Sunday, June 5, 2011

Back to Basics

This post is a follow up to “Observations on Photography in the Digital Age (Updated June 15, 2011).

Since writing the post “Observations on Photography in the Digital Age” I have continued to witness an abundance of bad work, or more specifically “technically poor quality” images. I have seen some incredible work, well thought out creative images, a few with very good lighting that would have made exceptional works, only to fail because the images were not even sharp. In two specific cases they were studio type shots with inanimate objects. If you can’t take a sharp picture in good lighting of an object that doesn’t move, you have a problem. Some images were sharp but because of exposure or color balance issues were also ruined. Again, really, can’t get something as simple as color or exposure right in a controlled situation?

It is very apparent that most photographers need to get back to basics. The basics are; Sharpness, how to create tack sharp images; Exposure, creating properly exposed images; and proper White Balance, getting the color right. Doing all this is quick and simple, and more importantly, free. Some people would suggest that doing the sharpness properly, specially using a tripod, spending time on exposure and taking the extra step to do White Balance properly would indeed take up more time. This now leads me to Francois’ theory

Sharp + Well Exposed + Good Color = Little Editing + Better Images!

When images are sharp, well exposed and properly color balanced, images need no or very little post processing or editing and further more can provide more predictable and repeatable results. And, more importantly, sharp well exposed and color balanced images end up with better tonal range with brighter cleaner colors that just pop more.

So, how do we get there? And how much time does it take? Well, let’s look at all three of these steps in detail. Note that I have writen about 'Quality' on this blog before which you may want to read "A Quality Affair."

Tack Sharp Images

First is the idea of tack sharp images. This obviously is the most important of the three properties. Slight exposure or color discrepancies can be tolerated and if done purposefully, or even by accident, can add to the creative process of the final image. I guess when I say this we could also add that blurred images or even purposefully out of focus images can add to the creativity of an image. Note that in both these cases the images are usually blurred or rendered out of focus on purpose, usually a great deal as to make it obvious, and for a purpose or rather with intent to portray a specific mood to an image.

Where exposure and color can be out so ever slightly, slight out of focus images just look blurry and out of focus. Even to the un-trained eye these images do not look good. To judges, these images break the first commandment of photography “Thou shalt not take blurry out of focus images” and as a result get trashed by way of receiving very low marks no matter how good or creative the image actually is.

Creating tack sharp images is rather a simple process. Use a tripod! A good tripod is not overly expensive and even a cheap tripod is usually better than no tripod. Over 95% of all pro landscape photographers and 99% of product photographers use tripods. Perhaps not all the time, but whenever they can, they do. Check out my blog post on "Don't Believe Me? Let the Pros Tell You!"

Next is the process of creating tack sharp images, or rather, how to use a tripod. I have a post you can check out here "Start to Finish Tack Sharp" and on Tripods, "Tripod-ology 101."  Now, even if you do not have a tripod or cannot use one in a specific situation, there are things you can do to help improve your chances of getting sharp images. Learn how to hold your camera properly and how to ‘release’ the shutter without moving the camera a whole bunch. Use objects, walls or trees to stabilize your camera. There are many things that can be done, check out the internet for ideas and suggestions.

Watch your settings! Remember the rule of shooting at a minimum shutter speed of one over the focal length of your lens? Ie. 1/200 second when using a 200mm lens. Stick to that. Even with these settings you can get blurred images unless you are very capable at hand holding a camera very steady. Now with the added safety of image stabilization (IS), following this rule will see to it that your images will always be sharp.

Change the ISO if you need more light, do not decide that the IS allows you three stops and so you should now be able to shoot with a 200mm lens at 1/25 of a second! You will have blurred images! If you are very good at hand holding your camera steady, you can probably get away with one stop, ie. shoot at 1/100th of a second when using a 200mm lens, only if you have IS on your lens or camera. If not, you may want to stick with 1/250th of a second or even faster.

Attaching a camera to a tripod and using the appropriate camera settings takes very little time and effort. If you do not use a tripod, using the appropriate settings takes no extra time as you should be checking your settings anyway. When using the tripod you get the added benefit of slowing down your photographic process and you are given a better chance to check your composition, check all four sides and corners of your image and can better decide whether to move in or out to crop differently. Remember, use the whole frame, don’t waste those precious pixels!

Perfect Exposure

Back in the days of film, perfect exposure was critical. Even though film was generally more forgiving than digital sensors, the cost per picture was expensive. But now that there are no additional costs to take multiple exposures, the simple act of bracketing, which can be automated on most DSLR’s can ensure that you get the exposure right.

Now I’m not talking about close or good enough, but rather ‘perfect’ exposure. Whenever I talk about perfect exposure someone always states there is no such thing. They go on to say that as artists we can over or under expose on purpose to set tones or moods and so many exposures could be correct. That’s all very true, but in some way directly to the point. The ‘perfect’ exposure is the exposure that you as an artist want and the exposure that will allow you to create your final image without using the so very destructive ‘exposure’ sliders. No editing.

This process takes a little thought, a simple +1EV and -1EV exposure will usually not do the trick. Use your experience, meter for your mid-tones, decide if you want a slightly darker or lighter image and adjust the exposure. Take exposures at +1/3EV and -1/3EV of what you decided would work. One of these should be right bang on. If your new to photography and have little experience and skills to go on, shoot at + and – 1 EV, look at what exposure works best for you and then use that exposure to shoot three more images at +1/3EV and -1/3EV. Time required analyzing a scene and setting the proper exposure, less than one minute. Time required setting auto bracketing, 3 to 4 seconds! Cost, priceless!

White Balance

White balance is a bit of a trickier thing to talk about as it is a little more complex. That is, understanding the process is more complex but White Balancing an image can be very simple. I would recommend reading up on the internet on how to do White Balance so that you can understand the process and the science behind it. This will help out your photography in the long run. Here is a simple breakdown that is intended to get you on the right track. I do also teach a two hour White Balance class that is also meant as an introduction to White Balance and does not cover everything in two hours. Another important note is that White Balance is just a critical or even more so when shooting RAW for B&W conversions.

Also, keep in mind the following; White balance is a means of taking any scene under any lighting condition and making it look neutral (normalized) as if viewed in standard daylight. This can make images perfect but can also ruin perfect images. Huh?

If you are shooting a model where skin tone is important or a bride where the white of the white dress is important, or finally, in a studio shooting a product where the products color must match 100%, then a scene needs to be white balanced to make sure that you end up with the right skin tone, white dress, or product color no matter what kind or color of light the image was shot in.

Shooting a red sunset, a glowing snow covered mountain scene or the glow of a lush green forest, the glow or the red of the sunset is the important part that sets the mood of the scene. This is the natural light you are viewing the scene in and the color cast, the red of the sunset, creates the mood. White balancing these scenes would be a mistake. Why would you want the red of the sunset to be completely removed so the image looked like it was shot under normal daylight? Now, taken your camera is not capable of removing that much of the red but why would you try to neutralize it? I know most photographers shoot using AWB, and later in post processing add the red tones again?

The same issue applies to the great glow you get in a lush rainforest. Why would you want to completely remove that glow? How do you keep that glow, or rather that color cast? How do you keep the red of the sunset? Set your camera to Daylight! Now, with a sunset and with the forest scene, they are landscapes or rather images of larger vast expanses and the color casts add or create mood. Shooting a particular mushroom within the same rainforest requires a white balance that would make the mushroom look correct as viewed in normal daylight. In this case a custom WB setting would be required.

When shooting landscapes, you may want to White Balance the scene to take into account full sun conditions or overcast conditions that would affect the neutral colors of rocks, the whites of snow or he greens of trees. Again, here you may want a custom White Balance setting. How do you do that in a landscape? Here, you could use one of many devices available for the job. I use and prefer the ExpoImaging ExpoDisc (available in different sizes.) This will give you an excellent almost perfect starting point for landscapes, from there as an artist you can slightly warm up or cool down the image.

When shooting the model, bride, product or mushroom, you must White Balance the scene (*yes there are a few exceptions). We need the colors to look right. Here again there are many ways and products to achieve the same results. In Pre-processing (during the shoot) you can use your camera to do a Custom White Balance (CWB). Once set, you can shoot until the lighting conditions change.

Or if you prefer to control the White Balance in post processing, you have many options. You can photograph a white card or an 18% gray card. You can use a product like the WhiBal pocket card (excellent and cheap for the pocket version) or you can use the aforementioned ExpoDisc, also an excellent option. Or for the best control and best most accurate color correction, you could use a product many pro photographers use, the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport. This is one of my favorite products and I have a review posted here.

IMPORTANT: Yes when shooting in RAW you have full control of the White Balance, but without a reference or without knowing what the actual color temperature was when you shot the scene, all you can do in post processing a RAW image is a best guess. And worse than a best guess is using your un-calibrated monitor when making that best guess. Also, without using a proper reference (ie. White or Gray Card or ColorChecker Passport) your images taken from day to day, week to week will never be the same. They will not be consistent as each image will always be adjusted using the ‘best guess’ method.

Shooting a White Card for post processing takes only about 20 to 40 seconds only for an entire shoot as long as the lighting conditions do not change. Creating a CWB setting adds an additional 15 seconds or so to the process, if you prefer the Pre-Processing method. Using an Automatic White Balance (AWB) setting can add hours of post processing time as none of your images will have the same White Balance setting even when shot in the same lighting conditions (*when shooting hand help with just slight changes in composition).

Again, a little extra effort at the beginning can save a ton of post processing time. The cost for the White or Gray cards is under $7.00, the small WhiBal is under $20.00 and the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport is available for $99.00 U.S. There are many great benefits to the ColorChecker Passport and I would recommend you check it out properly. It is probably the best $99.00 I have spent in photography.


The whole process of making sure your images are sharp, that the exposure is perfect and choosing the correct White Balance should become a habit. Once you are used to the process and it becomes second nature the time required is absolutely minimal. The sharp well exposed and White Balanced images will look superb with better colors, better tones and greater tonal range, naturally enhanced contrast, less noise, and greater sharpness. They will require very little post processing and results will be predictable and more importantly repeatable. This will add a consistency to your work and will give your images a more professional look.

The slight extra time of using a tripod will slow your creative process down and will make you think about your composition further enhancing or improving your images.

In the end, the whole process will mean you can spend more time doing photography and less time in front of the computer, with better results!

Over the summer or perhaps in the fall when classes and club sessions resume, make it one of your priorities to get back to basics. It will be worth the effort.

© 2011 François Cléroux

(Version 1.01 - June 2011)

Please feel free to leave comments, corrections, ideas, thoughts or suggestions.