Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Handy App for Landscape Photography

In a previous blog on Apps for the Landscape Photographer (click here), I reviewed the CameraAngle app by Geometery (iOS only). This was a clever app to measure the elevation of any subject such as the sun, moon, mountain peak, a building, or whatever. This is an important part of preplanning a shot to determine, for example, when (and if) the sun or moon will be in the right position for a preconceived composition. You can read that blog to see an example where I determined when a full moon aligns alongside the lantern room of a 19th century lighthouse. To accomplish this, I determined the required moon elevation by measuring the height of the lantern room with an inclinometer. There are many inclinometer apps, but CameraAngle was unique because it used the phone’s camera to sight the elevation. Once I had determined the elevation, I used PhotoPills to predict the date and time the moon would be in the desired position. Unfortunately, CameraAngle stopped working when I upgraded to iOS 8 and also is no longer listed in Apple's App Store.

I since discovered Theodolite by Hunter Research and Technology (iOS only at $3.99). There may be a similar (but not the same) android app called Theodolite Droid at Google Play. Theodolite also uses the phone’s camera to sight the elevation, but also incorporates many additional features besides an inclinometer. One important feature is the ability to sight a compass heading through crosshairs. Typically, when determining the azimuth position of either the sun or moon with a conventional compass, you really need a compass with a flip-up sighting mirror (I’ve used my Silva compass for years to do just that). Theodolite, however, allows you to measure a heading by using the camera’s image as a substitute for the sighting mirror. Now, you can position a crosshair within an image and determine the exact elevation and azimuth of that point. You also have the option to read the heading in true or magnetic north.

Below is a screen shot of Theodolite making the same elevation measurement of the lighthouse lantern room that I performed using CameraAngle in my previous blog example. Though there's a lot of screen clutter, you can see the lighthouse lantern room in the center. You have the option to enlarge the image, but it becomes more difficult to hold it steady. The upper crosshairs are positioned next to the lantern room and the elevation angle is shown on the right (red circle) at about 10.4 degrees. Note that this elevation reading differs slightly from my CameraAngle example since I wasn’t standing in the exact same location. Below, circled in blue, is the azimuth angle of 103 degrees (which is true north in this example). 


Theodolite does the job, but not without some annoyances – mainly the cluttered screen and small digits. Most times I had trouble reading the azimuth or elevation digital readouts, especially under brighter ambient light. Admittedly, younger eyes may be less bothered by this. The analog scales are easier to read, but I wish they would just reduce screen clutter with simple digital readouts with larger digits. That aside, Theodolite (or its Android cousin) is a handy and inexpensive swiss-knife utility that I would recommend to any landscape photographer.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

iPad for Photo Backup Alert

UPDATE!
The problem described below has been fixed in iOS 8.1.1, which was just released Nov. 17, 2014.

In my eBook, I discuss some options to backing up photo files when out in the field. My method was to use my iPad for both backup and viewing (but not editing). I validated that I could connect the camera to the iPad (using Apple's photo kit) and retrieve them on my desktop using any import program (such as Adobe Bridge or iPhoto) or wirelessly using the Photo Transfer app. There was no problem reading my Canon 5D MKII raw files (.CR2).

Since I've yet to have a memory card failure (knock on wood), it hasn't been necessary to use the iPad to retrieve files. Instead, I usually import them to my desktop directly from the memory card. Recently, I upgraded to iOS 8.1 and decided to revalidate the backup procedure. It doesn't work!

JPG files still import to the iPad with no problems, but the raw files are in someway corrupted by the iPad. The desktop import software as well as an iPad-based raw editor see the raw files, but flag a file error when trying to import them. I can't directly blame iOS 8.1 since the last time I validated this procedure was a number of iOS versions ago. Web research so far has only turned up a similar problem reading Nikon raw files after updating to iOS 8; but in these cases the problem was extremely slow read times.

Is the problem just my iPad setup or with Canon raw files? Who knows. If I had to guess, I suspect that the new Camera app in iOS 8.1 has a bug in importing some raw files. My advice is if you use an iPad to import raw files and haven't upgraded to iOS 8.1 yet, I'd hold off until you research the problem enough make to sure you don't get burned.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Adobe Camera Raw's New Upright Tool

When dealing strictly with landscape photography, perspective and distortion are less an issue due to the often lack of a visual cue (such as a structure) to alert the viewer that something is askew. However, shooting tastes vary and some landscape photographers (including myself) like to include structures in their landscape scenes. With wide-angle lenses as a popular choice among landscape photographers, sooner or later you’ll have a cockeyed image that needs some straightening. Unfortunately, fixing these problems in software can at times be challenging, especially to the novice. So to make life simpler, Photoshop introduced a new automatic correction tool in Version 8 of Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) called Upright.

Of course, you can avoid much of the problem if you use a tilt-shift (aka perspective control) lens on your DSLR. In the years I used a large format camera (that has built-in perspective control), I can’t recall ever a need to use a Photoshop transform tool. But I use a DSLR now and tilt-shift lenses cost a minor fortune, so occasionally I need to call on Photoshop to fix an unintended "Leaning Tower of Pisa" look.

More the Merrier? 
One thing about Photoshop is there can be many ways to accomplish the same task, and correcting perspective and distortion is a prime example. The options available are:
  • Photoshop's Transform: Found under the Edit menu, Transform’s options are: scale, rotate, skew, distort, perspective, and warp. These classic tools have been enhanced over time and continue to be a powerful way to correct all manner of image problems.
  • Adaptive Wide Angle Filter: Found under the Filter menu, its main intent is to correct the lens distortion from an extreme wide-angle lens. I nonetheless find it extremely versatile for almost any type image problems. I especially like the ability to make localized adjustments while the other tools are more global in nature.
  • Perspective Warp: Useful, I feel, when the subject is dominated by a building. I don’t believe it’s that useful in correcting the smaller visual cues you typically encounter in general landscape photography. 
  • Perspective Crop: This basically combines cropping and perspective correction in one operation. However, since you don’t see the correction in real-time until you perform the crop, you sometimes have to iterate back-and-forth with the Undo command to get the desired results. Unless the correction is very basic, I prefer the other tools. (On the other hand, the Crop's Level tool is very handy.)
  • ACR Transform: Similar to Photoshop’s Transform, this is found in the Manual tab in the Lens Corrections panel. Control is strictly through sliders, which I find limiting and useful only when the corrections are basic.
  • ACR Upright: Now to the reason for this post. In Photoshop CC's new ACR 8, Adobe introduced a pushbutton approach to perspective control. Upright is located just above the Transform sliders in the Lens Corrections panel (see screenshot below). This addresses the problem with the other tools (at least for some) that correcting images with complex problems is anything but simple. With that in mind, it does beg the question if Upright can really work? The answer seems to be: maybe so! 
ACR's Upright
Upright has four options: Auto, Level, Vertical, and Full
  • Auto attempts to achieve a "balanced" perspective correction for both vertical and horizontal. Auto is in a way redundant to the Full command that also corrects both horizontal and vertical perspective. However, the "balanced" part of Auto essentially means less aggressive correction. Both Auto and Full also attempt to level the image.
  • Vertical corrects only vertical perspective and level.
  • Level attempts to only level the image, that is, it doesn't correct convergences. Since there are other easy ways to level an image with far more precision, I'm not sure why Adobe bothered with this option.
Each option is just a one-click operation, making them an all-or-nothing affair. However, you can subsequently make further tweaks using ACR’s manual transform sliders. Note that if you first make manual adjustments and then choose to use an Upright command, the manual adjustments will reset. If you want to retain those manual adjustments, hold down the Option/Alt key when selecting an Upright option.

HDR Tip
If you are correcting a series of images for HDR with Upright, you don't want Upright to auto-calculate perspective correction on a per image basis. Instead, you want a single correction applied to all images. When you select all the images to synchronize their settings, don't enable Transform in the list of items to synchronize. Instead, with all images selected, click Sync Results, which is located under Upright's Disable and Auto buttons. This ensures that a slightly different correction on one image doesn't cause a registration problem with the other images in the HDR software.

ACR's Upright Buttons and Transform Sliders
Original Image
Comparison
I compared Upright against the Photoshop and ACR Transform tools, and the Adaptive Wide Angle filter in Photoshop. For a test image, I chose an interior shot of the Santa Barbara Mission church in California (right photo). Though certainly not a landscape image, it has the type of problems to make a suitable test case to compare all the tools. It was shot at 32mm and exhibits perspective error in both axes. Now, when it comes to old mission architecture, what is plumb and what isn’t can be a matter for debate. But plumbed or not, for the purposes of this comparison I attempted to straighten all lines regardless. Results are noted in the captions.






Upright Level: Essentially no change
Upright Vertical: Significant improvement in
vertical convergence, but horizontal is still off.
  
Upright All: Excellent correction, though
obviously not perfect. Definitely better 
than the Vertical option.
Upright Auto: Similar to All, but with a bit
less correction. However, on the plus side
there is slightly less cropping.

ACR Manual Transform Sliders: I find the ACR
manual sliders a bit frustrating to use. The aspect
ratio also suffered a bit, which I could have
corrected with the Aspect slider (but I didn't
bother since that further increases the cropping).
I feel Upright's Auto or Full did a better job.

Photoshop's Transform Tool (Skew):The
results are excellent and better than the 
ACR transform sliders. I find I have more
control with Photoshop's Transform than
ACR's. The results were similar to the
Adaptive Wide Angle filter (below), except the 
image is a bit squatter (which can be fixed
with a slight adjustment using the Scale
tool). Cropping does suffer a little due to the
more aggressive correction.
Adaptive Wide Angle Filter: Though it lost more of
the painted column on the left due to cropping, I
feel the results were a little better than Upright's 
Full option and similar, but slightly better, to
Photoshop's Transform.Though far from pushbutton
convenient, the Adaptive Wide Angle Filter is
relatively easy to use after a short learning curve.
The following video can help you get started: click here.
Conclusion
Image problems vary all over the map, so you can’t form a conclusion as to the best tool based on one image. Furthermore, before you get carried away with too much perspective correction, there are some pitfalls. For one, manipulating an image in this fashion means you are compressing and expanding various portions of the image. When expanding, you are essentially scaling up and, thus, sacrificing some image detail. When I do any image manipulation such as this, I always work with a file at its highest resolution. And also remember, the more aggressive the correction the greater the amount of cropping. 

Another problem is misrepresenting the image by distorting the aspect ratio. For example, a door or window may appear wider than it actually is. Unfortunately, correcting the aspect ratio may lead to further cropping or, instead, create a print with an oddball dimension that requires custom matting or framing. Often, you have to find a balance between some perspective distortion and maintaining a standard aspect ratio or preventing excessive cropping.

My preferred workflow, when it comes to perspective correction, is to first try the Upright tool. ACR is the first step in my software workflow anyway and I can cycle through each option quickly to see if one works out. Based on what I've seen so far, Upright may easily handle the majority of problems. If not, then I'll defer the problem to either Photoshop's Transform tool or Adaptive Wide Angle filter. Which one I choose depends on the complexity of the problem. However, I'm more likely to try both, but in the end I really do like the Adaptive Wide Angle filter. If I were to make a print from one the above test images, I would choose the Adaptive Wide Angle filter version.

By the way, you can use the ACR Upright tool within Photoshop via the new Camera Raw Filter in Photoshop CC. However, it is recommended you first convert the layer to a Smart Object so you can change it if you later determine you don't like the results.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Macro Photography on the Cheap

I’ve never been big on macro photography, but lately I decided to get a bit more serious about it. Since I lacked any current macro capability for my Canon 5D MkII, I needed to spend anywhere from $750 to $1,800 (and easily more) for a 100mm macro lens and ring flash. But whoa—I didn’t intend to get that serious about it! I needed a more practical approach, but one that would still yield high-quality results.

Options
There are several options to choosing macro equipment: close-up filters, extension tubes (or bellows), reverse lens adapter, and of course macro lenses. A set of three close-up filters are about $80 (more or less depending on filter size) and about $200 for a set of extension tubes from Kenko. I have used both in the distant past and you can score some surprisingly good results. This time, though, I wanted a true macro lens; but I was leery about the cost and lugging around an extra lens that I'm unlikely to use often.

Go Short
To solve my problem, I decided on a macro lens in the 50mm range rather than in the more preferable 100mm range. The advantages are a substantially lower cost, lower weight and size, and better depth-of-field. The disadvantage is the more restricted working distance and less flexibility in using a flash. I chose the Canon EF f/2.5 Compact Macro lens for $269 (after a mail-in rebate). It weights less than 10-ounces and is so small I can toss it in my bag and hardly notice it's there. But this particular lens comes with a major concession: it’s a 0.5x and not a true 1:1 macro. I reasoned that wasn’t a problem since my macro tastes lean towards backing off the main subject to show more of the surrounding environment. In retrospect, though, a 1:1 would have been nicer; but this lens has so far satisfied most of my needs. For $80 more, you can get a Sigma 50mm macro lens with a true 1:1 ratio.

Choosing a "Lite" Touch 
The next consideration is a flash. I favor a ring light over dual-opposing flash heads, but in either case you’re staring at several hundred dollars. A flash is the best way to freeze a jittery subject and makes handholding the camera possible. On the other hand, the flat lighting it creates may not suit all subjects. Since I was looking for the “el cheapo” approach, I picked using a combination of two devices. To provide fill-light I bought a Sunpak LED ring light for $28, and to tame wind motion, a $43 Wimberley Plamp II. In addition, I bought a $20 Westcott Pocket Pack that includes a reflector and diffuser.

The only other necessity was a $3 step-up ring to fit my existing polarizer to the macro lens. I already had a spare 52mm UV filter for lens protection, but that’s totally optional. The front element is deeply recessed and well protected and, after all, it is a relatively inexpensive lens. So for a total outlay of less than $350, I was prepared to do some serious macro photography. But as always, there are concessions.

The Downside
If you’re itching to capture a busy bee on a rose petal, this setup isn’t conducive to that. The working distance is too close (which may scare off the bug—or get yourself stung!) and no flash to freeze the motion. And in my case, the lack of a 1:1 lens prevents me from turning a bug into horror-movie size. But for the majority of plant and flower close-ups, it’s more than adequate.

SUMMARY RUNDOWN

Canon EF f/2.5 Compact Macro (full-frame), $269 after mail-in rebate
(Note: Canon always seems to have some sort of rebate program going on). Besides the previously mentioned Sigma, Nikon also has a similarly priced lens with 1:1, but isn't full-frame. The Canon, despite its cost, is well built and a very sharp lens. Its low cost is due in part to its 15-year old design that uses a dated non-USM focus motor; and of course, its lack of 1:1. It is very small and lightweight and unobtrusively occupies a small recess in my camera bag. Canon does offer an extension tube to convert this lens to a true 1:1, but its cost would make the total package a poor value. If you’re hard-over on wanting 1:1, get the Sigma (or the Nikon if you have a DX camera).

Sunpak LED Ring Light ($28)
This isn’t a “flash”, but instead a 12-LED “flashlight”. It does not communicate with your camera and it’s not normally bright enough to be the main light source. But it works well as a fill light, especially when it’s difficult to maneuver a reflector near the subject. It is very lightweight and fits easily into position. It has two light intensity settings, though you’ll likely use the highest setting most often. The only problem I’ve encountered is to remember to shut it off.

Wimberley Plamp II ($48)
This is the only commercially available device I found for the express purpose of holding a flower or leaf steady. It is an articulating arm that clamps to a support (usually your tripod) while the other end clamps to whatever you’re trying to hold still. In addition to holding the subject steady, it can also reposition the subject for a better camera angle. Make sure to buy the Plamp II version with a redesigned clamp that is more versatile and holds flower stems without damaging them. The Plamp can also be used for any other “third hand” need, such as holding a reflector.



Though this device sounds like a great idea, in practice it has limitations. For one, even if the stem is kept still, the flower petals will still move if it’s breezy enough. Even the Plamp’s articulating arm is sensitive to a strong breeze. There is also an important precaution to take when using this device. You need to use either a remote shutter release or your camera’s self-timer. Wimberley warns that even mirror slap can vibrate the articulating arm. I thought that was an exaggeration at first, but for certain the slightest touch to the camera does set off vibrations through the Plamp (unless the Plamp is clamped to something other than your tripod). I have all my camera’s custom functions set to enable mirror lockup and the 2-second self-timer. If I’m extremely careful, I can get by with just that, but using a remote shutter release in addition is the best procedure. Though far from perfect, the Plamp is nonetheless the next best tool to a flash to combat wind motion—and it's a lot cheaper!
The redesigned Wimberley clamp has a screw adjustor, an inside notch to hold a reflector, center
soft-rubber pad to gently hold a stem, and a larger cavity near the outside to hold thicker items.

Westcott Pocket Pack $20
This includes both a 12-inch diffuser and reflector, which is a good deal since you can easily pay $20 each if bought separately. Most important is the diffuser that you’ll need to tame contrast when forced to shoot under sunny conditions. The reflector can be a handy adjunct to the Sunpak, and mandatory if you decide to opt-out on the Sunpak. The Plamp can easily hold either device in any position if the need arises. However, when a reflector exceeds 12-inches in size, the Plamp becomes more limited.

This shows all the items in action: Overhead 12-inch diffuser screen, Plamp II,
Sunpak Ring Light, and the Canon 50mm macro lens fully extended. 



Parting Shots
The following are a few "lessons learned" so far.

Red Herrings
Regardless if you’re shooting only raw, make sure to set your camera’s Picture Style (Canon) or Picture Controls (Nikon)—or whatever your brand camera calls it—to neutral. The reason is to prevent the histogram display from being significantly and erroneously skewed. Macro photography often entails bold colors and the histogram may mislead you by indicating excessive channel clipping (especially the red channel) that doesn’t actually exist in the raw file. Also, never rely on just the luminance histogram since that may hide any clipping in an individual color channel.


Portable Rain
If you want that nice fresh-morning dew look on your flowers, don't forget to pack a small water-spray bottle with you. I use a tiny 1-oz atomizer that goes a long way. However, I suggest you shoot a dry shot first just in case the wet version turns out, well—all wet. Also, avoid spraying your camera like I've almost done a few times.

Holy Macro
Macro photography requires a lot of ground-level work, and that means a lot of kneeling. Kneeling on wet, or worse, rocky ground can range from annoying to downright painful. The cheap solution is to pickup a pair of gardener's knee pads. I found a nice pair at Target for only $13. Admittedly they can look a bit dorky, but hey, we're photographers not fashion models.

Reclining on the Job
If you're starting to get jazzed about macro and also happen to be in the market for a new tripod, I have a suggestion. Look for a tripod that allows the center column to be positioned horizontally (for example, my Manfrotto 055CXPRO3). This allows you to cantilever the camera away from the tripod legs for more flexibility in framing a subject, especially when it's embedded within other foliage. Otherwise, you're apt to damage the surrounding foliage while trying to cram the tripod's legs into position (this will make you very unpopular at arboretums or other public gardens).

Annoying Backgrounds
Background foliage can be a distraction to any main foreground subject. Of course you can shoot wide-open to blur it out, but that doesn't leave you much DOF to work with. Another option is to insert a background. I bought a 9 12 inch piece of stiff black felt (less than $1 at any craft store and other colors are available) that in many cases supports itself by resting on any background branches or leaves. However, if you want to avoid a "studio look", then you can address the problem in Photoshop using either the Blur filter tools or Blur Gallery. In addition, I find heavy vignetting further helps isolate the background. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Exposing to the Right (ETTR)

The Darker Side of Photography
A challenge in digital photography is recording detail in the darker tones. The problem is noise and reduced tonal information. Noise is relatively straightforward, less signal (that is, less light) and the noise becomes more dominant. The other reason, reduced tonal information, may not be so intuitive.

Your digital camera records illumination linearly, which means the output signal increases the same amount for equal increases in illumination. This is how the luminance is recorded in the raw file. But, if you view a pure raw file on a monitor, it would look awful! The image would be very dark with some brighter blotches scattered about. The reason is our eyes perceive tonal variations by large differences (essentially in stops of light) and not incrementally. So the software remaps the tonal values in the raw file to suit the human eye. This is gamma encoding and is essentially allocating the linear values in an exponential fashion to an 8-bit file’s 256 tonal values (or the 65,536 values in a 16-bit file).

Where're the Bits!
Now the problem. A digital camera with a 12-bit output can represents 4096 different tones. The first one-stop difference (that is one-half the light) is one-half of 4096, or 2048 values. The second stop difference is one-fourth of 4096, or 1024 values, and so forth for succeeding stops. Note that the first stop takes up 50% of the camera’s digital values. Add the second stop and collectively they horde 75% of all the tonal values —and there are a lot more stops to go!

These 4096 “linear” values are then gamma encoded to an 8-bit or 16-bit file for both viewing and editing in Photoshop. To illustrate, I’ll use an 8-bit file as an example. To provide a rough idea what is happening (while ignoring profiling and many other factors for the sake of simplicity), the 12-bit values between 2048 to 4096 representing the first stop are mapped to the 8-bit values of 186 to 255. That assigns 70 tone values representing the first stop. The next stop’s 12-bit values between 1024 to 2048 are mapped between 136 to 185, which assigns 50 tone values for the second stop. As this goes on, you can see that succeeding stops are represented by fewer and fewer bits, thus the reason why the darker tones have less digital information. This also illustrates why editing in 16-bits instead of 8-bits is so important.

When trying to lighten dark tones in Photoshop, “stretching” them into a higher luminance region begins to pull apart the minimally defined tones and that creates posterization and exaggerated noise. This is why editing in Camera Raw is better because you’re working with the linear data—not the gamma encoded data—thus gaining more editing latitude. Still, regardless the file type, the best way to improve the dark tones is simply increase the camera’s exposure. That means moving the histogram to the right, and thus the expression ETTR.

Go to the light!
The main idea of ETTR is to keep increasing exposure until you observe clipping of important highlights in the histogram. Then, edit the file in Camera Raw (preferably not Photoshop) to restore the darker tones with presumably better tonality and less noise. Sounds simple, but it has its pitfalls. First, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish in the histogram the “important” highlights from the rest (specular or otherwise) and that may lead to clipping those highlights. You are also more prone to clipping a single color channel without realizing it. Then there’s the hassle of performing repetitive exposures and rechecking the histogram each time. Finally, when restoring the darker tones you may incur a minor color shift.

ETTR has both its advocates and naysayers, however I feel there is merit to this approach as I’ll soon demonstrate. The biggest gain is in the reduction of noise. A typical benefit for me is when I shoot with a graduated ND filter, especially as a backup to an HDR shot (that I highly recommend). Sometimes when shooting with a grad filter, especially a strong 3-stop filter, the tonal range may be compressed a little. That allows some headroom to move the histogram right. Other situations are shooting in overcast or any similarly soft-lit and low-contrast condition.
Remember that the camera's meter wants to exposes towards a midtone. Thus, images on the low-key side will likely get an automatic exposure boost. (On the other hand, high-key images will underexpose more, which is what you don’t want.) But for whatever reason if the histogram does congregate more to the left side, then increasing exposure towards the midtone is advisable. Situations can vary greatly, but generally I wouldn’t let the bulk of the darker tones go much beyond a third to half-way into the histogram (probably +1 EV should be the most you’ll ever need). More important is to allow a conservative guard band to protect the highlights from accidental clipping. In my opinion, unrecoverable clipped highlights do more visual damage to an image than any blocked shadows.

The easiest way to incorporate ETTR into your routine is simply bracket every exposure. Currently, I still find my third-stop bracketing sufficient. Nevertheless, I examine the histogram each time and if the highlights have sufficient headroom, I’ll increase the exposure accordingly. If you think you’ll be a heavy user of ETTR, then a better option is to create an “ETTR” custom function. Enable auto-bracketing to either a third or half-stop and then set the manual exposure override to over expose by that increment. For example, with one-third stop bracketing, every shot records 0 EV, +1/3 EV and +2/3 EV exposures that you can later decide which is best in Camera Raw.

ETTR Example
Below I show identical images with mid to dark tones extracted from a larger scene. The exposure was based on the overall scene, not on the extracted image. The image was shot using a Canon 5D Mark II. Fig-1 is a normal exposure and Fig-2 is a 1-stop overexposure. In Camera Raw, I brightened the normal image by roughly one-third stop (Fig-3) while darkening the overexposed image by minus two-thirds stop (Fig-4). In both cases I applied equal amounts of Shadows recovery. Both images are nearly equal in luminance and tonality, and essentially appear identical with no perceivable color shift. Except, under magnified inspection the noise content is noticeably higher in the normally exposed image, as shown by the highly-magnified image in Fig-5 compared to the overexposed image in Fig-6. (Note, I enhanced the enlargements to make the difference noticeable on screen.)

Conclusion
A one-stop increase is definitely an improvement, but does it really make a difference in the practical world? In many cases, probably not. The noise is so minimal anyway that minor noise filtering will take care of it without damaging sharpness. And if left alone, the noise is low enough that it’s unlikely to be noticed.

Figure 1
Normal Exposure
Figure 2.
1-stop overexposure
Figure 3.
Normally exposed image brightened in Camera Raw by about one-third stop 
Figure 4.
Overexposed image darken in Camera Raw by about two-thirds stop.
Both the normal and overexposed images now look very similar.
Figure 5.
Some detectable noise in darkest recess
of the normally exposed image in Fig-3
Figure 6.
No detectable noise in one-stop
overexposed image of Fig-4.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

HDRsoft's New Photomatix's Version 5.0.1

Late 2013, HDRsoft released version 5 of their popular Photomatix software. The update is free to current users who purchased Photomatix 4.0 after October 2010; otherwise it’s $29. The most significant new feature relative to landscape photography is a new Tone Mapping method called Contrast Optimizer. It produces realistic looking images while still enhancing shadows and highlights. I found it a better alternative to Exposure Fusion/Natural for natural rendering; however, I didn’t see it challenging HDR Efex Pro as my primary HDR software. Another new feature of note is Fusion/Real-Estate, intended for rendering interior scenes with an outside view through a window.

Contrast Optimizer Example
To test out Contrast Optimizer, I processed an image of Lundy Lake shot at dusk with three frames bracketed at ±2-stops. This was a very high contrast image and was aided with a grad filter. Nevertheless, the frame to capture the shadows was slightly underexposed. That made for a good test case to see how well Exposure Fusion could restore the shadow detail compared to the other processes. Below I show the results with each process: HDR Efex Pro 2, Contrast Optimizer, Exposure Fusion (natural), and Details Enhancer. The horse race was really between HDR Efex Pro and Contrast Optimizer. Exposure Fusion had the most problem with extracting shadow detail and Details Enhancer had the most unnatural look (especially noticeable in the foreground rocks). To be fair, when the frame that captures the shadows is better exposed (i.e., more exposed than in this example), Exposure Fusion can be a more formidable challenger. In the past, it was my most often used method whenever I used Photomatix.

The winner is HDR Efex Pro, due largely to its superior 32-bit editing capability; for example, the curves and graduated filter tools. As you see in the new Contrast Optimizer control panel, it’s relatively light on editing controls. On the other hand, a simpler interface may appeal to many. I could narrow the difference in Photoshop, but I would loose the 32-bit editing advantage. Though you can’t judge HDR performance based on one image, I can definitely say Photomatix has significantly closed the gap in this new version. If you have Photomatix 4.2 (or earlier), I highly recommend you upgrade to version 5.


Contrast Optimizer Control Panel
A simple and easy to use control panel.
However, the spartan panel also means less
editing capability compared to HDR Efex Pro.

HDR Efex Pro
Overall, a better rendering than Contrast Optimizer, but not dramatically. The differences can be evened up a little in Photoshop. Note that though the shadows are a bit darker than Contrast Optimizer, that was intentional when I added a bit more contrast.
Contrast Optimizer
A bit more touchup in Photoshop, and you have a well-rendered image. However, you loose the 32-bit advantage when working in Photoshop.
Exposure Fusion/Natural
Shadows were blocked up, but given more exposure in the shadow frame, the results would have been much better. Previously, when I was primarily using Photomatix, I used Exposure Fusion almost exclusively and was generally happy with the results. That said, Contrast Optimizer is a definite improvement.
Details Enhancer
I could have diddled more to improve this image, but why bother. There were times I had to resort to Details Enhancer over Exposure Fusion, but even then I wasn't getting the most satisfying results. Simply put, when HDR Efex Pro 2 was introduced, it blew away Photomatix's tone mapping for natural landscape rendering. Now with Contrast Optimizer, Photomatix is back in the fight.

Fusion/Real-Estate Example
I tested this new method on an old church mission interior shot and found it did a good job in naturally rendering the bright outdoor detail. On that basis alone, you can argue that Photomatix did a better job than HDR Efex Pro, except it's not that simple. HDR Efex Pro better captures the effect of a brightly window-lit room. In this image, the lighting effect is more important than the uninteresting outside. The real benefit of this new Fusion method is described by its name: Real-Estate. If you are an agent who wants to highlight a living room that has an ocean view, then you want the outside to be well exposed and colorful. This also holds true for certain landscape images; for example, using an old barn's interior window to frame an outside scenic view. Here you are using the window only as a framing element, so you want the outside scene to be properly exposed. You could argue it's better to shoot such a situation with two exposures only: one for the outside and the other for the inside of the barn, and merge them manually in Photoshop. That may well be true, so my advice: shoot it both ways!

HDR Efex Pro
If I want, I could improve the outside detail using Control Points. However, the objective of this image is to capitalize on the window light's interior illumination effect.
Exposure Fusion/Real-Estate
The outside lawn and shrubs have more detail and saturation than the HDR Efex Pro version. Although I prefer the HDR Efex Pro's image better, there are situations I explain in the above text when Exposure Fusion may be the better tool. Even with this example, it's still a well-rendered image and a little more work in Photoshop will easily make this a wall hanger.