Photo Experiment: Freezing Bubbles

Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble

The cold season with its frosty temperatures offers a whole range of unique photography subjects – theoretically, at least. For this to work, it has to get cold enough in the first place, and in this respect, the current winter so far failed miserably. There hasn’t been a single day with the high temperature below freezing. Thus, I had more or less given up hope on checking off the still open topic “Ice Crystals / Snowflakes” on my photo board this winter.

Last week, however, a “polar cold front” moved in after all, with clear blue skies and temperatures as low as 15°F in the morning. So it was clear that I would use the short time between breakfast and leaving for work to take pictures. There still wasn’t any snow, hence I picked up a very popular idea from the internet: freezing soap bubbles.

FOR THE IMPATIENT

Gear Settings
  • Camera
  • Standard zoom lens
  • Soap bubble liquid
  • Straw
  • Outside temperature below 20°F
  • Warm clothing
  • Optional: external flash with color gel
  • Auto-focus
  • Aperture priority mode (A/Av)
  • Aperture ca.  ƒ/8 – ƒ/11
  • ISO 100 – 200
  • With flash: manual mode

THE SETUP

There isn’t much to set up, but the conditions have to be right. On the one hand, it has to be sufficiently cold outside; 20°F or below is optimal. On the other hand, there should be close to no wind at all, because the soap bubbles are extremely sensitive to wind and even the slightest breeze will let them burst quickly. Finally, you need a suitable surface, onto which you will place the bubbles. Wood, stones, moss, or – if you happen to have any – snow work well, for instance. I also tried metal, but that didn’t work at all. No matter what you choose, of course it should look nice.

Last but not least, the lighting has to be right. Strong backlighting makes the ice crystals stand out best, so an ideal time to take these pictures is right after sunrise or right before sunset. This allows you to benefit from the low sun, and it also creates a beautiful colorful mood. If this doesn’t work for you, maybe because the sun is hidden behind trees or buildings, then create your own backlight with an external flash that is controlled by a remote trigger. You can vary the mood of your images by attaching a color gel to the flash.

THE SETTINGS

The final settings depend on the actual light conditions, thus take the recommended settings given below as guiding values. I selected my “Always-on” as the lens, because its focal range of 17-70 mm (equals 27-112 mm on a full-frame camera) provided me with the desired flexibility for framing the image. In order to have sufficient depth of field, I chose an aperture value between ƒ/8 and ƒ/11. I set the ISO value to 100 or 200, mostly depending on where the sun was. I aimed at keeping the shutter speed below 1/25th of a second. Thus, thanks to the good image stabilizer of the Sigma lens, I was certain to avoid motion blur from camera shake.

I used auto-focus with a single focus point to fixate on the ice crystals. Since it only takes a few seconds for a bubble to freeze, this allowed me to quickly change position or adjust the framing of the image. However, the camera did have its problems with focusing on the intended side (front or back) of the bubble. The ideal solution is to use a lens that offers manual auto-focus override – a feature my Sigma unfortunately doesn’t have.

By chance, around this time of the year the sun shines perfectly through a gap between neighboring houses and trees onto our terrace, so I didn’t have to fiddle with an external flash for the necessary backlight. With flash, set the camera to manual starting with the values indicated above (ISO 100, ƒ/8, 1/25) and then adjust as needed. The idea is to choose the settings so that the resulting image, without flash, is underexposed by one stop. Then, you add the flash. In case you do not position the bubble on the same spot every time, the most convenient option is to set the flash to auto-exposure (TTL) and use flash exposure compensation to adjust its brightness as needed.

THE SHOOTING

Burst!
How to not do it: a light gust of wind was enough to burst the half-frozen bubble and let it flutter in the breeze. In addition, due to the aperture set to ƒ/11 and ISO 100, the shutter speed was too slow at ⅛ of a second, thus the image is also blurred because of camera shake.

Experience shows that when you blow the bubbles through the usual plastic hoop, they rarely land where you want them to – if they do, they pop immediately. Much more reliable results can be achieved by using a straw: take it into your mouth, dip it into the soap bubble liquid and then block the opening at the top with your tongue (don’t suck; believe me, it tastes awful!). Then place the bottom end of the straw above the target spot and carefully inflate the bubble to the desired size. It won’t work every time, but the success rate is sufficient.

It takes a few seconds until the bubble starts to freeze. This will give you enough time to put the straw aside and bring the camera into position. Ice crystals will start to form at the bottom rim of the bubble, where it touches the surface, and from there they will grow upward like ferns. If it is really cold, crystals will also start to form at the top of the bubble; these will grow in different patterns. How the crystals grow is entirely random, and it takes some luck to get really beautiful ones. This phenomenon works because a soap bubble consists of three layers: two layers of a soap with a thin layer of water in between, and the water freezes quicker than the soap does.

After about five to ten seconds, the bubble is fully frozen; this is the time window you have for taking pictures.  A fully frozen bubble is dull and flat, and structures are barely visible. Thus, it is difficult to take appealing images with more than one bubble.

You’ll quickly get the hang of the timing and the best size for the bubbles. What remains is to play with different backgrounds, to vary the framing of the image and to try different camera settings. The more bubbles you photograph, the more varied patterns you will discover in the ice crystals.

The required frosty temperatures also limit the duration of the shoot. On the one hand, after a while you will be so cold, that it will become difficult to hold the camera steady enough. On the other hand, the soap bubble liquid will start to freeze in its container; it will become so gooey that it is no longer possible to blow and bubbles. This means it’s time to go back inside, warm up with a nice cup of coffee, and review the pictures taken thus far.

TIPS & TRICKS

Finally, some helpful hints for you to get a bit more comfortable and to increase the success rate:

  • Use gloves. These should be thick enough to warm your hands, but also thin enough to allow for easy camera operation.
  • Set up wind protection. The soap bubbles are unbelievably sensitive to wind. I put some cardboard boxes onto the table next to the bubbles, positioned in a way that neither the boxes nor their shadows appeared in the image. Take care not to use colorful items, as their reflections will show up in the bubbles.
  • Take the images together with a friend. This way, one of you can blow the bubbles while the other one makes the pictures. This saves time, and it will also allow you to quickly change location.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: If it gets cold enough where you live, definitely give it a try! It is absolutely mesmerizing to watch the ice crystals grow over the bubble. I could watch it again and again, even without taking pictures of it.

What I’ve learned: Don’t be scared by the cold. If you want to have special photos, you’ll need to take special actions. And the resulting images are by all means worth the effort.


LINKS

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

My Gear: The White Lady: Canon EF 70-200 mm f/2.8 L USM

Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 L USM on the Canon 760D

While looking for a zoom lens with a wide-open aperture for portraits and other occasions, where the combination of a long focal length with the capability to gather lots of light is useful, I rented and tested the Sigma A 50-100 mm ƒ/1.8 lens the end of last year. It rendered a fantastic image quality, but nevertheless, I wanted to try out one of the “classic” 70-200 mm lenses for comparison.

I now had the opportunity to do this after a photographer friend of my sold one of his lenses – used but in perfect condition. So I snatched at the offer and was recently able to gather some experiences.

CANON EF 70-200 mm ƒ/2.8 L USM

This is the original design of the lens without image stabilization. Canon has been producing it continuously since 1995. Currently (August 2017), it sells new for about 1,200 Euros; used copies can be obtained for 600-800 Euros. In the meantime, Canon has released two successors for this lens, both with image stabilization. While the first one had some weaknesses regarding image quality, the current EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 L IS ii USM is generally accepted as the benchmark for this class of lenses. Alternatives are offered by Sigma and Tamron; in particular the new Tamron SP 70-200 mm ƒ/2.8 Di VC USD G2 has raised a lot of attention.

All of these lenses are designed to be used on full-frame cameras, where they unfold their full potential. This also means that they are quite large and heavy. The compact body of my 760D looked a bit lost as it held on to the lens mount…

EQUIPMENT

Since the 1970s, Canon uses the ‘L’ designation for lenses that apply special techniques in their optics to ensure low distortion, great sharpness, and high color fidelity. Since then, the ‘L’ has become synonymous with high-class professional lenses. An outstanding characteristic is the white body of the lenses with longer focal ranges. As these are intended primarily for sports and wildlife photography, hence for outdoor use, the white color is intended to reduce the heating up of the lens in direct sunlight.

Designed for rough everyday use, the lens is built in a very robust manner. The body is made entirely from metal, which results in a total weight of 3 lbs., but gives it a very solid look and feel. However, the original design is not weatherproof. At this size, an adjustable solid lens mount is a given.

There are two switches: one for the auto-focus, even though the lens does have full-time manual override, and another switch to limit the focus range. It can be set to either 1.5 m – ∞ or 3 m – ∞. I always kept this switch on the first setting.

Canon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 L with lens pouch
Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 L USM with lens pouch

The appearance of the lens is completed by the deep lens hood that is typical for long focal lengths. It also comes with a padded lens pouch that has a belt loop as well as a shoulder strap. The lens is definitely too heavy to be carried on your belt. But with the lens pouch, it can be safely carried in a backpack.

USE AND RESULTS

A 70-200 mm with an aperture of ƒ/2.8 is the classic lens for photographing at parties and events. The zoom provides the necessary flexibility to capture people in changing distances. At the same time, the wide aperture allows you to separate the subject from the background. If you own a full-frame camera and take pictures at such occasions on a regular basis, there’s basically no way around getting this type of lens.

It never bothered me that this lens has no image stabilization. This feature would reduce the risk of getting blurry images from camera shake when using slower shutter speeds. When photographing people, however, especially at festivities where they laugh and talk and mill about, the main challenge is motion blur. Thus, you will have to use a rather fast shutter speed anyway. Personally, I try to not get below 1/100; at rare occasions I use 1/60. And still most of the images I discarded, I deleted due to motion blur, because some was shaking their head or waving a hand.

While using this lens on my APS-C camera, I quickly realized some disadvantages as well. Due to the 1.6 crop factor, the 70 mm at the short end renders the same field of view as 11o mm on a full-frame body. In a closed room, this makes it very difficult to get far enough away from your subject to fit it into the frame as intended. In addition, the smaller sensor means that even when shooting wide open at ƒ/2.8, the background will not get blurred as much as when capturing the same image with a full-frame camera. So, there are significant drawbacks on the two main selling points of this lens.

COMAPRISON WITH THE SIGMA 50-100 mm ƒ/1.8

For a direct comparison of Canon’s 70-200 mm ƒ/2.8 L full-frame lens with Sigma’s 50-100 mm ƒ/1.8 Art, which is designed specifically for APS-C camera, I once again had the chance to borrow from my wife’s treasure chest. The tailor’s dummy with the girl’s dress was about 13 ft. away from the camera, and the shrubbery in the background another 22 ft. behind that. All pictures were taken with the Canon 760D mounted on a tripod; the images below all show the full frame.

The two series of images below were taken at the focal lengths supported by both lenses: 70 mm and 100 mm. I have a picture each at ƒ/2.8, and then another one with the Sigma at ƒ/1.8. As to be expected, the images from both lenses with the same settings are almost identical. The image taken at ƒ/1.8, on the other hand, shows a much blurrier background, thanks to the wider aperture of the Sigma lens.

Vergleich Sigma 50-100 mm und Canon 70-200 mm bei 70 mm
Comparison Sigma 50-100 mm and Canon 70-200 mm at 70 mm

 

Vergleich Sigma 50-100 mm und Canon 70-200 mm bei 100 mm
Comparison Sigma 50-100 mm and Canon 70-200 mm at 100 mm

Finally, for comparison, images taken at the focal lengths supported by only of the lenses: 50 mm and 200 mm respectively. The difference is significant, in particular at 200 mm. With an APS-C camera, this focal length can be used in a meaningful way only outdoors, or in really large venues. This is why I prefer the focal range covered by the Sigma. The 50 mm at the short end equals 80 mm on a full-frame body, which enables taking great images even at short distances, such as inside a restaurant for instance.  For me, this is the primary use case. In addition, the wider aperture also offers a better low-light performance.

Vergleich Sigma 50-100 mm bei 50 mm und Sigma 70-200 mm bei 200 mm
Comparison Sigma 50-100 mm at 50 mm and Sigma 70-200 mm at 200 mm

ALTERNATIVES

Since the 70-200 mm ƒ/2.8 is an absolute classic for event photographers, it is offered by all well-known brands. For Canon cameras, there are the two name-brand lenses (the “L USM” without, and the “L IS ii USM” with image stabilization), as well as the alternatives offered by Tamron (“SP Di VC USD G2”) and Sigma (“EX DG OS HSM”). The Sigma is the least expensive of the four, but according to reviews of the internet, it can no longer keep up with the other lenses. The same goes for the older Tamron lens, the predecessor of the current “G2” model.

If you’re interested in such a lens, then it will basically become a decision between the Canon “L IS ii” and the Tamron “G2”. The latter one costs new as much as the first one does used. Regarding image quality, there is basically no difference to the naked eye, however, the Tamron lens is accused of focus breathing. This means that the effective focal length is reduced when focusing at short distances, which affects the appearance of the image. There is a lot of discussion about this on the internet; if you’re interested in the details, I recommend watching the videos by Dustin Abbott on the matter. Judging by its original price, the Tamron offers more value for money if having the full 200 mm at close range is not mandatory for you.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: I recently made the decision to stay with APS-C, for various reasons. Consequently, I just sold the 70-200 again, and got the Sigma 50-100 ƒ/1.8 instead, which I had tested before. It offers a focal range that is much more practical for me, as well as better low-light performance.

If you own a full-frame camera, or if you prefer the longer focal range, then the old Canon “L USM” model without image stabilization will prove itself to be a robust and powerful companion. The lens is very resilient; hence I recommend looking for a used copy in good condition for a reasonable price.

What I’ve learnt: Just because everyone says, “this lens is a must-have”, or “because every pro has one”, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right lens for me. I am very happy that I had the chance to thoroughly test both lenses myself over a long period of time. This way, I was able to take a reasoned decision which lens fits my photography style best.

If you’re struggling with a similar decision, I strongly recommend renting your candidate lens for a week or two and take it to the test. This will be much more worthwhile than reading the 23rd review on the internet. Of course, renting a lens will cost a few bucks, but it will cost much less than what you lose by buying a lens, realizing it’s not the one for you, and then selling it again.


LINKS

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.


EXAMPLE IMAGES:

Only a few this time – I primarily used this lens on events, and thus would have needed the approval of all pictured persons for each image before publishing it.

Hmmm, yummy - puddle!

 

Shards bring Good Fortune (German Saying)

 

Who's got my treats?

My Gear: Accessories by Peak Design

Canon 760D with "Anchor Links" and hand strap "Clutch" by Peak Design

I travel quite a lot with my camera – I take it with me on vacation of course, on trips, and to events. I want to have it on hand when I need it, but the rest of the time, it should disturb me as little as possible. What bothered me the most in that respect is the original camera strap. I found it impractical for many reasons.

It comes with every DSLR: the strap that needs to be fiddled through the two eyes on either side at the top of the camera body, and that turns everyone into a walking advertisement for the camera manufacturer. With it, you can carry the camera like a neck pouch, where it dangles from side to side with every step, unless you hold it the entire time (which kind of makes the strap a moot point). Or you carry it over your shoulder – but due to the strap being fixed to the top of the camera body, the lens will point outward, which makes it very easy to hit something with. And there are even more occasions when the strap is interfering more than it helps, for instance when using the camera on a tripod. And last but not least, the way the standard straps are fixed to the camera is too circumstantial to quickly attach and remove it again. Long story short, I never use it.

Of course, there are a lot of alternative straps available which allow for carrying the camera in a more practical way. However, many of them are fixed to the tripod socket of the camera, which makes it immediately evident why this is impractical: if you want to put the camera on a tripod, you’ll have to mess around with the fixtures. I was certain that there must be a better solution. And indeed, I found one that works perfectly for me. Thus, I will present you the accessories I use to carry camera and lenses with me when I’m out and about.

PEAK DESIGN

Disclaimer: this post has in no way been sponsored or promoted in any way by Peak Design. I came across their products in early 2016 through a crowdfunding campaign. After ordering the first pieces, the accessories quickly won me over. They are well thought out and made with high quality. Hence, over time, I have added more of their offerings to my equipment.

FIXTURES: “ANCHOR LINK” AND “PLATE”

The core design element of the Peak Design accessories are the “Anchor Link” fixtures. Those are robust plates about the size of a “Connect Four” token with an attached loop. They can be easily threaded through the eyes at the top of the camera body. For the underside of the camera, special tripod plates with holes around the rim are available, which allow for up to four Anchor Links to be attached. Peak Design’s straps have matching quick-connectors, so you can attach and remove them single-handed with just a click.

An der Stativplatte "Pro Plate" können bis zu vier "Anchor Links" befestigt werden
The tripod plate “Pro Plate” allows to attach up to four “Anchor Links” – enough for hand strap and shoulder strap

The tripod plates are Arca Swiss compatible and designed so that they fit into many common tripods, such as my small Rollei “Compact Traveller”, even with Anchor Links attached. Thus, the tripod plate can stay permanently attached to the camera.

STRAPS: “SLIDE”, “LEASH” AND “CLUTCH”

Of course, I want to carry my camera on a strap around the neck or over my shoulder from time to time – just without the disadvantages listed above. The big strap from Peak Design is called “Slide”. It features quick-connectors that match the Anchor Links on the camera, so attaching or removing it is a matter of seconds. My favored way of carrying the camera is as follows: I hook one end of the strap to the eye on the top right of the camera body, and the other end to the tripod plate at the bottom side. When I carry it over my shoulder this way, the lens points down, instead of out. With a single movement, I have it at the ready without having to twist my hand or change my grip on the camera. In addition, “Slide” is padded comfortably, has an anti-glide coating on one side, and can be adjusted in length with a single hand by sliding the handle – hence the name.

Peak Design "Sling" used as a shoulder strap
Peak Design “Sling” used as a shoulder strap – the camera is readily at hand; the lens points down. You can clearly see the quick connectors, in which the Anchor Links click into place

The strap is very pleasant to use, but due to the padding, it takes up a lot of space in the bag when not needed. If space is critical, there is a smaller alternative, called “Leash”. It’s made from seatbelt-style fabric and will easily fit into your trouser pocket. Of course, you can use it as a shoulder or neck strap, but it’s much more versatile than that. An Anchor Link can be attached to the adjustment handle in the middle of the “Leash”, which allows you to securely loop it around your belt or backpack strap. This way, it serves as a safety tether, so you don’t have to worry about dropping your camera when taking pictures from a bridge and getting bumped into. It also makes it a lot more difficult for anyone who might want to quickly grab your camera and run when you don’t pay attention for a moment.

Peak Design "Capture Clip" with "Pro Pad". In addition, the camera is tethered to the belt with a "Leash".
Peak Design “Capture Clip” with “Pro Pad”. In addition, the camera is tethered to the belt with a “Leash”.

Most of the time, however, I do not use the camera with a strap, but with the hand strap “Clutch”. This allows you to safely hold, and comfortably carry, the camera with a single hand. The hand strap is permanently attached to my camera, without ever being in the way. It’s big enough to be easily used on my Canon 760D even with the additional battery grip attached.

CLIPS: “CAPTURE” AND “PRO PAD”

As mentioned before, I want to have my camera readily available when I’m travelling, but I also don’t want it to get in my way when I’m not using it. This includes not suddenly sliding around and hitting something when I bend down, which can easily happen when carrying the camera on a shoulder strap. I have seen rather expensive lenses not surviving such an accident.

The belt clip “Capture” turned out to be the ideal solution for me, especially in combination with the additional padding called “Pro Pad”. Fixed to the belt on the right hip, the camera with affixed tripod plate can be slid and locked into the clip single-handedly. And it is just as easy to release again. This frees up your hands when you’re not photographing, and the camera also doesn’t get in the way if you’re carrying a backpack as well. Of course, the belt clip can also be attached to the shoulder strap of a backpack or messenger bag. I find this a very comfortable solution for carrying the camera for a stroll through town as well as for a hiking tour.

Peak Design "Capture Clip" and "Pro Pad" hold the Canon 760D at the ready. In addition, the hand strap "Clutch" is attached to the camera
Peak Design “Capture Clip” and “Pro Pad” hold the Canon 760D at the ready. In addition, the hand strap “Clutch” is attached to the camera

The locking mechanism of the clip is very reliable. If you still have concerns: the release button can be locked by turning it 90 degrees. This avoids any accidental (or “unauthorized”) release of the camera. If you want to go for double bottom, then you can tether your camera to your belt with the “Leash” in addition. I do this when carrying the camera through rough terrain (where I really don’t want to drop it), or for instance in Paris, where there unfortunately are countless pickpockets. This way, nobody can simply grab the camera out of my hands.

FOR LENSES: “CAPTURE LENS” AND “RANGE POUCH”

So now I have the camera safe and readily available. Depending on the occasion, I also want to have more than one lens at hand. Many events and exhibitions, however, do not allow for backpacks or larger bags to be taken on the venue. In June, I visited the Miniature Wonderland in Hamburg again. I wanted to have wide-angle lens for landscape shots, and a telephoto or macro lens for details. But the bag had to stay in the locker.

This was a good opportunity to use “Capture Lens” mount for lenses. This can also be fixed to the belt using a “Capture” clip. It is basically made up of two opposing lens mounts and a pivot mechanism. Attaching and releasing lenses works in the same way as on the camera body. You hold the camera in your right hand, and detach the current lens with your left hand. Then you attach it to the free mount on the “Capture Lens”, and turn it around 180 degrees. Now you can remove the other lens and connect it to your camera. I manage the entire lens changing procedure, from the last photo with the previous lens to the first photo with the new lens, in less than 10 seconds. This also spares you any risky maneuver with pinching a lens under an arm or hunkering down in the middle of a crowd, where a jostle can quickly become very expensive.

Peak Design "Capture Lens" with the Canon EF-S 55-250mm
Peak Design “Capture Lens” with the Canon EF-S 55-250mm. The red button on the mount unlocks the lens

There is one disadvantage worth mentioning, though: when you carry a lens on the left-hand side, and the camera on the right-hand side on your belt, this has a distinct “Wild West” look and feel to it. I’ve heard several “let’s meet in front of the Saloon at high noon” jokes at my expense because of this. On the plus side, I did not miss several good photos because I had the right lens at hand in time.

Another, less ostentatious solution is the “Range Pouch” lens bag, which is available in three sizes. I have the medium one, which suitable for all my lenses (except the 70-200). The bag is weatherproof and well-padded. You can carry it either by using the belt loop on its backside, or you use the pre-mounted Anchor Links to attach a “Slide” or “Leash” as shoulder strap. Of course, the “Range Pouch” can carry not only lenses, but all kinds of other useful stuff as well.

Peak Design "Range Pouch"
Peak Design “Range Pouch”, shown with the Sigma A 18-35 mm ƒ/1.8
Peak Design "Range Pouch"
Peak Design “Range Pouch” with reat belt loop and Anchor Links

BAGS

Peak Design also offers a variety of bags: a backpack, a tote bag, a small shoulder bag, and a messenger bag. I don’t own any of these because I already had good bags for carrying my laptop or my camera with accessories before I came across Peak Design.

 


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: I highly recommend the well though-out and high-quality accessories by Peak Design. Hand strap, belt clip and the quickly removable straps have made it much easier for me to take along my camera for trips and events. If you think about getting any of the items introduced above, also have a look at the offered bundle deals.

What I’ve learned: There’s a solution to every problem, including carrying your camera. Well-made accessories aren’t cheap, but for me, they are worth their price – if you invest larger sums into your camera and lenses, a good strap should cost more than 20 bucks. Especially considering that I expect the accessories to last longer than the camera.


LINKS

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

On a personal note: System decision – Why Canon APS-C?

Canon 760D

When you are new to photography, or think about switching to a different camera, the predominant question is which system to go for. A compact camera or one with interchangeable lenses? Single-lens reflex or mirrorless? Micro-Four-Thirds, APS-C or Full-frame? Each of those has its applications, its specific strengths, but also its particular weaknesses – there is no “one size fits all”. Of course, there are “all-round” cameras – usually, they turn out to be Jacks of all trades, masters of none. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on what you are looking for.

The decision for a particular brand comes later. The technical differences between comparable cameras of different manufactures have become almost negligible. Thus, the choice is often one of personal taste: What controls and menu system do I prefer? Which cameras did I own before? To come to a good decision, there is one central point to ponder:

What do I want to photograph?

Calendar 2018

I already went through all these considerations once, about two years ago, when I picked my current equipment. Now that I am thinking about switching to a camera with a wider range of functionality, all these questions come up again.

DISCOVER THE POSSIBILITIES

There are many different disciplines within the area of photography that all have their own requirements. The following – drastically simplified – list gives a short overview of typical criteria:

  • Landscapes – great dynamic range
  • Portraits – shallow depth of field
  • Nightscapes – good image quality (little noise) event a high ISO values
  • Wildlife – long range with telephoto lenses
  • All-round – wide selection of lenses
  • Travel – light-weight, compact size
  • Video – good video auto-focus, connections for peripherals

It is clear that some of these criteria contradict each other: if you want to take classic portraits with minimum depth of field, you will need a full-frame camera and a lens with a wide aperture. A Canon 5D Mark IV with just its kit lens already weighs around 3.5 lbs.; with a portrait lens such as the 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 it’s over 5 lbs. This might not be a problem in a photo studio, but when going on a hike, you will think twice before lugging it along. A Sony RX100 III, on the other hand, weighs less than a pound, is about the size of a pack of cigarettes, and still gets highly recommended by many photographers as a very good travel camera. It has its limitations elsewhere.

For taking pictures at night, the best choice is a large sensor with low resolution, so that each pixel can gather a lot of light – such as the Sony A7S, for instance. This is a full-frame camera with just 12 megapixels, but outstanding low-light performance. For wildlife, a smaller sensor has its advantages, because it provides a longer reach with telephoto lenses due to its narrower field of view. A Canon 80D has 24 megapixels and a crop-factor of 1.6, which means that with a 300mm lens, it provides a view similar to a full-frame camera at 480mm.

Hence, the question you should ask yourself is not: Which camera is the best? You should ask yourself: Which camera is the best for me?

All packed up for the next photo excursion
All packed up for the next photo excursion

WHY I DECIDED FOR CANON APS-C BACK THEN…

Looking ahead on the upcoming upgrade, it is worthwhile to revisit the original considerations. Foremost: What has changes since then? Essential insight from back then: I am mostly an all-rounder. I do not have a particular area that I deeply specialize in. I photograph whatever I like: landscapes, but also people at events. Sometimes nightscapes, sometimes animals. A tiny detail here, the ‘big picture’ there. I want decent image quality, but I also want to be able to carry the camera along an entire day without it becoming a millstone around my neck.

After thorough consideration, I decided for the Canon 760D. In my blog-post about the camera, I have described in detail why. I’ve never regretted this decision.

The crucial points were the articulated touch screen, the (for me) intuitive handling, and most of all the huge range of lenses that are available from various manufactures. Last but not least, the price played a role as well, of course. The 760D has more than fulfilled my expectations, and I was able to take many great pictures with it – far beyond what I had originally thought of.

I have learned a lot over the past two years, and with skill, the requirements grow as well. Hence, I have asked myself increasingly often over the past few months: Is a camera like the 760D still the best camera for me?

…AND WHY I HAVE DECIDED NOW TO STICK WITH IT

Over the course of time, I have purchased numerous lenses of various brands (Canon, Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, Samyang…). In order to keep the financial impact of an upgrade at bay, it was clear from the beginning that I would stay with a Canon camera. That still left three options: mirrorless, full-frame, or an APS-C upgrade.

Mirrorless cameras are clearly on the rise, not at least because their live-view auto-focus systems, for a long time the Achilles heel of this type of cameras, has significantly improved. A DSLM would certainly have advantages for me: the electronic shutter can take thousands of pictures for a time-lapse video without wear, and focus-peaking makes focusing manually a lot easier. The problem, however, are the lenses. In theory, I can keep all my lenses and use them with an adapter, on a Canon EOS M5 for example. Reviews from many sources show that in practice, it’s not so easy. Not every lens works with every adapter, and oftentimes, autofocus issues remain. Of course, there are lenses made specifically for mirrorless camera – but that would mean an additional investment. Also, the limited battery life of most DSLMs is a factor for me. Last but not least, there is a very irrational reason: the feeling to have a “real” camera in my hands and the clunking of the mirror are an integral part of photography for me. The bottom line is, mirrorless is not (yet) the way for me.

That leaves full-frame. When the new Canon 6D Mark II was released recently, the temptation was big to go for it. I compiled a list and compared the overall costs of switching to full-frame with an upgrade on APS-C, and the advantages and disadvantages of each choice.

On the assets side, I listed realistic (compared across several platforms) selling prices for my current camera as well as lenses that are for APS-C only, such as my “always-on“. On the spending side, I listed the costs for the new camera, as well as for the replacement lenses needed to complete my lineup again. For the APS-C upgrade, the price difference of the camera was the only factor.

All in all, I concluded that switching to full-frame would cost me around 1,500 € more, mostly due to the lenses. I asked myself: Is it worth it?

The headline already gave it away: No, it’s not. The gap between APS-C and full-frame has become significantly smaller over the past few years, much owing to lenses such as Sigma’s 50-100mm ƒ/1.8. This allows you to take great portraits and nightscape shots even with a smaller DSLR. Of course, some gap remains. But the occasions where this would really make a difference for me are so rare that this is not worth the extra 1,500 €. And there are other disadvantages as well: A Canon 5D with its kit lens is in every dimension (width, height, length) four fifths of an inch wider than my 760D with the ‘always-on’ lens, and it weighs one and a half times as much. What good is a great camera if I don’t take it with me because it’s too bulky?

Hence, I will stick with Canon APS-C DSLRs. For me, they are the ideal compromise between size, flexibly, functionality and image quality. Current rumors indicate that in the spring of 2018, the successor to the current Canon 80D will be released. If this comes true, I will take a very close look at that camera. The main reasons for the upgrade can be summarized quickly: increased functionality and vastly improved auto-focus. Until then, I will certainly enjoy my 760D, and the pictures I’m taking with it, a lot.

I hope these considerations have also been helpful for you.

– Jochen =8-)

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

Pictures in Motion: Timelapses – Post-processing

Time Lapse

The first two parts of this series dealt with capturing the images for a time lapse with different camera types. This easily results in several thousand pictures for a longer clip. There are numerous software tools available for all operating systems to convert these into the final video. Basically, all these applications work in the same way; they differ in functionality, usability, and price. I will present the two approaches I mostly use for creating my videos: the quick-and-easy way using Adobe Photoshop, without further editing of the images, as well as the comprehensive workflow using Adobe Lightroom and LRTimelapse, which offer powerful tools to optimize the outcome.

HOW 2,000 PHOTOS BECOME A MOVIE

Let’s start with the simple case: all of the images are already available in JPEG format, as is the case when capturing time lapses with my old GoPro. If you are using Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription, you will have Photoshop available in addition to Lightroom. In Photoshop, simply chose File → Open, select the first image, and then check the option for Image sequence. In the next step, Photoshop will ask for a frame rate. Afterwards, you can immediately export the movie in the desired format. If you’re using only Lightroom, many scripts can be found on the internet that will allow you to do basically the same thing.

Open image sequence in Photoshop
Open image sequence (“Bildsequenz”) in Adobe Photoshop CC

Furthermore, there are numerous image editing applications offering this capability. Without having tried them myself, I’d like to mention ImageJ, an open source tool written in Java, and the commercial tool Panolapse. Both are available for MacOS X as well as Windows.

There is one additional option for long-time Apple users, who still have a registration code for the Pro version of the old Quick Time Player 7 in their archives. You can download the last version of QuickTime 7 from the Apple homepage. You cannot buy new license keys for it any longer, but the old ones still work. After activating the Pro version, the option Open image sequence becomes available in the File menu. Just as in Photoshop, select the first file of the sequence, then choose a frame rate. A moment later, you can watch the video. Finally it can be stored as a movie file in Apple’s usual QuickTime format (H.264).

EDITING THE INDIVIDUAL IMAGES

Before the photos get merged into a video, it is a good opportunity to edit them. If you have shot in RAW format, you now have the full editing potential available. This allows for restoring a lot of detail in the highlights and in the shadows. In addition, you can optimize white balance, contrast, and color rendition to your liking.

However, this creates the challenge of editing the pictures consistently, to create a smooth video in the end. Hence, you need an editing tool that enables you to carry over the changes done on one image to the rest of the sequence.

In Adobe Lightroom this works best if you edit a photo from around the middle of the stack, and then synchronize the development settings to all pictures. This works very well, as long as the edits apply equally well to all images. As a part of this process, you should also crop the photos to a 16:9 aspect ratio. After exporting the images as JPEGs with a resolution of either 3840×2160 (4K) or 1920×1080 (Full HD), you can convert the sequence into a video as described above.

WORKFLOW WITH LRTIMELAPSE 4

If you want to make more advanced edits to the image sequence for the time lapse, a usual photo editing software won’t get you very far. The challenge lies in harmonizing the applied changes such that the resulting video doesn’t show any sudden changes in brightness or color, which occur when adjusting the shutter speed or ISO value during dawn. Videos of sunrises or sunsets are hence referred to as the “holy grail” of time-lapse recording.

For such occasions, I recently purchased Gunther Wegner’s software LRTimelapse 4. It works in combination with Adobe Lightroom and offers numerous functions which help to vastly improve the created videos. LRTimelapse is easy to use and offers some very powerful tools to manage adjustments to the original photos, and to handle changes of lighting conditions. LRTimelapse doesn’t modify the pictures itself, it just calculates the necessary adjustments and passes them on to Lightroom as meta data. The actual image processing is then done by Adobe’s Camera RAW engine. The workflow is as follows:

  • Launch LRTimelapse and open the folder with the RAW images for the time lapse. The software imports the files and analyses the brightness gradient. Based on that, it suggests a number of key frames; typically, four to eight. These can be adjusted as needed.
  • Using a special drag & drop button, the image sequence is then imported into Lightroom. Then you can set a pre-defined filter to show only the key frames.
  • These can now be edited to your liking with the full repertoire of Lightroom features. It is recommended to start with the first one, then sync the changes to all subsequent images. Then adjust the second image, if necessary, and again sync the changes to all subsequent images, and so on, until all key frames look the way you want them to. In addition, you should also crop the images to a 16:9 ratio. This will allow you to choose the image section yourself; otherwise, LRTimelapse will select the center part.
  • Once you’re done editing the key frames, save their metadata as files and return to LRTimelapse.
  • Now comes the magic: Based on the key frames, LRTimelapse will automatically calculate the necessary changes to all intermediate images. Thus, smooth transitions for brightness, color, and contrast are created. This will take some time, but you can see the results immediately in a preview clip.
  • LRTimpelapse offers a “deflicker” function for fine-tuning.  This way, I was able to achieve great results even when shooting in aperture priority mode and letting the camera determine shutter speed and ISO value automatically.
  • Store the new settings as metadata files (*.xmp).
  • In Lightroom, loading the updated metadata will apply the calculated changes to all pictures.
  • Finally, the export is started from Lightroom, using the LRTimelapse presets. As a start, all images will again be stored as JPEGs on your local hard drive. When processing 2,700 photos, this can take a couple of hours; at least on my six-year-old laptop. Once this is done, LRTimelaps renders the final video with the chosen settings (resolution, frames per second, video codec etc.). This works rather quickly, and can easily be repeated with different settings from the same JPEG sequence.

Gunther Wegner has a half-hour tutorial video (in English), where he introduces the functions and way of working with LRTimelapse in great detail.

EXAMPLE

The following video shows a sunrise over a period of four hours, with a picture taken every ten seconds. I captured this time lapse with the Canon 760D and the Radian 2. I set the aperture to 2.2 and let the camera choose shutter speed and ISO value automatically. The first images were taken at 5 seconds, ISO 400; the last ones at 1/4,000th second, ISO 100. The Radian 2 panned and triggered the camera.

The photos were edited using Adobe Lightroom and LRTimelapse 4 as described above. This created a video with smooth brightness and color transitions. The last step was adding the music, which is taken from YouTube’s free audio library, using Adobe PremierePro.

The thing that fascinates me even more than dawn itself in this video is the movement of the clouds. This is certainly not my last video of this kind; I will experiment more with capture interval, captured period, location, and weather…


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: The purchase of LRTimelapse was absolutely worthwhile for me, and I recommend it to everyone who considers working seriously with time lapses. A free demo version is available, which is limited to 400 images per sequence, but otherwise offers the full functionality. This will allow you to thoroughly evaluate whether the application meets your needs.

What I’ve learned: I think this series made it clear that capturing time lapses can be a lot of fun. Using the right tools, even difficult lighting situations can be mastered. Thus, small master pieces can be created with reasonable effort – literal “know how”.


LINKS:

Picture Credits: Title Image – Screenshot Adobe Lightroom CC; Open image sequence – Screenshot Adobe Photoshop CC; YouTube Video Sunrise – own images.

Pictures in Motion: Timelapses with a DSLR/DSLM

Time Lapse

This is the second part of a mini-series on the topic of time lapse photography. The first part introduced the creation of time-lapse videos with a GoPro (or similar action camera). This renders quite good results with a reasonable amount of effort. There are two starting points to further improve the outcome: free choice of focal length, and manual control of the exposure.

POTENTIAL FOR IMPROVEMENT

As mentioned above, the most obvious advantage when using an interchangeable lens camera compared to the GoPro is the ability to freely chose the focal length. This enables different perspectives, as you can emphasize certain details of a scene. The longer the focal length, the more obvious camera shake will be, e.g. because the wind pushes against the lens. This must then be stabilized in post-processing to avoid jitter in the video. Hence it is important to mount the camera in a very stable way.

Furthermore, the camera’s manual mode allows for full control over the exposure of the images – i.e., shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and white balance. If no drastic change in lighting conditions is anticipated during the recording time, it is highly recommended to set and fix all these values manually. This guarantees a consistent appearance of the photos and avoids strange effects the camera’s automatic mode might cause, e.g. when a cloud covers the sun and the scenery consequently becomes darker and bluer. It is also mandatory to manually focus on the most important object in the scene, to avoid any unintended re-focusing when something moves through the frame.

To take full advantage of the image quality, you should of course shoot in RAW. As a result, you’ll have to keep an eye on the amount of data generated, much more so than with the GoPro. A single RAW file from my Canon 760D is up to 30 MB in size. A time lapse of one and a half hours with a capture interval of two seconds creates 2,700 images – about 80 GB of data! Consequently, I have bought a 128 GB SD card for such occasions. The camera’s battery also has to last sufficiently long, hence I am using a battery grip than can hold two batteries for longer recordings.

An additional degree of freedom is offered by the use of filters. Whether you’re using an action camera or a DSLR, when taking pictures on a bright day, the shutter speed will be very fast – around 1/1,000th of a second. This causes the final video to look very “jumpy”, because moving persons or object suddenly appear in a different location, as can be seen clearly in the example video in the first part of this series. To achieve a fluid motion in videos, the shutter speed is typically set to half of the frames per second – i.e. 1/60th for 30 fps. This is where so-called grey filters or neutral density (ND) filters come into play: they allow for slowing down the shutter speed without over-exposing the image.

I have used a 10-stop (1,000×) ND filter, so I could work with a shutter speed of half a second. In combination with the Tokina 11-20 mm Ultra-wide angle, I have used the following settings: ISO 200 | 16 mm | ƒ/4.0 | ½ sec. This will blur the motion in each image. In combination with a time interval of two seconds, this creates a smooth flow. You will find the final video for comparison at the end of this post.

Motion Blur
Motion Blur due to a shutter speed of half of a second when using a neutral density filter

In general, polarizing filters can be used as well, but with limitations: Since the effect of a polarizing filter depends on the angle between the camera and the sun, the magnitude of the effect will change if the sun moves significantly during the recording. This can hardly be compensated in post-processing.

Unlike the GoPro, my 760D doesn’t have a built-in intervalometer. This means that the impulse to take a photo every x seconds must be given externally. The least expensive option is using a programmable cable remote. Usable models can be found on the internet for as little as 20 Euros for almost every camera. Another option is using a smartphone app. Basically every camera with built-in WiFi or Bluetooth nowadays comes with a matching app, which usually supports time lapses as well as many other functions.

In addition to technically better images, I also wanted to add another component to make my time lapses more interesting: moving the camera itself. This requires very precise control to create a smooth motion in the final video. Numerous devices are available for this purpose, which control the movement of the camera as well as the synchronized shutter control.

ALPINE LABS RADIAN 2

I became aware of Alpine Labs’ Radian 2 via a crowdfunding campaign. The device, which looks like a simple black can on the outside, packs a lot on the inside: a motor to move the camera, a sophisticated controller for the camera, and a large battery that will last for many time lapse recordings. It is operated via Bluetooth using the matching smartphone app. Basically it enables time lapses with camera panning: over a set period of time, the camera will be rotated by the chosen angle (horizontally or vertically), while taking a picture every x seconds. The Radian will always take a short pause between moving and shooting to avoid blur from camera shake.

Time-Lapse Setup
Time-Lapse Setup: Canon 760D with battery grip, Alpine Labs Radian 2 and iPhone with Radian App

The Radian didn’t have any problems at all when panning horizontally with the quite heavy combination of camera, battery grip, and Tokina lens (total weight: almost 4 lbs). However, that proved to be too much for a vertical tilt. I will test that again with a lighter setup.

Aside from that, the Radian can vary the shooting parameters over time in several ways. When taking a time lapse during dusk or dawn, it can adjust the exposure of the images (“exposure ramping”). It can also vary the time interval at which images are taken over the recording time, so that the speed of the final video changes (“speed ramping”).

All in all, it is a very versatile and easy to operate device, that brings a lot of variety to your time lapses. Of course, you can use the Radian also to pan the GoPro – however, this lacks the synchronization with the camera and hence many of the advanced capabilities, because the GoPro cannot be remote-controlled in the same way. The Radian 2, as I have it, is currently sold out at Alpine Labs. If and when it will become available again is unclear. However, similar devices are available from various manufacturers.

EXAMPLE

The following video shows a period of about one and a half hours. As described above, the pictures were taken with the Canon 760D, mounted on the Radian 2, and with an ND filter on the lens. A picture was taken every two seconds, with a shutter speed of half a second. The resulting motion blur makes the movements in the video appear much more fluid; the people no longer jerkily jump around. The panning motion of the camera adds additional movement. What fascinates me the most in this video, however, is the movement of the clouds on that day.

OUTLOOK

The next part of this series will cover the post-processing: how do you optimize the captured images, and how do you convert the individual pictures into a movie? There are countless ways for processing and conversion of the data. I will present the approaches and software I mostly use.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Concerning image quality, there is a vast difference between photos taken with a GoPro, and those taken with a bigger camera. On the other hand, the necessary equipment is bulkier and heavier (and more expensive). Depending on the occasion, you will have to balance to pros and cons for each. Whenever feasible, I highly recommend using a DSLR or DSLM, to have full control over the outcome of the images and the maximum creative leeway for post-processing.

What I’ve learned: It is important to choose and fix all relevant setting manually: shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, focus point. This ensures a consistent appearance of the images and avoids the strange side-effects from automatic adjustments. When capturing fast action, such as passing cars for instance, the resulting video will look much more pleasant when using an ND filter to slow down the shutter speed and thus blur the motion.


LINKS

Picture Credits: Title Image – Screenshot Adobe Lightroom CC; all other pictures – own images.

Pictures in Motion: Timelapses with a GoPro

Time Lapse

This post is the first part of a mini-series on the topic of time lapses. One of my main motivations for doing photography is to capture scenes in ways that usually elude the naked eye. This includes macro images, freezing fast motion, or visualizing movements in a movie.

To achieve a special effect, you can slow down movements – many current smart phones and action cams offer slow-motion capabilities with up to 120 frames per second. This allows to show action at about 1/5 of the original speed and still have fluent motion. If you want to go even slower, and still have a decent video resolution, you’ll need a dedicated (hence pricey) slow-motion camera.

The opposite effect can be realized in a much simpler way: time lapses are suitable to visualize motion patterns that move too slow to grasp them in their entirety by simply looking at them. All you need for a time lapse is a digital camera with the capability to take photos at fixed time intervals, as well as a software tool that turns the individual images into a movie. Numerous such tools can be found on the internet. The camera doesn’t even need to be a high-end model; a 10-megapixel camera can already render a 4K video.

This first part of this series will cover the process from capturing the images to creating the movie using a GoPro camera and its proprietary software.

IDEA & LOCATION

The Railway Museum Darmstadt-Kranichstein is definitely one of the locations where I have taken the most pictures, and over the longest period of time. I don’t primarily focus on the various engines in the exhibition, but rather try to capture the hustle and bustle during the events. This is particularly true for our biggest event, the “Railworld Days”, which take place every year on a four-day weekend around the mid of May. I put the focus of my images on the audience in the first place, while the moving engines and such are shown as what is drawing the visitors’ attention.

However, these photos always captured just a single moment in time: Since I am working in the museum myself, I am bound to my tasks in the exhibits during the events. Thus, I mostly miss what is happening outside – except for breaks, which I use for taking pictures as well. But I was always curious about what happened “out there” during the entire day. Hence, I mounted my camera right in the middle of the action. It would be rather boring to watch the recording of an eight-hour day in real time, and so I had the idea to capture time lapses.

GOPRO CAMERA & SOFTWARE

Many years ago, I bought a GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition action camera, to capture photos and videos from perspectives that are not – at least not easily – accessible with a big camera. In addition to various video modes, all GoPros offer a time lapse mode, which takes a photo every few seconds. The time interval can be set between 0.5 and 60 seconds. Which interval is the best depends on what scene you want to capture, i.e. what is moving, and how fast it is moving.

Once started, the camera keeps on recording until either stopped, the battery runs out, or the memory card is full. To avoid the latter, I bought a 64 GB micro-SD card. I used two different power supplies: the internal battery, in combination with the additional snap-on battery that is available for the GoPro 3+. This lasts for about 3-4 hours. To capture an entire day, I set up external power via a power adapter and a USB cable.

RECORDING

As with everything in photography, a time laps requires a suitable (interesting) subject. An additional challenge is that the scene should change over time: clouds in the sky, traffic on a lively intersection, or – at the railway museum – the turntable in front of the roundhouse. Next, a good location for the camera is needed, as well as the necessary adapters to mount it securely and solidly. I checked the orientation of the camera using the freely available Smartphone app, and also started the recording this way.

I usually work with a two-second time interval at the museum. In the course of an entire day, this results in 14,400 pictures being taken. Turned into a video at 30 frames per second, eight hours become eight minutes.

POST-PROCESSING

My old GoPro is capable of taking JPEG images only, which limits the post-processing possibilities; especially considering that any changes would have to be synchronized to all images. Given the huge number of files, this poses high demands on the hardware and software alike. So how can all these single photos be turned into a video? The simplest solution is using the “GoPro Studio” software that comes with the camera.

GoPro Studio
Screenshot GoPro Studio (v2.5.12) – Import and edit timelapse video

In the first step, you select the folder on the hard drive that contains the files copied from the camera. The software automatically creates a preview video from the images. Then you chose the desired options; primarily, how many frames per seconds the video shall have, and whether the fish-eye effect from the GoPro’s ultra-wide angle lens shall be removed or not. This makes sense especially if there are many straight lines in the image, but it can also lead to strong distortions in the corners of the frame. Finally, the tool converts everything into a final video, which can then be exported in the desired format.

EXAMPLE

The following video was created three years ago, using the GoPro and the included software as described above. The time interval was set to two seconds, so over the course of eight hours, 14,400 photos were taken:

This clip doesn’t have any sound, because it has been assembled from individual images. It can be used as-is, or combined with other building blocks to create a diversified movie – with sound, of course. The GoPro software offers some built-in video authoring capabilities, but I have never used them. Earlier, I used Apple’s iMovie software to create my movies. Now, I am using Adobe’s Premiere Pro CC. However, I will not cover video editing in this post.

ALTERNATIVES AND LIMITATIONS

Thus, it shouldn’t go unnoted that in the meantime, many very affordable alternatives for the original GoPro cameras are available. Of course, there are some differences in terms of quality of the resulting photos and videos, at least when comparing them to the top-of-the-line model. Whether that is worth the additional price depends on your personal preference.

Many modern smart phones also offer a time lapse function – either directly in the built-in camera app, or by means of third-party apps. For my use case, however, this is not a viable alternative: smart phones are much more susceptible to environmental conditions (direct sunlight, rain), the storage capacity usually is as limited as the battery capacity – and who wants to mount their smart phone with all the data on it unguarded somewhere in the event area?

Either way, there are limitations. Foremost, you are bound to the fixed focal length of the camera, which contains an extreme wide-angle (fish-eye) lens. That is not always what you need. In addition, the small camera tends to have problems with high contrasts – on a bright sunny day, either highlights such as clouds end up as pure white blobs without any details, or the shadows drown in black. In addition, the automatic white balance and the auto-exposure function sometimes create strange artefacts, for instance when clouds move across the sun and cause the brightness and color of the light to change.

GoPro cameras offer an advanced capturing mode, called “ProTune”. It allows to set a fixed white balance and creates images with reduced contrast to offer more leeway for post-processing. However, I never achieved satisfactory results using this for time lapses. This may well be because I lack the necessary experience with color grading and look-up tables. Current GoPro models, such as the Hero 5, can capture photos in RAW format. If your camera supports this, you should definitely use it!

OUTLOOK

The next part of this series will cover capturing time lapses with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, as well as adding some additional motion to the video. Finally, the third part will deal with the post-processing; in particular, how to take full benefit of the RAW images to create a high-quality video with reasonable effort.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Time lapses can be created quickly and easily with the GoPro, and the results are remarkable. This approach offers several advantages: the camera is small, light-weight, unobtrusive and can be mounted almost anywhere. It works completely silent and lasts many hours when using the additional battery. The conversion of the individual pictures into a final video is just a matter of a few clicks using the included GoPro Studio software. All in all, lots of fun for little effort!

What I’ve learned: Time lapses opened a new way for me to use photography to capture motion patterns. The fact that you can leave the camera to “do its thing” once it has been set up, and that you can tend to other things in the meantime, is an additional bonus.


LINKS

 Picture Credits: Title Image – Screenshot Adobe Lightroom CC

Photo Experiment: Water Droplets

Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets

Another dull weekend. Time to work on another indoor photography idea. As it happened, I just recently came across a video on YouTube showing how to take beautiful abstract images by shooting through a glass pane with water droplets on it. I already had most of the things I needed to do this myself at home – the rest was gathered quickly with a trip to a local hardware store and investing a few Euros.

FOR THE IMPATIENT

Gear Settings
  • Camera
  • 1-2 external flashes
  • Remote trigger for the flashes
  • Tripod with pivoting center column, or boom stand
  • Remote shutter release
  • Glass pane
  • Spray bottle with water
  • Manual focus
  • Manual mode
  • ISO 100
  • 1/125 second
  • Aperture ƒ/22
  • White balance: flash
  • Flashes: manual mode, 1/8 power

THE SETUP

The most important requisite for this setup is of course the glass pane. It should be free of scratches and stains, and wiped clean. It doesn’t need to be large; 12″×16″ is enough. You’ll something to support it; I improvised with water bottles and drinking glasses. Finally, I used some construction paper as the background.

The setup for the camera on the other hand was quite a challenge. I couldn’t use the auto-focus, because in most cases it focused on the objects under the glass pane, rather than on the droplets on top. With manual focus, even at ƒ/22, the depth of field is so shallow that when shooting handheld, the inevitable swaying when standing bent over the table caused most many of the pictures to be out of focus, so I needed a different solution.

Many large (and expensive) tripods have a center columns that pivots for such purposes – my little travel tripod doesn’t. Hence, I tinkered with my light stands. By combining one with a reflector holder and a spare tripod head, I created my own boom stand for the camera. I weighted down the feet of the light stand and made sure all bots and clamps were tightly secured, but still, it was a quite rickety construction. For very careful handling of the camera I needed to use a cable release for the shutter. In the end, this provisional arrangement fully served its purpose.

Setup for the Photo Experiment "Water Droplets"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Water Droplets”: The glass pane is resting on four water bottles (~12 in. high); later, I put it on lower drinking glasses. In addition, I varied the distance of the camera. When positioning the flashes, you need to ensure that the edge of the glass pane does not cast a shadow into the image.

I placed the flashes on opposing sides of the setup. With a number of a test shots I made sure that the light from the flashes doesn’t create any unwanted reflections on the glass. You also need to avoid that the edge of the glass pane casts shadow lines into the image.

Next, I added the water. I treated the glass with a rain repellant for car windows. This creates a kind of ‘lotus effect’, so that the water doesn’t create just a big puddle, but nice individual drops. Then I sprayed on the water with a simple spray bottle, until there were sufficiently many and large enough droplets.

Finally, I gathered all the items I wanted to place underneath the glass pane to shoot them through the droplets: fruit, a flower, as well as fabric and some utensils from my wife’s treasure chamber ♥.

THE SETTINGS

The final look of the images mostly depends on three parameters:

  • Distance between the glass pane and the object underneath
  • Distance between camera and glass pane
  • Focal length of the lens

Depending on how you vary these, you can fit items of different sizes into the frame, as well as changing the ratio between the sizes of the item and the water droplets it is seen through. The photos in the gallery give an impression on how different-sized drops affect the image using the same background object.

Setup for the Photo Experiment "Water Droplets"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Water Droplets”: ISO 100, ƒ/22, 1/125s, manual focus adjusted using live view. The flashes are adjusted and triggered via the Godox X1c, and a cable remote is used to trigger the camera.

I tried various focal lengths; most of the images were taken either with the Tamron SP 90 mm ƒ/2.8 Macro, or the Canon EF 50 mm ƒ/1.8, while using identical camera settings. These can be quickly explained:

  • Aperture: ƒ/22. I wanted to have a large depth of field, so that the water droplets as well as the objects underneath would be shown sharp in the final image. I tried different aperture values as well, but I liked the images taken at ƒ/22 the most.
  • ISO: 100. Since the flashes rendered enough light, there was no reason to compromise image quality.
  • Shutter Speed: 1/125 second. The exact value doesn’t matter that much; the important thing is that a photo taken without using the flashes is completely dark. This way, there will be no unwanted distracting reflections of windows or other ambient light sources on the droplets.
  • Flashes: 1/8 power. I set their output in manual mode so that the photos were correctly exposed. When I used very bright or very dark items, I adjusted the power accordingly.

It took a few attempts until everything was how I wanted it to be – but not too long, and then I was ready to start.

THE SHOOTING

After everything was set up, the main challenge was to play around with different items and see how they look like seen through the water drops. In general, colorful items give the best results; however, the patterns should not be too small. Otherwise, the image will be very busy due to the manifold repetition of the pattern in the droplets.

In addition to the objects, I also varied the distance to the glass pane, the focal length and the aperture value. Another possibility for changing the size of the droplets in the image, and thereby alter how the pattern is repeated, is to move the glass pane. Typically, you’ll find larger drops in the center of the sprayed area, and smaller ones further out. This also changes over time. As water evaporates, the smallest drops will disappear entirely, and only the bigger ones remain.

Every time the distance between the camera and the glass pane was changed, or I chose a different focal length, I needed to refocus manually. I used the camera’s live view at 10× magnification. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds, due to the rickety construction of my makeshift boom stand. But with a steady hand, I accomplished the focus adjustments as well as taking the images.

TIPS & TRICKS

As often is the case with such experiments, the devil is hidden in the details, and some problems only show up once you view the images on a large computer screen.

  • The glass pane should really be free of scratches. Even miniature scratches, barely visible with a naked eye, will clearly stand out in the final picture due to the large magnification. This is enhanced by the fact that while the droplets are round, scratches are mostly linear, hence show up as a distracting element. As a result, I deleted all images from my first attempt, and replaced the glass table top by a glass shelf from a display case. The glass from a picture frame might be suitable as well, if it doesn’t have any scratches.
  • A large depth of field requires lots of light, which is why I resorted to using the external flashes. Since the items under glass pane usually don’t move by themselves, it is also possible to take these pictures using only ambient light. You’ll need to watch out for reflections on the glass pane and the water droplets, though (ceiling lamp, windows, TV…). In addition, due to the slow shutter speed, the camera needs to be mounted in a very steady manner.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Recommended for imitation – a nice photography variation for a dull weekend. The images created this way make beautiful backgrounds for smartphones, tablets, or slide show presentations.

What I’ve learned: Improvisation. You don’t always need expensive studio gear to take great images, if you know how to help yourself with what’s around the house. And thus, you can turn rather boring items and turn them into interesting pictures.


LINKS

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

Photo Experiment: Light Painting with Airplanes

Night Traffic

Long exposures are one of many means to photograph something in a way the naked eye doesn’t see it. Which is one of the reasons why photography fascinates me the way it does. The most popular images of this kind are night-time images of cities, in which driving cars paint long streaks of light through the frame.

This inspired me the other day, when I was looking at one of the many airplanes climbing into the sky nearby during an evening stroll. All airplanes taking off from Frankfurt’s southbound runway 18 fly towards our house, so in the dark evening sky, you can clearly see their bright landing lights and blinking navigations lights. Thus, the idea came up to give it a try and see what this can be turned into.

FOR THE IMPATIENT

Gear Settings
  • Camera
  • Tripod
  • Remote trigger
  • Appropriate clothing
  • Beverages
  • Reading material
  • Flashlight
  • Manual Focus
  • Manual Mode
  • ISO 100
  • 30 seconds
  • Aperture ƒ/11 – ƒ/5.6
  • Continuous shooting
  • White balance: daylight

OVERALL SETUP

A few days ago, the conditions were ideal: the weather was clear and dry. A few clouds were there, but they were high enough so that they wouldn’t be illuminated by the bright airport, and the climbing planes also wouldn’t immediately vanish into them. So I grabbed my gear and walked out into the fields.

There, I looked for a spot from which I had a good view on the planes as they take off, without having the bright streetlights of the next village in the image as well. Most of all, I wanted to avoid any cars passing by that would shine their headlights into the camera.

I had no idea up front what a good field of view would be, so I packed several lenses. I liked the view at a focal length of 35 mm the most, so I mounted the Sigma A 18-35 mm ƒ/1.8. I was able to capture several great night-time photos with this lens before. Since I never opened the aperture any wider than ƒ/5.6, this image could have also been taken with a standard-zoom kit lens.

With long exposures in mind, the camera was of course mounted to a tripod, and I had my remote shutter release with me as well. The main reason for using the cable remote is that I can lock the trigger button, so the camera takes several images in direct succession when set to continuous shooting mode.

CAMERA SETTINGS

This was a matter of trial and error. A few settings were clear from the start: I set the ISO value to 100. This reduces the noise in the image and makes for longer exposure times. As the light changes during dusk, I chose a fixed setting for the white balance, namely daylight. Finally, I focused manually on the horizon and switched the shooting mode to continuous.

Next, I worked out the shutter speed. Looking through the viewfinder and using a stop watch, I tracked an airplane from the moment its lights appeared above the tree line. It took about 80 seconds until it left the frame.

So, what is the best exposure time? Two contradicting factors need to be considered. On the one hand, a faster shutter speed generates more images. This also means there will be more gaps in the light trails, as the camera always makes a short pause between pictures. These gaps have to be closed manually in post-processing. This can be avoided, or at least minimized, by using slower shutter speeds. Unfortunately, this has an adverse effect on the image quality: the longer the exposure time, the weaker the light trails will appear.

I took a few test shots, and viewed the results using maximum magnification on the camera display. The two images below show the difference between a full-minute exposure and a half-minute exposure:

Light Trail (60 sec.)
Detail view of a light trail with 60 seconds exposure time at 200% magnification. The dots painted by the blinking navigation lights are now barely visible.
Light Trail (30 sec.)
Detail view of a light trail with 30 seconds exposure time at 200% magnification. The trail is much brighter compared to the background, and the dots from the navigation lights are now clearly visible.

Finally, I settled for a shutter speed of 30 seconds. The light trails stood clearly out from the background, and a flight time of 80 seconds for each plane to cross the frame meant that I would have to close two gaps in each trail – a reasonable compromise. This also happens to be the longest exposure time the camera supports in manual mode. Even longer exposures require using the ‘bulb’ mode, which makes operating the shutter more complex.

That last value I set was the aperture. I set it so that the overall exposure of the image looked OK to me. The main goal was to make sure the sky didn’t become too bright, to simplify combining the images later. I started at ƒ/11, and then, as it gradually became darker, opened the aperture step by step to ƒ/5.6.

SHOOTING

When everything was set, all I had to do was wait – not for long, though. As soon as I saw the lights of a plan emerging above the trees, I pressed and locked the trigger button on the remote shutter release. Thus, the camera took three pictures in a row. Often, the next airplane was already in sight at the end of taking the third image of the previous one. If not, I let the camera pause for a while.

Over a period of about one and a half hours, from quarter past nine to the last takeoff at 10:45pm, I took 75 pictures in all. Even though it was close to 70°F during the day, it cooled off rather quickly once it became dark. The warm jacket I packed now really came in handy, as did the beverages and reading material.

In retrospect, time passed rather quickly. After the last plane left, I packed everything together, used a flashlight to make sure I didn’t forget anything in the dark, and walked back home.

POST-PROCESSING

The next day, I went about assembling the final image from the individual pictures. The first step was to import everything to Adobe Lightroom CC. I applied a few adjustments to all photos: I activated lens corrections (lens profile and chromatic aberration), and increased the contrast and clarity to make the light trails stand out from the background even more.

Then I picked the image on which I liked the sky the most, and edited it to my liking regarding colors, contrast and details, to make it the background image. The result looked like this:

Night Sky
Night Sky – I liked the sky the most on this image. Thus, I used it as the background and added all other light trails onto it.

In Lightroom, I selected all 75 images, including the background, and chose “Photo” → “Edit in…” → “Open in Photoshop as Layers…”  to transfer them over to Photoshop. This took quite a while, but then all pictures were layered on top of each other in a single project.

The first thing I did was moving the background layer all the way to the bottom, so that all other layers covered it. Then I turned all layers but the background invisible. The next step was selecting three images belonging to the same flight and making them visible again:

Single light trail, part 1
Single light trail, part 1
Single light trail, part 2
Single light trail, part 2
Single light trail, part 3
Single light trail, part 3

The crucial step now was to change the layer blending mode from “normal” to “lighten”. As the result, only those parts of each layer that are brighter than the underlying image are shown – in particular, the light trail drawn by the plane. The outcome of this first step can be seen in the image below:

Adding one trail, before editing
The three parts of the one light trail, with the layer blending mode set to “lighten”, before removing unwanted artefacts and closing the gaps.

This is already quite close to the desired result, but there are a few disturbing artefacts: First, there was another plane flying across in the image in the background, which caused the red and white dotted line near the horizon on the left-hand side of the image. Second, the stars in the top right hand corner are now duplicated, because they moved compared to the background image. And finally, the glow from the airport can be seen behind the trees.

Thus, I collapsed the three layers of the light trail into a single layer, and added a layer mask. Then I masked out all unwanted artefacts in the image – basically, I painted the entire mask black except for the light trail.

The final step was using the clone stamp tool to close the gaps resulting from taking three images. I set the sampling to “current layer”, and opacity and flow to 100%. Here’s the final result:

Adding one trail, after editing
The finished light trail: The gaps have been closed, the trail of the landing plane has been removed, just like the duplicated stars and the glow the behind trees.

After completing one light trail, I hid the respective layer and started on the next trail. I worked on each one individually, because this simplified closing the gaps and removing unwanted artefacts. It also enabled me to adjust the brightness of each trail independently using levels adjustment layers.

The final step was to make all layers visible, collapse everything into a single layer, and export the final image:

Night Traffic
Night Traffic – The final image. Composed from 75 individual pictures, it shows the light trails painted into the evening sky by planes taking of.

TIPS & TRICKS

Some additional information in case you want to try this out yourself:

  • When taking photos of this kind, it is better to take several images with shorter exposure time, and subsequently combine them in post-processing, than to take a single long exposure. This will improve image quality, and even more important, it reduces the risk of losing several minutes of action because, e.g., a car drives by and shines its headlights into your lens.
  • I’ve linked two video tutorials below; one from Canon Australia on photographing light trails, and one from Jimmy McIntyre on post-processing them. They both used cars instead of airplanes, but the procedure is the same as in the image above.
  • With long exposures, there are two factors to consider for the composition of the final image: the static background, and the patterns drawn by the moving lights. It takes some practice to imagine the final picture before actually taking it, so try it out when you find the chance.
  • Taking such photos requires patience – for planning, for shooting, and for post-processing. I spent two hours on the field, plus another three one the computer. Take your time, it will be worth your while!

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: When you have an evening off – go for it! Grab your camera and your tripod, and go to the next street bridge, railway station, airport, local festival – wherever there are moving lights. This way, you can capture amazing and sometimes surprising motion patterns.

What I’ve learned: I’ve gathered some good experiences, for instance how the exposure time affects such long exposures and light painting images. The same goes for working with layers and the clone stamp tool in Photoshop.


LINKS:

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

What is…? – Terms, Abbreviations and Lens Designations

Terms, Abbreviations and Lens Designations

Everyone who takes a deeper dive into photography for the first time, gets drowned by a flood of strange terms and abbreviations. Test reviews, tutorials, and online communities are just full of them. What confused me even more in the beginning, was the fact that there is often more than one designation for the same thing – or, vice versa, one and the same shortcut has several different meanings. I am currently replacing some of my gear, so I had to make sure I was adding the correct designations to the respective item descriptions. And since I was at it anyway, I’m writing it down here for future reference – yours, as well as mine.

BASIC TERMS

Photography fills an abundance of books and videos, which describe the basic steps, give instructions, and explain the terminology. I do not intend to compete with that. However, I do want to give an explanation in my own words of the terms I am using regularly in my blog posts.

For most of the terms, I have added links to the respective articles on Wikipedia, in case you want to read more about a certain topic. And if you’re interested in all the details, I highly recommend Mark Levoy’s “Lectures on Digital Photography”.

Aperture

From a technical point of view, the aperture is the opening in the lens through which light hits the sensor. Usually, it can be varied in size (⇒ Wikipedia).

From an artistic point of view, the aperture is the most important tool for creating an image. It controls the depth of field, i.e. the distance range that will be shown sharp in the picture. This makes the difference between a portrait with a soft background, and a landscape photo where the entire frame is in focus. It also influences the amount of light passing through the lens, in particular when using a flash.

  • The aperture setting is always given in relation to the lens. The aperture value is calculated by dividing the focal length of the lens by the diameter of the effective opening. As the size of the opening is the denominator of this fraction, it means that the aperture value is the smaller the larger the opening is.
  • The aperture values are set so that switching from one value to the next always corresponds to either doubling or halving the amount of light let through. This is equal to doubling or halving the size (area) of the aperture opening. The area of a circle with radius r is generally known to be π * r². If I want to double that area, that means: 2 * π * r² = π * 2 * r² = π * (√2)² * r² = π * (√2 * r)². Hence, you need to change the radius by a factor of  √2 ≈ 1.4, if you want to double the area.
  • Thus, the aperture values are always multiples of √2: ƒ/1, ƒ/1.4, ƒ/2, ƒ/2.8, ƒ/4, ƒ/5.6, ƒ/8, ƒ/11, ƒ/16…
Lens with aperture set to different values for comparison (Source: Wikipedia)
  • Since on manual lenses, the aperture ring clicks into place at each of these values, they are also referred to as ‘stops’. Accordingly, the terms ‘stop of light’, ‘stop up’ and ‘stop down’ all relate to doubling or halving the amount of captured light. These phrases are used even if the effect is not achieved by changing the aperture, but by other means, such as changing the exposure time, ISO value, or flash output.
  • Between these ‘full’ values, there are usually values for ±⅓ stop, i.e.: ƒ/2.8, ƒ/3.2, ƒ/3.5, ƒ/4.
  • This notation makes the aperture value, respectively its effect on the exposure of the image, independent from the lens and camera used. Consequently, an image taken of a particular subject and correctly exposed at ‘ISO 100, ƒ/8, 1/200th sec.’ will be correctly exposed with every camera, regardless of size and brand, on which I can dial in these settings. What will be different, though, depending on focal length and sensor size, are the field of view, the angle of view, and the depth of field.
  • When mixing ambient light and flash, the aperture controls the amount of light from the flash in the image, while the ambient light is controlled by the shutter speed.
Bokeh

The term is derived from the Japanese word for “blurred”. In photography, it describes the quality of the out-of-focus areas in a picture taken with a wide-open aperture (⇒ Wikipedia). The bokeh depends on the construction of the respective lens, and the quality of the individual lenses it is comprised of. In particular, portrait lenses usually produce a nice bokeh, to create smooth backgrounds that do not distract in any way from the subject. There are, however, lenses that produce a rather fidgety bokeh, for instance because contours get doubled in out-of-focus areas.

Chromatic Aberration /
Color Fringing

When light passes through drops of water, the individual colors are refracted differently. Sunlight gets split into its individual colors, which we see as a rainbow. The same happens when light passes through pieces of glass in a lens. This means the individual lenses need to be tuned in a very specific way to ensure that on the camera sensor, all the different colors match up again in the intended way. Where this fails, green and purple color fringes appear on contrasting edges in the image, for instance at branches of a tree against a bright sky, or the white frame of an otherwise dark window (⇒ Wikipedia). Chromatic aberration can be corrected in many image-processing software tools, such as Adobe Lightroom.

Crop Factor

To be able to compare different camera types, the main parameters such as the focal length are always converted to the so-called full-frame format. This designation applies to cameras with a sensor the same size as a negative of a 35 mm miniature film (24 x 36 mm). The crop factor equals the ratio of the length of the diagonals (⇒ Wikipedia).

  • Popular formats include APS-C (crop factor 1.5 (Nikon) or 1.6 (Canon)) and Micro-Four-Thirds (crop factor 2 (Olympus, Panasonic)).
  • To compare focal lengths, the values are multiplied by the crop factor: 50 mm on a Canon APS-C camera thus equal – times 1.6 – 80 mm on a full-frame camera. This correspondence applies only to the field of view, however, and not to the angle of view.
  • To compare depth of field, the aperture also gets multiplied by the crop factor. The rear camera on Apple’s iPhone 7, for instance, has an aperture of ƒ/1.8 and a crop factor of 7.2. This roughly equals ƒ/13 on a full-frame camera, which makes it clear why it is almost impossible to get pictures with a blurred-out background using a cell phone camera (large aperture number = large depth of field).
Depth of Field

Depth of field refers to the distance range, within which objects are shown sufficiently sharp in the image (⇒ Wikipedia).

  • In principle, only objects exactly in the focus plane are shown 100% sharp on the image.
  • The further something is away from the focus plane, either in front of it or behind it, the more blurred it becomes. This is a gradual transition, and where an object is still “sharp enough” depends on the resolution of the camera as well as the eye of the beholder.
  • Depth of field is controlled by three factors:
    1. The aperture: low aperture number = shallow depth of field; larger aperture number = large depth of field.
    2. The focal length: the shorter the focal length, the larger the depth of field.
    3. The focus distance: the further away the subject is, the larger the depth of field. Beyond a certain focus distance (depending on focal length and aperture), the depth of field becomes infinite. This distance is called the hyper-focal distance.
  • For this reason, portraits are usually taken with a long focal length and wide-open aperture. Thus, only the face is in focus, while the background becomes as blurred as possible. For landscape pictures, on the other hand, usually a short focal length is used, together with a medium or narrow aperture (such as ƒ/8), to get as much of the picture in focus as possible.
Exposure Triangle

Illustrates the correlation of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO setting for the correct exposure of an image.

  • Each of the three parameters has an exposure component and an artistic component:
    • Each component can make the image darker (fast shutter speed, narrow aperture, low ISO) or brighter (slow shutter speed, wide aperture, high ISO)
    • The shutter speed can either freeze motion (fast) or show motion (slow)
    • A wide-open aperture creates a shallow depth of field, so only the subject is in focus, while a narrow aperture results in a large depth of field, where most of the image is in focus
    • Low ISO values create a clean image, while high ISO values will cause a noisy (grainy) image
    • Depending on the type of photo you want to take, you set one or two of them depending on your priorities, and let the camera figure out the rest.
    • The blog ‘Hamburger Fotospots‘ offers a great cheat card, which illustrates the three parameters listed above, along with their respective effects. The web page is in German, but the ZIP package you can download includes an English version of the cheat card:
Source: Hamburger Fotospots
  • First example: If I cut the exposure time in half, but double the ISO setting, the exposure stays the same (motion blur is reduced, but the picture quality decreases)
  • Second example: If I change the aperture from ƒ/2.8 to ƒ/5.6, I can quadruple the exposure time without changing the exposure (motion becomes more visible, but the depth of field is changed, too).
  • All theory is grey, so here are two YouTube videos that illustrate this very well:
Exposure Time /
Shutter Speed

The time interval during which light hits the sensor. Most cameras allow adjustment between 1/4,000th of a second and 30 seconds (⇒ Wikipedia).

  • Higher-range camera also offer 1/8,000th of a second
  • For long exposure times beyond 30 seconds, there is the so-called ‘bulb’ mode, where the shutter is controlled manually by either pressing and releasing the shutter button, or by pressing it twice.
  • See below for more information about the shutter.
Flash Sync Speed Identifies the shortest exposure time at which a flash without special ‘high speed’ capability will render a fully exposed image. This depends on the build of the shutter (see below), but with most cameras, it is around 1/200th of a second.
Internal Focus On a lens with internal focusing, all moving elements for focusing on your subject are inside the lens. This means that in particular the front element of the lens does neither extend nor rotate when focusing. This is important when using filters that depend on the correct orientation to get the desired effect, such as polarizing filters or graduated filters.
ISO

The name of the International Organization for Standardization in Switzerland. As the shortcut for this organization would be different in every language (in English, it should actually be IOS), ISO is used as a proper name. It is derived from the Greek syllable “iso”, meaning “equal”. In photography, the ISO value describes how sensitive an analog film or digital sensor is to light, as defined in the standard ISO 5800 (⇒ Wikipedia).

  • The default value with most cameras nowadays is ISO 100.
  • The higher the ISO value, the more sensitive to light the film or sensor is. This goes along with an increasing reduction of image quality by increased grain or noise. How strong this effect is on digital cameras depends on the build of the sensor, in particular the size of each individual pixel – the larger, the better. This is why low-light cameras usually have low resolution.
Minimum Focus Distance

The minimum focus distance is the shortest distance on which the camera can still focus with the respective lens. It is important to know that this distance is always measured from the sensor, and not from the front element of the lens. The position of the sensor is marked by a symbol (0) on the camera body. If it is given e.g. as 5 inches, but the distance from the sensor to the front element is already 4 inches, then there is just 1 inch of space left to the targeted object. In general, the minimum focus distance increases with the focal length; for telephoto lenses it can easily be 5 ft. or more. Macro lenses are an exception, because they are built specifically to focus at very short distances, to achieve the large magnification.

Shutter

The shutter is a mechanism inside the camera that allows light to hit the sensor only for the chosen exposure time (⇒ Wikipedia). There are two main types of shutters:

  • An electronic or digital shutter actually isn’t a shutter in the original sense, because light is hitting the sensor all the time. The sensor gets reset (all values set to zero), and after the given time, the values of all pixels are read out. The advantage is that this happens completely silent, as there are no moving parts. Most video, cell phone, and compact cameras work this way, as well as DSLRs in video mode.
  • SLRs usually have a mechanical focal-plane shutter, which allows for very precisely controlled exposure times, as short as 1/8,000th of a second. It is usually built as a pair of two curtains. At the beginning of the exposure time, the first curtain, which until then had completely covered the sensor, slides away. At the end of the exposure time, the second curtain moves out of its resting position, follows the first curtain, and covers the sensor again. At higher shutter speeds (less than 1/200th of a second), the two curtains move so close to each other, that at no point in time the entire sensor is exposed at once. Instead, a slot moves across the sensor so that every region of the sensor gets exposed for the chosen time interval.
    • This slow-motion video on YouTube shows very well what happens inside a camera when taking a picture.
    • Due to the way the shutter works, flashes need a special ‘high-speed synchronization’ mode for working with fast shutter speeds. Otherwise, a black bar would be visible in the image, because only that part of the sensor that was visible between the two shutter curtains when the flash fired, was exposed.
    • Design and way of working of the shutter also explain the terms ‘first / second curtain‘ for firing the flash at the beginning or at the end of the exposure time.
  • Both shutter types do not capture the entire image at once, but the exposure rather moves across the frame. This caused by reading out the pixels row by row with an electronic shutter, or by the movement of the curtains of a focal-plane shutter. The downside is that fast moving objects become distorted in the final image (so-called ‘rolling shutter effect‘). There are also cameras with a so-called ‘global shutter’, which capture the information of the entire image at once. This technology is typically used in rather expensive high-speed cameras.
  • Robert Hall has a video on YouTube where explains the differences as well as the pros and cons of the two shutter types.

ABBREVIATIONS

There are an almost infinite amount of abbreviations in photography. I have selected the ones I often use myself. This section leaves aside all abbreviations that designate lens characteristics; you will find those below in a table of their own.

AF

Auto-focus – The system your camera uses to focus on the targeted subject. There are two distinctly different auto-focus systems: Phase detection is what single-lens reflex cameras employ when using the optical viewfinder. Edge detection is applied when looking through an electronic viewfinder or using the display, for instance on a cell phone. Phase detection is faster, while edge detection is more reliable. In addition, depending on your camera and lens, there are different types of drives moving the lenses accordingly; also see the lens designations below.

APS‑C

Advanced Photo Systems-Classic – This designation embraces digital cameras with a sensor size between 22.5 x 15.0 mm (crop factor 1.6) and 25.1 x 16.7 mm (crop factor 1.5). Basically all interchangeable lens cameras with a retail price under 1,000 € have such a sensor. APS-C is not a standardized label; the actual sensor size varies between manufacturers. Nikon calls their APS-C cameras “DX”.

The designation goes back to the APS system, which was invented back in the 1990s for analog film. The image size is about ⅓ of a 35 mm miniature film. This made it possible to build much smaller cameras, and to store additional information on the film. Due to the quickly emerging digital photography, however, APS never became accepted for analog film, and quickly vanished again.

APS-C as a classification of the sensor size is not related to the camera sensor technology APS (Active Pixel Sensor). This is a type of so-called CMOS sensor, which, due to their compact build and low energy consumption, are used in almost all cell phones and compact cameras.

ILC Interchangeable Lens Camera – A camera where you can quickly change the lens. Often used as a generic term for mirrorless or single-lens reflex cameras, to distinguish them from compact cameras with a built-in lens.
DSLM Digital Single-Lens Mirrorless – Digital cameras without optical viewfinder. They are often also referred to a System Cameras (Example: Sony Alpha a6000). “Single-Lens” means that the image in the viewfinder is captured through the same lens as the actual photo. On older compact cameras, the viewfinder often had its own optics. Nowadays, basically all cameras are digital, the D is often omitted and just SLM is being used. In addition, there are several synonymous acronyms: MILC (Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera), MSC (Mirrorless System Camers) and – my favorite  :mrgreen: – EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens camera).
DSLR Digital Single-Lens Reflex – Digital cameras with an optical viewfinder that uses the same lens as the image sensor (Example: Canon EOS 760D). Again, the D is often omitted and just SLR is used.
MF Manual Focus – Interchangeable lenses usually allow for manually focusing on your subject. This is meaningful in difficult lighting conditions, e.g. for night photography, or for pictures where a moving object shall be captured in a certain position and the auto-focus wouldn’t be fast enough.
MFT

Micro-Four-Thirds – A sensor format with crop factor 2, used primarily by Olympus and Panasonic. “Four Thirds” relates to the 4:3 aspect ratio of the sensor, in contrast to the otherwise usually 3:2.

SOOC

Straight Out Of Camera – This abbreviation is mostly used in online forums and photo communities, and means that the picture it refers to has not been post-processed on a computer in any way.

LENS DESIGNATIONS

Acronyms on lenses tend to be especially confusing, because the manufacturers use different labels for the same functionalities and characteristics.  The table below summarizes the most prevalent shortcuts for the brands I use.

I have left out all terms related to the ‘optical formula’ of a lens, i.e., which specially shaped lenses are built in, and which specific coatings they have. This would go far beyond the scope of this post. In the end, all that matters it their effect on the image quality (distortion, flaring, and chromatic aberration).

Function Canon Samyang Sigma Tamron Tokina
Lens for Full-frame Cameras EF DG Di FX
Lens for Cameras with APS-C Sensor EF-S CS DC Di II DX
Lens for mirrorless Cameras EF-M FE (Sony E-Mount) DN
Image Stabilizer IS (Image Stabilization) OS (Optical Stabilizer) VC (Vibration Compensation)
Auto-focus USM (Ultra-Sonic Motor)

STM (Stepping Motor)

 AF HSM (Hyper-Sonic Motor) USD (Ultrasonic Silent Drive)  AF
Internal Focus IF IF IF IF
Professional Lens L (Luxury) A (Art)

S (Sport)

EX (Excellence)

SP (Super Professional) AT-X Pro
Consumer Lenses C (Contemporary) AT-X
NOTES:
  • Canon: Lenses with internal focus, as well as consumer lenses, do not have a dedicated designation.
  • Samyang: Lenses from Samyang are sold under several different brands, including Rokinon, Bower, Opteka, Pro-Optic, Vivitar und Walimex. They are technically identical, but their prices vary drastically. Full-frame lenses do not have a special label. No lenses with image stabilization are available. Finally, Samyang does not distinguish between different product lines.
  • Tamron: As far as I know, Tamron does not offer any lenses for mirrorless cameras. Consumer lenses do not have a specific label.
  • Tokina: There are no lenses available with image stabilization, or for mirrorless cameras.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: When you get started, all those terms and abbreviations seem rather confusing. But don’t let yourself be scared by that! To learn the basic terms in the beginning, a book can really help; but in the end, it’s ‘learning by doing’. In particular, the exposure triangle needs closer attention, and you’ll need to memorize the creative possibilities (How do I blur the background? How do I freeze motion?).

What I’ve learned: A lot  😀 And I’m still learning. Even writing this article helped me to better understand a number of things…


LINKS

In addition to the Wikipedia links, additional information can be found here:

Picture credits: Title image: own graphic.

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