In Focus, Bangkok Photography Blog June 20th, 2009

Safari World, Critically Sharp!/Auto Focus Modes

Finland Hotel Guide
Cumulus Hotel Mikkeli
Sokos Hotel Vaakuna
Naantali Spa Hotel
Sunborn Princess Yacht Hotel


Feature Photograph

Last April I was invited to Chiang Rai to see several choirs put on a show. There is a huge difference between photographing such an event as an invited “photographer” and photographing the event as an invited “guest.” A guest has no input with the lighting director, no special access to great shooting locations, and really shouldn’t make a pest of himself by dragging in long lenses and tripods. Photographer or guest, I’ve learned to really enjoy these shows. I’ve witnessed the months of preparation that go into the productions and tears in the eyes of the audience enthralled by the beauty of the music and voices. I’ve been privileged.

When you work an event as a photographer the images should look like these. Notice the lighting is near perfect and how the proper equipment was employed? Any less wouldn’t be professional.

This feature photograph is significant because it represents what you as a guest, and amateur photographer, should be able to produce with modest equipment and just a bit of patience. The lighting was terrible, a small spot shined in her face making exposure very difficult. Her face remains on the edge of overexposure and outwards exposure dims dramatically. Metering wasn’t possible in any of the automatic modes. The histogram wasn’t useful either. Using full manual control I’d take a picture, zoom in on the brightest area (her face) on the LCD, adjust the controls, and shoot again. 3-4 adjustments later I had the best exposure I was going to achieve.

Once the exposure was nailed, and with such an event there is plenty of time to do so, then you patiently wait for the part of the composition where the ethos of the performer shines through the brightest. I think I captured this moment. The young lady singing had the most beautiful voice and determined spirit.

This second image shoes the entire choir, conductor leading the background for the soloist, and this will give you some idea of scale. I was roughly 100 meters from the stage.

In the coming weeks I’ll share more of the images from this event. Check out your local cultural centers, you might be surprised by how much “culture” there is in Thailand. Between the three choirs we enjoyed music in English, French, German, Japanese, and Thai. Outstanding!


Safari World, Critically Sharp!

I’ve developed a sort of habit of driving through Safari World once a month or so, just so I can see the animals during the different seasons, which migrating birds are visiting, and because it’s a cool place to visit inside Bangkok. In a way it strikes me as a bit surreal that such a large park with lions and tigers and bears.. is literally a fence away from normal Thai neighborhoods. Really, on the other side of a rather unremarkable fence where tigers roam, is the backyard(s) of homes in a residential area. I wonder if the tigers and lions peer through the cracks in the fence and watch little Somchai playing on his swing?

Often, what makes an image interesting besides the actual composition and technical’s is the amount of detail offered. An image printed at 8×10 might not have a compelling interest, but the same image printed as 20×30 inches might offer enough unexpected detail to catch your interest. How often at a photo exhibition do you see someone look at an image from across the room or a few steps away, and then walk up to within inches and examine minute details? Details are interesting. Add interest to your photographs by ensuring critical focus and a strategically planned depth of field (|DOF).

This zebra shot doesn’t look very special at this size. Pretty bland.

Critical focus allows you to count the individual eyelashes and see the texture of the skin adding interest to a rather ordinary photograph.

Rhino’s are rather unremarkable, but even on a small size print they have plenty of interesting creases and skin texture to add interest.

Did you know Rhino’s have small delicate eyelashes? Did you know their skin texture was so rough and craggily?

Here we see a stork and I suppose it’s a decent picture of a stork. Still, its just not that interesting.

On a large 20×30 inch print, due to critical focus, now you have some interesting detail! You can see the patterns in the iris of the eye, feather details galore, and the facial wrinkles and detail. Its just not the face, but the entire body that falls within the DOF will have great detail.

I’m always asked what aperture I use. It depends. This image was shot at wide open at F2.8. F2.8 provided all the DOF I wanted because the storks head is physically small and at this distance the DOF would cover most of the head while pleasantly defocusing the background. Depending on the storks stance, different percentages of its body will also fall within the DOF. On a print the eye and facial detail is critical.

Here’s a beautiful shot of an African Crown Crane that would stand on its own at any size. Great directional lighting providing extreme contrast, a colorful but solid background, an alert expression, and even an interesting shadow. As far as African Crown Cranes go this is a very solid shot.

On a large print, thanks to critical focus, now we can see an entirely new level of detail. The texture of the facial skin, the naturally blue eye, the red, and the detailed crown. Even the pond debris adds to the detail interest level.

This image was also shot wide open at F2.8 because the head is physically small. But because the body was turned just right you can see how sharp the grey feathers are, and how the DOF just starts to fade out feathers in the right corner. When you get to a certain level all of these details are taken into account for the final composition. Which aperture to choose? Look at the details and decide what you want.

This is a revealing image of the same African Crown Crane. See the detail of the leg skin? F2.8? Notice how the pond debris in the very front of the frame is defocused, but by the time you reach the leg it’s a sharp focus, and as you lead towards the rear of the frame the detail fades into an attractive defocused bokeh? This is the sort of detail that goes into the composition that makes a successful large gallery quality print.

What an ugly bird! This bird could win the ‘ugly bird of the year’ contest. The bokeh is actually more attractive than the subject.

Now you have some interesting detail complete with ear wax! Can you see the opaque horizontal eyelid? The fine almost human like hairs? Inside the ear?

This image is a much more attractive capture of a stork than the one above. The shadow is very interesting and this stands alone as far as stork pictures go.

Another wide open F2.8 image (where the lens sharpness is at its minimum) that shows extreme detail throughout.

How about this grand old guy? Have you ever seen a redheaded lion? I love the detail on this image. The full size image almost makes you want to grab a brush and groom him a bit.. ;o)

This is the interesting detail you’d see on a large print if you critically focused. The eye, whiskers, teeth, texture of the tongue, everything is perfectly focused and available to the eye while the background is wonderfully defocused into a creamy bokeh. This image was shot at F5.6 and the same physical distance as the birds. The lions head is bigger and required the deeper DOF to keep the same amount of facial detail in sharp focus.

You might not have noticed the abnormal eye while taking the picture, but even at full size critical focus allows you to see this interesting detail.

Critical focus allows you to see every detail on this tigers face, just like if you were nose to nose with him in real life. The whiskers, eyes, nose, and skin.. all in perfect detailed focus. How much better looking would a large print of this be compared to the same shot with a softer focus?

Not every subject needs to be sharp. Some types of portraits and landscapes benefit from planned softness. However, most images benefit from critical focus. Sure, it’s a lot more work to achieve captures at this level. It requires a decent lens. But it’s always nice to have a choice after the fact, even with portraits. You can post process in as much softness to a sharp image as you desire.. but there’s very little sharpness to be recovered if you don’t get it right to begin with.


Auto Focus (AF) Modes

This subject will be short but sweet and address a very common question. Which AF modes to choose and for what subjects.

I’m not going to detail the actual names of the modes among camera manufacturers, nor will I cover each model in detail in regards to which modes it has. What I will do is use generic easy to apply mode names and talk about their appropriate use. You can apply this discussion to your own camera model.

Static Mode

The first would be “Static mode”, sometimes called “One Shot” or something similar. This mode is made for static subjects. Once you focus on the subject, as long as you hold the shutter release halfway down, the focus will remain the same. Static mode is useful for portraits of still subjects, landscapes, or anything that doesn’t move.


Static mode is hands down the most accurate AF mode available. It allows you to choose an AF point, place that point on your intended point of focus (such as the closest eye on a living subject, human or animal), and achieve the most accurate focus possible.

Once you understand that static mode (One shot) won’t “refocus” unless you release the shutter button and start over, then you can develop techniques for it’s use on slow moving subjects or subjects that strike pose after pose. I use static mode almost all the time for people portraits, slow moving model shoots, animals at rest, cars, or anything that doesn’t move, OR moves slow enough where I have time to refocus on the move.

Dynamic Mode

This is sometimes called “Continuous Mode.” The camera continuously tracks the subjects movements and refocuses as necessary. This can be very accurate, but by nature is less accurate than the static mode. Dynamic mode is also highly dependent on technique. Good technique is vital to the success of this mode.

Anything that moves faster than you can refocus by letting up and pressing the shutter release button, is considered dynamic and Dynamic Mode (Continuous Mode) is the mode to use. Sports, moving vehicles, fast moving people, flying birds, running animals, children at play, all would benefit from using the Dynamic Mode.

I’m not going to go into the technique(s) used in Dynamic mode. Each type of subject requires its own technique and tons of practice if you want to achieve a decent level of competency. Fast moving photojournalism requires a certain technique, the fast moving parts of a wedding, auto racing, birding, every use requires a slightly different technique and the use of extra modes some lenses provide like memory settings. I’ll cover some techniques in future columns as they apply. And of course I cover these during workshops. The proper techniques used in Dynamic Mode make a huge difference. Huge.

Anything Goes Mode

You won’t find this mode on professional series bodies like the Canon 1d’s, but you’ll find them on the prosumer DSLRs like the 5d Mark II, 40/50d, and the Rebel series as well as their Nikon counterparts.

What this mode does is it starts you off in Static Mode. However, if during the capture process, if your subject moves for any reason, it automatically changes into Dynamic Mode and tracks the change thereby achieving proper focus. Sounds ideal? I think so. Static subjects start moving all the time and this accounts for many lost opportunities. I have yet to fully check out this system so I can’t comment on it’s effectiveness, but if we assume it works great then why not only have this mode available?

And why don’t pro level bodies have this mode? I’d hazard a guess that pro level bodies don’t need it. On a pro level body the Dynamic Mode (continuous mode) is so responsive and fast, that it effectively achieves the same thing as Anything Goes Mode.

If your camera has this mode by all means give it a try and see how it works for you.

Beyond Modes

To truly master focus you need to develop skills beyond the standard AF modes. Canon L series lenses and Nikon AF-S lenses have a feature vital to professionals called “full time manual focus.” This means that at any time during the AF process you can grab the focus ring and assume instant control over the camera.

You’ve heard me refer to “pushing” or “pulling” focus? This is what I did during the darkness of Loy Krathong when the subjects were too dark to achieve AF on their eyes/faces. I let the AF key on the flame of the candles, focus, and then I’d pull/push the focus manually from there to get the best possible focus. This enabled me to achieve focus 10x faster than just straight manual focus.

On the picture above the lady is behind thick iron bars. The AF kept locking on the bars and not her face. At the wider aperture I was using the DOF was not great enough to have both the bars and her face in focus. I simply let the AF lock on the bars just inches from her face, and then grabbing the focus ring I pushed the focus out to her face. Perfect focus!

Depending on the speed of events you can’t just sit there and perfectly manually focus on their face, especially if it’s too dark to clearly see them. So you develop “techniques” that ensure the highest rate of success and speed combined.

I always use Brightscreen’s excellent Pro Split Level Diagonal focusing screen with 8×10 vertical crop lines. These are expensive but the huge focusing prism allows fast adjustment when I need it for fast moving subjects, and very careful precision alignment for static subjects.

I almost always manual focus on static portraits, landscapes, static subjects, and when using manual focus only lenses like Canon’s excellent Tilt-Shift (TSE) lenses. My TSE-90 is more sharp manually focused than all by 1-2 very expensive AF lenses I own.

Technique. Knowing which AF mode to use, on what to use it, and when/how to deviate from these modes. This is the key to critical focus along with proper bracing/support, mirror lockup when appropriate, using an external shutter release when appropriate, the ideal aperture for your lens, and of course a high quality lens. Critical focus is difficult to achieve, but it produces dividends that will keep paying off in the future.

Photography News of Interest

Our own Mr. Stick reports this week that a visit to a camera store revealed camera prices for Canon gear (and probably all brands) took a steep hike upwards to the tune of 10-12% due to the strengthening of the yen. We’ve been expecting this and the real news will be if these price increases hit the industries biggest market, the USA. Stick also reports that the recently released Zeiss lenses in Canon mount, the 85mm F1.4 is now available for baht 40,000, and the 50mm F1.4 for 25,000.

Canon releases a new firmware update for the excellent 5d Mark II which provides much better manual control during video capture than before. You can download the firmware here.

The Panasonic G1(h) micro 4/3’s system has really captured the hearts of professionals looking for something smaller and lighter. It hasn’t escaped their notice that a slew of lenses made for past 35mm rangefinders (Zeiss, Contax, Leica, etc), with the help of an adapter, work very well on this camera. There are a few after market adapters available, but now Panasonic enters the mix with their own adapters which look to be of a very high quality. Panasonic entering the mix is a strong indication of how popular using these fine older lenses really is. You can read about the adapters here.

I’ve told you before that the two raw converters I use professionally are Lightroom and Phase One’s Capture One 4 Pro. Each excels in different areas so it only makes sense to combine both into your workflow in a sensible manner. Here’s a nice article describing how one professional does this.

Oh my, Kayne West a photography critic? Not really. The rapper famous for his criticism of the paparazzi actually compliments a shot of Rihanna recently. Wonders never cease. You can read about it here.


Readers' Submissions

Steve

Big wall paint in Rangoon airport which represent the sightseeing in the city .

Downtown Rangoon, a government building

Sunset in the city port

Sola pagoda in a full moon .down town . ( the upper left side of the pic make it not such perfect result)

Few words:

Myanmar is a country I was very interested to explore .its not developed as Thailand but still that's what charm about basically its a very rich country. Once it was the center in SEA and not Bangkok. All of downtown Rangoon have many buildings built by the British during the colonialist period. I was very impressed architecture compare to what you see elsewhere.

I will send you more pics and explaining soon

Eyal

Eyal –

Very interesting! Thank you for the submissions. We’re looking forward to more.

Steve

I suspect the readers submissions will be a highly anticipated section of this column and I encourage anyone with photographs and travel accounts they'd like to share to please send them to me at: [email protected]

Readers' Questions

Steve,

I don't entirely understand the feature highlight tone priority. When should I use it and what are the advantages of turning it on (or off)?

Thanks

Stick

Stick –

This question is more about nuances than concrete differences. Allow me to explain:

Highlight Tone Priority is a feature of the latest generation of Canon DSLRs including the 50d, 5d Mark II, and 1ds Mark III. When enabled your ISO range is limited from 200-6400 vs. say 50-26,500 available on the 5d Mark II. By limiting the ISO range and adjusting the tone curve (which has much more effect when shooting jpegs than with RAW) you can gain as much as one stop of dynamic range.

What do you lose? You lose the advantages of shooting at ISO 50 (slowing the shutter down in brighter light, essentially for the same reasons as you’d use a neutral density filter), ISO 100 (highest amount of detail and lowest noise, useful for the highest quality images), and above ISO 6400 (very low light work).

Apparently using this mode doesn’t take much if any CPU power so it won’t slow down your shooting speed. This is contrary to say the High ISO Noise Reduction setting.. which greatly slows your camera down when enabled and used in the range where its activated.

For general use it wouldn’t hurt to leave the Highlight Tone Priority feature enabled all the time. However, if you forget it’s on and conditions call for ISO 50, 100, or>6400.. it could be a problem. And remember, with RAW images you won’t see much of an improvement if any. You get the same improvement from RAW images through proper RAW processing.

Personally I think it’s a well thought out marketing feature that only cost Canon a bit of firmware programming.

I hope this helps.

Steve


Please submit your questions to [email protected] All questions will be answered and most will show up in the weekly column.

A Snapshot of Bangkok Images Week in Review

This week we had a workshop, another outing to Beung Boraphet (images coming soon), and a bunch of image processing and gallery building. Some new galleries you can see are:

Chiang Rai, Rural Landscapes

Chiang Rai, Wat Rung Khun

Chiang Mai, Thai Youth Choir

Infocus Blog

My Sensor Was Growing Hair!

Well, not really but it was bad. Looking at a recent landscape shoot at 100% I could clearly see dust spot after dust spot. I pulled up the healing brush and started fixing the spots and counting as I went. I stopped counting at about 20! And keep in mind, you can’t see the spots except in the very lightest part of the frame such as the sky. I’ll bet there was close to 100 dust spots on my sensor!

A fact of the digital life and DSLRs is that EVERYONE will have at least some dust spots on EVERY IMAGE. There’s no avoiding this. If you haven’t noticed them it doesn’t mean they’re not there, it probably means you just haven’t looked close enough. Dust spots are most easy to see when shooting at smaller apertures (F8-F22+) and when you have a light sky where the dust spots stand out the most. A ‘light’ well exposed sky, not a blown out white sky where you won’t see anything.

Below is a crop of a ‘few’ dust spots:

I’m not a dust fanatic. Many are. If I need to change my lens I’m certainly mindful of my environment, but unless I’m in a really dusty/dirty environment I go ahead and change my lens anyway. I don’t rush myself either. I’d rather have a dust spot than a broken lens. Every time I change my lens, whether indoors or outdoors, I KNOW another small piece of dust is getting inside the camera (probably many) and that one or some of them may land on the sensor.

The rest sticks to the mirror, focus screen, and mirror box interior. This is a prime reason many who clean their own sensors get very frustrated. They clean the sensor, it’s clean, but the next day it has dust spots again and you didn’t even change a lens! Dust is merely moving around on the inside and relocating. A proper professional cleaning means not only cleaning the sensor, but cleaning the mirror/sensor box inside as well.

Cleaning your own sensor is possible. The equipment and techniques to do so would be the topic of an in-depth Learning Topic. I think it’s a good thing to know how to clean your own gear, especially if you work in the field away from a service center for any length of time. However, cleaning your sensor takes specific equipment and technique so I caution you not to take this topic too lightly.

I have my own sensor cleaning equipment and for years I cleaned my own sensor and insides. Then I discovered that Bangkok is host to a factory Canon Service Center with very good well trained technicians. I use about $10 USD’s worth of disposable sensor swabs and wipes during a single cleaning if I do it myself. The Canon Service Center professionally cleans my sensor, mirror, focus screen, prism, mirror box, camera exterior, updates to the latest firmware, exterior cleaning, and runs diagnostics for baht 535! CPS (Canon Professional Services) members receive an additional 30% discount. This is an increase from last years baht 400, but still not a lot more than the equipment to do it yourself (assuming you have lots of experience, otherwise you’ll go through many more swabs/supplies). And they’ll often do it while you wait!

When I make the trip downtown to the service center I usually take along a lens or two to get cleaned as well. They’ll clean, adjust the AF, and check out the lens for the same fee of baht 535. They even clean the filters to look like new. When you bring more than a single piece of equipment they might ask you to come pick it up a few hours later or the next morning. Be reasonable in your expectations.

I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Bangkok’s Canon Service Center. They’ve done repairs, cleaning, and adjustments for me for years. They’re professional, prompt, and very fair priced. Even the English level of the service desk and technicians is much better than what you’d expect.

Give them a visit next time you have a morning or afternoon off.

Canon Service Center Bangkok

10th Fl., 179/34-45 Bangkok City tower South Sathorn road, Thungmahamek Sathorn, Bangkok 10120
Tel. (66) 0-2344-9888
Fax. (66) 0-2344-9861

Until next week..

UPDATE, WHOA HOLD THE HORSES!!!

I used my newly cleaned Professional Canon DSLR on a shoot the other day and I was stunned to see so many defects in the images! Looking closer I could see where the number of dust spots on my sensor had multiplied by a factor of 3-4x during the “cleaning.” There were also some big pieces of debris on the sensor.

The picture below is well exposed image of the sky, shot at F11, which allows you to easily see dust spots and other debris or any foreign matter on the sensor. You can’t see these spots at this small size, so know that each red star marks the location of a dust or debris spot. 93 spots!

I took the camera back into the Canon Service Center, spoke with the supervisor, and in no uncertain terms explained just how wrong this is. She was very cooperative and promised to have my entire camera gone over and read for me tomorrow morning. We’ll see. I’ll update this blog when I get my camera back.

Update:

When I went to pick up the camera the service center supervisor, a Mr. Soonthorn Kaweepati, proceeded to talk down to me like I was an idiot. He told me dust could have been on the camera lens, drifted in when I put the lens on, and so forth. Sure, this happens. But it would not happen 93 times from having a perfectly clean sensor to putting a single lens on (the one they cleaned at the same time) unless I was standing in a sand storm!

I’m sorry, but this sort of attitude and a refusal to accept responsibility is very “Thai.” You see this mindset in most every Thai retail establishment you visit, and it doesn’t stop there. As a professional I found it extremely insulting.

Anyway, I took my camera home after their second attempt at cleaning and this is what I found on the sensor:

See that big tumbleweed looking blob on the left? I surrounded it with blue stars. There is a smaller blog to the right surrounded by blue starts. Single red stars mark small dust spots. Totally unacceptable! The six other small spots I could live with, there will always be a few spots left after a cleaning.

This time instead of beating my head against the wall I sent off an email to Mr. Soonthorn Kaweepati asking him how we should handle this. It’s been four days and I haven’t heard back yet. I did get the return receipt I added to the email.

UPDATE:

Five days later I received the response as follows:

Dear Mr. Steve,

Thank you for your kind patronage of Canon products.

We regret to learn of your experiences.

Regarding your query about the dust in your camera, please allow me to explain a few points about the cleaning process.

First, it is virtually impossible to remove 100% of the dust in a camera due to the particles that are naturally found in the air. In particular, the cleaning process must be sensitive to the lowpass filter, which cannot be cleaned with chemical solutions and can be easily scratched

Second, even when cleaning is done in a dust-free environment, it is impossible to avoid dust from the camera’s body,
cap and lens. When the camera is taken apart, dust can get into the mirror box and, if the shutter unit is opened,
dust can also get into the lowpass filter. To avoid this problem, Canon has created Self Sensor Cleaning in its new products.

Importantly, the “C mos Cleaning and Testing” process follows Canon’s standards, and we always do our best to clean cameras as completely as possible.

If you would like to further discuss any matters related to your camera, Please do not hesitate to Contact us.

Last but not least, we greatly appreciate your valuable feedback and we will monitor and improve our services for the better.

Best Regards,

Soonthorn Kaweepati
ME-CII Manager
Email: [email protected]
Tel: (662) 344-9999 ext.877 Fax: (662) 344-9999 ext.495


My response follows:

Dear Mr. Soonthorn Kaweepati –

Thank you for getting back to me. It’s unfortunate that you took five days to return my email. My clients would find it unsatisfactory if I took this length of time to return their correspondence.

If you don’t mind let me explain some “points” to you:

  1. I (and everyone else with common sense) knows where dust originates. It’s probably ironic that the first and only lens I put on the body to take the test images with, was the 70-200/2.8 IS lens I had cleaned at the same time as the body. The only “dust free environment” is a certified clean room and I understand a common service center not having one available.
  1. Lets stop this nonsense about “acceptable” dust and agree, like I said in my previous email, 5-6 small dust spots would have been “acceptable.” Big pieces of debris are not. My sensor had two large pieces of debris on the sensor as you could clearly see in the image I attached.
  1. You did not address the FACT that your service people remove the body dust caps as a matter of routine (every time I’ve been to your service center, which is often) when taking in a camera, and did this as well the last time you delivered the camera to me. It IS NOT a Canon practice or standard to remove the body dust cap and turn the mirror box up, when returning a camera to the customer. However, it does seem to be the standard of your particular service center. This is wrong. Because you are unwilling to address this, I’ll address this through my CPS representative and Canon headquarters in Japan.
  1. You also didn’t address the body being returned the first time with 93 dust spots. Surely even a complete layman would know the sensor was not only cleaned “to Canon Standards”, and that the practice of removing the dust cap from the body resulted in 4-5 times as much dust on the sensor than when I brought it in.
  1. Yes, Canon’s “new products” have a very nice self-sensor cleaning feature. I look forward to enjoying this feature when I feel it’s necessary to replace my $8000.00 USD professional Canon body. Some of my other Canon bodies already have this. However, all of my Canon bodies will require a service center level cleaning on occasion and I don’t want to have a concern that my local service center is inept and without the necessary experience.
  1. It would be nice (for a change) to find a professional attitude in Thailand which allows for the company in question to admit error, apologize, and rectify the problem without taking issue with the customers knowledge or experience. As a professional photographer who has been using and teaching the use of DSLRs for over a decade I find this insulting. It’s obvious the sensor wasn’t cleaned properly the 1st time, nor was it acceptable the 2nd time. It’s also obvious your service staff practice unprofessional habits (removing the dust caps before and after cleaning and leaving the mirror box exposed to your waiting area for long periods of time) which need corrected. Why not just say so and correct the problems? Why compound the problem by ignoring the issues?
  1. Because you seem unwilling to accept responsibility for an unacceptable service or anything else I mentioned, I’ll forward our correspondence to my CPS representative and Canon headquarters in Japan, to give Canon a chance to correct the problem. I feel this is the right thing to do.

Thank you. If you have any further questions or feedback I’ll be glad to discuss the matter with you.

Mr. Steve