Post-processing of digital images

To say that post-production or photo editing equipment and software are controversial is an understatement. In one of the very first postings on this blog I discussed the difference between JPEG and RAW photo image files and the need to always have RAW files available for post-capture digital editing. Now I would like to address the details of post-processing equipment and software. This is clearly controversial and rapidly changing but I will give you my opinions about the advantages and reasoning for what I use (today.)

The first impossible controversy regards the computer platforms available for digital imaging. I will say upfront that I use a PC and software designed for a PC.  My choice was made for three reasons.  First, I came from the world of academia and to a lesser degree, business. The PC is dominant in these areas so I knew the machines and software. Second, there is generally more software available for the PC. Third, the PC is less expensive than a Mac or Apple system. Now before the Mac users start screaming, I am the first to admit that the Mac is probably a better system for any graphics application. Good photo editing software is available for both systems and the software costs are similar. Generally, though, you need to make a choice early in your photo editing career, because the software is usually platform-specific and cannot be used on both systems.  I would lean towards the PC platform if you are in a large business or academic institution. I would lean toward a Mac if you do not need to share all of your non-photographic work with many colleagues and would definitely choose a Mac if you are going to edit video.  

That said, I use a high-end PC with a fast processor (3.6 Mbs), separate high-speed video card with 2 GB memory, 16GB of RAM, and a 2TB internal hard drive, multiple USB3 connections and 2-27" Viewsonic high-resolution monitors. I have multiple external 1, 2, and 4TB hard drives for back-up. You need a lot of RAM for photo editing and lots of hard drive space and a good back-up system to store your work.

There are multiple paths to appropriate post-production software. There is the camera software approach using what comes with your camera. These software packages are usually satisfactory for RAW file editing, conversion to JPEG, and printing. They are proprietary and, therefore, subject to change so if you have any aspirations to develop and expand your photographic work, I would avoid the proprietary camera company programs. A second approach is the low-end, freeware approach. Several programs are available to convert and edit photo files at little or no charge. Sometimes these programs link to on-line photo storage and sharing sites such as Flickr and Picasa. These work great for point-and-shoot and cell phone photographers but those shooting seriously with a dSLR usually want more than these programs can provide. Next are the rich, mid-range, purpose-specific photo editing tools such as Adobe (Photoshop) Elements (for either the PC or Mac) and Aperture for the Mac. These are full-featured programs that have far more capabilities than most photographers want or need and will do almost any editing job asked of them.  Finally, there are the top-end editing tools used by advanced and professional photographers - Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. These are two totally different packages that serve different but compatible roles in your photo editing work flow.

What is Adobe Lightroom (LR)? LR is a photographic database that was designed to store, catalog, and locate large numbers of digital images. LR also combines the photo editing power of Adobe Mini-bridge, Bridge, and CameRAW to view, convert, and edit images in a non-destructive manner and with a very easy to learn user interface. LR manipulates digital images at the image file-level rather than the pixel-level. Adobe Photoshop (PS), on the other hand, is part of a huge creative suite of programs used to manipulate digital images at the pixel-level in a destructive manner.  Wow - that is a lot of very specific terminology - what are these two programs used for and what do they do?

LR is the starting point in the digital imaging workflow of most serious photographers. LR allows the photographer to import RAW (or JPEG) image files from a camera or memory card into a computer. During the import, the files can be renamed, assigned to specific folders, converted to digital negatives (DNGs), have key words assigned, and undergo basic image processing available in Adobe CameRAW (ACR). Once the images are imported LR can be used to correct white balance and tint, adjust exposure, straighten and crop, create local color, contrast, and exposure adjustments, sharpen and reduce digital noise, and apply special effects to the images. LR also creates a viewable image and has multiple tools to compare, sort, locate, grade, tag, flag and copy images. It acts as a file manager for the RAW images allowing movement on hard drives and allows the creation of smart (automatically updated) or stable collections of photos.  LR can geo-tag photo locations.  The latest version of LR also creates various output formats for the web, slide shows, books, and prints.

Photoshop is the top end of photo editing software. Most photographers who do not do graphic design probably only use a small fraction of what PS can do. PS has two import features called Bridge and Mini-bridge that bring photos into ACR for editing and conversion to output files for printing or sharing.  ACR works much like LR to make image-level edits and corrections before PS is used.  PS allows editing at the pixel level so the user has complete control over all elements of the photo.  The photo edits, for the most part, are destructive edits meaning that the image will be irreversibly altered if saved. PS does not have the sophisticated database functions of LR and does not do the cataloging and searching as well as LR.

Both LR and PS can use pre-sets and third-party plug-ins to automate much of the work of photo editing. The automation of PS is far more sophisticated using scripts and batch processing to speed your workflow.  Examples of these include high dynamic range (HDR) imaging, focus stacking, and panoramic stitching of multiple images. The two programs work together seamlessly to enhance your editing workflow and image storage and retrieval.  So, how are the two programs used by a nature photographer?

The more I talk with professional photographers, the more I realize that about 90% of post-production editing is done in LR and only about 5-10% in PS. LR is a powerful image editor that gives busy photographers a comprehensive database with which to catalog tens of thousands of images and find them again in seconds. As an editor, LR performs all of the functions of ACR in a very intuitive user interface.  Color balance, tint, leveling, cropping, exposure and contrast adjustment, noise reduction, and sharpening are handled effortlessly in LR.  Local adjustments of nearly all of these functions can be done with both brush and gradient tools.  I will review these editing functions in more detail at another time, but, for now, recognize that these tools are available.

PS adds three hugely important functions that are not in LR and a few hundred other functions used by graphics designers.  The three biggies in PS are layers, masks, and content-aware fill. These destructive, pixel-level tools add creative touches not possible in LR and give the nature photographer the ability to "fix" issues in a photo that could be distracting to the central theme of the photo.  There are literally hundreds of other manipulations that can be done in PS that are not available in LR. Most of these are interesting but not necessary for the average photographer.

That is the editing overview and I will have much more about editing in future posts. Next time we will explore high dynamic range (HDR) imaging and its role for the nature photographer. 


History of the Teton Photography Group

The Teton Photography Group was conceived in December 2012 after discussions with several local photographers.  The simple question was asked, “With all of the great professional and amateur photographers in the Jackson Hole region, why is there no photography group?”  The question was repeated frequently until someone suggested that the real question was, “Why don’t we start one?”

I am a newcomer to Jackson, moving here in September 2012 after two years of travel photographing national parks around the US and Canada.  I had retired from my 65 hour/week job and was in pursuit of my passion for nature and wildlife photography.  I was aware of many high quality photographic clubs and associations in most major cities and was surprised that there was none in Jackson. I spoke with photographers everywhere that I shot and began to sense there was interest in, if not enthusiasm for, some sort of networking and educational opportunity for local photographers. I met a number of locals in a series of great photography classes based in the Art Association of Jackson Hole. On the last night of the last class, a sign-up sheet was circulated for those interested in getting together to discuss and share photographic interests.

The sign-up sheet became an email list that quickly grew to about 40 names.  In January and February of 2013 I had the chance to speak directly or through others with professional photographers David Brookover, Tom Mangelsen, Henry Holdsworth, Jason Williams, Mike Cavaroc, and Thomas Macker.  All were encouraging and enthusiasm spread for getting an informal group together to discuss the issues that could insure the success or impede formation of a local or regional photo group.  The first “pre-organizational” meeting was held at the Art Association on March 11. Only 6 attended that first meeting but we were able to flesh-out a number of issues and attain a means of approaching the issues.  Homework was assigned and over the ensuing two weeks many answers were found and potential solutions to major impediments such as meeting venue and communications were investigated.

The second pre-organizational meeting was held on March 25.  This meeting was attended by eleven enthusiastic members and addressed the difficult issues of organizational structure and charter, vision and mission statements were drafted and circulated to the email list.  Thomas Macker proposed that the Art Association  would be a natural partner and could provide a venue for meetings, programs, and exhibitions.  Mike Cavaroc volunteered to head a Communications Committee and serve as Webmaster for the group. Mike established a social media presence on Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter.  It was clear that an organization was forming and that the next steps would be to formalize a partnership with the AAJH, define the group’s leadership, and codify the activities and programs that the group will support.

On April 8 the third and final pre-organizational meeting was a discussion with Dave Muskat and Thomas Macker about the details of a partnership with the Art Association of Jackson hole.  A proposal was made to utilize the extensive resources of the AAJH for all organizational and logistical needs. The Group could define leaders to plan programs and presentations but would not be burdened by the need to develop an organizational infrastructure.  All members of the AAJH could become members of the Group with no additional dues or fees.  Members of the Photography Group would have full membership in the AAJH and all of the benefits.  This was proposed to the interested members via email and was overwhelmingly supported.

We have solicited volunteers to serve on a steering/program committee and are in the process of compiling and prioritizing a list of programs for 2013.  We hope to have a draft calendar of events for monthly programs throughout 2013 and a means of communicating with our growing membership.  

The work of organizing the group has been a real team effort that I believe will provide a strong and enduring foundation.  Time will tell if the initial enthusiasm will lead to a large membership base and high quality educational programs but seeing the superb images captured of this beautiful area by so many outstanding photographers, I cannot help but think the Teton Photography Group will have anything short of a long and stellar future. I hope you will be a part of it.

An amazing place (Volume 236)

OK, I'll admit that I have been remiss in updating the blog recently but I have had a truly amazing two weeks. It started last week in Yellowstone National Park as a simple visit to the Lamar Valley.  Sounds easy from Jackson, well, it is in the summer season but when the south entrance is closed, it means a drive south and west into Idaho, then a long but beautiful drive north through West Yellowstone, Montana then along the Gallatin River up to Bozeman.  From Bozeman it is back east to Livingston and then south to Gardiner and the north entrance to the park. It was a nice, warm spring day and there were lots of animals - elk, mule deer, big horn sheep, and even some pronghorn antelope.

We drove a couple of hours through the park from Mammoth Hot Springs to the Lamar Valley and on to the northeast entrance and Cooke City for the night. The next morning we found the carcass.  A young bison had fallen through the ice in December in the Blacktail Ponds area. It died, froze, and was covered with snow. The day before we arrived a large boar grizzly bear had come out of hibernation a bit hungry and 4-month old submerged bison sound like just the thing. He pulled the carcass partially out of the water and he and dozens of other birds and animals made a very interesting 4 days of photography.

During daylight hours the carcass was visited by bald and golden eagles, dozens of ravens, and several coyote. At dusk and into the night, the grizzly returned with as many as two others. When the grizzlies left, the wolves arrived. It was well after dark so photography was out but the viewing was very good. Coyotes crying in the night added to the drama and the same scenario played in reverse order each morning. The close proximity of the carcass to the road resulted in dozens of posts to The Spotting Scope and other web sites.

The drive back home around the west side of the park was another adventure with a full spring blizzard and white-out conditions. A double tanker truck jack-knifed and rolled over and driving conditions near West Yellowstone were miserable. Teton Pass back to Jackson was clear and the remainder of the drive was uneventful.

How could you possible top that adventure? Well, beloved grizzly sow 610 and her three two-year old cubs came out of hibernation in Grand Teton National Park. She was spotted on Monday and a storm of photographers and observers arrived for the rest of the week. The clan put on a great show every day with a backdrop of Trumpeter Swans, white pelicans, Canada geese, beaver, river otter, muskrat, coyote, bald eagles, and other waterfowl.  We visited on Wednesday to watch their migration from Pacific Creek up to Ox Bow Bend on the Snake River. It was a comedy of foraging for frozen fish in the river to random cub wrestling matches as they dug in the snow and ice along two miles of river. They were clearly un-bothered by the 10-20 photographers and visitors as they made their way along the large island at Ox Bow.

On Friday we returned to Ox Bow Bend about 35 minutes from our Jackson home to watch the family again. On the day we missed, 610 had helped the cubs retrieve a frozen beaver carcass from the ice and on this day the family was content to spend the morning in the woods on the island. We photographed beaver and waterfowl and were about ready to pack up the gear when a large boar grizzly appeared on the ice at the south end of the island. He was being harassed by a very brazen coyote but finally sent the coyote packing and took off at a full run through deep snow and dense willows toward 610 and her cubs. 610 continued to prove what a great mother she was, leading the cubs into the woods and across the wind as the boar charged on only about 50-100 yards from them. The boar was distracted by the scent where the cubs had been wrestling in the woods and perhaps by the consumed beaver carcass while the family ran through the woods and emerged again at the south end of the island. 610 sent her cubs across the frozen river to the mainland while she stood ready to defend them from the aggressive boar.  Once the cubs were safely on the mainland and downwind from the boar, she crossed the ice and led them back toward Pacific Creek. It was an amazing display of predator behavior and a mother's protective instincts. Some of the photos are posted on my Facebook page:

The national parks are coming alive! Thanks for visiting.


Camera, lenses, filters – what else do I need?

We are getting you "geared up" for an amazing experience in nature and wildlife photography.  I have discussed camera essentials, lenses, and filters in the last postings. This time I want to wrap-up the gear you will need  by discussing some of the accessories needed to photograph in the wild.

By now you know or have the big things needed to capture digital images, but as with most endeavors, the devil is in the details. So what is in the camera bag or backpack that keeps you taking great photographs? The first thing is the bag itself. There are 3 or 4 options for carrying your gear in the field. The first is going bare with lens and camera for a specific shot. This works sometimes but nature is not always predictable and more times than not, she will offer you amazing and totally unexpected opportunities, if you have your gear along. A second option is a traditional over-the-shoulder camera bag. This is nice near the car but usually doesn't lend itself well in the back country or down a long trail. A third option is a gear vest and/or a fanny pack. These were great in the film days when you needed many rolls of film and a means of separating fresh and exposed film but I find these are too small to carry extra lenses that I might need. Option four is a rigid travel case that works great in the city but has little role once you are outside your car. Finally, my choice for outdoor work is a purpose-design SLR back pack such as those made by Lowepro and Tamrac. In my Tamrac Expedition 5x pack I can carry a spare camera body, 5 lenses, and all of the accessories I will discuss later. It has an integral tripod holder and many tie-points to strap a water bottle and additional gear.  I added a padded waist belt and can haul about 30 pounds of gear for several miles in reasonable comfort.  Everything is padded, adjustable, and easily accessible.

Nothing can ruin a photo shoot faster than a full memory card or a dead battery.  For this reason I carry at least one spare battery for each camera body (and their chargers for both car 12VDC and AC mains (110 or 220VAC) with the proper adapters. I also carry a 32GB memory card in the camera and several 16 GB spares. I can shoot more than 1,000 high-resolution RAW shots with one battery and card.

I have a velcro filter case strapped to one shoulder in which I carry a variable neutral density filter, circular polarizing filter (CPL), and spare UV/haze filter. In the pack I carry a rectangular 2-stop hard-edge, graduated neutral density filter, holder and adapters. These filters usually get me through most difficult lighting situations. I also have a 5-way, collapsible reflector to help bring light to the shadows. At this time, I do not carry a flash/speed-light/strobe with me in the back country. I probably should but I find the pop-up, in-camera strobe and the reflector serve me well. Someday maybe I will find space for a flash, and a flash extender, flash filters, and spare flash batteries, and a bigger backpack.

In the bag I also carry a 1.4x teleconverter and a set of 3 extension tubes.  The teleconverter increases the range / magnification of my telephoto lenses and the extension tubes can be used to reduce the closest focus point of all of my lenses. These are especially useful for close-up and macro shots.

Don't forget to carry a remote shutter release with you in the wild. These come in several varieties from mechanical, to electrical, to infrared, to radio controlled. The important thing is to be able to fire your camera without touching it and causing motion (camera shake) during long exposures or high magnification shots such as macro or long telephoto shots.

Finally, in the bag I carry cleaning gear including a Lenspen brush, several microfiber cleaning cloths, lens cleaning solution, a blower, and lens paper. These essentials usually get me through any field clean-up operations and keep my optics clean.

Lastly, the most important accessory of all, is your camera stabilization gear - your tripod. Camera stabilization is critical for telephoto shots, long exposure shots, high dynamic range (HDR) shots, panorama shots, macro and close-up shots - did I miss anything? I cannot emphasize the importance of a good tripod in capturing good photographs. Not all shots are taken with a tripod but many are, and virtually all shots could be improved if a tripod is used. Now the reality is that tripods are large, bulky, awkward, and heavy to carry.  However, small, light-weight tripods are totally worthless and a complete waste of money.  The purpose of a tripod is to provide an absolutely rigid mount for your lens or camera - it must be solid, sturdy, and stable. What choices are available?

One of the first choices in selecting a tripod is the strength defined by the maximum load weight capacity. You need a tripod capable of holding the head, camera, and largest lens you will use. Once you know the weight capacity you need to choose the construction - most tripods today are made of aluminum or carbon fiber. Pound for pound, carbon fiber is lighter, stronger, more durable, and more capable of reducing vibration than is aluminum - obviously, with these qualities, it is also more expensive. Next, you need to consider the maximum and minimum heights at which the tripod can be used.  High quality tripods have legs that extend widely to place the camera very low to the ground and straighten to give lift to eye-height.  Some tripods have a central elevating column to gain additional height.  The center columns often reduce the stability of the tripod when extended and interfere with lowering the tripod for low-level ground shots.  

Two other choices are available in tripod construction - the number of leg sections and the means of securing the leg extensions. Most brands of tripods have both 3 and 4 section leg extension models. The 3 extension models are usually quicker to set-up, stronger and sturdier but also fold to a longer storage length. The extensions can be secured by either flip-locks or twist locks. People tout the advantages of both but as long as the locks are strong, I don't think the type of lock makes a difference. Some tripods offer padded feet with extension spikes for greater stability.

Sometimes a monopod is a useful camera stabilization tool in the wilderness. It is no substitute for a good tripod but the monopod can reduce fatigue and add stability to action shots such as sports or birds in flight. Monopods have aluminum or carbon fiber construction and are available with a 3 or 4 section leg. Some tripods have a detachable leg that works as a monopod. Some inovative photographers have modified their monopods to be used as a walking stick or their walking sticks to be used as a monopod.

As if tripods were not difficult enough, the head that joins the tripod to your camera or lens is even more complicated. Older tripods used almost exclusively a "pan and tilt" head to control the three planes of rotation of the camera on the tripod. These heads are modification of what was used for video and movies. These heads require either two or three adjustment knobs to change the camera position. Most still photographers in recent years have adopted a ball-head mount. The ball head allows faster re-positioning by loosening only one adjustment knob to move the camera in all three planes. The ball-heads come in several sizes and the larger sizes usually support the most weight and give the greatest stability. There are many designs of the ball-heads and costs vary widely. The third type of head used by nature photographers is the gimbal head. This is a significantly larger mount that is necessary for today's super-telephoto and very large aperture lenses. The gimbal mount keeps the center of gravity of the camera and lens at the exact center of rotation so there is no resistance to movement and no tendency for the heavy lens to drop downward as it can with a pan-and-tilt or ball-head mount. These gimbal mounts are fairly heavy and quite expensive.

The last accessory is a quick-release fitting between you tripod head and camera or lens. The quick-release comes in several styles but the ARCA-Swiss style is becoming an industry standard. The quick-release allows a strong and stable connection between your camera/lens and tripod but yet allows the camera to be removed quickly for hand-held shooting. The last thing you want to do to your camera is to screw it off and on your tripod and risk damage to the camera or lens. The quick-release is a good solution. Get a system for your tripod(s) and a mounting plate for each camera/lens with a fitting.

With all of the complexity of tripods and heads, you might ask what do I use? Unfortunately, the answer is all of the above. For years I got along with a Manfroto carbon fiber tripod with center column elevator, 4-extension, snap-lock legs, and a ball-head. It was a perfect union for the nature photographer who like to hike deep in the woods or high in the mountains. Then I got my 600mm f/4 super-telephoto lens. This monster 12 pound lens simply could not be used safely or comfortably on a ball-head so I was forced to get another tripod and head - this time a Sirui carbon fiber tripod without a center column elevator with 3-extension, twist lock legs and a Wimberly gimbal head. This is a rock-stable rig that will hold the heaviest dSLR lenses and cameras made - but, it is heavy. The tripod weighs over 5 pounds (and extends to my full height) and the head weighs another 4 pounds. Add a 3 pound camera and 12 pound lens and it makes you want to give up hiking!

There you have it - all the accessories you will need to accumulate for serious nature photography. So before you dip your toe in this water consider the merits of a nice 1.5 pound point-and-shoot camera with a super-zoom lens - it does a pretty good job and will always be with you in the wild.