Readers' Submissions

A Photography Blog Entry

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • August 11th, 2007
  • 20 min read

This week I couldn’t get it up. I tried and tried, used all sorts of visual and audible aids, searched my computer for stimulating material, and tried all the usual tricks and methods, but at the end of the day I had to accept what happened. The worst thing about the “acceptance” phase is the realization that this could happen again, and again, and the possibility of never being able to perform again hits home with a dull THUD. I thought about talking to my wife about it, but since she’s really got little to do with it I figured she wouldn’t understand. After all, not being able to come up with a topic this week for my Stickman submission and getting it up on-line hardly interests her. This is a burden I must shoulder alone.

Usually I’ve got all sorts of inspiration, and when I don’t I turn to my tickler file and browse through the topics I’ve come up with and selecting one I’m able to sit down and turn it into a submission. What was different this week? I had to think about that a while, and the truth surprised me a bit. What was happening was that I had far more interesting things on my mind than Bangkok and my mind kept going back to these things. All of a sudden I felt like a 5th grade student in English class being asked to write a essay while at the same time the breeze coming in through the open window carried the fresh salt air and with it the visualizations of me and my surfboard catching yet another wave, friends with towels gathered up on the sand, and all the wonderful things I could be doing if only I wasn’t sitting in English class being forced to write about something less interesting. What kinds of interesting things? Mostly things concerning photography, things linked to my life here in Bangkok and many of the readers who contact me with questions. So I decided this week I’d share some of my thoughts and perhaps in the process I’d answer in advance some of the questions I get every week.

First on my mind was a delightful couple I made outdoor portraits for. This person contacted me after reading my submissions on this site and asked me if I could recommend a local portrait studio or if perhaps I could do the portraits myself. I love recommending other photographers, but this request made me realize I didn’t know any local Thai photographers, but I had seen plenty of their work as I walked through the malls so I had some knowledge about the type of work they did. My first question is always “what kind of portrait are you looking for?” Sometimes the client wants the portrait to look like the many portraits already framed and displayed in their family home, or maybe they saw a sample in a magazine. If I have some knowledge of what they expect/want, then it’s easy to provide what they want, it just becomes a technical rather than a creative matter. In this case they didn’t really know other than they preferred a natural outdoor portrait. To me this is more interesting, but more risky. To provide what they want I need to get to know them a bit, talk to them and ascertain their personalities, expectations, and when it comes to a creative art these tastes can vary greatly.

I really enjoy environmental portraits for this reason, you get to know the subject very well and I often spend more time talking to them and learning about them than I do taking the portrait. Environmental portraits involve capturing the individual in their natural and most open state, say a woodworker hard at work in his workshop, a businessman leaning over a desk directing an employee, or a beautician interacting with a client. I might spend days getting to know someone enough to make their environmental portrait in such a way that it’s personal and unique to their personality and life, they’ll see it and appreciate it, but others might not. At least not unless they know this person, or take the time to know them. With this couple I had only a few minutes to get to know them. Almost like a cookie cutter portrait studio where you walk off the street, the photographer sits you down on some prearranged stools, asks you to smile, and its over with in an instant. Yep, it’s your likeness in that picture.. but it’s probably not ‘you’ others see.

Immediately I could see this couple were very close and comfortable with each other, the lady had taken considerable time to prepare her makeup and choose an appropriate dress and I wondered if her fiancée had taken the time to tell her how nice she looked? The man was both fit and dressed nicely to compliment the woman, yet their skin and hair colors were so different. His blue eyes contrasted sharply with her dark brown eyes, his red toned shirt with her blue toned dress, blond hair and black hair, certainly a striking couple who would photograph well. All that was necessary was for me to select an appropriate location in the garden area where the light hit the greens at such an angle to subdue the colors so as not to clash with the bright contrasting colors of their clothes, and at the same time evenly light their features. We moved from place to place through the garden area repeated the same basic poses, and as often happens towards the end they started to get comfortable with me, with the poses, and with the idea of having their portrait done.

The time it takes for a couple to relax and take on natural expressions and body language is dependent on the ability of the photographer to put them at ease, help them relax, and to feel comfortable. Back when I was shooting film I’d often not put film in the camera until we’d completed enough poses and spent enough time for that comfort factor to kick in. With digital, film cost is no longer an issue, so I take the pictures throughout the session and today I asked my assistant if she can see the point where they became comfortable and their portraits natural. You can actually see people stiff and uncomfortable when first starting a session, 10 minutes later they look more comfortable and less stiff, 30 minutes later very comfortable and not stiff at all, and by the end of the session they’re laughing and joking and holding poses like it’s the most natural thing in the world. She picked a point in the session very close to the point I picked and I was satisfied she was learning. I’ll show this couple some shots ‘before’ this point during the soft proofing but I doubt they’ll pick them, almost for certain they’ll choose the shots when they’re in their comfort zone.

It’s when they’re in this comfort zone that she relaxes and her smile becomes natural and relaxed, the way she looks at him shows real interest and obvious love, and it becomes obvious his adoration for her is both sincere and natural. It’s at this point where the body language becomes less stiff, more natural, more personal. This is the point where a portrait is made that will get framed and hung on a wall, and remain on the wall long after future portraits have been hung and removed. These will be portraits they never tire of looking at for the rest of their lives, and it’s because the time was taken to know them, and to let them know each other during the session. All of this is rather presumptuous on my part, and of course it’s all wishful thinking, but it’s what I strive for when doing such work and I hope what makes me stand out from the Kwik-e-Studio’s all too common in Thailand.

Ever since the first submissions I did recommending the Fuji F30 as a good choice for a point and shoot camera, especially one to be used in lower light, I’ve received a lot of emails asking if this is still a good choice and if there’s anything newer out there that might be a better buy. Yes, it’s still a good choice and almost stands alone in its ability to pack low light performance in a point and shoot sized package and I recommend it even more strongly today, especially since the price has dropped almost in half. The F31d came out right after I wrote my article and I’ve had a chance to use one. It’s exactly the same thing but with “face recognition” firmware, and to be honest I could see no practical benefit in actual use So feel confident in shopping for either the F30 or F31d, look for the best price and don’t worry about the different model numbers.

Fuji recently announced the F51fd. Link here This camera will have significant feature enhancements over the F30/31d, but I don’t know yet if it will be another rare standout in a large field of point and shoots, or just another ‘same ol’ entry. With the F50fd Fuji takes you from the 6mp of the F30/F31 to 12mp’s, they add a mechanical image stabilization, and several other less significant features such as a larger LCD screen, ability to accept SD cards in addition to XD cards (this is a real benefit), and a more modern styling. The F51fd comes out this September and I’ll be buying one and testing it against the F30/31d. The extra megapixels concern me more than they impress me. Smaller pixels usually means more noise and less low light performance, but perhaps Fuji has some new technology that will help with this. What does impress me is the mechanical image stabilization and a reduced resolution ISO 6400 mode. I’ll include my comments about the F51fd in a submission as soon as I can.

The weather in Bangkok has been very photography friendly these last few months. Usually the monsoon season is much shorter, but this year it’s lasted the entire summer and is still going strong. This gives us nice overhead clouds and soft light, a nice relief from the bright sun and hard light we usually have this time of year. However, instead of getting out and taking pictures I’ve used the time to travel a bit, enjoy time with my sons, and to install and learn some interesting new software.

Adobe has recently released several new versions of their Creative Suite 3. For my uses I selected their “Web Premium” version which includes some nice web tools such as Dreamweaver in addition to Photoshop, Bridge, and some others. I was surprised at how easily this installed and many of the new features seem both useful and user friendly. While I had no real problems with CS2 and Vista, CS3 is said to be more compatible and so far I’ve had no issues. One of the improved features I was looking forward to was their HDR module. High Dynamic Range images can be created from several identical frames of different exposures. The theory of this has excited me for years, but the application of the theory hasn’t impressed me much. CS3’s version was only marginally improved over CS2’s, and at about the same time I discovered this I read some promising reviews on a new HDR engine from Photomatrix that includes tone mapping.

In effect what this does is take several of your images taken at different exposures and allows you to merge them into one image with a considerably higher dynamic range. Digital photography produces images with significantly less dynamic range (dynamic range is the measurement from the darkest part of the image to the brightest part) than film photography and until HDR engines there wasn’t much we could do to make up the difference. Still, ever since I’ve started taking digital images I’ve photographed with this premise in mind: Software will continue to develop and improve over time, which will allow us to do amazing things in the future with the image files we capture today. 20 years from now I’m convinced new software will be available that will take our current digital image files and improve them in almost every way over what we can do now. At first this effect will be limited, perhaps restricted to the qualify of files we capture, but improvements will be made constantly. With this premise in mind since I first started using digital, I’ve made it a point when taking landscapes to capture at least three different exposures of every frame I compose. If I spent a lot of time and money getting to this location and the conditions are great, I might take ten different exposures of the same frame, all varying slightly in exposure.

This means that going back almost a decade, I have files from my first digital cameras where I took multiple exposures in the hope that someday software would become available that would make up for the limited cameras of the time. Despite using the best cameras currently available, I continue to do this today. Cameras will of course improve in coming years, but the real improvements I’m convinced will be in the software and this software will enable us to use our archived images in ways we can only imagine now. This last week I’ve been experimenting with such a piece of software, Photomatrix Pro and their Tone Mapping module. This software is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition and allows me to improve my decade old images by orders of magnitude of 5-10x. It’s really a lot of fun to process images taken in 1998, today, and see the huge improvements made possible by today’s software. The improvements are hard to explain, but you can get much more 3D like images that almost pop off the screen, smooth tones, accurate colors, and even increased ‘apparent’ resolution. I say these things today, and I’ll probably be saying similar things ten years from now. Here’s a few examples:

Another issue that pops up in email questions concerns megapixels. “How many megapixels should I look for?” A very common question. My instinctive response it to tell you to never consider megapixels when considering a camera purchase, instead look at other more important features. However, there does come a time and place for considering how many megapixels a camera has so lets talk about this briefly. IF all else remains equal, the more pixels the better. This seems obvious, and even instinctive, and it’s why camera companies have been pushing the heck out of “megapixel” numbers in their marketing campaigns, and have even let it negatively affect camera design. The problem is things don’t remain equal. Sensor sizes vary a lot, but especially in the point and shoot realm the sensors are very small. Take the F30 to F50 we talked about above, the sensor size remains the same but the number of pixels doubles! I’d like to think Fuji has some new technology to make up for the smaller pixels and I’ve even pre-ordered a F50fd to find out, but chances are I’ll learn there are some serious compromises. We’ll see.

Still, if all laws of sensor design remain constant, which they usually do for given manufacturers at the same technology vintages, the smaller the pixel the more noise (grain) shows up, the less satisfactory the low light performance becomes, the less tonal ranges are possible, the less accurate the color, and all sensor characteristics across the board decrease in quality. So going from 6 to 12 megapixels as is the case from the Fuji F30/31 to the F50fd could introduce some serious compromises. In fact, I’ll be very surprised if there isn’t.

Even though this is true, often times the increase in pixels takes place at the same time as sensors with newer technology perform better at smaller sizes. So a year 2008 sensor can be expected to perform better at a certain pixel size than say a year 2000 sensor. Firmware that includes noise reduction processing also helps make up for smaller pixels. With all that said, my choice, assuming the sensors are of equal vintage and technology, would be to have LESS pixels per sensor area than MORE. This is especially true with point and shoot cameras and their small sensors. Now you know when selecting a point and shoot camera to largely look at other features as more important than how many pixels, to compare the same sensor vintage/tech, and that the more pixels you cram on a sensor “generally” means you end up with a more noisy (grainy) image and reduced low light capabilities.

Continuing this topic, consider that until about four years ago I shot 4 megapixel DSLR’s professionally and sold many magazine spreads, portraits, large landscape prints (by large I’m talking about 20×24 and 24×30 inches!), and many web display images. For the last three years I’ve been shooting a 16.7 megapixel DSLR and doing the same things, selling the same type and size of work. Can you see a difference between 4 and 16.7 megapixels? Without a doubt. Is the difference obvious? Depends. In many cases you have to know what you’re looking for to see the differences. In other cases the prints need to be above a certain size to see the difference. I’m of the opinion that other factors influence image quality more, newer sensor design, better/newer onboard processing engines, processing software, printers, and more.. all have a more significant difference than does the pixel count. As time marches on so does sensor technology, software design, printer technology, lens design, and more. And mixed in there somewhere we’re getting more pixels on our sensors. The point is the number of pixels only accounts for a small part of the huge differences in technology we are fortunate enough to enjoy.

Ok, so when will we really see the differences? The other day a friend was over and we were talking about this subject so I brought up some 4mp images on my displays and he was amazed, they looked as good as any 30-40mp images he’s seen on the web. This is true, and it’s not true. My 21.5” professional display has 1600×1200 pixels edge to edge. This is smaller than a 4mp image. So, a 4mp image will look no different on this monitor than a 16.7mp image UNTIL you start zooming in. An image with more pixels will allow you to zoom in further, while providing a better look at the scene. So, it depends on what physical size the output medium will be, and how far back you’ll be standing when viewing the image. My next door neighbor was a graphic design artist and his job was producing billboards. He made countless billboards used all over the country and his camera of choice was a $179 Sony 2mp point and shoot. When you’re standing 200-500 meters away from the image you can get away with this. Lets put some numbers to megapixels just for grins.

It is a well known fact in the printing world that maximum quality is achieved from 240-300dpi (dots per inch), so using 300dpi in our calculations a 4mp image has 2464 pixels on it’s long side and 1632 pixels in it’s short side, and at 300dpi produces a native print size of 5.4×8.2 inches. A print of 5×8 inches at the absolute maximum quality. Now, lets use the 240dpi which is much more common and our print size grows to 7×10 inches. No way you’ll be seeing the dots in the print without an optical aid. But now, lets figure for 100dpi, now the print size grows to 16×24 inches for the original 4mp image. You’ll be able to see the dots if looking close, but at 3 feet away you won’t. Can you now see why my neighbor could make billboards with a 2mp camera?

Ok, now lets run the numbers for a 16.7mp image which is 4992 pixels on it’s long side and 3328 pixels on it’s short side. This makes for a 11×16.5 inch native image at 300dpi, or a 14×21 inch native image at 240, or a 33×50 inch image at 100.. And of course there are software methods for “upsampling” that help make up for a lot of the quality loss.

A practical example. Recently I made some images to make full size cardboard cutouts of a woman. She stands roughly 5.4” tall. The cardboard cutouts were made on cardboard (not a great resolution medium) and to save ink for the company that printed them I think were printed at 40dpi. For my own curiosity I printed the same image on a satin paper like photos are normally printed on, and hung the life size print on the wall. Friends were surprised they could walk up and get close enough so their noses touched the print and could then count individual eyebrow hairs. This was a full size, life size, print. I made the print using a 8mp camera body with a very good lens. I figure using my 16.7mp camera I could make her 10 feet tall and you’d be able to stand inches away and count the pores in her skin, her eyelashes, and see her better than if you were looking at her in person.

I hope this has finally answered the very common “how many pixels should I get” “how important are the number of pixels” questions I get, which probably average about 4-5 a week.. 10x that amount right after a photo submission runs.

When you talk about something that truly inspires you, a person can normally keep talking forever without running out of words. It’s usually that way for me about living in Thailand and with some other subjects like photography. Perhaps because I haven’t had a chance to get out much this last week, but this week I had little inspiration regarding Thailand. Or maybe it was because another inspiring topic was on my mind, photography. I appreciate all the photography questions I get and I try to answer them promptly, and I really enjoy having an opportunity to chat about a few of the photography related areas Stickman readers have asked about recently. Soon, I hope to offer much more in the way of photography here in the Bangkok area.

Until next time…

Stickman's thoughts:

No comments on this submission until Sunday as I am away from Bangkok and only had time to format this submission and publish it, without reading it in full.