Book Review: Tony Northrup – Stunning Digital Photography

Book Cover: Stunning Digital Photography (www.northrup.photo)

A comprehensive photography book, video tutorial and online community, all in one – does that even exist? Yes, it actually does. In his book, “Stunning Digital Photography” (SDP), Tony Northrup covers the ground from instructions for beginners to more advanced tips and tricks, across basically all photography disciplines.

When I started to take a deeper look into photography, I was primarily looking for orientation. What are the possibilities? What do you need, to do what? Where to start? After discovering YouTube as a plentiful source of information when choosing my camera and lenses, as well as for tutorials on photographing the Milky Way, I quickly came across the many videos in Chelsea & Tony Northrup’s channel – and thus, the book.

SDP: ONE FOR ALL

The book is available in various formats: as classic paperback, or as ebook for all major platforms. I strongly recommend the ebook, because here, the numerous videos with examples and tutorials can be accessed directly through embedded hyperlinks. This allows you to quickly jump between reading and watching. This makes the book very vivid, because the videos demonstrate the effect of certain settings much clearer than a few static sample pictures in the book could do. This appeals a lot to me, and was the reason for me to buy the book.

Another advantage is the fact that the book is never “finished”, it’s a living document – sections and videos become either updated or added on a regular basis. Once you have bought the book, you will have access to all future updates, which you can simply download from the homepage.

BOOK STRUCTURE

The book starts with a few generic chapters: the “Quick Tips” for people who want to get started right away, followed by sections on composition, lighting and flash, and camera operation in general. This part of the book explains the basics, such as the effect of aperture, perspective, and light direction on an image. In addition to the general operating instructions, Tony also offers one-hour in-depth video tutorials for many popular camera models, where he explains their operation and specific capabilities in great detail. The general part of the book is wrapped up with a trouble-shooting chapter that helps you track down why an image turned out blurry, or why the colors were off.

The second part of the book is comprised of chapters which, based on the foundation built in the first part, deal with specific photography disciplines: Portraits, Weddings, Animals, Landscapes, Night Photography, HDR Images, Macros and Close-ups, and finally Underwater. Each section starts with an introduction, followed by specific instructions and inspirations for planning, camera settings, equipment, and how to avoid common mistakes. Many sections also contain a short quiz, which allow you to quickly check how much of what you’ve read and watched you’ve memorized so far.

THE VIDEOS

The videos are all well-made – with a running time of two to five minutes each, they have an enjoyable duration. Complex topics might take ten minutes or more to explain in detail. Many of the videos are freely accessible on YouTube, but there also are a lot that can only be accessed through the hyperlinks in the book, which provides additional value. Chelsea’s and Tony’s English is easy to understand; in addition, you can switch on subtitles on most of the videos.

Each video focuses on a specific topic and demonstrates it clearly. This can be a bit of theory, such as the effects of the aperture setting on the image, or practical tips, for instance on photographing birds. I still access videos from the book every now and then, when I want to know or try something specific.

FACEBOOK COMMUNITY

Once you have the book, you can also ask for access to the closed Facebook group, “Stunning Digital Photography Readers”. Here you can upload your own images and thus get immediate feedback from this rather large community. Experience shows that, the more specific any questions you post with the picture are, the better the feedback will be. In addition, the many images from other photographers can serve as inspirations for your own efforts. This community is another reason that made buying the book worthwhile for me.

FURTHER ON

“Stunning Digital Photography” deals primarily with making the pictures. Post-processing is mentioned only briefly, which is OK for me. It would increase the size of the book to the point where it became unwieldy. Also, it depends on which software you are using because the workflows and terms differ significantly from program to program. If you’re using the Adobe tools, Chelsea and Tony offer additional books specifically for  Lightroom and Photoshop. They are structured similar to SDP, and in the same manner. Many, but not all, of the video tutorials are freely accessible on YouTube.

In case the explanations on the theory of photography, e.g. image composition or camera technology, given in SDP don’t go far enough for you, or if you’ve simply become curious and want to know more, I strongly recommend watching Mark Levoy’s Lectures on Digital Photography.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: “Stunning Digital Photography” will give you an all-in-one package to get started with this fascinating hobby. I can definitely recommend buying it.

What I’ve learned: The book, and even more so the videos it contains, have given me a great overview of the basics as well as the entire spectrum of photography. At the same time, I’ve learned to cross-check the contents with reviews and tutorials from other photographers to not just believe everything, but actually to question things and to try them out. In the end, doing something yourself always grants the best learning experience.


LINKS

Title Image: Book cover; Source: http://northrup.photo/

YouTube Recommendation: Christopher Frost

Christopher Frost Photography

When I started looking for additional lenses for my 760D, the YouTube channel by Christopher Frost was among the first I subscribed to. Chris is an enthused photographer living in Cardiff and currently training to be become a vicar. He characterizes himself as a “lens enthusiast” and continuously publishes detailed reviews.

I’ve come to appreciate these reviews a lot. Chris follows a thorough and consistent scheme, so that his reviews can be easily compared to each other. From time to time, he takes advantage of that himself and combines several reviews into a “battle” – for instance, ten different 50mm prime lenses, or eight ultra wide-angle ones. Hence, it not only becomes evident how one particular lens behaves under various settings or on different cameras, but you can also easily compare lenses to each other.

He assesses the following points:

  • Look & feel, build quality, and equipment
  • Image quality (sharpness, contrast, chromatic aberrations) – on a full-frame as well as an APS-C camera, as far as applicable, at different apertures, and (for zoom lenses) at different focal lengths.
  • Distortion and vignetting
  • Close-up image quality
  • Behavior against bright lights
  • Bokeh

When it comes to lenses, he tests about everything that can be mounted to a Canon DSLR; in particular off-brand ones. Thus, he created more than a 130 videos by now. Recently, he obtained a mirrorless camera, so that lenses made specifically for DSLMs are now being reviewed as well.

The videos are made in a very likeable way. In addition to the always-similar test images, they always contain some example images as well as personal experiences when using the lens. He’s enthusiastic about what he’s doing, but he doesn’t overdo it. The videos have a very convenient duration of five to ten minutes each. His British English can be easily understood. Based on his reviews, for instance, I have decided to go with the Tamrom SP 70-300mm ƒ4-5,6 Di VC as my telephoto zoom lens.

PLAYLIST RECOMMENDATIONS

In addition, Chris has some other playlists mostly focused on music, TV shows, and his engagement at Church.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: If you’re looking for well-made, substantiated, and informative reviews on lenses for Canon cameras, then Chris’ YouTube channel comes highly recommended!

What I’ve learned: Due to the comparability of the reviews, I have learned how significantly different lenses can behave concerning sharpness and color-fringing at different aperture settings and focal lengths, and also how big the differences can be when using one and the same lens on full-frame body or an APS-C camera.


LINKS

Title image: YouTube Screenshot

Make and Edit Pictures of the Milky Way

Lonely Speck

Photographing the Milky Way was the motivation for me to finally get deeper into the art of photography. In preparation for a trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico, I had already bought a new camera. The next step was to learn how to make the best use of my equipment – and in particular, how to get the best out of the pictures afterwards, at home on my computer. What helped me the most in all of this was the YouTube channel “Lonely Speck” by Ian Norman, which I will introduce here.

Milky Way over New Mexico
Milky Way over New Mexico

PREPARATION

PLANNING

I spent about a week in Albuquerque, including a few open evenings. While looking for tips where and how to best see the Milky Way, I came across Astronomy Adventures. Peter has a dark site on a ranch up in the mountains between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, at about 7,800 ft. elevation, where he offers guided tours through the night sky with his telescope. Together with a couple of friends, we had the great luck to catch a clear night at new moon – perfect conditions. Peter’s explanations of the history of astronomy, while pointing out interesting stellar formations with his telescope, made for an unforgettable experience.

Back home, in a densely populated region such as Germany’s Rhein-Main area, catching a view of the Milky Way is not so easy. In order to see a decent amount of stars around here, one would have to go to the northern Black Forest, or to the coast of the Baltic Sea. The web site www.lightpollutionmap.info provides a very detailed overview on light pollution levels; check it out for dark places near where you live.

Full Moon Rising
Full Moon Rising

A natural form of light pollution is the moon. In a full moon night, there isn’t much else to see in the sky. There is a number of web sites and apps that help you out with what phase to moon is in, or when it and the sun set and rise respectively. A good recommendation is The Photograhper’s Ephemeris, which can be used for free on any desktop computer. Then of course the weather has to be right as well – the fewer clouds, the less humid and the colder it is, the better. And last but not least, the Milky Way or whatever constellation you are interested it, has to be visible on the sky. There are plenty of web site and apps for this as well; personally, I use Sky Guide for iOS.

EQUIPMENT

This topic can be quickly summarized. You’ll need:

  • A camera (the bigger the sensor, the better – however, even with a Micro Four Thirds camera you can take great pictures. With your cell phone… not so much)
  • A lens. That should fulfil the following requirements:
    • Widest possible angle, to capture much of the sky
    • Widest possible aperture (i.e., low aperture number, so that as much light as possible reaches the sensor)
    • For APS-C DSLRs, I recommend the Tokina 11-20mm ƒ/2.8 DX, which is what I am using
    • For other camera systems, I gladly pass on Stephan Wiesner’s recommendations: for mirrorless APS-C cameras, the Samyang 12mm ƒ/2.0; and for full-frame cameras, the Tamron 15-30mm ƒ/2.8.
    • However, expensive gear isn’t mandatory: even with your kit lens you can take great pictures, as will be shown below
  • Sturdy tripod
  • Optional: remote shutter release (if you don’t have one, you can use your camera’ two second delay shutter)

In addition: warm clothing (even in summer, clear nights tend to get cold), food, drinks, and a book. Also quite helpful: a flash light with a “night vision mode” (red lamp), so you can check or search something without blinding you or others in the dark.

TAKING PICTURES

Once everything is in place, line up your camera with the section of sky you’re interested in, and off you go. The most challenging feat is focusing correctly. In the dark, you have to focus manually, and simply turning the lens to “infinity” rarely does the trick. I usually look for a star that is bright enough to appear in Live View on the LCD screen, use the 10x magnification on it, and turn the focus ring until the star appears as small as possible. I take a few test shots in addition, zoom in, and then fine-tune as needed until the stars have become tiny pinpoints.

I typically start out with these settings:  11mm | ƒ/2.8 | ISO 1.600 | 25 Sec.

If you do not want to capture star trails on purpose, you cannot keep the shutter open for as long as you want – the earth rotates faster than you might think. Here is a rule of thumb for the maximum exposure time so that the stars still appear as dots: (500 divided by (focal length * crop factor)). The crop factor defined the relative size of your camera’s sensor compared to a full-frame camera. It needs to be taken into account because smaller cameras usually also have smaller pixels, hence are more sensitive to the movement of the stars. For a Canon APS-C camera like mine, the crop factor is 1.6 (it’s 1.5 for Nikon, and 2 for Micro Four-Thirds). So, with my camera and the Tokina 11-20mm, I can keep the shutter open for a maximum of (500 / (11* 1.6)) = 28.4 (rounded down: 25) seconds. Please keep in mind: this is a rule of thumbs. Check your images; you may find that you can keep your shutter open longer, or not as long, to get the desired results.

Always shoot wide open, to gather as much light as possible. Concerning the ISO setting, I usually start at 1,600. At least for my 760D, that is a good compromise between the amount of light gathered and the image quality. Once you’re all set, start taking pictures. And never take only one image of a particular target area; always take a series of pictures. I usually take 16 frames or more. This does take a while, but it drastically increases your post-processing options afterwards.

Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy
Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy

In closing, there is one important point to consider: when doing night sky photography for the first time, you’ll get easily tempted to make the pictures too dark. They’ll look great when you look at them on your camera’s bright LCD screen in the dark of night, but back home at your computer, you’ll be greatly disappointed. Make the pictures so that they actually look too bright at first! If your camera offers a histogram, use it. Of course, no parts of the pictures should be blown out (completely white), but there definitely should be information on the right hand side (lights) of your histogram. The more light there is in the image, the more information is available for post-processing – which brings us to the actual topic.

POST-PROCESSING

Ian Norman is a photographer living in California who specializes in astrophotography. Consequently, his YouTube-Channel offers a lot of information on this topic; in particular on post-processing the images. His tutorials explain the steps to be taken in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop very well and in an easy to follow manner. When I edited my first night sky images, I always had my iPad running the video tutorial at hand. I paused, scrolled back and forth, and followed each step carefully. By now, I can do most of it without having to ‘cheat’.

EDIT SINGLE IMAGES IN LIGHTROOM

The big challenge is in achieving good contrast and bringing out all the details, so that the image still looks natural and not overloaded. You will notice that the camera sees a lot more stars than the naked eye does. However when manipulating the night sky, and in particular the colors in the Milky Way, there always is some artistic leeway of course.

I want to point out two of Ian’s videos in particular. In the first one, he explains how you can capture the Milky Way even under very difficult lighting conditions:

This also explains very well why it is better to make the images appear too bright in camera and then reduce brightness in post, than the other way around.

The second video walks you through the usual editing steps for night sky images in Adobe Lightroom. This also proves that you can take impressive pictures even with a slower lens, if you take some considerations into account:

Both videos describe the editing of single images. The advanced method is to merge several frames in Photoshop into a single image – but for this, the images are initially edited in Lightroom as well, before bringing them into Photoshop.

MERGING SEVERAL IMAGES IN PHOTOSHOP

Due to the physical limitations imposed on aperture and shutter time, it is inevitable to raise the ISO setting to 1,600 or even 3,200 when taking pictures of the night sky. This results in a visible amount of noise in the image, especially when zooming in. Using the default noise reduction algorithms included in most photo editing tools will result in losing a lot of details, such as smaller stars.

Now it comes in handy if you have taken several shots of the same area of the sky. The more, the merrier. In short, the trick is to stack and exactly align the images, and then to compute the average value for each pixel. As the stars will always be in the same places in all images after correct alignment, they are not affected. The image noise, however, is random and thus cancels out when calculating the median. If you combine four images taken at ISO 3,200 this way, the remaining noise will be comparable to a shot taken at ISO 800. For the Milky Way pictures you can see in this post, I have stacked more than 20 images each.

This video offers the detailed instructions for how to achieve this:

The particular challenge is the correct alignment of the images. If that does not match exactly, not only the image noise will vanish when calculating the media, but the stars as well, at least in parts of the image. As long as the pictures offer enough contrast, Photoshop’s auto-alignment will work very well. However, I had a number of occasions where the automatic alignment failed. This is no reason for despair, though, as there is a manual workaround:

What remains is the artistic design of the night sky. Ian explains how to best bring out the colors and details in the sky in this video:

This works not only for Orion, of course, but for every section of the sky that has to offer similar features.

Ian’s channel offers numerous other tutorials as well, which are all very helpful. If you have taken enough shots of a particular area, you might for instance consider turning them into a time-lapse video. Using the knowledge from these videos, I have taken quite a number of pictures of the night sky so far, and I am increasingly happy with the results. As with all other kinds of photography, practice makes perfect. So, then: wait for the next clear night around a new moon, and then take your camera out! Especially now during the long winter nights with their clear, cold air, the conditions are ideal…


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Absolutely watch, then go out and try!

What I’ve learned: The knowledge what to consider when taking the pictures, and how to post-process them, is a lot more important than the equipment. Thorough preparation is important, as well as the necessary patience while capturing the images. The results in the end will be well worth the effort!


LINKS

FURTHER INFORMATION

Picture credits: Title image: YouTube Screenshot; Milky Way and Moonrise: own images

YouTube Recommendation: DigitalRevTV

DigitalRevTV

The YouTube channel “DigitalRevTV” is with around 1.8 Million subscribers most likely the largest photography show on the internet. It is created by a group of people. For the most part, the videos are presented by Kai and Lok from Hong Kong. They deal with all kinds of photography-related topics, while not taking things too serious. This turns out to be both a blessing and a curse: one the one hand, much of the channel’s attraction comes from the videos being quite entertaining instead of justing enumerating technical facts; on the other hand, they sometimes do not convey as much information as you’d expect, or simply drift off into shenanigans.

They do offer numerous tests and hands-on reviews for cameras and lenses; however, they fall short compared to what many other channels have to offer in that area. Occasionally, I watch them anyway, though mostly for their entertainment value. But there are other categories that are much more worthwhile.

PLAYLIST – RECOMMENDATIONS

  • “How To” Videos: Close to 100 videos can be found here providing all kinds of creative ideas: what can you do while being stuck at home, for instance due to bad weather? How do you best take pictures of smoke? Or water? How can you play with out-of-focus backgrounds, or light painting? Browse through the list, there are some really cool ideas there. I will certainly try some of them myself when I find the time.
  • “Pro Photographer, Cheap Camera”: As the name suggest, a “cheap” camera will be given to a professional photographer, who then has to solve a given task. “Cheap” can mean all kinds of things: it can be a really old camera, or an actual toy – whatever it is, its features are certain to be significantly below the standard average modern cameras have to offer nowadays. All the more astonishing it is to see the marvellous results at the end!

UPDATE DECEMBER 2016

End of 2016, both Kai and Lok quit DigitalRevTV within a few days. With the loss of its two main characters – Kai in front of the camera, Lok behind it – none of the original founders remain with the channel. DigitalRevTV continues with new staff; produced by some who already worked with Kai and Lok before, even though more in the background. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.

Kai and Lok continue as well. Kai has his own YouTube channel by now, on which he continues to post entertaining camera reviews. Within the first three weeks he already gathered 200,000 followers. Lok seems to be undecided at the moment; maybe the two will work together again in the future…


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Very interesting ideas; but all in all, more a site for browsing than a must-see.

What I’ve learned: The actual camera is secondary when it comes to taking impressive pictures. You need the idea, and an eye for the motive. Plenty of inspiration is provided.


LINKS

Title image: YouTube Screenshot

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