Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

November 16, 2017

New Baby

NikonUSA finally released their black friday ad this past Monday and, sadly, there was no deal on the d7500 body only. All the deals were on kits that came with lenses I don’t need since my lens collection meets my current needs perfectly. Of course, no black friday sale means no reason to wait until black friday!

I am amazed at the difference in image quality. My previous camera body, the 5100, is several models out of date, and was an entry model where the 7500 is considered a mid-range. I was expecting significantly better low light capabilities, and was still blown away by the difference when I redid the low-key maternity photos. I bumped up the ISO to 1000 without noticeable noise, whereas with my old 5100 the noise was extremely pronounced at ISO 800. The other advantage was the 7500 was able to autofocus much better in the dark than the 5100. I took roughly half the number of exposures and felt confident I had gotten “the shot.”

I’m super excited to test out the new camera on the kids on the weekend. I’ve been frustrated lately by the 5100’s soft focus like appearance in the face. I think it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. I never remember having this issue when the camera was new. It was particularly pronounced doing Nicole’s “1st day of Kindergarten” photos, which is part of the reason why I’m pining for AI photo enhancing. Ah well, some day.

That said, there are some things I do miss about the 5100. The 5100 has a rotatable LCD back screen that has been described as “selfie friendly.” I hate that term, but it was useful for taking maternity photos. I guess technically they’re “selfies.” The 7500 can tilt, but not rotate. The new camera is also noticeably heavier than the old one. But these are very minor concerns, especially when you consider all the benefits the new camera is bringing.

November 10, 2017

Low Key Maternity Photography

How can I possibly be 32 weeks already? It suddenly dawned on me that despite approaching the midway point in the third trimester, the only “bump” photos I have are a handful of bathroom selfies at 8 weeks when I couldn’t believe I was already showing. I needed to fix that, and I waned to challenge myself to try at something different.

Low key photos are low light, mostly dark photos that emphasize shadow and shape. I tried to do low-key bump portraits while pregnant with Alexis, but couldn’t master the light. I’ve experimented with dark background, spotlight photos before using a desk/craft light, but the craft light wasn’t strong enough to take photos of a larger subject (like my bump.)

This time around I decided to get a long, skinny adjustable craft light since I can almost always use more high quality desk lamps. I settled on TaoTronics LED Desk Lamp since it allowed me to adjust both brightness & color temperature. As an added bonus, TaoTronics had a newer model so the one I purchased was on the cheaper side. As long as it’s a bright white light and the right narrow shape, any lamp will do. To further control the light I cut up the Amazon box it shipped in and made cardboard flaps. I taped a flap to each side of the lamp, to focus the light so it wouldn’t illuminate the wall behind me.

As a general rule of thumb the darker the photo, the more visible the ISO noise. To make this photo work I had to shot at a very low ISO setting, which means a longer exposure time. Unfortunately, unlike my previous spotlight attempts I needed to shot with the room dark. The larger the subject, the further back the craft light needs to be. The further back the craft light, the less bright the light is when it reaches the subject. I shot the above photo ISO 100, f/5, 1/13 a second. Normally I’m comfortable shooting at ISO 1000, but it was just too much noise.
The above photo is pushing the boundaries of what my 5 year old camera can do.

If you want to attempt a similar photo, here are my tips:
– Where light color, possibly skin toned clothes. I tried this in a dark sweater and everything other than my hands all but disappeared.
– Use a Lower ISO settings to avoid noise. I know I said that before, but this is one instance where a little noise can really ruin your photo.
– Adjust the cardboard flaps (you can use masking tape at the tops and the bottoms) to control how narrow or wide the light beam is.

I kick myself every time I mess up the settings on my camera. On Nicole’s first day of school I mistakenly left my camera in full manual mode, with the shutter speed set for indoor photography of stationary objects. The photo on the left is my favorite pose wise. Nicole is so happy. But the photo is so over exposed with a slight motion blur given the slow shutter speed. Fortunately I realized my mistake, adjusted my settings and was able to also capture the photo on the right.

Current state of the art photo editing techniques cannot save the photo on the left. The skin on the left side of her face is so over exposed the sRGB value is pure white. The computer simply has no way to figure out what color was supposed to be there, so there’s no way to automatically fix the white patch. Nicole could have cyan colored skin for all the computer knows. Or checker pattern skin, for that matter.

As an machine learning person, I find this limitation incredibly irritating. Chances are, when you, a human, first looked at the image on the left Nicole’s skin did not appear pure white to you. Your brain filled in a likely color based on the right side of the photo where her skin isn’t as badly over exposed and what you know of human skin tones. With the two photos side by side you can easily imagine a combined photo with the pose from the left and the coloring on the right.

Current state of the art image recognition can recognize faces. It should be able to map point for point the location of the eyes, mouth, nose, hands, etc between the two photos. Given that, it seems plausible for a AI enabled photo editing software to merge the two photos and create the ideal image.

Even without the image on the right, a sufficiently advanced AI based system should be able to recognize the subject matter much the way a human would. The system should then be able to generate a hyper realistic plausible image. It might not be the “correct” image, the image that would have been created if my settings were correct in the first place. I doubt for most people that would matter. A realistic enough resulting image that was plausibly correct would likely be sufficient for most momtographers like me.

February 15, 2017

Soft Focus Phone Troubles

While artistic, that soft focus in the above photo was not intentional. That’s what the front camera on my phone was able to capture of my standing still child.

I started noticing problems with my front camera back around Thanksgiving. I waited downstairs for the girls to come see the trees all lit up the morning after Thanksgiving, eager to capture the expressions on their faces when they first caught sight of the trees. Most of the photos turned out blurry, as though there was a film on the camera lens. I chalked it up to poor lighting. Since then, the photos on my front camera continue to be hit or miss. Even in full daylight. Even when the subject is standing still.

I’m currently using an iPhone 6, which is a couple months older than Alexis. I went with an upgraded memory hoping to get more than the standard two years out of my phone. (Or at least, not have to delete stuff in a mad panic because I wanted to take more photos with my phone and was out of space.) It may have been optimistic on my part to think the memory limitations was the only thing holding me back.

In any case, I now find myself with a dilemma. To upgrade, or not to upgrade?

I’m about half way though the upgrade cycle. On the one hand, the iPhone 8 will likely be one heck of an upgrade, to mark the 10 year anniversary, and that includes a substantial upgrade to the camera equipment. If I replace my iphone now, it’ll already be outdated in just 7ish short months. On the other, do I really need a $1,000 phone? And that would mean another 7ish months of bury kid photos.

My inclination is to wait. Maybe they’ll be a good sale on a 7 if the 8 does prove to be $1,000, and too rich for my blood. In the mean time, I’ll have to use my big girl camera a little more. It’s also overdue for an upgrade, as I’m 170,985 shutter actions on a body that’s only rated for 100,000 shutter actions. So far though, no loss in image quality that I can detect.


Same outfit as above. Background photo on my phone taken with my big girl camera.
November 16, 2016

My Burst Mode Preference

I’m apologetically a fan of shooting in continuous (burst) mode. For me, a typical photographic moment of a human or animal suggest might consist of:

* A single frame of a moment the instant I decide I want to capture it. It’s usually poorly framed, uninteresting shot from a photography perspective as it’s literally more instinct than thought at this moment. The goal of this frame is to have a record of the moment in case it passes before I have a chance to “get it right”. It’s the I-don’t-want-to-forget-this-spontaneous moment photo.
* A couple frames of the same moment where I’m in the process of moving and re-framing to get a more interesting photo. Each frame is usually progressively better, but there’s always a risk of camera shake ruining the shot since I’m usually moving and shooting at the same time.
* A couple frames when I’ve re-framed the photo as I want it to guard against blinks, shifting gazing or any other quick momentary issues that might otherwise ruin a photo.

The usual result is usually around 4-5 frames. I maintain that anyone who insists that multiple frames should not be necessary does not shoot very young kids often.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been working on some portrait orientation photos of the kids. My mother-in-law gave me a lovely photo collage frame last Christmas and I it’s beyond time to fill it. I’ve placed a step stool on the floor to keep the girls somewhat contained, but they only stay put for a moment. It’s a game: sit, smile, get up, giggle at Mommy’s reaction, run away, come back and repeat. Fine by me, games make for better expressions.

Here’s frames #1, #2 and #4 from a four frame block of Alexis. Frame #3 is nearly identical to #2, but contains motion blur not noticeable in the thumbnail.

alexisburst

Frame #1 is my least favorite. Her gaze is too high. #2 is the shot I was going for. Frame #4 with that smirk is a keeper from a mom perspective, but not the type of photo I was after for the collage. She’s also leaning forward slightly in #4 because she’s about to spring up from the stool and run off. (That’s probably the origin of the slightly blur to #3). Even in this relatively paused moment there’s still a lot of variation.

The initial shutter lag of my camera is 0.25 seconds, but drops to 0.11 for successive photos in contiguous mode. That’s not including the lag tag for my eyes to communicate what they’re seeing to my brain, and my brain to send the single for my finger to push the button. That may sound pedantic, but the human response time to visual stimuli is about a .25 second. All total, there’s a half second delay from identifying the “perfect moment” and having the shutter react. If I shot a single frame, I’d have just as high a probability of capturing frame #3 as #2.

Since I’m doing formal photos I don’t need to worry about capturing the spontaneous moment, but I still have that first, not quite framed right photo. Had it been the one with the best expression, I would have re-cropped it and kept it for my wall.

I think most of the critics of burst mode are favoring process over results. For a lot of photographers, the idea of shooting in continuous or boost mode is synonymous with “spray and pray”. Spray and pray refers to shooting first and frequently (spraying) without thought in the hopes of getting lucky (praying). Critics of spray and pray point out that it can be a crutch and does have a penalty associated with it. Each extra shutter action does create ware and tare on your camera (although the vast majority of us will never shoot enough for the extra ware and tare to matter.) Each file does take up additional space on your hard drive (if you’re like me and never delete anything ever that’s a significant issue). Finally, it costs you more time to go through each frame to find the best one. I’m guilty of this one too.

For us momtographers it’s not always about learning, or honing your skills. Sometimes you just want to have that beautiful photo for the wall, process be damned.

October 19, 2016

My Lens Collection

I’ve always enjoyed reading what equipment other photographers use, so I thought I’d put together my own. I should point out that I’m currently shooting with the Nikon 5100 which, I believe, is considered the entry level DSLR. It’s a crop sensor, and while I’ve toyed with the idea of full frame, I doubt I’ll ever make the plunge. I’ve subscribed to the it’s-all-about-the-lenses philosophy, and have the focal lengths that work well with my crop sensor. I’d have to buy a whole new set of lenses for a full sensor, which would be really silly at this point given there there are crop sensor cameras of comparable quality. I do plan on upgrading to a mid range DSLR, like the 7000 series.

So here are the lens I currently own:

35mm f/1.8 ($200)
This has become my go to lens for indoor photography. On a crop sensor what you see through the view finder is more or less the same perspective you see with the naked eye. When the kids were small I’d use this lens so I could be physically close, and still capture everything I wanted to on frame. There can be a little bit of a distortion effect shooting so close, although I hardly ever notice it.

nicole_portrait_sm

If you buy only one lens, and you have a crop sensor, this is the lens I recommend. It’s the most versatile.

50mm f/1.4 ($450)
This is the first ever lens I purchased, and one I really should use more often. It takes beautiful portraits (equivalent to the 85mm), but it can be really difficult to use in doors since you have to stand so far back. Almost all of my favorite photos were shot with the 50mm.

alexis_face

I also really enjoy the light shaping (bokeh) capabilities with this lens.

60mm f/2.8 Macro ($600)

Jewlery, bugs, flowers, this lens is great for all things tiny. It also works as a good portrait prime lens, though I generally prefer the 50mm for it’s wide aperture. This lens is the one I use the least out of all of them, but it’s also the most specialized. Pre-baby Sarah definitely got more use out of it than post-baby Sarah.

18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 (free, came with the camera)
Believe it or not, I use this as my “selfie” lens before I had a camera phone. At 18mm focal length, you can turn the camera around, stretch your arm all the way out and take a photo of your face. It’s great for travel when you don’t have a smart phone. There is a distortion effect, but I don’t mind. I actually think the distortion made my face look a little thinner.

greatwall

It’s also a great lens for getting light stars. The slower the shutter speed (and thus longer the exposure) the better the stars. This kit lens is what I used to take my favorite newborn photos by the tree.

24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 ($500 new, $350 refurbished)

This is my go to lens for photographic the kids while playing out back, or at the park.

70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 ($500 new, $300 refurbished)

For wildlife and, maybe one day, soccer practice.


$1,900 over seven years not including the camera body? Photography is an expensive hobby. That works out to about $270 a year, or $23 a month.

Overall, I’m very happy with the lens choices I’ve made. They may not be the best, pro lenses out there, but I have full confidence that failure to get the shot I’m after will be more of a user issue than an equipment one. Short of other great falls, I don’t see myself buying another lens for a very long time.

October 15, 2016

70-300 is a Winner to Me

The longer I wait for something in the mail, the more nervous I get that I ordered the wrong thing. After purchasing the new lens, I began to worry if 300mm wasn’t enough reach for me. Online calculators weren’t helping assuage that fear.

The first available daylight after the new 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 lens arrived last Saturday, I was outside experimenting with it. That happens to be shortly after dawn on a Saturday (kids generally get us up these days a bit before dawn). Shortly after dawn is not a very good time to try anything photography related. There just isn’t much light. Once I realized I wasn’t shooting with VR (vibration reduction) on, things got much better. When there was more light they were better still. I got the lens mostly for wildlife so I really wanted to test with wildlife. Wouldn’t you know that the mornings I got up with the kids we had no furry visitors but when Domingo got up with the kids there was a return of the deer, and a fox got trapped in the back yard? Twice?

When weekend rolled around again, I was pretty anxious to go to the zoo. It had been a while since our last trip, and the kids always seem to have a better weekend when we spend at least a little time out of the house. It was chilly and overcast as rain was expected thanks to the Typhone Songda, which meant the animals would be out.

Let me tell you the 70-300 did not disappoint!

I think the biggest advantage of the lens was it’s vibration reduction. The lens is a beast, easily my heaviest lens at 1.6 pounds. It’s 6 inches long when using the lowest focal length, and 8 when extended. That makes it’s center of gravity a bit out from you when you hold the camera to your face. I was shooting one handed, while balancing Alexis in my other arm. I was having a devil of a time keeping the camera level enough to get the framing the way I wanted it. The below photo was shot at 300mm, 1/250 a second with a very shaky hand, yet there’s no camera shake visible.

chimpanzee

I was a little nervous about the depth of field, since the aperture of the 70-300 doesn’t open as wide as the 55-200 lens which was being replaced. While the difference in focal length to 300mm to 200mm might not translate to much in a photograph, it makes a big difference in terms of depth of field thanks to the distance to subject minus focal length (s-f) part of the depth of field equation.

parrot

And, of course, the lens is very sharp. It’s sharper than I ever remember the 55-200mm being. However, I am wondering if maybe I’m comparing apples to oranges. I had that lens for seven years. It’s possible the great fall wasn’t it’s first fall and the elements may have been slightly knocked out of alignment previously.

Regardless, I’m very happy with the new lens. Now I just need that fox to come back.

September 27, 2016

A Bad Fall

A few days ago I saw an adult male deer out by the fence. It’s only the second time I’ve seen a buck, so naturally I grabbed my camera, my telezoom (55-200mm) lens and raced outside.

deerblur
50% crop. Click for non-resized version.

Sad Trombone. At 1/4000 a second, in full daylight the photo should have been sharp. I started taking photos of various things around me. Anything at focal length 100mm and above started to look blurry. That’s when I remembered the incident of the previous week. After spotting some wild turkeys I had rushed to grab my camera and distance lens. My hand slipped as I was screwing the lens in place. I lost my grip on it and it hit the stone floor hard. Hard enough I was amazed the glass didn’t shatter. I missed my chance at the turkeys, counted my lucky stars that I wasn’t sweeping up glass, and put the lens and camera back.

I don’t think my stars were quite so lucky after all.

The internet seemed to think it was just the focal elements knocked out of alignment. Not great, but not horrible. The lowest price I saw quoted anywhere for Nikon lens repair was about $40 plus shipping. I could save myself the shipping cost by going to a local certified Nikon repair place, but I’ve always found local labor tends to be a bit more expensive than national averages. (One of the perils of a high cost of living area.) I figured $50 was likely the cheapest repair price I could expect to pay.

The lens in question was a 7 year old kit lens that cost $150 new. You can reliably get one used for $100 off e-bay, and sometimes as low as $80. That also meant my lens, in working condition, would be worth at best $100. I was on the fence. After all, I’ve been thinking about a new Telezoom lens since 2014. My 55-200 was certainly serviceable, although not the lens I would have preferred. “Was” being the operative word.

That evening, after the kids were asleep, I decided to take the lens off my camera and have a look at it. A spring had become dislodged. Those things are re-attachable. No biggie. I thought. Except as I was turning the lens over in my hand, the head of the spring fell off! The spring was now in two pieces, and one of those metal pieces was dangerously close to the glass. I got out my trusty tweezers and very carefully removed the free floating metal spring piece. That’s when I noticed another metal piece had snapped and a band had come loose. The repair wasn’t going to be just realigning the elements. There were at least a couple pieces that needed to be replaced, and I couldn’t even be sure that the physical damage I could observe was the extend of it.

damagedlens

At that point I had pretty much decided against repairing the lens. If I did nothing, the longest zoom I had would be the 85mm, which would make some photos much more challenging. I also didn’t really feel like spending the money to replace it. Not the $100 for the same lens when I wasn’t fully content with it’s reach, nor the $500 for the 70-300 which I had been considering replacing it with for the past couple of years. I did find a factory refurbished 70-300 on adorama.com for $350, but that still felt like more money then I should be spending right now. It’s not like I need to be photographing the deer. Domingo’s opinion was to
go ahead and buy the new lens since Photography makes me happy. He spoils me. After a few hours I decided to go back and check on the refurbished lens. Someone else had already snapped it up.

I hate to let emotions dictate shopping decisions, but I was bummed. Really bummed. Even though I hadn’t committed to buying the lens. So bummed I couldn’t sleep that night. At around 3 am I started searching around for more refurbished lenses, eventually finding one on Nikon’s store for $299. Done. (Or rather done in the morning after I managed some sleep and could be sure I wasn’t letting my frustration get the best of me.)

As for the 55-200? Once the new lens arrives I’m going to have some fun taking the old lens apart and getting a better feel for how they work.

Incidentally, this is the second refurbished lens I will own. I highly recommend them if you want more lens but don’t want to spend the money. I prefer refurbished to used. A lens can have minor damage that’s hard to pick up on. If it’s factory refurbished you know you’re getting like-new.

June 11, 2016

Alexis’ Baby Book

I’m very delighted with how Alexis’ baby book turned out. The additional two and a half years of camera experience made an incrible difference, and the concept was easier to execute this time. Like last time we decided to go with a 24 page book and 12 images, one for each month. Rather than spell her age in the baby blocks, which proved challenging, I wrote her age on the blank left page.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

Second Time Leasons Learned

  1. Solid color onesies are the way to go if you’re going to shoot against a white background. I was worried about colored onesies clashing against the blocks, but the white onesies fadded into the background a bit too much. I liked doing a different colored onesie much better. A tan colored bear would have probably been better too.
  2. The bear is easier than the blocks, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. I’m sure any style of photos gets difficult beyond a certain age. I figured going into this project that I’d be able to at least get cute photos of Alexis interacting with her bear even if she wasn’t doing quite what I was hoping for. It turns out if your under one knocking the bear off set is hilarious, especially right after mommy just put it back.

Now all that’s left to do is wait for a coupon from MyPublisher. I have no idea what we’ll do if we decide to have a third child. I feel compelled to keep changing it up.

—-

Material Costs:
Bear – $20.

Nicole, stopping to smell the flowers
The 150,821th (literally, I checked) photo captured with my second DSLR. I can’t help but think all this practice has really been paying off!

My new go-to trick with child photography is to turn photo time into game time, and no game is too silly.

We’re well into the period I dub ‘Cheese Face.’ When Nicole sees a camera, she clenches her jaw, pulls back her lips, squints her eyes and gives her best “Cheese.” The end result is kind of like Sheldon Cooper’s Happy-for-Koothrappali/Kill-The-Batman face, just without the big eyes. Cheese face phase a common phase most kids go through when they realize what the camera is for. She’s smiling how she thinks the photographer want her to smile. To get ride of cheese face I need to get her out of her own head and not thinking about smiling.

The best way to get ride of the cheese face, to elicit genuine smiles and giggles, and to turn photo time into game time. I’ll ask Nicole not to smile. I’ll tell her to make a silly/angry/sad face, but no matter what Do. Not. Smile. Small children are just not capable of holding in a smile. She can’t help but burst out into giggles fit while trying to make her not-smile face. That’s the moment I get snap happy!

Another trick is to be decidedly silly. Will sing the ABCs, and instead of L M N and O, I’ll sing El-eme-eme-o (Elmo), or E-I-E-I-Owie. (That latter one was an idea stollen from Alexis who used to always sing Old McDonald that way.)

I’ve been employing a similar trick for poses. Whenever I try and pose her the photo always looks forced. She’s trying to sit still and thinking about how she’s supposed to be posed. She’s not having fun, and it shows. Rather than try and pose her directly, I find a game that will elicit the pose I’m after. Catch Me!, Run Me Over With Your Bike!, I’ll bet you can’t touch that flower with your nose! The trick is finding the right moments in the game to get the perfect expression, and to be in the right spot when it happens. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s magic. The funner the game, the more chances I’ll have to capture gold.

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