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Understanding Image Stabilization

Image stabilization is one of the most misunderstood technologies in the camera industry and yet it is one of the most useful. In short, it allows the photographer to take photographs without “camera shake” with lower shutter speeds.

Before I begin to explain the effects of image stabilization there are 2 important subjects I need to touch on.

One, as a rule of thumb your shutter speed should never drop below the length of the lens and never below 60/s when handheld. For example, on a full frame sensor and assuming your lens is at 100mm, your shutter speed should never fall below 100/s. On most modern cameras this is not true though, you will need to add in the crop factor. For example, at 100mm and you have a Nikon or SONY it would be 150/s (x1.5), a Canon 160/s (x 1.6) and so on. Check your camera’s manual for your crop factor.

Camera shake
Camera shake, shot with a Canon PowerShot A570 IS at 6mm, f/2.6, 0.6s and ISO100

Two, there are different image stabilization technologies. Canon has IS (image stabilization) and Nikon’s is VR (vibration reduction) they both use in lens technology, however it can be done in camera as well such as SONY’s SteadyShot. There are advantages of having it in camera, all your lenses will be image stabilized. In recent years we have seen more lenses being stabilized because of in camera video, even fixed (or prime) lenses are now developed with this function in mind.

What is “camera shake”? Have you ever taken a photograph at night and all you see is streaks and waves?

This is caused by not using a tripod when doing long exposures or being below 60/s, let me elaborate, as we take photos we move, breathing, muscle movement, wind… That causes the camera to move along with us, the results are camera shakes this results in blurred photographs, this is where image stabilization becomes useful. Image stabilization compensates for your movements, allowing us to shoot at lower stutter speeds and in lower light. How far lower depends on the image stabilization technology of the lens or camera but it is fair to assume that a gain of 2 to 3 stops is common on modern lenses and cameras. Please check your lens or camera manual for details.

There are some limitations to image stabilization, as shown below the leopard’s paws are blurred, this is called motion blur. An image stabilizer will not compensate for subject movement; only higher shutter speed will help with that.

The most elusive cat in Africa, the mighty leopard
The most elusive cat in Africa, the mighty leopard, shot with a Canon 400D paired with a Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens at 105mm, f/4.5, 1/100s and ISO100

Another recommendation would be to switch of image stabilization if the camera is mounted on a tripod, though modern image stabilization technology will detect when mounted on a tripod, this is to avoid stabilizer hunting and creating artificial shake or vibration.

Lastly,  the image stabilizer become useless above about twice the speed/lens length, so in bright light or outdoors with good light it can be switched off to save battery, I will admit I never do it because I forget to put it back on.

Recommended gear

Nikon 55-200mm f4-5.6 AF-S ED VR DX Zoom Lens
Nikon 55-200mm f4-5.6 AF-S ED VR DX Zoom Lens

Today I will simply recommend that you buy your lenses with optical stabilization built-in.
My favourites are a 24-105mm and 70-200mm lenses but both these are generally expensive, particularly those with fixed apertures (f/2.8 or f/4). Most camera kits come with an 18-55mm, and sometimes with a tele-zoom lens, with image stabilization. So my real pick would be a 55-200mm or above tele-zoom lens with stabilization, these are relatively affordable starting at about $120 (R1000) depending on manufacturer and give a good zoom range on cropped sensors of 82-300mm and above full frame equivalent. For the Canon owners I would recommend the relatively affordable Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4.5-5.6 IS MK II (88-400 full frame equivalent) at about $300 (R3000) on budget however I came to appreciate the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 IS USM (112-480 full frame equivalent) even if it’s nearly twice the price.

Handheld Panoramic Photography

In my previous post I covered why I often do not take a tripod along with me. But there are other considerations worth the look when talking of panoramic photography. You will be told that to do a good panoramic photo you need some equipment that will help you greatly, a panoramic rotation unit and a Panoramic Head to get to the nodal point (pivot point), this is to avoid distortions and have better stitching and I agree then I look at my wallet and decide to do with what I have.

The truth is with a little practice and good photo stitching software, you can get amazing results and save on weight in you bag as well as avoiding to lighten up your wallet. As most photography techniques it all starts at the moment you press the shutter, the post-process will not be able to fix everything that you did not bother to take care of when you pressed that shutter, particularly with panoramic and HDR photography. my philosophy in photography is get the maximum right in camera.

Cape Town

Here are some tips I learned along the panoramic way:

  • Before you pick up the camera to do the panoramic, look around, pre-visualise the final panoramic photo.
  • Be careful, look up and down too, there might be something in the way.
  • Turn around, there might just be a better place to take it from.
  • Do your panoramic photograph sections in portrait
  • Do a sweep or two of the scene through the viewfinder, it will give you the beginning and the end points. Again though the viewfinder as you sweep look up and down too.
  • Try to avoid glare, flare and the sun.
  • Be careful of moving objects as they may appear more than once in your final product.
  • I usually take a shot of my left index finger or hand a the beginning of the panoramic sequence and my right one at the end, it makes it easier to identify the sequence in my asset management tool, Lightroom in this case.
  • Set your focus to about 1/3 of the scene.
  • Set your aperture as low as possible for handheld speeds relative to your lens, f/9 to f/22 and lower. for the speed, I use the length of the lens x2.5 for the speed, for example I have a 35mm I will not drop my speed bellow 90s on a non stabilised lens and I never allow to go below a 60th.
  • Get the exposure average through the scene and lock it or go manual! Most cameras have an exposure lock function, on Canon cameras it’s a star on the top right of the camera back, make use of it.
  • Most modern cameras have a “rule of thirds” grid in the viewfinder, use it to keep level.
  • Include about 30% more to the left and right of the panoramic.
  • Overlap each section by about 30%.
  • Stand steady and move on your hips, for each 4 sections or when you start stretching your back reseat yourself by moving you feet in a shuffling motion (in a small circle) whilst keeping your eye in the viewfinder and keeping the camera in the last position. This is a tip given by Scott Kelby that helped me a lot particularly in loosing less of the top and bottom part of the image when stitching and I am no longer twisting my back.
  • Consider using the widest distortion free lens in your arsenal but not fisheye lenses as fisheye type effect is an example of unwanted distortion. The panoramic post process creates it’s own distortion, you do not want to add more to it.
Danger Point Lighthouse

Breathe and take your time, don’t expect to get it right first time, practice.

The post-processing is an entire different beast but if you get most of it right in camera, Photoshop Elements or CS will do the stitching brilliantly, both these programs have free trials at www.adobe.com. You do not have Photoshop Elements or CS and you own a Canon? Try Canon Photostitch, it’s not as good as Photoshop but it’s free. You cannot argue with that price!

Fishing boats of Houtbay

Want more details in a difficult one shot photograph? Have you considered doing a panoramic? The ones above and bellow are even if it does not look like one.

Graffiti under the bridge

One last word, all the photo shown in this post are handheld panoramic but also HDR, simply because I do both. Understanding the relationship between the two means both need to be learned individually first, I will be talking more about HDR photography soon.

Shooting Pilates, Yoga and similar sports

Pilates shooting from the mat. Marsha Forbes and Gregory Hart.

We cannot call  Pilates or Yoga a fast sport, which in itself is a good thing, it gives you the time to get the “shot”. But how do you go about shooting such a sport in an uncontrolled environment? This is a rare sport that can be shot in a photography studio but what if you are commissioned to shoot a workshop in a relatively small, dark room, full of distractions and the client ordered me to be as unobtrusive as possible? Have you ever hear of an unobtrusive photographer?

The first answer lays in the light, as always with photography. Let me elaborate, on camera flash in closed quarters creates harsh light, even with a diffuser. This is something you definitively want to avoid at all costs, so the answer is to diffuse big lights. The room we were using was to large for small diffused flashes, at least mine would not cut it in these conditions. So I took two 300W strobes along, strategically positioned them in the room to have a “sunlight” effect, as in light coming down casting a shadow on the mat, pointing them at the ceiling, now I was lucky that the ceiling was white. They where about 30 cm away and the ceiling made for a rather pleasant diffuser. Originally I used my remote RF trigger, however the light was no good, it was time for plan B… Off came the RF trigger and on came my small flash set at –2EV, to give it a horizontal light. This resulted in good lighting conditions, there were still some shadows on the walls but not as disruptive, I was relatively happy with the results.

Small room, 1.6x cropped camera and being unobtrusive are not synonymous of each other, I am sure you would agree. With the light issue out of the way, the lens issue came. Most photographers will tell you, use a 24-70mm or a 50mm lens for this type of shoot. Let us do some math, room size is about 4mx5m I have bodies everywhere and I have an effective 38-112mm or 80mm, I can tell you that with these lenses you will not get a full body shot. The funny part is I have not used a “portrait” lens to do portraiture in years. I use my trusty 16-35mm (25.6-56mm effective), it’s a wide lens but you can manage it’s distortion if you know it well. Mind you, it does fall in the 24-70mm category.

Shooting such an event is a physical challenge, it all happens low on the mat and that is where you need to shoot, from low on the mat, any less would look wrong. You need to be fit and even if you are you will feel it the next morning. I know I did.

Last issue at hand… Being unobtrusive, well to tell the truth, I was not, I just did my best not to walk on anybody, nobody seem to mind. A tip: Introduce yourself and tell people to ignore you, it generally works great for me.

Photographs published under authorization from Alchemy Health and Fitness Centre, Northcliff.

Geotagging Workflow

My geotagging workflow has changed dramatically for my initial post in October 2009, I now only use my iPhone with the Trails app and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4. And it all makes it so easy.

First and foremost, synchronize your camera time with your phone, this is relatively important for the geotagging process to happen correctly. Second, don’t (as it happened to me) forget to start Trails before you embark on your photography journey. I found that on long journeys, 6 hours plus, I needed to recharge my iPhone so I keep it charging whilst in my car.

There are 2 versions of Trails on iTunes, the free but limited Trails Lite GPS Tracker and the paid Trails GPS Tracker, I use the later.

Here are some screenshots from Trails:

038
041
039
 
Trails supplies me with both a GPX (Standard GPS tracking) and a KML (Google Earth) file the later is nice to show a photowalk trail on the web like I did here. The only issue I have with trails is the way to get those files from the iPhone, I need to send them by mail. I may despise iTunes but at least allow me to pull it off as I do other apps, in particular when it is a large file (my record is 8 hours).
 
Once I have the GPX file, I store it in the same folder as my photos to avoid loosing it and open Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4, LR 4 has a new function called “Map”. Import your photos, select all those you want to geotag, click on Map, locate the squiggly icon (GPS Tracklogs) at the bottom next to the lock click on it, select “Load Tracklog…”, locate your GPX file, open and apply. That is all there is to it. you will need internet access to see the Google maps.
 
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 Screenshot
Adobe Lightroom 4 Map Screenshoot

You can see a few orange markers these are the newly geotagged photographs, you will need to save the photographs for the tagging to be written to the EXIF data. Also in blue (not shown here) will be the trail.

Happy geotagging

High Dynamic Range workflow

I get asked how I do my HDRs a lot, I more than often direct people to the master and, by definition even if we have never met, teacher Trey Ratcliff. His work is the one that got me back into HDR in the first place, however it seems that my style is a tad different from his. The truth is that I evolve and try different techniques with each photograph. I could not reproduce an exact match to something I did before. As all arts, nearly, each piece is unique, that is true for me but my workflow is constant.

First and foremost, not all situations are good for HDR work! This is important, not all photos make for a good HDR, you will need high contrast, little movement and time to shoot an HDR. But try never the less, see what works for you and what does not.

  • Shooting the HDR, it all starts here!
    • As with normal photography, get that EV 0 photo as you would if you where not doing an HDR, this is your reference photo it owe to be perfect every time. So expose it right and do as if HDR did not exist, I cannot stress this enough. I personally shoot everything a 1/3 of a stop lower, I like it better that way but that is up to taste and preferences. Know this though, all the rules of photography applies.
    • Shoot in RAW, you should anyways.
    • I, generally, do 3 handheld photographs, EV 0, +3, –3 at f/8, ISO 100, it’s no secret that I found that f/8 is magic for HDR photography, I tried others for example low depth of field which I generally love just does not work for me.
    • Frame it right, in fact because I do it handheld I frame it wider, yes I crop my HDRs a bit but to the slight movement of handheld photography.You can go manual but you will need a tripod or do like me use Aperture Priority.
    • Do not change you aperture or ISO, is an HDR only the speed should change!
    • Set your camera to shoot all 3 (or more if you can) in one go, see your camera manual under bracketing.
    • The tip to know how many photo’s you need? Expose for the highlight get your reading then expose to the shadow get the reading again, I use 3EV because of my camera’s limitations but calculate how many photographs you need according to your EV bracketing mode.

Now that you have the 3 (or more) photos and I assume you have imported them on to your computer using your favourite tool, let’s review my workflow step by step. See the results bellow, in this case I used 3 photograph.

Original 0 EV

EV0 – 1/640, f/9, ISO 200

Original -3 EV

EV0 – 1/5000, f/9, ISO 200

Original +3 EV

EV0 – 1/80, f/9, ISO 200

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  • Step 1 – Create the HDR
    • Do not modify the originals, you will do the fine touches at the end of the process.
    • I convert them to JPEG at 1 EV separation, yes that means that I can end up with up to 11 photos, I only select the best 5 to 7 though.
      How do I get so many out of 3 photographs? Adobe Photoshop Lightroom has a slider for this sole purpose.
      This is why I shoot raw, I can pull up to a 2 EV photo up or down with very little degradation.
      Technically, you are able to do an HDR with only 1 photograph shot in RAW.
    • Import all the photos into the HDR program, I use Photomatix Pro, though there are a few others. 
      Protomatix Pro - Settings for processing exported files
      • The trick here is to tick “Align images”, “Crop aligned result” and selecting “by matching features” in case of movement, the perspective correction is selected because I use wide angle lenses.
      • “Reducing ghosting artifacts” in auto helps with movement that may have occurred, I tried most the setting “High” is always selected nowadays.
      • “Reduce Noise” on “All source images” helps for later noise control.
      • “Reduce chromatic aberration” helps latter as well.
      • As you can see I set it to reimport into Adobe Photoshop Lightroomin TIFF, TIFF keeps more information thus making it easier to edit later.
    • In Photomatix Pro, I will modify the settings to come as close as possible to the look I want, I generally start of with the “Enhancer – Default” preset, I find it smoother and more realistic.
      Do not do this if it is for a panoramic, the blending needs to be the same! In fact I created a preset that I can use for each panoramic sections.
    • Save it.
    • If it is a panoramic, merge and crop it before you go to step 2 and watch that sky if there is any.
  • Step 2
    • Topaz Adjust

      Because the HDR process flattens the colours, I import it into Topaz Adjust and use one of the colour enhancing filters, I do not always use the same one but I do use the “Spicify” filter more often then others, remember that each photograph is unique.

    • Here are the catches:
      • Grunge, I recently found a way around it, Topaz Adjust 5 (and maybe before) has a Transparency setting in the “3. Finishing Touches” section, I use that in addition to other settings.
      • Halo effect, that one is often hard to control.
  • Step 3
    • Adjust the final HDR as you would any other photos.
    • Do look at reducing grain.

As you see it’s not a complicated science, you can also go back to my previous entries where you will find more details about how to shoot an HDR and more.

Finally, enjoy doing them, it’s what photography is all about, enjoyment.

Here are some HDR photographers I follow (i will update regularly):

Last updated on the 6th of March 2012