Wednesday, September 28, 2011

When high ISO is good

As photographers we are always looking for the perfect picture. A number of things make up the perfect picture. Composition is very important. Getting the story across is important. The wow factor is important (it is so cool to hear people go Oooo when they see one of my photos). Technical perfection in lighting and color and clarity are also part of the perfect picture. So one of the "rules" is to shoot very low ISO settings on the camera. We all know that as ISO increases so does grain/noise (grain in film - noise in digital). Interestingly grain sometimes can be very artistic. Noise on the other hand is almost always bad. So technology is not always a good thing. But that is a totally different philosophical discussion. So the question is, "if noise is bad and high ISO gives noise why do they put high ISO settings on cameras?", right?

Well the answer is actually pretty simple. A high ISO gives you a chance to get photos that you otherwise would never be able to get. We want perfection, but sometimes it is unachievable. Maybe perfection is overrated. Life is not perfect. If our photos are to represent life then maybe perfect is not so perfect. Sorry, I am waxing philosophical again. Anyway, there are times where there simply is not enough light to get what you want/need in a photo. This epiphany came to me one day while reading one of my favorite photography books (one that every photographer should have BTW), Joe McNally's "The Moment it Clicks". It is one of the most unique photography books you will ever see. It is just plain fun to read for almost anyone. So there is one photo in the book that Joe took of Jason Robards. He talks about how the lighting was bad, the film was high ISO, but he only had the moment. So he got the shot. It is awesome. It is not perfect, but it is awesome. And more important he got the photo.

I live near Grand Rapids, MI and we have a now three year old arts competition called ArtPrize (held in the fall). This is an art competition for the rest of us. Much to the chagrin of the fancy art community all the artwork is judged by the common people that show up and walk around. It is a very populist event. You register and then can vote on what art you like the best. This year there are well over a thousand artists with items in the competition. Well I was walking around the other night enjoying ArtPrize. I had gone down with the camera club for a photo walk about. Near the end of the night I broke off and was just wandering. In one area there was a band playing on stage. They were actually very good BTW. Anyway, I so wanted to get photos of them, good photos. But the light was not what you would call conducive to high shutter speeds needed for very animated musicians. Even with my 50mm f/1.8 fast lens I could not get the shutter speed at lower ISOs. So I took my Nikon D80 and just cranked on that ISO setting. Ran it all the way up into the stratosphere (which is not nearly as high as a D7000 or D3, but it is what I had).

Now I am finally getting decent shutter speeds. Somewhere between 1/100 and 1/125 for most shots. I am a very brazen photographer. I will just get right in the mix and start shooting until someone kicks me out. So I got right to the edge of the stage and started to click away. It was a phenomenal time. I love music (good music - not things like RAP - of which I still doubt the music moniker). So they were playing awesome music, the muses were in the air doing their thing, and I was in photography heaven. And in the process I got awesome photos, not perfect photos, but awesome photos.

I thought at the time I had some good stuff (one of the advantages of digital over film - instant feedback), but you never know for sure until you get home and get the photos on the big screen on the computer. When I got home I was completely pleased. If you look at the full size image and start to pixel peek you can see the noise, but when you simply look at the photo, really just take it in as art, then it all just works. Just like Joe's photo of Jason Robards, I only had the moment and the environment I was handed. I was able to throw caution to the wind and make art that works.

I am regularly drooling over the Nikon D7000 (and in my wildest dreams a D700 or D3), but raising a family and not doing photography as a professional (not yet anyway), I settle for my D80. I got my lowly D80 used off from eBay. So it is even second hand to boot. but it is a glorious camera. The reason I mention this is that so many people think it is all about the camera. Yes the camera does make a difference at some level, but the best camera is the one you have with you. Most of what makes a photo awesome are things like composition and lighting.

Could these photos of been better with a different body? Maybe. A D7000, or even the lowly D5100 (which has the same image sensor as the D7000) would have had less noise. But I had what I had. Some people would have simply not taken the photos because they would have been scared to run up to such a high ISO. I see people paralyzed by "the rules" and will not take risks. In the process, or in the misguided idea that only perfection works, they miss great photographs. This goes right along with don't be real quick to delete photos based on the looks of them on the tiny little screen on the camera. It lies. I have looked at photos I thought were sucky on the camera, but on the computer they were really good, sometimes with a little salvage work, but good. I have seen photos I thought were awesome on the camera but then on the big screen they were totally destined for the trash bin.

So in conclusion, the time to use high ISO is when there simply is not enough light. You might still throw the photo away, but then again, you might end up putting it on your wall. I can promise you that one or two of these will get printed and hung on the wall. Now I just need to figure out which I like best. Either that or I need to win the lotto so I can buy a really huge house with lots of walls to hang photos on.

Friday, September 16, 2011

It has been a bit since my last post. A lot has gone on this fall. One of the things that happened was a chance to attend a Native American PowWow here in West Michigan. It was a wonderful time with perfect Michigan fall weather. The photo ops were wonderful too. When they did the grand entrance dance they specifically gave permission for photos of the dance. I was able to get some great photos. I was shooting with my favorite 50mm f/1.8 lens. Of course when you shoot with a prime lens and are limited in how close you can get to people you need to definitely do some post processing of the photos. This is a lot like the work we would do in the darkroom in the old days cropping photos on the enlarger when making prints. Well I decided to share with you two of the photos showing before and after on the photos, and some of my thoughts on the process.

The first thing to understand is that in the old days of film keeping in mind the work in the darkroom was just as much a part of photography as was the actual camera work at the shoot. Now days instead of a physical darkroom we have a virtual darkroom using our favorite photo editing program. So on to the first photo.

The same week I took these photos I had read a great article on Chase Jarvis' website on how to process lots of photos so that you can get to a manageable number, or the good ones, pretty quickly. The article, Photo editing 101 star rating, was excellent. I don't know why I never thought of this myself, but it is a great way to get through photos. And since I can easily shoot several cards of photos in a day, well the lesson was really helpful! One thing that was mentioned was that you will fairly quickly find some photos that you really love right away. This is one of them that by the second star pass I knew it would make the cut all the way through. But I also knew it would need some darkroom work. If I had been doing more of like a staged planned shoot then I could have gotten a better start, but this was an event. The first thing I noticed was that although the man in blue was the central theme of the photo, there were a lot of distractions. When I get photos of people I want them to really stand out. This guy kind of was kind of lost in a lot of noise and clutter. So I knew I would need to crop the photo.

Even after I cropped the photo I did not like the background. It was still too busy. So I had two choices, I could blur the background so much that he really stood out, or I could minimize the exposure of the background with vignetting. I decided to go with the vignetting. Now time for an important art philosophy comment. Not everyone likes vignettes. I know a number of photographers that are not fans of vignettes at all. It is just like with black and white. I love B&W photography, and my wife dislikes it. So I have learned not to get her opinion on B&W, because she will complain that I took the color out.

Anyway, as I said, I went with the vignette. The tool in Apple Aperture is actually pretty nice for laying in the vignette. The one thing I wish the programs like Aperture and Photoshop would do is to let you set a center for the vignette. I would like to be able to do an off center effect at times. But I do like how it came out. Now the man pops from the background and becomes the central feature of the photo. I did also make some minor adjustments to the vibrancy and saturation, because I like rich colors.

The second photo took a little for me to grow into. It is the same man, but there was a lot more clutter. Actually I was not real sure early on if I would use it until I actually cropped the photo. It was so busy. He was so small in the photo. I liked the pose and the dance step. I did notice that pretty quickly. But I was not sure if I would be able to get him to pop out of the photo in the way I like to see in a photo.

Well it might make for a bit of a boring blog, but I decided for the vignette again. The thing was that putting the vignette on this one really isolated him from the rest of the background. I also used a significant crop on the photo. I regularly say that megapixels don't matter. For the most part that is true. But when you get situations like this they do. When you crop a photo you are dumping pixels, and possibly a lot of them, like in this photo. The more pixels you have in the photo, the more you will have left after the edit. If you have a low megapixel camera and need to chop a lot out of the photo you might not have enough afterwards for a good print.

So both of these are photos I love. Both of them needed some editing. Being one with the camera for these photos meant in part to be mindful and willing to use my digital darkroom. If I was shooting film like I used to years ago with the Canon fTB and prime lenses, I would be doing the same thing with the enlarger in the darkroom as I did in these photos. I just turned 50 a couple weeks ago, so I have been doing photography off and on now. I spent a fair amount of time in the darkroom too. And, although our editing software makes things easier and faster, it is very similar to what we used to do.

My wife is probably one of my most difficult critics to please. When I showed her the photo she said "Wow", which for her is a lot! I have a feeling that this will be one that will get printed and hung on the wall in my office. Well one of these two. I do have a couple more photos from that day that I will use in the next blog. I will talk more about my thought process when I discuss those in that one.

One final note. I did all the work on these photos using only Apple Aperture. If I was using Adobe Lightroom I could have done the same. I did not need to use Photoshop for any of these. I still use Photoshop for some edits, but it is amazing how much can be done in Aperture or Lightroom, and a lot faster than going through them in Photoshop. If you have not tried out either program then do yourself a favor and download a 30 day trial and check them out. I think you will be very impressed with the workflow using those programs.