Fun With Filters

neutral density filter
A neutral density filter is one that you'll still want to have in the digital age

In the old days film photographers always carried a little wallet full of filters. You had an 81A for a warm up that made photos in full daylight a bit warmer, and an 80A, FLD, and 85C for correcting different types of artificial lighting. If you’d been in the business for a while, you may have had one of those boxy filter holders more common on movie cameras and a set of the square glass filters that might have included gradient filters for making the sky more dramatic when the foreground was lighter colored.

Digital cameras have done away with most types of filters. White balance on pictures in RAW format can be made after the fact and there’s little need for filters to correct lighting. Gradients and other effects are now easier in post-processing and few photographers bother with gradient filters anymore.

Yet, even in the digital age, there are still a few filters that are nice to have.

Skylight or Sky 1A

broken filter photo by Patrick Lauke

When is a filter not really a filter? When it’s a sky filter. A skylight or Sky 1A is really just a clear piece of glass, yet it’s one of the most important investments you can make. A sky filter isn’t on the lens for your photos, which it doesn’t change at all, it’s there for the lens. Specifically to protect the front glass of your lens from dust, dirt, sand, scratches and forward impacts. It’s not just a good idea, it’s the cheapest insurance you can buy for a lens.

Polarizing Filter

Polarizing filters are a big help getting the sky colors more saturated on a sunny day with haze. It also helps saturate other colors and cuts reflections from glass and metal.

Polarizing filters come in two flavors: Circular and linear. A linear polarizer is a rotating element that lets light aligned along a single axis into your lens. A circular polarizer has a polarizing element, just like a linear polarizer, but behind that is a quarter-wave scrambler that depolarizes the light.

Photo by Doug Kukurudza

The circular polarizer is the most common, but I use them both. The circular polarizer is supposed to be more consistent for beam splitting cameras, but really it helps the auto-focus more than the exposure. I use a linear polarizer when I don’t care about predictable results, when I want to shake things up and get a different perspective on a scene.

A polarizer can also function similarly to a neutral density filter on sunny days, cutting the exposure up to two stops.

Speaking of Neutral Density

A Neutral Density (ND) filter is very handy to have, particularly on bright days. It will cut the available light and let you select a wider aperture on a sunny day. ND filters come in multiples that provide a predictable reduction in the amount of light staringt at 0.3 (one stop),

A neutral density filter can make water look silky-smooth. photo by Paul Bica

and go in steps like 0.6 (two stops), 0.9 (three stops) and 1.2 (four stops). ND filters go all the way up to specialty filters like the 3.6, which is a whopping 12 stop reduction. You need a really bright scene for a 3.6. Think white cat on a snow field in broad daylight using an arc welder as a fill.

Those of you using your DSLRs for video, this is not an optional investment. You’re limited in your selection of shutter speeds and the only way you’ll get the f-stop you want in some shots is with a neutral density filter. Very seldom have I needed more than a 0.9 shooting video and, if that situation arose, you can stack ND filters for even more light reduction. Most of the video shooters I know carry a 0.3, 0.6, and 0.9.

So, there are still places for filters in modern digital photography, just not as many as the old days and the filters serve a different purpose.

Before and after with a neutral density filter. Photo by Ram Toga

Brand New Camera? Take a hike

Photo by Loic Dupasquier

Thousands of people around the world are beginning to understand that getting a new camera does nothing to make their pictures any better. Many are being struck with the realization that even with a brand new camera they’re still stuck with the same old bad pictures.

It’s really not all that hard to understand. The number of features and selection options on new cameras is bewildering. Over the holidays my mom asked me to help get her Canon point-and-shoot menu settings back to normal and it took me 10 minutes of fiddling with the controls and scrolling the menus to figure it out.

Reading the cameras manual, which I highly recommend, will tell you where the menu options can be located and what they do, but that won’t help you take better pictures because it doesn’t tell you when to apply the settings. It won’t help you figure out when it’s okay to shoot with the camera on auto and when to seize control and how much control to exercise in a given shooting situation.

A monkey takes self-portraits

Anyone can point a camera and push the button, even a monkey can get decent photos. Owning a camera doesn’t make you a photographer any more than owning car makes you Mario Andretti. It take practice and a lot of bad photos in order to learn the ropes. The late French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is considered to be the father of modern photojournalism once said “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst”.

Step one toward being a better photographer will be learning the basics about composition and framing. Then brush up on exposure and color.

One of the best thing you’ll be able to do to improve your photography is as simple as taking a walk. Find a local photowalk in your area and sign up. Photowalks are sponsored by photo clubs, local professionals, professional photography associations, art schools, nature clubs and photography institutes. Most of them are free, a few charge a small fee depending on the venue. There are also guided photowalks where you pay a local photographer to take you around.

Photo taken during a recent photo walk by Snapsort employee Phil Davis

Don’t scoff at shelling out a few bucks to take you on a guided photowalk.  If you’re in an unfamiliar area, they can be a great resource for finding the most photogenic spots.

It’s really not anything fancy, just a group of photographers getting together and walking around taking pictures. Really, that’s it. Most are fairly loosely organized. You might start out as a big group, but most end up with photographers filtering back in small groups or on their own. Some walks have models that volunteer in return for portfolio images, most are just wandering around taking pictures on a lazy afternoon.

Photo by Brian Yap from flickr

And yet you’ll find many local professionals go on photowalks themselves. I use them to network with local pros and advanced hobbyists on a regular basis. The last one I went on had about 20 shooters, maybe half of them pros, I came back with cards full of shots and a handful of business cards. I’ve worked with some of the pros I met there on other projects.

So when it comes to learning how to get the most from your new camera, if someone tells you to take a hike, that’s probably good advice.

Tips For Shooting Dramatic Silhouettes

silhouette example
Exposing for the daylight beyond the door got the look I wanted in this photo

A silhouette can add dramatic flair to an otherwise average shot by providing a bold subject and sharp contrast. A silhouette turns a solid thing with depth into a flat, two-dimensional cut out that brings back memories of shadow puppets.

Modern digital cameras make shooting silhouettes a lot easier and what the camera can’t do for you, you can always touch up in post processing.

Find The Scene

A silhouette is basically an underexposed subject framed by a brightly lit background. Look for situations where you’re shooting from the shadows toward the light, like the photo of the man and his son sweeping out the garage.

photo by Kol Tregaskes from flickr

Another trick with silhouettes is to get low and in close to the subject and shoot at a slight upward angle. Shooting slightly upward lengthens the lines and makes the contrast bolder.

Any bright background will do. Daylight, stained glass windows, bright lights, or a sunset sky are all great backdrops for a silhouette.

Turn Off The Flash

Munich in Silhouette by Werner Kunz from flickr

This is one time you want to be in a shooting mode that gives you at least some manual control and in auto mode your camera is going to try and fire that fill flash. I’d shoot the scene both ways: One as a silhouette, the other with the fill flash, and see which one you like better.

Expose For The Background

There are a number of ways to do this. Many cameras will let you point the camera at the brighter part of the picture, then press the shutter release button half-way down to lock the exposure and reframe the picture before pushing the button all the way down. Other cameras, like the Nikon D5100, have a special exposure lock button.

There’s also the old fashioned way of using your camera to meter the brighter part of the photo, then dial the exposure in manually.

bird silhouette
A fairly average looking shot is improved greatly by taking the detail out of the foreground subject
Focus For The Subject

The only problem for some cameras when it comes to using the half-way press on the shutter button is that it also freezes the auto-focus. Not so much with modern cameras, like my Canon 7D, which will adjust the focus even if the exposure is locked. Just be aware you may have to tweak the focus manually on some older cameras.

Clean It Up In Post

photo by Brenden Sherratt, used with permission

If the exposure isn’t perfect in the camera don’t sweat it, a silhouette is fairly easy to clean up in post. Since you’re not trying to preserve any detail in the subject, you can usually make the adjustments with just the brightness/contrast tools, which almost every image program on the planet offers.

Worst case you have to use the selection tools to outline the silhouette and selectively drop the brightness.

Silhouettes are a good exercise to get familiar with your camera’s exposure compensation features and you’ll end up with some great shots as well. Happy shooting.

Has The Retouching Arms Race Gone Too Far?

retouching example
In this photo I reduced the wrinkles around the eyes, whitened the teeth and smoothed out her skin - Too much?

Has the retouching arms race gone too far? That’s a question a group of scientists are asking and they’ve developed a new metric for rating photos on a scale of 1 to 5, depending on how much retouching the photograph has received.

It’s not enough anymore to have fantastic cameras, a portrait lens that could inspire glass lust, and a high end lighting setup. Today we need even more.

Photoshop plugins like Portraiture and stand alone products like Portrait Professional now make what were once time-consuming alterations to portraits little more than point and click.

Health organizations are increasingly concerned that the photography profession is pushing an unrealistic standard. We could argue at length whether the main driver is the photographer’s drive for perfection or client demands, but I think we have to own up to at least a contributory role.

It all started innocently enough, just using the clone tool to mask the zit here, the small blemish there, and maybe fill in that chipped tooth just a tad. Later that grew into smoothing out the skin tones. Plugins popped up to make it all as easy a few clicks of the mouse. It wasn’t long before we were making the eyes bigger, making the eye color brighter, slimming the jaw line, making the neck longer. We could take inches off a waist or pounds off of hips and customers loved us for it. It was all very gradual and we were praised by clients and peers every step of the way.

Now the question is have we become guilty of creating a Frankenstein’s monster of perfection unattainable by mere mortals?

If you’ve ever worked with real, paid, high-end models, you already know there isn’t a lot of Photoshop required. You’re dealing with the top 1 to 2 percent of people in the entire population; you’re playing in the shallow end of the gene pool. They make their living looking good and with a good makeup artist they are the real deal.

But with software to the rescue we can gain near perfect regardless of the physical form we start with. We don’t need a top model anymore, we can pull any waif off the street, bad skin, bad teeth, bad hair, no makeup and make them look like a supermodel.

So now Professor Hany Farid and Eric Kee, computer scientists at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, are set to rat us out. About to publish a set of tools that analyze how much retouching has gone into a photo. Soon the world will know if her eyes are really that color of if they were punched up post. If her skin really that smooth or if it’s an adjustment layer.

So, what do you think? Do we deserve to be outed? Has the retouching arms race gone too far without a discussion about whether we’re setting unrealistic standards?

I’ve seen portraits worked so much in post they look fake, like a mannequin.  Somewhere in between there has to be a happy medium.

Taking Control

canon mode dial
If you never move the mode dial off the green rectangle, you'll never get the most out of your camera - by NJM2010

The automatic features on modern digital cameras are nothing short of amazing. Back in the day we were jazzed when cameras came out with an internal light meter and through-the-lens metering that displayed the actual shutter speed and f-stop instead of just a needle; you’d think it was the second coming of photography. I don’t want to sound like grandpa telling you how good you have it today, but when it comes to photography, your camera is nothing short of a modern marvel.

Yet, for all that sophistication, your camera can’t replace you. Sure, it can take very good photos by averaging the exposure, the problem is that the difference between a good picture and a great picture is frequently that the great photo employs an f-stop and shutter speed other than the one the camera computer would calculate.

There really is no option; if you want to move from being a good photographer to a great one, you have to learn to take over from the computer.

Luckily, you don’t have to jump in all at once, you can ease into driving by selecting shooting modes that share the responsibility for proper exposure between the camera computer and the operator.

Canon shooters have two helper settings short of Full Auto. One is Creative Auto and the other is Program mode. Creative Auto is almost identical to Full Auto with the exception that you can tell the camera lighter or darker, change the depth of field with a slider, and switch to a limited number of picture presets. The camera will still decide whether it needs the flash.

If you switch to Program mode, the camera computer makes a guess at the proper ISO and exposure and you can tweak both the f-stop and shutter speed to your preferences. You can also set the ISO manually and the computer will guess at the f-stop and shutter speed. In Program mode you have to tell the camera to use the flash with the little button that looks like a lightning bolt.

After that are Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority modes where you set one parameter and the computer balances out the rest.

No matter how good computers get at exposure, they will have a hard time with the art. That’s why the human component of photography needs to practice and get familiar with how your camera works. Practice tweaking the settings and exposure until you start seeing the pictures you want.

There are times to trust the computer and times to take over. If you want to be great, you’ll have to know the difference.