Because modern photographic equipment is so technological, many assume there is little you can do yourself to solve problems, and that every “solution” must be bought. But this is not the case.
On Digital ImageMaker, I recently wrote about the GigaPan Epic, a motorized camera platform for shooting panoramas and creating gigapixel-resolution images by stitching. That got me thinking about the do-it-yourself (DIY) mentality in general.
The Epic motorized platform is designed to enable people to mount compact point-and-shoot digital cameras on the platform and shoot huge panoramas. It does this brilliantly. For Digital ImageMaker, I reviewed the base model for point-and-shoots. But the company that makes GigaPan Epic also offers a more expensive model, with an adjustment that lets you mount a somewhat larger camera, including some compact DSLRs.
When I looked more closely at the basic model for point-and-shoots, I saw that it would be quite easy to adapt the unit so it could hold a larger camera. After a little bit of thinking, it took me about a half an hour to solve the problem. I simply used a $3 piece of aluminum, a hand electric drill and a device to tap a thread in a hole. Click here to see the solution I devised. This adjustment allowed me to mount a Canon 350D which I had converted to shoot infrared. Thus, I was able to use the Gigapan to do infrared panoramas, such as the one shown here.
But the DIY mentality doesn’t end with shooting. For my inkjet printer, I’ve built a small angled platform that allows me to readily feed sheets of aluminum that I’ve pre-treated with an inkjet-receptive coating.
Other devices I have built include a small-but-useful macro light that I assembled from some batteries, a couple of bright white LEDs and a switch.
Being willing to try building things myself has solved a number of photographic problems without requiring me to spend a lot of extra money on new accessories.
On the Internet, an active DIY community exists within photographic circles. One I have found fascinating is the active community of camera software hackers. It turns out that some Canon digital cameras have firmware (the software built into the camera that controls its processor) that can be modified. These modifications can open up new functions that Canon never intended for that model, such as RAW file capability, intervalvometer functions (setting the camera to take an image every so often), and much more. The CHDK software acts as an add-on to the existing firmware.
One can only imagine what wonderful things would result if camera manufacturers would open up their cameras to add-on software in the same manner as your computer or iPhone. It would be even more wonderful if they would make it easy to add this new software.
YouTube has wonderful videos on all sorts of DIY endeavors. For example, one clip I found amazing showed a Japanese photographer who has modified a scanner to act as a camera. Click here to see the YouTube video of the resulting scanner-cam. The resulting images have been posted on Flickr. There are in fact many people actively converting scanners into cameras.
Other creative do-it-yourselfers have experimented with inkjet-receptive coatings and inkjet-transfer films to create stunning works of art on different types of metals, marble, wood, and fresco materials. The best known in this field is the trio of great artists: Dorothy Simpson Krause, Bonny Lhotka, and Karin Schminke, who form the Digital Atelier. Bonny has even created her own inkjet-receptive coating that she shows how to use in the DVD training courses she sells on her Digital Art Studio Seminars website.
Certain areas of photography seem more DIY-oriented than others. Areas such as astro-photography and macrophotography have a long tradition of DIY solutions to various problems.
Studio lighting is also an active area for DIY projects, with people making their own lighting rigs and light-modification screens, etc.
Panorama photographers have often made their own rigs. But perhaps the biggest single area of DIY activity is pinhole photography. Many of us have done something in the area, either by drilling a hole in a DSLR body cap and mounting a piece of aluminum foil or by making a whole pinhole film camera.
Indeed many companies that now provide digital-imaging products started as DIYers working at home in their basements or garages. When they found out there was a small market for their inventions, they went from there. Indeed, many companies start out in the garage, including corporate giants such as Hewlett Packard and Apple.
The reward that comes from doing it yourself is not just that of saving a bit of money. When you do things yourself, it makes your photography different from everyone else’s, either because you can do something they can’t, or you are doing it in a different way.
Another benefit is the opportunity to recycle items that might otherwise end up in a landfill.
Plus, there is the satisfaction that comes from making something with your own hands. This is important to those of us who spend a lot of our time working on the computer each day.
Personally, I get a huge sense of satisfaction from identifying a problem, finding the solution and making it work.
If you are a DIY-oriented person, don’t let the technological sophistication of modern devices intimidate you and stop you from trying a project or two. You don’t necessarily have to get engaged with the electronics or software to make meaningful improvements that can help your photography as well as other people’s work. Give it a go.
In my first post on shooting landscape photography last month, I shared a few tips for increasing your odds of going home with tack-sharp images. In this post, I’ll dig deeper into the details of making the most of your landscape photo opportunities. This list is based in many ways on the minor, and sometimes not so minor, hiccups I’ve had in my own work.
1. Before you leave your home or studio, make a checklist of the things you’ll need. I’ve learned the hard way to carry extra batteries, camera cards, and a spare card reader. Take the camera manual with you. An extra battery charger can be a life-saver. Most of us carry only one, and if it is damaged by a faulty wall outlet, or other problem, it can become a “game over” situation. It happened to me while I was in Israel; you won’t believe what it cost to have one sent by FedEx from New York.
2. Test your camera and each lens you plan to take before you set off on your trip. If you use zoom lenses, test the lens at the short and long end of its range. Check the lens for autofocus function, too.
3. Once you’ve chosen a spot from which to shoot (or even better, before that), ask yourself these questions:
Do I need to format or change camera cards?
Is the ISO setting correct? (Generally, landscape photographers should use the lowest available ISO setting – usually 50, 100, or 200 ISO.)
Is the white balance set to the conditions (daylight, cloudy, etc)? (Please don’t use AUTO white balance; this makes batch processing difficult, if not impossible.)
Is the camera set to record in Adobe 98 RGB (if available)?
Can the camera shoot in RAW? (If so, this is your best option.
4. Make sure you’ve chosen a safe place. If you think light will be low, take a flashlight and look around carefully. You’ll sometimes find a surprise (nice skunk!) And, if you are shooting near the ocean, never, ever turn your back on the water. It’s possible to lose a camera, or yourself, to an unexpected wave. On windy days, stay close to your camera and tripod, for obvious reasons. I’ve seen them go down more than once
5. Choose the right lenses. In 35mm format, a 14mm prime will do the job (Canon and Nikon both make very good ones). Some of the lenses in the 21-24mm range are good, but check the reviews before you rent or buy. There’s quite a bit of variation in performance among this group. The perspective control lenses (marked PC) made by both Nikon and Canon are very good, because you can expand the width of your frame to near-panorama proportions. You may also wish to consider a medium telephoto, such as a 200mm or 300mm lens. These give you the opportunity to isolate parts of a landscape, making for some interesting shots such as the image below.
6. Think about how you will see the screen on top of the camera that shows camera adjustment settings. If you are working on a tall tripod, you might have to bring something to stand on to see the panel, or change the camera position to bring it into view. I carry a small plastic dental mirror in my camera bag, and use it to see the top of the camera without moving it. This saves a lot of time, and sometimes prevents a missed shot.
7. Take extra care when using slower shutter speeds. If the wind is blowing, try to wait until for a quiet (or quieter) moment to take your shot. Try to remember not to rest a hand on the tripod or camera when shooting. Keep those fingers where they belong when you are shooting – away from the camera.
8. Set your in-camera exposure meter for center-weighted exposure, or spot exposure. Generally, my Nikon and Hasselblad cameras seem to do best with center weighted exposure. Full-frame metering usually results in an underexposed image in landscape work.
9. Make sure that your meter is accurate, and compare your meter to another one. Generally, incident-light exposure metering is more accurate than reflected-light, in-camera metering. You don’t have to spend a fortune on a handheld meter. For example, the Sekonic 358 handheld meter is a very good, rugged meter. Its cost is moderate, and used ones can be found with a bit of digging. Mine seems indestructible.
10. If you are shooting with HDR developing in mind, remember that the camera must stay exactly in place while you are capturing multiple frames. If the frames don’t match up (register) it will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to make the image work back in the studio. If you bump your tripod, just start that sequence over again.
11. Check the weather and the sunset/sunrise and moonset/moonrise times every day if possible. This is particularly important in mountainous areas, where the weather is very changeable. Here in California, I’ve been snowed in during June! Keep a sheet of flexible plastic in your bag, or even a small trash bag, to use as an improvised cover in bad weather.
12. Take a small notebook. Jot down the place, time of day, conditions, camera settings, the serial numbers of your first and last frames, and your personal thoughts. You’ll find these to be a real treasure when you come back to an image at a later date. Consider a GPS gadget for tagging your image files.
I took this surrealistic-looking image of the Colorado State Capitol Building from the rooftop of the Colorado History Museum. The Capitol was reflected in multiple windows on the side of a building across the street. The image was captured around 4 pm, using a tripod-mounted Hasselblad H-series camera, digital back, 100mm lens, ISO 50, f/5 @ 1/90 sec. There was a mix of clouds and sun that day, so I had to wait until the Capitol was well-lit to bring up the contrast in the shot. I did some Photoshop editing for contrast and perspective correction.
In earlier posts, I’ve commented about the progress we’ve enjoyed with regard to new tools for photography. Here, I’ll back up those statements by briefly describing an relatively easy system that I’ve developed to make highly detailed panorama photographs. (The only caveat: Everything old is new again. About 75 to 85% of the success with this technique comes from getting it right in the camera.)
In the past, most panorama-style photographs were either cropped from a larger frame, such as a piece of 4x5 film, or photographed using a specialized panorama camera, such as the Hasselblad X-Pan.
In recent years, I started experimenting with using a digital camera to shoot multiple frames that could then be merged into a panorama. Until the middle of last year, I wasn’t satisfied with the results. I had issues with variations in brightness in the scene, lens distortion and other problems.
However, with the release of some new hardware and software tools, shooting and merging frames has become impressively consistent and requires very little extra work in post-production.
Here is a brief rundown of the techniques I use. (Look for a more detailed version to be posted on my website within the next few weeks.)
Use a normal focal length lens, or slight telephoto lens that has good flat field characteristics and little or no change in brightness in the corners.
Use a tripod that has a reasonably good camera mount that can be rotated easily. Level the tripod before you mount the camera on it.
Use a slide mount to attach the camera to the ball head. You will use this to move the center of the camera back and away from the center point of the tripod so that the camera rotates around the optical center of the lens. This eliminates parallax. (The mount shown here is made by Really Right Stuff.)
To know how far back to move the camera on the slide, look up the lens optical center, or nodal point, on the manufacturer’s website. (This info is usually found in the technical specifications for the lens.) Move the slide back from the center of the tripod an amount equal to the number provided for the nodal point. (see photograph)
Mount the camera in portrait, not landscape orientation. You’ll get great top-to-bottom coverage and when the frames are combined the result is very impressive.
Use a bubble level to make a final check of the camera and tripod by slowly rotating the camera through the range of the scene you want to photograph.
(Right now I’ll bet many of you are saying “that’s going to take too long!” but with a little practice setup takes about five minutes.)
Use manual focus, and manual exposure. Try to pick an exposure that is close to the middle of the range of exposure measurements that you get from one side of the scene to the other. Set the camera up in Aperture priority, at a moderate f/stop (f/8 or f/11 is a good starting point).
If you are shooting RAW image captures (recommended) set your white balance to manual, or to one of the lighting presets, such as daylight, in the camera. Using “auto” setting will create headaches for you later in image processing.
Shoot from left to right and expose the frames you’ll need to capture the scene. Overlap the frames by 25-35%. Be sure to use RAW capture, and do not use a polarizing filter.
That’s it for capture – the next step is ridiculously simple.
In Photoshop CS3 use the new Photomerge utility (File>Automate>Photomerge) to merge the images. Set it on “Auto”, and click OK.
Photoshop will create a merged version of your group of images. It will look a bit like a bowtie, and it will have as many layers as you have frames. Flatten the image, crop it to the rectangular aspect ratio you want, and make whatever other adjustments you wish.
To summarize: get everything level from the ground up, use manual focus and exposure, shoot RAW, and overlap the frames. Load them into Photoshop’s Photomerge, and voila! The results are amazing!
After I shared this technique with photographer Ted Dayton, he sent me back this note:
“I processed nine RAW files into 12-MP TIFFs and merged them in Photoshop to create the finished image. About 30 minutes and 450 MB later, the results were amazing!! Anybody want to buy a 6 x 17 camera?”
Recently, it hit me. We are well into a new golden age of photography. With across-the-board improvements in innovative technologies, equipment costs, ease of use, and image quality, photographers can now choose from an amazing range of possibilities to be creative and share their work.
Not long ago, advances in digital imaging technology were uneven. Some tools worked as promised; others didn’t. Or, an advance in one phase of the capture-to-print process would outpace progress in another phase, creating partial or complete mismatches in capability and compatibility. For example, each increase in digital-capture resolution required subsequent improvements in computing power, storage, processing and archiving. Before adopting any new technology, you really had to stop and ask yourself: What new headache might this “solution” introduce elsewhere in my workflow?
Not any more.
The new and updated digital imaging products released over the past 9-12 months are dramatically superior in terms of ease of use, automation that really works, production values, and image quality.
Now, cameras, software, and printers really deliver on the promises of digital imaging. We can capture, process, and print our images at quality levels that were previously difficult or impossible to achieve. And we can do so at much lower costs in time and materials. (These days the only time you might need to worry about workflow implications is immediately after a new operating system is introduced.)
Manufacturers seem particularly intent on improving the ease-of-use of their products.
For example, I recently captured a panorama of a mountain scene in Central California. I shot eight frames, using a Hasselblad H-series camera with a digital back, a 100mm lens, and a simple panorama bracket from Really Right Stuff. The final image printed quite easily at 100 x 25 inches on the HP Designjet Z3100, a 12-ink, archival-quality printer.
The quality of my large-format panoramic print is among the best I have ever seen. The color is superb and image has remarkable detail and clarity. Yet, the amount of time I spent producing this print was about 75% less than it would have taken in the past.
Originally, I shot ten frames. All the frames were captured using manual exposure, and the frames overlapped by about 20%. I loaded all ten frames onto my Macbook Pro and used Adobe Camera RAW to process eight of the frames. I used identical, minor adjustments for exposure and made only slight color adjustments to each frame.
After saving the eight files to disk as 16-bit TIFFs, I used the Photomerge utility in Photoshop CS3 to merge the frames into a single panorama shot. (The CS3 version of Photomerge is a head-and-shoulders improvement over previous versions.) Once the panorama was assembled, I made some basic adjustments to prepare the image for printing.
Without any upsizing, the image dimensions were 100 x 25 inches at 300 ppi. Although you obviously won’t be able to see it as clearly on this web version, the actual print shows incredible detail. You can see every blade of grass, pine needle, and ripple in the water. The shadow and highlight detail are also amazing. (Figures 1 and 2)
Note that I didn’t feel the need to make a proof of the complete image before I output the final print. Considering the combined capabilities of the camera and lens, the digital back, the processing software, and the printer, I was confident that the end product would be good.
But I did want to preview how some of the detail would be rendered in high-contrast areas of the image. So I simply printed two 8 x 10 sections of the image to scale of the final print.
In the past, I sometimes felt that the camera could capture better images than the printer could render, or vice-versa. Or, I wasn’t always sure that the processing software was capable of getting the job done. Occasionally when I came up with an idea for an image, I could usually figure out how to create it, but only after spending a lot of time in research and production.
Now, it is easier than ever to link capture, processing, and printing to achieve excellent image quality. All of the components of a capture-to-print workflow can easily be locked down for consistent quality and efficient production.
For the first time since the dawn of digital photography, we have a complete set of digital tools that really deliver consistently high quality at reasonable cost. It has become increasingly easy to create beautiful images that we can really be proud of.
I’ve been in a photographic rut for the past few months. Lately, it’s been easier for me to find reasons not to pick up a camera than to get out and shoot. So, for my New Year’s resolution, I’m assigning myself projects to keep the creative juices flowing.
I’ve always kept a notebook with shooting locations – sort of a “someday I’d like to shoot here” log. Now, I’m keeping a list of types of photography I’ve seen and admired, or have just been interested in learning more about. I’m finding that this gives me more flexibility in choosing subjects than a location list that might not be practical to do at any particular point in time.
For this month, I’ve been working on panoramics. I love to shoot macro and flowers, so thinking in terms of panorama composition is a stretch for me. But, it’s been a great way to get myself out and shooting again. It also reminds me why photography was so interesting to begin with.
A panoramic is at its most effective in print of course, so I’ve been experimenting with different media types. My favorite so far has been an image that I decided to try as a triptych on Moab Entrada. I printed this as three 32 x 24-in. images on the HP Designjet Z3100.
Although I’ve been consistently happy with the Z3100, the print quality of this triptych blew me away with the rich color. By using the built in spectrophotometer, I was able to create a very accurate custom profile for the Moab paper. I gave the three prints a deckled edge treatment and float mounted them for best effect.
So, if you find yourself in a similar rut, start thinking about what gives you pleasure and what drew you to photography to begin with. Then, get out there and do some shooting! My self assignment for February? Food photography. That gives me a double incentive – I’ll only shoot food I like to eat.