cover/cap for viewfinder unless your viewfinder is actually a tiny video display.
  • Battery(s) fully charged
  • Memory card(s) with plenty of capacity for data

2. Frame your subject in the viewfinder or screen knowing that it will become larger on your sensor at the deeper focal planes than at the initial, close focal planes. This is called “blooming”.

3. Initial focus is crucial. I use a card held immediately in front of the closest point of focus. I use auto focus limited to only the center focusing point and immediately switch the lens back to manual focus. My eyes are not good enough to achieve good focus directly through the viewfinder or on the screen, even when the camera presents a magnified image. For this technique to succeed, your camera/lens combination must be exact and precise consistently. However, people with eyes better than mine can get good results obtaining initial focus entirely via manual focus.

4. Exposure: use manual exposure. Use the aperture that gives the best combination of sharp and depth of field, f/8 for most lenses.

5. Check viewfinder or screen again for subject placement & focus

6. Begin shooting, but remain alert. Whenever I get into a mechanical mode of thinking ( move the rail & shoot ,then move the rail & shoot, then move the rail & shoot), I usually miss something important and end up with a useless batch of images

7. Move focusing rail in equal and very small increments if you want detail in things as small as spines, hairs or pollen. It’s necessary for the areas in focus to overlap between images to get good results. The depth of focus of any one frame depends on your specific lens and its distance from the subject. However it’s not unusual to have just a couple of millimeters, perhaps 1/16 of an inch in crisp focus in any one frame. I usually use increments of 1-4 mm (1/32 – 1/8 inch). The closer the subject is to your lens, the smaller the increment needs to be. Begin at closest point of your subject and move the focal plane gradually toward the deepest part of it. Another advantage is that the smaller increments of change of focal plane between images, the better the chance that you can have a couple of flawed images that you can throw out and still have a successful composite in the end.

8. Lock the focusing rail at each new location to prevent rail sag during extension.

9. Processing

  • Edit
  • RAW processing
  • Converting to tiff
  • Software: I love Helicon Focus 5.2. Its available at HeliconSoft.com. However I understand there are other good programs available. 
  • Review, retouch

10. ENJOY. You’ve accomplished something that was impossible up until about 10 years ago.

I hope that this will be a help to someone. I welcome comments and criticism.

Through my website at NaturePhotoRehab.com I assist people to transform their photos into impressive works of art that they are proud to give as gifts or to hamg them on their own wall. I provide photo retouching, complex processing and enhancements, prints, enlargements and framing.

©J. Michael Harroun 2012