Saturday, March 8, 2014

Noise vs. Grain

In the same forum (Fine Art Photographers) someone said they liked Noise as it gave them that grainy look of film. My reply. 
On the grainy look….
OK lets get this clear, digital noise is NOT grain. It doesn’t even approximate grain.
In traditional B&W film grain is caused by the size of the silver crystals in the film itself. It is what creates the image in the form of black on the negative. These almost invisibly small crystals take on the look of grain when enlarged. This ‘grain’ is prized by many photographers even to this day and it still plays a large role in the Fine Art photography world of collectors.
B&W grain is uniform based on the film type. Different films had different grains, some finer, some larger but generally always uniform throughout the entire picture in the whites, mid tones and blacks (but not in the blown out areas).
Photographers usually likes a specific film for the grain (or lack thereof) and often shot all their work (or sometime specific projects) with a specific film. The reason for this is because of consistency. They could get very consistent repetitive results if they used the same film and the same processes. This is important when creating a project or body of work.
Digital noise on the other hand varies greatly from picture to picture based on not just the ISO setting used but on the scene itself, the amount of light and dark areas, whether the scene is back lit or not and even on if the exposure is perfect or not. Add to the fact the longer exposures change the whole equation as does temperature. The hotter it is you usually end up with more noise.
Another issue with noise is that it varies not just from picture to picture but within a picture itself. Each area light/dark will have differing amounts of noise. And this noise is not shaped and randomized like ‘silver crystals’ but takes on blotchy areas and worse (or better if that’s what you want) takes on colours.
It is this lack of consistency that can make your image not work well together as a unified body of work. Typically fine art photographers work hard at capturing the perfect images they require with the least amount of noise possible. Then, they will remove any noise present and finally they will add grain either in programs like Photoshop or they will use a program or plugin like NIK Silver Efex Pro. Using this process, you can have complete control (and repeatable control) over the look, feel and size of the grain and you can make it consistent within all your images.
On the other hand if you like the look of ‘noise’ then by all means go for it! It has its own unique qualities that may work with your images. Just remember that’s it not grain.

© 2014 Francois Cleroux
Version 1.00 - February 2014

Friday, March 7, 2014

Whats the Best Gear

From several on-going web forum discussions. People were arguing what the best camera is but never layed out any guidelines. Here is what my reply was “On the best gear….”. Note that the forum is "Fine Art Photographers" and the question was “Are you a photographer or an Artist?” and in it someone asked about the best gear to use.

People are missing the point on “the best gear” and again goes to the question “Are you a photographer or an artist?” I’m often thinking many people are neither. When someone blankly asks what the best gear is, it's obvious they have no understanding of what photography is, what a camera is and what its for or how to use it! My question is "What's the best gear for what?"

As photographers (people who make realistic copies of the world around them) we need the best meaning gear that will give the best results based on what we are doing. A Hasselblad sucks at Bird Photography and so a Canon 70D or a Nikon D800 with a 500mm or 600mm lens is required. If we are doing corporate head shots and we never print very large, a full frame camera like a 5D is perfect combined with a good piece of glass. If on the other hand you are shooting head shoots that need to be printed very large, the 5D sucks and a Hasselblad or Leaf would be better. But, even these cameras may not do what you need if shooting high end large scaled landscapes or architectural images and so you may need to go to 8x10 or an ALP or something like that as you may require more perspective correction than what a TS Lens will offer. Photographers generally (note the word generally here as the trolls on this site will skip this word) require way more quality than a Diana camera and often more than a good cell phone camera. But even these may be good enough for Web based work and such.

As artists on the other hand we require other elements. And the camera or the gear should not be deciding your art or hindering your art. You camera should be your ‘tool’ and the old adage of make sure you “use the right tool for the right job”. A painter will know his tools and will not use a palate knife when a fine delicate brush is required. As artists why is your camera (the palate knife) forcing you to create art in a specific way? As artists ‘WE’, the artists decide on a project. We decide on the ‘language’ our photographs will use and we will decide on the project as a whole and will define what technical specs are required. Often these technical specs are not “quality” (the Hasselblad)  but rather a “look” or a “feeling”. So then the question is what is the “Best” camera turns into “What is the Best Camera for My Artistic Project”. It may be a Pinhole Camera, a Diana for doing Lomography type images, a Cell Phone for quick and easy, it may be a Leica type compact for high quality Street Photography, a DSLR for on location artistic Portraiture, a Medium Format Digital or perhaps Film (remember the project and the look) for on location Fine Art Nudes or perhaps 8x10 or 20x24 film camera for incredible grand landscapes.

Note that these can all me mixed up also as a Fine Art photographer could use a Diana if he chooses to for creating Fine Art Nudes. That’s the beauty of ART! But the point here is “What is the look you want?” and “What tools will get you those results?”

If you want to become a better artist you should learn to visualize and conceptualize a project. You should define its photographic language (what Camera, what Lens and what Focal Length if using a Zoom), what Viewpoint, what Aperture, what Film, what Look, what grain or other outputs (perhaps Cyanotypes as an example (Yes this much detail and others) and then based on what you need to create “the Vision” you should then choose the best tool! And it may be a Pinhole Camera! NOT a Hasselblad.

It’s all about control of the project and what photographic language and vision you want in your final images. As an artist you should know your equipment inside and out and be personal with it. You should know its strengths and weaknesses.

So is a camera better than another? Yes most definitely. What’s the best camera. The one that does what you want or need perfectly!

© 2014 Francois Cleroux
Version 1.00 - March 2014

Thursday, January 30, 2014

My Drive is full! Now what?

CAUTION: When dealing with adding, removing or replacing hard drives you should make sure that you have proper complete backup copies of all your files including the Operating System, Program Files, Your Data, Your Photo Library and your Photo Database.

As photography gains popularity and as photographers continue to shoot with ever increasing sizes of sensors creating larger and larger files, there is a point at which all hell breaks loose. At some point, if it hasn't already it will soon, your computer will run out of hard drive space.

What do you do when this happens? There are several basic options that most photographers turn to. But are these options the best choices? Let's look at some of these options, their strengths and weaknesses and lets then investigate yet another solution. Some of these options are better than others depending on your system, whether its expandable or perhaps a laptop. Note I will give some cautions along the way.

1 - The External Drive

The first and most obvious option is to simply add an external drive. At first thought this may be the easiest solution. Head to your local store, buy a cheap external USB drive, plug it in. done!

Well, not so fast. How does this solve your problem? Your main drive is full. All your images are on your main drive. Your photo editing software, let’s say Adobe Lightroom, is installed on your main drive but more importantly its pointing or is configured to look at your main drive. If you import new files from a memory card they will be copied to your main drive by default. It’s full. One can change the defaults so that new images are copied to the new drive.

This causes several problems. The first is that you will end up with images on your main drive AND on your external drive. This not only gets cumbersome but how do you then backup both of these drives? This make the whole process much more complex.

The bigger problem comes from the fact that your Database (yes the Lightroom Library is a Database) is a large file and along with created previews it will continue to grow as you add more images. Your main drive is full, so your Lightroom Library will not be able to grow.

Of course you can create more room on the main drive by moving all your images from your main drive to the new larger external drive. Not too difficult and not too messy to deal with in Lightroom as synchronizing images and folders is an easy task.

But, moving everything to an external drive has its own problems. External drives tend to be slow. Even USB 3 drives are slow in comparison to internal SATA drives. Other external drive options like FireWire400/800 or eSATA are also slow compared to full internal speeds. The new Thunderbolt connectors on Apple computers are screaming fast and work well. Thunderbolt connectors are now available on the newest high-end PC motherboards if you want a new custom PC built. However, Thunderbolt enabled external drives tend to cost a lot more than USB3 external drives. A new USB standard is on the way that will make NEW USB devices as fast if not faster than Thunderbolt but it is not available yet.

Another issue with external drives is backup. Backing up a slow external drive to another slow external drive is excruciatingly slow when you have a full Terabyte drive. Also, some laptops may only have one external USB connector and so copying will require an external USB hub which will further reduce speeds.

Lastly, most external drives are not very good. Many external drives fail because of cheap external power supplies, cheap internal electronics and worse, very cheap drives within the drive enclosures. I have even seen companies use cheaper drives from other manufacturers in their external drives! Some of us would consider this fraud and the manufacturers see this as a way of making more money. Another issue is that external drive enclosures capture the heat generated from the drive. This heat, is bad for the drive and thus reduces its expected life span.

Every year I have several club members and clients that have dead external hard drives. Often, they are relatively new as in just over 1 year to 2 years old, just out of warranty!

2 - Replace Your Main Hard Drive

Replacing your existing drive may be a good option. Not only will it give you more space if you upgrade to a much larger drive capacity like a 2 Terabyte drive or a 3 or 4 Terabyte drive. (Note not all older systems are capable of accepting 3 or 4 TB drives.) So doubling or quadrupling your drive space could potentially give you two to four years of extra photo capacity.

Replacing your main internal drive gives you a great added benefit. Most drives have a limited life span. Most manufacturers warranty their drives for only 1 year and a few specific more expensive models may have up to 3 years warranty. Manufacturers do this knowing that drives often start to fail in the 4th year. By replacing your main drive 'before' it fails, not only will it extend the life of your computer, but it will save you a ton of headaches if your drive had crashed.

By replacing your main drive and merely imaging your existing drive onto the new one (your OS, programs and data) it’s a quick and simple process. Once complete, if done correctly, you have nothing to change. No new drive letters, nothing to move, no settings to change. You just end up with a bigger drive.
A note on hard drives: most manufactures including the two largest (and best) manufactures Western Digital and Seagate, make consumer grade drives, mid-grade drives and enterprise grade drives. Obviously all at increasing costs.

These better quality drives are worth every extra penny. Some of these more expensive drives also give you the longer extended warranties. Note these same manufacturers also make 'green' energy efficient drives that consume much less power. These green drives also tend to be much slower and are not suited to main drives in a photographer’s computer. However they do make great in-expensive backup drives.

Its worth mentioning that these warranties only cover the cost of replacing the drive and not the cost of ANY data loss. Nothing beats having good backups!
Note with laptops that laptop drives are not available in large 2, 3 and 4 TB versions. Currently HGST (Hitachi) makes the largest drive in the TravelStar 1.5 TB. But changing from a 250 MB or 500 MB drive to a full 1 TB drive is a great option. Cease this opportunity to upgrade to a faster AND larger drive. Seagate makes a great 1 TB Hybrid drive that is part Hard Drive and part Solid State Drive that is an excellent fast option. The Seagate SSHD drive is available in both 2.5" Laptop and 3.5" workstation models.

A more recent problem re larger drives is that many of the newer ultra-portable ultra-slim laptops have SSD Drives (Solid State Drives) soldered directly on to the motherboard. These drives cannot be replace or upgraded.

Replacing a single main drive requires you to 'image' your existing drive onto the new drive. Basically this entails making an exact copy of your existing drive and copying all the information on it to a new larger drive. This can be done using specialized hardware or via software. Again, consult with your computer professional for help with this.

3 - Add a Second Drive

So another option and frankly a better option is to add another, a second, 'internal' drive. A word of caution here, adding another drive requires more power and some workstation computers have barely adequate power supplies in them to begin with, even if it’s a new computer. Make sure your power supply is capable of supplying good clean power to all your devices including your new added hard drive. Bad, and underpowered power supplies are the leading cause of computer lockups and system crashes! Adding a hard drive could create more problems and cause the power supply to fail completely. Consult with your computer professional before adding a second drive.

Having said that, a new high end higher powered power supply is not that expensive and could prolong the life of your computer. Adding a new Internal hard drive will add a ton of fast access space to your computer. But like in option one, you will need to deal with consolidating all your images into this new drive and then pointing Lightroom to the new location of your images.

The benefit here is that it gives you all the added space of the new drive and clears up all the space on your main drive that was previously taken up by images. Cleaning up your main drive and running a defrag utility could help speed up your system. Having dual drives, one for the OS and Programs and one for Data or Images will speed up your editing as both drives can run at the same time. Many good benefits here including the fact that you would not need to 'image' your main drive. The downside is that your older main drive would still be older and depending on how much it has been used and how old it is, it could fail soon if your system is 4 years or older.

Note that very few laptops are dual drive capable. Some of the larger 17" models and some of the business class 15" models have space for 2 drives. Check with your computer professional to see if your laptop is dual drive capable or check your laptop manufacturer’s website.

4 - Replace Your Computer

No matter which option you choose there will be some costs and some headaches. Again, no matter which option you use you will still have an older slower computer even if it does have more drive space. Perhaps this may be the time to replace your computer. If you are OK with the speed of your existing computer, and if it’s not too old, say no more than 4 years, then replacing or adding a second drive may be a good option that will see you through a few more years.

5 – Other Options

Two other options include using an external NAS (Network Attached Storage) device or using Cloud Based storage. But of these solutions have speed limitations that make working with images very cumbersome. These options are best suited for Backups.

In my next post we will look at what are the best options in the way of system configurations for creating value priced systems that work very well for photographers. So if your building or ordering a new computer, how should it be configured!

What's your take on this? Have you had internal or external drives fail? Have you gone through adding or replacing a drive? Did you run into problems? Please share with us.

© 2014 Francois Cleroux

Version 1.00 - January 2014

43° Mist and Fog - Vancouver, BC, Canada