Arthur Kingdon was our guest speaker and a very well received evening of his (mainly) underwater pictures. Our own Julie Kaye introduced us to this genre last year. Arthur took us around some of the worlds hotspots for underwater photography and took us back a few years too.
The equipment needs to keep a diver live aside, the hostile environment, and days when a diver cannot see their hand in front of their face, aside, pretty much most sorts of cameras can be used given a functioning housing. This is an equipment heavy branch of photography.
But all that equipment does, plus a heap of research and local knowledge, is get us to the photo opportunity. Then the photography begins. Less light to no light depending on depth, colour shifts also dependent on depth and things with big teeth and a bad attitude looming in the dark.
So among the other environmental factors and the need to master shooting close up using wide angle lenses (fish eye lenses are not uncommon but that is not where they got there tag from), there is also a need to shoot at high ISO’s. And high ISO’s mean noise in the image. So, something common to us all.
Our personal attitude to noise is the key to its perception and thereafter our attitude to an image that contains it. Noise in digital photography is caused by the action of electricity passing threw circuitry where it encounters impurities and as a result generates signals that are not part of the designed outcomes. It is just part of the physics of electrical circuits.
When we increase the ISO we boost the signal. When we boost the signal we boost the noise in that signal. At low ISO’s, that is around the base ISO that the sensor was designed for, usually 100, there is so little noise that we cannot or do not perceive it. Double the ISO to 200 and we double the amount of noise in the image. This maybe equally undetectable but eventually it does become obvious.
There are two sorts of noise we can detect in our images. Luminance, which manifest as little points of light and which we are likely to be far more tolerant of because their visual impact is less, and chromatic or colour noise, which can be hideous over fairly limited levels.
Luminance noise, as the name suggests, comes about under restricted light conditions. It can be caused by bumping up the signal via the ISO or through long exposures. Its source is the sensor heating up as it does its complex job very rapidly using very small channels which create resistance and therefore heat. It produces “Hot pixels”, little squares of white, which are usually quite easily dealt with in post.
Chromatic noise manifests itself as tiny worms of colour, especially in very dark or very light areas in an image. It comes across as tonal aberrations in an image. It can be lessened in post production through noise reduction software, but it comes at the price of a certain smudging of the image.
Whereas it is true that the newest sensors are a lot, lot better at handling noise than they were even five years ago it is still a by-product of boosting the signal and causing heating of the circuitry. It is also true that the situation of the photograph is also important to our perception of noise in an image from a sensor of pretty much any size or age.
Getting the focus spot on is probably the greatest distractor from noise that there is, especially when we fill the frame with it. It is also the easiest of the solutions to our perception of noise in any given image to enact. It doesn’t alter the amount of noise in a frame but it does fool our senses about the amount of it.
A correctly exposed image will draw less of our attention to high ISO image noise than an underexposed one – though there is lesser noise obvious in an overexposed exposed one.
So a frame filling, sharply focused, correctly exposed image will go a long way to positively influencing our perception of any photograph, a high grain one just as much lower, though, again, none actually reduce the physical amount of noise but does diminish our perception of it.
JPEG is also, because of the nature of its algorithms, not a good option for shooting in, especially when you further process it. Shooting in RAW is a better option if any post processing is going to be involved. The reason being JPEG applies noise reduction, giving that loss of fine detail we alluded to above, RAW comes with everything left in. That means we can apply noise reduction manually as we see fit. With JPEG we have to take what we are given.
Light is everything in photography, but to make a photograph we have to do something with it. Basically we have a frame, what the viewfinder shows us, and we move around or move what is in the frame around to make an image that shows us something interesting.
Arranging things in the frame, however we do it, is called composition. Composition is the second most important thing in photography after light. Every photograph ever taken, or ever will be taken, combine these two things. Consciously using these two things is the absolute basis of making better pictures and they have evolved over centuries.
Although they are usually referred to as “The Rules of Composition” that is not helpful, as rules imply something that is absolute. They are better thought of as the Tools of Composition. We select the appropriate tools to make a photograph, just as we would select a hammer not a screwdriver to drive a nail into a plank of wood.
There are many such tools, some get used more often than others, some in combination. We will revisit this several times, but at the moment get your camera out for 20 minutes every day over the next week and use these three tools: “Thirds”, “Frame within a frame” and “Leading lines” to make half a dozen images a day. It can be in doors or out, with your phone or another sort of camera, the important thing is to go looking for these opportunities, or making them.
Apologies for the non showing of the last round of the ROC but I am having technical difficulties which are proving rather entrenched. There are also lasting problems with posting to the club’s Facebook Page via the blog. Ah well, such is life. Last meeting was all about light painting and our thanks go to Myk Garton and Tony Cullen [EDIT not Cooney as originally published] for their efforts and Megan Gearing for being the model once again. Definitely a fun night.
Essentially light painting takes advantage of the camera’s ability to take long exposures, it’s relatively limited dynamic range, a dark background and some bright lights either as illumination on a subject or as a subject themselves. It is not an expensive thing to set up and you can get some striking results relatively easily. Equipment is a tripod or place to secure your camera preferably capable of being set to fully manual (Bulb) and, optionally, a remote shutter release, a light source and some darkness. You have a variety of options what you do with the light, depending upon what the source is, from outlining everyday objects with light using a single LED all the way up to multiple exposure big item, multiple flash set ups, cityscapes and landscapes. It is one of those things that really does apply to pretty much any subject.
Light Painting is all about the what copious amounts of dark do to light, colour and contrast when exposed on a digital processor or film. Given the amount of trial and error it really does play to the cost advantages of digital and even then there are time savings to be had through simple things like turning off your camera’s long exposure noise reduction until the final shot, (which will halve the exposure processing time) or working out exposure with the 6 stop rule. This is based on a fairly simple piece of mathematics and lies within the exposure triangle. If you set your camera’s ISO to 6400 whilst you get the shot composed and exposure sorted, then, using the metering in seconds recorded in the test shots, reset to ISO 100 and expose in minutes, e.g. a 10 second ISO 6400 shot is a 10 minutes at ISO 100, a 4 second exposure at 6400 is a 4 minute exposure at 100 ISO etc. ISO 100 is six stops slower than ISO 6400, hence the name, and it works for the identical aperture setting.
I would turn the long exposure noise control back on when all the groundwork has been done (and leave it on as default) because it works to a quite significant advantage in the quality of the final image. That said different sensors have different sensitivities and you may well get 5 or 10 second exposures without significant noise intrusion, and that is best at low ISO’s, though I don’t know of any digital sensors to match The Kono! Donau’s film speed of ISO 6 (marketed as ideal for light painters) from Lomo (though at £27 for three rolls I am in no hurry to find out). It’s a relatively simple thing to check out where your camera starts to produce intrusive noise using test exposures at minimum ISO and worth knowing for your camera. I have seen the figure of a 30db Signal to Noise Ratio as being “acceptable” to “professionals” – frankly I have no idea, though DXO measure these sort of things. What is acceptable is subjective and individual. Go and find out for your camera.
Of course photography is Greek for painting with light, but, as defined above light painting makes more of the dark. Light painting scenes have, by design, higher contrast than will be found in most photographs and will also, most likely, require some post production to fix light leaks or darken weakly lit areas. The fact that we are dealing with opposite ends of the histogram actually helps as getting rid of distracting background detail can often be achieved with a simple adjustment of the contrast slider. Yes that is a broad generalisation because every frame is different, but with the single frame light painting the reduced colour palette and high contrast actually don’t often require much fiddling around.
Not that some people are content to leave it at that. The techniques can usefully be extended from drawing with a light against a very dark background, through illuminating an object or objects via a single light source, to full blown composites of hundreds of frames of sometimes very large objects. All can come under the light painting banner, and can, I suspect be labelled on a scale from interesting to obsessive, depending on where you stand (and what equipment you have access to), but there is another relatively cheap and easy-with-the-right-techniques that you can access. Light trails. In a lot of ways we have already talked about this earlier in this post, when we talked about single lights, but you have many options in making those. And don’t forget star trails, vehicle lights, trains, boats and planes – it doesn’t have to be you in charge of the lights, though that helps in organising the outcomes. Light painting is a fine way of capturing some vibrant images, give it a try.
N e x t M e e t i n g
Returning our visit earlier in the season we welcome Hanham Photographic Society.
Two away days to cover as last weeks scheduled blog got displaced. Hopefully back on track now. An unexpected opportunity to tour a Tannery courtesy of member Nick Hale replaced our scheduled Millennium Square trip the week before last and a trip to Blaise Hamlet last week both threw up some tricky light conditions, namely the lack of it and flat light with low contrast. The Thomas Ware & Sons Tannery was formed 175 years ago. The process and buildings are fantastic material and I look forward to seeing members images after the summer’s road trips. Thanks Nick, that was a fascinating evening and all the members were suitably impressed, I thought. Blaise Hamlet was built to house the workers who serviced the John Nash designed main house of the Blaise Castle Estate when they retired. John Harford bought the estate land in 1795 for £13,000 (a bargain £1.2m in today’s coin, using the Retail Price Index, but the average wage in 1795 was circa £20 per anum, in 2014 £25,000 – Source EH.Net ) The castle itself was a folly built as part of the evolving grand design of the estate.
The sun was hidden by a uniform blanket of rain-threatening cloud for both events, which was a pity, as the plentiful sky lights and doorways held the promise of some photogenic lighting in the tannery and the warm coloured stone of the main house and the intertwining of nature and construction to be found at the Blaise cottages (cue debate on the use of buildings to reinforce social order) offer a lot of subtleties that contrasting light brings to the fore. So, if photography is about light, and it is all about light physically, what do we do in the absence or limitation of it? The obvious answer to this is to provide our own, but this is not always feasible, so this week we are going to look at shooting in low light situations, what can and what cannot be reasonably achieved and the costs of doing so in terms of quality. We shall be looking more closely at ISO, the more mysterious member of the Exposure Triangle.
The options on camera are, basically, open the aperture, select a lower shutter speed, or select a higher ISO. The other useful option is to use additional, artificial lighting, either constant light or flash/strobe. A tripod can help with longer exposures. The two other options that spring to mind are focus on details rather than panoramas or switch to black and white, but these are variations, though very useful ones (yes photography is about details and exclusion but we are talking about large buildings here remember and in general at the moment, not in particular). Then there is the pack-up-go-home option and its local variant, pack-up-go-home-come-back-another-day. But where’s the challenge in that and where the learning opportunities? Are you a photographer or a Sherpa?
ISO stands for the International Standards Organisation, doesn’t just apply to cameras, it does exactly what it says on the tin, publish standards for a huge variety of items, systems and products. One of them covered film “speed” or the way that film reacted to light, more specifically, the sensitivity of the crystals in the emulsion applied to the transparent film base react to light. The most widely used standard was the American Standards Association (ASA now known as ANSI, the American National Standards Institute) and that was eventually adopted by the ISO (DIN or the Deutsches Institut für Normung e.V. was used by Agfa among others and had a different numbering system) ISO was carried over to digital processors by the manufacturers, the familiar making sense when introducing a new way of doing something.
Of the three parts of the exposure triangle ISO is the one that acts directly on the sensor. The other two parts, aperture and shutter speed work by throttling the amount of light before it reaches the sensor. ISO directly plugs into the sensor to alter its sensitivity to the amount of light reaching it with its own particular characteristics. With aperture it is depth of field and with shutter speed it is motion blur. ISO can boost it. It can also cut it to a point. There is a constant where the sensor will provide the best quality image, usually around 100 ISO and a group of ISO numbers where very little difference is made by the sensor manipulating the light received, but gradually, as with faster film emulsions, there comes a point where the image will begin to noticeably deteriorate with the incursion of noise. Noise is a product of the signal moving around the sensor, and is a function of all electrical circuits. How much signal (desired data) there is and how much poor data there is in relation to it. As poor light produces more poor data (noise), and the chip amplifies that data to produce the image, the quality starts to deteriorate as artefacts generated by the process become more apparent. All sensors will have a certain amount of noise present at any ISO, it’s part of the mechanics of the sensor. The amount of noise as a proportion of the overall signal determines the reproductive quality of the image. When the light is good and the ISO is set at or close to the speed of the chip then the signal is strong and the noise is low but gradually this inverts the more boost is applied. When you amplify the signal you amplify the noise in the circuit, when the signal to noise ratio is good this doesn’t matter much, but noise will increase as you boost the signal and it will be an increasing amount of what is going on. Hence, well, noise at high ISO’s.
On the part of the photographer getting to know your cameras useable limitations – and it is a judgement thing rather than a given absolute – we have to judge how much noise we are prepared to put up with in an image. There are ways of limiting its effects in post production, also in camera with some models, but the pay-off is a softening of the image. Also do not forget the idea of an optimal viewing distance, as a rule of thumb 1.5 – 2 times the length of the diagonal of the viewing area (works for tv’s too) AND the minimum pixels per inch – calculated by dividing 3438 by the viewing distance). So that is pretty much it, without getting over my head in technical details. ISO and noise.
Tonight – Millennium Square. Meet under the big shiny ball at 19:00 hours (7 PM).