Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Photography techniques/workflow

After posting Jeff Cup pictures, I received this note and question: "All your images are spot on. Thanks for posting. Two questions: In general do you take a machine gun approach when shooting? Then later pick the choice ones to post and what kind of post-processing do you do if any? Obviously your lens are awesome but the richness of the photos seem a bit more. Thanks for your time."

Here's a shot at an answer: Thank you. Given all there is to know and the depth of great photographers, I'm a beginner. About 1968, I started as a 9 year-old in a small basement darkroom in DC, mixing chemicals, developing and spilling. I continued as a high-school and college journalist, writing and taking pictures. My heroes were the photojournalists at the civil rights marches and in Vietnam. (My father George Wilson was a war correspondent for the Washington Post -- and a pretty good war photographer as the situation fit. My namesake James Ricalton was an early photography pioneer.)

After my camera was stolen during a 1981 trip to Mexico, I pretty much hung-up serious photography. In 2006, when my son started photography class in high school, I got re-interested. I picked up an inexpensive digital SLR, the Canon Rebel XT. This is a great camera, but the thing that really makes a big difference is that I bought excellent Canon L-quality glass, after finding the $100 kit lens that came with the XT murky. My first L was the 70-200 F4.0L; I use this $600 lens for most cycling shots. I use the more expensive 24-70 F2.8L for party, Africa walk-about and similar shots. Under the right conditions and usage, these lenses produce great images. In fall 2007, before going to Africa, I upgraded my XT to the Canon 5D. (I gave the XT to my sons.) The 5D image quality is phenomenal, particularly in low light. These shots are the 5D working without a flash, and mixed stage lighting, at my 13-year-old's Kennedy Center Concert. ISO is set to 3200 and the shots are mostly noise free (but with some graininess when cropped).

When shooting bike races, I'm often tempted to hold down the shutter release and take a series of images (the 5D shoots 3 frames per second) 'machine-gun' style, but so far I'm almost always disappointed with the results. (Plus, post processing a bunch of sub-par images wastes time.) I'm probably doing something wrong, or the continuous drive servo-focus doesn't do as well as I'd like. My best shots seem to be the ones I wait for, frame, and press the shutter release. I have a pretty good hand/arm, and can hand hold the 200 mm down to about 1/60 or 1/125 second. (The 70-200 F4L doesn't have image stabilization.) My sense is that to be successful a photographer has to be sensitive, guileless and incautious, stepping into the fray. (I was arrested in Spain by Guardia Civil for doing this, photographing ETA protesters ... almost the same fate marching with protesters in Mexico. I watched classmates hurry past slum kids in Cairo; I stopped to photograph.)

At last Sunday's Jeff Cup, the weather and light sucked. It was sleeting, snowing and then rainy, gray and flat. I shot the indoor shots at ISO 1600; most of these came out pretty well. I shot most of my outdoor shots at ISO 400 and 1/1000 or 1/800 second. Because the ISO was only 400, my depth of field was lower than I liked -- mostly F4.0-5.6. At about 20 feet from the cyclists, my sharp depth of field was about two feet -- so you see a lot of shots where one rider is sharp and the other is hazy (sometimes to good effect). I probably should have shot higher ISO to get better DoF -- but I was sensitive to the graininess-under-enlargement or -crop from some prior work, like the indoor Kennedy Center stuff.

The summer before I got the Canon XT, in 2006, I started raging against the PCs in my house. With a couple teenage kids and lots of web/email/game interaction, the PCs always seemed to get spyware infected and lose performance and stability. A former CTO, I spent too many nights -- or all nighters -- delousing Windows and reinstalling and stabilizing software. When Apple introduced the Mac Mini, I threw out my sons' PCs and substituted in the Mini (toss the Windows CPU, and plug in the same old monitor, KB and mouse). The Minis worked great; things stopped breaking. I later followed, pitching my PC for a basic Macbook. It's been great; does all the email, finance and web development work I want. When I got the Canon, I bought Apple's Aperture for photography post processing and upped RAM to 2 Gb. While I'm not a student of Adobe's Photoshop or Lightroom, Aperture does everything I want. I haven't begun to use most of the capabilities of Aperture 2.0 (or 2.1). It's fast and keeps me well organized. Also, for a good look, at home, I have a 23" Cinema Display at 1920x1200 connected to the Mac. Once a month, I use Datacolor's inexpensive Spyder tool to calibrate the display.

Here's my basic post-processing workflow: I shoot everything RAW. Usually, I fill 2-3 4 Mb CF cards during a day-long bike race. (I carry a ThinkTank wallet with about 10 4-Gb CF cards in my pocket; I got real compulsive when traveling in Africa, with multiple backups and DVD burning every night.) When I get home, I put the CF cards in a card reader which imports the RAW images into a new Aperture project. At Jeff Cup, I captured about 600 images (including a number of ill-advised machine gun spews). I review and rate each image on a scale of 0-5. From the Jeff Cup collection, I marked about 125 images as a '2' and about 5 as '3' ... Since going digital, I've only marked a handful of images 4 or 5; the picture has to be really sharp, well composed and meaningful to get a high rating. Most of the Jeff Cup pictures were plausibly well-focused but uninteresting. I left these unrated (0). About 10 of 600 pictures were blurry messes or unintended shoe shots and got deleted. Photos with a two or higher rating get posted on the images.jamesrwilson.com website.

Almost every Jeff Cup image with a 2 or higher rating is cropped using non-destructive Aperture editing tools. (Non-destructive means the original RAW (or JPEG) file is unchanged, but a mask or filter is applied so that when the image version is displayed on-screen or exported (e.g., as JPEG) for web posting or printing, Aperture renders the modified version.) After cropping, I check image characteristics such as exposure, color saturation and contrast. For a richer look, in some images, I'll pop-up the exposure and contrast, or I'll slightly increase saturation. Other images I'll drop saturation for an old-school black-and-white effect, like this one. All this is pretty easy to do with Aperture. I spend about 1-2 minutes for each image with a 2 or higher rating, and a cursory 5-10 seconds 'passing by' each less rated image. (This also means that, in the interest of time, I often skip pretty good images ... my sons insist on reviewing all the images themselves and they negotiate in some images I didn't rate well.) So my total pre-web post processing time for an event like Jeff Cup is 4-6 hours. A multi-day event like Fitchburg usually runs about 6-8 hours -- I set-up my laptop in the race hotel lobby and process away. When I get home, I review edits on the Cinema Display (because the laptop screen isn't very precise).

After I've selected and adjusted the images for an event like Jeff Cup, I post them to an image hosting service. Until recently, I used phanfare.com, but that is becoming a registration-based social networking site, so I dropped the service. Now I'm using zenfolio.com, which is a professional photography site. I started with zenfolio in March 2008; so far, I'm pretty pleased. It costs $100/year and lets me resell images (as prints processed by Miller Photography). And just recently (e.g., this is my first post), I set up a blog on Google's blogspot.

For refreshers and learning I keep an eye on these sites: fred miranda, pixelatedimage, bagelturf and others.

My apologies. That's a long answer. I'm learning. Cartier-Bresson said your first 10,000 pictures are your worst. I'm catching up to that mark.


1 comment:

bethbikes said...

What a nice compliment that must have been to get. Thanks so much for the level of detail you went into with your answer. It's all going into the brain neurons and sorting itself out now. I feel a significant learning curve looming. Good looming.
:)