Auto White Balance, a Cautionary Tale

Author: Ken Brown

AWB is a pretty neat (I am trying to avoid color temperature terms like “cool”) concept.  Set it and forget it.  Right ??  WRONG !!  I should start by saying that if you shoot in RAW, you are somewhat immune to this issue, as you can always adjust the color temperature in PS or LR.  However, even if you are shooting in RAW, don’t you want to try and get as close to the desired image right out of the camera? Of course you do, and there are other reasons to at least use a Camera Preset WB – one of those little images that you can dial in (a cloud, or a flash, or a tungsten light, etc.)

Reasons to use a Preset EVEN IF you are shooting in RAW:

  1. If you are shooting all day. Why would you want to make so many color temperature adjustments when post processing your images?
  2.  If you are taking multiple images and stitching them together for a panorama. You do not want different color temperatures in the different shots you’re blending, and with non-uniform lighting conditions, that can definitely occur.

But the major reason NOT to use AWB is, if you are shooting in JPEG or using the JPEG processed image, certain conditions can lead to poor results.  The camera tries to apply the right adjustment, but it simply cannot, or overcompensates due to the conditions.

What follows is a great example to convince you…  The photo is not great, but you can see what I was trying to do, shoot a hay bale in the background, framed by an old trellis leaning up against a tree in the foreground.  I won’t tell you what camera I shoot with, as I don’t want to turn this into a comparison of AWB between different cameras (although I’m guessing that there are some differences there as well).  I will tell you that this was shot with a pretty high end body and excellent lens – that is not the issue. The issue is the limitation of AWB, and that the camera is trying, really, really hard to assess the condition of the light and automatically apply the right electronic signal to the image sensor data and achieve an accurate color.  In this example, and in many other cases where you don’t have great lighting, it really missed the mark.

Shooting conditions – Heavy overcast sky

Camera Settings – ISO 4,000, f/13, 1/80 sec, 100mm telephoto

1 - The camera set on full AWB, shot in RAW, but opened as a JPEG.

1 – The camera set on full AWB, shot in RAW, but opened as a JPEG.

You can see that in the first image (full AWB), the camera adjusted and created a much “cooler” image (now I’m talking color temperature).  The whites have taken on a blue tone – the camera has added blue based on its interpretation of the lighting conditions.

2 - The camera set with the "Cloudy" Preset for WB, shot in RAW, but opened as a JPEG

2 – The camera set with the “Cloudy” Preset for WB, shot in RAW, but opened as a JPEG

The image with the camera using the “cloudy” preset has the correct, warmer tones, even just opened in JPEG with no adjustments to the RAW image.

3 - The first image (full AWB), but this time opened in RAW with the WB adjusted in Photoshop and saved as a JPEG

3 – The first image (full AWB), but this time opened in RAW with the WB adjusted in Photoshop and saved as a JPEG

For the third image, I opened the first one (with full AWB) in RAW, but adjusted the color temperature to roughly equal the cloudy preset.

If there had been snow on the ground (there was a few days ago in Vermont) the full AWB would have been much, much worse, and given all the snow a blue color as well.  Maybe you have shot images like this on a cloudy/overcast snowy day with your camera on AWB.

So to conclude…  Yes – You can use AWB and make an adjustment to the RAW image to “fix” the color.  But 1) If you shoot in JPEG or just open your images in JPEG this won’t help you.  Even if you shoot in RAW and open and adjust the color temp, why do this if you don’t have to.  As mentioned earlier, even this might cause you a problem under certain shooting conditions.

At least use a preset – they were put on your camera for a really good reason, and they are easy to use.  Many cameras allow a much more precise setting of color temperature, either to dial in the specific Kelvin Temp, or to create a preset for your images using the actual ambient conditions.

This  latter approach works really well for example inside dimly lit halls, like a church with really warm (temperature) lights.  Each camera manufacturer has a different approach to creating this type of preset.  But if you are going to do a lot of indoor photography of this type, I highly recommend learning this.  It’s generally very simple once you know how.  For my camera, I click the preset WB setting, take a shot of what “should be white” in the image, and White Balance is set.  Now I can get really accurate color, REALLY important with people in the image.

Happy shooting, and hopefully I’ve convinced you to at least use one of your camera presets.

 

Ken Brown is a Trip Leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops

 

 

Exposing the Snow

Author: Bruce Taubert

I love photographing wildlife in the snow.  When it snows in Arizona I grab my gear and head to one of those places where the snow will stick for a few hours.  Even though I left the Midwest in part to escape the frigid winter weather I find myself drawn to Canada, Wisconsin, Yellowstone and the like when the snow fly’s.  Why, because wildlife images taken in the snow show a simplicity and drama that is difficult to achieve during the warmer months.  Imagine a red fox in the bright, fresh snow or a snowy owl flying through falling snow.  The subject stands out in stark contrast to the all-white background.

bruce-d-taubert_red-fox-11

Unfortunately, the photographer cannot just pick up their camera, point at the subject, focus, and shoot.  Well, they can but without preplanning the image will not be of their liking.  Why, because all light meters are designed to provide the photographer with a well exposed image of a “neutral gray” subject-one that reflects about 18% of the light that strikes it.  When taking images of lighter than neutral gray subjects the light meter directs the camera to underexposed rendering a darker than desired photograph.  The opposite happens when taking a photo of a dark subject-the light meter directs the camera to gather too much light and the result is an overexposed image.

d_bdt_gambels-quail-in-snow-22

Most photographers know that the way to correct for the light meters ill-advised settings is to use the cameras exposure compensation dial to add light to bright subjects and to subtract light from dark subjects.  Let’s say the photographer has their camera set on aperture priority.  The scene has a lot of snow with a red fox filling about 25% of the frame.   To obtain an appropriate exposure, the photographer adds 2 stops of light.  Snap, a perfectly exposed image.  Next the photographer sneaks closer to the fox to the point where it fills 50% of the scene.  Snap, oh crap the image is overexposed.  The cameras light meter reads an overall darker scene, sets the parameters for the darker scene (slower shutter speed), and then adds the 2 stops of light.

bruce-d-taubert_red-fox-8

The same problem arises when photographing a moving subject, for instance a flying snowy owl!  The photographer approaches the owl sitting on a mound of snow.  The photographer exposes perfectly for that particular scene-probably aperture priority at plus 2 1/2 stops of light.  Snow reflects more than 90% of the light so this is a good starting point.  The photographer snaps a practice frame, looks at histogram, and is very pleased with their image.  The snowy owl spots a prey item (food), takes off, fly’s in front of a dark barn, up to the blue sky, and eventually lands on the unsuspecting mouse.  From the time the snowy owl takes off the photographer maintains sharp focus (difficult at any time), and machine guns the camera at 10 frames per second. The smiling photographer looks through the images and finds several underexposed images, several overexposed images, and a few correctly exposed images.  The photographer believes the underexposed images can be saved in postprocessing but the overexposed ones are lost to the world of texture less pixels.

snowy-owl

The same phenomenon happened to the snowy owl photographer as the fox photographer.  The amount of light reflecting from the snowy owl never changed but the overall/average brightness of the scene did change as the owl flew through one background to the next.   During the process of making their images the changing light meter reading caused the camera settings to change.

bruce-d-taubert_snowy-owl-4

There are several methods the photographer can use to rectify the exposure issue.  Try setting the camera on spot metering.  That way the meter will do a better job of sending the correct directions to the camera.  Unfortunately, it is very difficult to keep the spot metering focus point/s on a moving subject.  Just keeping a flying bird focused and in the frame, is difficult enough.  The photographer might place the camera on P setting (this is for programmed not professional) and hope the camera can do a better job of estimating exposure.  P setting might help a little but most of the time the image will continue to suffer from a misguided exposure meter.

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The only cure for the problem is to set the camera on M for manual operation and take control of your future.  On manual, the photographer sets the shutter speed and aperture.  The photographer can take as many images as they want in as many different situations as they want and the settings never change.  The light meter will continue to operate but it will have no effect on the settings.  Let’s go back to the fox and owl.  As long as the lighting conditions do not change the only challenge is to take a proper exposure of the SNOW.  Yes, the snow not the subject!  In snowy conditions, or any time there is white in the frame, if the photographer sets the manual settings to take a good exposure of the white ALL OTHER PARTS OF THE IMAGE WILL BE PROPERLY EXPOSED.

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The process I use is to first set the aperture.  For most wildlife subjects, I only need a modicum of depth of field.  Normally, I set the value to around f/8.  Then I decide on the shutter speed I need.  For the relatively stationary fox anything more than 1/500 sec will work nicely.  For the flying owl, I need a higher value of say 1/2000 sec.  Next I set the ISO value within the constraints of my camera.  On my Canon 7D Mark II I try to stay as low as possible and below 800.  With my 5D Mark III I can go higher and with my 1DX Mark II I can go to 3200 and feel perfectly comfortable.  Next, I take an image of the snow.  If it is too dark I make the decision what to change.  For the fox, I can probably go down to a shutter speed is 1/125 and still hand hold the camera (with modern image stabilization).  Depending on what camera I am using I could increase the ISO or, maybe, take the aperture to f/5.6.  In dealing with the flying owl I want to make sure to keep the shutter speed high so I first change the ISO and aperture.  I keep taking images until I have just overexposed the snow.  My favorite tool for detecting an overexposed subject is the highlight alert-blinkies as I like to call them.  When I see the blinkies I know my snow is overexposed.  Then I change the settings until the snow no longer blinks and then, for safety purposes, take away 1/3 rd. more stops of light.  I know this is a lot to swallow but it is very easy to accomplish.

rock-ptarmigan

Now that my cameras settings are correct for the snow all my images will be properly exposed.  The darks will be dark, the mid tones correct, the whites bright, and my efforts rewarded.  Now, IF THE LIGHTING DOES NOT CHANGE life is good.  If the day is uniformly overcast, the sky cloudless, or any other scenario where the lighting stays the same these settings work better than anything I have tried.  But, nature being what it is, the lighting conditions will change and the photographer must react.  Either change the settings in Manual mode or try aperture priority and suffer through the pains of losing valuable images.  In my mind the small amount of time it takes to readjust the Manual settings is well worth the effort.

bruce-d-taubert_coyote2

Bruce is an instructor with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops

 

Clouds, Clouds and more Clouds

Author David Halgrimson

A favorite subject for me to photograph is clouds. We don’t get them very often here around Phoenix, but when we do… oh my they can be great! This August I was out walking in our neighborhood, looked up and saw some spectacular clouds.

Not only were the clouds great, but the sun rays showing around them were some of the best I have ever seen. Thinking they would probably be gone by the time I got home to get my camera I took my time and just enjoyed looking at them as I walked. Thankfully however, the clouds and rays were still putting on their show when I got home so I grabbed my camera and started shooting!

I shot for about half an hour and captured 75 images. The hardest part was to avoid getting parts of houses and trees in the images so I had to move around a lot! I was on the sidewalk, in the middle of the street, my backyard, front yard etc., to get the best angles. I used a Canon 5D MKII with a 17-40mm and a 24-105mm lens. Camera settings were 1/80th to 1/125th, ISO 100 and f/22. Some post processing in Lightroom to bring out the rays the way I saw them.

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Always look up!

David is a trip leader for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops

 

Rainy Day Photography

By Sara Goodnick

If your vacation comes with a few days of rain, look at it as a creativity challenge to your photography!

We often visit Hawaii in the winter and every few years we will get some rainy days. Knowing this, I come prepared.

Gear:

  1. Rain-proof cover for camera, camera bag, and me.
  2. Macro lens and/or extension tubes.
  3. Sandals or river shoes.
  4. Clothing in which I can comfortably sit on the ground, scramble over rocks, kneel, and otherwise contort myself.
  5. Tripod
  6. Portable flash unit
  7. Laptop and Bamboo Wacom Tablet

Keeping an open mind, I will stroll around the hotel grounds scouting for macro subjects as my first choice, then landscapes. Just being present mentally and taking note of the surroundings can be a fun treasure hunt. Then I drive around to areas of interesting weather. Coaxing a spouse or family member to be my photo assistant is very helpful. Someone with an umbrella over my camera and me is a luxury!

When back in the room, I have fun in Lightroom and Photoshop with presets and plug-ins. Unless shooting for publications that require straightforward photography with minimal manipulation, freedom reigns. I use Color Effects Pro, Topaz, David Kingham, and Life After Photoshop, and Photomorphis to entertain myself and maybe create some keepers. Gray, rainy days are a fantastic excuse to relax, expand and explore your creativity. Have fun!

 

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Wet flower petal found on patio

Reflection in a puddle.

Reflection in a puddle.

 

 

 

 

Found feather on a bench

Found feather on a bench

 

 

 

Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea

 

 

 

Landscape with clouds and fog on the Big Island of Hawaii

Landscape with clouds and fog on the Big Island of Hawaii

 

Sara is a Trip Leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops

A Cruise Through Norway

Author: Meng Tay

When I first read the article Day for Night in Norway in the New York Times, my first reaction was “I have to go on that cruise.”  That was about two years ago.  This year I had the opportunity to fulfill two items on my bucket list:  this Norwegian cruise and going to Oktoberfest.  I sandwiched the two trips with visits to Krakow and Warsaw in Poland.

Let me state that this blog is not an advertisement for Hurtigruten, the company that runs the cruise.  Most Americans have never even heard of the cruise company Hurtigruten.  It’s been around since 1893.  The name “Hurti” means express and “ruten” means route.   The company operates what it calls exploration voyages around the world.  This blog is about one of those,  The Classic Roundtrip Voyage.   Lonely Planet calls this “The World’s Most Beautiful Voyage.”  Whether you are a traveler or photographer or combination of both, you are sure to come home with a lot of beautiful pictures.

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Colorful shops, hotels, museums, etc., make up the Bryggen area of Bergen

 

 

The trip starts from Bergen, Norway’s second largest city.  Bergen, and the surrounding area itself is a big tourist destination.  This is where you can visit the famous Norwegian fjords.   Another famous activity here is taking the Flåm Railway.  It is a branch off the Oslo to Bergen railway and considered one of the beautiful train journeys in Europe.  If you want to combine the two activities plus taking a boat ride through a fjord, then you should sign up for a Norway in a Nutshell tour.  This includes riding on the Bergen Railway, Flam Railway, a cruise through a fjord, and a bus ride down a winding, steep mountain road with 31 hairpin bends.  You can do this all in one day.

Village on the side of Nærøyfjord

Village on the side of Nærøyfjord

 

 

Hurtigruten has 12 ships sailing the Classic Voyage.  They range from the oldest, M/S Lofoten, to the newest, M/S Spitzbergen.  Most of the ships are working ships, which means that besides carrying passengers, they also carry cargo and mail.  The 12-day trip stops at 34 ports, 22 of them north of the Arctic Circle.   Some of the stops are for only a short duration, enough time for the ship to load or unload cargo or passengers.  Many of the stops are at night or even during the middle of the night.  Whenever there is enough time, the ship allows the passengers to stroll through town for 30 minutes to a couple of hours.  At some ports, Hurtigruten offers excursions.  These excursions range from hikes to concerts to tours of the area to meeting local natives.  Prices of these excursions range from US$50 to US$300.

It is impractical to detail the whole itinerary so I will point out some of the highlights.  The first major port is Trondheim, Norway’s third largest city.  The landmark in this city is the Nidaros Cathedral, built in 1070, in memory of King Olav II.  It is as impressive as any church in Europe.  Many tourists climb up to the top where you can have a good view of the city.  Trondheim is also home to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, which puts a strong influence on the city through its student population.

Colorful buildings along the river, across from the University

Colorful buildings along the river, across from the University

 

 

Crossing the Arctic Circle was a big deal for the ship and passengers.  A ceremony was held to commemorate the occasion.  Those willing to withstand having a glass of ice water poured down the back of their shirts get a glass of whiskey, a time-honored Norwegian tradition.

As the ship sails north of the Arctic Circle, you start to hear names of towns that you have vaguely heard of:  Tromsø, Hammerfest, Kirkenes, and other names that only a Scandinavian can pronounce. Tromsø is known as the Arctic Capital of the World.  Despite its high latitude, Tromsø and other towns along the Norwegian coast, have a relatively mild winter temperature because of the Gulfstream.  Its most famous landmark is the Arctic Cathedral.  An optional midnight concert was held for the ship passengers; attendees raved about the acoustics of the building.  The Polar Museum is another landmark that is attractive to tourists.

Among Hammerfest’s claim to fame, besides being the northernmost town in the world, is the home to The Struve Geodetic Arc, an object used to measure the size and shape of the earth. It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.  This is also the center of Sami Culture.  Sami’s are natives of the region and are considered relatives of the Athabascans natives of Alaska.  We heard a talk from a Sami woman, who told us about life in the Arctic north.  The Sami’s own all the reindeer in Norway.  Reindeer meat is very common in this part of the world.

The Struve Geodetic Arc

The Struve Geodetic Arc

 

 

 

 

A Sami farmer and his reindeer

A Sami farmer and his reindeer

We rode a bus to North Cape, the northern most point in Europe; a bragging right for those who’ve been there.  Kirkenes is our last port before the ship turned south to head back to Bergen.   Kirkenes, and the whole region, were occupied by the Germans during World War II.  Stories and evidence of life under the Germans were everywhere.  A road leading to the outskirt of town also takes you to the border with Russia,

Are there photography opportunities on this cruise?  Plenty.  However, because of the pace of the trip, it does not give one enough time to explore for the best photography locations and condition.  The combination of majestic mountains, water and deep fjords make Norway as good a photography paradise as any of the popular destinations like Iceland or New Zealand.  The Lofoten Islands is known for its natural beauty.  Wildlife, landscape, and at the right time of the year, Northern Lights; topics that are endearing to many amateur photographers.  It’s best to engage a local professional photographer to take you to the right location at the right time, or follow a photography tour.  Arizona Highways Photo Workshops does not offer one to Norway but one of its photographers,  Nathaniel Smalley, leads tours to Norway, Iceland, and other popular photography destinations.

Here are a couple of photographs of Arctic sunset at Solvaer, one of the ports of call:

Meng is a trip leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops

 

 

Focus Stacking

Author:  Megan P Galope

A few weeks ago I spent a weekend learning more about macro photography. There is so much to learn! One thing that was completely new to me was focus stacking. I had heard of it and understood the basic concept, but never actually tried it myself. First it required a sturdy tripod and a subject that did not move. I used a 100mm macro lens on my Canon DSLR. I set the focus to manual and focused on the closest part of the object to me. I moved the focus ring just slightly to start my images with nothing in focus (this is to make sure you didn’t miss anything that might end up in focus). Using a shutter release, I took a photo, manually moved the focus ring ever so slightly, and took another photo. I continued to do this until I took a photo that was slightly past focus of the farthest part of the object from me. I ended up with anywhere between 8 and 114 images, depending on what I was photographing. Note: if you plan to take more than one stack of the same object, make sure you take a bookmark photo (say, of your hand) that will separate the stack images when you work with them on your computer.

Once I uploaded the images to my computer, I looked through them all and removed any photos where none of the object was in focus. I then used the software Helicon Focus from HeliconSoft to automatically stack the photos. You can try the software free for 30 days, or if you take one of the Macro classes from Arizona Highways Photo Workshops, you will receive a discount code for the software as part of the class. The software is incredibly easy to use for basic stacking. Here are a couple of images that I stacked (but did not touch up using the software):

 

There are ways to touch up the photos even more using the software to remove any parts that aren’t totally in focus, but I haven’t looked into how to do that yet.

Here you can see the difference between a single image and focus stacking (look especially at the butt of the tarantula):

 

Focus stacking does not have to be complicated and you can end up with some amazing images!

You can find upcoming Macro Techniques classes with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops here: http://www.ahpw.org/workshops/.

Megan  is a trip leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops
Twitter = @megangalope


 

Create a Beautiful Photo Collage using Pic Collage

Author: Joanne Shipman

A few months ago I wrote about a mobile application called Snapseed for easy and fun post-processing on your cell phone, but now I’m going to show you how to take those photos and arrange them in a beautiful and inspiring collage to print or to post to social media. Just like Snapseed, Pic Collage is a free application that can be downloaded to both an iOS or Android mobile device and includes editing features in an easy-to-understand format.

Let’s get started! When you first open Pic Collage, you have three options: Grids,

Templates and Freestyle. For all three options, the application will ask to access your photos where you will select “ok”. You’ll be taken to the photos that you have on your mobile device and will select the photos that you would like in the collage.

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For the Grids option, your photos will be auto-populated initially in a default grid. At this point you have a few options: move the photos to where you want them in each shape of the grid or choose a different grid. At the bottom left of your screen you can click on the icon to select a different collage grid or select the plus icon in the bottom center of your screen to add a few items: more photos, web search on key words, text, stickers and backgrounds. For the Templates option, you can insert your photos into various backgrounds such as Christmas, Happy Birthday or Love. Finally, the Freestyle option is a blank canvas – sometimes the best for true creativity.

What’s really helpful is that if you select the “?” at the top of the screen while you are creating your collage, you’ll see a screen like the one shown below with brief explanations to help guide you.

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Within each collage option (Grids, Templates and Freestyle), simply double-click any photo for even more inspiring options such as: effects, clip, duplicate, back, set as background, border and remove. At this point let your creativity take hold and just have fun!

  • Effects can add various techniques such as changing orientation, enhancing your photo or removing blemishes.
  • Clip will arrange your photo into a shape such as square or circle.
  • Duplicate will create a second exact copy of your original photo.
  • Back arranges the photo layers from back to front or vice versa.
  • Setting a background takes your photo and creates a background in the collage.
  • Border will place a frame around your photo in a chosen color.
  • Remove will delete your last action, but don’t worry, you can always click on the Undo icon in the upper right of the screen to bring back your photo.

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Once editing is complete, click Done then Save to Library. If you have the free version, your collage will have an application watermark. You will find your photo in Photos for iOS or Gallery for Android then within the Pic Collage folder. Just like Snapseed – and taking it a bit further creating a beautiful and fun custom collage – you’re ready to post to social media or text your family and friends!

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Have you ever created a photo collage? If so, what program did you use whether on a  mobile application or on your computer?

 

Joanne is a trip leader for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops