What lurks in the shadows.

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The more time I spend with my Fujifilm X-T2 the more impressed I’ve become with it and the X-Trans sensor inside. One of the things I’ve been most amazed by is the amount of detail I’m able to recover from shadows that seem to have gone to black.

With about 20 minutes before the sun would crest the horizon off the New Hampshire seacoast it was still pretty dark when I made the above photo. So it was no surprise to find the shadow side of the monument rendering as black in the image. Even the histogram in Lightroom indicated there was no detail to be recovered.

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Histogram indicating no detail in the shadows.

Or so it seemed.

While I’m happy with the photo the way it is I was curious as to just how far I could push the shadows and what if any detail might be revealed.

Below is an approximate 100% crop taken from the original photo. Just for the heck of it I pushed the shadow slider in Lightroom as far to the right as it would go.

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100% crop from the original image.

Much to my surprise there was a lot more hidden in those shadows than I thought possible. This is the same crop, only this time with the shadow slider pushed all the way to the right.

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The same 100% crop with the shadow slider pushed all the way to the right.

The real surprise, I wasn’t pulling all of this hidden detail out of a RAW file. All of this detail was hidden in the shadows in the straight out of camera jpeg. The second part of the surprise, there was virtually no noise introduced into the image after boosting the shadows.

Add this to the growing list of reasons why I continue to be happy  with my decision to switch from Canon to Fuji.

The X Factor.

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I’m done with Canon.

After a long run and many great experiences, I’ve parted ways with my Canon cameras and lenses. This is something that I never thought I would do. I loved the image quality I got from every Canon camera from my first 40D to the 5D MkIII that until recently had been my workhorse camera. There was almost nothing I didn’t like about Canon.

Almost.

The one downside was the size and weight of the camera and lenses. As you know I photograph locations here in New Hampshire that require long hikes on steep terrain miles into the mountains. The big DSLRs and lenses was really starting to weigh me down.

Still, I hadn’t really been considering a change.

It happened on a whim.

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The beginning of the end, the Fujifilm X-Pro1.

It was a spur of the moment purchase that, while I didn’t realize it at the time, was the beginning of the end of my days with Canon.

I just happened to be scrolling through the latest items up for sale in a used photography gear swap/selling group I belong two on Facebook, when I came across a Fujifilm X-Pro1 with the XF18-55 “kit” lens.

Up until this point I had only been vaguely aware of Fujifilm cameras. My good friend Joe had one of their X100 series cameras and was producing great images with it. Other than that I knew nothing about them. With a trip Disney coming up, in the back of my mind I had been thinking a small camera that offered more control than my iPhone that wasn’t as big and heavy as my Canon cameras would be nice to have. The price was right, so thinking this might be a great little camera to carry with me for 10 days in Disney, I contacted the seller and worked out a deal.

Love at first sight.

Up to this point I had never even seen a Fujifilm camera up close, so when the X-Pro1 arrived I was shocked at how tiny it actually was compared to my 5D MkIII. It was almost cute by comparison. I loved the size of it though. The Fuji X-Pro1 with lens attached weighed about the same, maybe even less than my smallest and lightest Canon lens, the EF17-40 F/4L.

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I never took a side by side photo of the X-Pro1 and my Canon, so here’s a side by side comparison of my Fujifilm X-T2(which is actually a little bigger than the X-Pro1) and the camera it replaced, the Canon 5D MkIII.

 

The only thing that concerned me about this little camera was the fact that it’s a rangefinder style camera. Instead of looking through the lens like on a DSLR style camera the X-Pro1 has an optical viewfinder to to the left of the lens that when you look through you actually see the side of the lens in the viewfinder. That was definitely weird at first and took some getting used to.

Thank goodness for the internet, because while waiting for the camera to arrive I was able to do a lot of reading up on how to use a camera style quite different from my DSLR made by a company who’s gear I have never used before. Good thing too since the camera didn’t arrive until the day before we left for our Disney vacation!

Hints of things to come, and things to go.

On our fist day in the Magic Kingdom I decided to bring the Fuji and leave the Canon back at the hotel. After having lugged around a big heavy DSLR for the last 8+ years I have to say carrying the X-Pro1 was an absolute joy. It was so small and light that I almost forgot I was carrying it.

Over the next 10 days I only reached for my Canon twice. Both times I was wishing I had left it back in the hotel and took the Fuji.

Sensor size and image quality.

Yes, I did “downgrade” from a full frame sensor size in the 5D MkIII to an APS-C, or crop sensor, camera. To be perfectly honest I never have and still don’t feel I needed a full frame camera. Not once have I ever looked at any of my earlier photos and thought, “Gee, that would have been so much better had it been shot on a full frame.”

What about noise? What about it? Noise doesn’t concern me in the least. As Rick Sammon likes to say, “If a picture’s so boring you notice the noise, you’ve got a boring picture!” One thing I will say regarding noise, from my totally non-scientific comparisons I feel the going on 5 year old X-Pro1 handles noise better than the 5D MkIII. And the X-T2 that is now my main camera body is lightyears ahead of the X-Pro1 in technology so I expect even better high ISO performance.

Below is a slideshow of a random sample of images I captured using the Fujifilm X-Pro1. I shot everything and nothing in particular, but I was very pleased with the results I got. Enough so that as soon as I got home I ordered the X-T2 and sold off all of my Canon gear.

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And One Filter To Rule Them All

The One Filter You Can’t Live Without.

The Weekly Photo Challenge topic is Landscape, so rather than simply share a few landscape photos I’m going to talk about the one filter that should be in every nature and landscape photographers camera bag.

The one filter that cannot be duplicated in the computer, and the one filter I never leave home without.

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Straight out of camera, without polarizer.

 

That filter is the Circular Polarizer.

You can duplicate graduated neutral density filters all day long in Lightroom.

You can even simulate the effect of a straight neutral density filter simply by photographing in lower light, using smaller apertures, or lower ISO settings, thus allowing you to get longer exposure times.

However when it comes to removing the glare on shiny reflective surfaces like wet rocks and leaves, or the reflections on the surface of a flowing stream to reveal the stream bed below, there is only one way to do it. And that is with a good quality Circular Polarizer filter, or CPL for short.

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Same scene and camera settings, this time using a polarizer.

What does a Circular Polarizer do?

A circular polarizer is a filter that attaches to the front of your lens, usually by screwing onto the front filter threads. (Now you know why those threads are there 😉 )

What does a CPL do?

Notice how in the first image the colors are much less saturated and the details below the waters surface are much less visible. The is cause by glare. Notice how in the second image, shot using the same exposure settings,* the colors are richer, more saturated, and there is more visible detail under the water.

While a CPL can also help increase contrast and saturation in a photo,  both of these can be duplicated in the computer, glare and reflection removal can’t.

*Note: The second image is darker due to the ability of the Circular Polarizer to reduce the amount of light by as much as 2-stops. This is an added benefit when trying to use longer exposure times to capture flowing water with that silky smooth look.

The Benefits Continue Into The Final Image.

The better the image you get straight out of the camera the better the final image will be after post processing. The following are the above two images, processed as identically as I could. While this is totally subjective on my part the second image, the one where the circular polarizer was used, is the better final image.

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Final enhanced image using the RAW file captured without the use of a CPL

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Final enhanced image using the RAW file captured using a CPL

Tips On Buying And Using A Circular Polarizer.

1 – Buy the best you can afford. 

Cheap CPL filters can cause image softness as well as impart a color cast on your photo. I’ve used CPLs from B+W, Lee, and Singh Ray with excellent results. Be forewarned, good filters are not inexpensive, though in my opinion you get what you pay for. For more budget friendly CPL filters, check out Tiffen, or Hoya. I have no experience with the latter two, but I have read good things about their line of filters.

2 – Avoid using a CPL when photographing wide scenes.

One thing polarizers do very well is darken blue sky. Too well if you over adjust the filter. BUT, and it’s a big but, the effect of a CPL is greatest at 90° to the light source, for a landscape photographer this is likely the sun. The effect is reduced more and more as the angle to the sun changes. This is a big problem when photographing wide scenic landscapes with a lot of sky. The result will be part of the sky will be noticeably darker when gradually fading across the frame. This is a royal pain in the backside – by that I mean darn near impossible –  to correct in the computer.

3 – Don’t for get to readjust when you recompose.

You can adjust the amount of polarization on the image by rotating the filter. As mentioned above the greatest effect is at 90° to the sun. So once you adjust the amount of polarization you want in an image and then move the camera for another composition, don’t forget to readjust the filter. I find it to be much easier to see the effect in live view rather than looking thru the viewfinder, but that could just be my aging eyes.

4 – You only need one.  

Some of you may be thinking, “I have more than one lens that I use for landscape/waterfalls. Do I need a filter for each lens?” The answer is no.

Buy a filter that will fit the lens you own with the largest diameter filter threads. The buy inexpensive step-down rings to fit the filter to all of your other lenses.

 

Cameras(and Batteries) In The Cold.

Baby it’s cold outside!

-10°F on the NH Seacoast.

-10°F on the NH Seacoast.

Winter is one of my favorite times of year to get out and make photographs. Extreme weather, including cold, can make for dramatic photographs, but the cold can adversely affect your camera, especially the batteries, if you’re not careful. Nothing can ruin a winter shoot faster than a camera that’s dead due to a cold induced coma in your battery.

You know it's cold when sea water freezes!

You know it’s cold when sea water freezes!

Having been out shooting in temps as low -10°F / -20°C, without experiencing any camera malfunctions, I wanted to share a few tips on what works for me to keep the camera shooting when the mercury drops through the bottom of the thermometer.

Cold Caution: Whether or not you decide to brave the cold with your camera is completely, totally, 100% up to, and on you. I accept no responsibility for you or your camera should a malfunction occur. As an example, Canon lists the operating range of their cameras as 32-104°F / 0-40°C. I’ve frequently use my cameras in much much colder temps than this without ever having a problem, please exercise caution, and use common sense when exposing your camera to extreme cold. Only you can decide if it’s worth the risk.

Batteries, the more the merrier! 

Having only the one that came with your camera isn’t going to cut it when it’s really cold outside. Nothing will kill a battery faster than the cold, so I always bring at least one spare, two is better. With my Canon 40D I would bring 4 batteries with me, and often need them all. That camera sucked the life out of batteries in the cold like you wouldn’t believe. Luckily, my current 7D is much better at cold weather battery life, but I still bring a spare.

And keep them warm!

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For me, keeping my batteries warm when venturing out in frigid weather is a two-part strategy. First, I remove the battery from the camera and put it and my spares inside an inner pocket of one of my clothing layers. Only installing the battery in the camera when I’m ready to make a picture.

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Second, I never leave home without 3-4 small chemical hand warmers in my pockets. I toss one in the pocket with my batteries to keep them nice and toasty. Also, if like me you like to take photos with your iPhone as well as your “real” camera, toss it in there too. I’ve found my iPhone really doesn’t care for temps much below 20°F, showing a dead battery and shutting down, usually right in the middle of trying to take a picture.

This trick works well at reviving seemingly dead batteries too. You’d be surprised how much more life you can get out of a battery that has died due to the cold just by warming it up.

After hiking several miles for a view like this…

Cairns, Mt. Washington, and the Full Moon.

Plenty cold, but needs more snow!

The last thing I want when I get there, is a dead battery, with no backup, when keeping them warm would have done the trick. 

Nice Legs!

All Three Of Them.

Night time, long exposure, photo of one of the three fountains found in Portsmouth, New Hampshire's Prescott Park gardens. A large tree frames the left side of the horizontal image, as the vibrant greenery and red flowers along the brick pathway lead around the fountain. A street light outside the garden gives a starburst of light in this night time scene.

– At night, even if I wasn’t trying to capture the movement of the water fountain, I’d need a long exposure for this scene due to the low light. That means tripod – 

If you want consistently sharp, well composed photos, buy a tripod. I don’t care how advanced the image stabilization is in your camera or lens, nothing will aid you more in making sharper photographs than having your camera mounted securely on a good sturdy tripod.

As for how a tripod can aid in composition, for me it’s simple, it slows me down. Setting up the tripod gives me time to think about the composition possibilities before me, and not just stumbling upon a scene and then, “Ooh pretty, click, click, click.” off to the next spot. The slower I work, the more thought I put into the image, the better the results. Every time!

Not Just Another Accessory.

Otter Cliffs in Acadia National Park, photographed during the blue hour, that time before twilight when everything has a blue color to it. This long, 61 second exposure show the movement of the clouds and the surf along the rugged granite shore leading up to Otter Cliffs in the distance.

– I don’t care who you are, a 61 second exposure, like the one above taken in Acadia National Park, is pretty darn tough to do hand-held. The water and the clouds wouldn’t be the only thing soft silky if I attempted to hand hold this shot.-

Most people new to photography are giddy with excitement when they get their new camera. But the lowly tripod barely gets a second thought, if it gets any thought at all. They can’t wait to get out there and start taking pictures, but when their first sunset doesn’t come out nearly as sharp as it should, they wonder why.

As far as I’m concerned, a tripod is not an optional “accessory,” something to maybe buy later on, but an essential piece of gear for anyone interested in nature and landscape photography. For me a tripod is a must, not a maybe.

a fresh dusting of snow clings to the branches of the stream side evergreens as Tucker Brook cascades over moss covered granit boulders.

– Soft flowing water and sharp stream side forest, all because I used a tripod.-

I make a lot of photographs in situations where it would be impossible to get the shot I want without a tripod mounted camera. Think low light, and long exposures. If I’m trying to photograph a stream for instance, I want the silky look to the moving water that only a long exposure can give. But the boulders in the stream, and the trees along the stream bank need to be tack sharp, not just as blurry as the water.

A tripod allows the long, 2 to 30 second (often longer) exposures that I need to blur the moving water, while holding the camera perfectly still to capture the other elements of the scene in sharp detail.

Three Legs For Three Shots.

Granite ledge meets the Atlantic Ocean along the shore of Acadia National Park. Dramatic clouds lead the eye towards the orange-yellow brightening of the sky as the sun is about to crest the horizon.

– The above image is a three shot HDR image processed in Nik’s HDR Efex Pro 2 –

Another good reason to use a tripod is HDR photography. Basically, for those who have been living in a cave for the last few years, HDR or High Dynamic Range, is the blending of usually three, sometimes more, photographs, each exposed to capture detail in a different part of the scene, from shadows to highlights, to create one final image. In every instance I can think of, you want all the images to be perfectly aligned to get the best final image.

You Have Got To Be Joking, Right?

Now comes the painful part.

When it comes to purchasing a tripod you have three choices, cheap, light, and strong, you can have any two. I thought I was going to have a stroke when I started looking into purchasing my first “real” tripod. So, as many before me have done, I went cheap.

The aluminum tripod I first bought was dirt cheap, and light weight. The problem was that it was about as sturdy as a wet noodle with my Canon 40D and even a modestly sized lens mounted on it. My next tripod was, I thought, reasonably priced, and very sturdy, even with my largest lens, Canon’s 100-400L. But heavy, oh man was it heavy! Taking it on a long hike was no fun at all. After a few hikes, I knew this tripods days were numbered.

It was time break the bank and get a good tripod. After a LOT of research I decided on the Gitzo GT2541 Mountaineer. It’s light, sturdy, and strong, and it cost more than my first car, yikes!

At less than three pounds once I removed the center column, it was a joy to carry. An added bonus, since I do a lot of shooting in very cold weather, unlike aluminum, the carbon fiber legs didn’t suck the heat right out of my hands on even the coldest days. In fact, I can actually feel the tripod getting warmer in my hand, and not my hand getting colder. With my aluminum tripod, after a short time I could barely feel my fingers.

Things To Look For.

Long exposure, vertical photo of a small flume and triple waterfall on the Mad River in Farmington, NH.

– Overcast day + flowing water = tripod is going to come in handy for the exposure time required for this shot –

There are several factors in deciding what tripod is right for you. First is load carrying capacity. The tripod needs to securely support your camera and the largest lens you plan to mount on it.

Second is weight. If you are only going to walk a few yards from your car, you may not need the lightest tripod you can get. This can also save you money, because a quality aluminum tripod is much less expensive than a carbon fiber one from the same manufacture. If you plan to do a lot of back country exploring, your back and shoulders will thank you for buying the lightest, and strongest, tripod you can afford.

Overall height and number of leg sections are also things to think about. It is recommended that the tripod holds the camera at eye level with the legs fully extended and center column down so you don’t have to hunch over to look through the viewfinder. Also, three leg sections are almost always more sturdy than four in a given support class of tripod.

Very good advice, that I chose to ignore. I never shoot at eye level, how boring is that, everyone shoots at eye level. I’m more likely to need knee pads than a taller tripod, so I chose four leg sections over three, for its shorter, more packable, collapsed length. Plus, since I’m usually shooting from less than conventional positions I almost never extend the fourth, and least stable leg sections anyway. My tripod fits my style of shooting perfectly.

Which brings me to price. There is no way to sugar coat it, buying a quality tripod from one of the major manufactures, like Gitzo, or Really Right Stuff, to name two, especially carbon fiber, is going to hurt, a lot! But when you factor the cost of all the cheap tripods you buy, before you get the one you should have bought in the first place, you will probably have spent almost half the price of a good one. Ask me, I’ll tell you all about it.

Three Legs, Three Final Answers.

Yes, a good tripod is a worthwhile investment. Yes, I never leave mine at home. And yes, I think it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to have captured the photographs in this post without a tripod.

The most annoying questions every photographer is asked.

Sunrise At Rye Harbor, New Hampshire

Golden light illuminates the granite boulders at Rye Harbor state park. The long exposure gives the water a smokey, etherial look. A classic New Hampshire seacoast landscape image.

I was in Newmarket, New Hampshire this past Saturday participating as a vendor during the town’s Olde Home Day celebration. The weather was perfect for an outdoor market, and the people were great. But as the day wore on, I was repeatedly asked two questions, both of which make me cringe every time I hear them.

“What kind of camera do you have?”

Possibly number one on my list of annoying questions. Until I put a little thought into it though, I didn’t realize why this question bothered me so much. Then it hit me, at its core this one questions my ability as a photographer. The idea that you can buy your way into creating great images is quite prevalent  among the general public. To me this says they think it’s the gear that made the photograph, not my skill, vision, and creativity as an artist. Not to mention my effort to be at the right place at the right time. I’ll bet no one ever asked Picasso what kind of brushes he used, or Stephen King what kind of typewriter he created The Stand on. I’ve decided I’m going to start telling people who ask, that I use a Kodak Easy Share, the look on their face will be priceless.

“Is that photoshopped?”

I went into this in more depth in an earlier post, so I won’t go too deeply into it again.  I consider that what I’m creating is art, and not photo journalism, so I make no secret of the fact that I use Lightroom3 and several plug-ins to achieve the result I envision for an image. The fact of the matter is, do you like it or not? If so, does it really matter what I did to the image during the editing process to get to the result you see? Buy it, or not. Like it, or not. The process shouldn’t matter.

Another question I get asked a lot has to do with the perception that, as someone serious about their photography who uses a “real” camera, I know everything about the features and operation of every camera ever produced since the dawn of time. The question can take many forms, but usually goes something like, “what does this mean?” or “how do I get my camera to do this?” Usually asked by the owner of their new point-and-shoot. My standard reply is almost always, RTFM,* and I think most of you know what it stands for. However after this smart-ass reply, I do try to help when I can because, one, I’m not a total ass, and two, it is usually asked by a family member or close friend at a family gathering or some other social occasion.

Well that’s it for now, I’m sure there are more that I’m forgetting at the moment, so in the mean time why don’t you tell me, what photography related questions most annoy you.

Silver Cascade 1, waterfall, Crawford Notch, NH

The picturesque Silver Cascade located right off of route 16 in Crawford Notch in the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire is a popular scenic location.

*For those who can’t guess it’s, Read The F—-n Manual!

Get Some Traction

Kahtoola MicroSpikes, I can’t say enough about them. Short of full on crampons, you will not believe the grip these slip on goodies offer. I picked mine up at the local EMS store for $59.95, which I thought was a very reasonable price. And, when you consider where they will get you, and the images you will be able to create from these harder to reach vantage points, I feel it is money well spent.

They are extremely simple to put on, just find the portion of the red elastomer harness marked “front,”(there is no right or left) slip it over the toe of your shoe and stretch them over the sole. A little adjusting of the chains that hold the spikes may be needed to get them aligned evenly across the bottom of the shoe, but other than that, as simple as pulling on your slippers. I did have one issue while wearing them that resulted in a fall that was not the fault of the MicroSpikes. The problem had two causes. The first was wearing them with my hunting boots, the deeply lugged sole caused the chain to ride deep in the lugs where it was unable to contact the ice. The second was operator error.  I would normally try to get a grip on a steep hill by side stepping down while digging in the side of the aggressive boot sole.  This caused too much rubber and nowhere near enough nice grippy metal to contact the ice. A less aggressive boot sole combined with placing my foot as flat as possible on the ice would have allowed maximum contact of the spikes to the ice, and prevented a nicely bruised shin at the same time.

I don’t believe these would be ideal for general use such as shoveling the driveway, since I don’t think the spikes would last very long being used on asphalt, and only time will tell home many stretches the elastomer will be good for before breaking. Other than those two reservations I would highly recommend these to the outdoor enthusiast wishing to get off the beaten path, and not let a little frozen water get in the way.