Not-So-Common Photography Mistakes

They say to err is human.  In that case, photography often reminds us how human we are.  The process leading up to the point where you press the shutter release is frought with opportunity for oversight and mistake.  Others may not appreciate it, seeing only the final image, but to get to that point a photographer usually has to be mindful of many things and juggle them all successfully - aperture, shutter speed, ISO, composition, right down to making sure the battery has enough charge or that there's enough space on the memory card.

What follows are oversights on my part that I feel are not common things photographers think about but can surely foul a picture up if not corrected.

Turn Off Image Stabilization When Using A Tripod

This almost seems counter-intuitive.  After all, a tripod, like optical vibration correction, is meant to stabilize the camera, too.  Shouldn't those two things working together make the camera more stable than either by itself?

The Canon 70-200mm f2.8L II attempts to correct for movement that isn't there.

When the camera engages the image stabilization motors it cause the image to jump, if for a brief moment.  Left engaged, the image stabilization system often times will jump randomly as it attempts to correct for movement it thinks should be happening.  Some newer lenses employ tripod sensing algorithms that shut down the stabilization motors when the lens detects no movement, assuming that the camera must be on a tripod.  However, best practice is to just turn the image stabilization off when the camera is tripod mounted to avoid any shot killing hiccups.

Detail of above.

If you've ever used a tripod and inexplicably ended up with an image that isn't as sharp as you think it should be, check that the image stabilization is turned off.

Be Careful When Using Polarizers On Ultra-Wide Images

Perhaps the single most important filter in any photographer's bag is a quality circular polarizer.  I use Singh-Ray, B+W, and Lee for the different polarizers I like to use - warming, multi-coated, and 4x4 square, respectively.  In my opinion, these filters are the pinnacle of performance and quality.  However, like all circular polarizers they are at the mercy of physics.  Polarizers work best when the sun is at 90 degrees from the subject, that is if you point at the subject with your index finger ideally you want your extended thumb to be pointing at the sun.  This limitation means that for wide angle lenses, or any lens wider than 28mm, only part of the image can be polarized at a time.

Notice the polarization artifacts, the rings on the right of the image.

This effect can become even more pronounced if you take a long exposure with a moving sky, as above.  This particular artifact could not be seen in the viewfinder, but the dark banding could.  (The "dark banding" refers to the darkened of part of the sky, the part that is actively being filtered by the polarizer.)  However, as the clouds moved at the extreme edge of the image it became possible to see the polarizer's foil structure.  Do you notice the concentric circles most evident on the right side of the image?  This artifact can be a real bear to correct in Photoshop!

Micro Focus Adjust Your Lenses or Have Them Professionally Calibrated

If your camera is from within the last 6 years or so and is above consumer grade chances are it has the ability to individually adjust the focus of your lenses.  This is especially critical for lenses with large maximum apertures since if the focus is off by even a little it can dramatically alter the shallow plane of focus, and thus the sharpness of your subject.

Portrait taken with a back-focusing lens.

The above was shot with a Canon EF 85mm f1.8 at f2.5.  This means that I was working with a very narrow depth of field.  As is standard when taking portraits, focus was placed on the nearest eye but if you look closely, you may notice that it's the farthest eye that is more sharp.

Detail of above.

Looking at the above image on the back of the camera, without zooming (also a no-no for checking critical focus - always zoom into an image!), you may not notice that focus was missed.   In fact, this image was meant for web-sized display on a company's internet site, so anyone would be hard pressed to see that the left eye isn't tack sharp.

But, what if this were meant for print?  What if it was going up on the company's lobby wall?  Suddenly, it's not good enough and should be considered a missed or wasted shot.

It turns out the lens was indeed back focusing.  Back focusing is when the lens is returning a positive focus lock at a point when in fact the lens is optically focused behind that point, or farther from the viewer.  (Front focusing is the opposite.)  Using a LensAlign Pro I determined that the lens needed -18 adjustment on my Canon 5D Mark III camera.  (This number is arbitrary and would differ from camera model to camera model and certainly maker to maker.)  A correction that great is something more than I care to correct for in camera (most corrections are within the single digits) and this lens will be sent to Canon for some permanent adjustment.

Hopefully this will give you, faithful reader, some food for thought and perhaps you'll have more keepers for it.


SXSW Photowalk with Google and Trey Ratcliff

Earlier this year, during South By Southwest (SXSW), Google sponsored a photowalk with an appearance by Trey Ratcliff of Stuck in Customs.  I decided to attend, making this my first photowalk, the fact of which is a real shame since I live very near a city with a vibrant photography community. 

Being a photowalk noob I wan't sure what I should bring.  The walk was going to start with the sun up but end well after dusk - should I bring a tripod for nighttime photos?  What about lenses?  Filters?

Arriving at the steps of the town hall building with Trey Ratcliff at the top of the stairs.

I decided to walk around with my 5D III, 24-70mm f2.8L II, 70-200 f2.8L IS II, Really Right Stuff TVC-33 tripod and BH-55 ball head.  I slung the camera over my shoulder with a Black Rapid RS-5 strap and the tripod over the other shoulder with a Manfrotto 401N Quick Action strap.  I even brought a few filters - circular polarizer and a variable ND filter (who knows, if the clouds were right I could do some slow shutter architecture work).

As part of Trey's introduction speech he mentioned he was bringing just one camera and just one lens, a fisheye.  Well, dang.  I may have overpacked.

Special Event.

This was a very large photowalk event with several hundred people in attendance.  We were a mob that moved around the city with what seemed like a singular directive - document EVERYTHING.  Since this was during SXSW, people came up to us thinking we were paparazzi and tried to get a glimpse of the celebrity we were stalking.

With Darth.

Trey was very engaging.  He took time with everyone who had a question or who wanted a photo op.  In not very much time he has become a photography institution.  His blog, ebooks, and videos have allowed him to pack up his Austin residence and move to New Zealand and now runs his empire from somewhere in Middle Earth.  He has a very interesting story and I suggest you visit his site and read more about it.

Tone-mapped Highrise in Austin.

What's the point of a visit with Trey Ratcliff if you don't come away with an HDR or HDR-esque image?  Trey made his name in HDR tutorials.  Even today when you google the immensely popular high dynamic range technique, it's his name that nearly tops the results.

Interesting passers-by were welcoming to the multitude of cameras being shoved in their faces.  In Austin, people are probably used to being subjects - especially those people who tell interesting visual stories.

But be ready to be a subject yourself!

Google Glass.

 This was one of the early public appearances of Google Glass.  There were about 3 people sporting the spectacles and all were very popular with the photogs.

Partygoers on 6th Street.

Austin is chock-full of interesting people - it doesn't take SXSW to realize this.  But during SXSW they come out in full force and it's awesome.

After all is said and done I didn't use my tripod once, despite hauling it around all day.  I didn't use any of the filters.  And, surprising to me, I only used one lens - fittingly, it was the 24-70mm "walkaround zoom."  Now that I'm addicted to the photowalking experience I intend to really pare down the kit I lug around for next time.


Serk Filter Adaptor Rings for Lee's Foundation Kit

It's a story as old as auto focus.  Someone orders a piece of Lee Filters gear to fill a hole and ends up spending better than half a year on the wait list.  In the not-too-distant past photographers had little recourse apart from waiting and, presumably, missing shots.  I knew this could happen to me when I decided to purchase a new walk-around lens that required 82mm filters as I had no adapter ring in that size with which to mount a Lee Filters Foundation Kit.  For clarification, Lee makes a filter system that uses a filter holder into which you place your 4x4 or 4x6 filters, but this whole assembly requires a lens adapter mounted onto your lens.  Anticipating this new 82mm filter thread equipped lens, I ordered the appropriate Lee filter adapter in what I thought was well ahead of time.  It wasn't.

I received my Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8L II but still had no way to attach my Lee filters.  With no end to the wait in sight I came across Chinese knock off seller Hody_CameraParts and their Serk Adaptor Rings.  Thankfully, these filter adaptors are priced at about a fifth of the Lee counterpart and all are in the maximally recessed "WA" (wide angle) configuration.  More importantly, the Serks are available for immediate shipping. 

Serk Filter Adaptor Ring with Lee Filters Adaptor Ring

It took about two weeks for the ring to make it from Shanghai to me.  The adaptor ring arrived in a generic plastic bag with no markings.  Apart from an ink stamped size on the face the ring had no markings either.  There is a 77mm Lee adaptor ring in the above image for comparison and it's clear the coloring is the same.  What isn't clear in the pic is that the Lee feels noticeably weightier and more solid than the Serk.  The Serk is made of a slightly smaller gauge aluminum.  The Lee is made from two pieces glued together whereas the Serk is one machined piece.  (Note:  Recently, Lee has moved over to a one-piece design, as well.)  This is where the story gets slightly humorous...

Serk and Lee Filter Adaptors. Notice the gap in the Lee (bottom) where the glue seam is visable.

The people at Serk were so intent on cloning the Lee part they added the glue seam to their design!  Of course, the Serk ring is one piece - it does not have glue anywhere in its design - and the seam plays no part in the operation of the ring but the people at Serk were leaving nothing to chance!

Canon has designed the incomparable EF 24-70mm f2.8L II with polycarbonate filter threads.  While I appreciate the benefits to polycarb here when it comes to galling and thread locking (don't we all have stories of filters getting stuck?), I was nervous about using a relatively cheap knock off filter adaptor in this situation.  What if the filter adaptor wasn't pitched just right and it ended up keying the threads on my brand new lens?  I screwed it on slowly, minding any resistance.  It went on smoothly, at least as smoothly as the Lee.  Historically speaking with regards to Chinese knock offs, it's probably a good idea to assume the manufacturing tolerance on these rings isn't up to Lee's standards and you should always test a new Serk ring by mounting it slowly at first.  As expected, the Lee Foundation Kit snapped on without a fuss and held securely.

After using the Serk Filter Adaptor for some time now I feel confident in recommending them as a replacement for the Lee Filter Adaptor.  Spend less on adaptor rings and buy filters with the savings instead.

Estes Park, Colorado. f/11 @ 1/400th sec, Singh-Ray G. Rowell 2-stop SS Graduated Neutral Density Filter.

In this age of multi-exposure HDR I still enjoy the organic experience of using neutral and graduated neutral density filters.  Anything that allows me to spend less time in front of a computer is like chicken soup for the soul.

And I'm still waiting for the Lee Filter Adaptor to arrive.  I'm off to go cancel that order.


Austin, Texas

Austin, Texas is a diverse town with a rich culture that runs the gamut from government and academics to night life and sports.  Though not quite considered a "small" town, it still has a small town vibe (except for Mopac anywhere near rush hour during the school year).  Yet, Austin is big enough to have a little something for everyone. 

Recently, a good friend came to visit and we decided to take our cameras and walk around the city and check out some of the the more prominent landmarks.

The Texas State Capitol Building. Canon 5D III, 17-40mm f4.0L @24mm, f5.6 for 4 secs.

The Capitol Building at night is lit up on all sides.  Even when the sun goes down it's still a popular tourist attraction.  Luckily for photographers, when we capture low lit scenes we tend to need long exposures.  Long exposures have a convenient way of eliminating unwanted pedestrian distractions and it can look like we have the entire site to ourselves.  Here the walkway was teeming with people but you wouldn't know it!

University of Texas Tower. Canon 5D III, 70-200mm f2.8L II @70mm, f11 for 30secs.

While we were on the University of Texas campus the university was celebrating the 100 year anniversary of the Humanities Department.  The tower was lit with the number "100" going down the sides.  However, this was also the week Longhorn Nation lost Coach Darrell Royal, the man who brought Texas to sports prominence and established the school's football program among the elite in college football.  I took the original image into Photoshop and rearranged the lights in the windows to symbolize what many believe to be Coach Royal's greatest contribution to the sport, the wishbone offense.  Without going into the intricacies of the offensive scheme, the wishbone has a very unique formation out of which all the plays are ran.  Directly behind the quarterback is the fullback and flanking the fullback are two running backs on either side.  The lights above are how that formation would look on a chart.  With all due respect to the Humanities Department, this is how the university should have lit the tower that week.  (The Longhorns did run out of the wishbone for the first play against Iowa St. that weekend in honor of Coach Royal's passing.)

University of Texas Tower, Canon 5D III, 70-200mm @85mm, f7.1 for .8secs.

Here's the top of the tower seen through the trees that line Speedway Drive.  We walked around campus looking for a just the right set of trees to frame the tower and found them a block away to the east.  The trick was to capture the tower, the trees, and the stars in one image. 

6th Street, Austin. Canon 5D III, 14mm f2.8 @14mm, f22, for 1.3 secs.

To the delight of the students, 6th Street is just a quick walk south of campus.  This area of Austin is renowned for its live music and active night life.  I wanted to get a shot that showed The Frost Bank Building looming over the bars on 6th Street.  The beautiful Frost Bank Building has come to dominate the Austin skyline and from this angle it looks like a large clockwork owl ready to wreak havoc on the partygoers, Godzilla-style.

Stevie Ray Vaughan Memorial. Canon 5D III, Sigma 50mm f1.4 @50mm, f2 for 1 sec.

No single person more personifies the Austin music scene as Stevie Ray Vaughan does.  SRV was taken from us in 1990 but his musical legacy is just as strong today as ever.  This memorial statue sits on the other side of Lady Bird Lake from downtown Austin.  When we arrived it was pitch black.  There are no lights shining on the statue.  This poses a problem for any photographer that forgets to pack a flash.  I may or may not have been said forgetful photographer, but luckily my shooting partner had his.  The conundrum here is that I had no way to trigger it off-camera.  We solved this by setting the camera on a tripod and choosing a long exposure.  Then we manually triggered the flash during the exposure.  With no way of adjusting the flash's intensity in pilot mode we had to adjust our distance from the subject with our feet.  After a few test shots we found a good distance and took the above shot.  It was a very low tech solution but it worked!

Pennybacker Bridge. Canon 5D Mark III, 17-40mm f4L @ 31mm, f22 for 40 secs.

Our final stop was Pennybacker Bridge on Loop 360.  The bridge has a cliff on its north side, but the legality of scaling the cliff to get this shot exists in a grey area.  You aren't allowed to park on the side of the road, but there are clear and obvious trails leading up from what looks like a parking area.  Regardless, like any self respecting photog we threw caution to the wind and disregarded personal safety to get the shot.  The cell phone towers over the right side of the bridge are an eyesore during the day, and perfect cloning fodder, but at night they light up and add delightful visual element to the background.  Austin's lights can be seen on the horizon to the left.

Austin's night scene is lit with vibrant lights of many colors, as if metaphor for Austin themselves.  With cities in general, sometimes it's fun to get out and photograph a side you don't usually see.  For me, I'm normally in Austin during the day so when it gets dark Austin can look foreign and different - and that's the spice of personal projects like this.


"Look Over Here!"

It's a phrase we, as the de facto family photographer, say to children until we are blue in the face.  Sometimes it even works.  The problem is we aren't that interesting to the child.  Afterall, they see us all the time.  Usually, if they look at us at all it's for a split second, usually when their parents aren't, and then it's gone in a flash (literally). 

I'm constantly asked to do portaits of the rugrats in our family and, though I enjoy the results, I cringe at the thought of uncooperative tikes.

I came across a product, the maker of which I can't remember, that suspended a smartphone beside the lens of a camera.   The smartphone would be put on autopilot, displaying a light show in attempt to attract the attention of wandering eyes.  "Brilliant," I thought, "This will solve everything!"  (A phrase uttered by me, upon seeing some new gadget or piece of gear, at least twice a week.)

I knew I had laying around enough hardware (as the result of many other such epiphanies, as stated earlier) that I could cobble together something similar.

This is what I came up with:

Frankenstein Attention Rig

I took a Wimberley F-2 Macro Flash Bracket, attached it to the Really Right Stuff L-plate on my camera, and screwed an eBay tablet mount (similar to this one) at the end.  In the clamp I put my Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7" tablet and set it to run the Party Light app, which is also available as an ad-supported free download. 

Considering the build and weight of the Wimberley bracket I would trust that arm with a full-sized 10" tablet as well.  You can also use a smartphone, but obviously the screen will be quite small when viewed from several feet away.

The weight of the entire rig isn't anything to sneeze at.  My arms got tired after a 15 minute session.

Canon 5D Mark III with Sigma 50mm f1.4 EX HSM at f2, 1/200 sec., ISO 800


Now I need to figure out a way to get them to smile...