Category Archives: Technique

Controlling Highlights (A Napkin Drawing)

Earlier this month some friends and I got together in San Francisco, as we do every month, to share prints and talk photography. One friend shared prints of some beautiful night photographs he had made of a San Francisco subject. As we looked for little things that could make excellent prints even better we got to talking about highlights and how to control them. There are quite a few ways to do this, and I drew a little picture on a napkin to illustrate one technique I sometimes use to get a bit more detail out of areas that appear to be nearly pure white. The drawing looked a lot like the following.

Drawing on a napkin

It doesn’t look like much here, but trust me when I say that it made sense at the time. My friend picked up the napkin and took it with him as a reminder… and then a few days later contacted me to say he had lost the “napkin notes” from our conversation. He asked if I would mind describing the technique again. I said I’d do it — and three weeks later I finally got around to writing it up in this article!

Photographers using digital cameras have to watch out for over-exposing highlights. While we can recover a lot of detail from dark shadows, especially with current digital cameras, there is much less headroom at the bright end of the spectrum. When the exposure is too bright it is easy to end up with lost details in high luminosity areas. Go a little too far and you end up with that bane of digital photography, blown highlights, where the bright areas are simply pure white, leaving little or no hope of recovering the lost details. Continue reading Controlling Highlights (A Napkin Drawing)

Sharpening Basics: A Primer

Sharpening is a very important step for optimizing digital photograph files. If you let your camera save images in the common .jpg format (a compressed image format that is often used on the web) the camera is applying sharpening to the image produced by the camera sensor. If you use the raw format (a high quality format that retains the original sensor data of the exposure) you will find that the photograph looks soft until you apply sharpening during the post production phase.

Sharpening optimizes the visibility of details that are already in your photograph. It is a matter of more clearly revealing what is in the photograph than  a matter of creating detail where there was none. Most sharpening works by increasing the contrast between light and dark areas in the image — that’s right, what we call sharpening (which makes sense subjectively) as actually more about adjusting the brightness of portions of the photograph.

Typical sharpening

The image above is an example of a small section of a photograph.[1] It is a “100% magnification crop” of a tiny area from a much larger photograph made with a high megapixel DSLR camera. A “100% magnification crop” is an image displayed so that each pixel — or individual picture element — of the original photograph is displayed using a single pixel on the screen. (Things are a bit more complicated than that when using modern high-resolution monitors, though I’ll let that description stand for now.) 100% magnification crops let us look very closely at what is going on in photographas “at the pixel level.” In this case, the original full image from which these examples were taken would be equivalent to prints at a width of roughly 10-12 feet.

The right side of the example shows this tiny section of the photograph before sharpening. The left side shows the results of fairly typical sharpening. Continue reading Sharpening Basics: A Primer

A Photograph Exposed: Technique and Interpretation in Post

(“A Photograph Exposed”  is a series exploring some of my photographs in greater detail.)

Island and Trees, Tuolumne River
Trees grow on a small, rocky island in the Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park

If you follow this website you may have seen this photograph before — it is one of two that were the subjects of an earlier article (“A Photograph Exposed: One Subject, Two Compositions“) focusing on compositional decisions I made when I photographed this Sierra Nevada subject. In this companion article I want to look at the next step — going from that original exposure to the final (at least for now!) interpretation of the subject that you see above, and the how and why of post-processing the image.

For me, post-processing is as much a part of the creative process of photography as is composing and making the exposure. In fact, many of the decisions that I make at the time of exposure anticipate what I may do during the post-processing stage. These decisions recognize that the camera does not “see” the same way that we do, and that simply trying to produce an exposure that looks the exactly like the actual scene is often both hopeless and counterproductive. Continue reading A Photograph Exposed: Technique and Interpretation in Post

The Canon 5Ds R — Autofocus ‘Torture’ Test

OK, “torture test” might be overstating things just a bit, but I’ve been meaning to check out a few things related to the capabilities of the autofocus system of my new Canon EOS 5DS R. A few years ago birds, especially winter migratory birds, became one of my photographic passions. While this camera is not really optimized for this sort of photography, I plan to use it for this purpose, as I did my 5DII.

The Landing
A brown pelican joins the flock on a rock along the Pacific coast of California

Most often when I photograph birds I use the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II lens. It usually provides enough reach for my purposes, it focuses accurately and quite quickly, it is sharp, and its flexibility fits my style of photography. (I often pause while photographing the birds and use the lens to photograph landscapes.)  It was my understanding that the 5Ds R added the capability to autofocus (AF) at smaller apertures down to f/8. This means that I should be able to add my Canon Extender EF 1.4x III tele-extender to get 560mm at f/8 from this lens.

A few days ago I was doing landscape/seascape photography along the Central California coast between lower Big Sur and San Francisco. On the final afternoon as we drove north we passed a small island where scores of brown pelicans had landed. Continue reading The Canon 5Ds R — Autofocus ‘Torture’ Test

Landscape Photography Settings

Earlier today I came across a question someone asked about “typical landscape photography settings.” I think their goal was to determine whether to make settings manually or automate them, what sort of initial settings might be useful, what techniques might be employed in typical situations, and so on. That covers a lot of ground, and there is a ton of room for variation depending on your goals and idea of what landscape photography is and is not.

Lenticular Clouds and Ridge
A series of lenticular clouds build above the Sierra Nevada crest at sunset

In fact, at first the question seemed so broad and general that I wasn’t going to reply. However, rather than ignoring the question, I decided to offer a quick summary of some of the general techniques I may employ when making a landscape photograph. And since I had already written it I thought it might be useful to share it here, too.

(Of course, I have to acknowledge that this doesn’t address the most important things about landscape photography, namely how to approach the landscape, how to “see” the landscape as an esthetic subject, and how to go beyond mere technique to focus on the image itself and what it can express. That is another post. Or chapter. Or book. Or two. Or more.)

So, on to the short “answer,” or at least to my reply…


Everyone has their own approach to landscape photography, but most folks I know photograph landscape using manual settings and manually focusing using live view. My typical starting point includes the following: Continue reading Landscape Photography Settings

Reader Question: About Depth of Field

Lupine, Upper Sabrina Basin
Lupine, Upper Sabrina Basin

I recently received an email from David, who has some questions about depth of field:

As you have a lot of experience of using the Fuji X-E1, may I please ask you for some advice regarding landscape focusing.

My aim is to use the 18-55mm kit lens with the majority of shots taken at the widest end. I have in mind setting the lens at Hyperfocal distances, based on a crop factor of 1.5 and a circle of confusion of 0.02. I think the first figure is reliable, but I’m not sure about the second in relation to the X-E1 – perhaps you could confirm.

I have already done some testing at home using the attached table (which come from the well respected DOFmaster site).

In my experiment I carefully measured distances at apertures of f8 and f11 using a tripod and a printed card as the subject. I set the lens manually at the hyperfocal distance, using the EVF distance scale. I was disappointed to find that the closest point of focus was not as sharp as I had hoped. Have you any idea why this may be?

I did a further test on aperture f11 and this time set the distance scale at 4 feet (2/3 of the way between 3 and 5 feet). This resulted in a sharp image from 3.5 feet. This would suggest that the distance scale is not accurate.

Any suggestions you have to overcome the problem would be much appreciated.

Let me preface my response on the depth of field (DOF) issue by congratulating you for taking the time to conduct your own experiments. One of the great things about digital cameras is that we don’t have to trust what we read — we can easily and quickly conduct the experiments ourselves. In addition to getting the answer to the question at hand, we end up knowing our gear at a much deeper and even intuitive level, which is extremely important when we are in the field and we don’t have time to ponder and calculate, but must instead make a photograph in the moment.

The rest of this post is going to be somewhat involved, so let me share a quick thought right at the beginning:

The usefulness of DOF calculators is very limited, as they are based on subjective assumptions that may not match what you are doing with your photographs. The best way to align your expectations with exposure choices is to test them yourself and evaluate images in the form that you most often produce — and not just at 100% magnification on a computer screen.

What is DOF? Essentially the depth of field is the distance range in front of and behind (unless you focus at infinity) the focus point within which subjects are likely to sharp enough to seem in focus when the photograph is viewed at some arbitrary magnification. This size of this range increases as we stop down (for example, going from f/2.8 to f/8 expands the DOF) and decreases as we open the aperture (going from f/8 to f/2.8 contracts DOF). This is a source of creative control for the photographer. A smaller aperture can allow subjects across a greater distance range to appear relatively sharp, while a larger aperture can keep the primary subject in focus while pleasingly “un-focusing” elements in front of and behind the primary focus point. Continue reading Reader Question: About Depth of Field

Lenses for Landscape Photography (Morning Musings 1/12/15)

This isn’t exactly a regular “morning musings” post, but I wanted to share this stuff and it seemed like a good pretext! This post concerns two related articles at the website:

From time to time I share new posts in my “Photographic Myths and Platitudes” series. These articles deal with common ideas about photography that range from “open to question” to quite wrong. I try to look at these issues from a perspective that is both objective and based on actual photographic practice.

I wrote the first of these two articles about lenses for DSLR landscape photography back in 2010 after reading one too many claims that wide-angle lenses are landscape lenses and that longer focal lengths are not good ‘landscape lenses.’  It shouldn’t be a surprise that I disagree. The first article goes over reasons to consider a wide range of focal lengths for photographing landscape.

When I wrote that first article I realized that there was another notion about landscape photography that needed a closer look, a belief that prime lenses are better than zoom lenses for landscape photography. This long-cherished idea probably has its roots back in an earlier period of photography when all photography (not to mention all landscape photography) was done with prime lenses, and in a somewhat later period when early zoom lenses had some serious shortcomings. But things are a lot different today, and most of the excellent contemporary DSLR (and a great deal of medium format) landscape photography that you see and enjoy today was done with zoom lenses.

Knowing what a sensitive issue this is for some photographers, I delayed writing part II for over four years! I’ll acknowledge in advance that there are some reasons to shoot landscape subjects with non-zoom lenses, and that my perspective is not The Truth about landscape photography lenses. However, I’m certain that the majority of landscape photographers will be best served by today’s excellent zoom lenses.

In any case, part II deals with this issue, and it is available now. I hope you’ll enjoy it and perhaps learn something new.

Morning Musings are somewhat irregular posts in which I write about whatever is on my mind at the moment. Connections to photography may be tenuous at times!

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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