Friday, September 18, 2009

A few simple steps to crisp images

I was asked in email just how I managed to get such a sharp photo of the skyline... I have a few simple tips to share:

First, it was a nice windy day, which blew out the typical Cincinnati late summer haze, and that makes a huge impact.

Second, use a tripod. If possible, not one of the ubiquitous, convenient, and light aluminum ones, but a heavy, sturdy steel or carbon fiber monster. They're less expensive than you might think, and especially in low light make it even possible to shoot worthwhile images. I got a knock-off of a Manfrotto system with the quick-release plate off Ebay for a third of the retail price, and less than I had paid in total for the half dozen crappy tripods I went through before deciding to get one I wouldn't be throwing away.

Third, use the lowest ISO you can.  I had the ISO at 100 for that shot.  (That does reduce noise, but the serious techies on astrophotography forums tested CCDs against CMOS and along the way found that under some conditions ISO 200 captured more faithfully than ISO 100 for some Canon models.)

Now getting into advice which only really applies to DSLRs... Fourth, crank down the F-stop to get a deep depth of field. The lens with which I took that shot is F/3.5 wide open, and I had it cranked down to well past F/6. It's just like squinting to see better, as my brother pointed out when his daughter was asking about the relationship between camera settings.

Fifth, if possible, use a remote so you aren't jiggling the camera yourself when hitting the button. I got an IR remote for my camera for $20 on Ebay. Once again, knock-offs rule.

Sixth, if you're really serious about a landscape shot, go into the custom settings and enable "mirror lock-up." That way, when you hit the 2 second delay button on the remote, the mirror flips up, then the camera waits a moment for the vibrations from the mirror-slap to stop before capturing the image.

Seventh, shoot in RAW format.  It's a good habit to shoot everything in RAW if you can - you'll be amazed at what you can recover from shots that in jpeg would be useless.  And you never know what you'll need later - I once did a bunch of black and white head shots for a friend auditioning for a role, and he later came back and said they wanted color shots.  Even though I had the camera set to black and white, because I was shooting in RAW format the color was captured and it took me all of five minutes to convert them instead of going through another photoshoot.

As a side note to the RAW advice, if you're not satisfied with a shot that was the result of a lucky moment but underexposed or blurry, do the first processing in the manufacturer's own software, which often has noise reduction better tuned to the specific hardware than more general image processing packages.  You can then transfer it to another software in a loss-less TIFF for further work if you like. It needn't be expensive like Photoshop... I use the freeware, open-source GIMP for serious work, and Picasa for fast touch ups.

Last, and this goes back to apply to all digitals, take many, many shots to get the one good one. Looking at my files, I took 45 shots of the skyline in less than ten minutes that afternoon. Of course, that was mostly in bursts of 3, since I was using automatic exposure bracketing (which gets an overexposed and underexposed frame for every normal one, providing the raw material for stacking them into HDR composites like that below.)

Anyway, I hope that helps!

(I really need to take a look at this template... sorry the text formatting is so screwy.)

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