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Digital photography – two years on

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Digital photography – two years later

2 Years after ‘going digital’ and giving up film

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Keith wrote an article in 2004, after spending a month in and around Colorado, with his then fairly new Canon EOS 1Ds. In April/May 2006 he was back.

camera equipment for digital use

This short article looks at what has changed in his approach and covers some of the more technical aspects of the images he took and how he made use of them. original 2004 article

Where did I go?

Most of my time was spent in the mountains of Colorado. I’m still not a great outdoor type, so the camera stayed in motels most nights (with me to keep it company).

If you want to follow the trip, you can see photographs and some comments from each day on my Photo/travel blog.

Update 2016: Even re-writing the whole web site in 2016, I’d argue with very little I’ve written here. I’m now using a 50MP camera with newer software…
2017: I’m tempted to try film again

Initially, I decided to write this after requests from friends at home who wanted to know: a) what I was doing, and b) have an excuse to waste a bit of time at work each morning catching up on my travels :-)

It was actually interesting from my own point of view, in that it gave me a chance to keep a more personal record of where I went, and will help me remember the context of the photos in years to come.

For the duration of the trip, the master version of this site resided on my laptop, but there are lots of on-line services that make it easy to keep such a diary.

Furman's furniture store Leadville, ColoradoI use Adobe GoLive to create the web pages on this site, so it was pretty easy to select a few images when reviewing the day’s pictures.

The images for the blog were quickly processed in Photoshop CS2 and resized/sharpened for web use.

I almost always use the Focus Magic plugin for quick web sharpening (1 or 2 pixel radius at 25 – 100%)

There are many other tools, but it happens to give results that fit my tastes.

Keeping the overall page size down is quite difficult, so I just decided that I’d include fairly large images anyway. Even so, there were many more I could have included — such as this furniture shop in Leadville, CO

What did I take with me?

Much as before actually. For the techy enthusiasts out there…

digital photography equipmentCamera – Canon 1Ds.

Lenses – Canon 16-35L F2.8
Canon 24-70L F2.8
Canon 70-200L F2.8 IS
Canon TS-E 24mm 3.5L

Computer – Apple 15″ PowerBook (1.25GHz G4)

Storage – 1 GB CF cards, a USB2 card adapter and a big spindle of blank DVDs

Canon dual battery charger and spare 1Ds battery

Wireless internet access was now much more common than my last trip (not yet in Fairplay, CO ;-)

As is my habit, the tripod stayed on the studio at home. OK, it’s hefty enough to be able to use with my 1100mm mirror lens, but as I’ve written elsewhere, I generally don’t like using tripods for landscape work.

I know that some people say that it slows you down and forces you to take more time over composition etc. – not for me thanks! Some of my most popular prints have come from just seeing a view, deciding it might work, and taking half a dozen shots. I may bracket exposures (always good when there is a wide dynamic range of lighting in a view) or have a think afterwards about if some alternative views might be better, but the real ‘keepers’ more often than not, come from my initial reaction to a view. It’s my emotional response to a view that I’m trying to capture, and that is not a feeling that arrives over the course of 5 minutes setting up equipment ;-)

OK, so what do I tell people about this when I’m teaching? Actually I suggest that people do -try- using a tripod, also I remind them that with digital there is less excuse than ever for not taking plenty of photos (and to always use raw format). It has taken many thousands of pictures for me to develop my ‘eye’ for a good picture, and even then I get it wrong sometimes. An example from this trip, would be one location where I took several dozen pictures. Several were very good, but after looking at some black and white versions I decided that a particular composition might have worked better.

As it happens, I was going back past the location the next day, unfortunately the dramatic stormy clouds were replaced with a clear blue sky…

Some images

I’ll show this initial example of some of the steps I might go through to produce a black and white print.

CO 84 - twin lakesFirst there is the colour original, I’ve cropped the bottom off this view of Independence Pass to emphasise the clouds and mountains, since there was nothing much in the foreground, and choice of foreground can make all the difference in a wide angle shot, no matter how interesting the distant view.

It was taken (f/8) with the 24-70 at 24mm. I tried looking at a wider angle, but the mountains just got too small.

The lighting angle for the clouds is not ideal for a black and white shot, since they lack a bit of contrast.

The aperture priority mode of the camera gave me an automatic exposure that was probably about half a stop less than ideal, but showed no clipping on the camera histogram, and looked OK on the preview. I could have metered more carefully, but after using the camera for a couple of years I’ve got pretty good at reading the histogram to check exposures. The most likely part of the image to clip would be the sunlit snow, and it looked fine.

independence passThe cropped view was converted from raw with DxO Optics Pro, using some of its lighting adjustments to keep detail in the darker areas.

There are often lots of different ways of achieving the same results in Photoshop.

For myself, the key is not necessarily knowing the most efficient way, but having an idea of where you want to get to.

For my conversion to black and white I used Convert to B/W pro, with a light red filter ‘effect’ to get a bit more contrast in the sky. With this particular image you could get very similar results just using the channel mixer.

The view below shows a screen shot during some of my initial experiments with the image.

image processing converting to bw

Quite often I’ll end up applying all kinds of multiple masked layers like this, in an attempt to get the image to look the way I want.

Notice the way the Curves 2 layer is only being used to enhance the cloud contrast – if this concept of masking layers is unfamiliar, have a look at the masked adjustment layer tutorial in my Photoshop Elements introductory articles.

As with many things, less is sometimes more. To produce a version for a print I went back to the image and with only two masked curve adjustment layers, produced an image I was happy with.

Independence Pass, looking over Twin Lakes

Independence Pass, looking over Twin Lakes

The image takes a bit more work to get a reasonable print – if I was to directly print the file that the image above is based on, the print could easily look a bit ‘flat’.

Fortunately I know how much of a levels adjustment it takes to get a good match between what I’m looking at on the screen and what I like as a print. This is one of those times where having a profiled and calibrated monitor and printer nearly gets you there, but experience with a B/W printing system adds that final bit extra.

The nice thing about having a consistent calibrated system is that the tweaks needed are usually about the same and need very little guesswork. Sometimes your prints just won’t match the screen, knowing when and why saves paper, ink and a whole load of hassle :-)

Note — There are lots of reasons that prints don’t match what you see on the screen, I’ve written an article explaining some of the main ones.

Update [2015] I’ve looked at this image over the years and just never been able to get a print I really like.  It’s a classic example of a view that you think will work, but just doesn’t go the way you felt when taking it. The simplest explanation is that the sun was in the wrong place, so there is not enough shadow…

Here is another example using a wide angle lens (16-35 @20mm) where it was the interesting sky that first caught my attention

South Park - view towards Kenosha Pass

Using the equivalent of an orange filter in the B/W conversion enhanced the sky contrast, while a single masked curves layer applied to the sky gave just the feel I was looking for.

South Park Sky

South Park Sky

It’s a picture that looks very spectacular as a large print. When sharpening for print, I only applied the sharpening (using Nik Sharpener Pro) to the land so as to give the clouds extra smoothness.

Update [2015] Whilst the image looked good as a print, it shows some softness from the lens. In fact, when I got the 21MP Canon 1Ds mk3 in 2007, I sold the 16-35. Now, I’d use the EF 11-24mm for the shot, or the TS-E17mm.

Here’s an example of a colour shot, that with care in sharpening and relatively minor adjustments could make an interesting colour print. This was the clear cloudless day I mentioned at the start.

cottonwood and shed

The more interesting sky (particularly for black and white) was the day before

shed and rocks, Yampa CO

Rocks and Shed, Yampa

Once again a masked adjustment layer can be used to bring out the sky I wanted, but with the sharp edge of the rocks, it takes quite some care to get an effect that does not show visible signs of the masking.

The example below shows the sky adjustment curve (1) ‘turned off’

image tonality adjustments

Image editing

adjustment curve for sky enhancement

‘Sky’ curve (1)

Curves (1) increases contrast, where applied in lighter areas (the sky)

I also decided that some areas behind the shed could do with a bit more contrast

adjustment curve for localised midtone contrast enhancement

Spooky Aspen Eye - Grand MesaCurves (2) was used for selective contrast enhancement in midtone areas. It lightens them slightly as well. The steep middle part of the curve expands the contrast, while its shift to the right lightens things. Remember that since I’m working in greyscale, the axes of the graph are reversed from what you get in colour.

Note, I’ve added fully worked example of creating a black and white print from a colour image to the tutorials section – Making a black and white print

Levels (1) was a global adjustment of white/black points, and Levels (2) was used to slightly darken the foreground and hence emphasise the line of longer grass running in front of the shed.

24mm Tilt/shift lens

I’ve not had this particular Canon lens for very long, it’s something I’ve mostly used for interiors.

The tilt aspect of its functionality takes a bit more care when thinking about its use.

Note — if you are not familiar with tilt/shift lenses, I’ve written an article on the TS-E 24 with many more examples of what they do.

In the example to the right, I’ve tilted the lens so as to keep all of the tree in focus, but blur the background near the ‘Eye’.

If I’d set the aperture small enough to get most of the tree in focus, then most of the rest of the shot would be sharp too.

It’s hand held at f/3.5 (meter the shot before tilting/shifting) and was one of a sequence with bracketed amounts of tilt.

The ‘correct’ way to do it would involve a tripod, a magnifying angle finder and probably a different focusing screen.

(That’s what I’d use when I’m being paid for the job :-)

Spooky Aspen – Grand Mesa

Lastly, have a look at these water bubbles


It’s actually a 100% crop from a picture taken at Fish Creek Falls, near Steamboat Springs

Even in the picture below it’s not easy to see what is going on.

white water - frozen in time

White water – frozen

In a larger print you can look at it and suddenly realise it is water, completely frozen in time.

Another view, with a rock for scale…

droplets of water

It’s what ‘white water’ looks like at a shutter speed of 1/5000th of a second. I’d forgotten that one of the features of my Canon 1Ds is a phenomenally good quality shutter mechanism – it pays to re-read your manual sometimes and find out some of the tricks you may have forgotten about.

I also took quite a lot of collections of images for subsequent stitching together. I’m shortly doing a review of some new high quality image stitching software, so I’ll be using some of them as samples at that time. There are, in the mean time, some examples in the blog, where I used Photoshop’s image stitching function.


Colorado is a great place to visit April/May, as long as you don’t want any guarantees on the weather… It’s relatively empty, but a lot cheaper to stay ;-)

With my own travelling, the number of photographs of any type is pretty unpredictable, I’m going to new places and taking what I see. Car problems (see the blog) limited my access to some areas I might have got some good shots, but I did have a good time, and met some interesting people.

The trip was not just about taking some landscape pictures, it helped sharpen my ability to notice what was going on round me. I always find when I get back from such a trip that I see my local surroundings in a new light, which feeds through into my commercial work. Quite a bit of commercial work is not that challenging (it is a job after all ;-) so the creative batteries sometimes need a bit of recharging.

After two years of use I know the 1Ds pretty well, and my exposure estimation turned out to be much more accurate. The combination of metering, occasional bracketing and evaluation of the camera histogram works well – get to know and understand your camera histogram!

As I’ve got to know the lenses and 1Ds better I’m better able to predict whether lens flare will be an issue

Even when use your camera on automatic or semi auto, it’s worth looking at the settings you are getting – it all helps build up your skills in knowing what affects what. None of my first cameras had meters, so I’ve always been aware of the real meaning of shutter speeds and aperture, even so it took a while using the 1Ds before some of those skills returned to the fore. Since it costs nothing to go out and shoot a card of images I always include using digital SLRs on manual as an important part of my various photography courses.

Oh — re-read the camera manual every so often, they fit an awful lot of things into cameras these days. The images on this page don’t really do it justice, but a sequence of detailed images of bubbling water at 1/5000 of a second really do look fascinating.

The tilt/shift lens is fun to us, although I often wish it was a bit wider than 24mm. If you get a chance to try one out then do, since it will change your way of looking at perspective and depth of field – even when using ‘normal’ lenses. If you have a collection of lenses, go out with one of your less popular ones on the camera and see what you can get. I used the three different zooms much more frequently this trip.

Dust – I made sure the camera was pretty clean to start with. I also took far fewer shots at f/16 where dust shows up more (the lenses I’ve got are all very good at f/8)

While I was away I was using the same laptop as before, but with more memory and newer applications. Wireless internet is so much more common this time – I only used dialup in Fairplay :-) A USB2 card reader helped speed up card input, although the relatively slow DVD writer on my laptop meant that writing two DVDs for each 4GB of images took a while.

Image processing software is continually improving, I’ve made use of DxO Optics Pro for some images, simply because I like some of the effects you can get and the quality of its conversions. Equally well Adobe Camera Raw has improved and for many images remains my converter of choice. With new software I can go back to original raw files and re-process them. I was recently asked for a print from my original trip — it was easier to re-process the original raw file and produce a new (sharper, less noise) version at the requested size, than to clean up the converted file from only two years ago.

I used the collection of images I took on this trip to test out Adobe Lightroom beta 2 (available for Macs only at the moment). First impressions are that it is superb. It is fast and efficient on my dual 2.5 G5 Mac. The interface and layout has obviously had a lot of input from photographers. I used it as a selection and sorting tool, rather than using it to process raw files, or address asset management issues (cataloguing etc.). It’s only a beta so there is a lot of functionality and features ‘pending’, but from what I’ve seen, Adobe is not going to find it difficult selling it to photographers.

Note [2016] That enthusiasm for Lightroom quickly waned as I explored it more and got even better with Photoshop. I just don’t like its ‘do everything’ approach, or the whole catalogue based theme. By all means try it, YMMV.

The 1Ds produces wonderful images, but I’m beginning to notice more of its limitations, both from a resolution (megapixels) and sensitivity (noise at higher ISO) point of view. Not enough to warrant a 1Ds Mk2, but I’m hoping for a 1Ds MkIII or whatever to be announced sooner rather than later…

Note [2016] The 21MP 1Ds3 turned up in 2007, and lasted me until I got the 50MP Canon 5Ds in 2015.

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