Interest in Camera RAW on the rise

I have been noticing a lot more talk about camera RAW in the forums of late. More and more people are asking about what it is and how they can use it. Camera RAW has experienced a steady growth over the last few years, culminating with the introduction of Adobe Camera RAW 6.6 in the newest versions of Photoshop and Lightroom.

Camera Rig (just getting started...haha)

Image by fensterbme via Flickr

What amazes me most is the fact that so many people, brand new to photography and barely able to work the buttons and dials on their camera properly, are asking questions about RAW processing. I don’t fault anyone for wanting to make better images, but I have heard enough people complain about how their jpg images look better than their RAW images that I wonder at the wisdom of attempting such a technique laden process at such an early stage in the photographic journey.

I have done a good deal of mountain biking and I often hear people talk about courses that are very “technical.” Like the neophyte camera bugs I ventured boldly into the technical areas ignoring the advice of those more experienced. However, I quickly learned that in mountain biking “technical” is a euphemism for “insane.” My son, who is a much better biker than I am, describes his favorite trail like this; “It runs through an old phosphate mine with a six inch path, no room to manuever on the right and a sheer dropoff on the the left. At the bottom of the drop is a lake filled with alligators, including the big one the locals call ‘Big Momma.'” Needless to say, going ‘technical’ in mountain biking can have severe and immediate physical consequences. People venture into that territory with great care.

Not so with Camera RAW. People venture into these technical waters with impunity only to be disappointed with the results. Camera RAW is not the holy grail of photography. I am inclined to agree with Marcel Proust on this subject; “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” You can travel to the far corners of the globe if you like and find breathtaking landscapes on which to use your new tools and techniques and when you get home you are likely to find a 12 year old making better images in his own back yard.

Make no mistake, I love Camera RAW and use it all the time. I have even written a tutorial on the subject for those who want to give it a try. But I am also well aware of the fact that I am going to have to see with “new eyes” if I am ever going to say something of importance with my photography.

What amazes me most is the fact that many of these people have precious little experience in photography and have no business jumping into the rather technical waters of RAW processing. And herein lies a truth that a lot of people miss: real photography is not all that technical because real photography is about “seeing photographically.” It is entirely possible to be a great photographer without ever learning the first thing about camera RAW. As a matter of fact, and don’t expect to every hear this from Adobe, venturing into RAW  to soon can even hinder your growth as a photographer.

Want to get better? Leave the expensive tools alone and spend a lot of time doing something you love: taking pictures. They say that Jimi Hendrix put on his guitar before he put on his pants. A similar approach would serve you well if you want to master your craft like he did. There is no substitute and that includes ACR.


Window light


Window light has been a favorite among artists for many centuries. An artist with a studio that had a north-facing window was considered very fortunate indeed. The light is generally soft and with a shade or reflector can be controlled to a large degree. My experience has been that a reflector is essential for photographers as the light falls off precipitously as you move away from the window. An artist’s eye can accommodate for this drop off a lot easier than a camera can.

Window light portraits

Light modifiers for flash

Rogue FlashBender Positionable Reflectors review

You don’t have to use a flash on your camera for long to realize the results can be anything but natural with overexposed noses on your subjects and dark “halos” around their heads. The Lumiquest system is like carrying your own low ceiling with you so you can bounce anywhere, even outdoors. It’s not a perfect solution, you may still get some shadows behind your subject if you are near a wall, but the shadows will be more diffuse and a good deal more natural looking. Years ago I used to shoot weddings with a small umbrella attached to my flash. The light was fabulous but the rig was heavy and I got a lot of ribbing about the lack of rain indoors. I personally have not used the Gary Fong system but have watched the videos and they seem to have a lot to recommend them. I would also suggest you use experiment with some household items. I have seen homemade rigs made from bubble wrap, old milk bottles and paper plates that produced some fabulous results. You may find that even if you get a commercial system a bit of tweaking will make it even better; kind of like having the umbrella without all the jokes.

Gary Fong
Print your own free bounce card
Home made Demb diffusor
David Honl system

ISO vs. Megapixels

I was talking to the owner of the shop where I get my pictures printed the other day about the relationship between megapixels and image quality. We both agreed the relationship is not as clear as most people think and as proof he showed me a 30 X 40 print made from an 8 Mp image. However, he argued, as soon as you try to say something like that on the Internet, someone with “credentials” will produce a graph that shows you can’t make anything bigger than an 8 X 10 with that size image. I agreed, of course, it’s one of the main reasons I have been slow to upgrade my equipment; I simply haven’t been caught up in all the hoopla over megapixels and image quality. (See note below)

However, performance at high ISO’s is a very different thing. The newest generation of sensors are wonderous in their ability to produce clear sharp and relatively noise free images at extremely high ISOs. I have seen shots taken at ISO 3200 that looked as good as the images my camera makes at ISO 200. And there seems to be no end in sight as to how high the ISO range will grow. Nikon will soon be introducing a camera that can capture images at ISO 25,000. No word yet on the image quality at that range is astonishing, We’ll be doing landscapes by starlight if ISOs go any higher!

Note: What the printer did not mention were the things that lent this image to be enlarged in this way. For one thing it was mounted on a wall near the ceiling and above the sales shelves and it was a high contrast image; a fluorescent blue jellyfish on a black background. Nevertheless, his point was valid; the relationship between megapixels and enlargements is not as simple as most people would like to think.

Simple (and cheap) Variable Neutral Density Filter

Photo enthusiast and PhD candidate Richard Wheeler has come up with the following inexpensive way of making your own variable neutral density filter. You can find a link to his website below.

Simple Variable Neutral Density Filter
What is a variable neutral density filter? The neutral density bit means it is a filter simply designed to block some of the light getting into a camera. The variable bit means it is variable – you can control the darkness of the filter just by twisting one part of it. A proper variable neutral density filter can cost £100 or more!

Why would you want to block light getting into the camera? In short; control. A fully manual camera can be controlled via exposure time, aperture size and film speed. Adding a variable neutral density filter adds control of the amount of light entering the lens too. This lets you increase the exposure time and/or aperture while using the neutral density filter to prevent overexposure.

What effects are possible? The main tricks with a neutral density filter are to get shallow depth of field (a wide aperture) or long motion blur (a long exposure) under bright lighting conditions. This makes it very handy for taking portraits or nature shots, where you have bright lighting but want a shallow depth of field, or capturing the feel of a public event while bluring out individual people as they move.

How does it work? This method uses the properties of polarised light, specifically that two parallel polarisers will block very little light but two at 90 to each other will block nearly all light travelling through them. Find out more about polarisation, including in photography, here. This variable neutral density filter is far from perfect, but great if you want to make one cheaply!

Simple Variable Neutral Density Filter

The finished and assembled filters…

Step 1: Raw Materials
All you need is two circular polariser filters (of the correct size for your lens of course!). There is no point spending too much on these, I used an old slightly broken one and one I picked up for about £5 on Ebay.

This is the slightly broken filter which I will disassemble in the next step.

Step 2: Dissasemble One Filter
Pick one filter and disassemble it. Filters are normally easy to take apart; just unscrew the retaining ring from the front size of the filter. Most have a couple of small notches in the retaining ring which you can push round with a small screwdriver. Remember righty tighty, lefty loosey…

Be careful with this step – it is very easy to slip and scratch the filter. Make sure you don’t do this with a polariser you care about!

Don’t push too hard and scratch the filter! You can also damage the threads if you are really clumsy… (which I may have done!)

Step 3: Flip the Filter and Reassemble
Flip the polarising filter and then reassemble the lens by screwing the retaining ring back in.

It is easy to check the correct orientation of a circular polarizer if you get confused. Find a polarizing light source, most LCD screens should work, and look through the filter while twisting it. For the normal orientation of a circular polarizer if the filter gets darker and lighter then you are looking through the camera-facing side of the filter. If filter stays the same lightness but changes color slightly (normally yellow to blue) then you are looking from the other side of the filter. For the reversed orientation of the circular polarizer (for this step) the opposite applies.

Make sure you mark which filter has been flipped so you don’t get confused!

Remember to flip the filter!

Step 4: Final Assembly
Screw the two polarizing lenses together making sure the normal filter is on the camera side and the flipped lens is on the other side.

If you don’t plan on using the unmodified filter as a polarising filter on it’s own then you can glue the two together to make sure you don’t get confused. If you do want to glue the filters together be careful; to use the filter you have to be able to twist the front filter while the back filter remains stationary – don’t jam the twisting mechanism with glue! Also avoid using cyanoacrylate-based glues (eg. superglue and krazy glue), their vapours can fog the glass.

Step 5: Usage
To change the darkness of the filter just twist the front polarizer while keeping the back filter stationary. A twist of 90° will take you from maximum darkness to maximum clearness. My filters gave me about a 10 f-stop range, from ~4 f-stops darker to ~14 f-stops darker.

The light from the filters entering the camera is circularly polarized so should work with all digital camera autofocus and metering mechanisms. Unfortunately, because this method is based on polarizers, you will see some of the normal effects of polarising lenses – bear this in mind if you are photographing reflective objects such as glass or water. The filter construction is also quite thick so you might get more vignetting, especially at short focal lengths on zoom lenses.

Depending on the quality of the filters you might see some colour changes depending on the orientation of the filters, blue in one direction and yellow in the other. The blue tint can normally be countered with a fluorescent light white balance setting.

Step 6: Usage

This filter is useful any time you want to capture shallow depth of field or motion under bright lighting conditions, things you might want to try are:

A flower under bright sunlight – use a wide aperture and a dark neutral density filter to capture the flower, without overexposure, with a nicely blurred background.
People in movement – use an extremely long exposure time and a very dark neutral density filter to blur the movement of people through a public space.

Note: Check out Richard’s website here.

Picasa adds clever new software…for free!

I have never been a huge fan of Google’s image hosting Picasa. It is free, you get a ton of storage space and it does have some tools for fixing redeye and make minor adjustments to digital images. In short, it’s a good starter program with features that fall far short of what a pro needs. However, Google just added a clever new program you may be interested in. A facial recognition program lines up the faces in a slideshow type presentation, so if you want to, say, show the progressive growth of your children, this would work well. Watch the video for yourself below.

Photography software: where do I get started?

One of the first things photographers look for after purchasing a new digital camera is a good software to manage their images. These programs can do a lot more than make your images look better, though they do that very well. They will also help you organize the images so you can find them later, email them to friends and family and even have them printed. Most of the programs can be divided into two categories; free and not free, but all of them are, sooner or later, compared to the granddaddy of them all: Photoshop.

Adobe Photoshop (PS) is a remarkable tool that is the standard of the industry for artists, designers and photographers the world over. It has a dizzying array of features and adjustments that allow you to create breathtaking images and use them in a variety of settings. However, this great power comes with a steep learning curve and an even steeper price tag. While other programs on the market work hard to offer the most useful tools in PS, they all are variations of the original with adjustments made to features and price.

Adobe’s own theme-in-variation is Photoshop Elements (PSE). It contains many of the same features as its big brother but at a fraction of the price. This is a great choice if you think you may one day choose to upgrade to PS as the tools work the same in both programs. As a matter of fact, newer version of PSE are essentially old version of PS with a few less tools.

Paint Shop Pro claims to have most of the features of Photoshop at a fraction of the price. It certainly has more features than PSE at a similar price but does lack many of PS’s more esoteric flexibility (3D imaging, for instance.) Some feel it is a bit easier to use and is set up to appeal more to traditional artists. However, it handles many tasks differently and is therefore not good training for future PS users.

In the world of free imaging software, GIMP is king. Originally designed for Linus systems, it will now run on any popular system with much of PS flexibility. I find it cumbersome and complicated, but that’s because I went the PSE/PS route. Those who started with GIMP feel it is a fabulous program with no monetary investment.

Picasa is free software from Google and will allow you space to keep your images (much like flickr) and some rudimentary tools for adjusting your images. It’s a great place for beginners to get started to learn some of the capabilities of similar programs though it lacks many of the features of more complex programs.

A new addition to photo imaging software is web-based programs. All of these programs are initially free though most will charge you once your memory requirements exceed a certain threshold. Photoshop has their own version called “Photoshop Express” though it has very limited features, more closely resembling Picasa. Better choices include Picnik, Splashup and Phoenix. Picnik is nice because it is integrated with flickr; Splashup and Phoenix have many of PS’s more useful tools, like layers and compositing.

There has never been a better time to get started in photography. With so many free options it is easy and inexpensive to get started and learn exactly which features mean the most to you. Then you will have a much better idea whether or not the paid features in the bigger programs are worth the extra money.

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